“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

Alexei Gaskarov: “The Desire for Justice Has Not Faded”

“The Desire for Justice Has Not Faded”
Alexei Gaskarov (as reported by Maria Klimova)
29 December 2014
MediaZona

On August 18, 2014, the Zamoskvoretsky District Court in Moscow sentenced four defendants—Alexei Gaskarov, Ilya Gushchin, Alexander Margolin, and Elena Kokhtareva—in the so-called second wave of the Bolotnaya Square Case. Judge Natalya Susina found each of them guilty of involvement in rioting (Article 212, Part 2 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code) and using violence against authorities (Article 318, Part 1). Gaskarov was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. On November 27, the Moscow City Court dismissed an appeal against the sentence filed by all four defendants.

Antifa: “We Were Able to Tell Good from Evil”
There are different people in prison. The majority are not the same people we are used to interacting with on the outside. There are different sorts: junkies, criminals, and outright riffraff. But I still find myself thinking I had seen a number of these characters in the yard of my building back in the day. I have flashbacks when I encounter these people. So when you ask why my friends and I became antifascists, you have to imagine the environment we come from.

Photo_Gaskarov_behind_barsAlexei Gaskarov

I remember well what was happening on the streets in 1998–1999. The first skinheads and football hooligans had appeared, ethnically motivated killings were becoming more frequent, and rabidly fascist ideas were gaining popularity. A reality emerged that was invisible to the majority of people. With each passing year, the situation worsened, and the violence increased. We wanted to oppose it. We were able to tell good from evil. The neo-Nazi scene, on the contrary, attracted people not blessed with intellect, frankly. Most of them were up to nothing more than wasting their time on inciting racism and making fake videos of racist attacks. People like Artur Ryno and Pavel Skachevsky, the White Wolves, and other asinine teenagers bought into this.

Society has paid no mind to the killings of migrants, because it is quite xenophobic itself. Its attention has been drawn when Russians square off against Russians, when neo-Nazis murder antifascists in stairwells. But, in fact, at least one hundred ethnically motivated murders occurred in 2008–2009, and this should have been cause for concern.

BORN and Donbas: “They Have Been Hoodwinked”
I have tried as much as possible to follow the trial in the BORN case. It is complete nonsense that the accused are now pretending their actions were motivated by concern for the Russian people. This crazy fascism has nothing to do with defending ethnic Russians.

The boneheads (neo-Nazi and white power skinheads) were a product of society as it existed then. Maybe if Russia had been a democratic country, as it is on paper, the right-wingers would have had the chance to realize themselves in the political arena. In fact, all they had was street politics. The question is whether all those murders would have been committed had they been able to register their own political parties officially.

As we see from the testimony given at the trial by Nikita Tikhonov and Yevgenia Khasis, the neo-Nazis tried to get their own political party, but to create it they needed a combat organization. By creating BORN (Combat Organization of Russian Nationalists), they were hoping to force the regime’s hand, to show they were capable of violence, but that there would be no violence if they had legal means of pursuing their ends.

The antifascists never had the goal of killing anyone. It was the neo-Nazis who first embarked on the path of violence, but this was because there was a certain political will for this. It is important to realize that, despite the street battles, until the mid 2000s the ultra-rightists did not see the antifascists as people whom they needed to shoot first. However, after Maidan 2004, the regime clearly tried to find support within society, including among potentially loyal young people. The nationalists were regarded as just such young people. There were lots of them, and they could be organized around football. This was when the first Russian Marches took place, and nationalists were allowed to set up semi-militarized training camps.

The neo-Nazis were supposed to oppose the so-called threat of orange revolution, the people dissatisfied with the current regime. Antifascists and anarchists were then considered part of this threat. This was when the turning point occurred: it was now considered a priority to destroy us.

Ilya Goryachev and Nikita Tikhonov, BORN’s ideologues, were apparently able to get the message to the presidential administration that they could confront left-liberals on the streets. And they would tell rank-and-file members of their gang that, for example, Pavel Skachevsky’s sister had been attacked by antifascists. This is complete nonsense: I know for a fact that antifascists Ilya Dzhaparidze and Koba Avalishvili didn’t do it. I don’t know whether Skachevsky’s sister was actually attacked at all. At the time, the website of DPNI (Movement against Illegal Immigration) was active, and it would publish information that was untrue, and simply meant to incite people. The fact remains that Dzhaparidze, who was murdered by the neo-Nazis, had nothing to do with this business. But the morons from BORN just believed it and did not even bother to verify the information. The same goes for why Ivan Khutorskoi was killed. It is, of course, complete rubbish that he broke the arms of underage nationalists. He might have talked to them and given them a slap upside the head, but no more than that.

The people from the far-right groups are no nationalists, of course. We know that many of them have gone off to Kiev to fight with the Azov Battalion, for example. This is not the same segment of nationalists that protested on Bolotnaya Square, but the marginal part of the movement, which took advantage of the fact that young people often go into denial when they see society’s existing problems.

I have the feeling that the BORN case, the case of neo-Nazis who sincerely believed they were defending the Russian people, has not taught anyone anything. We now see how this anti-Ukrainian hysteria has been whipped up. It is largely due to this hysteria that Russian citizens have been going off to Donbas to fight. They sincerely imagine they are going there to defend the interests of the Russian people. But in fact they have been hoodwinked. Like Vyacheslav Isayev and Mikhail Volkov, two of the defendants in the BORN trial.

Ukraine and Television: “Discrediting the Very Idea of Protesting”
Many people are too susceptible to television, to what they hear said on it. We have returned to 2004, when Maidan was a threat to the Russian regime. As then, our country’s authorities are trying to discredit the very idea of protesting against an existing regime.

We all remember the invasion of Crimea by “polite people.” It is clear that Ukraine has the right to resist—not their own populace, of course, but the armed men who entered their country and occupied government buildings. They entered the country, occupied cities, cut off access to information from the outside world, and pumped people full of propaganda.

Russia has done much to ignite chauvinist attitudes in eastern Ukraine, but neither have the Ukrainian authorities used all the means they have for negotiating. They should have introduced institutions of political competition and made their arguments with words. It would have been much better if they had tried to use democratic levers.

I know what European integration is fraught with. In Ukraine, all the political forces got behind integration with Europe. And then Russia suddenly adopted an antiglobalist stance. Yet it was obvious that being in a customs union with Russia would not have brought Ukraine any benefits. It needed reforms: hence the decision to unite with Europe. I do not agree with this decision, but I understand the arguments in its favor. At any rate, the choice for European integration was democratic. It is also telling that Maidan did not go massive when integration was being discussed, but only after the police forcibly dispersed a student demonstration.

I have much less access to information than people on the outside, but I believe the referendum in Crimea was held in such a way that it is impossible to say whether it was conducted properly or not. It is not possible to determine this right now, because even the current mood is largely shaped by propaganda that is broadcast in the absence of an alternative viewpoint. I cannot imagine holding a fair referendum at the moment, unless, perhaps, Ukrainian TV channels were allowed on the air there.

The question is who, exactly, will bear responsibility for its having happened this way.

Outcomes and Know-How: Why Be Involved in Russian Politics Today?
The verdict in our case, the closure of independent media, and all the hypocrisy around events in eastern Ukraine point to the fact the Kremlin has adopted a policy of self-preservation. This entire authoritarian system has begun to rot, but there are things allowing it to remain afloat. That is why it has to nurture the oligarchic elite, cops, and FSB officers.

This year has shown that banking on a majority consolidated at Ukraine’s expense and shutting out the twenty per cent who are dissatisfied with current policies is impossible without the loss of economic prosperity. Everyone has now been talking about restructuring our country’s resource-based economy. But why was this impossible to do over the past fifteen years?

You cannot constantly tighten the screws without the public welfare’s deteriorating. I have no illusions about violent revolution: however many people take to the streets and whatever it is they might oppose, there will always be more people from the security forces. So people have two ways of making an impact now: the first is going out and voicing their concerns, while is the second is quiet sabotage—leaving the country, not investing in anything. I know there are many people in business who are leaving because they cannot breathe here. The authorities can, of course, use the same scheme as they did on Bolotnaya Square, but that will trigger another outflow of people and capital; even more money will be taken out of the country. There will be fewer and fewer resources, but the salaries of the cops will still have to be paid. This, in turn, will lead to a split within the elite.

The current power structure is similar, in some sense, to the structure of BORN: it is just as completely opaque. Because of this, complete morons can be wind up at any point in the decision-making chain.

My sense is that the authorities will soon be forced to liberalize, to back off a bit. There will be breaks for businesses. For some, this will be enough to continue developing them. We will return to the old, slow path of growth. Maybe in some ways this is better than this crackdown and gradual slide into hell. They might stop dispersing opposition rallies or not jail Alexei Navalny, for example. The regime has many ways of avoiding a deplorable sequence of events.

Ukraine has shown that this pro-government crowd, who occupy niche positions, can just up and disappear one fine day. A year ago, no one knew that there would be tours of Yanukovych’s residence. When this happens, the old system has to be replaced with something.

The difference between federal and local politics in Russia is still not very great. This was shown well by the recent elections in my hometown of Zhukovsky, where local activists ran for city council and got half the votes, but in the end only two of them won seats.* This is not a good outcome. It has been impossible for activists to have an impact on anything. It did not work out when they wanted to defend a forest. The authorities shut down all such grassroots pressure campaigns.

It is not the outcome that matters nowadays, however, but the process of being involved, because what remains is a community with experience of solving problems. That community is not going away. And if certain changes suddenly begin in the country, then it is certainly a good thing such communities will already be there at the local level and can be the basis of new institutions. Yes, many people are now demoralized, but the desire to get justice and resist thievery has not faded.

Jail, Bolotnaya Square, and Me
I am certain that nothing would have changed had I not gone to the May 6, 2012, opposition protest on Bolotnaya Square, for example. No matter what I did, strange criminal charges would have been filed against me anyway. This is evident even from the news, where everything is presented in such a way that even popular TV presenters Tatyana Lazareva and Mikhail Shats, who were on the Opposition Coordinating Council [along with Gaskarov], are depicted as criminals.

The point is not Bolotnaya specifically, but the fact that if you are involved in activism, criminal investigations will be opened against you. That rubbish with Navalny and the stolen picture is a specific story stemming from Bolotnaya Square. I did foresee that this might happen.

I have no particular hopes for another amnesty. I have the sense the authorities might go for an amnesty for people convicted of economic crimes, because there is a theory that they could help improve the current economy, that the businessmen will one way or another add a fraction of a per cent to economic growth. The authorities could decide to do this. As for us, I have huge doubts. In prison, though, people always pin great hopes on amnesties. In reality, all the prisons are overcrowded: in violation of all European standards, there are two and half meters of living space per prisoner. And when Putin said, recently, that amnesties need not happen too often, he cannot but have known that practically no one got out under the first prisoner amnesty.

You can survive in the pre-trial detention facility, of course. There are no rats running around in the cell or moldy walls in here. And they take us out for a walk every day. True, the courtyard here is bare, and you cannot even see the trees. It is hard to keep track of the seasons: time flows differently on the inside. In short, they do not let you forget you are not at a health spa.

In terms of building relationships, the experience I gained while jailed for two months in the case of the attack on the Khimki town hall has come in handy here. I am used to the fact that people come and go at the pre-trial detention facility. You come across different characters. Recently, there was a guy in here who had lived in the woods for two months. He had been working in construction when he got screwed out of his pay. He didn’t know what to do and went into the woods. He drank hawthorn berry tincture there and had become something like a vagrant. He was nicked for stealing a bike.

I really want all political prisoners released as quickly as possible. And not only released, but released into a free country. I would like the space in which we all have to live to be freed up, to be less gloomy. This is my wish. That a thaw finally comes.

* City council elections took place in Zhukovsky, a town of 105,000 residents forty kilometers southeast of Moscow, on September 14, 2014, Russian general election day. Observers reported massive vote rigging, ballot box stuffing, and tampering with vote tally reports by polling station officials. A month later, members of the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights brought the matter to the attention of Vladimir Putin. The president promised to order the prosecutor’s office to investigate the election violations in Zhukovsky, but the outcome of the election has still not been officially challenged or amended.

Editor’s Note. This translation was previously published, with an excellent introduction and afterword by Gabriel Levy, on People and Nature. Translated by The Russian Reader.