“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.”

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[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.”

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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.

con-3

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

Weaponizing Russian: The Gasan Gusejnov Controversy

guseynovGasan Gusejnov. Photo courtesy of Radio Svoboda

Gasan Gusejnov Refuses to Apologize for Remarks About Russian Language
Radio Svoboda
November 8, 2019

Gasan Gusejnov, a lecturer at the Higher School of Economics, has refused to apologize publicly for a post on Facebook in which he called the Russian language “miserable” and “cesspool-like.” According to Gazeta.Ru, the professor believes it would not be ethical for him to respond to the decision of a university commission, which had advised him to apologize.

The ethics commission at the Higher School of Economics recommended the professor apologize for his remarks. They were “ill-considered and irresponsible,” said the commission, which also claimed they had harmed the university’s reputation.

Gusejnov, in turn, told journalists he already given university administrators all necessary explanations and had no plans to apologize to anyone. He stressed that he had written the post as a private individual and had not yet received any official demands from the university.

A lecturer in the humanities faculty and a doctor of philology, Gusejnov published his post on Facebook in late October.

“In Moscow, with its hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Tatars, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, Chinese and Germans, it is utterly impossible to find anything in other languages, except for the miserable, cesspool-like Russian that this country now speaks and writes,” he wrote.

Gusejnov’s post sparked a controversy on social media and in the media. Facebook deleted his post for violating its rules. The professor himself later explained that he had meant the language of hatred and aggression used in the media, social networks, and opinion journalism. According to Gusejnov, it was “an extremely dangerous environment and an extremely dangerous tool.”

This week, as the public debate about Gusejnov’s remarks continued, Vladimir Putin spoke at a meeting of the Russian Language Council. According to the Russian president, war had been declared on the Russian language worldwide in order to reduce its space [sic]. As Putin said, this was being done by “boorish Russophobes,” “fringe groups,” and “aggressive nationalists.”

The president did not specify what threats he had in mind. But he did instruct the government to amend the current laws “On the State Language” and “On the Languages of the Peoples of Russia” and create a “single corpus of dictionaries and reference books” that would dictate how all government entities used the language. Putin did not mention Gusejnov in his remarks.

Thanks to Dmitry Kalugin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

I Am Ingush

elizaveta_alexandrova-zorinaElizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina. Courtesy of Ponedelnik

I Am Ingush
Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina
Radio Svoboda
September 24, 2019

In Russia, there is a political crackdown in full swing that almost no one talks about—not because it is happening somewhere other than Moscow, but because it is happening in the North Caucasus. Popular protests in Ingushetia forced Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the head of the republic to resign, triggered a wave of criminal prosecutions, and still have the republic agitated. In the rest of Russia, people say it is a Caucasian affair, something in which they should avoid getting involved. And yet many Ingush believe the events in Magas in spring 2019 were the starting point for all the recent protest campaigns, from Shiyes to Moscow. At the very least, the protests in Ingushetia were the largest in Russia since the fair elections rallies on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue in 2011–2012.

The arrests and prosecution of protesters in Moscow have been dubbed a “new” Bolotnaya Square case. Russian and international journalists alike have written a great deal about the case, and each of the defendants has been lavished with attention by human rights defenders. There are long queues of people waiting to take turns in solo pickets, and flash mobs are held in solidarity with Konstantin Kotov. Actors have rallied around Pavel Ustinov, while teachers produced an appeal in support of Yegor Zhukov. The clergy, the Union of Cinematographers, and PEN Moscow have sent official letters on behalf of the defendants, while Stephen Fry, Herta Müller, and a whole host of foreign politicians and cultural figures signed an open letter. Only Mediazona and OVD Info have been covering the events in Ingushetia, however, while the only aspect of the protests there and the fallout from them that has been discussed on the Runet is the fact that certain Ingush police officers went over to the protesters and have subsequently been criminally prosecuted for their actions.

In point of fact, Ingushetia’s version of the Bolotnaya Square case is quite as massive as the real thing. Criminal charges have been filed against thirty-three people, most of whom have been in remand prison for many months. Another forty people are under investigation. The investigators reportedly have an extended list of 150 people they would like to charge: Ingushetia is a small place, and it is hard to keep such things secret for long. We should also add to this catalog a reporter who covered the protests. Apparently, the police planted heroin on him and then tortured him to try and force him to testify.

Before the arrests kicked off, 317 people were convicted under the administrative law on “unauthorized” protest rallies and fined between 10,000 and 20,000 rubles [approx. 150 to 300 dollars]. That is a lot of money for people in Ingushetia, where a quarter of the able-bodied population earns less than 10,000 rubles a month.

Around a hundred grassroots activists have been harassed—police have searched their homes, interrogated them, and detained them—and some have lost their jobs. Even the new law about “fake” news has been employed: Murad Daskiyev, an Ingush elder, was fined for the fact that, in his appeal to Ingush lawmakers, he wrote about the possible elimination of the republic due to another redrawing of its borders with neighboring republics, despite the fact the many people there actually do see the constant “pruning” of Ingushetia as just that: an attempt to get rid of Ingushetia.

Ingush activists told me it was strange I had come. They said no one in Moscow was interested in what was happening in Ingushetia. As they put it, people in Moscow think the “wogs” were trying to divvy something up, but the conflict does not concern them. In their coverage of the protests in Magas, national Russian media managed to shift the emphasis from anger at the authorities to the supposedly ethnic conflict between Chechens and Ingush. This can not just be put down to the skill of the propagandists.

In August, during the so-called indefinite picket—which began as a way to support demands to release the imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, but later encompassed the Crimean Tatars, historian Yuri Dmitriev, the New Greatness case, the Network case, and the Moscow case—I stood holding a placard decrying the crackdown in Ingushetia. A poster calling for a one-to-one prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine usually elicited a positive reaction from passersby, while a placard that read “No to the war with Ukraine!” generated lots of arguments. When they saw me holding up placards about the Crimean Tatars and the Ukrainian sailors, people were sometimes ready to attack. But the placard about Ingushetia could just as well have been invisible. Only once did some policemen lazily inquire about what was happening in Ingushetia because they didn’t know. And one passerby, a woman, asked her husband what was written on my placard.

“Something about Ingushetia,” he replied.

“Oh, Ingushetia,” she said.

On the contrary, people in Ingushetia follow the news from Moscow closely. They post articles and photographs on social media and discuss the arrests of protesters. I was constantly asked about what was happening in Moscow and what would happen to the protesters arrested there on criminal charges. I was ashamed of the fact I was surprised by their attention to the Moscow case.

In Moscow, you strike up the most pleasant acquaintances in paddy wagons and police stations during protest rallies because the most interesting, best-educated, and most concerned people end up there. It’s the same way in Ingushetia: the republic’s finest people are behind bars and on the lists of police investigators.

Six people, whom the authorities have identified as “leaders” of the protests, have been charged under an article of the Russian criminal code that stipulates a maximum sentence of ten years in prison for “organizing violence that threatens the life or health of public officials in the performance of their duties.” Since they have no criminal records, they could be sentenced to a “mere” five or six years in prison.

Barakh Chemurziyev worked for ten years in the department of economics at the University of Economics and Finance in St. Petersburg. He researched corruption and embezzlement of government funds by officials in the Yevkurov administration. Chair of the Ingush branch of the Red Cross, Musa Masalgov has devoted thirty years of his life to charity work. Malsag Uzhakhov, 67, is chair of the Council of Teips of the Ingush People, while Ahmed Barakhoyev, 65, is an Ingush elder and member of the Ingush National Unity Committee. Ismail Nalgiyev, a blogger and grassroots activists, held solo pickets in solidarity with his arrested countrymen, later joining their ranks himself. Zarifa Sautiyeva is a researcher and deputy director of Memorial, a museum complex dealing with the deportation of the Ingush in 1944.

Another activist, Akhmet Pogorov, former head of the Ingushetia Interior Ministry and anti-corruption researcher, is on the federal wanted list. In their last video, posted on YouTube, he and Chemurziyev outlined one of the corruption schemes used by the Yevkurov administration. A month later, they found themselves among the “organizers of the riots.”

When people post the names of the protesters arrested in Moscow, they express outrage over the fact that an actor, a “harmless” programmer, and a 26-year-old man with kids could have been singled out by the authorities. When journalists are targeted, they call it an attack on free speech. But is no one outraged by the arrest of a museum curator? Of two old, sick men who could die in remand prison? (Barakhoyev and Masalgov’s chronic illnesses have worsened since they were arrested and jailed.) Is a deliberate crackdown on public figures and civic activists not an attack on political freedoms?

In Moscow, the slogan “Stop feeding the Caucasus!” has been popular. The Ingush told me it would be great if people called for an end to feeding the elites in the Caucasus. They added I should be sure to write that the protests in Magas were not only about land but also about official lawlessness and corruption in the republic. In Moscow, the ostensible trigger for the protests was the disqualification of independent candidates who wanted to stand in elections to the Moscow City Duma, but people actually protested corruption and the endless reign of the current regime. Similarly, in Ingushetia, outrage over the transfer of land to Chechnya mushroomed into an anti-corruption movement.

Corruption in Ingushetia starts at the very top. Everyone knows there that the federal authorities take a five to ten percent kickback from subsidies to the region. The looting continues when the money trickles down to the local authorities. And there is rampant bribery everywhere: people pay bribes to get good marks on school exams, medical care, and jobs.

Here is a typical story, one of hundreds. In 2013, the largest flour mill in Russia was built in Karabulak with five billion rubles from Rosselkhozbank, money referred to as “private investments.” A portrait of Putin was draped on the building, a grand opening was held, and press releases were sent to the national media. The mill was supposed to employ 1,500 people, but since it opened, the mill has only employed security guards. So there the mill stands, a monument to corruption in Russia. A grain farmer I know complained he had to take his crop straight from the field to the distilleries, where he sold it for seven or so rubles a bushel since there was no place to store and process it.

Ingushetia has the highest unemployment rate in Russia, and finding work there is not only difficult but also expensive. They say a posting in the Emergencies Ministry costs 350,000 rubles [approx. 5,000 euros], while a nurse’s job runs you around 50,000 rubles. 64,000 people were on the books as employees of state enterprises, when in fact they did not work for them and did not even know they worked for them. Besides, the population of Ingushetia is only around half a million people.

Ingushetia is one of the five poorest regions in Russia. It suffers from poverty and ruin, lawless security forces and high officials who pilfer the budget with impunity. It was no wonder protesters chanted slogans against corruption, against Yevkurov and his administration, from the outset of the protests. Nor was it any wonder Yevkurov practically issued an order in public when he said the protesters should be put in prison.

One of Yevkurov’s ministers, now an adviser to the new head of the republic, who celebrated the Eid in a most unexpected way—with vodka and women in the courtyard of his own hotel—explained to me why people protested.

“They’re a bunch of crooks who were paid.”

“Who paid them?”

“The west, maybe?” Who else pays people in Russia to protest? Who doesn’t like the fact that Putin has made Russia strong? So they’re the ones who pay.”

Ingushetia is like Moscow, only worse. Yevkurov ordered a crackdown on the protesters because he was sick and tired of anti-corruption slogans and accusations he had looted Ingushetia. And then there is the Kremlin, which sends a signal to the entire country that any opposition movement will face a brutal crackdown. Consequently, thirty-three people await their sentences. And sentenced they will be, not least because, for some inexplicable reason, the Russian public, opposition activists, and foreign correspondents could not care less about them.

All anyone does nowadays is talk about the defendants in the Moscow case, throwing in a few other political prisoners for good measure. People say they did nothing wrong, that the charges against them are trumped-up, that the authorities ordered law enforcement to put them away. But what about the Ingush case? Is it not a frame-up? Did the accused do something wrong?

You often hear that people only defend their own kind: journalists defend other journalists, actors intercede on the behalf of other actors, lecturers at the Higher School of Economics show their solidarity with a student at the Higher School of Economics. The authorities threatened to frame Ingush journalist Rashid Maysigov on drug charges, and then they did it. They also tortured him with electrical shocks to force him to testify. I have not seen a single newspaper with the front-page headline “I Am/We Are Rashid Maysigov.” When it came to Maysigov, journalistic solidarity broke down for some reason. Nor will the folks who adorn their social media account profile pictures with slogans like “I Am Yegor Zhukov,” “I Am Ivan Golunov”  or “I Am Konstantin Kotov” ever write “I Am Zafira Sautiyeva” or “I Am Musa Masalgov.” What is wrong with Sautiyeva and Masalgov? Are they the wrong sort of people? Are they from the wrong ethnic group?

I like the slogan used by the solo picketers outside the presidential administration building in Moscow; “I Am/We Are the Whole Country.” I like the fact that the placards are inscribed with the names of people who are being persecuted right now for protesting peacefully or literally for no reason at all. But the names Sautiyeva, Masalgov, Barakhoyev, Uzhakhov, Nalgiyev, Chemurziyev, Pogorov, Maysigov, Katsiyev, Pliyev, Dzeytov, Dugiyev, Myakiyev, Gagiyev, Vishegurov, Bapkhoyev, Badiyev, Oziyev, Ozdoyev, Oskanov, Dzyazikov, Tomov, Azhigov, Muzhakhoyev, Khamkhoyev, and Aushev are not on these placards.

Are you certain you are the whole country? Have you forgotten anyone?

Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina is a Moscow writer and journalist. Thanks to Jenya Kulakova for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

Circassian Activist Martin Kochesoko Arrested in Drugs Frame-Up

martin-2

Shown here protesting a law bill that would make Russia’s minority languages an elective part of the curriculum, Circassian grassroots activist Martin Kochesoko was detained and charged with narcotics possession on June 7 in Nalchik, the capital city of the Kabardino-Balkar Republic. Will the nationwide grassroots movement that, allegedly, forced police in Moscow to drop identical charges against investigative reporter Ivan Golunov reemerge as forcefully to demand justice for Kochesoko? Photo courtesy of Radio Svoboda

Circassian Activist Martin Kochesoko Detained in Nalchik
Vera Zherdeva
Caucasian Knot
June 8, 2019

On June 7, police searched the offices of the civic organization Habze, detaining its leader Martin Kochesoko and other activists, our sources have informed us.

The security forces arrived at Habze’s office at around eleven in the morning. They confiscated the office’s computers.

According to preliminary reports, Kochesoko has been remanded in custody on charges of drugs possession, a Habze activist told us.

The other Habze activists detained with Kochesoko were soon released, Kavkaz. Realii reports, citing its own sources.

In late May, Kochesoko reported his parents had been paid a visit by local officials, who told them their son should “slow down” his activism. The incident took place after Kochesoko had organized a round table on federalism in Nalchik.

“A man from the district council visited my parents. He told them he had been sent by the top bosses and I should slow my activism down. I know this man personally. He has my phone number and email address, and he and I could have met. I was taken aback he chose this way of doing things. I would thus like to underscore the fact I use only legal methods. I want the laws and the Russian Constitution to be obeyed. I am not hiding from anyone. I am constantly in the public eye,” Kosechoko wrote in an article, “Solving the Crisis of Federalism: Grassroots Activism,” published May 29 on Habze’s website.

Caucasian Knot has written about Kochesoko’s work. We have often cited his critical comments on controversial public issues.

In April 2019, for example, Kochesoko criticized the ban of an auto rally on Circassian Flag Day in Nalchik and the treatment of Circassian returnees by Russian officials. He also lambasted the controversial law bill to make the study of minority languages an elective rather than a mandatory part of the school curriculum.  Activists and public figures from twelve of Russia’s ethnic republics, including Kabardino-Balkaria, denounced the law bill.

Kochesoko took part in the September 2018 horse ride commemorating the 310th anniversary of the Battle of Kanzhal. The event provoked clashes between Kabardians and Balkars, and regular police, riot police, and Russian National Guardsmen intervened.

In his article for Caucasian Knot, “Kanzhal as a Knife in the Governor’s Back,” Denis Sokolov, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, discussed Kochesoko’s role as a peacemaker during the events in question, which occurred when residents of the Balkar village of Kendelen refused to let the riders pass through their town.

“Due to a willingness to compromise on the part of Kendelen negotiators, Kochesoko was on the verge of peacefully leading the Circassian march out of the Balkar village, but the crude actions of the security forces rendered their agreement null and void,” wrote Sokolov.

Thanks to Comrade GJ and Anna Etkina for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader. NB. The accounts of Mr. Kochesoko’s arrest here and on the Radio Svoboda-affiliated website Kavkaz.Realii differ considerably in their details.  When and if a definitive account of Mr. Kochesoko’s arrest is published, I will update this post.

The Syrian Breakthrough

kuzminNikolai Kuzmin during his solo picket outside the exhibition The Syrian Breakthrough, in Pskov. His placard reads, “Spend budget money on our own schools and hospitals, not on someone else’s war.” Photo by Lyudmila Savitskaya. Courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Yabloko Activist Detained in Pskov at “Syrian Breakthrough” Exhibition
Lyudmila Savitskaya
Radio Svoboda
April 26, 2019

In Pskov, police have detained local Yabloko Party activist Nikolai Kuzmin, who held a solo picket outside an exhibition of military equipment entitled The Syrian Breakthrough. Kuzmin stood behind servicemen queued at the city’s train station to see the exhibition.

He held a placard that read, “Spend budget money on our own schools and hospitals, not on someone else’s war.”

Commenting on his actions, Kuzmin claimed over 25,000 schools had been closed in Russia over the past twenty years. The activist argued that, outside Moscow and Petersburg, it was nearly impossible to get an ambulance, and half of the men in Pskov Region did not live to retirement age.

“As in a dystopia, however, instead of being productive and saving the lives of Russians, we have raised war into a cult that we worship. Lacking reasons to feel proud, we are administered daily injections of patriotism. But patriotism does not mean fighting wars in someone else’s countries. It means building things in your own country and having a critical attitude toward the mania for military victory,” Kuzmin added.

Kuzmin’s picket lasted around ten minutes. During this time, members of the pro-regime organization Team 2018 managed to have their picture taken with him. Kuzmin was then surrounded by military police who asked him to leave. Kuzmin responded by asking them to identify themselves [as required by Russian laws regulating the police] and explain their grounds for wanting to remove him from a public event.

The military policemen were unable to fulfill Kuzmin’s request, so Sergei Surin, head of the Interior Ministry Directorate for Pskov [i.e., the local police chief] came to their aid. He personally detained Kuzmin while repeatedly refusing to explain the grounds for the arrest to Kuzmin and comment on it to reporters who were present.

Lev Schlosberg, leader of the Yabloko Party in Pskov, demanded Kuzmin’s immediate release and the removal from Pskov of The Syrian Breakthrough, which he dubbed a “propaganda scrap heap.”

“Russia must cease military operations in Syria, while government funds should be spent on peaceful goals that further the interests of Russia’s citizens,” Schlosberg said.

In February 2019, the Russian Defense Ministry launched a train containing weapons seized, it claimed, by Russian servicemen during combat in Syria. The train departed Moscow on an itinerary of sixty cities and towns. When it reaches Vladivostok, the train will head back to Moscow. It is scheduled to arrive there on the eve of Victory Day, May 9.

Thanks to Nikolai Boyarshinov for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

By Hook or by Crook

0C302673-B7CF-4406-A4DA-E3052D4D5125_cx0_cy4_cw0_w1023_r1_stThe courtyard of the Communist Party Regional Committee headquarters in Novosibirsk, where the monument to Stalin will be erected. Photo courtesy of Anton Barsukov and RFE/RL

Monument to Stalin to Be Unveiled in Novosibirsk by May 9
Anton Barsukov
sibreal.org
March 13, 2019

Novosibirsk’s Artistic Expertise Board [Khudsovet] has finally approved installation of a monument to Stalin in the city’s downtown. Our correspondent reports that eleven of the sixteen experts present at the board meeting where the issue was decided voted in favor of the proposal.

The monument is slated for erection on the premises of the regional Communist Party headquarters on the eve of May 9 [Victory Day] of this year. According to the board’s chair, architect Alexander Lozhkin, the board’s decision was a compromise that would satisfy people who wanted to lay flowers at the monument while not insulting people who considered Stalin a tyrant.

Lozhkin implored his fellow board members not to engage in political debates, but to evaluate only the bust’s artistic merits. According to Lozhkin, there was no archival evidence that Stalin was involved in any crimes, and this was the official stance of the Russian government.

“We chose the least of two evils, but that doesn’t mean any good came of it. We are proud of the fact that we will not be putting it in a public place, but just now we voted for a tyrant,” Konstantin Golodyayev, a board member and local historian, told our correspondent.

8E9E67FA-8D62-415D-BDDD-A87E2960C812_cx0_cy1_cw91_w1023_n_r1_stThe Novosibirsk Artistic Expertise Board in session. Photo courtesy of Anton Barsukov and RFE/RL

The bust of Stalin has already been produced: an action committee raised 500,000 rubles to pay for its manufacture. The city will pay for readying and beautifying the site where the bust is supposed to be installed. Novosibirsk Mayor Anatoly Lokot, who heads the regional committee of the Communist Party, said around one million rubles would be needed for this purpose.

In November of last year, the Artistic Expertise Board turned down the action committee’s request to install the monument in a public place, arguing it could cause distress to people who blamed Joseph Stalin for large-scale crackdowns and the deaths of millions of people.

Earlier, Novosibirsk city hall held a discussion on its official website of the best place for the monument. There were 155 positive reactions to the proposal to erect a bust of Stalin in the city, and 97 of them were worded completely identically. The proposal received a total of 243 reactions. Aside from the positive reactions, there were 85 negative reactions and three blank comments. Over 11,000 people signed a petition on Change.org opposing the monument.*

*When checked at 10:34 a.m. Central European Standard Time on March 14, 2019, the anti-Stalinist petition could not be accessed.

Translated by the Russian Reader