Andrey Loshak: What the Krasnodar Police Did to Lawyer Mikhail Benyash

mikhail benyahsMikhail Benyash. Courtesy of Andrey Loshak’s Facebook page

Andrey Loshak
Facebook
September 24, 2018

Achtung! Uwaga! Attention! Yet another outburst of lawlessness is underway in Krasnodar, an experimental region of Russia where the authorities test ever more repressive techniques and see whether they can get away with them or not. When I was making a film about volunteers in Navalny’s presidential campaign, it was Krasnodar where I encountered the gnarliest fucked-up shit. Provocateurs in hoods and masks attacked young people attending an “unauthorized” protest rally, and the cops, who stood nearby, claimed not to see anybody in masks attacking anyone. It was really frightening. The provocateurs assaulted the activists and assisted the cops in loading them into paddy wagons. I was also detained then for the first time in my life, despite my attempts to prove I was a reporter. I was quickly released, however. They were still afraid of causing a stir in the Moscow liberal media.

Afterwards, my cameraman and I stood outside the gates of the police station until one in the morning filming the activists, who were mainly really young men and woman, as they were let go after they were formally charged and written up. The whole time this was happening, the lawyer Mikhail Benyash was trying to get into the police station, but the police kept him out. He stood by the gate, writing down the names and numbers of the released detainees. He sadly reported that, due to the court hearings of the detainees, whom he would be defending, he would not be making it back to his hometown of Gelendzhik anytime soon, although there he was in the midst of civil court cases involving hoodwinked investors in unbuilt cooperative apartment buildings.

I asked him why he bothered with all of it when no one paid him for his work. His answer stunned me. It transpired he and I had the exact same motives. He also liked the young people who had been detained, and he also saw them as a source of hope. He was the first romantic lawyer I had ever met. (Unfortunately, I did not know Stanislav Markelov personally.) It was no wonder I took a shine to him. Later, in our correspondence, he suggested titling the series The Ugly Swans, after the novel by the Strugatskys, and wrote me a detailed explanation of why I should do it.

Here is an excerpt from his letter.

“These were the kind of young people with whom you spoke on October 7: quite сheerful, cool, and kind. Unspoiled. Clever, a little naive, and free of feigned helplessness. They grew up on the internet, in the chats on VK and Telegram.

“Instead of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, they imbibed fantasy novels and movies about superheroes, and they fashioned all of it into a model for doing the right thing.

“Instead of Dostoevsky’s subservience, they absorbed the humor of Marvel Comics and a primitive albeit correct sense of right and wrong from movies about Batman, the Flash, and Iron Man. They fire back at priests of all types with quotations from Sheldon Cooper.

“Now I have been watching all these crazy comics serials, but not for entertainment or by way of procrastinating, but in order to understand the young people who grew up on them and so I can speak their language. I’m holding my own for the time being, but the kids are evolving rapidly.”

On September 9, which the Navalny Team had declared a day of protests nationwide, Benyash arrived in Krasnodar as usual to defend activists detained at the march, which, as usual, had not been authorized by the authorities. On the eve of the protest, nearly all Navalny staffers in Krasnodar had been arrested on a ridiculous pretext: all of them were jailed for, allegedly, disobeying police officers. There was not anything like this preventive crackdown in any other city in Russia.

On the way to Krasnodar, Benyash got a telephone call informing him he was under surveillance by the police. The caller also told him his exact location. Mikhail does not scare easily, so he did not turn around. Once he was in Krasnodar, he headed with a female acquaintance to the police station where the detainees would be taken.

Suddenly, a Mazda stopped next to him. Several brutes in plain clothes jumped out of the car, grabbed Mikhail, and tossed him into their car, where they forcibly confiscated his telephone as he was trying to telephone colleagues. The men beat him, choked him, and pressed his eyes with their fingers.

At the police station, he was thrown to the ground, handcuffed, and dragged to the fourth floor. In Krasnodar, experienced opposition activists know the fourth floor is the location of the CID and that if you are taken there, it means the police will put on the pressure and try and beat a confession out of you.

All of these events were witnessed by Mikhail’s female companion, whom the cops also brought to the station.

On the fourth floor, they beat the living daylights out of Benyash. Several blows to his face caused him to fall and hit his head on the corner of a safe.

Meanwhile, the news got out that Benyash had been detained. Lawyer Alexei Avanesyan tried to get into the station to see him, but the police would not let him in. At some point, the cops donned helmets and armor before announcing the station was going into lockdown mode, which happens when a police state is threatened by an armed attack from the outside. In fact, the police in Krasnodar go into lockdown mode every time they don’t want to let lawyers into the station to consult with detained opposition activists. When Avanesyan learned Benyash had been beaten, he summoned an ambulance crew to examine Benyash, who recorded and certified his injuries. By ten p.m., i.e., eight hours after Benyash had been detained, the lockdown was called off and Avanesyan was let into the police station.

There Avanesyan encounted Deputy Chief Papanov, who lied, telling Avanesyan Benyash was not at the station. Avanesyan is not the shy and retiring type, either. He took advantage of the confusion to make a break for the fourth floor, where he found the beaten Benyash in a room and three field agents huddled over him. Avanesyan was then allowed to consult with the detained lawyer Benyash. The police were trying to frame him on two charges: organizing an unauthorized protest rally and resisting the police!

Avanesyan alerted their colleagues via social media, asking them to come to Banyash’s court hearing. Seven lawyers showed up. Although the hearing was scheduled for nine in the morning, it didn’t kick off until ten in the evening. Apparently, none of the local judges wanted to get dirt on their hands.

The court clerk, who was drunk, didnot want to let the lawyers into the hearing, but she was forced to back off, but ordinary members of the public were not admitted into the courtroom.

Judge Buryenko denied all the motions made by the defense. He did not ask police officers to testify. He did not admit the video recordings into evidence, and he even refused to view them. He did not call Benyash’s companion to testify, although she was standing in the hallway.

Benyash was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to forty hours of community service and fourteen days in jail. Although the lawyer had nothing to do with organizing or running the protest rally, he was given the harshest punishment for his non-involvement in it, despite the fact that the number of detainees in Krasnodar also broke all records: around one hundred protesters were hauled in by the police on September 9.

I quote Mediazona, who cite the court’s written verdict.

“According to the police officer’s report, Benyash got into the car voluntarily in order to go to the police station and have charges filed against him, but in the police station parking lot the lawyer banged his head against the car window of his own accord and kicked open the door in an attempt to escape. The police officer claims Benyash refused to stop hitting his head against the wall [sic], which was grounds for charging him with violating Article 19.3 of the Administrative Offenses Code.”

But there is more. Benyash was supposed to be released from jail yesterday. Avanesyan arrived at the special detention facility, seventy kilometers outside of Krasnodar, where Benyash had been jailed, to pick him up. But instead of picking up his released colleague, he was shown a new indictment against Benyash, this time on criminal charges. Benyash was alleged to have violated Article 318 Part 1 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code: “engaging in violence against the authorities.” Medical certificates attesting to the finger bites allegedly suffered by police officers and the enormous suffering they endured as a result have been admitted into evidence.

Benyash has again been detained: for forty-eight hours for the time being. Tomorrow, he will go to court.

Dear colleagues from Novaya Gazeta, TV Rain, and other independent media, please cover this case. Otherwise, the experiment in Krasnodar will very quickly  expand nationwide. Even the Brezhnev-era KGB did not stoop to beating up and imprisoning dissident lawyers.

Thanks to George Losev for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

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National Unity Day Fiction

Historical Fantasy
Viktor Sigolayev, The Fatal Wheel: Crossing the Same River Twice (Alfa Kniga, 2012)

No one understood how our contemporary, an officer in the reserves and a history teacher, ended up in his own past, back in the body of a seven-year-old boy, and back in the period of triumphant, developed socialism, when, as far as our hero could remember, there was a lot more joy and happiness.

That is how an adult imagines it, but it transpires all is not as perfect in the sunny land of Childhood as the memory would suggest. It transpires that here, too, meanness and greed exist. There are thieves, bandits, and scammers of all stripes, although you did not notice them earlier, when you were a child. But now you have to do something about it. Now you have to fight it, because evil knows no obstacles in time. Enemies—cruel and insidious, clever and merciless—have again emerged on the horizon. Besides, some of them seem incredibly familiar to our hero.

So, the seven-year-old hero, who has two university degrees, combat officer experience, and a memory singed by the hard post-perestroika years, launches his own tiny war, allying himself with none other than the USSR State Security Committee [KGB]. He unexpectedly finds new friends there, the kind of friends for whom you can risk your life.

Source: LitRes

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Putin’s Russia can’t celebrate its revolutionary past. It has to smother it
Catherine Merridale
The Guardian
November 3, 2017

November always brings a welcome holiday for Russians. The day off work is about some great historical event, but most use it to catch up with their families. On 7 November 2017, it will be exactly 100 years since Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik revolution, the one that people used to mark with anthems, weaponry and fireworks.

But this year’s official holiday commemorates not the revolution, but an uprising of 1612 against the Poles. National Unity Day was a tsarist invention that Vladimir Putin’s government relaunched in 2005. Marked on 4 November, its timing has been perfect. After three days on their sofas, will anyone really notice that there are no red flags?

The silence is like a dream in which the dreamer is being suffocated. Centenaries are special: everyone can count to 100. But so far Lenin and his comrades have not rated as much as a commemorative stamp. The man himself is still displayed – in a new suit – in the mausoleum on Red Square, but no one wants to talk about exactly what he did. The current Russian government makes ample use of history – no child is likely to forget the great patriotic war against fascism – but Lenin can’t be made to fit.

It is awkward enough, Moscow’s mandarins must think, that the Russian revolution was a people’s uprising against despotic rule, a fight against injustice and the gross excesses of the rich. With terrorism such a real threat, the Kremlin would be unwise to appear to condone violent revolt. Yet it can’t vilify a man whose corpse still lies in state, whose statue is a landmark in hundreds of towns. And what is it to make of Soviet power? If it condemns the Russian revolution, where does that leave Stalin and the people’s triumph?

So far the answer seems to be to keep things bland. Lenin, after all, is boringly familiar. If he will only stay that way, if young people decline to think, then even this annoying anniversary will pass. There are rumours that Russia’s new left may take to the streets this year to mark the anniversary with demonstrations, but most Russians under 50 regard the Soviet story as a dowdy relic, an embarrassment. The state wants it to stay that way, the province of those staunch old trouts who still sell apples outside metro stops. Its very language, “Soviet”, is an antique. It must be held back in the past, exiled along with dissidents, stretch nylon and bad teeth.

The Russian revolution was a moment when the veil of human culture tore. It was a season of euphoric hope, a terrifying experiment in utopia. It tested to destruction the 19th-century fantasy of progress. It was the work of tens of thousands of zealous enthusiasts.

Yet now their great-great-grandchildren are bored. This situation suits their government. A cloud of tedium hangs over any formal gathering that ventures to discuss the thing. Most choose the safest, dullest line. There is to be a round-table meeting held at [the] Smolny, for instance, the building from which Lenin launched the revolution, working around the clock. Scheduled for late November 2017, the theme will not be revolution but the centenary of Finnish independence.

I tried asking in the museums. The Russian state has preserved every relic of the revolutionary year, including Lenin’s pillow and his brother-in-law’s chess set. You can still run a finger around Stalin’s bath, the one that Lenin must have used before fleeing from Kerensky’s police. But nothing special has been planned, no big event, no cameras. The museum of Pravda, the Bolshevik party’s newspaper, is clearly short of funds. In Soviet times, schoolchildren visited in their thousands – it was part of their curriculum – but now the place relies on tourists.

To attract the schoolchildren back, the staff have been forced to adapt. “We call this the museum of tolerance,” my guide explained. “See? Everything in this room has come from somewhere in Europe. The typewriter there is German, the table is French.”

But mere avoidance doesn’t always work. A centenary of this importance is bound to be marked by someone; there has to be an official response. Ten months ago, the independent journalist Mikhail Zygar launched a website to track the events of 1917 as they unfolded, day by day. Belatedly, but with a considerably larger budget, the state-sponsored Russia Today responded with a handsome Twitter feed, lavishly illustrated with archival photographs and featuring imaginary tweets from some of the key figures of 1917. Both are useful resources, though neither has engaged with what the revolution means. That question haunts Red Square like Lenin’s ghost.

The Kremlin is saving itself for another anniversary next year. In July 1918 the Romanov family was shot. The solemn lessons of that crime are something everyone will understand. A strong state is what people need, the message goes, and Russia’s is a special one. Unlike the regimes of the west, it is not only patriotic but orthodox. That is why Nicholas II is now a saint and why his killing by the Bolsheviks was a martyrdom. Through him, right-thinking Russian people can remember every other martyr of the revolution that is now, thank heavens, safely past.

Victims unite a nation, everyone can grieve. In honour of the sacred dead (the millions, unspecified), a new cathedral has appeared in Moscow: vast, imposing, unavoidable. Help with the funds came from Putin’s close friend and confessor Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov.

In Russia now it is an idealised form of nationalism, not the people’s rule or social justice, that is feted and taught in schools. Russia is the new Byzantium, no longer proud to fly the red flag for the world.

There is one more anniversary that will not pass unmarked. The Cheka, Lenin’s feared secret police force, was founded on 18 December 1917. Its successors have included Stalin’s NKVD and the KGB of spy thrillers, but it will be the current lot, the FSB, who celebrate next month with the commemorative medals and champagne. As a lieutenant colonel in the service and its former boss, Putin could well be a star guest.

The fact that many of the revolution’s martyrs died at secret police hands is a mere detail. Lenin had no problem ordering the Cheka to carry out the wholesale execution of priests and the so-called bourgeoisie. By 1918 there were bodies piled up in the streets. But such truths are easily ignored. Shevkunov’s new cathedral to the revolution’s martyrs is itself a stone’s throw from the FSB headquarters on Lubyanka Square.

That just leaves Lenin and his ghost. In life a restless politician, dangerous and quick, he lies on Red Square like a stuffed fox: moth-eaten and obviously dead. As the heart of Moscow has been reinvented as an orthodox and ultra-Russian space, his mausoleum appears more and more anomalous. But though there is no wish to celebrate the man, a preserved corpse remains a tricky object to throw out. As a former Soviet citizen remarked to me: “We have certainly learned one thing from our history, haven’t we? You must be careful who you pickle.”

Catherine Merridale is a historian. Her latest book, Lenin on the Train, is published by Penguin.