Mikola Dziadok: What We Can Learn from the Moscow Protests

riotgOlga Misik, 17, reading the Russian Constitution aloud to riot cops during a July 27 “unauthorized” opposition protest rally in Moscow at which nearly 1,400 protesters were detained by regular police and Russian National Guardsmen. Photo courtesy of the Independent

Mikola Dziadok
Facebook
August 4, 2019

Lessons of the Moscow Protests

Yesterday, Moscow witnessed one of the largest protest rallies in recent memory. There were huge numbers of arrests.

Estimates of the protesters range from 1,500 to 10,000. 1,001 of them were detained. Since Belarus and Russia constantly exchange know-how in crushing protests and, as genuine autocracies, invest huge resources in doing it, we really should study the methods used in Moscow to make our own subsequent uprising more effective.

The first thing that catches the eye is that the Russian authorities were seriously and thoroughly prepared. There are really smart people in high places who imagined what was going to happen and how to deal with it as effectively as possible. They did not just send a mob of riot cops onto the streets to beat up and disperse everyone. Instead, they employed a whole set of well-designed, complementary measures.

Here is a list of the lessons we can learn.

1. The cops are afraid of being deanonymized. During yesterday’s protest rally, unlike previous protests, the riot cops wore masks because cops who did not hide their faces on July 27 have been subsequently deanonymized in huge numbers and harassed on social media. They fear for their own safety, meaning the longer things drag on, the more they are cognizant of their own mortality and physical vulnerability. This is a good thing.

It was also curious that the agitprop cop using a bullhorn to persuade protesters to disperse appealed to national unity: “Citizens, do not disturb the peace. Russian National Guardsmen are on duty to ensure your safety. Most of them are your sons. Do not disturb the peace and break the law.”

In the future, we will hear tons of this kind of spiel in Minsk from the “moderate opposition,” from the negotiators and compromisers of all stripes who will pop up like earthworms from the moist soil as soon as Lukashenko’s throne goes wobbly. This is a separate issue, however.

2. The Russian authorities are not shy about employing the resources at their disposal. Helicopters were employed in addition to tens of thousands of personnel. Private companies were pressured into going over to the bad guys.

  • The car-sharing service YouDrive banned customers from leaving cars inside the Garden Ring.
  • Cell phone providers turned off mobile Internet services.
  • Wi-Fi was turned off in restaurants and cafes near the protest area.

3. The regime has deployed heavy forces on the digital front.

  • There have been DDOS attacks on the main opposition websites.
  • Pro-regime trolls have been mobilized on group pages and in comments on social media. They have been working overtime cobbling together battle scenes, the reactions of “ordinary citizens,” and so on.

4. As usual, the authorities want to prevent the protests from radicalizing. Random passersby had their bags checked: the police were looking for cans of mace and anything that could be used as a weapon. The high-risk category, from the police’s viewpoint, is middle-aged men, which speaks for itself.

5. When protesters are detained, their mobile phones are confiscated for two weeks under the pretext they are physical evidence in a criminal case. Later, the authorities try to hack them using equipment supplied to authoritarian countries by Israeli and Chinese companies. Encrypt your mobile devices! Update their operating systems before it is too late.

6. The authorities have been filing criminal charges against the protesters mercilessly and without hesitation. The only point is intimidating real and potential protesters. How I am going to move from my cozy home and family to a prison cell for many long years? they ask themselves.

Conclusions

Decentralized protests have been effective. Generally, despite facing equal numbers of people, the regime has to deploy more resources to crush such protests than it does to put paid to centralized protests.

But legal defenses have not been effective. Do you want to not give defense lawyers and children’s ombudsmen access to detainees? Do you want to beat up detainees who are not resisting, refuse them medical care, and forcibly fingerprint them? It is easy as pie. The dogs in uniform are not guardians of law and order. They guard the privileges of the elites along with their power and property. There are thus no obstacles to direct, flagrant, and sustained law-breaking.

The logical conclusion is it is stupid and short-sighted for protesters to try and keep themselves and their protests on the right side of the law,  appealing endlessly to the law as a supreme value and, moreover, outing protesters who break the law as “provocateurs,” one of the favorite hobbies of the legal opposition. It is like trying to win a fight without breaking rules drawn up by your enemy. So it is quite pretty to read the Russian Constitution out loud to riot policemen, but it is also naive, pretentious, and frivolous. They care a thousand times more about their discounted apartments and bonuses than they care about the Constitution.

This does not mean, of course, we should engage in violence left and right. We simply have to remember we have an a priori right to self-defense.

It is worth pointing out that Sergey Kusyuk, a former deputy commander in Ukraine’s Berkut riot police, who was noted for the extreme cruelty with which he treated protesters at the Euromaidan in Kyiv before fleeing the country, has been spotted among the police putting down the protest in Moscow. The Russian regime knows what it is doing: it hires people who have burned all their bridges. Kusyuk has nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. If the current Russian regime collapses, he and his kind can expect to be killed or imprisoned for life. So, he will claw and bite the regime’s enemies until the bitter end. Accordingly, people who are just as willing to fight to the bitter end, but for the good guys, can face these monsters down.

The conclusion is simple: get ready to fight.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Maria Kuvshinova: What Sentsov Could Die For

What Sentsov Could Die For
Maria Kuvshinova
Colta.Ru
May 25, 2018

Detailed_pictureOleg Sentsov. Photo by Sergei Pivovarov. Courtesy of RIA Novosti and Colta.Ru 

On May 14, 2018, Oleg Sentsov went on an indefinite hunger strike in a penal colony located north of the Arctic Circle. His only demand is the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. According to Memorial’s list, there are twenty-four such prisoners.

In August 2015, Sentsov was sentenced to twenty years for organizing a terrorist community and planning terrorist attacks. The second defendant in the case, Alexander Kolchenko, was sentenced to ten years in prison. Mediazona has published transcripts of the hearings in their trial. Around three hundred people have read them over the last three years. The transcripts make it plain the only evidence of the alleged terrorist organization’s existence was the testimony of Alexei Chirniy, who was not personally acquainted with Sentsov. It is police footage of Chirniy’s arrest while he was carrying a rucksack containing a fake explosive device that propagandists often pass off as police footage of Sentsov’s arrest.

Before his arrest, Sentsov was an Automaidan activist. In the spring of 2014, he organized peaceful protests against Crimea’s annexation by Russia.

“Yesterday’s ‘suicide bomber auto rally’ took place in Simferopol yesterday, but in quite abridged form,” Sentsov wrote on Facebook on March 12, 2014. “Only eight cars, six reporters with cameras, and twenty-five activists/passengers assembled at the starting point. I would have liked to have seen more. Unfortunately, most of the armchair revolutionaries who were invited were afraid to go. The traffic cops and regular police also showed up at the starting line, insisting we not leave for our own safety. We told them our protest was peaceful. We had no plans of breaking the rules, so we suggested they escort us to keep the peace for everyone’s sake.”

The second defendant, Kolchenko, admitted involvement in the arson of an office that was listed in the case file as belonging to the United Russia Party, but which in April 2014 was an office of Ukraine’s Party of Regions. The arson took place at night. It was meant to cause physical damage while avoiding injuring anyone.

The Russian authorities tried to prove both Sentsov and Kolchenko were linked with Right Sector, a charge that was unsubstantiated in Sentsov’s case and absurd in the latter case due to Kolchenko’s well-known leftist and anarchist convictions. Gennady Afanasyev, the second witness on whose testimony the charges against the two men were based, claimed he had been tortured and coerced into testifying against them.

Sentsov and Kolchenko’s show trial, like the show trials in the Bolotnaya Square Case, were supposed to show that only a handful of terrorists opposed the referendum on Crimea’s annexation and thus intimidate people who planned to resist assimilation. The Russian authorities wanted to stage a quick, one-off event to intimidate and crack down on anti-Russian forces. But two circumstances prevented the repressive apparatus from working smoothly. The first was that the defendants did not make a deal with prosecutors and refused to acknowledge the trial’s legitimacy. The second was that Automaidan activist Oleg Sentsov unexpectedly turned out to be a filmmaker, provoking a series of public reactions ranging from protests by the European Film Academy to questions about whether cultural producers would be capable of blowing up cultural landmarks. Segments of the Russian film community reacted to the situation with cold irritation. According to them, Sentsov was a Ukrainian filmmaker, not a Russian filmmaker, and he was not a major filmmaker. The owner of a computer club in Simferopol, his semi-amateur debut film, Gamer, had been screened at the festivals in Rotterdam and Khanty-Mansiysk, while release of his second picture, Rhino, had been postponed due to Euromaidan.

The Ukrainian intelligentsia have equated Sentsov with other political prisoners of the empire, such as the poet Vasyl Stus, who spent most of his life in Soviet prisons and died in Perm-36 in the autumn of 1985, a week after he had gone on yet another hunger strike. The Ukrainian authorities see Sentsov, a Crimean who was made a Russian national against his will and is thus not eligible for prisoner exchanges, as inconvenient, since he smashes the stereotype of the treacherous peninsula, a part of Ukraine bereft of righteous patriots. Sentsov’s death on the eve of the 2018 FIFA World Cup would be a vexing, extremely annoying nuisance to the Russian authorities.

Sentsov is an annoyance to nearly everyone, but he is a particular annoyance to those people who, while part of the Russian establishment, have openly defended him, although they have tried with all their might to avoid noticing what an inconvenient figure he has been. Although he was not a terrorist when he was arrested, he has become a terrorist of sorts in prison, because his trial and his hunger strike have been a slowly ticking time bomb planted under the entire four-year-long post-Crimean consensus, during which some have been on cloud nine, others have put down stakes, and still others have kept their mouths shut. Yet everyone reports on the success of their new endeavors on Facebook while ignoring wars abroad and torture on the home front. Sentsov represents a rebellion against hybrid reality and utter compromise, a world in which Google Maps tells you Crimea is Russian and Ukrainian depending on your preferences. To what count does “bloodlessly” annexed Crimea belong, if, four years later, a man is willing to die to say he does not recognize the annexation?

The success of Gamer on the film festival circuit, which made Sentsov part of the international film world, and his current address in a prison north of the Arctic Circle beg three questions. What is culture? Who produces culture? What stances do cultural producers take when they produce culture? There are several possible answers. Culture is a tool for reflection, a means for individuals and societies to achieve self-awareness and define themselves. It is not necessarily a matter of high culture. In this case, we could also be talking about pop music, fashion, and rap. (See, for example, the recent documentary film Fonko, which shows how spontaneous music making has gradually been transformed into a political force in post-colonial Africa.) On the contrary, culture can be a means of spending leisure time for people with sufficient income, short work days, and long weekends.

Obviously, the culture produced in Russia today under the patronage of Vladimir Medinsky’s Culture Ministry is not the first type of culture, with the exception of documentary theater and documentary cinema, but the founders of Theater.Doc have both recently died, while Artdocfest has finally been forced to relocate to Riga. The compromised, censored “cultural production” in which all the arts have been engaged has no way of addressing any of the questions currently facing Russia and the world, from shifts in how we view gender and the family (for which you can be charged with the misdemeanor of “promoting homosexualism”) to the relationship between the capitals and regions (for which you can charged with the felony of “calling for separatism”). Crimea is an enormous blank spot in Russian culture. Donbass and the rest of Ukraine, with which Russia still enjoyed vast and all-pervasive ties only five years ago, are blank spots. But cultural producers have to keep on making culture, and it is easier to say no one is interested in painful subjects and shoot a film about the complicated family life of a doctor with a drinking problem and a teetotalling nurse.

When we speak of the second type of culture—culture as leisure—we primarily have in mind Moscow, which is brimming over with premieres, lectures, and exhibitions, and, to a much lesser extent, Russia’s other major cities. So, in a country whose population is approaching 150 million people, there is a single international film festival staged by a local team for its hometown, Pacific Meridian in Vladivostok. All the rest are produced by Moscow’s itinerant three-ring circus on the paternalist model to the delight of enlightened regional governors. It matters not a whit that one of them ordered a brutal assault on a journalist, nor that another was in cahoots with the companies responsible for safety at the Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam, where 75 people perished in 2009. What matters is that the festival movement should go on. There is no room in this model for local cultural progress. There can be no free discussion generated by works of art when everyone is engaged in total self-censorship. After I went to Festival 86 in Slavutych, whose curators have been conceptually reassessing the post-Soviet individual and the post-Soviet space, I found it painful to think about Russian film festivals. This sort of focused conceptualization is impossible in Russia. It is of no interest to anyone.

There are two more possible answers to the question of what culture is. Culture is propaganda. Or, finally, culture is only the marquee on a commercial enterprise profiting at the taxpayer’s expense. It is not a big choice, and the kicker is that by agreeing today to be involved in churning out propaganda, milking taxpayers, supplying optional leisure time activities, producing censored works, and colonizing one’s own countrymen for the sake of money, status, and membership in a professional community, the people involved in these processes automatically stop making sense. It is naïve to think the audience has not noticed this forfeiture. It is no wonder the public has an increasingly hostile reaction to cultural producers and their work.

No one has the guts to exit this vicious circle even in protest at the slow suicide of a colleague convicted on trumped-up charges, because it would not be “practical.” The events of recent months and years, however, should have transported us beyond dread, since everyone without exception is now threatened with being sent down, the innocent and the guilty alike.

Post-Soviet infantilism is total. It affects the so-called intelligentsia no less than the so-called ordinary folk. Infantilism means being unable to empathize, being unable to put yourself in another person’s shoes, even if that person is President Putin, a man with a quite distinct sense of ethics, a man who has been studied backwards and forwards for twenty years. Apparently, the message sent to the creative communities through the arrest of Kirill Serebrennikov was not registered. If you want to be a dissident, start down the hard road of doing jail time for misdemeanor charges, facing insuperable difficulties in renting performance and exhibition spaces, becoming an outsider, and experiencing despair. If you want a big theater in downtown Moscow, play by the rules. Like your average late-Soviet philistine, Putin regarded the creative intelligentsia with respect at the outset of his presidential career. (See, for example, footage from his visit to Mosfilm Studios in 2003.) However, a few years later, he was convinced the creative intelligentsia was a rampantly conformist social group who would never move even a millimeter out of its comfort zone and would make one concession after another. A lack of self-respect always generates disrespect in counterparts.

By signing open letters while remaining inside the system and not backing their words with any actions whatsoever, the cultural figures currently protesting the arrests of colleagues are viewed by the authorities as part of the prison’s gen pop, while people who live outside Moscow see them as accomplices in looting and genocide. No one takes seriously the words of people who lack agency. Agency is acquired only by taking action, including voluntarily turning down benefits for the sake of loftier goals. The acquisition of agency is practical, because it is the only thing that compels other people to pay heed to someone’s words. I will say it again: the acquisition of agency is always practical. At very least, it generates different stances from which to negotiate.

Sentsov has made the choice between sixteen years of slow decay in a penal colony and defiant suicide in order to draw attention not to his own plight, but to the plight of other political prisoners. Regardless of his hunger strike’s outcome, he has generated a new scale for measuring human and professional dignity. It is an personal matter whether we apply the scale or not, but now it is impossible to ignore.

Thanks to Valery Dymshits for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Vladimir Balukh: Rough Justice in Russian-Occupied Crimea

The Balukh Trial: Testimony of Prosecution’s Witnesses Diverges
Grani.Ru
May 15, 2018

The testimony of the prosecution’s witnesses diverged during the latest hearing in the third trial of the Crimean Ukrainian political activist Vladimir Balukh, who allegedly assaulted Valery Tkachenko, warden of the Interior Ministry’s Temporary Detention Facility in the Razdolnoye District, reports the news website Krym.Realii.

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Duty officer Mikhail Shubin claimed Balukh wanted to attack Tkachenko, but the guards holding the political prisoner stopped him from doing it. At the same time, Shubin claimed Balukh had “taunted” the warden.

Meanwhile, the facility’s deputy warden, Dmitry Karpunov, testified he did not see the conflict itself. He could only report Tkachenko had entered Balukh’s cell, whence an “intense conversation” was audible, and then the warden exited the cell stained with some kind of liquid.

Karpunov said there had been no attack. Balukh had not committted any violations of prison regulations, not counting his refusal to put his hands behind his back.

The Crimean Human Rights Group reports a total of five witnesses were questioned during Tuesday’s hearing. Aside from Shubin and Karpunov, they included temporary detention facility staffers Seyran Mambetov, duty officer Sergei Tishin, and technician Alexander Konovalov, who extracted the recordings from the CCTV cameras. The Crimean Solidarity Facebook page identifies Konovalov as Balukh’s aquaintance.

Our correspondent reports that, during his testimony, Major Mambetov said, “We are not the Gestapo. We don’t assault people. We police officers do not offend anyone, and we treat all convicts the same.”

The next hearing was scheduled for Wednesday, March 16.

Balukh went on hunger strike on March 19, 2018. May 15 was thus the fifty-eighth day of his protest against the unjust verdict in his previous trial, in which he was convicted of illegally possessing ammunition. On Tuesday, the Crimean Human Rights Group published a letter from Baluch, in which the political prisoner wrote that, on the twenty-fifth day of his hunger strike, his social defender, Archbishop Kliment of the Simferopol and Crimean Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, urged him to moderate his hunger strike. Whereas earlier Balukh had consumed only water and tea, after his conversation with Kliment he drank two glasses of oatmeal kissel and ate fifty to seventy grams of dried breadcrumbs everyday, and added honey to his tea.

Balukh made the decision, he wrote, “To rule out the possibility of forced feeding and the use of medical means of life support I have not authorized, and also to avoid causing irreparable grief to my loved ones.”

Earlier, Balukh’s common-law wife Natalya had pointed out her husband suffered from liver disease, and it was unacceptable for him to go on hunger strike.

93614.jpgVladimir Balukh and his attorneys Olga Dinze and Taras Omelchenko, May 15, 2018. Photo by Alexandra Yefimenko. Courtesy of Grani.Ru

The hearing on the merits of Baluch’s third trial began April 2. Tatyana Pyrkalo, chair of the Razdolnoye District Court, which is controlled by Russia, has presided over the trial. Aside from Archbishop Kliment, Balukh is defended by three professional lawyers, Dmitry Dinze, Olga Dinze, and Taras Omelchenko. Ms. Dinze and Mr. Omelchenko were present at Tuesday’s hearing.

The 47-year-old Balukh, a farmer from the village of Serebryanka in the Razdolnoye District, has beeen charged under Article 321 Part 2 of the Russian Criminal Code (non-threatening violence against a penitentiary officer during performance of his duties), which is punishable by a maximum of five years in a penal colony. According to the prosecution, on August 11, 2017, during morning rounds of the cells at the Razdolnoye Temporary Detention Facility, where Balukh had been transferred from a remand prison while he attended his second trial, Balukh struck Warden Tkachenko in the stomach with his elbow while they were in the hallway, after which he went into his cell, grabbed a bottle of detergent, and struck the policeman on the arm.

Actually, Tkachenko himself assaulted Balukh, insulted his ethnicity, and swore at him. Moreover, these actions were captured by CCTV cameras. We also know the warden had verbally assaulted Balukh prior to the incident. Balukh was framed on the new charges after his defense lawyers filed a complaint against Warden Tkachenko with the police.

During the pretrial investigation, conducted by N. Bondarenko, an official with the Razdolnoye Interregional Department of the Russian Investigative Committee, Warden Tkachenko refused to report to a face-to-face confrontation with Balukh, although Russian law does not provide this right to victims.

Until today, only two hearings had been held in the case. Warden Tkachenko took the witness stand at the second hearing, on April 11.

As defense lawyer Dmitry Dinze noted after the hearing, “The funniest thing about the whole case is that the so-called victim has not evinced any get-up-and-go. The criminal charges did not interest him at all. He was ordered to file a report and draw up all the papers in order to get the case opened. Personally, he has no material and emotional gripes against my client. It transpires the Razdolnoye District Police Department had a stake in cooking up more criminal charges against Balukh.”

In December 2013, during the early weeks of the Revolution of Dignity, Balukh hung the red and black flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) above his home in the village of Serebryanka. After awhile, the flag was surreptitiously torn down at night, and the farmer replaced it with the Ukrainian national flag. After Crimea was occupied, Balukh did not apply for Russian citizenship.

Balukh was convicted for the first time in 2016 and sentenced to 320 hours of community service for, allegedly, offending a government official, as stipulated by Article 319 of the Russian Criminal Code. The “victim” in this case was Lieutenant Yevgeny Baranov, a field officer with the Center for Extremism Prevention (Center “E”), who was involved in searching Balukh’s home in November 2015.

Balukh faced trumped-up charges for the second time after he attached a sign inscribed “Heaven’s Hundred Heroes Street, 18″ on his house. He was jailed in a remand prison, where he was imprisoned for nearly a year before he was transferred to house arrest. He was returned to the remand prison after his conviction on the second set of charges. Balukh was charged under Article 222 Part 1 (illegal trafficking of ammunitition) and Article 222.1 Part 1 (illegal trafficking of explosives) after police planted gunshells and TNT blocks in his home during a routine search. Earlier this year, Balukh was sentenced to three years and five months in an open penal colony.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Alexei Gaskarov: What Politics?

Alexei Gaskarov: Many People Ask Whether I Am Going to Take up Politics. But What Politics Are There Nowadays?
Olesya Gerasimenko
Snob
November 1, 2016

Anti-fascist Alexei Gaskarov has been released from prison after serving three and a half years in prison for alleged involvement in the Bolotyana Square riot in Moscow in 2012. Snob asked Kommersant special correspondent Olesya Gerasimenko to meet with Gaskarov to discuss the Bolotnaya Square case, life and education in the penal colony, and the death of the protest movement. 

Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob
“Why would they ask me about organizing a riot if they knew no one organized it?”

Was your trial fair?

I regret we agreed to be involved in it. Like Soviet political prisoners, we should have stood with our backs turned and kept our mouths shut, and not treated it as an attempt to get at the truth. I had illusions after Khimki. [In 2010, Gaskarov was arrested and charged with attacking the Khimki town hall during a protest in defense of Khimki Forest, but the court acquitted him. — Snob] Several videos showed clearly that the incidents involving me happened before the riot kicked off, according to police investigators themselves. In the end, I ticked off the evidence, the judge nodded her head, but there was no reaction. The entire trial looked as if the decision had already been made, the sentence written out, and let’s get this over as quickly as possible.

So did you push a policeman and pull a soldier out of the police cordon?

I never denied it from the get-go. A year had passed since the rally on Bolotnaya Square. I was working on an important project. I had a week to go, and it was uncool to have to go to jail. I had to go to work on the Sunday the cops came for me. I had gone to the shop to buy food for the cat, and the whole clown show was waiting outside my building: two jeeps and a van. Young dudes half dressed like boneheads stepped out of the van. I decided they were from BORN [a group of radical right-wing nationalists who carried out a series of murders and assaults — Snob]. I was pondering what moves to make, but they produced their IDs.

Did you feel relieved?

No, just the opposite. I could have run from BORN or done something else. So they detained me and kept mum about what the charges were for a long while. They made me lie face down in the van and  the whole works. There were lots of things they could have detained me for. We had been defending the tenants of the Moscow Silk (Mosshyolk) dormitories from eviction and the Tsagov Forest in Zhukovsky from logging by developers. And shortly before my arrest, people who are now serving in the Azov Battalion attempted to assault my wife and me. I tussled with them, and it ended up on camera. So there were different possibilities. I was not thinking about Bolotnaya at all. When it finally became clear why I had been detained, I stared at them.  It was total rubbish. I told them I agreed to admit what I had done. We had been walking amid the crowd, when a riot cop attacked this dude. A dogpile ensued, and people pulled them apart. I was accused of pulling a policeman’s leg. The evidence was a poor quality video and a forensic report that concluded it was not me. But I knew it was me. So I told them right away, Guys, let’s do this the right way. But they could not have cared less whether I admitted my guilt or not. It would have been a different story if I had confessed to violating Article 212 of the Criminal Code (organizing a riot) or testified against someone else.

Were you asked?

They didn’t even mention it. Why would they ask me about organizing a riot if they know no one had organized it, including from their own wiretaps? They kept the charges to the incident with the leg pulling. Then they found a second incident. A stampede started in front of the police line. People were falling on the ground, and I tugged one policeman by the shoulder to make room. The indictment said I had broken the police line so that everyone could get to the riot. But this line had been at the passage in the other direction.

OIesya Gerasimenko and Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

Did you expect such a sentence?

They had already told me at the Investigative Committee they were going send me down. I said, Well, of course. Later, the Center “E” guys showed up and threatened me with ten years in prison, but I know that could not happen. The rules of the game are still followed, and punishment for a particular crime is usually consistent with ordinary practice.

How do you feel about the case of Udaltsov and his associates?

I have very negative feelings about it, of course. I ran into [Leonid] Razvozzhayev in the pre-trial detention facility, but I wasn’t really able to chat with him, because he was always in very bad shape. Udaltsov and his associates operated like real con men. Before May 6, 2012, they had no clue how the march would go, and there is no mention of sitdown strikes and rushing police lines in the wiretaps. But after everything had happened on Bolotnaya, they began acting in their meetings with Targamadze as if everything had gone according to their plans. Their initial excuse, that they had traveled to Georgia to talk about wine and mineral water, was pure idiocy. Naturally, it is not against the law to have meetings and discuss business. But there is a political ethic that does not let you behave this way. You go meet dudes from the government of another country, a country with whom [your country] recently had a conflict. You ask for money, and you take money. If these meetings had not taken place, the Kremlin would have failed to generate the image of the Bolotnaya Square case that it did. We should not have had to answer for things over which we had no control. The benefits to Udaltsov were personal, but everyone shared the risks.

So you received no money from Givi Targamadze?

Are you kidding? What money?

Who was the anonymous anarchist informer who testifed against you?

I didn’t even find out. I have had nothing to do with them for many years. The guys still have their little movement. Like Tolkien fans, they attend meetings and discuss for hours on end how they should make a revolution. They have been doing this for the last twenty years. It was of no interest to anyone. The FSB sent its people in. They went and had a look at it and said, Well okay, you have a cool club. When Center “E” was established, they went after them big time to push up their arrest stats. All anarchist meetings are open, anyone can come. So they are known to the authorities. The teenager from this scene who went to Bolotnaya and was involved in breaking through police lines was identified in this way. They put the squeeze on him: either we send you down or you tell us what we want to hear. I have no idea why this was necessary, because he just said I was a bad dude and the leader of the anti-fascists and anarchists. But nobody charged me with that.

“The rules of survival are simple: don’t do anyone harm”
Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

 

Tell me about life in prison. Everyone is interested in that. You know, reveille at six, lights out at ten.

Yeah. As you understand, people who are drug addicts, people going through withdrawal, basically live at night. After lights out, they either smoke or brew chifir [a super strong tea brewed in Russian prisons]. You just set that aside. You have your routine, and basically it is good for you. No one limits the amount of exercise you do: there is a horizontal bar, parallel bars, and a few weights. You are either working or busy with your own things. I got into shape there like I never have before. The point is to come up with as many things to do as possible so you have no spare time at all.

What did you read?

The library there was okay, because everyone who does time gets books and then leaves them behind. They see who has been nominated for the Booker Prize and order their books. It’s not hard to find new releases in prison. I also subscribed to several pro-Kremlin publications, and I read lots of your articles, too. And I read The New Times and Novaya Gazeta. I wanted different viewpoints. Plus, there is a legal video link in there. It is limited to fifteen minutes a day, but in fact nobody keeps track of the time.

Who were your cellmates? 

I spent half my sentence in a pre-trial detention facility. The dudes in there had been charged under Article 228 of the Criminal Code [purchase, storage, production, and sale of narcotics — Snob]. Their stories were horrible. One group of teenagers had gotten hash in the mail from Holland, and they had been sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Or there were the dudes who decided to cook amphetamine using a recipe they found on the Internet. They got nineteen years in prison. I was even ashamed to explain what my case was about, because I was surrounded by people facing over ten years in prison.  When the trial began, we were kept in Butyrka Prison. They were thieves, crazies, teenagers, street kids, and Dagestanis in there. I also met defendants in the Rosoboronexport case, the APEC Summit case, and the Sochi Olympics case, and I went to the gym with Alexander Emelianenko.

The general population at the penal colony consisted of three hundred men. Eighty percent of them were local dudes from Tula Region who had attacked somebody while drunk, stolen things from dachas, and committed petty robberies. But what is the catch about the general population? That a homeless man who broke into someone else’s dacha to spend the winter got sent down to the penal colony, and his life there is better than on the outside, and he is in the same place as a big-shot businessman who has lost a billion rubles and used to go sailing on his yacht on the outside.

Does this lead to lots of conflicts?

There are lots of conflicts, but the instigator always takes the rap for a fight. That doesn’t mean there are no fights. They are criminals, after all, and they tend to take risks. But the rules of survival are simple: don’t do anyone harm. If you watch TV after lights out, turn down the sound. Don’t drag in dirt. It’s all basic.

Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

Was it easy for you to understand them?

Yeah. In 2010, I was in a pre-trial detention facility with repeat offenders and learned the tricks. And during my early days in the penal colony I read Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn’s stories about the prison camps.

Like a set of rules?

Yes. The Center “E” officer who led the investigation in my case told me a lot and advised me what books to read. When I was on the inside, people asked my advice on how to behave.

When you got out you said the main thing had been to maintain contact with reality and your health. How did you maintain your health? Was the food there okay?

Due to the fact that support from the outside was good, I almost never ate in the cafeteria.

But what about hot meals?

There is a microwave there. The Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) now has taken the approach of not keeping you from improving your living conditions. They need to implement their strategy for improving conditions in the penal colonies, but their budget has been trimmed. When you arrive, everything is crappy. Water is dripping from the ceilings, and there is mold. But they don’t mind if you want to invest your own resources. You write everything up as humanitarian aid, and you get electric kettles and microwaves. We had a projector hanging in our cell for watching films.

Now everyone will want to roll back two years to read books and watch films on a projector.

We also purchased a bunch of armchairs from IKEA. So when the head office comes to make an inspection, they show them how cool everything is in their colony.

I think you wanted to get another degree in prison.

Unfortunately, it turned out the university with which the colony collaborates is just a degree mill that sells them for money. I did something else there. At work, I would often teach the basics of entrepreneurship and planning. There were people doing time in the colony with whom it was interesting to talk, bank chairmen and ministry officials. There was a space, an evening school. I brought around fifty people together and asked the wardens permission to run something like seminars. Everyone had to come up with his own project, and over eight months (my sentence was coming to an end) we would try and whip it into shape, with a business plan as the outcome. At first, they turned me down outright, saying I was in for the Bolotnaya Square case and would lead political discussions. But then there was a change in management at the penal colony, and they met us halfway. It was like a little piece of the outside world.

Generally, of course, the colony’s disciplinary and educational function has been tapped out. There are no resources. The majority of guys in there do not have the most basic skills. They cannot write a letter, but there is no one there at all to educate them. There is this option of watching films on the weekends. They show this rubbish, total nonsense. I went to the wardens and said, Let’s make a selection of good films; we can watch ordinary films in our cells. But they could not even decide to do that. They get their action plans from the head office, where the theorists work. They say, Let’s hold a sports day, even though athletic clothing is prohibited in the general population.

“They aren’t winning this game by turning to crackdowns”
Olesya Gerasimenko and Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

While you were away, the Khimki Forest was cut down. The Moscow Silk tenants were evicted. Anti-fascists fell out over Ukraine. Many of the people who rallied on Bolotnaya have emigrated. When you all; were being arrested one by one, everyone said it would be the case of the century, that everyone would close ranks because of you and for your sake, but ultimately you have got out of prison, the Bolotnaya Square case is still underway, and there is no longer any interest in it. Maybe you went to prison for nothing?

What does that mean, “nothing”? I had no choice. It’s good that the anti-fascist thing is no longer on the front burner. Nowadays, there are no more clashes with neo-Nazis, who were killing people in the early 2000s. Back then, they really needed a counterweight. Our job was to point out the problem and make things decent on the streets. We succeeded in doing this. But the anti-fascist movement cannot defeat xenophobia in society.

What do you think about the split among anti-fascists, that one group went to Kiev, while the other went to Donbass? They were at each other’s throats.

I always assumed that very different people joined the anti-fascist movement, and that was fine. There were aspects that just did not make sense to me. For example, why were European leftists strutting their stuff in Donbass? It looks as if they were totally conned.

As for Bolotnaya, choosing to be involved in this movement was fraught with risks. If we draw an analogy with Ukraine (although many people don’t like to do this), I don’t think that if the events on Bolotnaya had gone further those people would have balked at shooting the crowd. A bunch of people were killed in Kiev, while here in Moscow we were supposed to be scared off by prison sentences. They randomly picked a group of people and put them in prison. The rationale is clear. Whoever you are, if you oppose the tsar, you will suffer. How can we respond to this? We have to debunk the myth that such crackdowns are effective.

But that is what happened. Everyone really was afraid of being hit once with a truncheon, to say nothing of prison. Many members of the opposition have said the fight against the regime is not a worth a centimeter of their personal comfort. You are practically the only who does not think this way. Don’t you feel lonely?

Most people haven’t been to prison, and they really imagine it is the end of world. If I go to prison, I can kiss my life goodbye, they think. I just dealt with it more or less normally. But this is how I see it. When the authorities crack down on dissent, people lower their level of activism. They lose the desire to invest themselves in something. Ultimately, the system falls apart, rather than becoming more stable, as the authorities imagine. The country becomes less competitive. In prison, I saw many people who were doing time for economic crimes, and they all said approximately the same thing. People who have satisfied their material needs develop political demands, and that is fine. Everyone wants to be involved in changing things. When this desire for change is blocked, they are blocking the segment of society that generates the most added value. They aren’t winning this game by turning to crackdowns. Especially because the system is not as terrible as it makes itself out to be.

But people need to remain minimally active. It is too bad that many people have chosen the passive way. I have just got out, and it really seems to me that a lot has changed, even in Moscow itself. Although, theoretically, I saw it all ten years ago, only in Europe. We can live this way a long time. Hence the complexity of the political arguments around Bolotnaya. Given the resources we have have, we could live better, but the way things are also suits lots of people. In this case, the system can survive for a long while. We should not get involved in direct confrontations. This was clear to me on Bolotnaya Square as well. We wanted to get the hell out of there, because it was obvious the sitdown strikes and so on were just what the authorities wanted. But there are other ways of doing things. We don’t have to limit ourselves to demonstrations and rallies.

Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

What ways?

There are the demands made at Bolotnaya—fair elections and the transfer of power—but there is the option of engaging in specific targeted campaigns in order to develop one’s ideas under the existing regime.

You mean the theory of small deeds?

Among other things. For example, I read that many Bolotnaya activists have gone into charity work. In fact, that is not so bad. What matters is maintaining the energy. Or there is the successful fight against corruption, all those publications that impact the system, whatever you say. Or there are people in the leftist milieu who think there should be progressive taxation: they can also advance their arguments. Or form an anti-war movement given all the conflicts underway.

In prison, I realized how strongly the regime affects people’s brains. There are people who show up there who are not inclined to heavy discussions. Real peasants. All the myths that exist are in their heads. But when you are around them, you don’t even have to argue. Even the most impenetrable guys would change their minds just as a result of conversation. So any work aimed at disseminating information and minimal education is vital.

What did you change their minds about?

A variety of things, including their overall attitude to the opposition. In the beginning, it was even convenient for me, like there were only drug addicts at Bolotnaya, that they all had gone there to score heroin, and everybody would leave me alone [after I would say that]. But over time people see what you read, what films you watch on the Culture channel, that you can help draft a court appeal, and they understand you are not an idiot and would not have gone to a protest rally for a dose of heroin. There were lots of conflicts over Ukraine, especially because there were many people doing time who had managed to fight in Donbas, come back to Russia, and get sent to prison.

Olesya Gerasimenko and Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

For what?

Disorderly conduct, theft, and armed robbery. They were typical soldiers of fortune. We even managed to talk about this most difficult issue and iron out our differences.

Is Crimea ours?

I have a simple position on this issue. People went out on the Maidan because they did not like the current regime. I think what happened to Crimea was Putin’s attempt to punish them for this. The Ukrainian people made their choice, Putin didn’t like it, and [Russia] acted like the interventionists during the Russian Civil War. It is not a matter of what the inhabitants of Crimea wanted. It was an action directed against all the values we tried to defend on Bolotnaya.

So it’s not ours?

I consider it a real violation of international law. It was unethical and wrong. Clearly they did this to stick an example in everyone’s face: see what protests have done to the country. But I don’t have an opinion about what should happen next.

To return it or not?

Well yes. Because it is clear that most people who live there want to be part of Russia.

You went to prison in one country, but came out of prison in another country. What was it like finding out on the news about the historic events that were happening on the outside? Did you feel sorry you were observing them from afar? Or, on the contrary, was it easier?

To be honest, the latter. It was often difficult to make up my mind. For example, when refugees left Ukraine en masse, they would come work in the penal colony. You communicate with them and realize there is ideology, and then there are people’s stories, and it was hard to make up one’s mind. I actually thought it was cool this was going on in the background.

Alexei Gaskarov. Photo courtesy of Tanya Hesso/Snob

What is your work situation? What are you planning to do?

Of course, I would like to do the work I was educated to do, as a financial systems analyst, as it says in my diploma. My old job did not survive the crisis. I will have problems, of course.  I have even asked acquaintances at several companies, but I was told no way, especially in offices that work on state commissions or state projects. So things are rough. I will have to start everything from scratch. But I am sure that the fourteen percent have some businesses. [Gaskarov has in mind VTsIOM’s polling data, showing that 86% of Russians support Putin — Snob.]

Earning money is my priority now. Many people have asked me whether I am going to take up politics. Everyone has so many expectations, but what politics are there nowadays? It is impossible to be involved in politics without having your own resources. Of course, I say you shouldn’t be afraid of prison, but it is a serious setback all the same: three and a half years. A lot of missed opportunities and a backlog of problems.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Gabriel Levy for the heads-up

It’s Been a Quiet Week in the Motherland (The News from OVD Info)

Maxim Panfilov
Maxim Panfilov

Hello! One of the main events of the past week for us was not Putin’s “Direct Line,” but the arrest of a man who spoke with Putin a year ago. Anton Tyurishev, a construction worker at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East, complained to the president that he and his mates were not being paid their wages.  Putin promised to get to the bottom of it, but a year on nothing had changed. Tyurishev promised that in response protests would kick off. Later, he was summoned to the police station, where the “Law on Rallies” was read out to him. The day before the “Direct Line” broadcast, he was detained and sent to jail for five days, allegedly, for swearing in public.

Criminal Prosecution

The new defendant in the Bolotnaya Square Case, Maxim Panfilov, who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and yet was taken into police custody, is not getting the medicines he needs. Instead, he is being administered substitutes that do not alleviate his condition. Panfilov has been appointed an outpatient psychiatric examination. The investigator has agreed to let defense attorneys attend it.

Ildar Dadin, convicted of “multiple violations of the rules for holding public events,” was convoyed from Moscow to Petersburg right on his birthday, which means he will serve his sentence in Leningrad Region.

Ildar Dadin
Ildar Dadin

Last week, it transpired that Magomednabi Magomedov, imam of the Eastern Mosque in Khasavyurt, had been arrested, accused of incitement to terrorism and inciting religious and ethnic hatred. Magomedov, who was transported from one place of confinement to another over several days, complained he had been tortured. Pretrial detention facility officers had beaten him and forced him to kneel, demanding that he confess to the charges.

Euromaidan participant Alexander Kostenko, convicted of harming a Berkut riot police officer, was transferred to solitary confinement shortly before a hearing where his request for parole was to be examined. Naturally, Kostenko’s parole request was rejected.

Alexander Kostenko
Alexander Kostenko

It seems soon Alexei Navalny will have no allies who are not undergoing criminal prosecution. Ivan Zhdanov, head of the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s legal service, and a candidate for the council of deputies in the Moscow suburb of Barvikha, has been charged with evading conscription.

Freedom of Assembly

In Ulyanovsk, police diligently searched for activists who had blocked a road in connection with construction of a residential complex. They visited one activist at work, and telephone another and asked him to report for questioning. When he demanded an official summons, they threatened him with criminal charges. Administrative charges have been filed against three people.

In Volgograd, the leader of the regional Union of Entrepreneurs and Freight Haulers has been slapped with three administrative charges for calling people to a protest rally before the rally was authorized. The court threw out two of the three charges, while the third resulted in a fine.

The confrontation continues in Moscow’s Dubki Park. Defenders of the park, who oppose construction there, are fined for disobeying the police. A female journalist’s arm was injured when an assembly of defenders was dispersed. When he was detained, one of the activists, Dmitry Boinov, was beaten so badly that he has been in hospital for a week recovering from fractures.

Beatings

In Podolsk, three men attacked Maxim Chekanov, a past participant of protest rallies. The incident began when they called Chekanov by name, asked him questions about the “Kiev junta,” called him a “Banderite scumbag,” and then invited him to go round the corner. During the ensuing fight they smashed Chekhanov’s face.

Popular Chechen singer Hussein Betelgeriev, who disappeared in late March, has returned home beaten. It is unknown where he was all this time. Relatives and friends suggest he was abducted, and connect the abduction with his comments on social networks and the fact he ignored the call to attend a pro-Kadyrov rally on March 23.

Reading

Olga Sutuga, mother of anti-fascist Alexei Sutuga, currently serving time at a penal colony in Irkutsk Region, talks about the international aid project Political Prisoners University.

Thanks for your attention!

_________

OVD Info is an independent human rights media project dedicated to political persecution in Russia. We are engaged in daily monitoring of detentions at public events, and publish information about other kinds of political persecution. We believe that information liberates and protects, and analyzing the data we collect can help change the situation for the better in the future.

Editor’s Note. OVD Info sends out a weekly email news roundup, in Russian, to its supporters. I thought that, despite its brevity, this week’s roundup provided a fairly eloquent picture of the state of affairs in this country at present and not just this particular week. You can sign up to the mailing list by going to the bottom of any page n the OVD Info website and entering your email address where you see the phrase ПОДПИСАТЬСЯ НА РАССЫЛКУ.

Gabriel Levy: What’s Really Going on in Ukraine?

Not all western leftists are mindless Putinist running dogs, reflexively yapping “Fascist! Fascist!” at every Ukrainian they see dashing across their computer screens or imagining that the frenzied dashing is caused by wads of CIA-donated dollars stuffed in neo-Nazi pockets.

Here is Gabriel Levy’s absolutely essential two-part analysis of recent events in Ukraine. It is based on actual thinking, real facts, on-the-ground observation, and a solid, thorough knowledge of the country and its history.

Part One: “Ukraine 1. Yanukovich’s end is a beginning”

Part Two: “Ukraine 2. A political earthquake for Europe and Russia”

 

Ilya Matveev: A Word to the Wise (On Putin’s “Leftism” and Solidarity with Russians)

I have been banned on Facebook by Mark Sleboda, and for the most innocuous of comments. For those of you who don’t know this guy, he is an American who voluntarily came to Russia to work with Alexander Dugin, the conservative “Eurasianist” imperialist/traditionalist circus clown who went from hanging out, in the nineties, with the likes of politically dicey counter-culturalists like musician Sergei Kuryokhin and writer Eduard Limonov (with whom he co-founded the National Bolshevik party) to being a “respected” media commentator, “academic,” and Putin loyalist, in the noughties.

I’m writing in English in order to warn my Anglophone friends. There is a whole network of expats in Russia working on the “ideological front” defending Putin, frequently portraying him as an anti-Atlanticist battling NATO and EU hegemony. Many of these people pose as “leftists.” Basically, they are bought-and-paid petty ideologists, no better than our own homegrown Russian journalists and Kremlin think tankers. However, many of them, like Sleboda, sincerely believe Dugin’s “theories” and willingly support the Kremlin propaganda machine. What they offer is propaganda pure and simple: that is why I was banned for modestly questioning Sleboda’s position on Euromaidan. Different views are not tolerated, because the purpose of propaganda is to overwhelm a person with a stream of repeated buzzwords, not to discover the truth.

However, I am writing not just to warn you about the work of guys like Sleboda. Some political considerations are in order.

Apparently, the Putin regime’s “external” propaganda makes Putin out to be a “leftist” somehow. There are three key points in this portrayal. First, geopolitically, Russia is presented as an alternative to NATO and the EU. Second, politically, Russia is said to be against the neoliberalism imposed by the Atlanticist bloc. Third, culturally, Russia is combating “decadent perversions” such as the LGBT movement (which, again, has been imposed by the west).

In some respects, this is different from what we get here in Russia. Our “internal” propaganda does not focus on Putin’s alleged anti-neoliberalism, since very few people here are receptive to such “leftist” claims. Not so in the west: many people there sincerely believe that Putin is an anti-neoliberal.

What I want to do here is to refute all three points of the Kremlin’s “external” propaganda.

First, geopolitically, Russia is weak and only masquerades as an enemy of the west. It constitutes no regional bloc against western imperialism, as Latin America does. To be a genuine counter-power, you need to have an alternative set of values and an alternative model of the future. Putin’s Russia is far from possessing any real ideological commitments. It engages only in pure opportunism.

Second, politically, Russia is neoliberal through and through. There are neoliberal reforms in the public sector underway, Prime Minister Medvedev’s “technocratic” government is planning more privatizations (!), and not a single person within the government’s financial/economic bloc is an anti-neoliberal, even a moderate one. They are all neoliberal experts trained in the Chicago school of economics.

Third, culturally, Russia might be against “decadent perversions,” but such “perversions” are not what defines the west culturally. LGBT rights are the result of a brave struggle over many generations, not an organic part of western culture. However, if we can speak of “western culture” at all (which is very doubtful), we might very cautiously say that consumerism, a private sphere inhabited by atomized individuals, and the degradation of public virtues (in short, Guy Debord’s “spectacle”) are what define western capitalism. All these things are prevalent here in Russia, even more than in the west itself. Russia is more immersed in private life, and more consumerist than many western countries, and Putin fully supports that. So culturally speaking, he offers no opposition to capital’s creeping influence, and that is the most important thing.

Don't get into bed with Putin, comrades!
Don’t get into bed with Putin, comrades!

Okay, now that this has been said, should a western observer be a Russophobe, like the notorious blogger La Russophobe, who frequently writes for conservative US media outlets? No. The point is not to attack Russia as such, not to express solidarity with the Russian “people” against the Russia “government.” That is an empty formula used by the likes of John McCain. The point is to educate yourself about alternative political and social forces here in Russia—social movements, independent unions, leftist groups, and the opposition movement as a whole (in all its complexity, with its neoliberal and anti-neoliberal currents). As a leftist, I feel responsible for refuting the crazy idea that Putin is somehow a leftist. However, I also feel responsible for fighting against one-sided Russophobia, which essentially supports the US and EU agendas. Solidarity is very much needed here in Russia, but it should be solidarity coupled with political awareness. It should be against Putin, against neoliberalism and imperialism, but for genuine solidarity with the international left and with social movements across the globe. That is what I was wanted to explain here.

Ilya Matveev is an editor of OpenLeft.Ru, a member of the PS Lab research group, a lecturer in political theory at the North-West Institute of Management (Petersburg), a PhD student at the European University (Petersburg), and a member of the central council of the University Solidarity trade union.

Editor’s Note. Readers who enjoyed Ilya’s comments might be also interested in this recent blog post by Anton Shekhovtsov, “The pro-Russian network behind the anti-Ukrainian defamation campaign.”