Ilya Yashin: Life in a Russian Jail

yashinIlya Yashin. Photo courtesy of his Facebook page

Ilya Yashin Rearrested After Three Stints in Jail
Radio Svoboda
August 18, 2019

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin was rearrested on Sunday after he left the special detention center in Moscow where he had been jailed for an administrative offense. He posted a video of his arrest on his Twitter account.

In the video, a police officer tells Yashin he has been detained “for encouraging [people to attend] ‘unauthorized’ protest rallies on July 18 and 19.” Apparently, he meant the gatherings on Trubnaya Square in support of the independent candidates attempting to stand in the September 8 elections to the Moscow City Duma. Unlike the protest rallies on July 27 and August 3, the July 18 and 19 rallies were not dispersed by police.

Over the last month, Yashin has been jailed three times after being charged and convicted of various administrative offenses having to do with “unauthorized” grassroots rallies. He had been in jail since July 29.

One of the unregistered candidates in the Moscow City Duma elections, Yashin took part in a series of protest rallies against the Moscow City Elections Commission’s refusal to put independent candidates on the ballot and encouraged people to attend the protests.

Earlier, Konstantin Yankauskas and Yulia Galyamina, also unregistered independent candidates for the Moscow City Duma, were similarly detained immediately after leaving jail and sentenced to new terms in police custody. A court had also ordered Ivan Zhdanov’s rearrest, but when he left the special detention center, no police escort was waiting for him. Consequently, he went home.

Ilya Yashin
Facebook

August 17, 2019

The police brass is quite unhappy. How did it happen I was jailed and locked in a cell but things I wrote were posted on social media and I was quoted in the media? The brass does not get that you can send a text to the outside world with a lawyer. The brass imagines it is surrounded by treachery and betrayal.

What if there were supporters of the opposition in the police? Maybe they were providing me with access to the internet? After my letter to [Russian Central Elections Commission Chair] Ella Pamfilova was published, clearly paranoid new rules were issued at the special detention center.

The fact is that prisoners have the right to use their own telephones fifteen minutes a day. They cannot be used to access the internet or send texts, only to make calls. Until recently, the wardens were not very strict about enforcing this rule. But now there were new orders.

In order for me to make a call, the special detention center’s warden personally escorts me every day from my cell to his office, where he keeps my telephone locked in a safe, separate from all the other phones. He sits down at his desk, hands me the phone, and sets his stopwatch to fifteen minutes: the rules are strictly followed. Simultaneously, the duty officer stands opposite me brandishing a video recorder on his chest. I am thus able to convey my greetings to the Interior Ministry’s head office in Moscow.

I wave to the camera and say, “Hey, boss!” like [Yuri] Shevchuk [in the 1992 DDT song “Motherland”].

The boss smiles.

The Detention Center
They say you are curious about how things are organized here in jail. It’s really interesting, huh? Let me tell you about it.

The cell where I have lived for the past three weeks is seven meters by four meters large. There are three cots lined up in a row, a small wooden table, and a bench. There are double bars on the window.

The bathroom—a washbasin and a hole in the floor used as a toilet—is in the corner. When Nemtsov was jailed for the first time, he offered the warden to pay for making conditions in the jail more humane and, at least, install toilets.

“It won’t work, Boris Yefimovich,” the warden replied. “The leadership values things like corruption.”

The most disgusting thing is that the bathroom is not at all shielded from the living space. Prisoners usually hang a sheet around it to fence off the space.

Meals are served in the cafeteria, where prisoners who have agreed to work in the kitchen hand out food in plastic containers. In return, they get informal perks such as more telephone time and more frequent showers.

There is an exercise yard in the special detention center, a small space fenced off with concrete slabs and decorated with barbed wire. It is covered from above by bars.

And, of course, all the rooms are equipped with video cameras. Your every move is broadcast to monitors in the duty room. A prisoner’s entire everyday life is a reality show.

Conditions
Between seven and eight in the morning, the metal door wakes you up with an unpleasant creak. The duty officer comes into the cell and orders you to get up. The inmates trudge to the cafeteria, where they get their rations of porridge.

Accompanied by his entourage, the warden inspects ten cells or so. This is the morning inspection, during which personal belongings are searched. Then groups of prisoners are taken to make phone calls and exercise in the yard, which lasts for no more than an hour a day.

Lunch is followed by free time, dinner, and lights out. During the day, you are allowed to read, write, and listen to the radio. TV sets are not allowed in the cells, unlike remand prisons for people charged with criminal offenses. Backgammon and checkers are available to the inmates, however.

You also have the right to see your loved ones. It does not matter, though, how many days you have been sentenced to jail. Whether you are in for five days or thirty days, you get only one visit and it lasts no more than an hour. So, I have been luckier than Navalny and [VladimirMilov, whom the court immediately sentenced to thirty days in jail. I have been sentenced to ten days at a time, and each new sentence comes with another family visit. Not bad, right?

On Sundays, the prisoners take showers. You wonder why this happens so infrequently? No one will tell you why. It is the way things are. One of the guys asked a police officer whether the special detention center had a separate shower for staff.

“Of course,” the sergeant said, surprised. “We are on duty for three days straight. You think we are going to go home dirty after our shifts? Are we not human beings or what?”

What about us? Are we not human beings?

Daily Life
When you are admitted to the special detention center, they confiscate all the “extras,” including your shoelaces, belt, and chains. The idea is that these items could be dangerous to you and your cellmates.

Care packages containing food, cigarettes, books, and newspapers are allowed. But the guards give food items a good shakedown. Candy must be removed from wrappers, while fruit and bread are poked with a knife. What are they looking for? A nail file that you will use to make your escape? It’s a mystery. Packages of sliced meat and cheese are opened.

The way they inspect newspapers and magazines is the funniest thing. If the duty officer notices any marks and underlining, he refuses to let the periodical through.

“The brass thinks encrypted messages can be sent this way,” said an officer, shrugging.

I thought was he was joking, but I was wrong.

Experienced inmates know how to make tea in the cells and share their skills with the newbies. They use big five-liter mineral water bottles. During trips to the cafeteria, they hand them over to the chow servers, who fill them with boiling water. The bottles shrink but they generally retain their shape. Back in the cells, the bottles are wrapped in blankets and stuffed in plastic bags. You end up with a homemade thermos that keeps the water piping hot for a fairly long time.

***

Oleg Stepanov, the coordinator of Navalny’s Moscow campaign headquarters, lies in the cot next to mine reading the autobiographies of early twentieth-century Russian revolutionaries.

He laughs.

“Listen to this,” he says, reading an excerpt aloud.

“I immediately liked the prison. Everything there was businesslike, as befitted the capital. We were led to our cell. The comrade marching next to me was merry as if he were going to a welcome occasion. He elbowed me and wondered whether we would be put in the same cell.  We were put in a common cell with two fellow Socialist Revolutionaries we knew. It resembled a student party more than a prison. There were books, notebooks in which we recorded our thoughts, slices of sausage laid out on a wooden table, mugs of tea, laughter, jokes, discussions, and games of chess.”

Nemtsov was right. In Russia, you have to live a long time for something to happen.

Thanks to Yevgenia Litvinova for posting the second text. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Stanislava Novgorodtseva: Portraits of Angry Muscovites

“The Regime Has No Feedback from the Populace”: What Are People Saying Who Support the Candidates Barred from the Moscow City Duma Elections?
Photographer Stanislava Novgorodtseva took photos of angry Muscovites, trying to find out what it was they wanted
July 27, 2019

3a28b76117eb6539c85008b98b8c8159Viktor, 21, student and programmer. “Ideally, I would like to see all the candidates who were illegally barred put on the ballot and the Moscow City Duma dissolved, respectively. That would make sense to all of us.”

mikhailMikhail, 23, web developer. “I came here to support Ilya Yashin, a candidate in Borough No. 45, which includes the Krasnoselsky and Meshchansky Districts. He is currently detained by the police. My big hope is that at least one election in this country is legitimate.”

vadimVadim, 61, retired doctor. “I wanted to hear the barred candidates speak and support them, and defend our rights, which have been violated. A criminal offense has been committed and we must get to the bottom of it.”

ilyaIlya, 21, artist. “First of all, I would like to stop the lawlessness directed at the populace, the continuing poverty, arrests, and prison sentences. We need to see justice done and hold fair elections so the so-called government stops pushing us around. Because a country is not a bunch of people but a nation.”

klaraKlara, 75, retired engineer and metallurgist. “We came specially to defend our candidate, Yulia Galyamina. She is a decent person, she lectures at two universities. What were the police’s grounds for searching her home? A huge number of people have supported her, but she has been barred from running.”

marinaMarina, 56, psychology lecturer. “We basically cannot change anything at the moment. We are merely showing them we exist because it is impossible to change anything now. But everything will change after a while. When they see we are here, they take us into account.”

Yulia, 42, chief accountant. “I am here to get the candidates who met the legal requirements onto the ballot. We want to see an end to the manipulations, violations, and planting of drugs on people. We just want the laws to be obeyed. I want to be able to go to court and defend my rights.”

Andrei, 43, technical consultant. “It is the only thing left to us: we cannot do anything else. If we stay at home and ‘strike,’ we could die and no one would care. People have to take to the streets around the world. Otherwise, if you are not seen you are not heard. The prosecutor’s offices, courts, and police do not do their jobs. All the state agencies send formal replies or do not respond at all when you complain to them.”

Vera, 56, oil geologist. “We have a problem with infill construction, but our candidate, Elena Rusakova, has been barred from running. We are absolutely certain the signatures [on the petitions supporting Rusakov’s candidacy], are genuine: we signed them ourselves and helped her collect them. We have come to voice our protest.”

Natalya, 62, manager. “We lived in a nice green neighborhood. I was apolitical, but suddenly we were surrounded by construction sites, fences, sidewalks, and paving stones. They have been expropriating green spaces and cutting down trees. Candidates willing to fight against this are barred from holding political office. My mom is 94 years old. She survived the Siege of Leningrad. She does not leave the house anymore, but she told me I definitely had to come to this rally. Otherwise, she said, my children would live in a police state.”

Alexander, 44, activist: “I filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights because my building has slated for [Moscow Mayor Sobyanin’s massive residential building] renovation. That is one of the reasons I came. But Sobyanin and his stooges in the Moscow City Duma are bad guys not only because of the renovation program. They have been robbing and disfiguring the city. We came out to show the authorities what we think, although we have been accused of wanting violent regime change. This is not true.”

Anatoly, 48, programmer: “I came to the rally as part of a social experiment. I am not much interested in showdowns over who gets on the city council. I have more grudges against the current regime than everyone else here combined, but people are fighting for cosmetic changes. Even if [independent] candidates get on the ballot, I don’t believe improvements will follow. The regime has no feedback from the populace, but I don’t think protest rallies can solve the problem.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

Russian Opposition Hit with New Wave of Searches and Arrests

Russian Opposition Hit with New Wave of Searches and Arrests
Yelena Mukhametshina
Vedomosti
July 25, 2019

On Wednesday evening, Moscow’s Simonovsky District Court jailed politician Alexei Navalny for thirty days for calling on Muscovites to go to the mayor’s office this weekend to protest irregularities in the upcoming elections to the Moscow City Duma. Law enforcement agencies simultaneously launched a dragnet against the Russian opposition. Investigators searched the homes of ex-MP Dmitry Gudkov, his colleague Alexander Solovyov, Ivan Zhdanov, director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), and municipal council member Nikolai Balandin.

The search in Gudkov’s home lasted around two hours. Investigators confiscated the politician’s computers, smartphone, and all portable electronic storage devices. Gudkov’s press secretary Alexei Obukhov said the search warrant mentioned the confiscation of all computer discs [sic] in connection with the protest rallies and pickets outside the Moscow City Elections Commission on July 14, 15, and 18. Identified as a witness in a criminal investigation, Gudkov was given a summons to an interrogation at the Main Investigative Department of the Investigative Committee’s Moscow office on Thursday morning. Navalny’s colleague Leonid Volkov reported that, after his home was searched, Zhdanov was taken immediately to the Main Investigative Department.

gudkovPolice searching Dmitry Gudkov’s apartment. Courtesy of Dmitry Gudkov’s Telegram channel and Vedomosti

FBK lawyer Lyubov Sobol, municipal district council member Yulia Galyamina, and ex-MP Gennady Gudkov have also been summoned to interrogations on Thursday morning.

“Would that they went after criminals this way. They are just scumbags!” Gudkov, Sr., wrote in an emotional post on his Twitter page after receiving a phone call from an Investigative Committee investigator.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Main Investigative Committee reported it had launched a criminal investigation into the protest rally that was held outside the Moscow City Elections Commission on July 14 by opposition candidates to the Moscow City Duma under Article 141 of the Russian Criminal Code, which criminalizes the “obstruction of voting rights or the work of electoral commissions.” In July 2019,  the Main Investigative Office writes, members of a particular movement organized illegal and unauthorized rallies and pickets outside the Moscow City Elections Commission in order to exert pressure on members of the election commissions and obstruct their work. People who attended the rallies threatened election commissions members with violence, the Main Investigative Offices reports. It did not specify which part of Article 141, in its view, had been violated. It could choose to indict people under Article 141.2, which carries a maximum punishment of five years in prison.

The protests out the Moscow City Elections Commission were sparked when district election commissions found flaws, allegedly, in the signature sheets of people intending to run as independent candidates in the September 8 elections to the Moscow City Duma. The flawed signature sheets, allegedly, disqualified them as candidates, and the local election commissions refused to register them. Among the disqualified candidates were municipal district council members Ilya Yashin, Konstantin Yankauksas, Anastasia Bryukhanova, Galyamina, and Dmitry Gudkov; Navalny’s colleagues Sobol and Zhdanov; and Yabloko Party members Elena Rusakova, Kirill Goncharov, and Sergei Mitrokhin.

All last week, the opposition kept up its protests, which had not been vetted by the mayor’s office, on Trubnaya Square. On Saturday, an estimated 22,500 people attended an authorized protest rally on Sakharov Avenue. During the rally, Navalny told the crowd that if all the independent candidates were not registered in the coming week, people should go to the mayor’s office on July 27.

On Wednesday afternoon, opposition politicians told Vedomosti they were prepared to rally outside the mayor’s office on Saturday.

“The criminal investigation is obviously an attempt to intimidate us. We want to run in the elections, but they refuse to put us on the ballot. Now they say they have launched a criminal investigation. We will keep defending our rights,” said Yashin.

Galyamina also believes the authorities are trying to intimidate the opposition.

“On July 14, [Moscow City Elections Commission chair Valentin] Gorbunov was at his dacha, and the commission was closed for business. It is unclear whose work we could have obstructed,” she said.

Gorbunov told Vedomosti that he was not at the commission’s offices on July 14, but that during election campaigns the commission’s working groups and members work weekends as well.

“Time is short and we have to wind things up,” he said.

Gorbunov learned about the criminal investigation from the press. He had no idea who had filed the complaint.

“I believe people need to act within the law. [Central Elections Commission chair Ella] Pamfilova said that rallies were not a form of political campaigning, that people had to work within the bounds of the law. I can only say that the rally outside the Moscow City Elections Commission was not authorized, but it is up to law enforcement agencies to comment on criminal liability for what happened,” he said.

However, on July 14, Gorbunov had told Vedomosti the commission was closed on Sundays.

“They [the opposition] might as well have gone to some factory that was closed on Sunday,” he said then.

The criminal investigation is probably meant by the security forces as a way to intimidate protesters, argues a person close to the mayor’s office. This source said it was clear police would detain people who attempted to attend an unauthorized rally on July 27.

According to court statistics, people have been charged and convicted of violating Article 141 extremely rarely. In the last ten years, the most “fruitful” years were 2009 and 2011, when fifteen and eleven people, respectively, were charged and convicted of violating the article.

In 2009, six people were indicted under Article 141 due to numerous abuses in the mayoral election in Derbent. In 2011, Andrei Ruchkin, head of the Engels District in Saratov Region, was charged under Article 141.3 for meddling with the work of the local election commission. In 2018, members of the Yabloko Party in Pskov were charged under Article 141 for encouraging voters to spoil their ballots in the gubernatorial election, but the charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

Criminal Code Article 141 is peculiar it is mainly employees of the executive branch who obstruct the exercise of voting rights and the work of election commissions, but they are almost never charged with violating the law, explains Andrei Buzin, co-chair of Golos, a Russian NGO that defends voting rights and monitors elections.

“It was not considered kosher to file criminal charges, and so several years ago a similar article was inserted into the Administrative Violations Code. Several election observers were charged under this law,” he said.

Buzin argues that the situation has been turned upside down.

“The protesters were defending voting rights, so it would truer to say that it has been the election commissions that have been obstructing citizens,” he said.

“There is almost no case law for Article 141. It is hard to say who could be charged with violating the law. We have had no experience with it,” said Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group. “There was an incident in the Moscow Region. Candidates were assaulted, but we were not able to get criminal charges filed.”

Now the article was being used to punish political “crimes,” he argued.

“It is a variation of the Bolotnaya Square case of 2012, only somewhat lighter. The defendants in that case were charged with rioting,” he said.

Chikov added that we should probably expect more arrests in the wake of the searches.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“Anti-Americanism”

There are eleven Russian words in this poster for the April 29 St. Petersburg Craft Event at Art Play SPb, and twenty-one English words. Photo by the Russian Reader

Oh, how they hate the United States!

My boon companion was just chatting with a neighbor lady, a woman who has lived in our building her whole life and makes the best salt pickles I have ever tasted.

As it happens, our neighbor is friendly with a member of our municipal district council.

If you follow the news from Russia closely, you would know that the beleaguered united opposition, led by Dmitry Gudkov, made significant inroads in Moscow’s municipal district councils during the last elections to these entities. One of the people thus elected, the young, well-known liberal politician Ilya Yashin, has now announced plans to challenge the incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin, during the next Moscow mayoral election.

In reality, municipal district councils are the lowest rung on the political totem poll in Russia. They have very little power and are perpetually too underfunded to do the work they are supposed to do.

However, since Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, is power hungry and paranoid, they try and stack the lowly municipal district councils with their own members.

God knows what could happen otherwise.

The municipal district council member with whom our neighbor is friendly is one such United Russia Party placeholder.

“And she’s a real louse,” my boon companion would add.

The councilwoman recently got back from a trip to the United States. It turns out her daughter and son-in-law have lived there for a long time. They have a big, beautiful house in Silicon Valley.

The councilwoman told all this to our neighbor lady, explaining how much she had enjoyed the trip and how much she liked the United States.

“Why did she have to tell ME this?” the neighbor lady asked my boon companion, “Why couldn’t she have told someone else?”

Remember this little story the next time you see Foreign Minister Lavrov or President Putin or the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations or Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova huffing and puffing and blowing America’s house down.

Everything they say is meant for domestic consumption only. They don’t really hate the United States. They just need a Big Enemy to occupy the minds of the Russian people, to distract them from their own more serious crimes and misdemeanors.

The con seems to be working so far. // TRR

msmomovladimirskyokrug.jpgOur humble municipal district newspaper, as published by our municipal district council. This is the one of two spots in our municipal where I know one can read it. Maybe there are more, but otherwise the newspaper is not distributed to the municipal districts’s residents, because the less they know about our municipal district’s business, the better, I guess. Photo by the Russian Reader

Maria Eismont: Moscow’s Municipal District Opposition

DSCN0811
Like other municipal district councils in Russia’s major cities, Petersburg’s Vladimirsky Municipal District Council has a meeting space and offices, and enough money to publish a newspaper and fund very minor improvements in the neighborhood, but it has virtually no political power and survives only at the mercy of city hall and the city’s legislative assembly. Photo by the Russian Reader

How Things Are Going for the Municipal District Opposition
New politicians searching for a new agenda
Maria Eismont
Vedomosti
November 23, 2017

Sergei Sokolov was the only opposition member in the previous sitting of Moscow’s Konkovo Municipal District Council.

“I could not beat pro-regime council members when things were put to a vote, but I still managed to discourage them from doing things the neighborhood did not need,” says Sokolov, recalling his preceding five-year term on the municipal district council.

In September 2017, a team of Konkovo activists, led by Sokolov, won neighborhood elections, taking eight of the fifteen seats on the municipal district council. Sokolov was named head of the district, since Konkovo’s charter stipulates a simple majority of votes by council members to elect a district head, unlike other municipal districts. In other neighborhoods where the opposition won majorities on councils, their candidates for district heads ran into problems, since they needed the backing of two thirds of council members to win the posts, but they came up short on votes.

For the first time in many years, independent candidates won majorities in several Moscow municipal districts. In several instances, they won overwhelming majorities, but the question of whether grassroots self-government is possible in Moscow remains open.

The fact that Moscow’s municipal council members have scanty means at their disposal and insufficient powers was well known before and during the campaign. Yet now the new democratic politicians, who have taken power at the lowest level of Russia’s political totem pole, must show themselves and their voters that this is, in fact, the beginning of big and important changes in Russia.

Opposition politician Ilya Yashin, now head of the Krasnoselsky Municipal District, has already gone public with the new council’s first legislative undertaking. They have suggested eliminating the current system of so-called golden parachutes for outgoing municipal district council members and municipal district heads.

Konkovo’s independent council members have gone further. Within ten days of taking office, Sokolov sent the Moscow City Duma a request for 19 million rubles [approx. 275,000 euros] in additional funds for Konkovo’s budget, paid for with an increase in the allocation of personal income tax revenues.

“There are no rational explanations for the inexplicably low, discriminatory amount of personal income tax revenues allocated to the Konkovo Municipal District’s budget,” Sokolov wrote.

Council members have proposed spending the money on neighborhood improvements, accessible legal aid for low-income people, and a Southwest Moscow History Museum.

Last week, Konkovo council members came out with a legislative initiative to amend the Moscow City Law “On the Budget’s Structure and the Budgetary Process in the City of Moscow,” proposing to set the amount of allocations to municipal district budgets from personal income tax revenues at five percent. (It is currently set at 0.96%.) Economist Vladimir Milov helped draft the bill.

“I had been thinking about this initiative for a long time, and our team was organized for this purpose,” says Sokolov.

There are traces of picture frames that once held photographs of the president and prime minister on the wall in Sokolov’s office. They have been replaced by a hand-drawn portrait of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

“I have no illusions about the bill. United Russia still has a majority in the Moscow City Duma,” says Sokolov. “I don’t yet know how we are going to lobby the bill, but we will  be employing our usual methods: media outreach, rallies, and similar public things.”

It is difficult to imagine the circumstances in which Moscow city officials would meet the opposition municipal districts halfway, voluntarily giving up some of their money and authority. But it seems extremely important the reform of local self-government continues to be discussed and elaborated.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Kadyrov Is Not Chechnya

Kadyrov Is Not Chechnya
Grigory Tumanov
Snob
January 26, 2015

Kommersant newspaper correspondent Grigory Tumanov has returned from a trip to Grozny and reports everything you hear about modern Chechnya and its bloodlust is a myth invented by Ramzan Kadyrov

Фото: Дмитрий Коротаев/Коммерсантъ
Photo: Dmitry Korotayev/Kommersant

If you said the pro-Ramzan Kadyrov rally, held last Friday in Grozny, was a kind of vote for Kadyrov, you would have to admit it was a failure. It has long been argued the event was meant to hide some of the Chechen leader’s deeper problems, and he had begun to haggle with Moscow not by offering stability in exchange for a free hand, but by offering the explosive situation in the region. But on the ground it turned out all the stories about how, as soon as Kadyrov resigns and loosens his grip, the entire republic would secede from Russia, immediately impose sharia law, and establish a free Ichkeria are a myth.

I remember January 19, 2015, in Grozny: the rally for the Prophet, which had also been organized not without the involvement of the local authorities, to put it mildly. The vast majority of the people at the rally had, of course, never seen any Charlie Hebdo cartoons on the web, the cartoons that sparked the brutal murders of the magazine’s journalists. Despite this, however, from early morning there was a huge traffic jam even on Chechnya’s border with the neighboring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan. Yes, there were state employees. Yes, ralliers were bussed into Grozny. Yes, there were quotas and roll calls, and prototype placards imposed by the higher-ups, and campaigning in dean’s offices. It is odd, of course, to try and assess the degree to which those people went involuntarily to the Heart of Chechnya Mosque that day, but it should be said they stayed on the square both at twelve o’clock to perform the midday prayer and afterwards.

Several days later, every other car was still sporting a “We Support the Prophet!” placard. It made sense. How, in a Muslim region, would you say no to the question, “Are you going to the rally for the Prophet?” You wouldn’t say it, of course.

“I have not seen the cartoons, but I am a Muslim, so I have no choice but to come out. Rally or no rally, how could I not come out? For some reason you all say we should not be offended by cartoons about something that matters to us. But why should you decide for us? You don’t believe in it!” one rally attendee told me.

It was a conclusive victory for Kadyrov. People really did come out for the rally, driven not only by official lobbying but also by their own indignation. So it was a great way for Kadyrov to announce his candidacy for the post of chief defender of Muslims in Russia.

Фото: Саид Царнаев/РИА Новости
Photo: Said Tsarnayev/RIA Novosti

Contrary to the official Instagrams posted by Chechen officials and Kadyrov himself, it turned out that the personal pull exerted by the head of the republic was still not comparable to that of Muhammad. The Chechen Interior Ministry reported that over a million people gathered on the squares of Grozny last Friday. This is not true. I stood on the roof of the judicial department of the republic’s Supreme Court and saw with my own eyes that there were hardly 100,000 people in attendance. And as soon as the officials moderating the rally announced it was over, all those one hundred thousand people literally evaporated from the square. It was impressive. I was especially touched by the way that people who were not employed in the state sector proudly said they would not be going to the rally.

“Oh no, I am going to stock up on potato chips and sunflower seeds and plop down on the sofa. If it is a day off, then let it be a day off. No one is going to force me to come out for the tsar,” a private entrepreneur in Grozny told me.

“Maybe we will not be allowed to work on this day, but we are not going anywhere, so if you suddenly feel like some tea, stop by,” the proprietors of a kebab place near the hotel where I stayed told me on the eve of the rally.

While it was true there was no smoke coming from their grills the next morning, all the place’s employees were in fact at work, watching with curiosity as state-sector workers carrying placards shuffled by them on their way to the Heart of Chechnya Mosque.

Yes, everyone with whom I spoke in the crowd on the square spouted off rote phrases about how Kadyrov had raised the republic from ruins, and that he needed support, since Ilya Yashin had launched a real vilification campaign against him.  But it was no less impressive to see how people squinted and smiled ironically as they said this, to see placards embossed with slogans about Kadyrov and against Navalny just lying in the flowerbeds after the rally, and how policemen quickly tried to clean them up when they noticed the interest they aroused among photojournalists.

All of today’s Chechnya is a myth invented by Kadyrov. The bloody seriousness and the obsession with sports and Islam are a myth. Another such myth is the stability Kadyrov provides, thus reining in the unbearable craving of Chechens for secession from Russia and terrorism. Talking about politics in the republic frightens everyone, especially talking about politics with reporters. There is the risk you will find yourself on a treadmill with your pants pulled down. Both critics and supporters of the regime agree on the main point, however: the wars are over, the bombing has stopped. However, if you get both critics and supporters to talk, all of them will admit that the choice between nocturnal visits by men in cars with KRA license plates [i.e., marked with Kadyrov’s initials] and Russian bombing raids is not great.

Фото: Дмитрий Коротаев/Коммерсантъ
Photo: Dmitry Korotayev/Kommersant

Ruslan has a cafe. If you walk down Putin Avenue and then turn into the courtyards, walk past the houses, go down into a basement, and push the door with a yellow sign featuring a guitar, inside you will find something resembling the Mos Eisley Cantina in the first Star Wars movie. The place is terribly smoky, and there are strange groups of people sitting all round it. Only the drum kit is empty. The alien band that produced the whimsical sounds in the movie has been replaced by a young boy now quite long-windedly showing his support for FC Bayern Munich, whose match is on the telly.

Ruslan was a physical education teacher and was about to get housing in a dormitory when the first Chechen campaign started. On the day Russian forces stormed Minutka Square, he was trying to find bread. Ruslan says he cannot eat supper without bread.

Ruslan also cannot live without the blues. While he never has learned to play the guitar, he knows so many artists by heart it would blow your mind. The cafe is not even a business to him but the chance to live as he likes. Sometimes, friends come to the bar and perform jam sessions, and a bottle of cognac can always be found for regulars.

“Around the New Year it was totally excellent here. Everyone would dance until dawn to Pink Floyd, and they were barely standing when they would go home early in the morning,” says Ruslan.

He understands that even in Moscow a blues cafe is a very niche establishment, not to mention Grozny, but this is how he wants to live.

“I would have long ago earned money from the cafe by showing football matches and letting customers make bets. It is quite profitable, but in Chechnya you are not allowed to engage in bookmaking. It is permitted all over Russia, but here it is forbidden. It is forbidden, and that is that. Why should I regard this as normal?” he says, incensed.

Here it is not the custom to say out loud that there is anything wrong with Kadyrov, but the cafe owner does not like having to choose between war and autocracy.

“Look, no one here has any illusions. By all means, let it be Ramzan and Ramzan. But could they just leave us in peace? I want to work in peace, not to be hassled by anyone. People have nothing to eat, but all day long they show on the telly how Kadyrov went for a sleigh ride, what car he drove and where. It is like a reality show,” says another resident of Chechnya, who has a small business.

For him, the pro-Kadyrov rally was an additional irritant. I do not know whether some good people in Moscow actually explained to the Chechen leader he should not appear before his happy people on Friday or maybe he figured it out himself, but I heard a fair number of jokes about the big theatrical production without the main character on stage.

On the eve of the rally, there were rumors in Grozny that now as never before Kadyrov had to demonstrate people’s gratitude to him, and so the presence of media at the rally that were not subordinate to local authorities was undesirable. Allegedly, the nervousness of the local government had reached such levels that members of patriotic youth clubs had been instructed to seek out federal and foreign journalists in the crowd and prevent them from doing their jobs any way they could.

Ultimately, this did not happen, but such a nervous atmosphere could hardly have arisen if the leader were confident if not in the people’s absolute loyalty then at least in its absolute fear.

Some wonder what to do with the republic’s zombified population when Kadyrov goes. But it turns out that nothing in particular has to be done at all. Kadyrov is not Chechnya, and the Chechens are not the pumped men in camouflage you see in the Instagrams, signed with nicknames ending with the number 95 [i.e., the regional code for Chechnya on Russian license plates].

These are people who are insulted to hear they are wasting Moscow’s money. These are people who are afraid men will come for them in the night. These are people who want to open the kinds of cafes they want to open, and who do not want to stand holding identical placards at eight in the morning instead of going to work, and who do not want war. And what sets them apart from the vast majority of Russian citizens (it has become all the rage lately to oppose the two groups) is that they remember war quite well.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade AK for the heads-up. See Sergey Abashin’s recent comment on the same topic, as posted on this website.

“American Ambassador”

Ilya Yashin
September 10, 2015
Facebook

Today I was having another meeting [with voters] in a residential courtyard in Kostroma. A few old women sat on a bench, while journalists stood on the sidelines.

Suddenly, a car with red diplomatic license plates drove into the yard. A black man in a suit got out of the car and said, in broken Russian, “Hello, I represent the American ambassador.”

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Everyone was struck dumb.

The first to get his bearings was Andrei, who went up to the car and neatly tore  off the “diplomatic license plate.” It was a sticker that had been pasted over the real license plate (which was Russian, of course).

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By the way, driving with fake license plates is a crime.

The fake “diplomat” took cover in the car and drove off.

You can reach your own conclusion about the methods of our opponents from United Russia.

Ilya Yashin is a well-known liberal politician running for the regional parliament in Kostroma on the Democrat Coalition ticket. Thanks to Comrade SC for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader