The Persecution of Konstantin Kotov

Yan Shenkman
Facebook
August 14, 2019

Today, Kostya Kotov was sent down for two months. It was a temporary remand in custody, but there is a chance he could be charged with the same article in the criminal code as Ildar Dadin, meaning he could be sentenced to prison for up to five years for the sum total of administrative offenses on his record.

Kostya was always sticking up for people. He would go to courthouses and stand holding placards in their defense. If that is a crime, I don’t know what to say.

As Yana Teplitskaya wrote correctly today, the difference between Dadin and Kotov is enormous. Dadin attacked the regime, while Kotov stood up for its victims. Meaning he did what you cannot help doing if you have a shred of conscience left in you.

By coincidence, Dadin was detained today, too.

Kostya is a staunch opponent of violence: I have personally spoken with him about this. He is a calm, intelligent chap and works as a programmer. I cannot even remember him raising his voice to anyone.

And so it transpires he is a criminal and a danger to society.

This is awful, but I wanted to write about something else.

I was at Kotov’s court hearing today. The authorities took a long time getting him to the courthouse. The hearing was slated for ten, but it was around two when he was brought to the courthouse.

I went outside to have a smoke. A film crew from Channel One was hanging out there. Right then, a paddy wagon pulled up and guards led Kostya to the courtroom. I waved at him.

“Konstantin, tell us what you were arrested for?” the female reporter from Channel One yelled from right behind me.

I don’t know what answer she wanted to hear and how she imagined she would hear it. The distance between the vehicle and the entrance to the courthouse was ten meters or so. Kostya was handcuffed and under guard. Did she expect him to stop and explain to her why he had been arrested?

Someone next to me turned to her.

“For nothing,” he said.

Kotov had been taken away. I didn’t manage to finish my cigarette.

kotov-1Konstantin Kotov. Photo by Adik Zubcik. Courtesy of Facebook and Mediazona

“Any Injustice Would Upset the Guy”: The Man Charged under the “Dadin” Article
Anna Kozkina, Dima Shvets, and Elizaveta Pestova
Mediazona
August 13, 2019

On Wednesday, the Presna District Court will decide on custody measures for 34-year-old Konstantin Kotov, a programmer who has been charged under the rarely used Article 212.1 of the Russian Criminal Code, which makes repeated administrative violations at protest rallies a criminal offense. Mediazona tells the story of a man who had the bad luck to get involved in political activism in a period when people who attend any unauthorized public events are rampantly persecuted.

Comrades
It is August 13, the middle of the workday. The weather in Moscow is fine. A fifty-something man stands outside a presidential administration building on Staraya Ploshchad, holding a placard that reads, “Konstantin Kotov is being persecuted under the criminal code for defending political prisoners. Free the defender of freedom.”

The man is Nikolai Rekubratsky, a poet and researcher at the Freshwater Fisheries Institute who lives in Dmitrov. In his spare time, he and several allies run the Facebook Group Sentsov. Exchange. Today and Every Day.

Rekubratsky says members of the group have been holding solo pickets here every weekday since September 6, 2018. Usually, the picketers demand a total exchange of Russian and Ukrainian prisoners of war, but last night their comrade the 34-year-old Moscow programmer Konstantin Kotov was detained and charged with a criminal offense. Kotov was one of the people who came up with the idea for the daily pickets and had been actively involved in them.

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caf20691d9cda5e2f430ad4794b128e3Illustration by Mike Ch. Courtesy of Mediazona

Article 212.1. How Many Times Have We Told You?
Article 212.1 (repeated violation of the rules for holding rallies) was added to the Criminal Code in the summer of 2014. In January 2015, for the first time, the Russian Investigative Committee charged three activists with breaking the new law.

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“We met about a year ago at pickets in support of Oleg Sentsov, who was on hunger strike at the time in support of other political prisoners. It had a big impact on many people who were strangers to political activism. But Kostya had earlier attended protest marches of some sort. I don’t know exactly which ones,” says Nikolai. “He said he had no clue who Sentsov was, but when his hunger strike kicked off and Kostya read about it on the internet, it made a very strong impression on him and so he began supporting Sentsov.”

Other activists walked up to the entrance to the presidential administration. One young man hands Rekrubratsky his written surety for Kotov: tomorrow, a court will decide on custody measures for him. The people going into the building pay no mind to the picketers.

“Life was such that ever more events and injustices happened, and Kostya could not help reacting to them. He took part in pickets and was repeatedly detained,” Rekrubratsky continues.

kotov-2Nikolai Rekubratsky. Photo by Dima Shvets. Courtesy of Mediazona

Judging by his Facebook page and the accounts of friends, Kotov supported arrested Open Russia activist Anastasia Shevchenko and Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. He ran the Telegram channel #StopFSB, which is dedicated to the defendants in the Penza-Petersburg “terrorism” case and the New Greatness case. He tried to help Moscow State University graduate student Azat Miftakhov. That is, he empathized with the defendants in nearly all the current criminal cases with political overtones.

Kotov’s allies recall other stories as well, for example, how Kotov bought medicine for New Greatness defendant Anna Pavlikova or assembled care packages for the arrested Ukrainian sailors.

Nevertheless, on Facebook, Kotov listed his place of employment as DSSL, a company that produces video surveillance systems and, in particular, facial recognition software.

“Any injustice would upset the guy. He always reacted, going to rallies and standing in pickets. His stance was always extremely peaceful,” recalls activist Anna Babicheva.

“At the Nemtsov memorial march in February, Kostya for some reason gave me his placard, which is very well designed. There are silhouettes of crosses and bombs drawn on it, and the simple slogan, ‘Say No to War.’ It is a big A1-sized placard, and I really enjoy picketing with it. It’s my favorite placard by Kostya,” says Grigory Simakov, a volunteer at the Nemtsov Bridge memorial, a member of the 14% Movement, and a participant in the total prisoner exchange pickets.

It was Kotov’s protest activism that was the reason for the criminal charges filed against him under Russian Criminal Code Article 212.1 (“repeated violation of the rules for holding rallies, marches, and pickets”).

The Case
According to the written order to institute criminal proceedings, the case is based on three occasions on which Kotov was charged with administrative offenses in the last six months, although the document refers not to three but four violations.

The first administrative case had to with calls to take part in the Moscow City Duma elections protest on July 19 on Trubnaya Square, which Kotov posted on Facebook. The Tverskoi District Court in Moscow found him guilty of organizing a public event without notifying the authorities (Article 20.2.2 of the Administrative Offenses Code) and sentenced him to ten days in jail.

Earlier, on June 12, Kotov took part in a march in defense of journalist Ivan Golunov. The Presna District Court fined him 15,000 rubles after finding Kotov guilty of hindering the movement of vehicles and pedestrians (Article 20.2.6.1 of Administrative Offenses Code).

Kotov was detained during a gathering, outside an FSB building on May 13, in support of defendants in the Network and New Greatness cases. In this instance, the Meshchansky District Court found him guilty of repeated violations of the law on rallies (Article 20.2.8 of the Administrative Offenses Code) and jailed him for five days.

On August 10, Kotov again took part in an “unauthorized” protest near Staraya Ploshchad. According to investigators, he chanted the slogans “Let them run,” “Putin is a thief,” “We are the power here,” “Down with Putin,” “All for one, and one for all,” and “Russia will be free.”

After police dispersed the protest, Kotov spent two days at the Sokolinaya Gora police precinct. On August 12, he was released under an obligation to return to the precinct for a meeting with an Investigative Committee investigator. Several hours later, he was detained again and taken to the Investigative Committee for questioning.

kotov-3

A screenshot from Maria Eismont’s Facebook page showing her and Konstantin Kotov after his release from a Moscow police precinct on August 12 and explaining that Kotov was “grabbed” and delivered to the Investigative Committee two hours after the photo was taken. Courtesy of Mediazona

OVD Info lawyer Maria Eismont described Kotov’s arrest as follows.

“They attacked him from behind. They threw him on the ground and twisted his arms behind his back. Yet, at the same time, they asked, ‘Konstantin, what are your political views?’ When his personal effects were searched at the Investigative Committee, they found a copy of the Criminal Procedures Code, a copy of the Administrative Offenses Code, a booklet entitled Crimea Is Ours, a bag emblazoned with poems by a poet from Lviv, and a placard that read, ‘Let them run.'”

“Then they found his mathematical engineering honors diploma.”

“‘Attaboy!’ said the investigator,” Eismont recounted.

In the late evening, it transpired that charges had been filed against Kotov under the relatively rarely used Article 212.1 of the Russian Criminal Code. After the release of Ildar Dadin, the first person to be charged, convicted, and imprisoned under the new law, it has been used only twice: against Vyacheslav Egorov, leader of the anti-landfill protests in Kolomna, and against Andrei Borovikov, who was involved in the anti-landfill protests in Shies.

Then came a nighttime search of Kotov’s home.

“Morning is arriving, dawn is breaking outside. Investigators put the placard they have found—’Free Ponomaryova,’ ‘Free Nastya Shevchenko,’ ‘Free political prisoners!’—on the living room floor. ‘Kostya, do you have bags to put all of this in?’ ‘I have garbage bags.’ ‘Those will do.’ There is a sewing machine. ‘Is it a Singer?’ ‘No.’ There are more placards. ‘You have a lot of this stuff,’ a field officer notes,” Eismont wrote in her description of the search.

kotov-5

During the search of Konstantin Kotov’s apartment. Courtesy of Maria Eismont

Kotov was formally charged on the morning of August 13.

“Unfortunately, Criminal Code Article 212.1, which had been dubbed a ‘sleeper’ article, has woken up and sprung into action. Moreover, as in the Egorov case, the formal approach to the law has been taken in Kotov’s case, despite the Constitutional Court’s well-known ruling on the matter. This means that if a person has been found by the courts to have violated Article 20.2 of the Administrative Offenses Code three times over six months, the fourth violation is treated as a criminal offense,” says Eismont. “The fact that people involved in ‘unauthorized’ protests cross the street at crosswalks doesn’t matter to anyone. The Constitutional Court ruled that only those protesters who did something dangerous were liable to criminal prosecution and punishment. The system has shown that it regards protesting without permission as a danger to itself and, thus, a crime.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

Denis Sokolov: Police Feudalism in Russia

medievalA scene from a protest against the government’s raising the pension age, September 9, 2018, Saint Petersburg. Photo by Anton Vaganov. Courtesy of Reuters and Republic

Police Feudalism
Denis Sokolov
Republic
July 15, 2019

Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, former head of Ingushetia, was “upmoted” to the Defense Ministry, but Russia’s police machine has continued to persecute protesters in Ingushetia. On July 12, Rashid Maysigov, a correspondent with the website Fortanga, was arrested. When police searched his house, they found, allegedly, the now-obligatory “package containing a white substance” and—apparently, to make the image of Maysigov as a troublemaker complete—leaflets calling for Ingushetia’s annexation by Georgia lying on a coffee table. In the wee hours of July 13, Zarifa Sautiyeva, deputy director of the Memorial for the Victims of Repressions in Nazran, was arrested. Sautiyeva has risen to prominence as one of the female leaders at the protest rallies in Magas, the capital of Ingushetia, in 2018–2019. Sautiyeva was charged with complicity in violence against the authorities. This is the first case when a woman has been sent to the remand prison in Nalchik, in neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria, as part of the continuing investigation of the Ingushetian protests. On July 14, Russia’s federal media watchdog Roskomnadzor blocked Fortanga, the main source of news about the protests.

zarifa sautiyevaZarifa Sautiyeva. Courtesy of Caucasian Knot

What’s Good for Jupiter
There is one thing the arrests of Ingush and Circassian activists, the searches in the homes of people who protested construction of a church in a Yekaterinburg park, the fines meted out to people who marched in solidarity with Ivan Golunov on June 12, the New Greatness case, the arrests for “extremist” posts on the VK social network, and the harsh arrests of protesters outside the Moscow City Elections Committee on Sunday have in common.

None of them have anything to do with keeping the peace and administering justice. They are rituals meant to mark the territory of a class. Equipped with firearms and badges, Russia’s new service aristocracy enthusiastically shows unarmed civilians without badges their place.  The statistics for “ritual” criminal charges—drugs charges, “extremism” charges, and weapons possession charges—speak for themselves. The willingness of law enforcement officers to beat up arrestees harks back to hazing in army barracks and the prison practice of “registering” new inmates by ritually humiliating them.

Russia’s political elite—the siloviki, the officials who control financial flows, organized criminals, and insider businessmen—live by other rules. They are governed by other articles in the Russian criminal code and have other means of resolving conflicts. The fight against corruption and economic crimes is the political weapon that has replaced elections up and down Putin’s “power vertical.” The number of criminal cases against high-ranking officials and officers of the Interior Ministry, the FSB, and the GRU has risen exponentially.

Particularly touching are several cases that are interrelated, according to reporters who covered them. The first case involves the arrests of FSB Colonel Kirill Cherkalin and two of his accomplices on April 25, 2019. They were charged with fraud, i.e., they forced a businessman to hand over a share, worth 490 million rubles [approx. $7.8 million], in a company. Cherkalin was also charged with taking an $820,000 bribe for “protection.” The second case is the flight abroad of Valery Miroshnikov, deputy head of the Deposit Insurance Agency (ASV). Allegedly, he and Cherkalin had cooked up a scheme for making money from the restructuring of banks. Finally, there is the arrest of an entire gang of FSB special forces officers and K Directorate officers: they robbed a bank while on duty, so to speak. Several officers from Alpha, the FSB’s special forces unit, decided not to return from an assignment in the North Caucasus, going to ground instead.

Now that is the sporting life, the life of a medieval knight. A jail sentence for posting the “wrong” thing on social media or attending a peaceable protest rally cannot compare. What is good for Jupiter is bad for the bull. The new division of Russia into quasi-medieval estates is borne out by the fact that, unlike their victims, police officers get suspended sentences for cooking up “drugs” cases, not actual prison time.

The number of businessmen who have been “skimmed” by being charged with economic crimes has skyrocketed. In a report entitled “The Fortress Subsides,” Kirill Rogov recently cited data on the sharp increase in the number of economic crimes investigated by the FSB. We do not need statistics, however, to understand the implications of the attack on Sergei Petrov, the arrest of Michael Calvey, and similar cases.

The Siloviki Revolution
What we are talking about is not the ruling regime’s collapse but its logical evolution, the emergence of a new Russian state. The runaway growth of cases in which criminal prosecution has been used to combat competitors and extract feudal rent from various social groups, including grassroots activists, businessmen, and other siloviki and officials, could point to a qualitative transformation of the social order in Russia. Eliminating competitors for fiefs can, however, be regarded as a form of political competition, while squeezing rents from vanquished regions and sectors is something akin to the victor tasting the fruits of victory. This is borne out by Vladimir Vasilyev’s administration of Dagestan, where the new order entailed a complete purge of the regional bureaucracy and an invasion of officials from more advanced Tatarstan. In other regions, on the contrary, the siloviki revolution has come off more quietly.

The actions of the special services in Ingushetia, Dagestan, and other regions of Russia enables us to make certain generalizations about the new political reality.

First, Russian law enforcement’s apparatus of violence has gradually turned into a ritual apparatus of violence. Planting drugs, “extremist” pamphlets, ammunition or (when a system insider has been targeted for arrest) marked bills on victims has nothing to do with real criminal investigations. They are parts of the arrest ritual, informal parts of the processual code. All that remains is for the State Duma to draft the relevant amendments and vote them into law. Aside from the main program, the arrest ritual contains supplementary messages for the civilian populace: “We will arrest your women,” “We will beat your children and send them to jail,” “All resistance to the punitive machine will be punished disproportionately,” “When a regional head is dismissed or a journalist is released, it does not mean protesters have won,” and so on.

Second, in recent years, the Russian state has been reduced to a police apparatus of violence. All other branches of government are its appendages and palace retinue. At the same time, the state has devised a completely modern media policy. Field officers arrest the regime’s undesirables, and the press services of the security forces voice the “official position” while anonymous Telegram channels, social media forums, and dubious websites leak the “real” reasons for the arrests to the hoi polloi.

For example, the Circassian activist Martin Kochesoko was arrested for possession of marijuana. The police who detained him rubbed his hands in the weed just in case, while the Telegram channels that get their information from law enforcement authorities told readers about Kochesoko’s links with foreign foundations and his dangerous love for federalism.

Third, the police machine is hierarchical, and it is organized on the principle of feudal vassalage. Each police unit has its own turf, its own sectors, its own fief, whether it is a bank, an oil company, the Deposit Insurance Agency, the war in Donbas or the Chinese markets in Moscow. This fief should automatically become a hereditary or corporate fiefdom. Ingush law enforcement officers cannot operate in Moscow or neighboring republics without getting special permission. Zarifa Sautieyva was arrested only when she showed up in her home region. Moscow avoids meddling in the affairs of vassals for no good reason. Ramzan Kadyrov wants jurisdiction over all Chechens, including Chechens in exile, and he gets it.

Fourth, Moscow can recall regional governors and replace one viceroy with another, but the Kremlin has no intention of stopping the punitive machine because there is nothing else left of the state. The inert, corrupt, and hierarchical police machine has become the caste of security forces (siloviki), a parody of medieval knights. Initially, it saw itself as owning all of Russia; later, it has divided the country into fiefdoms according to unwritten rules. It is not only the Kremlin that wants it this way. Russia’s punitive machine has an “on” switch, but no “off” switch. The only recent exception to this rule is the Ivan Golunov case. This case had many idiosyncrasies, however. His supporters were able to free the arrest reporter partly by following the special rules for the regime’s insiders.

Finally, police feudalism and the Russian state are the same things. When protesters appeal to the Russian constitution and the rule of law, the state regards this as an attack on its sovereignty. The constitution, the courts, and the laws belong to the state. The state or, rather, its beneficiaries will do as they like with these privatized institutions. This machine can be employed for private commercial ends or political goals, but it is forbidden to change the regime and disband the service aristocracy.

Feudal Zombies
If these generalizations are valid, we must thoroughly reexamine the strategies of ethnic and grassroots movements. It is naive and pointless to seek justice from the Leviathan.

Ethnic movements can never find support in the current system because a police state is unable to negotiate. It simply does not have the option of negotiating with unarmed people who are not endowed with the proper authority in the shape of badges. Therefore, the most reasonable demand made by the Ingush activists so far is the demand to release political prisoners. They must be freed from the punitive system’s jurisdiction.

We can say the same thing about grassroots movements, authentic local government, and democratic elections. They are possible only in the absence of police feudalism. Tackling Russia’s new service aristocracy is a separate, thorny issue that neither Putin nor the person who succeeds him can solve even if they wanted to solve it. The system is not amenable to reform. It can only shrink, gradually devouring itself.

Police feudalism is so obsolete, however, it is hard to imagine it will be able to maintain itself for long. We need to think about how to organize public life without these time travelers from the past; we must know what to do when this army of skeletons vanishes into thin air. As soon as we have a notion of what institutions and public organizations are needed, how much it would cost to build them, and who would be ready to invest in new political projects, this will happen spontaneously and inevitably.

Translated by Thomas Campbell

Ivan Davydov: The New Greatness Trial

new greatness.jpegDmitry Poletayev, Vyacheslav Kryukov, Ruslan Kostylenkov, and Pyotr Karamzin, defendants in the New Greatness trial, during a court hearing. Photo by Pyotr Kassin. Courtesy of Kommersant and Republic

Russia’s Most Important Trial: The New Greatness Case as a Model of Relations between State and Society
Ivan Davydov
Republic
July 11, 2019

The term “hybrid war” has been in vogue for a while. The folks on Russian TV, who long ago unlearned how to do anything good or, maybe, never knew how to do anything good constantly mention the “hybrid war against Russia.” The term is infectious. At any rate, I have the sense you could not coin a better phrase for describing the Russian state’s attitude toward Russian society.

The Russian state has been waging a hybrid war against Russian society, and it has also been a guerrilla war. It is as if the state has been hiding on the edge of the woods, lying in ambush, sometimes leaving the woods on forays to do something nasty, like hitting someone over the head with a billy club, fining someone, passing a law that defies common sense and threatens the populace or just blurting out something terrifying and stupid. Then it goes to ground in the woods again. The sound of steady chomping is audible and, occasionally, peals of happy laughter.

Russian society sometimes tries to fight back, of course. Actually, society exists only when it tries to fight back. When there is no fightback, there is no society, only confused, atomized individuals whom the “guerrillas,” happily chomping their food in the woods, consider food. Society rarely tries to fight back, and it scores victories even more rarely. This summer, it managed to drag reporter Ivan Golunov out of jail before the guerrillas could chew him up. I cannot recall any other victories.

Although I am mistaken. Last summer, for example, society secured house arrest for the two teenaged girls, Maria Dubovik and Anna Pavlikova, accused in the New Greatness case. They were nearly killed in remand prison, but they were finally released. There was a tidal wave of articles in the press, an angry buzz on the social networks, and a March of Mothers that the authorities decided not to disperse.

It is not clear why: the riot cops would have made short work of the mothers. The tough guys who constitute the rank and file of the OMON would have enjoyed beating up women armed with stuffed animals.

Even Margarita Simonyan emerged from the woods to shout something about the “serious people” in the Kremlin who cut short their summer holidays to make the right decisions. Then it was back to the woods, whence the steady sound of chomping and slurping could be heard.

I still cannot get used to the fact that we in Russia consider house arrest for the victims of police lawlessness a victory for our side and incredibly good luck. I mean to say I understand why people think this way, but I cannot get used to it.

And now all of them—Maria Dubovik, Anna Pavlikova, Vyacheslav Kryukov, Ruslan Kostylenkov, Sergei Gavrilov, Pyotr Karamzin, Maxim Roshchin, and Dmitry Poletayev—are on trial.

Pavel Rebrovsky and Rustam Rustamov have already been convicted. They made a deal with investigators and prosecutors before the case went to trial. They were sentenced to two and a half years in prison and two years probation, respectively.

It is not as if there is no buzz in society about the case, but it amounts to background noise at most. Our society is short of breath: it has enough air in its lungs to make one attempt at resistance. Meanwhile, amazing things have been happening at the trial.

Courtroom Miracles
In brief, the story is that young people who were not entirely happy with their lives shared their thoughts in chat rooms. (By the way, have you ever seen young people who were completely satisfied with their lives? Didn’t you feel like going out of your way to avoid them?)

A nice man emerged in their midst. He suggested they organize a group to fight for everything good and oppose everything bad. They met in real life a couple of times. Prompted by the nice man, they drafted a charter for their movement. The nice man, it transpired, was a police provocateur, and the members of the so-called New Greatness movement were detained by police, not without a certain amount of pomp and ceremony, right before the 2016 presidential election.

And how could the security services get by without pomp and fanfare? They had apprehended dangerous criminals and exposed an entire group of “extremists.” If you believe the case investigators, New Greatness were planning “mandatory participation in popular uprisings, revolutionary actions, [and] clashes with authorities of the current Russian regime.”

Can you imagine someone using the phrase “voluntary participation in popular uprisings”? Security services officers who specialize in such matters have decided to destroy the lives of these unfortunate young people. In fact, they have already destroyed them. But these same security services officers have a slippery grasp of Russian and are not terribly worried whether what they write makes any sense. The takeaway message is that the New Greatness kids have to be sent to prison whatever the cost and the words used to do it play an auxiliary role.

The goings-on at their trial leave no one in doubt that this is the point. None of the defendants has pleaded guilty. Pavel Rebrovsky testified against his friends as part of the pretrial deal he made with prosecutors. In court, he testified he had been promised probation, and so he had agreed to say what state investigators wanted him to say, not tell the court what had actually happened.

“You call me. Do you have Whatsapp? I’ll send you the testimony you need to give in court,” Investigator Anton Malyugin had said to Rebrovsky to encourage him.

I don’t know how to judge Rebrovsky’s actions. It is easy to feign you are an honorable person when you are not locked up in remand prison. Rebrovsky was locked up in remand prison. Nevertheless, the investigator pulled the simplest trick in the book on him. Rebrovsky was sentenced to actual prison time, not probation, but he had the guts to tell the truth in court.

Except the court does not want the truth. Prosecutor Alexandra Andreyeva petitioned the court to examine the witness again, and Judge Alexander Maslov granted her motion. Investigators now have the time they need to explain clearly to the defenseless Rebrovsky how wrong he was to do what he did and what happens to people who pull what he pulled so everything goes smoothly the second time around.

It is vital we know the names of all these people. They should become household names. We should not think of them as generic investigators, judges, and prosecutors, but as Case Investigator Anton Malyugin, Judge Alexander Maslov, and Prosecutor Alexandra Andreyeva, who pulled out all the stops to send these young people down on trumped-up charges.

Rustam Rustamov, whose testimony is also vital to the investigation’s case, mysteriously vanished the day he was scheduled to testify in court. He was in the court building, but he did not appear in court. Apparently, the prosecution decided not to risk putting him on the stand. There are also ways of making a person on probation realize that the desire to tell the truth can be quite costly. It is better to coach the witness properly. There is no hurry.

The Russian State’s Self-Defense
The whole story is quite pointed. The case has been cobbled together haphazardly. This was already clear last year, but now it has become completely obvious. No one plans to retreat, however. When the Russian state’s guerrillas come out of the woods, they always bag their prey. Otherwise, their prey might get funny ideas.

This is a story about decay, you see. It is not that Russia’s law enforcement agencies have nothing else to do. Unfortunately, there are real criminals aplenty. Nor have the Kremlin’s military adventures abroad been a panacea for terrorists. But it has been harder and harder for Russia’s law enforcers to find the time to deal with real criminals and real terrorists.

Recently, a friend’s elderly mother was taken to the cleaners by scammers. When he went to the police, they worked hard to persuade him there was no point even trying to investigate the crime. Everyone remembers the case of the serial poisoner in Moscow, who was released by police after he was detained by passersby. He was apprehended again only when a scandal erupted, the press got involved, and the big bosses voiced their outrage.

Who has the time to work on silly cases like that if you have been ordered to take down a reporter who has been snooping around? And why should you bother when you can “solve” a terrible crime you concocted in the first place and you also had the good sense to detain your homemade “extremists” right before an election?

All you have to do is remove one rotten log from this house for the whole thing to come tumbling down immediately. The Golunov case, which cost several police commanders their jobs, was an excellent illustration of this fact.

By the way, there are no suspects in the new Golunov case, which has been entrusted to the Russian Investigative Committee. The drugs planted themselves on the reporter. They were treacherous drugs. No wonder they say drugs are bad.

The investigators, the judge, and the prosecutor handling the New Greatness case understand this perfectly well. They will use all the means at their disposal to put away the defendants, most of whom have been locked up in remand prison for over a year. As they themselves like to say, it is a matter of honor or, simply put, a matter of self-defense. The investigators, the judge, and the prosecutor are defending themselves: if the case comes unglued, a scandal would be inevitable, and a scandal could cost them their cushy jobs. It would also do irreparable damage to the system, to the fabled woods, because the more such unhappy endings there are, the less comfortable it will be for the guerrillas to chow down in the woods.

This is a curious aspect of what I have been describing. When the current Russian authorities engage in obvious wrongdoing, they do not experience discomfort. Of course, they don’t: when they defend themselves in this way they only aggravate the injustice. The lives of villagers who are raped and pillaged by brigands hiding in a forest mean nothing to the brigands, naturally. What the big men of the woods do not like is noise. The sound of their own slurping is music to their ears. If a hullabaloo arises, they could lose the little things that make life in the woods so pleasant.

So, I would like to write that the New Greatness case is the most important criminal case in Russia at the moment. The lawlessness and injustice evinced by the Russian authorities have been obvious and flagrant. But there is also the Network case, whose takeaway message is that the FSB can torture anyone it does not like, and it is nearly legal for them to do it.

There is also the case of the Khachaturian sisters, in which the lesson is that “traditional values” are interpreted in Russia in a way that can tear society apart.

There is also the war on environmentalists who have been trying to prevent the opening of a giant landfill for garbage from Moscow near the town of Shies in Arkhangelsk Region.

And there is the case of Pskov journalist Svetlana Prokopieva.

Finally, there is a mountain of smaller cases, which are no less terrifying even though they have generated less buzz or no buzz at all.

The menu of the forest brothers is too extensive, while Russian society is short of breath, as I wrote earlier. All arguments about Russia’s future boil down to a simple question: are their appetites hearty enough to eat all of us? None of them have complained about a lack of appetite so far.

And yet it would be unfair not to mention Anna Narinskaya, Tatyana Lazareva, and the other women involved in March of Mothers, who have been forcing their way into the courtroom and supplying accounts of what has been going on there. This is no easy task: the Lyublino District Court simply lacks room, but the judge has refused to have the trial moved to another court.

Then there are the musicians (Alexei Kortnev, Boris Grebenshchikov, Andrei Makarevich, Roma Zver, Pyotr Nalich, Vasya Oblomov, Maxim Leonidov, and MANIZHA) who recorded a video with Lazareva in which they performed an old song by the group Chizh & Co. about the “commissar contagion” as a way to draw attention to the case.

Finally, there is the website Mediazona, which has scrupulously chronicled the deeds of Russia’s law enforcers. It has also attempted to make the investigators, the prosecutor, and the judge in the New Greatness case household names.

It says a lot about Russia that a news website wholly devoted to covering the lawlessness of so-called law enforcers can function here and enjoy well-deserved popularity. Thank you, colleagues.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Petersburg: Russia’s Window on the West

windy petersburg“One day windy Petersburg won’t let me light a cigarette and I’ll give up smoking on its advice.” Graffiti, Petersburg, July 19, 2018.  Photo by the Russian Reader

Rotunda
June 17, 2019

While Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and the Kremlin were trying to spearhead protests and organize their own rally in support of [the briefly arrested investigative journalist] Ivan Golunov, Petersburg’s acting governor Alexander Beglov missed the political bandwagon once again. Today, during a session of the governor’s so-called inner cabinet at the Smolny, he was told by his underlings the Vesna (Spring) Movement wanted to hold a rally against the persecution of journalists on June 23. Beglov ordered city officials to reach out to the organizers and move the rally to another date since, otherwise, it “would ruin the celebration for school leavers.”

When Beglov gave this order, he was likely unaware city officials had already taken care of the kids. The Smolny turned down Vesna’s request to approve their rally by making up literally a million excuses. For example, a source in the Smolny reported a military band would be playing on Lenin Square (one of the city’s specially designated so-called Hyde Parks, where, theoretically, protesters do not need the city’s go-ahead to hold rallies) on June 23. It also transpired that urgent repairs of heating mains, buildings, pedestrian crossings, etc., were underway at all the other venues in the city center where protest rallies could be held.

Rotunda (Rotonda) is a Telegram channel, covering city politics in Petersburg and written by reporters Maria Karpenko and Ksenia Klochkova. Translated by the Russian Reader

#PutinKillsChildren

putinkillschilren.JPGPoster at a rally in support of Idlib, 15 June 2019, Pariser Platz, Berlin. Photo by the Russian Reader

As the extraordinarily eloquent photographs a friend of mine took six days ago in Moscow show, another “look at us revolution” has been taking place there.

Like the previous “look at us revolution” of 2011–2012, staged almost exclusively for social media and international media consumption, the implicit message has been, “W are smart white people and we deserve better. Marvel at our clever placards. Look deeply into our educated white faces. In every single way that matters, we are just like you Herrenvolk in Europe and the US. The fact we live under a vicious tyranny is an unhappy accident for which we bear almost no responsibility.”

Beyond that, apparently, there is no plan, program or coordination, so it would be a mistake to imagine the detention of these protesters by the hundreds means the Putin regime is afraid of them. No, the regime is discouraging the protesters and potential protesters and, more importantly, it is gathering information on the detainees, information it can use in future crackdowns.

There will be a real revolution in Moscow when the super smart “white people” there not only learn how to get much larger numbers of people on the street, coordinate their movements, push back against the police’s attempts to detain them, and make real political demands but also discover the existence of the rest of the world and Moscow’s increasingly baleful effect on it.

If a hundred thousand people marched in the streets of Moscow demanding Putin immediately withdraw all Russian troops and mercenaries from Syria, this would not only signal the beginning of the end of Putin’s long reign but it would also mean anti-regime Russians had realized solidarity is a two-way street.

You cannot expect people in other parts of the world to empathize with your struggle for democracy and justice when your country’s armed forces, internet trolls, mercenaries, spies, and military proxies are fighting and fueling armed conflicts and political crises in dozens of other countries.

Russia might have more natural resources than any other country in the world, but the reserves of goodwill toward the country and its people will eventually dry up.

It has been said before by hundreds of activists and commentators, but if the US had allied itself with Assad to bomb the hell out of his opponents in Syria, the whole world, especially the leftist part, would be up in arms.

Russia has been bombing the hell out of Syria and doing lots of other nasty stuff elsewhere, including poisoning people in broad daylight and shooting down airliners, but it troubles almost no one, relatively speaking.

What is more, no one bothers to ask why it does not bother all the nice “white people” in Moscow, who would never think to demonstrate en masse against their country’s attacks on lesser folk in third-world countries. {TRR}

#PutinKillsChildren

Valentin Urusov: A Worker’s Struggle (August 2012)

One of the most egregious frame-ups on drug charges in Russia in recent memory was the case of Yakutia trade union activist Valentin Urusov.

The weekly magazine Russian Reporter told Urusov’s story in August 2012, after he had been in police custody and then prison for over three years.

The article was, in fact, part of a second international campaign, led by Russia’s independent trade unions, to persuade the Russian authorities to release Urusov from prison.

This time around, their efforts paid off, and after his release, Urusov was awarded the Arthur Svensson Prize, the “Nobel Prize” of international trade unionism.

When I posted the following translation of the Russian Reporter article on January 25, 2013, Urusov was still in prison, doing time for crimes everyone who knew anything about the case knew he had not committed.

It is silly to compare these things, but I think Urusov’s story is much more horrifying than the much more recent story of Meduza reporter Ivan Golunov. First, it happened at the end of the earth, geographically speaking. Second, Urusov’s supporters had neither the social capital or the numbers to instantly launch a widespread moral panic to secure his immediate release.

Powerful men, including the men who run Alrosa, Russia’s state-owned diamond mining company (whose board at the time included Alexei Kudrin, laughably regarded as a “liberal” by people who do not want to know any better), wanted Urusov to go down, and so he went down, despite the absurdity of the charges against him, despite the fact that the police officer who engineered his frame-up was later found guilty of fraud and abuse of authority, and despite the fact that the Yakutia Supreme Court overturned his conviction in May 2009. (It was reinstated by the original, lower court a little over a month later.)

In fact, although Urusov’s story is a central episode in the recent history of independent trade union activism in Russia, I would wager a large amount of money that the vast majority of Russians have never heard of Urusov and his horrifying ordeal at the hands of Russian “law enforcement.” || TRR

__________________________

A Worker’s Struggle
How an attempt to create a real labor union lands you in a penal colony
By Andrei Veselov
Russian Reporter
August 23, 2012

It is now acceptable to talk about political prisoners in Russia—it has become good form. But for some reason, bankers and financiers now and again end up on lists of “prisoners of conscience.” Their troubles are discussed in great detail, and there is sincere sympathy for them. Little is said about the fact that for the last four years Valentin Urusov, a rank-and-file worker, has been doing time at the penal colony in Verkhny Vestyak, Yakutia, for attempting to establish an independent labor union. Russian Reporter has decided to rectify this.

“When they drove off the road into the taiga, I hear, ‘Take out the plastic sheet so nothing gets splattered.’ That, as they say, is when I bid farewell to life, calmed down and resigned myself. I lay on the floor of the car and waited. Hands cuffed behind my back. They pulled me out, put me on my knees and fired three shots over my head. But they didn’t kill me.”

urusov

Valentin Urusov. Photo by Aleskey Maishev for Russian Reporter

The senior officer for education at the colony listens attentively to my conversation with Valentin Urusov, a prisoner at Penal Colony No. 3 in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) and former leader of the independent labor union local in the town of Udachny. After the interview, the officer comes up to me and says, “You know, maybe he is really innocent. But if five percent are wrongly convicted in America, what can you expect from us?”

“What a terrific job!”

The idea that a full-fledged rather than puppet labor union could emerge in Udachny occurred to Valentin, a rank-and-file employee at Almazenergoremont, a subsidiary of the local mining and processing plant, after the scandalous “affair of the sandblasters.” Urusov himself is a local man, although he was born in Karachay-Cherkessia: he has lived in Yakutia since he was two years old and worked here since he was sixteen, mostly at facilities run by the state-owned diamond mining company Alrosa. There are few other options here.

Udachny is a town fourteen kilometers from the Arctic Circle, and one of the three main sites, along with Mirny and Aikhal, where diamonds are mined. Among the workers involved in the mining process are the so-called abrasive blasters or, more simply, sandblasters, whose job is to work solid surfaces with an abrasive, high-pressure stream of air pumped through a hose. It is not a job that is good for the health of the worker, to say the least: pulmonary silicosis is the occupational illness. Neither a safety helmet nor a [hazmat] suit, like cosmonauts wear, helps.

In 2007, a team of these sandblasters demanded overtime pay, which at that time went chronically unpaid. The workers filed a lawsuit and even managed to win their case: the Labor Code was clearly on their side.

“A special commission arrived in Udachny to arbitrate the dispute directly,” explains Andrei Polyakov, an Alrosa spokesman. “The company agreed with the validity of the claims, an agreement settling all grievances was signed, and compensation was paid out. The managers who were in direct dereliction of their duties were punished.”

This happened, it is true, but later. The main scandal occurred when the dispute was still being settled: the semi-official labor union at Alrosa, Profalmaz, negotiated not on the side of the workers, but on behalf of . . . management. This provoked astonishment and outrage in Udachny.

So, on the one hand, Profalmaz’s authority was undermined. On the other, the feeling arose that one’s labor rights could be protected—moreover, in a civilized manner, through the courts and arbitration, the European way, so to speak.

“I just found it interesting. I’m a generally curious person, and that is probably why I’m in prison,” jokes Valentin. “I went online and came across Sotsprof, a trade union association that is an alternative to the FNPR (the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia). I wrote an email to its leader, who was then Sergei Khramov. He replied by sending me documents on how to create a new union.”

“But why a new one?” I ask. “Was it really impossible to make things work within the existing union?”

“All [organizations] belonging to Mikhail Shmakov’s FNPR, including Profalmaz, are not labor unions but appendages of personnel departments. All they do is allocate vacation vouchers. They will never oppose management.”

“Was the only problem overtime and the fact it wasn’t being paid then?”

“Of course not. There were a lot of problems! And then, you understand, this is very difficult work: you have to work night and day, and on holidays, and take someone else’s shift, whatever management says. But you get paid for an eight-hour day. And then there are the working conditions and safety. In the department where I worked, the equipment should have been scrapped twenty years ago, at best. There are a lot of accidents as a result. The ones that were made public were like a speck in a big heap of sand. I got a big piece of flesh taken out of my hand, and that was nothing. Of course, it’s hard to hush up fatal incidents. But fractures and injuries are different. There are thousands of them and nobody cares. It was a shame that the company was so wealthy, that it built five-star hotels and all kinds of business centers, but scrimped on us.”

In Moscow, I met with Sergei Khramov, to whom Valentin had sent the email and who had instructed him on creating a union local.

Udachnaya_pipe

The open pit of the Udachnaya Diamond Mine, Russia, from a helicopter, July 17, 2004. Photo by Alexander Stepanov

“Add to this the aggressive water in the gully where they mine diamonds.” Khramov hands me a complaint from Udachny miners addressed to Vladimir Putin. “It’s nearly acid and it penetrates their rubber suits. Here they write, ‘We don’t know what it is we are breathing when the ventilation equipment is lubricated with used oil.’ Or there’s this one: ‘Cold, unheated air is pumped into the mine, even in winter.’ And it’s minus forty-fifty in winter there. What a terrific job!”

How to frighten a republic’s leadership

Right at this time, in August 2008, the so-called Siberian Social Forum was held in Irkutsk. “Free” trade unions were among the forum’s founders. Urusov’s new acquaintances invited him there, too. In fact, it was a small event, attended by no more than two hundred people, but it made a strong impression on Valentin.

“[Civil rights lawyer] Stanislav Markelov, who was later murdered in Moscow, lectured on legal issues. He was a very competent, energetic, lively man—it’s a shame [what happened] to him. He talked about how to act in this or that situation so as not to set oneself up and achieve [your goals] at the same time. And then the call came. Problems with pay had begun at the second motor depot, and the guys had decided to organize a strike.”

Events unfolded rapidly. In a small suburban home outside of Udachny, Urusov met with motor depot drivers and mechanics in an almost conspiratorial atmosphere and began persuading them to join the union. Armed with new knowledge, Urusov tried to prove to his comrades that if a strike began they would immediately be fired for trumped-up excuses, and there would be no one left to work on getting them reinstated. During the second “conspiratorial” meeting, sixty-two people joined Urusov’s union local.

There were two options as to how to proceed. First, a classic strike. But the Udachny miners had no experience with strikes, and therefore they could easily have been fired for “absenteeism.” And even if they had managed to get fired workers reinstated, they would have lost the initiative, and the remaining workers would have been demoralized. The second option was a hunger strike. Everyone goes to work; there is no downtime and, therefore, nothing for management to complain about. But demands are loudly declared and, basically, a scandal erupts. They chose the second option.

“At first, [management] demonstratively paid no attention to us. Then they see we aren’t going to back down. That is when they began dropping by,” Urusov laughs. “People came from the police, from plant security, from the company itself, trying to talk us out of it. In exchange for setting up a conciliation commission, we suspended the hunger strike.”

However, the commission was unable to achieve a compromise. Management made no concessions.

“We decided to hold an open union meeting right on the town’s central square. It wasn’t a [protest] rally, and by law, we weren’t required to notify anyone. On the first day, all the motor depot workers came, plus another two hundred people. The director of the plant came and tried to say something. But he couldn’t answer a single question and left. And right there on the square, people began joining the union. By the end of the day, something like three hundred people had joined. We decided to repeat the meeting. The second time, more than eight hundred people gathered. There was no rioting and no laws were broken. We didn’t even have a loudspeaker. By evening, I remember it even now, 1,012 people had joined the union.”

We have to remember that Udachny is a very small town with a population of slightly over ten thousand, and such developments outright scared both the local authorities and certain people in high places. The situation was headed towards a citywide strike and a potential stoppage of diamond mining in the Udachnaya kimberlite pipe—the largest in the world, by the way.

“We have enormous enterprises in our country. Often [they] monopolize their regions, and so a strike or simply a large [industrial] action could freeze an entire industry,” explains Alexander Zakharin, Urusov’s friend and colleague, and chair of the Sotsprof local in Surgut. “And if you organize such an action, you risk running into a brutal response. From the owners and from the authorities. But it happens that milder measures don’t work. Then you need to choose: take a risk or keep your mouth shut.”

At Alrosa itself, the union’s activities in Udachny are seen primarily as an attempt at self-promotion.

“A media effect—promoting awareness of Sotsprof and the number of times it got mentioned in the press—was probably the main objective for some of its executives,” argues company spokesman Polyakov.

As during the [dispute in 2007], Profalmaz adopted a peculiar position in the new confrontation. Its leader, Il Tumen (Sakha Republic State Assembly) deputy Pavel Tretyakov, not only failed to help the workers but also asked the republic’s leaders to reason with the “rebels.” Profalmaz’s executive committee sent an appeal to the President of Yakutia, Vyacheslav Shtyrov, and FNPR head [Mikhail] Shmakov asking them to prevent “incitement of a conflict.”

Tretyakov later, in a similar vein, told Vasily Gabyshev, the Mirny town prosecutor, “It’s surprising that law enforcement authorities didn’t respond to attempts by various persons to artificially incite conflicts, to calls for illegal hunger strikes and [labor] strikes.”

The Yakutia presidential administration composed a panicked memo on the basis of Tretyakov’s appeals. The President instructed law enforcement agencies to figure out what was happening. (Russian Reporter has all these documents in its possession.) What exactly Shtyrov wanted from the security services is still unclear, but the local office of the FSKN (the Federal Drug Control Service) reacted to the situation, let’s say, in an extremely original way.

Udachny—Aikhal—Mirny

“Then what happened? Then the third of September came. I was leaving my place. I heard a car door open. I instinctively turned around.  It was a simple UAZ[-452], a “Pill” [i.e., a van] with tinted windows. Out came three guys in leather jackets and jeans with shaved heads. I didn’t know them. I immediately knew something was wrong and ran. They caught up to me and knocked me down.”

“Did they show you any identification?”

“Absolutely nothing. They restrained me and brought me to the van. First, they handcuffed me with my hands in front. Later, in the van, they tried to cuff me with my hands behind my back. I clasped my hands and held on. They pulled and pulled, broke my finger, and finally handcuffed my hands behind my back. They threw me to the floor and one of them sat on top of me. We drove for a long time.”

It subsequently emerged that Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Rudov, the head of drug control in the Mirny District, had personally led this “operation.” In order to apprehend Urusov, he and his subordinates had driven six hundred kilometers [to Udachny]: [his] “Hunter” [i.e., jeep] was waiting for the “Pill” on the outskirts of the town. In court, Rudov claimed to have had “operational information” that Urusov was involved in selling drugs.

“We asked the court to confirm or refute Rudov’s testimony, and requested written confirmation that the ‘operational information’ had been registered in the police operational ledger,” says Urusov’s attorney Yevgeny Chernousov, a former police colonel who specializes in narcotics cases. “We didn’t demand that this information itself or its source be revealed. We just wanted to confirm that the information had existed. The court did not fulfill our request. There is thus no evidence of its existence. In light of this, Rudov’s unwarranted trip to Udachny and back seems more than suspicious.”

Valentin says that Rudov was on the phone with a certain Alexei Yurevich or Yuri Alexeyevich the whole time, reporting to him that they had “taken” Urusov and wanting to know what to do next. After one of these conversations, the van pulled off into the taiga. There the narcotics officers spread out plastic sheeting and fired a few shots over Urusov’s head, recounts Urusov.

“They were shooting the whole time,” says Valentin. “They shot at birds, and at trees. Apparently, they wanted to frighten me. We had already driven far from town, and basically, they could have done whatever they wanted with me.”

At a fork in the Udachny-Aikhal-Mirny road, the car of Grigory Pustovetov, head of security at the Aikhal mining and processing plant, drove up to Rudov’s group “entirely by accident.” Only then did the police decide to search Urusov for drugs. Pustovetov and his driver acted as official witnesses. The search was a complete success: sixty-six grams of hashish oil were found in the union activist’s pocket.

“A number of questions arise,” says an outraged Chernousov. “First, when the arrest happens in one place, but the [official] search with witnesses happens dozens of kilometers away, it’s a clear sign that the drugs could have been planted. Second, if the head of one of a company’s security units serves as a witness when an employee in a labor dispute with that company is being searched, it also gives rise to the most unpleasant thoughts.”

Urusov himself claims the hashish was planted on him in the car after the fake execution. He says that hash oil was specially applied to his hands so that traces of the drug would later be detected when his hands were swabbed.

“When we were organizing the miners’ union in Neryungri (a major industrial center in Yakutia), I was reminded of this story,” says Valery Sobol, first secretary of the Neryungri Communist Party City Committee. “I won’t name the names [of the persons involved] because I live there. Employees of the so-called organs [i.e., the security services] invited me to a pub. We hung out there for a while. Then at another place, and then another. I myself didn’t drink, [but] they drank a lot. And, as if it was an afterthought, though they had summoned me there [to deliver just this message], one of them says, ‘You remember that thing with Urusov? You also better not be naughty. If anything happens, we’ll plant a gun [on you] or whatever.’ And then he laughed. Like it was a joke.”

Several months ago, Sobol nearly won the election for the head of the Neryungri District. He came in second by only a small margin. And if a potential district head can be threatened almost openly, then the kidnapping of a simple working stiff like Urusov, who has no political backing at all, does not seem farfetched.

Sobol and I sat in the kitchen of Sergei Yurkov, an engineer, businessman, and leader of [an organization called] the Russian Community of Yakutia. He met Urusov in a pre-trial detention facility. I ask him how he had ended up there.

“My story is simple. Transneft was building a pipeline here. They didn’t want to pay normal wages to the locals. So when the locals balked, they brought in rural Chinese willing to work for peanuts and live in barracks. When we organized a rally and put up flyers saying this wasn’t how things were done, I was arrested under Article 282 of the Criminal Code for ‘incitement of interethnic hatred.’ What does ‘incitement’ have to do with it? I was sentenced to two years in prison.”

Drugs via the Special Courier Service?

It must be said that the theme of drugs, with which they decided to shut Urusov up, did not arise by accident. Drug use is a local scourge. And this makes sense. There are few other ways to have fun in small towns and villages in the North. That is why on the surface Urusov’s prosecution under a drug statute was meant to have appeared more or less plausible.

“It’s a big problem here, as is drinking,” says Maxim Mestnikov, a Sotsprof spokesman in Yakutia. “When Friday comes, hang onto your head: there is a deluge of knife wounds [and] head injuries.”

But Urusov, in fact, never had the reputation of a mischievous drug addict. In his youth, at the beginning of the 2000s, he and a few friends created an organization called Youth for an Athletic Movement-North, whose activists patrolled the city monitoring places where drugs were sold. Eventually, the mayor of Udachny even suggested that they create a branch of City Without Drugs on the line of [Yevgeny] Roizman’s [controversial anti-drugs organization].

The relationship between certain local [Alrosa] subcontractors and drug dealers, however, may require a separate investigation. Russian Reporter has in its possession an official memo written by Sergei Denisov, the predecessor of [Grigory] Pustovetov (the man who acted as a witness during the police search of Urusov) as head of security at the Aikhal mining and processing plant.

The memo is addressed to Yuri Ionov, former vice-president for security at Alrosa, and it deals with the overall crime situation in the area. Among many others, the memo contains the following passage: “It is impossible to ignore the fact that a drug trafficking network has developed in the village. According to operational information from the Mirny office of the FSB, the delivery of drugs is carried out by the [Federal] Special Courier Service, with which Alrosa has a contractual relationship for the transportation of diamonds.” Moreover, the memo shows that confidential and friendly relations exist between certain high-ranking Alrosa executives, law enforcement officers, and outright criminals.

“I’ll say this: the criminal world is generally in first place here,” [Sotsprof’s] Mestnikov says with conviction. “In this respect, it is still the nineties here. Something needs to be done so you go to them and they handle it. And this could also have happened with Valentin. Perhaps it was better that they sicked the cops on him and not the wise guys.”

After he presented the memo to Ionov, Denisov was forced to resign and move to Novosibirsk.

“No decision was taken on my report. Ionov showed me the door and said he didn’t need any unnecessary problems. As for Urusov, I can say that it’s a pure frame-up,” [Denisov says].

In May 2010, Lieutenant Colonel Rudov was sentenced to three years of probation for fraud and abuse of authority. According to [Urusov’s other] lawyer Inga Reitenbakh, “He was charged with receiving 2.5 million rubles from Alrosa for the purchase of an apartment in Mirny.” The investigators and Rudov himself categorically denied any connection between this case and the Urusov case. Nevertheless, the funds were allocated to Rudov shortly after Urusov’s arrest. According to Russian Reporter’s source, Rudov now works as a procurements specialist in the repair and construction office at the Mirny mining and processing plant.

“He shoots before he thinks”

Urusov was also unlucky in that he had set about creating a Sotsprof local in Udachny exactly when the union’s leadership had entered the complex process of building relations with the Kremlin.

“Beginning in 2007, people from the Russian Presidential Administration began to pressure us very actively,” says Sergei Khramov. “We were strongly recommended to name Sergei Vostretsov from the United Russia party as [our] new leader. I had good reason to believe that if we didn’t, we would simply be destroyed. And I figured, the heck with him, let Vostretsov be the leader and do public relations, while I, as Sotsprof’s general labor inspector, will do the day-to-day work.”

The first outcome of this “castling” move was that the formerly oppositional Sotsprof supported Dmitry Medvedev in the 2008 presidential elections.

”And when they began pressuring Valentin, Vostretsov told me not to make any unnecessary noise, because he would fix everything anyway. I knew that the Vostretsov family—his younger brother was the youngest FSB colonel in the country—was very close to General Alexander Mikhailov, the then-director of the Federal Drug Control Service. I thought that Valentin’s case would be decided with a single phone call.”

For the sake of fairness, we should note that complicated events were underway at the Federal Drug Control Service at the time. Viktor Ivanov had replaced Viktor Cherkesov, who had famously publicized the existence of a war within the security services in an article [entitled “We Can’t Let Warriors Turn into Traders”]. In October, General Mikhailov left the FSKN as well. There was simply no one left to make that “single phone call.”

Subsequently, Vostretsov pushed Khramov out of Sotsprof altogether, and the organization became completely loyal to the Kremlin.

In December 2008, the Mirny District Court sentenced Valentin Urusov to six years in prison for drug possession. Vostretsov tried to fight it, but more from behind the scenes: he met with officials from the Yakutia administration and officials of the security services, and even, allegedly, raised the issue of Urusov with Medvedev. It was no use.

Khramov, in contrast, acted publicly. It was he who got the famous lawyer Chernousov to take the case. Chernousov convinced the Yakutia Supreme Court to overturn the verdict (on procedural grounds: the judge had not retired to chambers while considering a motion to dismiss), after which the case was retried.

“I had absolutely no illusions,” Valentin smiles. “After the Supreme Court decision, many people thought I would be exonerated.  I was certain of the opposite, that now I would be ‘shut down’ for sure. This was evident from the faces of those in the courtroom at the second trial. After the first hearing, I gathered my belongings, put on the track suit I’d been wearing while traveling between pre-trial detention facilities and prisons, and from then on I went to hearings in this outfit.”

In Udachny, there is a small newspaper with the humorous name of Gorodok [“The Burg”], edited by a local journalist named Alla Demidova. After Urusov was released, she published a short article. Immediately, the very same day, she got a call from Maxim Dobarkin, one of the police investigators who had participated in Urusov’s “arrest.”

“Dobarkin called me at home,” says Demidova. “Drunk. He told me how many bullets he would put in me, said that ‘he shoots before he thinks,’ that he knows where I live, and that he would ‘get’ me ‘whether in Udachny or in Sochi.’”

“What did you do?”

“I filed a complaint with the FSB.”

“Did they respond?”

“They responded by sending me a one-line answer: ‘There is no threat.’”

Dobarkin, however, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and together with Rudov took command of the Federal Drug Control Service’s interdistrict department in Mirny.

Another Yakutia journalist, Aitalina Nikiforova, was also threatened for covering Urusov’s case.

“I reported on every hearing during the trial from the courtroom. Rudov called me over during one of the hearings and said word for word, ‘Your oldest daughter is fifteen. It would be interesting to see how you’ll defend Urusov after some old drug dealers drug her up and pass her around.’ This definitely sounded like a threat. At the time I was working as editor-in-chief at the only independent newspaper in Mirny, Moya Gazeta. The only printing plant in town refused to print us. Local Federal Drug Control Service agents began coming to my house, allegedly because of anonymous tips that I also used and dealt drugs. Some of [the agents] were insolent and rude; others were ashamed because the last visits took place when I was six to seven months pregnant with my third child.”

After that Nikiforova decided it would be safer to leave her hometown and move to Yakutsk.

In June 2009, the Mirny District Court delivered a new verdict in the Urusov case that completely upheld the previous verdict, but in September the Yakutia Supreme Court lightened Urusov’s prison sentence by one year. The Sotsprof local in Udachny had been crushed. The second motor depot has been completely shut down. The company has had no more problems with the workforce in this town.

“Valentin, who do you tend to blame for what happened to you?” I finally asked.

“Alrosa is a state-run company. It is owned by the government, by the state, so . . . you understand.”

1345633951216469_big_photo

Valentin Urusov. Photo by Aleskey Maishev for Russian Reporter

***

“Our government is fascist,” Yurkov, the leader of the Russian Community of Yakutia, suddenly declares, and it sounds quite equivocal.

Sobol, the man who missed becoming head of the Neryungri District by a heartbeat, turns and stops smoking next to the window.

“We have to be precise with our terms: neither Nazi nor nationalist, but precisely fascist as it is understood in Mussolini’s theory of the corporate state, as Franco, Salazar, and even Pinochet understood it. In our country, the authorities and big business are intertwined in a ball. And anyone who gets in their way is crushed. Here in Yakutia, in the provinces, it’s just more clearly felt.  But it’s the same thing all over the country.”

Translated by Sean Guillory and Chtodelat News. Slightly different versions of the same translation were published by n+1 and Sean’s Russian Blog.

Syria Is Only Three Syllables

It is pointless to say anything more about the near-total non-reaction of Russians to their government’s ruthless, quasi-genocidal bombing campaign against civilians in Syria, but I will say one last thing before giving up the subject entirely on this blog. It is important for eyewitnesses to important historical events to write down what they saw, heard, and read. Otherwise, decades from now, posterity might be reading about a nonexistent “Russian anti-war movement” during the Putin era.

Anything is possible in our fallen world.

Like Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and Central Asians, Syrians are viewed as civilizational subhumans by Russians, as “natural-born terrorists” who deserve to be destroyed, as they would put it in the blunt lingo of Russian TV propagandists.

Educated Russians feel solidarity only towards a very limited segment of other Russians and northern Europeans, and even then only under extraordinarily limited circumstances, as witnessed by the self-love and virtue-flagging festival currently underway on the Runet.

The whole point of it is not to save the life of an investigative journalist framed by the police on drugs charges but to show to themselves (and the world) they can “fight back” against their corrupt government, that they are not as bad as they imagine themselves to be and, in fact, really are.

Indeed, Russians can fight back, as has been proven hundreds of times during the last twenty years. But this has been proven not by today’s virtue-flaggers, but by other Russians, Russians who have been fighting for their lives, livelihoods, natural and urban environments, workplaces, you name it. They live in the twenty-first century, too, and so they also have made use of the internet as needed for their campaigns, but their campaigns have had real objectives, and the militants in these campaigns have often been less bashful in their methods.

Look up, for example, anything you can find about the grassroots movement against plans to mine copper and nickel in Voronezh Region, which reached a crescendo four or five years ago. One of the leaders of that protest was an “ordinary” woman who worked at the local produce market. She virtually commanded battalions of other locals, including local Cossacks, in a knock-down, drag-out fight against mining companies and police.

Not surprisingly, these skirmishes have generally garnered much less attention in Russian society at large, the Russian press, and the international press.

It has been easier for all those groups to imagine the Russian provinces as “Putin’s base,” as a wasteland filled with aggressive vatniki, as they are derogatorily called. (The reference is to the humble gray quilted jacket favored, allegedly, by regime-loving proles in Russia’s regions.)

I have spent at least a third of my time on this blog and its predecessor trying to show this is not the case. It is a thankless and nearly pointless business, however, because it is not trendy to care about hicks in the sticks anymore anywhere, so almost no one reads these dispatches.

Putin’s real power bases are and always have Moscow and Petersburg, but you would never know that from the cool spin residents of the “capitals” put on every gesture in the direction of protest they make, even when they are not really protesting anything at all. If anyone has benefited from Putin’s promises of stability and prosperity, it is them, not the hicks in the sticks. But none of this has led to a “bourgeois revolution,” as some were expecting. Quite the opposite has happened.

Of course, there are activists and grassroots politicians in the capitals who are every bit as smart, fierce, and savvy as their counterparts in the provinces, but they do not outnumber them, despite what certain large-scale, protests in the recent past might have suggested.

So, what is up now? Sooner or later, every ambitious Russian with a social media profile and any sights on the west realizes it is not great to look like too much of a conformist. It is okay for Putin to kill Syrian babies by the truckload. Or, rather, it is not okay, but you are only asking for trouble if you protest something a) no one else is protesting, and b) that looks to be really important to the powers that be, so important they would squash you like you a fly if you made a peep about it.

The grassroots “Free Golunov!” campaign is perfect for anyone who wants to pad out their protest resume because a) everyone is protesting it, and b) the real powers that be probably do not care so much about prosecuting Golunov to the full extent of their lawlessness.

At his next public appearance, Putin could well be asked about the case by reporters. If he is asked, I would not be surprised if he said it was a bloody mess that shows how much work needs to be done before Russian law enforcement has been thoroughly purged of corruption.

Heads would then roll, and Golunov would be released as a gesture to the Russian moral one percent’s “yearning for justice.”

People with shaky protest resumes—meaning nearly every member of the intelligentsia in the capitals and major cities—want to jump on a bandwagon that has half a chance of making it to its destination, not light out for the territory with no chance of winning.

On the other hand, the Kremlin could neutralize these virtue-flaggers for good by throwing the book at Golunov, despite the overwhelming evidence he is innocent, and sending him down for fifteen years.

In reality, this sort of thing happens all the time. It happens routinely to “politicals” and ordinary blokes, to businessmen and Central Asian migrant workers, etc. But no one bothers to go ballistic when these people are framed by the wildly unscrupulous Russian police and security services because a) everyone leads really busy lives, and b) these victims of Russian legal nihilism do not have reporters and editors going to bat for them and publishing their names in big letters on the front pages of their newspapers.

What will “rank-and-file” protesters do if, despite their extraordinary efforts, Golunov is sent to prison for a crime he did not do? What will become of their “movement”? Will they up their game? Will they embrace more radical methods to free their beloved here.

Their movement will evaporate in seconds. We will never hear or see any political statements from most of these people ever again because if they can live peaceably with everything done by the Putin regime at home and abroad in their name over the last twenty years except this one thing, they can go on swallowing or, really, ignoring a double and even triple portion of the more of the same until Putin finally keels over thirty or so years from now.

Or they will leave the country. It is not as if they actually give a flying fuck about it. If they did, I would have written a very different outburst than this one. I would have written it a long time ago, in fact. || THE RUSSIAN READER

idlibThe bombing of Idlib is stirring memories of Guernica, as portrayed by Picasso. Photo by Abdulaziz Ketaz. Courtesy of AFP, Getty Images, and the Sunday Times

Syria: Russians refine slaughter in Idlib
Observers say Moscow is using the Syrian province as a kind of Guernica, while casting innocent victims as terrorists
Louise Callaghan
The Sunday Times
June 9, 2019

The fighter jet screamed over the town at about 8.30am, while the family was still asleep in the cool morning air. Mahmoud Ali Alsheikh, his wife and their three children were shaken awake by the first bomb.

Ahmad, the youngest, was 10 months old. His father held him as the second bomb exploded further down their street. His mother, Fatma, 29, held her hands over his ears. Nour and Salah, 8 and 7, crouched next to them.

The next bomb hit the house. Shrapnel ripped into Ahmad’s stomach, killing him. “I was trying to protect him,” said his father, a sweet-maker.

Ahmad was just one victim of Russia’s bombing campaign in Idlib, a rural province in northern Syria where a renewed assault by pro-regime forces has killed at least 347 civilians since the end of April, according to local doctors with the aid group Uossm. Twenty-five medical facilities have been bombed, many of them far from the front lines.

It is a horrifying escalation in a conflict in which Moscow and Damascus have an overwhelming military advantage as the eight-year-old civil war winds down. Analysts suspect that Russia, which has bragged about testing more than 200 new weapons in Syria, is cynically using Idlib to refine the bombing techniques it has developed during the conflict.

“Idlib for the Russians now could be what Guernica was for the Germans ahead of the Second World War. It’s a conflict in which they tested all of their techniques, rolled out their new doctrine,” said James Le Mesurier, a former British Army officer who founded the organization that trains and supports the White Helmets rescue group.

The Nazis’ use of the Spanish town of Guernica for bombing practice in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War allowed them to break new ground in the mass killing of civilians from the air and refine techniques that would later become invaluable to their war machine. The aftermath of the bombing was immortalized in a painting by Pablo Picasso.

For Russia, disinformation techniques have become as vital as military tactics. Moscow and the Syrian regime portray Idlib as a terrorist haven under the control of hardline groups — justifying the bombing campaign on the grounds that they are fighting jihadists.

Russia has put great effort into an online campaign portraying Idlib as a vipers’ nest of terrorists. The truth is more complicated. While groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly an al-Qaeda offshoot, control large swathes of the province, some key towns are held by more moderate rebels.

A rebel counter-attack last week took back several villages from pro-regime forces. But the rebels have no air power.

Mixed in among them — and vulnerable to Russia’s supremacy in the air — are tens of thousands of terrified civilians: both locals and others from across the country who were bused to Idlib when their homes were retaken by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

After ousting rebel forces in much of the country, the regime is now renewing the attack on Idlib, which it has pledged to claw back at all costs.

A ceasefire, negotiated last year in Sochi, the Russian Black Sea resort, is in tatters after an assault by pro-regime forces targeted civilian and rebel targets alike with cluster bombs and barrel bombs. Videos appear to show incendiary weapons being used.

Diplomats say that, for the moment, an all-out military assault on Idlib is unlikely. The aim of the bombing campaign is to wear away at the ceasefire, grind down the rebels and force Turkey — which maintains military observation points in Idlib and backs some opposition groups — to agree to a handover of the province to the regime.

“A full-on assault is not imminent. But I do think the option will be kept on the table so that people can use that as a way of increasing influence,” said a senior western diplomat working on Syria.

Turkey, which is one of the guarantors of the ceasefire, has been outwardly maintaining a balanced relationship with Moscow, even as it reportedly funnels weapons to opposition groups in Idlib.

The Turkish border with Idlib is closed to the tens of thousands of civilians who have fled to it in search of safety. Last week residents told The Sunday Times that entire villages in Idlib’s interior were deserted, and displaced people were camping out in olive groves near the border without food or water.

Among them were the surviving members of Ahmad’s family.

“I don’t know what will happen but I hope the regime won’t advance because they will kill and arrest everyone,” said his father, who was badly injured in the airstrike that killed the baby. “The Assad regime is targeting our town all the time.”

He said his home town, Kafranbel — which used to be famous for its figs and is about 30 miles from the Turkish border — is not controlled by jihadists but by remnants of the Free Syrian Army.

Other locals and analysts confirmed this. But for Russia and the Syrian regime, rebels, jihadists and civilians alike are regarded as terrorists.

“Since the beginning, the Russians, Iran, Assad regime and Hezbollah are saying that,” he said. “Because their military policy is burning and killing everyone who lives in the opposition areas.”

Using Russian state-funded broadcasters and websites, Moscow has muddied the waters of the Syrian conflict by attempting to push the narrative that anyone who is against Assad is a terrorist, and that no news from opposition-held areas can be trusted.

Its disinformation campaign particularly targets the White Helmets, portraying its members as jihadists who stage their work. Slick video content, purporting to show the White Helmets faking chemical attacks by the regime, is often presented as impartial news and shared across the world.

Last month a Syrian government television channel took this technique a step further in a “fake news” comedy sketch that lampooned the White Helmets. A glamorous actress portrayed a crying woman as “White Helmets” staged a fake rescue mission. She later apologized for causing offense but made clear she still believed that attacks and rescues were often faked by the White Helmets.

Impartial observers, who credit the White Helmets with saving many lives and drawing attention to the regime’s atrocities, say there has been no proof that they have faked anything.

Additional reporting: Mahmoud al-Basha

Thanks to Pete Klosterman and the Facebook public group Free Syria for the heads-up. {TRR}