Metamorphosis

The incomparable Valery Dymshits writes:

Yesterday at dinner my son Senya said: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a foreign agent.”

“When Friday comes … identify foreign agents.” Meme courtesy of Andrei Pivovarov

Andrei Pivovarov
Facebook
October 8, 2021

⚡️The Justice Ministry has placed 9 more journalists and 3 companies on its  register of “foreign media agents,” including Bellingcat, which investigated Navalny’s poisoning, the founder of the Center for the Protection of Media Rights, a TV Rain journalist, and a BBC journalist.

The list now includes:
🔸Tatyana Voltskaya, Radio Svoboda
🔸Daniil Sotnikov, TV Rain
🔸Katerina Klepikovskaya, Sever.Realii
🔸Аndrei Zakharov, BBC
🔸Galina Arapova, director of the Center for the Protection of Media Rights
🔸Roman Perl, Current Time
🔸Elizaveta Surnacheva, Proekt
🔸Elena Solovieva, Sever.Realii
🔸Eugene Simonov, international coordinator of the Rivers Without Borders Coalition
🔹M.News World
🔹Bellingcat
🔹LLC “МЕМО”(the founding company of Caucasian Knot)

We were happy for the journalists at Novaya Gazeta, but we shouldn’t overdo it, is the message, apparently.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“Eternal summer.” 8 October 2015, Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

Russia’s total excess death toll since the beginning of the pandemic until the end of August, the most recent available data, stands at 660,000 — one of the highest rates in the world both in absolute terms and on a per capita basis.

Band Practice

Drivers, workers, and policemen play in the Uglich recreation center’s brass band. The vocalist hosts a children’s program on local television, while the drummer performs as Father Frost at New Year’s celebrations.

Most of the musicians played in the October Club Brass Band as children, and the current ensemble is named the Sysoyev Pop and Brass Band in memory of Alexander Sysoyev, who came to town in 1945, after the war, and organized it. When they grew up, the children went to the army, most often serving in military bands, and if they returned to Uglich, they continued to play. There were two brass bands in the city – at the watch factory and at the engineering works.

In the nineties, the factories shut down and the bands broke up: the musicians were not up to playing music, many of them were just trying to survive. A new band featuring the old musicians was formed in the early noughties thanks to the city’s mayor, Eleonora Sheremetyeva.

The band rehearses in the rec center on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and sometimes performs in towns for local residents. We hear the stories of the musicians in this documentary film by Yulia Vishnevetskaya, Renato Serrano and Nikita Tatarsky.

“On the corner was the October Club, also called 30 Years of the Komsomol Club. There was a brass band on the second floor, led by Alexander Pavlovich Sysoev. He would recruit us kids. People worked at the watch factory. I ended up in the assembly shop: I assembled watches. The team consisted of forty young women and little old me. It was a great place to work. I worked on the ‘action’: that was one of the jobs.”

“I started leading the band in the late 80s. After a while I went into business and didn’t play for more than ten years, but fate put me back in touch with the band and I returned. I have a transport company. In the mornings, I dispatch cars and buses to places, and sometimes I get behind the wheel myself, and in the evenings I go to practice. Of course, the world of music and the world of transport are completely different things. I don’t usually get distracted when I’m here. You go off into the world of music, and the outside world is somewhere far away: you are only making music… Previously, there were two bands, at the watch factory and at the engineering works. Then, in the early nineties, the factories fell apart. All the musicians came together in a single band: some came from the watch factory, some from the engineering works, someone from somewhere else , someone from the police. Like in Shufutinsky’s song, we have a jazz band, only there is no dentist.”

“I worked in the militia [the previous name for the Russian police] for twenty-five years, and then transferred to the police in 2011 [meaning, when it was renamed]. I might have retired already, but I have a kid to educate, and we pay for his tuition. I do forensic examinations: I’m qualified to analyze fingerprints, trace evidence, and bladed weapons. I hadn’t picked up an instrument for seventeen years. I listened to the band play once, twice, and I thought that I also used to know all this stuff. It was a good thing that the band believed me and let me join. I had to look around on Avito for a horn just like the one I had before. I took the bus to Moscow to buy it… I don’t remember the thefts, but I do remember the murders, of course. There was a cruel murder: a man was hacked with an axe. I can talk about it because the trial has happened. The man didn’t have a head: it was in two pieces. Then a man was strangled. We found the criminal through fingerprints. Bottles were confiscated, and I found handprints and fingerprints on them, which we ran through the computer. The computer doesn’t do things as quickly as in the movies. They’re just fooling people: it’s not comparable. If they showed the way it really worked, no one would watch them. It’s very painstaking work. They brought me several boxes of bottles. I had to process each one of them — lift the prints from them, weed out the witnesses and victims who could have drunk from those bottles. Consequently, we found the people who strangled him in the woods: they had a conflict. Traces are always left behind: trace scents, body oil and sweat, DNA. If there are no fingerprints, there are shoe prints, tire prints, traces left by burglary tools. I have twenty years of experience… People aren’t lined up to replace me. People retire, but there’s no one to replace them. People can’t take it: they’re not machines. I come here and play, so it seems I want to go on living. The negative effects of work build up all the same. When I perform I get goosebumps, honestly. If I have goosebumps, it means we’ve played well.”

Source: Radio Svoboda. Photos of the Sysoyev Pop and Brass Band courtesy of Uglich-Online. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Gunda

gundaGunda and piglet. Photo courtesy of Radio Svoboda

“I Ask Animals for Forgiveness”: The Life of a Remarkable Pig
Dmitry Volchek
Radio Svoboda
March 4, 2020

Not a single human being appears on screen. We see only animals whose lives are run by people: a one-legged chicken, bulls, cows, and, as the main character, a sow named Gunda (more accurately, Günda, as her name is spelled in Norway, where she lives).

“The Russian-born director Victor Kossakovsky offers us not simply a film, but a stunning experience of life.” “A simple yet absolutely astonishing documentary picture.” “An unusual film, and a captivating poetic work of art.” That is how American and European film critics rated Victor Kossakovsky’s documentary film Gunda, which premiered at the 70th Berlin Film Festival.

One of the film’s producers was Joaquin Phoenix, who dedicated his acceptance speech at the Oscars, where he won the Best Actor prize for his role in the film Joker, to animal rights. Like Victor Kossakovsky, Phoenix sticks to a vegan diet. But Gunda isn’t simply activist cinema, urging that slaughtering animals and consuming their corpses is disgusting. Just like Kossakovsky’s previous work, Aquarela, Gunda is an innovative and impeccably made film: every frame resembles a Dürer etching.

After the film’s Berlin premiere, Victor Kossakovsky answered Radio Svoboda’s questions.

Is Gunda still alive?

— I know that art cannot save the world, unfortunately, but we did manage to save one pig.  She has become famous, and her owner said, “Now, of course, I won’t be able to kill her. Let her live as long as she’s supposed to.” Piglets live, on average, four to six months, while sows live two to three years. But now Gunda will live twenty-five to thirty years. My film saved one pig.

How did you meet her?

— That was very simple. We’d planned on about half a year for casting the animals, but I found her on the very first day, in the first minute. I arrived in Norway, dropped by my first farm, opened the door, and caught sight of Gunda. I said to the producer, “We’ve found our Meryl Streep — there she is!” The producer was in shock: “You’re probably joking. No doubt she is just a candidate.” I said, “No, we’ve found her. End of story.” It had dawned on me that I could look at her endlessly: she really was like Meryl Streep. I should say that for twenty years I could not find money for this film. In 1997, I showed my film Wednesday at the Berlinale. When I was awarded the International Federation of Film Critics Prize, a small press conference was organized for me. I was asked, “What will your next film be? What film do you dream of making?” I said, “I’d like to make a film about a pig, a cow, and a chicken.” From that time on, however, I was unable to find anyone who would agree to produce it, neither in Russia nor in any other country, until I found a Norwegian woman who took the risk. I lucked out: at last I’ve made the film that I’d wanted to make my whole life.

You mentioned Meryl Streep, but it seemed to me that, at the end, Gunda was transformed into Anna Magnani in the film Mamma Roma.

— Oh, how brilliant you are! That’s really the case. There is, of course, a turnaround at the end of the film, where she is Anna Magnani, an allusion to the film Mamma Roma. Thank you for noticing. Of course, in every film there’s a first plane, second plane, thirteenth plane — there are things that not everyone sees.

You filmed not only in Norway, but in England as well. Am I right that the cows live in different places?

— Yes, we filmed the cows in two places. The episode when they stand head to tail and help one another swat away flies with their tails we filmed in Spain, on the border with France. We filmed the main episode with cows in England, and the chickens were filmed in Wales. In England and Spain, compassionate people buy cows, chickens, and pigs from farmers who are taking the animals to the slaughterhouse and give them a second chance. Ordinary private citizens living in country homes buy cows and say, “There’s grass all around, live here as long as you like.” For that reason, those animals are so friendly: they weren’t afraid of the camera. A huge two-meter-high bull allowed us to walk right up to him. The chickens had never been outside: they’d been born and had stood, twenty to a cage, their whole lives. We found people who bought those cages and let out the chickens. It turned out that when the door was opened, the chickens would not come out for an entire hour. They didn’t know that it was possible to go out: they’d lived their whole lives in a cage, cramped, never once in their lives spreading their wings, never once in their lives catching sight of the sky. When they came out, they were even afraid of stepping on the grass, as if it were boiling water. They lifted their feet off the grass as if they’d been scalded. And those cows had never been outdoors. They didn’t even know that they should eat the grass: they went out and just sniffed it The bull walked up to a tree and only sniffed the leaves. How intoxicatingly beautiful it was when those cows began to dance and jump! Those chickens were shocked by their freedom: they looked around, not understanding where they were, and reacting to every sound. They opened their wings for the first time in their lives and then looked at themselves: how could this be?

I know that cinema won’t change the world, but I made a movie in order to say to animals, “Forgive me for not being able to do anything.” At least we saved one sow from being consumed. In my movie, for example, there’s a cow who is twenty-two years old. Have you ever seen a twenty-two-year-old cow? Cows are killed as soon as they stop producing enough milk. But in my film the cow lives. You look at her face, and you can see fate in her eyes. She’s a grandmother of sorts, even a great-grandmother. We permit ourselves not to think about the fact that we’re murderers. We allow ourselves to forget it.

_______________________

Victor Kossakovsky

The filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky was born in Leningrad in 1961. He lives in Berlin. His documentary films include Losev (1989), Wednesday 7/19/61 (1997), Quiet! (2002), and Long Live the Antipodes! (2011). He is a winner of the Triumph (1997) and Nika (1998) Russian film prizes, and of numerous international film festival awards. In 2019, his film Aquarela was shortlisted along with fourteen other films for the Academy Award for Documentary Feature.

“As a documentary filmmaker, I probably bear some responsibility for not shooting something about Russia, but it seems to me that there are more problems on earth. Because the very fact that there is Putin, the very fact that there is war, speaks to the point that something about us as biological creatures is not right. If Russians are fighting Ukrainians, something about us, not about Russians and Ukrainians, but about humankind, is wrong. So, I want to understand what this creature — man — is, and what his place on earth is.”

Source: Interview with Radio Liberty (2018)

_______________________

The festival catalogue said that everyone who saw your film would stop eating meat.

— Even the smartest people, even the most distinguished artists who’ve seen the picture, hugged me afterward while ordering hamburgers and citing the notion that, all the same, everything in nature is founded on the struggle for survival. We’ve been living for several centuries in the era of humanism. Many things helped us get rid of slavery, racism, and cannibalism. Now we’re starting to recognize the rights of people with untraditional sexual orientations.

It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that suffragettes were thrown in prison for demanding that women be given the right to vote.

— In my country, there was serfdom 150 years ago. Seventy years ago here, in Germany, and in my country, millions of people were murdered. We are unbelievably aggressive, we have to admit that. Our awareness lags behind our intellect. We’re capable of inventing cars, computers, cinema, rockets, Novichok, and atom bombs, and yet we’re incapable of understanding that killing is wrong. Killing not only people, but killing per se is wrong. But we’ve learned to block that out. Every one of us knows that at dinner, breakfast and supper, we’re consuming the meat of murdered creatures, but we allow ourselves not to think about that, we simply block it out. We know that murder exists, but we’ve come to an agreement that is doesn’t exist. Basically, murder is bad, but in the given instance, as far as dinner goes, it’s okay. That is, we split our intellect and our awareness. So, I wanted to title this film “My Apology.” I’m making an apology to animals for not being able to change the world. I can’t even convince my closest friends that this is crazy. Even the most distinguished cultural figures say to me, “It’s the law of nature.” Even they live with blinders on. They don’t really know the laws of nature: they’ve been told that predators are aggressive. They don’t know that animals are capable of self-sacrifice, love, and mutual aid. They don’t know that, but I do know it. I’ve seen it.

People live inside myths and justify their own ugliness and irrationality. Their hardheartedness is justified by the claim that supposed laws of nature exist allowing the strongest to kill the weak. They don’t exist — it’s a myth. In nature, there’s so much beauty that we’ve never even dreamed of. Every animal is capable of decency. It’s time for us, too, to remember it. Everyone knows that dogs and cats are intelligent animals. Everyone knows that your dog loves you. Everyone knows that it shares your emotions with you, that it’s ready to help you when you’re feeling bad. The same is true of cows, chickens, and pigs. They also have feelings, they are also intelligent, and they also have compassion. They’re ready to sacrifice themselves. But here we have the British Parliament, under pressure from farmers, passing a law that it’s supposedly okay to kill animals because they don’t feel pain. It’s not only our government of imbeciles. No, the willfully unseeing are everywhere.

_______________________

Joaquin Phoenix on Gunda:

“Gunda is a mesmerizing perspective on sentience within animal species, normally — and perhaps purposely — hidden from our view. Displays of pride and reverence, amusement and bliss at a pig’s inquisitive young; her panic, despair and utter defeat in the face of cruel trickery, are validations of just how similarly all species react and cope with events in our respective lives. Victor Kossakovsky has crafted a visceral meditation on existence that transcends the normal barriers that separate species. It is a film of profound importance and artistry.”

_______________________

— At a meeting with young filmmakers, you spoke about the fact that you’re outraged by Putin’s decision to sign the law on hunting captive animals.

— Yes, he has legalized the very basest thing that man can do. I would recommend that all of our women living with men who go and hunt captive animals refuse to have sex with them. They’ll come home from hunting animals in captivity and show photographs of how they killed a bear, and their wives will say to them, “Pardon me, dear, go live with the bears.” That’s the most shameful thing one can do — chase animals into an enclosure and shoot them dead point-blank using a carbine with an optical sight. Leonardo da Vinci said five hundred years ago that killing a human and killing an animal were one and the same thing. A hundred years ago, Tolstoy urged us to come to our senses, but we sign a law on hunting captive animals! Where are we headed, friends, where is our country being dragged? It’s being dragged into an ignorant, loathsome past, a vulgarian past armed with a carbine.

— In your movie there’s not a single human word, but the grunting of Gunda and her piglets seems like speech, music even.

— We recorded several times more quickly than usual, and then we looked at the diagram. We laid out these sounds and found that the cows have approximately 270 words, while the pigs have about 300 different words. They pronounce 300 words! That’s only what we managed to do with our technology. That’s not just one “moo”: our ears can’t perceive them in any other way, but these are various “moos.” An animal’s children react differently to her voice. We are blind and deaf. We simply don’t want to know that they suffer. Think for yourself. We live on this planet together. There are now twenty billion chickens on earth. We kill fifty billion animals a year.

— Then the other half are discarded because they weren’t eaten.

— There are one billion pigs on the planet right now, and we will kill them. They can live up to twenty years. There are one and a half billion cows, and we will kill one third of them this year. We’ll kill all of them, freeze them, and transport them on ships from Argentina, from Brazil. On average, each person eats 100 kilograms of meat [a year] – in Europe slightly less, in America slightly more. Look at what’s happening: there are seven billion of us, and each of us eats 100 kilograms of meat [a year]. Just think about the kinds of numbers I’m talking about. It’s a killing machine. You also have to have slaughterhouses and processing plants. You have to get rid of the waste. You have to freeze, transport, saw up, chop up, freeze, pack up, and sell the meat.

— Industrial animal husbandry is the same kind of system as the Gulag.

— And it’s causing huge pollution to the planet. Why do we think that they’re made differently from us, that we’re so privileged? To save our hearts we use pig organs. And yet we think that we suffer more than they do.

— There’s not a single human being in your film. Only in the final shot do humans appear, in the shape of a beastly iron machine.  Why did you exclude all people from the picture?

— Many films have been made on this topic. Many attempts have been made to capture the slaughterhouse, the blood. It doesn’t work. There’s a good documentary film on the subject, Our Daily Bread. There have been several artistically serious films, but they changed nothing about people’s lives. I thought that I needed to come at it from another direction completely. I tried to do it in such a way that people would see animals as they are, and not as we perceive them. I filmed them at such a distance in order to give them full freedom. And it’s not me who approached Gunda, but she who approached me. That’s a very important point. When they took her children away from her, she came up to me and looked right into my eyes, because there was no one else for her to talk to. She was left alone, suffered for fifteen minutes, and in the end came up to me. Basically, she said to me, “What are you all doing to me?” Then she turned away, glancing at me from afar: “What’s the point in talking to you?” And she walked away. That’s how empty we people are — even a pig could say that to us.

— How did you arrive at veganism?

— It was simple. At the age of four years, I found myself by chance in a small village where there was a pig. It was a cold winter. The pig was left alone, but its two-week-old piglet was brought into the house, and a little pen was made for him. When everyone left for work, he and I ran would run around the house, and afterward we would put things back together: I took the floor rug by one end, and he took the other with his teeth, and we straightened it out. He was the dearest creature to me: he loved me, and I loved him. He understood me and didn’t just run after me. He played with me, and I played with him. I worried about him, and he worried about me. When they slaughtered him, it was the end of the world for me. I couldn’t understand how my relatives could kill my best friend.

My mother later said, “Where does all this come from in you? What is this nonsense in your head? That’s the way the world is made, that one eats another.” I said, “Mama, you taught me this yourself.” One of my earliest memories from childhood was the two us walking down the street. It was a beautiful summer, and I tore a leaf off a bush. I looked at the light, at the setting sun. And I said to my mother, “Look, what a beautiful leaf.” She said, “Tear out one of your own tiny hairs. Does it hurt?” – “It hurts.” – “That’s how the bush hurt, too, when you tore off this leaf.” My mom had given me this immunity. Remember what Dostoevsky said: “I cannot understand how it’s possible to pass by a tree, see it, and not be happy, not feel happiness.” How is it possible not to be happy, seeing this improbably beautiful world? How is it possible to build bombs and frighten other people, instead of thanking your lucky stars that you were born? How is it possible to cut down trees instead of planting them? How is it possible to kill animals instead of giving them freedom and leaving them alone? We should just forget about them, leave them alone and not kill them. After all, they don’t take our children from us. They don’t put us in cages. Look, my pig spends most of its time digging in the dirt. But in point of fact, ninety-nine percent of pigs are born in small cages set on cement floors, and are never able, during their short lives, to root around in the dirt.

What do we do? We only yell: hey, people, what about human rights? Fine, human rights we’ve already grasped. What’s next? There’s no slavery. What’s next? We’re not murdering millions. What’s next? We recognize [the rights of] gays. What’s next? The next step is recognizing that animals have the same rights as we do to live in this world. The next step is admitting that we can choose not to kill.

— And we can get by perfectly well without meat.

— Look at the horse: it’s stronger than you are.

— Look at the elephant!

— The elephant is a hundred times stronger than you are, and it’s a vegetarian. My friends, what are these idiotic ideas you tell me, that, in order for me to work in a slaughterhouse, I need to eat a pig? You don’t need to eat a pig. I can only repeat what Tolstoy said: “Killing a human or killing an animal: it’s the same act of murder.” We live as creatures who allow themselves to kill — that’s the main thing. And we won’t budge forward an inch until we understand that.

Thanks to Dmitry Kalugin and Alexander Markov for the heads-up. Translated by Mary Rees

Russian Justice Ministry Adds Five New “Foreign Agents” to Its List

“The register of foreign mass media performing the functions of a foreign agent has been updated. On December 28, 2020, in compliance with the requirements of the current legislation of the Russian Federation, Darya Apahonchich, Denis Kamalyagin, Sergey Markelov, Lev Ponomarev, and Lyudmila Savitskaya were included in the register of foreign mass media performing the functions of a foreign agent.” Screenshot of Russian Justice Ministry website, 28 December 2020

Human Rights Activists Lev Ponomaryov and Four Other People Added to List of “Foreign Agents”
OVD Info
December 28, 2020

For the first time, the Russian Ministry of Justice has placed individuals, including journalists and the human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov, on its registry of “[foreign] mass media acting as foreign agents,” as reflected on the ministry’s website.

Lev Ponomaryov, head of the movement For Human Rights, Radio Svoboda and MBKh Media journalist Lyudmila Savitskaya, 7×7 journalist Sergei Markelov, Pskovskaya Guberniya editor-in-chief Denis Kamalyagin, and grassroots activist and performance artist Darya Apahonchich.

Savitskaya, Markelov and Kamalyagin were probably placed on the registry of “foreign agents” due to their work with Radio Svoboda, which was placed on the registry of “foreign agents” in 2017.

In late December, the State Duma introduced and partly considered bills that would tighten the law on “foreign agents.” Thus, repeated violations of accountability under the law can now result in five years in prison. According to the new clarifications, the status of “foreign agent” can be granted to individuals engaged in political activities and receiving money for this work from abroad. Another bill would prohibit the dissemination of information in the media produced by foreign agents unless it is specially labelled.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“The FSB Are the Main Terrorists”: The Political Biography of Ivan Astashin

Ivan Astashin in prison. Photo by Maxim Pivovarov. Courtesy of RFE/RL

“The FSB Are the Main Terrorists”: The Political Biography of Ivan Astashin
Dmitry Volchek
Radio Svoboda
October 3, 2020

On the night of December 20, 2009, the eve of State Security Officers Day, a group of young people threw a Molotov cocktail into the FSB’s offices in Moscow’s Southwest District. No one was injured, and the room was slightly damaged: a windowsill and several chairs were burned. A video of the protest soon appeared on the internet, entitled “Happy Chekists Day, Bastards!” The author of the video was 17-year-old Ivan Astashin.

The arson sparked a large-scale, trumped-up criminal case against the so-called Autonomous Combat Terrorist Organization (ABTO), which was headed, according to investigators, by Astashin. Initially, the alleged members of ABTO were charged with property damage, but soon they were also accused of disorderly conduct. The Investigative Committee later decided that the defendants in the case had wanted to impact state policy, so they should be tried for “terrorism”(as punishable under Article 205 of the criminal code). They were tortured into confessing.

Ten young people were involved in the ABTO Case. In 2012, they were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. Astashin received the longest sentence—13 years in a high-security penal colony, which was later reduced to 9 years and 9 months. Astashin was first sent to Krasnoyarsk Correctional Colony No. 17, but in 2014 he was transferred to Norilsk Correctional Colony No. 15. Lawyers and human rights activists argued that the case was political, pointing out that ABTO did not exist, and the members of the alleged “terrorist organization” did not even know each other.

“In Ivan’s case, the FSB took revenge on teenagers who dared to throw a bottle of petrol through their window. The case was a bellwether. It showed how the security forces had degenerated: why should they stake out real criminals and document their every move, if they could torture children until they lose consciousness, forcing them to sign a horseshit ‘confession’ that will then be called ‘evidence’ in the verdict?” said lawyer Igor Popovsky, who argued Astashin’s case before the Russian Supreme Court.

In recent years, Astashin has become known as an op-ed writer, penning articles about prison mores. On September 1, 2019, Radio Svoboda published his letter “Breaking Convicts Under the Law’s Cover,” which detailed the injustices at Krasnoyarsk CC 17, about the differences among castes of prisoners, their collaboration with wardens, and the psychological coercion employed on prisoners by correctional officers. We soon received a response from the penal colony’s wardens that Astashin had not written the letter and that no violations of the law were permitted in the colony. Although we knew that the letter had been written by Astashin, we took down the article, fearing for his safety.

On September 21, 2020, Astashin completed his sentence and was released. He is currently working on a book about his prison experience. He told Radio Svoboda about what happened to him on the outside and in prison.

Your comrade Alexei Makarov said that he became a revolutionary when he was 15 years old. When did you get interested in politics?

When I was about 14 years old. And it all started with a nationalist agenda. There were violent clashes between [ethnic] Russians and Caucasians in Kondopoga [in 2006]. I looked for information and in early 2007 I joined the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI).

When they called you a nationalist in court, were they right?

At first I was a nationalist, then my views expanded. I left DPNI and in 2009 joined The Other Russia coalition, which at that time was led by Eduard Limonov, Mikhail Kasyanov, and Garry Kasparov, and it included nationalists, liberals, communists, and anyone else you can think of. In the same year, 2009, I visited Ukraine, where I got acquainted with the movement of autonomous nationalists, and I thought that we should do something like it. At that time, there was a split in The Other Russia coalition, everything there came to a grinding halt. My radicalization occurred because there were no people organizing above ground. Then there was the movement of autonomists in Russia, both nationalists and left-wing anarchists. Direct action against the police began: police departments and police cars were torched. I also thought that we should do something like this. At that time, I felt like a revolutionary. I was 17 years old, and we decided to hold a protest action against the FSB.

You made a video of the action. It is still accessible on the internet, and there is a slogan “Russian action.” So, this was a nationalist protest?

Yes.

Do you regret it or recall it with pleasure?

Neither one nor the other. I don’t regret anything: what’s done is done. At the same time, I now believe that it was ineffective: the protest’s efficiency rating was negative. We had wanted to draw attention to the dictatorship of the Chekists, but [the video had] ten thousand views, which is a drop in the ocean. It did not spark a public discussion, it was all a big waste of time. Meanwhile, the people involved in the protest received long prison sentences. Of course, these were ineffective actions.

You were also accused of trying to blow up a Lexus. Whose car was it?

That was a stupid story. As a chemist, I experimented, I was interested in pyrotechnic devices and explosives. I built this thing and decided to test it. I found a Lexus: I thought it was probably insured. That’s another social subtext.

Attack the rich?

Yeah.

The investigators claimed that you were the leader of an organization that consisted of about ten people. Who were these people?

Guys I knew, but not all of them. They also carried out direct actions: seven arson attacks. The only thing we had in common was that we were acquainted. We were tortured into confessing that we had collaborated. If you read the verdict carefully, there are many inconsistencies. They write that the guys saw a police department and decided to torch it. But why do they then write that I was in charge of the action? Nevertheless, we were tried as an organized criminal group: everything those guys did I was charged with as well, and I was convicted as the organizer.

But did you know of ABTO’s existence? And did the organization even exist?

It was during the investigation that I found out that I was the head of the organization. And I saw the videos that they posted on the internet. Neither they nor we had any organization. The person who posted the videos just decided that it would be more interesting if he wrote that it was some kind of organization. It was four people going round setting fires.

Are the Network and New Greatness cases similar to what happened in the ABTO Case, or have the methods of the Chekists changed over the last ten years?

They are very similar, only worse. We were arrested for real actions. There was no terrorism in our case, but there were actions: they can be qualified as property damage or disorderly conduct. In the Network and New Greatness cases, there were no actions at all, that is, they were tried simply for belonging to mythical organizations. The laws that are now used to judge the defendants in those cases simply did not exist in our time. If we were tried now, we would probably be given twenty years in prison. All those articles [in the criminal code] are getting tougher and tougher, and the cases are now tried by special military courts. In addition, now there is the Rosfinmonitoring list [a financial stop list of “extremists” and “terrorists”], plus probation until your conviction has been expunged from your record. It’s easier for [the security services] to work in this way, because they don’t have to wait for someone to set something on fire, they can just take some guys who behave the wrong way, talk about the wrong things, or look the wrong way, and whip up a nice terrorism case, and get awards and promotions.

Ivan Astashin and comrades holding a rally on Chekists Day, on December 20, 2009, on Triumfalnaya Square in Moscow. Their banner reads, “The FSB are enemies of the people.” Courtesy of Ivan Astashin and RFE/RL

I read the article in which you write that the FSB are the only terrorists in Russia.

Yes, I wrote that, because terrorism is defined in the criminal code as various actions (not necessarily explosions and arson) intended to frighten and intimidate the populace. And who is intimidating the populace now, other than the FSB? We have other security services, but they are also dependent on the FSB. You know, when I carried out the action against the FSB, I really didn’t fully understand what kind of an organization it was. I understood that they had a lot of power, that the country was actually a Chekist dictatorship, but I had no idea how big it was. Even ordinary cops shake in their boots when FSBniks show up. The doors to all government institutions are open to the Chekists. All civil servants, judges, and MPs obey them unquestioningly. That’s why I called the FSB the main terrorists.

Did FSB officers visit you in the prison camp and threaten you?

Yes, that was in 2015. As usual, they did not introduce themselves, but only mentioned that they had flow in from Moscow: I was serving my sentence in Norilsk at the time. They were interested in what I was going to do after my release. I said that there were five more years until the end of my sentence, and I didn’t know yet what I would do after my release. They told me something to the effect that I shouldn’t get it into my head to engage in any political activity. Not that they directly threatened me, but they mentioned that even if I went abroad and mad trouble for them there, they would still get to me.

How did ordinary prisoners perceive you? As a hero or as a weirdo whose motives were impossible to understand?

Differently. There really were convicts who would say, Well done, cool, they need to be burned. There were also who thought it was odd: you’ve been sent down for ten years, what was the point?

Drawing by Stanislav Tanichev. Courtesy of RFE/RL

You said in an interview that you saw all of Russia in the Siberian prison camps. What have you learned about Russia? Is it ready for the revolution you dreamed of?

Many people living in Moscow have no idea what is happening beyond the Moscow Ring Road, how people survive on a salary of 5-10 thousand rubles [a month; meaning between 55 and 110 euros, approximately]. They often live on the outside according to the same concepts as they do in prison. As for whether they are ready for revolution, that is a difficult question. Many people just can’t imagine that things could be different. There is the famous question: who [will be president], if not Putin? Indeed, many people have this notion in their heads.

Did you meet Putin fans even in the camps?

Yes.

Were they outliers or were there many of them?

The ardent Putin supporters were outliers, of course, but I would often hear people say that Putin was doing a great job: he’d lifted up the economy, whereas in the nineties there had been nothing to eat at all. But now the situation is moving away from Putin. Meaning that, whereas in 2014 everyone got behind “Crimea is ours” and Novorossiya, and sometimes a couple of prisoners would argue with several dozen [Putin supporters], but now they mostly chew out Putin’s policies.

Even in the Siberian camps in 2014, there was a patriotic upsurge and people were happy about the annexation of the Crimea?

Yes, but then the situation changed, and the whole upsurge fizzled out.

Last year, we published your letter about the situation at the Krasnoyarsk colony, and then the wardens demanded that it be removed: allegedly, you were not the author. We took it down so you wouldn’t get hurt. What happened to you then?

It was unexpected. It is clear that if you are institutionalized and you write something negative about the institution, then, of course, there will be a reaction. I was in Norilsk, describing the general practices that had developed in the prison system, and I mentioned the Krasnoyarsk camp as an example. And they got so upset! They made threats, very clear threats. In Krasnoyarsk Territory, there is Remand Prison No. 1, known for its torture cells. There is a regional tuberculosis hospital where convicts are absolutely illegally injected with the strongest psychotropic drugs. And when I was summoned for a chat about the matter by the head of the prevention and enforcement department [of the penal colony], he made it clear what could happen to me in the future. I know such stories about how a person wrote complaints about the wardens, and then he was taken to these places of torture, and then the person recanted his testimony while being videotaped. I knew that something similar could be done to me. I had to write the document that your editors received. Of course, when I wrote it, I really hoped that they would understand the situation.

Of course, we understood, but we were afraid for your safety and took down the article.

I was hoping they wouldn’t remove it. Both there and through the convicts, they tried to get to me, and for some time the email server was disabled, and the warden, when he went on rounds, made it clear that it was all because of me. Then I found out that I was to be transferred. Initially, there was information that I would be taken to that hospital in Krasnoyarsk. I had already been given to understand via the convicts that they could take me through the torture remand prisons there. Consequently, everything followed a completely different scenario: I was transferred to CC 17, which I had just been writing about. I was transported without any untoward happening to me. I arrived at the transit and transfer prison, and everything was cool: not a word was said about the situation. I was there for four days before arriving at CC 17, where the deputy warden said to me on my first day, “I know why you have been brought here. I don’t care about that article. Let’s put it this way: you are now going to quietly finish out your sentence, and you’re not going to create problems for me, and I’m not going to create problems for you.”

Did your other articles about life in the prison zones go unnoticed?

The others were also noticed, but there was a fairly calm reaction to them. At one time, there was a special field officer in charge of working with “extremists” and “terrorists,” and he sometimes called me in to say he’d read my articles.

I’m sure you met other prisoners convicted on similar charges.

Yes, there a lot of people convicted in high-profile cases in Krasnoyarsk and Norilsk. When I arrived at CC 15 in Norilsk, there were quite a lot of people who had been convicted under Article 205, but mostly they were people who had been involved in the fighting in the North Caucasus. When you read their verdicts you find mentions of [Chechen rebel commanders] Maskhadov, Khattab, and Shamil. And when I was transferred to CC 17 in Krasnoyarsk a year ago, I also saw quite a lot of people who had been involved in combat or attacks on security forces in the North Caucasus over the years.

Drawing by Stanislav Tanichev. Courtesy of RFE/RL

You rubbed shoulders in the camps with people of different ethnic groups living in Russia. Have you reconsidered the beliefs that moved you to become a revolutionary at the age of seventeen?

Yes, my views have changed. When I joined DPNI, I saw migrants as the problem, but over time I began to see the state as the problem. Migrants are not to blame for anything: they come here out of desperation, because their home countries are even worse than here, just as many people are leaving Russia for Europe now. In other words, these processes are quite natural. People of different ethnic groups and faiths can easily get along with each other. We just need competent policy to avoid conflicts. All this xenophobia is largely groundless. While I was on the inside, I read Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, which examines why people are often biased against those who belong to a different race or ethnic group. If you get to the root of the problem, there is no reason for it. We need to think about what unites us, not what divides us.

I noticed in your interview with the BBC a reference to Vladimir Sorokin. Did you find something in common in what he describes with what you saw in the camps?

Yes, I love Vladimir Sorokin. One of the things that clicked with me was the idea of the new Middle Ages, as described in his novel Tellurium. I can say for sure that the Russian penitentiary system is the new Middle Ages. Here, in each region, there is a special way of life, which is shaped both by prison officials and prisoners, despite the fact that the law seems to be the same, and the codes prisoners live by is the same everywhere. In some places, prisoners live free and easy, while in others the wardens set up a totalitarian regime in the camps through beatings and torture, as, for example, was the case in Omsk before the riot there in 2018. In yet other places, the wardens and the pseudo-kingpins from among the convicts converge. There are unwritten rules, procedures, and forms of interaction everywhere. It really is the new Middle Ages.

Ivan Astashin with the artist Stanislav Tanichev, who illustrated his articles. Courtesy of RFE/RL

You have now been released, but you remain under probation?

Yes. The law on probation was adopted in 2011. I was arrested in 2010, but in 2017, changes were made to the law such that all those convicted of terrorist charges must be placed on probation until their criminal record is expunged, which in my case is eight years. No one cares about you behaved in prison. Whereas earlier, repeat offenders and those who were deemed repeat violators of prison rules were put on probation, now everyone convicted on terrorist charges is put on probation, too. No one cares that I went to prison long before the law was passed. Logically, according to the Russian Constitution and international norms, the law should not apply to me. However, it applies not only to me, but also to other people in this situation. Restrictions are imposed on us: we have to check in at a police department between one to four times a month. (I’m required to check in twice a month.) You cannot leave your home between ten at night and six in the morning. I have filed an appeal against my probation and plan to bring the case to the European Court of Human Rights, as I believe that this practice violates the European Convention on Human Rights. A complaint on similar grounds, filed by one of the defendants in the Bolotnaya Square Case, Sergei Udaltsov, has already been communicated to the European Court of Human Rights.

You don’t want to leave Russia?

I don’t. Everything is bad in Russia nowadays, but there are a lot of areas where you can do something and change things for the better. Nor am I talking about politics in the literal sense. For example, there is human rights advocacy. In any case, no matter what the circumstances, no matter where I am, I will still do something to change society for the better.

• • • • •

This translation is dedicated to Vladimir Akimenkov, a former Russian political prisoner and prisoner rights activist who over the years persuaded me to pay attention to Ivan Astashin’s remarkable story. If you have the means and the opportunity, please consider donating to Vladimir’s fund for Russian political prisoners. You will find the details below. || TRR

Ivan Astashin and Vladimir Akimenkov, October 11, 2020, Moscow. Courtesy of Vladimir Akimenkov’s Facebook page

Vladimir Akimenkov
Facebook
June 7, 2020

My Annual Birthday Fundraising Event for Political Prisoners

On June 10, it will be eight years since I was arrested as part of the Bolotnaya Square Case. Every year on this date I hold a fundraiser in support of the political prisoners with whom I am currently working.

Every year we meet live on my birthday to help political prisoners. This year, for obvious reasons, we will not be able to meet on June 10. We will definitely do this later, when we can get together without the obvious threat of getting sick. (The live fundraising event will be announced later, via a separate post and an update to this post.)

In the meantime, I am launching a remote fundraising event. In recent years, we have managed to find over 16.8 million rubles [approx. 186,000 euros] for people who have been politically repressed. Please chip in. We need to raise a lot of money. I don’t want to be broken record, but such are realities of Russian society.

Bank details:

— Yandex Money: https://money.yandex.ru/to/410012642526680

— Sberbank Visa Card: 4276 3801 0623 4433, Vladimir Georgievich Akimenkov

Bank details for ruble transfer:

Correspondence account 30101810400000000225
Bank BIC 044525225
Recipient’s account 40817810238050715588
Recipient’s Individual Tax Number 7707083893
Recipient’s full name AKIMENKOV VLADIMIR GEORGIEVICH

Bank details for foreign currency transfers:

SWIFT Code SABRRUMM
Recipient’s account 40817810238050715588
Recipient’s full name AKIMENKOV VLADIMIR GEORGIEVICH

You can send funds from one foreign currency account to another via the Western Union website.

If you send me a personal message, I can send you a final report on the funds collected.

Please share information about the fundraiser on different venues.

I’m worried about this fundraiser. But I believe in people.

Thanks.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“Take Off Your Underpants and Squat Five Times”: Nadezhda Belova’s Journey from Grassroots Activism to “Exonerating Terrorism”

nb-1Nadezhda Belova. Photo by Vladimir Lavrov. Courtesy of RFE/RL

“Take Off Your Underpants and Squat Five Times”: A New “Terrorism Exoneration” Case
Svetlana Prokopieva
Radio Svoboda
June 2, 2020

Two years after the bombing in the Federal Security Service (FSB) building in Arkhangelsk, law enforcement agencies continue to launch criminal cases against people who comment on the case on social media, claiming they have violated the law against “exonerating terrorism.” The story of Nadezhda Belova is more proof that the bombing carried out by 17-year-old Mikhail Zhlobitsky, resulting only in his own death, has been turned into a tool for persecuting undesirable activists.

Nadezhda Belova is 36 years old. She was born and lived her whole life in Novaya Usman, the largest village in Russia, near Voronezh. She had never been involved in politics or protest movements. She first came to the attention of the authorities in 2019, when she organized and brought to a victorious conclusion two protest actions defending the interests of her fellow villagers. In 2020, a criminal case was opened against her for “exonerating terrorism.”

“You’re in Big Trouble”
Criminal Code Article 205.2 came into Nadezhda Belova’s life on March 31—”probably at around nine in the morning, under the guise of a search for coronavirus-infected Asians,” Belova says.

“First my husband opened the door. They told him they were doing a search. Naturally, they weren’t wearing masks. First, they asked who lived there. (We rent a flat in Voronezh.) My husband told them that no one lived there but us, the two of us and our son. I came out and asked them why they weren’t wearing masks. When they saw me, they said, ‘Nadezhda Belova, you’re coming with us for questioning.'”

Nadezhda, her 15-year-old son, and her husband were taken to the police station and questioned. On the advice of a lawyer friend, she invoked Article 51 [of the Russian Constitution, which gives people the right not to incriminate themselves].

“I expected to be punished for all my campaigns in Usman,” Belova says, but investigators showed her a comment she had posted on the VK community page Lentach under one of the very first reports about the bombing in Arkhangelsk. Nadezhda had forgotten all about it.​

“This circus lasted for an hour and a half,” she says of the first interrogation. “‘You’re in big trouble,’ they said. Of course, they threatened me—with five years in prison, and with sending my son to an orphanage if I didn’t confess. I asked them what I should confess to and told them I didn’t know what they were talking about. ‘Here,’ they asked, ‘did you write this comment in 2018?’ ‘Can you hear yourselves?’ I asked them, ‘A comment in 2018!’ The investigator says, ‘If I had written this, I would have remembered.’ I wouldn’t have remembered the comment even if they had tortured me, although the investigator said, ‘If we want you to confess to the Kennedy assassination, we have ways of making you talk.'”

Leaving her family at the police station, the investigators took Nadezhda with them to search the rented flat in Voronezh and her home in Novaya Usman. They confiscated all the gadgets they found, including four phones, a laptop, two hard drives, and a flash drive. They released Nadezhda only late in the evening, dumping her in the middle of the city without a phone and without a single kopeck.

“I walked three kilometers at night, bawling my eyes out and hungry,” she says.

The next day, Belova filed complaints with the prosecutor’s office, the Interior Ministry, and the Investigative Committee. (They, of course, would respond to the complaints by claiming that everything that had happened to her was “legal.”) At first, Belova was named as a witness in the “exonerating terrorism” case, but in May she was named a suspect.

“On May 13, they came up to me on the street, shoved a piece of paper in my face, and said, ‘If you don’t show up now, police will arrest you and bring you there,'” Belova says. “I told them I was going to hire a lawyer, that I wouldn’t come without a lawyer. But things turned out badly with the lawyer, too.”

Nadezhda had bad luck with her lawyer. The person she hired on a friend’s recommendation “turned out to be either a pro-Putinist from the get-go, or he changed his stripes along the way,” she says.

He tried to persuade Nadezhda to “tell the truth” and had no objections when the investigator decided to arrest his suspect right in the middle of questioning.

“You wouldn’t confess. Now you’re going to sit in jail, think things over, and see what lies in store for you,” Nadezhda recalls him saying. She spent twenty-four hours in a temporary detention facility.

“They were not locking me up just to teach me a lesson. They put me in a cold, smoky kennel crawling with bedbugs. There were streaks of blood on the walls: apparently, the people before had been crushing the bedbugs. I was given tea and a piece of dry bread in a metal bowl and a mug, like a dog. I called an ambulance. They just give me a shot of painkiller, that was it. I hung in there till morning. In the morning, they put an actress in my cell who immediately started chewing me out. Her performance lasted fifteen minutes. ‘What’s your name? What you in for? If you’re in here, there must be a reason. Clear the dishes. Act normal. I’m going to smoke, you mind?’ I told her I did, because I was a non-smoker. ‘I’ll do as I like.’ She stood next to the bed and lit up a cigarette. I turned toward the wall and thought, ‘If only she doesn’t strangle me.’ But I knew she was an actress, so she stopped talking, too. She had played her role. Then a policeman came in: ‘Hands behind your back. Against the wall.’ They took me to another room and did a complete body search. They told me to strip naked, and patted down all my things. I was told to take off my underpants and squat five times: the idea was that I had drugs stuffed in there,” Belova recounts.

“It’s going to be like this from now on. You’re suspected of committing a really terrible crime,” she was told.

When she left the detention center, the investigator met her, promising to send her back to her cell if she didn’t immediately sign a confession stating when, where, in whose presence, and on what brand of telephone she had posted the comment.

“I said, ‘You do understand that this is really a lie? It’s nonsense.’ Well, then the three of us—the lawyer, the investigator, and I—wrote an essay entitled ‘What I Wrote on October 31,'” Belova recounts. “‘You do understand that you could go to prison for forcing a confession and lying?’ But the investigator said, ‘In 1937, we would have tortured you for an hour, and you’d have confessed right away. We wouldn’t have had to drive you here and there, we wouldn’t have wasted time: we would have needed only an hour.’ They all laughed.”

__________________

[Prokopieva:] They have blood ties with 1937 . . .

[Belova:] I’ll say even more—they’re waiting for the go-ahead. Once they get permission, I don’t think they’ll even need to be persuaded. They’re too lazy to drive me here and there and waste time. They want to turn torture me quickly and get on with their lives. I said to them, “If you were ordered to shoot at children right now, you would shoot without flinching.” 

You later retracted the confession?

Yes, of course! On May 13, I was put in the lockup. On the 14th, I confessed to everything. On the 15th, I got a new lawyer and completely recanted my testimony. I wanted them to write that I had been coerced with the threat of prison, but the investigator categorically refused to do it. “Do you think I’m going to denounce myself?” he asked.

nb-2Screenshot of the social media post, dated October 31, 2018, under which Belova posted the comment that prompted the criminal case against her. The post reads, “There has been an explosion at the FSB building in Arkhangelsk. One person has been killed. The cause of the blast is under investigation.” Courtesy of RFE/RL

Belova was unable to recall the comment for which she was being prosecuted. But she did find the post on the social media community page and reread it. She called the slain man a “martyr” and wrote that he would “go to heaven.” Nadezhda now suggests that when she wrote it, she thought that an FSB employee was the victim since, at the time, there was no information about the identity and fate of the terrorist. Her comment also included the word “pushback.”

“Yeah, and there was also the phrase ‘Putin’s devils,'” Belova recalls.

Although her comment has been deleted, the responses to it are still there, including this one: “Nadezhda, they’re already coming to get you. Take care of yourself and your loved ones.”

“Many times I’d seen comments to many people on VK like ‘They’re coming to get you’ and ‘You’ve been reported to the FSB,’ but I’d always thought they were jokes. I’d been threatened many times in my life, after the campaigns for the parking lot and the jitneys, and people had filed ‘rioting’ complaints against me when I still lived in Usman. So I would have only laughed at such comments. I didn’t really believe people were jailed for the things they said. I didn’t realize that crackdowns like that were happening in Russia,” Belova says.

“There Was No Time to Choose Who to Be the Hero”
Belova has now been charged with violating Article 205.2 of the Criminal Code and released on her own recognizance. Her new lawyer, in whom she has confidence, is being paid by OVD Info.

The answer to the question of why it took the security forces almost two years to charge her with a “really terrible crime” is incredibly simple. In 2018, Nadezhda Belova was still of no interest to the regime’s watchdogs.

“I was born in Usman and had lived there all my life. My mother worked as a commercial freight forwarder, and my father was a mechanical engineer. I graduated from high school with a silver medal. I was a goody two-shoes, even a little bit of an outcast, you could say. I spent summers in the countryside reading books—Natasha Rostova, Chekhov, and Bunin,” Nadezhda says about herself.

nb-3Nadezhda Belova’s native village. Photo by Vladimir Lavrov. Courtesy of RFE/RL

She graduated from the Voronezh Technological Academy in 2005, giving birth to a child in her fifth year there.

“After that, as it happens, nobody hired me because I had a child and later nobody hired me because I had no experience,” Belova says.

An economics and information specialist by education, Belova worked at the post office, then as a clerk “punching out invoices.” She had a failed marriage, which she describes as “useless and unnecessary.” Finally, five years ago, she met Sergei, with whom she has started a real family and a family business. Sergei was teaching robotics and programming to children, their son had gradually begun helping out, and Nadezhda handled advertising and moderating group pages on social media. This year, to be closer to work, they moved to Voronezh.

“By the way, we had wanted to register as self-employed, but the coronavirus and the arrest have blindsided us,” Belova says.

Even before moving to Voronezh, Nadezhda had been in the public eye as a grassroots activist. She was motivated not by power, money or popularity, but by the sense that her “shoulders were pressed to the mat.”

“They have started taking away the last things we have. As it is, they haven’t been doing anything [for us], just skinning our hides,” she says by way of explaining the reasons for her activism. “That’s how I look at it. I took it as an occupation, a war, an attack by fascists. There was no time to choose who to be the hero, so I decided, ‘Who would do it if not me?'”

Belova was annoyed by the decision of the local authorities to let a parking lot next to the ospital be redeveloped as a store. She wrote posts on local community social media pages, invited journalists to Novaya Usman, and appeared on television herself. The protest campaign was successful: the construction site was moved, and a new “huge paved parking lot, four times larger” was built in place of the old one.

nb-4The parking lot that Nadezhda Belova and other people in Novaya Usman stopped from being redeveloped as a store. Photo by Vladimir Lavrov. Courtesy of RFE/RL

Six months later, in June, Novaya Usman faced a more serious problem: the governor of Voronezh Region, Alexander Gusev, announced that the area’s public transport routes would be optimized. Jitneys from Usman would be forbidden from entering Voronezh. People would have to transfer to Voronezh municipal transport routes on the outskirts of the city.

“We realized it would be a disaster for us,” Belova says. “I told people we shouldn’t wait for them to cut us off. We just needed to make ourselves heard: we’d make a video and circulate a petition, letting them see we were opposed. Naturally, people said yes, that nothing good could come of [the governor’s plans]. I wrote a post on a community page, asking people to meet at the shopping center to collect signatures on a petition. All that was written there was that we opposed the cancellation of suburban transport routes and banning jitneys from entering the city. That was it! No posters, no rallies against Putin.”

Belova again wrote social media posts, made media appearances, and met personally with various officials. She and her fellow campaigners successfully defended the right of rural public transport to make stops in Voronezh. Her fellow villagers thanked Belova in the comments to reports on the campaign’s progress: “Such a fragile young woman has been dealing with three big, experienced men trying to defend the rights of all the inhabitants of New Usman! And she’s not afraid to tell the whole truth to their faces! Thank you, Nadezhda! You’re a smart cookie!”

“Everyone supported me at that moment. When I wrote on the community page that someone was denouncing me to the authorities, they told me not to fear, that they would defend me, that I was doing a great job, that I should run to become village head, that they supported me,” Nadezhda recalls. “A year goes by, and people have forgotten. Not only did they not support me, but some of them suggested I should think hard about what I’d said. Back then they told me I should run for head of the village, but now they’re telling me to think about what I’ve done. People have forgotten.”

__________________

2019 was much quieter in terms of public politics, unlike 2017–18, when there was Navaly’s presidential campaign and then the elections. Where were you during this time?

I have never voted for Putin. I realized back in 1999 that our country was coming to a gradual end. I was only 16 years old—my brother, who is four years older, said, “That’s it, this country is over. The monster has come!” His phrase summed it up for me. Then there was the Nord-Ost siege, the Beslan school siege, and the annexation of Crimea. I already looked at our country with sadness and pain. When would the people wake up? I asked myself. I realized it would never happen! Where was I? We have no elections in Usman. There are some local clowns who either shuffle papers around or aid and abet corrpution. Usman is the total pits in this regard. We have no politics: there is no opposition in Usman, just bottomless corruption, theft and nepotism.

So you weren’t involved in politics or activism of any kind?

Absolutely not! By the way, I once went to meet with officials about the jitneys. One of Gusev’s people asked me, “You probably want something for yourself, right? To be a village head or a council member? What do you want? Money? power?” I told him, “No matter how poor I am, I will never join your party or knuckle under.” No, I live a dignified life, and I won’t be ashamed to look my grandchildren in the eyes in the future. I’m not a vegetable. That matters most of all. In fact, that’s what I have been punished for.

You haven’t missed Usman after moving to Voronezh?

I loved that village and am still happy when something happens there. I don’t regret speaking out, I don’t regret being arrested, because I am a human being. I always wondered who I was. For example, I could say that I was a mother, that I was a daughter. I realized in 2019 that I was a human being and a citizen. I’m not a punching bag, I’m not a pushover—I’m a citizen. I can say this with absolute certainty, and it gives me strength and confidence. Even if I were alone, I would be a citizen. That is the highest calling I could have.

nb-5Nadezhda Belova on the limits of Novaya Usman. Photo by Vladimir Lavrov. Courtesy of RFE/RL

You’re not resentful that your home village has turned its back on you at a difficult moment?

In the house where I lived, a neighbor lady has knocked together a playground—there are some benches and chintzy swings. I recently went there to paint pictures on the walls. I paid for the paint with my own money. I breathed this paint and cleaned up dog poo and empty bottles. As a child, I saw puddles of sewage, drunks and drug addicts. Books were my only salvation, as I lived in utter poverty and was hungry all the time. May their children grow up amidst beauty. If at least one child doesn’t become a drug addict or go to prison thanks to this beauty, I will feel that I haven’t lived my life in vain. These are children, these are our children! After all, someone did not provide warmth, kindness and morality to the people who detained me and undressed me. They grew up to be monsters. This is a universal problem. It is sad that children escape into drug addiction, that they blow themselves up. I have tried to change this little world as much as I can. Everything I could do, I have done and will do. I won’t be made into a monster. I won’t retaliate, I won’t hate, and I’m not going to kill myself.

Nadezhda Belova is the latest in a growing list of Russians who have been prosecuted for allegedly publicly “exonerating” the suicide bomber Mikhail Zhlobitsky. Belova has joined the ranks of Lyudmila StechOleg NemtsevIvan LyubshinSvetlana ProkopievaAnton AmmosovPavel ZlomnovNadezhda RomasenkoAlexander DovydenkoGalina GorinaAlexander SokolovYekaterina Muranova15-year-old Moscow schoolboy Kirill, and Vyacheslav Lukichev. Translated by the Russian Reader

Russia’s Most Dangerous Shaman

shamanAlexander Gabyshev. Photo by Andrei Zatirko. Courtesy of RFE/RL

Riot Police Storm House of Alexander Gabyshev, Yakut Shaman Who Promised to Exorcise Putin
Radio Svoboda
May 12, 2020

Riot police have detained Alexander Gabyshev, the Yakut shaman who last year promised to exorcise Russian President Vladimir Putin from the Kremlin, and taken him to a mental hospital, according to MBKh Media, citing Alexei Pryanishnikov, the coordinator of Pravozashchita Otkrytki [Open Russia’s human rights program].

According to the human rights activist, at least twenty special forces officers had stormed the shaman’s house in Yakutsk. The reason for his arrest is unknown. Earlier in the day, Gabyshev had been visited several times by people who presented themselves as medical professionals, and asked to test him for the coronavirus. Two of Gabyshev’s supporters were detained along with him for violating self-isolation rules.

Gabyshev gained notoriety in the spring of 2019, when he set off on foot to Moscow to perform an exorcism ritual to force Russian President Vladimir Putin from the Kremlin.

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A Shaman for Putin: What Siberians Are Telling Gabyshev on His Way to Moscow, Radio Svoboda, September 12, 2019. Yakut shaman Alexander Gabyshev believes that Vladimir Putin is the “spawn of dark forces,” so he set off on foot to Moscow to “exorcise” him. The shaman began the journey alone, but soon followers began to join him. In Chita, he spoke to a large rally. Buryatia was the next region on Gabyshev’s journey: mass protests started in Ulan-Ude after his supporters were arrested. Gabyshev planned to take two years to get to Moscow so he could unhurriedly converse with the people along the way. The shaman and his followers moved along the roads, covering an average of twenty kilometers a day, stopping for the night in tents, sometimes at roadside motels. Local residents and passing people went to talk to Gabyshev, taking pictures, and helping with food and money.

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On September 19 of last year, Gabyshev was detained at the border between Buryatia and Irkutsk Region during an operation involving special forces. He was identified as a suspect in a criminal investigation into alleged instances of “incitement to extremism” and released on his own recognizance. A psychological and psychiatric examination ordered by police investigators found that Gabyshev was mentally incompetent.

Gabyshev subsequently tried to resume his campaign, promising to make another march on Moscow in June.

The criminal case against Gabyshev was suspended for the duration of the epidemic. International human rights organization Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience.

“‘What sounds like a tale from Russian folklore has become, in today’s Russia, just another act of brutal suppression of human rights,” the organization noted.

Translated by the Russian Reader

BBC Russian Service, From Yakutia to Moscow: A Shaman’s Journey Against Putin, September 24, 2019

Nine Activists Detained in Petersburg at Picket Against Amendments to Constitution

con-1“Our motto: The constitution is forever, while the president and government [should serve] only 1 (one) term.” Photo by Maksim Klyagin for RFE/RL

Nine Activists Detained in Petersburg at Picket Against Amendments to Constitution
Maksim Klyagin
Radio Svoboda
February 1, 2020

Our correspondent reports that several activists picketing against proposed amendments to the Russian Constitution have been detained on Senate Square in Petersburg.

Several people were detained without explanation. Police pointed at them, after which they were escorted to paddy wagons, one of which has left the scene.

According to OVD Info, the detainees include Vadim Kazak, Yevgeny Musin, and Marina Ken. Kazak was put in a paddy wagon for refusing to sign a warning about [violating] the rules for holding a public event. He has been taken to Police Precinct No. 77. Musin was detained for holding up a placard that read, “Say no to Putin’s amendments to the Constitution!”

con-2Riot police detain picketer on Senate Square in Petersburg. Photo by Maksim Klyagin for RFE/RL

Our correspondent reports that police have also detained activist Alexander Tonkonogov, who was holding a handmade placard on an A4-sized sheet of paper. Yegor Stroyev has also been escorted to a paddy wagon.

One of the picketers, Vladimir Shipitsyn, was detained brutally by police.

“They’re carrying him by the arms and legs, they can’t lift him up. He hit his hand on the ground. They’ve put him on a bench,” our correspondent reported. An ambulance has been called for Shipitsyn, but it has not yet arrived. He has been loaded into a paddy wagon.

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Riot police drag protester Vladimir Shipitsyn by the arms. Photo by Maksim Klyagin for RFE/RL

A total of eight activists were detained. The police stopped arresting people, and the riot squad soon left the scene. The picketers were standing in groups but had no placards.

Update, 3:39 p.m. MBKh Media has reported that activist Andrei Makashov was later detained on Nevsky Prospect. Although he had no placard, he had been among the picketers on Senate Square.

What Happened at the Rally Before the Arrests Began
Indefinite Protest, the movement which organized the rally, had labeled it a “people’s gathering” in defense of constitutional government. People took turns holding up placards and picketing. Around fifty people took part in the event. There were arrests at a similar picket on January 26.

“Even in a concentration camp, you can’t go too far. People rebelled in Stalin’s camps. But we’re not in a concentration camp, and you can’t do like things like that [with the Constitution]. I don’t think we’re active enough, because all those scoundrels and crook have a stranglehold over the country,” said Asan Mumji, one of the picketers.

“We have lived for a very long time in a country not governed by laws. First, there were the monarchs, then some bandits and general secretaries. The first attempt to make Russia a law-based country was in March 2017, when people wanted to create the Constituent Assembly. The second attempt was in the early nineties when the current Constitution was adopted. This doesn’t mean that I fully approve of it, but it works—it protects human rights and ensures the rule of law. It is completely wrong to destroy it, especially given the fact that we have had one man in power for twenty years. The state is not someone’s personal property, it belongs to everyone. It’s the managers who should be changed: they should not be allowed to get comfortable in their posts,” noted picketer Vladimir Shipitsyn.

One of the activists argued that there should be solid grounds for every amendment.

“But there have not been good arguments for any of them: they’re like surprise gifts. The only thing Putin cited was the growing public demand for radical reform. But, in fact, this was nothing other than demagoguery,” she said.

Vladimir Putin announced plans to amend the Russian Constitution during his address to the Federal Assembly on January 15. The president proposed giving the Russian Constitution precedence over international law and enshrining the status and role of the State Council, which Putin has revived. The opposition fears that Putin wants the constitution amended in this way so that when his current term as president runs out in 2024, he can head the State Council and thus remain in power.

Putin has appointed a working group of seventy-five people to draft amendments to the constitution. The group has already proposed one hundred changes to the country’s basic law. A law bill on amending the constitution was unanimously approved by the Russian State Duma in its first reading. The second reading has been scheduled for February 11, but it could be postponed to a later date.

According to a poll conducted by the Levada Center, forty-seven percent of Russians believe that the constitution is being amended to advance Putin’s interests by expanding his powers and allowing him to remain in power beyond 2024.

Thanks to Yevgenia Litvinova for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

“Foreign Agents”: Official Fearmongering Runs Amok in Russia

foreign agents piechartA pie chart, using information from November 2017, showing the numbers and kinds of NGOS designated as “foreign agents” by the Russian Justice Ministry. Moving clockwise, the chart shows that 24 Russian human rights organizations have been registered as “foreign agents,” along with 4 NGOs working on healthcare issues, 2 trade union associations, 6 analytical and social research organizations, 3 women’s organizations, 10 civic education organizations, 9 media support organizations, 3 ethnic minority organizations, 7 NGOs involved in defending democracy and democratic principles, 11 humanitarian and social welfare organizations, and 8 environmental organizations. Courtesy of Deutsche Welle. As of November 15, 2019, there were ten media outlets listed as “foreign agents” by the Russian Justice Ministry, including Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and eight RFE/RL affiliates.

Russian Duma Adopts Law on Designating Individuals “Foreign Agents”
Olga Demidova
Deutsche Welle
November 21, 2019

The Russian Duma has passed a law bill on designating private persons as “foreign agents” in its third and final reading. On Thursday, November 21, the bill was supported by 311 of the 315 MPs who voted. No one opposed the bill, although four MPs abstained.

Two days earlier, the Duma’s committee on information policy approved amendments to the bill in its second reading. The amendments make it possible to designate individuals as “performing the functions of a foreign agent” and thus on a par with legal entities. They can be deemed “foreign agents” if they create content for media outlets that have been designated “foreign agents” or distribute their content while receiving foreign funding.

Media outlets already registered as “foreign agents” will have to establish Russian legal entities in order to operate in the Russian Federation. In addition, they must mark their content as having been produced by a “foreign agent.” Leonid Levin, chair of the Duma’s information policy committee, promised the law would not been used against bloggers and current affairs commentators. Individuals would be designated “foreign agents” by the Justice Ministry and the Interior Ministry, which Levin argued would prevent “unreasonable” rulings.

In July 2012, the Duma amended several laws regulating the work of NGOs. The amendments obliged NGOs that engaged in political activities and received foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.” The NGOs were to indicate this designation on their websites, for example, and provide regular financial reports. There are currently over seventy organizations in Russia registered as “foreign agents.”

Thanks to Marina Bobrik for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Grigorii Golosov
Facebook
November 24, 2019

The law on individual foreign agents is innovative in the sense that the people who drafted it and pushed it have not disguised the fact it is meant to be enforced selectively. Certain critics have even remarked that this is a good thing: only a few people will be affected. I think they are wrong, but I wanted to talk about something else. It is no secret that laws are enforced selectively in Russia, but so far none of the laws that have caused a public stir has been meant to be enforced selectively. Now that has changed. A law that is selectively enforced is clearly no law at all, but a specimen of lawlessness, and so the new law is anti-constitutional. Unfortunately, it is pointless to challenge the law in the Constitutional Court, and not only due to the court’s peculiarities. After all, the authorities have not hidden their intentions and motives, but nor have they admitted them aloud. It is their usual M.O., the old “you just try and prove it” gambit. In fact, a good response would be a barrage of lawsuits petitioning the authorities to designate as “foreign agents” public loyalists they would have no wish to hurt, but who are 100% guilty if the letter of this law were obeyed. However, the human rights movement, which could take up this cause, has been defeated, in particular, by the previous laws on “foreign agents.” The way to lawlessness is thus open.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Riot Cops Raid Ivan Khutorskoi Memorial Tournament in Moscow

khutorskoi

Riot Police in Moscow Disrupt Ivan Khutorskoi Memorial Tournament: Fifty People Detained
Radio Svoboda
November 17, 2019

Law enforcement officers in Moscow have disrupted a martial arts tournament organized by antifa activists in memory of Ivan Khutorskoi, one of the antifa movement’s leaders.

Eyewitnesses report that two buses loaded with riot police drove up to the tournament venue. The police officers, who wore masks, burst into the facility and forced all the event’s participants and guests to line up against the wall face-first after confiscating their mobile phones. The detainees were then transported in several groups to police precincts in the Sokol, Airport, and Khoroshovo districts of Moscow.

At one of the precincts, the antifascists were told they had been detained after a particular BOLO was issued. Currently, police are photographing their internal passports and checking their names in the Interior Ministry database. In total, around fifty people have been detained.

Ivan Khutorskoi, a leader of the antifa movement, was murdered in the stairwell of his own apartment building in Moscow on November 16, 2009. Police investigators believe he was killed by Alexei Korshunov, a member of BORN (Combat Organization of Russian Nationalists), which was responsible for a dozen high-profile murders.

After the murder, Korshunov fled to Zaporozhye, where he died in September 2011. Local authorities allege that he blew himself up accidentally during a morning jog with a grenade he carried with him.

Translated by the Russian Reader