“Seven Years in Prison for Two Pages”: An Open Letter by Journalist Svetlana Prokopieva

“Seven Years in Prison for Two Pages”: An Open Letter by Journalist Svetlana Prokopieva
Republic
October 1, 2019

Pskov journalist Svetlana Prokopieva faces up to seven years in prison for her published comments. In November of last year—first, in a broadcast on the radio station Echo of Moscow in Pskov, then on the website Pskov Newswire—she discussed the reasons why a 17-year-old man blew himself up at the FSB office in Arkhangelsk. She has now been charged with publicly “condoning” terrorism, as punishable under Article 205.2.2 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code.

On October 1, Echo Moscow, Mediazona, Novaya Gazeta, TV Rain, Takie Dela, Snob, MBKh Media, 7×7, Pskovskaya Guberniya, MOKH, Wonderzine, and Meduza published an open letter by Prokopieva. We have joined them in this act of solidarity.

***********

My name (our name?) is Svetlana Prokopieva. I am a journalist, and I could be sent to prison for seven years for “condoning” terrorism.

Nearly a year ago, there was a bomb blast in Arkhangelsk. It was unexpected and stunning: 17-year-old Mikhail Zhlobitsky blew himself up in the entrance to the FSB office there. Before he did this, he wrote he was blowing himself up because the FSB had become “brazen,” framing and torturing people.

The suicide bombing was the subject of my regular commentary on the radio station Echo of Moscow in Pskov. “Acting intentionally,” I wrote a text entitled “Crackdowns for the State.” My commentary was aired on November 7 and then was published on the website Pskov Newswire.

Nearly a month passed before Pskov Newswire and Echo of Moscow received warnings from Roskomnadzor: Russia’s quasi-censor saw evidence I had “condoned” terrorism in my comments. In early December, administrative charges were filed against the two media outlets, costing them 350,000 rubles in fines when a justice of the peace found them guilty of the charges. Simultaneously, the Pskov office of the Russian Investigative Committee launched an inquiry into whether I had personally violated Article 205.2 of the Russian Criminal Code. Criminal prosecution loomed as a distinct possibility, but we laughed, thinking they must be crazy. What could they mean by “condoning” terrorism? In its warnings, Roskomnadzor failed to point to a single phrase or even word that would qualify as evidence that I had condoned terrorism. Nor could it point them out because they were not there. As it soon transpired, however, that did not matter.

On February 6, my doorbell rang. When I opened it, a dozen armed, helmeted men rushed in, pinning me to the wall in the far room with their shields. This was how I found out the authorities had, in fact, decided to file charges against me.

A police search is a disgusting, humiliating procedure. One group of strangers roots through your things while another group of strangers looks on indifferently. Old notes, receipts, and letters sent from other countries take on a suspicious, criminal tinge, demanding an explanation. The things you need the most, including your laptop and telephone, are turned into “physical evidence.” Your colleagues and family members are now liable to becoming “accomplices” without even trying.

I was robbed that day: the authorities confiscated three laptops, two telephones, a dictaphone, and flash drives. When they blocked my bank accounts six months later, they robbed me again: I was only a “suspect” when I was placed on Rosfinmonitoring’s list of “extremists” and “terrorists.” I am now unable to get a bank card in my own name, open a savings account or apply for a mortgage. The Russian state has made it impossible for me to exist financially.

All that remained for the authorities was to rob me of the last thing I had: my freedom. On September 20, I was officially charged with violating Article 205.2.2 of the criminal code: condoning terrorism via the mass media. If convicted, I could be fined up to one million rubles or sent to prison for up to seven years.

I deny any wrongdoing. I consider the charges against me petty revenge on the part of security services officers offended by my remarks. I claimed they were responsible for the blast in Arkhangelsk. I wrote that the state’s crackdowns had generated a backlash: brutal law enforcement policies had embittered people. Since legal means of protesting had been blocked, the desire to protest had been pushed into such socially dangerous channels.

Publish this quotation from my text if you are not afraid.

“A strong state. A strong president, a strong governor. A country in which power belongs to strongmen.

“The Arkhangelsk suicide bomber’s generation has grown up in this atmosphere. They know it is forbidden to attend protest rallies: police can break up rallies or, worse, they can beat up protesters and then convict them of crimes. This generation knows that solo pickets are a punishable offense. They see that you can belong only to certain political parties without suffering for it and that you can voice only a certain range of opinions without fearing for your safety. This generation has been taught that you cannot find justice in court: judges will return the verdicts the law enforcement agencies and prosecutors want them to return.

“The long-term restriction of political and civic freedoms has given rise in Russia to state that is not only devoid of liberty but oppressive, a state with which it is unsafe and scary to deal.”

This is what I still think. Moreover, in my opinion, the Russian state has only confirmed my arguments by charging me with a crime.

“Their only task is to punish, to prove someone’s guilt and convict them. The merest formal excuse is enough to drag someone into the grindstone of the legal system,” I wrote.

I did not condone terrorism. I analyzed the causes of the attack. I tried to understand why a young man who had his whole life ahead of him decided to commit a crime and kill himself. Perhaps my reconstruction of his motives was mistaken. I would be glad to be mistaken, but no one has proven I was. It is rather primitive and crude to charge someone with a crime rather than engaging in a discussion. It is like punching someone in the face for something they said.

It is a punch in the face of every journalist in our country.

It is impossible to know in advance what words in what order will tick off the strongmen. They have labeled the opinion I voiced a crime. They have turned someone who was just doing her job into a criminal.

Using the same rationale, you can cook up a criminal case based on any more or less critical text. You merely need to find so-called experts who will sign an “expert opinion” for police investigators. If you know this can happen, will you tackle thorny subjects as a journalist? Will you ask questions that are certain to irritate the authorities? Will you accuse high-ranking officials of crimes?

The criminal case against me is an attempt to murder free speech. Remembering how the authorities made an example of me, dozens and hundreds of other journalists will not dare tell the truth when it needs to be told.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Hunter Heaney: Open Letter to Vladimir Putin

Oleg Sentsov. Photo courtesy of Sergei Fadeichev/TASS
Oleg Sentsov. Photo courtesy of Sergei Fadeichev/TASS

Open Letter to Vladimir Putin
The Voice Project
December 7, 2016

On Friday, Vladimir Putin met with artists and cultural figures at a joint session of the Council for Culture and Art and the Council for the Russian Language in St. Petersburg. He added in his response to entreaties for filmmaker Oleg Sentsov’s freedom that Sentsov, one of the subjects of The Voice Project’s “Imprisoned for Art” campaign, was “convicted not for art, but for taking other functions, as investigative and court bodies say, and particularly in fact he devoted his life to terrorist activity,” that “no one convicted him for his views or his position.”

He went on to say, “We should rely on that we live in a state governed by the rule of law and such issues should be of course decided by the court system,” but that “officials who interpret works of arts may take action” because “we don’t want what happened in Paris [at Charlie Hebdo] to be repeated here.” He speculated that “maybe the artists didn’t intend to offend anybody, but they did,” and that “we must bear that in mind, and not allow that, not split the society.”

The state news agency, TASS, immediately ran the headline, “Putin says Ukrainian filmmaker Sentsov convicted for terrorism, not art.” This is our response.

* * *

December 7, 2016

President Vladimir Putin
23, Ilyinka Street,
Moscow, 103132, Russia

Dear President Putin:

Authoritarians around the globe almost always use the same playbook—the same tactics to stifle dissent, the same type excuses to imprison those who speak out against them, even the same words. It is not original and it is quite predictable when you see enough of it, as we do in our work.

A common play is that outspoken dissidents, especially known figures such as artists, are arrested on spurious charges and imprisoned following show trials. The tactic is to make an example of the individual dissident in order to stifle dissent more widely, and it is most easily efficacious when applied to those already in the public eye, well known for their art or activism or leadership in another field. Notoriety of the target, though, is not a sine qua non, as the act of persecution and the proceedings of prosecution can themselves be heavily publicized, especially with the aid of a compliant state controlled media. The pretense for prosecution is often laughable, but the absurdity as well sends a message: that the authoritarian and the authoritarian system are not bound by rule of law, but rather rule through systemic power, and that one’s safety and well-being within the society depend on compliance, conformity and loyalty to the ruling power.

We see these tactics employed the world over and throughout history, and often now in Russia under your leadership. Pussy Riot were imprisoned not for singing a song that called you and your cronies “shit”, but rather for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”; Maria Baronova was arrested not for yelling at Bolotnaya Square, but for “inciting mass riots”; Sergei Magnitsky was arrested, tortured and killed not for exposing the pervasive corruption of a kleptocracy, but for “colluding with a tax evader.” And Journalist Kieron Bryan of the “Arctic 30” evidently ran afoul of your piracy laws? No, of course not, and likewise, as Heather McGill at Amnesty International has noted, the “fatally flawed” trial of filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, a figure well known because of his art, “was designed to send a message. It played into Russia’s propaganda war against Ukraine and was redolent of Stalinist-era show trials of dissidents.”

As Ms. McGill alludes to, you are far from the first to use this tactic on dissidents. Arseny Roginsky was arrested for forgery, Gunārs Astra for spying, Andrei Amalrik for pornography, Nikolay Gumilyov for conspiracy, Ephraim Kholmyansky for possession of ammunition, and Alexander Lavut for possession of a book. The tactic is not new and it is not region specific. Mussolini had Gramsci arrested in Italy not for his writings, but for supposed involvement in an assassination plot. Muhammadu Buhari imprisoned Fela Kuti in Nigeria not for being a singer of truths, but for being a smuggler of currency. As the biblical saying goes, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Oleg Sentsov’s views and activism made him a target; the notoriety from his art made him a good one.

In regard to your comments that you have not the power to free Oleg, you are right, in ways you don’t understand. You so graciously let Pussy Riot out just two months before the completion of their two-year term, but Nadya’s right here and says, “You can shove your amnesty up your ass.” Similarly, Oleg does not want us to beg for your clemency, but would rather we parade your glib hypocrisy. You misunderstand us if you think we ask for his freedom through your benevolence, rather, we demand it from your discreditation. That is what we mean by #FreeOlegSentsov.

In regard to your comment that freedom of expression requires the responsibility not to offend, you pretend to not understand that freedom requires the ability to do so. We hear this from your kind all the time, it is an old song to a bad tune—the authoritarian pretending to be a champion of freedom that is not freedom.

Your doublespeak attempts to engender doublethink. You are not the first and you are not alone in this either. You have your political technologists, your state media, and your embarrassing troll factories, the US has its think tanks, corporate media and its own embarrassing trolls, sometimes disguised as clowny demagogues who spray tan on ephemeral ideologies and syllogistic hyperbole of various offensive hues. Orwell predicted that the very concept of objective truth would fade from the world, and your kind seem hard at work to make it so, but many of us believe that in the end the truth does out because it is existentially, ontologically superior to lies. You’ve heard this before, but it doesn’t sink in. You think that imprisoning artists silences them, but each speaks more loudly because of it, loud enough for the world to hear. You think repression and brutality invoke fear, but they inspire courage and embolden action. Russia has one of the greatest traditions of dissidents of any nation on earth, you and your predecessors did that. These lessons your kind seldom learns.

As for those of us here in the States, we’ll likely have our own taste of authoritarianism before long, but we are not afraid. We have many warriors here. They are standing right now in the snow, unbroken, on the Great Plains of North Dakota. And luckily, we have learned the lessons from those like you, so we’ll act accordingly. In the meantime, we’ll abide by, and learn from the words of Oleg himself:

There is no need to pull us out of here at all costs. This wouldn’t bring victory any closer. Yet using us as a weapon against the enemy will. You must know: we are not your weak point. If we’re supposed to become the nails in the coffin of a tyrant, I’d like to become one of those nails. Just know that this particular one will not bend.

Sincerely,

Hunter Mora Heaney
Executive Director
The Voice Project

My thanks to Mr. Heaney for his kind permission to republish this letter here. TRR

Yevgeniya Chirikova and Nadezhda Kutepova: Open Letter to Dr. Jill Stein

Yevgenia Chirikova
Yevgenia Chirikova

Yevgeniya Chirikova
Facebook
September 6, 2016

Open Letter to Dr. Jill Stein, 2016 Green Party Candidate for President of the United States

Dear Dr. Stein,

We are writing to you in the spirit of green values and principles, which include fighting for a sustainable future, defending the environment and human rights, and engaging in international solidarity. We are also writing to you as eco-activists, women and mothers.

In November of this year, you will face an important challenge which will have an impact all over the world, even far from the US. As Russian eco-activists, we are following the US presidential election with curiosity and fear. Curiosity for your democratic system and fear for the impact that the result of this election could have on our lives and the lives of our children.

As environmentalists and human rights defenders, we often support Green candidates all over the world when they run in local, national or continental elections. However, we are asking ourselves if we can support your candidacy for the Presidency of the United States of America. We have carefully read your program and your website, and we have to admit that we are deeply shocked by the position you expressed during your visit to Moscow and your meeting with Mr. Vladimir Putin.

During the last few years, the Russian authorities have continued the destruction of the rich and unique Russian environment. The Kremlin is heavily contributing to global climate change and the destruction of global biodiversity by overexploiting Russian natural resources and promoting unsafe nuclear energy. The corruption and anti-democratic behavior of the current Russian government have also led to negative impacts on Russia’s unique forests and natural heritage. Russian eco-activists and human rights defenders are also facing an increasingly repressive system which was constructed under Putin’s regime. The list of the victims of this system is unfortunately becoming longer and longer. Russian environmentalist Yevgeny Vitishko spent 22 months in prison for a non-violent action. Journalist Mikhail Beketov was violently attacked in 2008, suffered serious injuries, and died in 2013. Our personal cases are also symbolic: because of our activism, and in order to protect our children, we were both forced to leave Russia and to seek political asylum in the European Union.

Nadezha Kutepova
Nadezha Kutepova

After your visit to Moscow and your meeting with Vladimir Putin you said that “the world deserve[s] a new commitment to collaborative dialogue between our governments to avert disastrous wars for geopolitical domination, destruction of the climate, and cascading injustices that promote violence and terrorism.” We agree with you. But how can this new “collaborative dialogue” be possible when Mr. Putin has deliberately built a system based on corruption, injustice, falsification of elections, and violation of human rights and international law? How is it possible to have a discussion with Mr. Putin and not mention, not even once, the fate of Russian political prisoners or the attacks against Russian journalists, artists, and environmentalists? Is it fair to speak with him about “geopolitics” and not mention new Russian laws against freedom of speech, restrictions on NGOs and activists or the shameful law that forbids “homosexual propaganda”?

By silencing Putin’s crimes you are silencing our struggle. By shaking his hand and failing to criticize his regime you become his accomplice. By forgetting what international solidarity means you are insulting the Russian environmental movement.

Dr. Stein, you still have several weeks before the election in order to clarify your position on the anti-democratic and anti-environmental elements of Putin’s regime. We sincerely hope that our voices will be heard and that our questions will not go unanswered.

Best regards,
Yevgeniya Chirikova
Nadezhda Kutepova

Yevgeniya Chirikova is a Russian environmental activist who gained renown as one of the leaders of the fight to save the Khimki Forest, outside of Moscow. She currently lives in Estonia. Nadezhda Kutepova, an anti-nuclear activist from the small town of Ozyorsk in the Urals and founder of the NGO Planet of Hopes, was forced to flee the country last year with her four children after being accused on state TV of “espionage.” Photos courtesy of East West Blog and RFE/RL, respectively. NB. This letter was very lightly edited to make it more readable. TRR

Yaroslav Leontiev: Open Letter to NOD

Prizewinners and mentors at the awards ceremony for the 2012 history research competition The Individual in History: Russia in the 20th Century.
Prizewinners and mentors at the awards ceremony for the 2012 history research competition for high school seniors, The Individual in History: Russia in the 20th Century.

Yaroslav V. Leontiev, Doctor of Historical Sciences, Professor, Moscow State University
Open Letter to the Headquarters of the National Liberation Movement (NOD)
Facebook
June 29, 2016

A year ago, a friend of mine joked on the topic of what the participants in its school program and their schoolteacher mentors would be called after the International Memorial Society was declared a “foreign agent”? Accomplices of “foreign agents” or what? He was joking, but the idiots have taken it at face value.

So, messieurs idiots, with your escapade [see article, below] you have insulted, first of all, the cherished memory of Sigurd Ottovich Schmidt, the longtime jury chair of The Individual in History: Russia in the 20th Century, a nationwide historical research competition for high school seniors. The son of a Hero of the Soviet Union, the legendary polar explorer and scientist Otto Schmidt, Sigurd Ottovich Schmidt was a Teacher and a Historian with a capital “t” and a capital “h,” a man who educated many generations of professional source studies experts, archivists, and local history specialists. Schmidt was the founder and chair of the Russian Union of Local Historians.

At the same time, you have insulted the memory of the son of another Hero of the Soviet Union, a man decorated with the Gold Hero Star for the Berlin operation, Gennady Demyanovich Kuzov. Kuzov and I handed out the awards to the young participants of a previous competition onstage together.

For many years, I, a pupil of Sigurd Ottovich Schmidt, served as an expert for the competition The Individual in History: Russia in the 20th Century. I personally pored over hundreds of submitted works, and I detected no “national treachery” or “rewriting of history” in any of them.

The competition was a ticket into big-time scholarship for Lyosha Rakov, a wonderful boy from the Ural backwoods who was a winner of the first contest. While still a high schooler, he did a serious research project on the dispossessed kulaks and exiled special settlers who built the manufacturing plants in Chelyabinsk. Nowadays, Alexey Rakov has a Ph.D. in history and is an associate professor at the Higher School of Economics.

It was at the competition that I met a magnificent educator from the town of Kashin, history teacher Tatyana Mikhailovna Golubyova, who now heads the local history society. Along with her and her pupils, I walked hundreds of kilometers during historical hiking trips to study the military campaigns against the Polish-Lithuanian invaders during the early seventeenth century.

The same competition was the occasion for several encounters with Nikolai Makarov, a village schoolteacher from Voronezh Region who had compiled a genuine encyclopedia of the local villages and towns along with his pupils. The anthology We Are All from the Same Village, written by schoolchildren from the town of Novyi Kurlak in the Anna District, has been one of the best works on the history of everyday life published by Memorial.

And how can I forget the mother of a large family from the town of Likhoslavl, capital of the Tver Karelians, who herself served as a mentor for the competition, and her children, who were winners several years in a row? Or the girl from the Old Believers trading post of Sym? On the map of our immense country there is such a town on the Yenisei River, reachable only by helicopter. She wrote what is perhaps the only documentary history of the most remote and northerly point of the Yeniseysk District of Krasnoyarsk Territory.

Today, you gave these already-grown children a slap in the face, just as you gave a slap in the face to the hundreds of other children who visited Moscow for the first time thanks to this contest, and then went on to enroll in universities and become friends for years. You have insulted the dozens of teachers from the Russian hinterland, including those who went on to become winners of the nationwide Russian Teacher of the Year contest. (Such as Tatyana Mikhailovna Golubyova, whom I have already mentioned, but she is not alone.)

It is not for you idiots to teach them and me love for the Motherland and the graves of our ancestors. I happen to have spearheaded the raising of a monument to the heroic military commander of the Time of Troubles Prince Mikhail Vasilyevich Skopin-Shuisky in the town of Kalyazin, the second and most famous such monument in the country. In many respects, I spearheaded the raising of the first monument to the heroes of the First World War in Tver Region, the unveiling of a memorial plaque on the anniversary of Sergei Yesenin’s visit to Tver, and a number of other memorials honoring the heroes of the past in Tver, Vladimir, and Yaroslavl Regions. My ancestor was awarded the highest military honor for regimental priests, a gold pectoral cross on a Saint George’s Ribbon. The heroes of the First World War were later “awarded” arrests and exile. Our common ancestor had been decorated for the capture of Paris in 1814. My grandfather was awarded the main decoration for soldiers, the Medal for Valor, and two holes in his body, made by fascist bullets and shrapnel, that never did heal over.

Lazar Lazarev, the longtime editor-in-chief of the journal Problems of Literature, and father of Irina Shcherbakov, head of educational programs at Memorial and coordinator of the School Competitions project, was the highly decorated commander of a reconnaissance company. It is not for you idiot mummers to teach us patriotism. Authentic Saint George’s Ribbons are soaked in blood, while the sham ones you wear smack of bad slapstick or, to put it in Russian, of baboonery and buffonery.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Memorial

__________

Human Rights Event Attacked in Moscow
Anastasia Bazenkova
Moscow Times
April 28, 2016

Photo courtesy of @MemorialMoscow/Twitter

Guests at an event organized by Russia’s leading human rights group Memorial have been attacked by nationalist activists, the organization’s executive director told the Moscow Times Thursday.

Participants at an award ceremony for high school history students were sprayed with disinfectant and ammonia, said executive director Yelena Zhemkova.

“Memorial was holding a very important event at Dom Kino in central Moscow, but the guests and the participants were attacked by a group of aggressive protesters who threw green disinfectant and ammonia at them as they tried to enter the building,” Zhemkova said.

The protests in front of the Dom Kino building were organized by the National Liberation Movement (NOD), local media sources reported.

Roughly twenty NOD activists congregated outside Dom Kino, holding banners reading, “We don’t need alternative history,” and shouting, “Fascists!”

Among those attacked was acclaimed Russian novelist Ludmila Ulitskaya. The writer, who headed the jury at the competition, was sprayed in the face with a green disinfectant.

A number of international guests were also present, including the German ambassador to Russia Rüdiger von Fritsch, Novaya Gazeta newspaper reported. The activists also attacked a delegate from a similar school history contest in Norway.

NOD’s youth wing coordinator, Maria Katasonova, denied the attack on Ulitskaya in an interview with Govorit Moskva radio station.

“We don’t know who sprayed Ulitskaya,” she said. “I only saw her turn around and she was already covered in green disinfectant.”

The high school competition, The Individual in History: Russia in the 20th Century, is an annual event held by Memorial. Students from around the country are encouraged to research local history by studying historical archives, interviewing witnesses, and examining newspapers and other sources.

Winning students are then invited to Moscow, where they visit a number of places and attend events organized by Memorial. The culmination of their Moscow program is the awards ceremony.

Police arriving on the scene said the protest was a one-man picket and took no action.

“Usually, even if it is a real one-man protest, the police will come and put everybody in the back of a van. This time the police did nothing, even though our college suffered an eye injury,” Zhemkova said.

Zhemkova said that although there had been protests during previous Memorial events, it was the first time counter-activists had been so aggressive.

There had been a picket in front of the Sakharov Center, where Memorial held an exhibition dealing with the First Chechen War last month, but no one had been attacked, she said.

NB. I edited this article, because no one at the Moscow Times bothered to do it before publication, thus making it practically unreadable. TRR