Gunda

gundaGunda and piglet. Photo courtesy of Radio Svoboda

“I Ask Animals for Forgiveness”: The Life of a Remarkable Pig
Dmitry Volchek
Radio Svoboda
March 4, 2020

Not a single human being appears on screen. We see only animals whose lives are run by people: a one-legged chicken, bulls, cows, and, as the main character, a sow named Gunda (more accurately, Günda, as her name is spelled in Norway, where she lives).

“The Russian-born director Victor Kossakovsky offers us not simply a film, but a stunning experience of life.” “A simple yet absolutely astonishing documentary picture.” “An unusual film, and a captivating poetic work of art.” That is how American and European film critics rated Victor Kossakovsky’s documentary film Gunda, which premiered at the 70th Berlin Film Festival.

One of the film’s producers was Joaquin Phoenix, who dedicated his acceptance speech at the Oscars, where he won the Best Actor prize for his role in the film Joker, to animal rights. Like Victor Kossakovsky, Phoenix sticks to a vegan diet. But Gunda isn’t simply activist cinema, urging that slaughtering animals and consuming their corpses is disgusting. Just like Kossakovsky’s previous work, Aquarela, Gunda is an innovative and impeccably made film: every frame resembles a Dürer etching.

After the film’s Berlin premiere, Victor Kossakovsky answered Radio Svoboda’s questions.

Is Gunda still alive?

— I know that art cannot save the world, unfortunately, but we did manage to save one pig.  She has become famous, and her owner said, “Now, of course, I won’t be able to kill her. Let her live as long as she’s supposed to.” Piglets live, on average, four to six months, while sows live two to three years. But now Gunda will live twenty-five to thirty years. My film saved one pig.

How did you meet her?

— That was very simple. We’d planned on about half a year for casting the animals, but I found her on the very first day, in the first minute. I arrived in Norway, dropped by my first farm, opened the door, and caught sight of Gunda. I said to the producer, “We’ve found our Meryl Streep — there she is!” The producer was in shock: “You’re probably joking. No doubt she is just a candidate.” I said, “No, we’ve found her. End of story.” It had dawned on me that I could look at her endlessly: she really was like Meryl Streep. I should say that for twenty years I could not find money for this film. In 1997, I showed my film Wednesday at the Berlinale. When I was awarded the International Federation of Film Critics Prize, a small press conference was organized for me. I was asked, “What will your next film be? What film do you dream of making?” I said, “I’d like to make a film about a pig, a cow, and a chicken.” From that time on, however, I was unable to find anyone who would agree to produce it, neither in Russia nor in any other country, until I found a Norwegian woman who took the risk. I lucked out: at last I’ve made the film that I’d wanted to make my whole life.

You mentioned Meryl Streep, but it seemed to me that, at the end, Gunda was transformed into Anna Magnani in the film Mamma Roma.

— Oh, how brilliant you are! That’s really the case. There is, of course, a turnaround at the end of the film, where she is Anna Magnani, an allusion to the film Mamma Roma. Thank you for noticing. Of course, in every film there’s a first plane, second plane, thirteenth plane — there are things that not everyone sees.

You filmed not only in Norway, but in England as well. Am I right that the cows live in different places?

— Yes, we filmed the cows in two places. The episode when they stand head to tail and help one another swat away flies with their tails we filmed in Spain, on the border with France. We filmed the main episode with cows in England, and the chickens were filmed in Wales. In England and Spain, compassionate people buy cows, chickens, and pigs from farmers who are taking the animals to the slaughterhouse and give them a second chance. Ordinary private citizens living in country homes buy cows and say, “There’s grass all around, live here as long as you like.” For that reason, those animals are so friendly: they weren’t afraid of the camera. A huge two-meter-high bull allowed us to walk right up to him. The chickens had never been outside: they’d been born and had stood, twenty to a cage, their whole lives. We found people who bought those cages and let out the chickens. It turned out that when the door was opened, the chickens would not come out for an entire hour. They didn’t know that it was possible to go out: they’d lived their whole lives in a cage, cramped, never once in their lives spreading their wings, never once in their lives catching sight of the sky. When they came out, they were even afraid of stepping on the grass, as if it were boiling water. They lifted their feet off the grass as if they’d been scalded. And those cows had never been outdoors. They didn’t even know that they should eat the grass: they went out and just sniffed it The bull walked up to a tree and only sniffed the leaves. How intoxicatingly beautiful it was when those cows began to dance and jump! Those chickens were shocked by their freedom: they looked around, not understanding where they were, and reacting to every sound. They opened their wings for the first time in their lives and then looked at themselves: how could this be?

I know that cinema won’t change the world, but I made a movie in order to say to animals, “Forgive me for not being able to do anything.” At least we saved one sow from being consumed. In my movie, for example, there’s a cow who is twenty-two years old. Have you ever seen a twenty-two-year-old cow? Cows are killed as soon as they stop producing enough milk. But in my film the cow lives. You look at her face, and you can see fate in her eyes. She’s a grandmother of sorts, even a great-grandmother. We permit ourselves not to think about the fact that we’re murderers. We allow ourselves to forget it.

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Victor Kossakovsky

The filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky was born in Leningrad in 1961. He lives in Berlin. His documentary films include Losev (1989), Wednesday 7/19/61 (1997), Quiet! (2002), and Long Live the Antipodes! (2011). He is a winner of the Triumph (1997) and Nika (1998) Russian film prizes, and of numerous international film festival awards. In 2019, his film Aquarela was shortlisted along with fourteen other films for the Academy Award for Documentary Feature.

“As a documentary filmmaker, I probably bear some responsibility for not shooting something about Russia, but it seems to me that there are more problems on earth. Because the very fact that there is Putin, the very fact that there is war, speaks to the point that something about us as biological creatures is not right. If Russians are fighting Ukrainians, something about us, not about Russians and Ukrainians, but about humankind, is wrong. So, I want to understand what this creature — man — is, and what his place on earth is.”

Source: Interview with Radio Liberty (2018)

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The festival catalogue said that everyone who saw your film would stop eating meat.

— Even the smartest people, even the most distinguished artists who’ve seen the picture, hugged me afterward while ordering hamburgers and citing the notion that, all the same, everything in nature is founded on the struggle for survival. We’ve been living for several centuries in the era of humanism. Many things helped us get rid of slavery, racism, and cannibalism. Now we’re starting to recognize the rights of people with untraditional sexual orientations.

It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that suffragettes were thrown in prison for demanding that women be given the right to vote.

— In my country, there was serfdom 150 years ago. Seventy years ago here, in Germany, and in my country, millions of people were murdered. We are unbelievably aggressive, we have to admit that. Our awareness lags behind our intellect. We’re capable of inventing cars, computers, cinema, rockets, Novichok, and atom bombs, and yet we’re incapable of understanding that killing is wrong. Killing not only people, but killing per se is wrong. But we’ve learned to block that out. Every one of us knows that at dinner, breakfast and supper, we’re consuming the meat of murdered creatures, but we allow ourselves not to think about that, we simply block it out. We know that murder exists, but we’ve come to an agreement that is doesn’t exist. Basically, murder is bad, but in the given instance, as far as dinner goes, it’s okay. That is, we split our intellect and our awareness. So, I wanted to title this film “My Apology.” I’m making an apology to animals for not being able to change the world. I can’t even convince my closest friends that this is crazy. Even the most distinguished cultural figures say to me, “It’s the law of nature.” Even they live with blinders on. They don’t really know the laws of nature: they’ve been told that predators are aggressive. They don’t know that animals are capable of self-sacrifice, love, and mutual aid. They don’t know that, but I do know it. I’ve seen it.

People live inside myths and justify their own ugliness and irrationality. Their hardheartedness is justified by the claim that supposed laws of nature exist allowing the strongest to kill the weak. They don’t exist — it’s a myth. In nature, there’s so much beauty that we’ve never even dreamed of. Every animal is capable of decency. It’s time for us, too, to remember it. Everyone knows that dogs and cats are intelligent animals. Everyone knows that your dog loves you. Everyone knows that it shares your emotions with you, that it’s ready to help you when you’re feeling bad. The same is true of cows, chickens, and pigs. They also have feelings, they are also intelligent, and they also have compassion. They’re ready to sacrifice themselves. But here we have the British Parliament, under pressure from farmers, passing a law that it’s supposedly okay to kill animals because they don’t feel pain. It’s not only our government of imbeciles. No, the willfully unseeing are everywhere.

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Joaquin Phoenix on Gunda:

“Gunda is a mesmerizing perspective on sentience within animal species, normally — and perhaps purposely — hidden from our view. Displays of pride and reverence, amusement and bliss at a pig’s inquisitive young; her panic, despair and utter defeat in the face of cruel trickery, are validations of just how similarly all species react and cope with events in our respective lives. Victor Kossakovsky has crafted a visceral meditation on existence that transcends the normal barriers that separate species. It is a film of profound importance and artistry.”

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— At a meeting with young filmmakers, you spoke about the fact that you’re outraged by Putin’s decision to sign the law on hunting captive animals.

— Yes, he has legalized the very basest thing that man can do. I would recommend that all of our women living with men who go and hunt captive animals refuse to have sex with them. They’ll come home from hunting animals in captivity and show photographs of how they killed a bear, and their wives will say to them, “Pardon me, dear, go live with the bears.” That’s the most shameful thing one can do — chase animals into an enclosure and shoot them dead point-blank using a carbine with an optical sight. Leonardo da Vinci said five hundred years ago that killing a human and killing an animal were one and the same thing. A hundred years ago, Tolstoy urged us to come to our senses, but we sign a law on hunting captive animals! Where are we headed, friends, where is our country being dragged? It’s being dragged into an ignorant, loathsome past, a vulgarian past armed with a carbine.

— In your movie there’s not a single human word, but the grunting of Gunda and her piglets seems like speech, music even.

— We recorded several times more quickly than usual, and then we looked at the diagram. We laid out these sounds and found that the cows have approximately 270 words, while the pigs have about 300 different words. They pronounce 300 words! That’s only what we managed to do with our technology. That’s not just one “moo”: our ears can’t perceive them in any other way, but these are various “moos.” An animal’s children react differently to her voice. We are blind and deaf. We simply don’t want to know that they suffer. Think for yourself. We live on this planet together. There are now twenty billion chickens on earth. We kill fifty billion animals a year.

— Then the other half are discarded because they weren’t eaten.

— There are one billion pigs on the planet right now, and we will kill them. They can live up to twenty years. There are one and a half billion cows, and we will kill one third of them this year. We’ll kill all of them, freeze them, and transport them on ships from Argentina, from Brazil. On average, each person eats 100 kilograms of meat [a year] – in Europe slightly less, in America slightly more. Look at what’s happening: there are seven billion of us, and each of us eats 100 kilograms of meat [a year]. Just think about the kinds of numbers I’m talking about. It’s a killing machine. You also have to have slaughterhouses and processing plants. You have to get rid of the waste. You have to freeze, transport, saw up, chop up, freeze, pack up, and sell the meat.

— Industrial animal husbandry is the same kind of system as the Gulag.

— And it’s causing huge pollution to the planet. Why do we think that they’re made differently from us, that we’re so privileged? To save our hearts we use pig organs. And yet we think that we suffer more than they do.

— There’s not a single human being in your film. Only in the final shot do humans appear, in the shape of a beastly iron machine.  Why did you exclude all people from the picture?

— Many films have been made on this topic. Many attempts have been made to capture the slaughterhouse, the blood. It doesn’t work. There’s a good documentary film on the subject, Our Daily Bread. There have been several artistically serious films, but they changed nothing about people’s lives. I thought that I needed to come at it from another direction completely. I tried to do it in such a way that people would see animals as they are, and not as we perceive them. I filmed them at such a distance in order to give them full freedom. And it’s not me who approached Gunda, but she who approached me. That’s a very important point. When they took her children away from her, she came up to me and looked right into my eyes, because there was no one else for her to talk to. She was left alone, suffered for fifteen minutes, and in the end came up to me. Basically, she said to me, “What are you all doing to me?” Then she turned away, glancing at me from afar: “What’s the point in talking to you?” And she walked away. That’s how empty we people are — even a pig could say that to us.

— How did you arrive at veganism?

— It was simple. At the age of four years, I found myself by chance in a small village where there was a pig. It was a cold winter. The pig was left alone, but its two-week-old piglet was brought into the house, and a little pen was made for him. When everyone left for work, he and I ran would run around the house, and afterward we would put things back together: I took the floor rug by one end, and he took the other with his teeth, and we straightened it out. He was the dearest creature to me: he loved me, and I loved him. He understood me and didn’t just run after me. He played with me, and I played with him. I worried about him, and he worried about me. When they slaughtered him, it was the end of the world for me. I couldn’t understand how my relatives could kill my best friend.

My mother later said, “Where does all this come from in you? What is this nonsense in your head? That’s the way the world is made, that one eats another.” I said, “Mama, you taught me this yourself.” One of my earliest memories from childhood was the two us walking down the street. It was a beautiful summer, and I tore a leaf off a bush. I looked at the light, at the setting sun. And I said to my mother, “Look, what a beautiful leaf.” She said, “Tear out one of your own tiny hairs. Does it hurt?” – “It hurts.” – “That’s how the bush hurt, too, when you tore off this leaf.” My mom had given me this immunity. Remember what Dostoevsky said: “I cannot understand how it’s possible to pass by a tree, see it, and not be happy, not feel happiness.” How is it possible not to be happy, seeing this improbably beautiful world? How is it possible to build bombs and frighten other people, instead of thanking your lucky stars that you were born? How is it possible to cut down trees instead of planting them? How is it possible to kill animals instead of giving them freedom and leaving them alone? We should just forget about them, leave them alone and not kill them. After all, they don’t take our children from us. They don’t put us in cages. Look, my pig spends most of its time digging in the dirt. But in point of fact, ninety-nine percent of pigs are born in small cages set on cement floors, and are never able, during their short lives, to root around in the dirt.

What do we do? We only yell: hey, people, what about human rights? Fine, human rights we’ve already grasped. What’s next? There’s no slavery. What’s next? We’re not murdering millions. What’s next? We recognize [the rights of] gays. What’s next? The next step is recognizing that animals have the same rights as we do to live in this world. The next step is admitting that we can choose not to kill.

— And we can get by perfectly well without meat.

— Look at the horse: it’s stronger than you are.

— Look at the elephant!

— The elephant is a hundred times stronger than you are, and it’s a vegetarian. My friends, what are these idiotic ideas you tell me, that, in order for me to work in a slaughterhouse, I need to eat a pig? You don’t need to eat a pig. I can only repeat what Tolstoy said: “Killing a human or killing an animal: it’s the same act of murder.” We live as creatures who allow themselves to kill — that’s the main thing. And we won’t budge forward an inch until we understand that.

Thanks to Dmitry Kalugin and Alexander Markov for the heads-up. Translated by Mary Rees

“The FSB Are the Main Terrorists”: The Political Biography of Ivan Astashin

Ivan Astashin in prison. Photo by Maxim Pivovarov. Courtesy of RFE/RL

“The FSB Are the Main Terrorists”: The Political Biography of Ivan Astashin
Dmitry Volchek
Radio Svoboda
October 3, 2020

On the night of December 20, 2009, the eve of State Security Officers Day, a group of young people threw a Molotov cocktail into the FSB’s offices in Moscow’s Southwest District. No one was injured, and the room was slightly damaged: a windowsill and several chairs were burned. A video of the protest soon appeared on the internet, entitled “Happy Chekists Day, Bastards!” The author of the video was 17-year-old Ivan Astashin.

The arson sparked a large-scale, trumped-up criminal case against the so-called Autonomous Combat Terrorist Organization (ABTO), which was headed, according to investigators, by Astashin. Initially, the alleged members of ABTO were charged with property damage, but soon they were also accused of disorderly conduct. The Investigative Committee later decided that the defendants in the case had wanted to impact state policy, so they should be tried for “terrorism”(as punishable under Article 205 of the criminal code). They were tortured into confessing.

Ten young people were involved in the ABTO Case. In 2012, they were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. Astashin received the longest sentence—13 years in a high-security penal colony, which was later reduced to 9 years and 9 months. Astashin was first sent to Krasnoyarsk Correctional Colony No. 17, but in 2014 he was transferred to Norilsk Correctional Colony No. 15. Lawyers and human rights activists argued that the case was political, pointing out that ABTO did not exist, and the members of the alleged “terrorist organization” did not even know each other.

“In Ivan’s case, the FSB took revenge on teenagers who dared to throw a bottle of petrol through their window. The case was a bellwether. It showed how the security forces had degenerated: why should they stake out real criminals and document their every move, if they could torture children until they lose consciousness, forcing them to sign a horseshit ‘confession’ that will then be called ‘evidence’ in the verdict?” said lawyer Igor Popovsky, who argued Astashin’s case before the Russian Supreme Court.

In recent years, Astashin has become known as an op-ed writer, penning articles about prison mores. On September 1, 2019, Radio Svoboda published his letter “Breaking Convicts Under the Law’s Cover,” which detailed the injustices at Krasnoyarsk CC 17, about the differences among castes of prisoners, their collaboration with wardens, and the psychological coercion employed on prisoners by correctional officers. We soon received a response from the penal colony’s wardens that Astashin had not written the letter and that no violations of the law were permitted in the colony. Although we knew that the letter had been written by Astashin, we took down the article, fearing for his safety.

On September 21, 2020, Astashin completed his sentence and was released. He is currently working on a book about his prison experience. He told Radio Svoboda about what happened to him on the outside and in prison.

Your comrade Alexei Makarov said that he became a revolutionary when he was 15 years old. When did you get interested in politics?

When I was about 14 years old. And it all started with a nationalist agenda. There were violent clashes between [ethnic] Russians and Caucasians in Kondopoga [in 2006]. I looked for information and in early 2007 I joined the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI).

When they called you a nationalist in court, were they right?

At first I was a nationalist, then my views expanded. I left DPNI and in 2009 joined The Other Russia coalition, which at that time was led by Eduard Limonov, Mikhail Kasyanov, and Garry Kasparov, and it included nationalists, liberals, communists, and anyone else you can think of. In the same year, 2009, I visited Ukraine, where I got acquainted with the movement of autonomous nationalists, and I thought that we should do something like it. At that time, there was a split in The Other Russia coalition, everything there came to a grinding halt. My radicalization occurred because there were no people organizing above ground. Then there was the movement of autonomists in Russia, both nationalists and left-wing anarchists. Direct action against the police began: police departments and police cars were torched. I also thought that we should do something like this. At that time, I felt like a revolutionary. I was 17 years old, and we decided to hold a protest action against the FSB.

You made a video of the action. It is still accessible on the internet, and there is a slogan “Russian action.” So, this was a nationalist protest?

Yes.

Do you regret it or recall it with pleasure?

Neither one nor the other. I don’t regret anything: what’s done is done. At the same time, I now believe that it was ineffective: the protest’s efficiency rating was negative. We had wanted to draw attention to the dictatorship of the Chekists, but [the video had] ten thousand views, which is a drop in the ocean. It did not spark a public discussion, it was all a big waste of time. Meanwhile, the people involved in the protest received long prison sentences. Of course, these were ineffective actions.

You were also accused of trying to blow up a Lexus. Whose car was it?

That was a stupid story. As a chemist, I experimented, I was interested in pyrotechnic devices and explosives. I built this thing and decided to test it. I found a Lexus: I thought it was probably insured. That’s another social subtext.

Attack the rich?

Yeah.

The investigators claimed that you were the leader of an organization that consisted of about ten people. Who were these people?

Guys I knew, but not all of them. They also carried out direct actions: seven arson attacks. The only thing we had in common was that we were acquainted. We were tortured into confessing that we had collaborated. If you read the verdict carefully, there are many inconsistencies. They write that the guys saw a police department and decided to torch it. But why do they then write that I was in charge of the action? Nevertheless, we were tried as an organized criminal group: everything those guys did I was charged with as well, and I was convicted as the organizer.

But did you know of ABTO’s existence? And did the organization even exist?

It was during the investigation that I found out that I was the head of the organization. And I saw the videos that they posted on the internet. Neither they nor we had any organization. The person who posted the videos just decided that it would be more interesting if he wrote that it was some kind of organization. It was four people going round setting fires.

Are the Network and New Greatness cases similar to what happened in the ABTO Case, or have the methods of the Chekists changed over the last ten years?

They are very similar, only worse. We were arrested for real actions. There was no terrorism in our case, but there were actions: they can be qualified as property damage or disorderly conduct. In the Network and New Greatness cases, there were no actions at all, that is, they were tried simply for belonging to mythical organizations. The laws that are now used to judge the defendants in those cases simply did not exist in our time. If we were tried now, we would probably be given twenty years in prison. All those articles [in the criminal code] are getting tougher and tougher, and the cases are now tried by special military courts. In addition, now there is the Rosfinmonitoring list [a financial stop list of “extremists” and “terrorists”], plus probation until your conviction has been expunged from your record. It’s easier for [the security services] to work in this way, because they don’t have to wait for someone to set something on fire, they can just take some guys who behave the wrong way, talk about the wrong things, or look the wrong way, and whip up a nice terrorism case, and get awards and promotions.

Ivan Astashin and comrades holding a rally on Chekists Day, on December 20, 2009, on Triumfalnaya Square in Moscow. Their banner reads, “The FSB are enemies of the people.” Courtesy of Ivan Astashin and RFE/RL

I read the article in which you write that the FSB are the only terrorists in Russia.

Yes, I wrote that, because terrorism is defined in the criminal code as various actions (not necessarily explosions and arson) intended to frighten and intimidate the populace. And who is intimidating the populace now, other than the FSB? We have other security services, but they are also dependent on the FSB. You know, when I carried out the action against the FSB, I really didn’t fully understand what kind of an organization it was. I understood that they had a lot of power, that the country was actually a Chekist dictatorship, but I had no idea how big it was. Even ordinary cops shake in their boots when FSBniks show up. The doors to all government institutions are open to the Chekists. All civil servants, judges, and MPs obey them unquestioningly. That’s why I called the FSB the main terrorists.

Did FSB officers visit you in the prison camp and threaten you?

Yes, that was in 2015. As usual, they did not introduce themselves, but only mentioned that they had flow in from Moscow: I was serving my sentence in Norilsk at the time. They were interested in what I was going to do after my release. I said that there were five more years until the end of my sentence, and I didn’t know yet what I would do after my release. They told me something to the effect that I shouldn’t get it into my head to engage in any political activity. Not that they directly threatened me, but they mentioned that even if I went abroad and mad trouble for them there, they would still get to me.

How did ordinary prisoners perceive you? As a hero or as a weirdo whose motives were impossible to understand?

Differently. There really were convicts who would say, Well done, cool, they need to be burned. There were also who thought it was odd: you’ve been sent down for ten years, what was the point?

Drawing by Stanislav Tanichev. Courtesy of RFE/RL

You said in an interview that you saw all of Russia in the Siberian prison camps. What have you learned about Russia? Is it ready for the revolution you dreamed of?

Many people living in Moscow have no idea what is happening beyond the Moscow Ring Road, how people survive on a salary of 5-10 thousand rubles [a month; meaning between 55 and 110 euros, approximately]. They often live on the outside according to the same concepts as they do in prison. As for whether they are ready for revolution, that is a difficult question. Many people just can’t imagine that things could be different. There is the famous question: who [will be president], if not Putin? Indeed, many people have this notion in their heads.

Did you meet Putin fans even in the camps?

Yes.

Were they outliers or were there many of them?

The ardent Putin supporters were outliers, of course, but I would often hear people say that Putin was doing a great job: he’d lifted up the economy, whereas in the nineties there had been nothing to eat at all. But now the situation is moving away from Putin. Meaning that, whereas in 2014 everyone got behind “Crimea is ours” and Novorossiya, and sometimes a couple of prisoners would argue with several dozen [Putin supporters], but now they mostly chew out Putin’s policies.

Even in the Siberian camps in 2014, there was a patriotic upsurge and people were happy about the annexation of the Crimea?

Yes, but then the situation changed, and the whole upsurge fizzled out.

Last year, we published your letter about the situation at the Krasnoyarsk colony, and then the wardens demanded that it be removed: allegedly, you were not the author. We took it down so you wouldn’t get hurt. What happened to you then?

It was unexpected. It is clear that if you are institutionalized and you write something negative about the institution, then, of course, there will be a reaction. I was in Norilsk, describing the general practices that had developed in the prison system, and I mentioned the Krasnoyarsk camp as an example. And they got so upset! They made threats, very clear threats. In Krasnoyarsk Territory, there is Remand Prison No. 1, known for its torture cells. There is a regional tuberculosis hospital where convicts are absolutely illegally injected with the strongest psychotropic drugs. And when I was summoned for a chat about the matter by the head of the prevention and enforcement department [of the penal colony], he made it clear what could happen to me in the future. I know such stories about how a person wrote complaints about the wardens, and then he was taken to these places of torture, and then the person recanted his testimony while being videotaped. I knew that something similar could be done to me. I had to write the document that your editors received. Of course, when I wrote it, I really hoped that they would understand the situation.

Of course, we understood, but we were afraid for your safety and took down the article.

I was hoping they wouldn’t remove it. Both there and through the convicts, they tried to get to me, and for some time the email server was disabled, and the warden, when he went on rounds, made it clear that it was all because of me. Then I found out that I was to be transferred. Initially, there was information that I would be taken to that hospital in Krasnoyarsk. I had already been given to understand via the convicts that they could take me through the torture remand prisons there. Consequently, everything followed a completely different scenario: I was transferred to CC 17, which I had just been writing about. I was transported without any untoward happening to me. I arrived at the transit and transfer prison, and everything was cool: not a word was said about the situation. I was there for four days before arriving at CC 17, where the deputy warden said to me on my first day, “I know why you have been brought here. I don’t care about that article. Let’s put it this way: you are now going to quietly finish out your sentence, and you’re not going to create problems for me, and I’m not going to create problems for you.”

Did your other articles about life in the prison zones go unnoticed?

The others were also noticed, but there was a fairly calm reaction to them. At one time, there was a special field officer in charge of working with “extremists” and “terrorists,” and he sometimes called me in to say he’d read my articles.

I’m sure you met other prisoners convicted on similar charges.

Yes, there a lot of people convicted in high-profile cases in Krasnoyarsk and Norilsk. When I arrived at CC 15 in Norilsk, there were quite a lot of people who had been convicted under Article 205, but mostly they were people who had been involved in the fighting in the North Caucasus. When you read their verdicts you find mentions of [Chechen rebel commanders] Maskhadov, Khattab, and Shamil. And when I was transferred to CC 17 in Krasnoyarsk a year ago, I also saw quite a lot of people who had been involved in combat or attacks on security forces in the North Caucasus over the years.

Drawing by Stanislav Tanichev. Courtesy of RFE/RL

You rubbed shoulders in the camps with people of different ethnic groups living in Russia. Have you reconsidered the beliefs that moved you to become a revolutionary at the age of seventeen?

Yes, my views have changed. When I joined DPNI, I saw migrants as the problem, but over time I began to see the state as the problem. Migrants are not to blame for anything: they come here out of desperation, because their home countries are even worse than here, just as many people are leaving Russia for Europe now. In other words, these processes are quite natural. People of different ethnic groups and faiths can easily get along with each other. We just need competent policy to avoid conflicts. All this xenophobia is largely groundless. While I was on the inside, I read Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, which examines why people are often biased against those who belong to a different race or ethnic group. If you get to the root of the problem, there is no reason for it. We need to think about what unites us, not what divides us.

I noticed in your interview with the BBC a reference to Vladimir Sorokin. Did you find something in common in what he describes with what you saw in the camps?

Yes, I love Vladimir Sorokin. One of the things that clicked with me was the idea of the new Middle Ages, as described in his novel Tellurium. I can say for sure that the Russian penitentiary system is the new Middle Ages. Here, in each region, there is a special way of life, which is shaped both by prison officials and prisoners, despite the fact that the law seems to be the same, and the codes prisoners live by is the same everywhere. In some places, prisoners live free and easy, while in others the wardens set up a totalitarian regime in the camps through beatings and torture, as, for example, was the case in Omsk before the riot there in 2018. In yet other places, the wardens and the pseudo-kingpins from among the convicts converge. There are unwritten rules, procedures, and forms of interaction everywhere. It really is the new Middle Ages.

Ivan Astashin with the artist Stanislav Tanichev, who illustrated his articles. Courtesy of RFE/RL

You have now been released, but you remain under probation?

Yes. The law on probation was adopted in 2011. I was arrested in 2010, but in 2017, changes were made to the law such that all those convicted of terrorist charges must be placed on probation until their criminal record is expunged, which in my case is eight years. No one cares about you behaved in prison. Whereas earlier, repeat offenders and those who were deemed repeat violators of prison rules were put on probation, now everyone convicted on terrorist charges is put on probation, too. No one cares that I went to prison long before the law was passed. Logically, according to the Russian Constitution and international norms, the law should not apply to me. However, it applies not only to me, but also to other people in this situation. Restrictions are imposed on us: we have to check in at a police department between one to four times a month. (I’m required to check in twice a month.) You cannot leave your home between ten at night and six in the morning. I have filed an appeal against my probation and plan to bring the case to the European Court of Human Rights, as I believe that this practice violates the European Convention on Human Rights. A complaint on similar grounds, filed by one of the defendants in the Bolotnaya Square Case, Sergei Udaltsov, has already been communicated to the European Court of Human Rights.

You don’t want to leave Russia?

I don’t. Everything is bad in Russia nowadays, but there are a lot of areas where you can do something and change things for the better. Nor am I talking about politics in the literal sense. For example, there is human rights advocacy. In any case, no matter what the circumstances, no matter where I am, I will still do something to change society for the better.

• • • • •

This translation is dedicated to Vladimir Akimenkov, a former Russian political prisoner and prisoner rights activist who over the years persuaded me to pay attention to Ivan Astashin’s remarkable story. If you have the means and the opportunity, please consider donating to Vladimir’s fund for Russian political prisoners. You will find the details below. || TRR

Ivan Astashin and Vladimir Akimenkov, October 11, 2020, Moscow. Courtesy of Vladimir Akimenkov’s Facebook page

Vladimir Akimenkov
Facebook
June 7, 2020

My Annual Birthday Fundraising Event for Political Prisoners

On June 10, it will be eight years since I was arrested as part of the Bolotnaya Square Case. Every year on this date I hold a fundraiser in support of the political prisoners with whom I am currently working.

Every year we meet live on my birthday to help political prisoners. This year, for obvious reasons, we will not be able to meet on June 10. We will definitely do this later, when we can get together without the obvious threat of getting sick. (The live fundraising event will be announced later, via a separate post and an update to this post.)

In the meantime, I am launching a remote fundraising event. In recent years, we have managed to find over 16.8 million rubles [approx. 186,000 euros] for people who have been politically repressed. Please chip in. We need to raise a lot of money. I don’t want to be broken record, but such are realities of Russian society.

Bank details:

— Yandex Money: https://money.yandex.ru/to/410012642526680

— Sberbank Visa Card: 4276 3801 0623 4433, Vladimir Georgievich Akimenkov

Bank details for ruble transfer:

Correspondence account 30101810400000000225
Bank BIC 044525225
Recipient’s account 40817810238050715588
Recipient’s Individual Tax Number 7707083893
Recipient’s full name AKIMENKOV VLADIMIR GEORGIEVICH

Bank details for foreign currency transfers:

SWIFT Code SABRRUMM
Recipient’s account 40817810238050715588
Recipient’s full name AKIMENKOV VLADIMIR GEORGIEVICH

You can send funds from one foreign currency account to another via the Western Union website.

If you send me a personal message, I can send you a final report on the funds collected.

Please share information about the fundraiser on different venues.

I’m worried about this fundraiser. But I believe in people.

Thanks.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Samara Culling Cats and Dogs in Run-Up to 2018 World Cup

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According to “‘Putin Loves Only His Own Dogs’: Animals Are Being Killed For the World Cup’s Sake,” an article by Dmitry Volchek, published yesterday, February 17, 2018, on the Radio Svoboda website, authorities in Samara, one of the host cities of the 2018 World Cup, have been paying to have homeless cats and dogs hunted down and killed in the city and the surrounding area.

Here is an excerpt from the article.

“As I understand it, there is fascism in Russia,” says Irina Yevdokimova. “Fascists run the country. It’s unequivocal to me. Problems are solved only by murder. We do not ask for much. We ask only that things be done as they are done abroad, so there is not this bloody mess.”

Samara will host World Cup matches in late June, and the municipal services have been tasked with exterminating homeless animals so that, god forbid, no fan is bitten by a dog. Cats do not attack football players and their fans, but money has been allocated from the budget to kill cats as well. Samara has decided to spend ₽9 million [approx. €128,600] solving the problem, while Togliatti will spend ₽2 million [approx. €28,000].

“A cull is taking place here in Samara Region and Togliatti,” says Yevdokimova. “The cheapest way is to up and shoot the animals, but often as not family pets are killed because they have adapted to interacting with people. There is Sergei Madyankin’s firm, which has been doing the cull. The authorities find it quite advantageous to collaborate with them. They charge ₽500 [approx. €7] for a dead animal. They shoot it, retrieve it, and drive away: quick and cheap.”

You can read the entire article (in Russian) on the Radio Svoboda website. I simply don’t have the heart or stomach to translate the rest of it. TRR

Photo courtesy of Newsweek