“The People’s Crime”: Drug Convictions Are Filling Russia’s Prisons with Nonviolent Offenders

lebedev-dimaDima has been sentenced to 11 years in prison for a minor drugs offense. Photo by Mikhail Lebedev

Mikhail Lebedev
Facebook
February 19, 2020

THIS IS IMPORTANT! LEGAL HELP NEEDED!

It is no secret that I am now shooting a project dealing with the so-called people’s article [Article 228 of the Russian Criminal Code, which makes it a felony to possess over seven grams of a controlled substance; see the articles, below—TRR]. Among other things, I have been photographing people who were convicted under this article and interviewing them. Four months ago, I went to Novgorod to shoot Dima, who was on his own recognizance as his trial was underway. [Last] Friday, Dima, who is twenty-two, was sentenced to eleven years in a maximum-security prison.

Dima was not a dealer. He used synthetic drugs and, as often happens, he used them in the company of others. A couple of times he also used his Hydra account to buy stashes of drugs for friends and sent them photos of the stashes. At some point, the “friends” were detained, the photos Dima sent were found on their telephones, and Dima became a “drug dealer.” At most, he should have been charged with aiding and abetting, but the court refused to change the charges.

This is not a matter of right or wrong, but of whether the punishment fits the crime. Dima is guilty of using drugs and “helping” friends in such an irresponsible manner. Nowadays, however, the emergence of the Darknet and Hydra make it akin to a computer game: you can buy anything with a couple of clicks. I remember what my friends and I were like at the age of twenty-two: any of us could have been sent down like Dima. We lucked out, however, and he did not. Eleven years in prison! People get less time for rape and murder, not to mention assault and battery, domestic violence, and robbery.

We walked around Novgorod for five hours, conversing the entire time. Dima already had a different life: he had stopped using, improved his relationship with his girlfriend, and worked as a loader when possible. (Although Dima is a talented programmer, no one will hire you above the table if you are under investigation.) When he gets out of prison, society will punish him again. Among the people I have met, no one convicted under Article 228 who has served time or been put on probation can get a decent job above the table because corporate security services reject such applicants.

If any of my friends on Facebook know good lawyers in this area or foundations that help people convicted under Article 228 or have practical advice, be sure to write me and I will pass on these contacts to Dima’s girlfriend. His family is now preparing an appeal, and they need support and legal assistance.

message from xtc dealerPetersburg and other Russian cities are now chockablock with stencils and placards advertising illegal drugs like this one, which I photographed in March 2018.

The Stash and Its Master: Why Russians Are Becoming Drugs Couriers
Nataliya Zotova
BBC Russian Service
June 10, 2019

With the spread of the internet and smartphones in Russia, a whole new profession for young people has emerged—stashers (zakladchiki) aka stashmen (kladmeny), people who deliver drugs ordered on the internet to buyers. Although it is a fairly easy way for young people to make money, they could face up to twenty years in prison if they are caught.

Young people employed in the business told the BBC why they went into it, what the job involved, and whether they were afraid of getting caught.

[…]

Twenty-year-old Daniil Zhilenkov did his mandatory military service in the Russian National Guard, and when he was demobbed, he wanted to sign up again as a professional soldier. But he changed his mind when he found out that novice guardsmen made only 16,000 rubles [approx. $250] a month. He then left his hometown of Mariinsk, in Kemerovo Region, to live with his girlfriend, a university student in Krasnoyarsk. Kseniya could not contribute to their joint budget because she had to finish her studies.

Daniil found employment at the train depot (he had graduated from the railway college before going to the army), but he left the job after a month, again due to the low salary. He tried working part-time at a car wash.

“The salary was 27,000 rubles [approx. $420] a month. Our rent was 15,000, and then there were the groceries. We didn’t have enough money to cover everything,” he said.

Kseniya recalled that she bought only the cheapest products at the time.

One day, Daniil and a friend were walking down the street and saw an ad on a wall: a store was hiring couriers. Daniil found out what the store sold when came home and googled the name.

“He took the job without my knowledge. When he started going out in the evenings, I realized something was wrong. We sat down and talked. We had a huge row over it,” Kseniya recounted, explaining that she was afraid for her boyfriend.

Daniil was not afraid, however.

“I didn’t think about how to do things more safely. I couldn’t imagine the police were interested in us. It was quite the opposite, as it turned out: it is only people like us who are arrested,” he said.

Daniil and Kseniya agreed that he would not do the work for long, only until he found a better job.

“He said, ‘I’ll save up and leave,'” she recalled.

So four months passed, but one night Daniil was detained on the street by the police. He was sentenced to seven years in prison for distributing drugs.

He spoke to me on a pay phone from the penal colony in Irkutsk: he had served around two years of his seven-year sentence. Daniil wondered how old I was. I told him I was twenty-age. Daniil would be the same age when he was released.

[…]

Translated by the Russian Reader

fullsizeoutput_1ba8“Stashers wanted.” Petrograd Side, Petersburg, March 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

A Change in Russia’s Draconian Drug Laws Could Be on the Horizon
The fiasco surrounding the case of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov is bringing the country’s controversial Article 228 into the spotlight.
Pjotr Sauer
Moscow Times
June 14, 2019

Living in a country where so-called gay propaganda is banned, Denis, 19, was happy to finally meet someone he felt a connection with on the dating app Tinder.

A few weeks after they had started chatting, the guy on the other side of the screen invited him over and asked him to bring “some weed” to relax them during their first encounter. But when Denis arrived at the address his date had given him, he was met by two policeman who began to search him.

“It turned out to be a set up, and the guy I was talking to on Tinder was a cop,” Denis told The Moscow Times.

The police presented him with a choice — pay a bribe or face being charged under the notorious Article 228 for drug-related crimes.

“They told me they would charge me with possession of 7 grams of marijuana and open a criminal case against me, even though I had much less on me. It would have been the end of my university career and possibly my future,” he said.

Possession of up to 6 grams of the drug is an administrative offense, while anything over that is a criminal offense. Denis paid the 70,000 ruble ($1,088) bribe.

Russia has the highest number of people per capita imprisoned for drug crimes in Europe. Most of them were convicted under Article 228 of the Russian Criminal Code — nicknamed “narodnaya statya” or “the people’s article” because of the large number of people imprisoned under it. In 2018 alone, around 100,000 people were jailed under the article, and a quarter of all prisoners are in jail on drug-related charges.

According to Maksim Malishev coordinator of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation NGO that aims to change Russia’s drug laws, Denis’s story is far from unique.

“We constantly hear of police either planting drugs on innocent people or increasing the amount of drugs they caught someone with in order to prosecute the person under criminal law,” he said.

Human rights lawyer Arseniy Levinson said that police and other officials fabricate cases for several reasons, including having to reach certain quotas and collecting bribes.

Last week, Russian investigative reporter Ivan Golunov was arrested and charged with drug trafficking under Article 228. The anti-corruption journalist’s detention led to a national outcry among his Russian peers and human rights activists, who said drugs found by police in his backpack and apartment were planted. On Monday, Russia’s Interior Ministry ruled to drop the charges against Golunov, admitting that there was no evidence the drugs belonged to him.

“Not everyone is as famous as Ivan Golunov, and most cases go unnoticed as they aren’t political. We have thousands and thousands of people rotting away in jail because of false charges,” said Vyacheslav Matushin, a colleague of Malishev at the Andrey Rylkov Foundation.

The Golunov case has ignited public debate about Article 228 and how it is being implemented.

“We are feeling the post-Golunov effect, and this could be a turning point in how Russians look at Article 228,” said Ella Paneyakh, a sociologist at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

The problem with current drug legislation is how the system is set up, said Mikhail Golichenko, a human rights lawyer specializing in drug and HIV cases.

He pointed to official state figures showing that over 80 percent of all people charged under Article 228 are convicted for the possession of drugs without the intention of selling them.

“In those cases, police have almost full oversight over the evidence that is presented to the courts and the judges need little else to make their decision.”

Golunov’s high profile case, however, might have triggered a response from the authorities. On Tuesday, the independent television station Dozhd reported that a proposal to cut sentences for drug possession unrelated to attempted sales might be passed by Russia’s State Duma before the end of the spring session.

The first hearing could be on June 20.

“I know they have been working for a while now on softening the legislation, maybe now they think they will have the support of the public to push it through,” Malishev said, adding that “it is only a tiny step in the right direction.”

Several high profile officials have also voiced their support for reform. Alexei Kudrin, the head of the Audit Chamber and a long-standing advisor of Russian President Vladimir Putin said while he “welcomed” the release of Golunov, “many others are still in jail” and called for a reform of Article 228.

Lawyers and human rights activists The Moscow Times spoke to, however, remain skeptical that new legislation will bring genuine change.

“The government might soften the laws a bit, but unless there is a fundamental shift in the way police deal with suspects, this will keep on happening,” Levinson said.

It’s also unclear if drug reform has popular support

Sociological polls indicate little public support for any kind of drug decriminalization in Russia. Levada, the country’s sole independent pollster, in 2014 showed that only 14 percent of the population would like to see soft drugs legalized.

VTsIOM, the state polling agency, showed similar numbers in 2018. But attitudes toward punishment for drug-related offenses were much more lenient among under 24s.

“There is a definite generational shift in attitudes towards drug use, young people are seeing the absurdity of the current legislation and how it is being implemented,” said Malishev, adding that his organization received a “large amount of interest and calls” following Golunov’s arrest.

Other initiatives have also sprung up to bring attention to the issues surrounding current drug legislation, including a range of t-shirts with the slogan “228” from Moscow-based fashion brand Kultrab.

“They have been a massive success, we completely sold out and had to order a new batch, people have been proud to wear them on the streets and are posting about them on social media, so the stigma seems to be going away,” said Kultrab’s founder Yegor Yeremeev.

“We have the momentum with us, suddenly everyone is talking about 228. People have realized that they too could be Golunov,” he added.

This sentiment was echoed by the editors of Russia’s three most influential newspapers — Vedomosti, Kommersant and RBC — who on Monday made history by printing identical front pages with the headline “I/We are Ivan Golunov” in support of the journalist.

RBC’s editor-in-chief, Igor Trosnikov, told The Moscow Times that Golunov being charged under Article 228 played a big role in the decision.

For Denis, change can’t come soon enough, as he said he and his friends often feel “hunted by police” in Moscow under the current laws.

“This has to end, I am sick of being scared.”

Alexei Gaskarov: A 25,000 Ruble Minimum Monthly Wage Is a Good Idea

Rank-and-file Russians deserve a mandatory minimum wage, argues Alexei Gaskarov, and it would be good for the economy. Street scene near Haymarket Square in Petersburg, 4 February 2017. Photo by TRR
Rank-and-file Russians deserve a mandatory minimum wage, argues Alexei Gaskarov, and it would be good for the economy. Street scene near Haymarket Square in Petersburg, 4 February 2017. Photo by TRR

A 25,000 Ruble Minimum Monthly Wage Is a Good Idea
Alexei Gaskarov
Snob
February 8, 2017

How would a high minimum wage help Russia turn into a developed country? Why is Alexei Navalny’s campaign pledge not stupid at all? Financial analyst Alexei Gaskarov shares his opinion. 

What’s Wrong with Russia?
Russia ranks at the very top in international ratings of social inequality.

There are different means of combating inequality, including progressive taxation and raising unemployment benefits. But as soon as someone proposes a solution to the problem, he is immediately dubbed a populist.

This fate has befallen Alexei Navalny. In his presidential election program, he proposed setting a minimum wage of 25,000 rubles a month [approx. 400 euros at current exchange rates].

Is This Populism?
Let’s see how the structure of Russia’s GDP would change if this measure were implemented under current macroeconomic parameters. And let’s compare Russia’s GDP with the GDPs of the G20 countries.

GDP is the market value of all goods sold and services rendered in the country during the year. Costs are always someone’s income, so GDP can be calculated not only in terms of consumption, investment, government expenditures, and net exports but also in terms of income.

STRUCTURE OF RUSSIAN GDP IN TERMS OF INCOME IN % (PER ROSSTAT)
2015 2016 2017
GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT 100.0 100.0 100.0
Compensation of employees, including wages and mixed income not captured by direct statistical methods 47.2 45.0 46.6
Net taxes on manufacturing and imports 13.9 11.1 10.7
Gross economic profit and gross mixed income 38.9 43.9 42.7

There are three types of income:

  1. Compensation of employees, includes expenditures on insurance and pensions.
  2. Net taxes on production and imports. Essentially, this is revenue from the extraction of natural resources and their subsequent import abroad.
  3. Business income: company profits, capital gains, incomes of individual entrepreneurs.

The table shows that business income is nearly equal to the income of all employees.

Indirect taxes (e.g., income tax and VAT) are not included in GDP in order to avoid duplication, since they are based on the same profits and wages.

This is what average income distribution looks like in the G20 countries:

Source: The Labour Share in G20 Economies (ILO, 2015)

The labor share in Russia is 6–7% lower than the average for the G20 countries. The reason for the difference is the weakness of democracy and civic institutions in Russia. Election results do not depend on the opinion of the populace, trade unions are weak, and protests against social policy are far and few between. So it makes no sense to redistribute incomes to benefit employees.

How Much Would We Spend?
72,323,000 people are employed in Russia. We have to subtract entrepreneurs [i.e., the self-employed] from this figure. According to the Unified State Register of Individual Entrepreneurs (EGRIP), they amount to approximately 3.5 million people. We also have to subtract those people who work part-time: according to Rosstat, there are around one million such people, if we discount those involved in small business. So the upper limit of full-time employees in Russia is 67,820,000 people. Within this group, 50.3% earn less than 25,000 rubles a month.

However, 1.4% of employees earn between 5,000 and 5,000 rubles a month, and 20.9%, between 17,000 and 25,000 rubles a month. Another 50 percent of employees receive an average monthly wage of 15,329 rubles [approx. 240 euros].

Accordingly, the poorest wage earners would benefit most of all from the introduction of a mandatory minimum wage. On average, every employee currently earning less than 25,000 rubles a month would be paid an additional 9,671 rubles (i.e., 25,000 rubles – 15,329 rubles = 9,671 rubles ).

We would thus have to reallocate almost 3.96 trillion rubles annually: 9,671 rubles (the average pay rise) x 67,820,000 (the number of employees) x 50.3% (the share of those currently earning less than 25,000 rubles a month) x 12 (months) ≈ 3.96 trillion rubles.

Let us add in insurance premiums and pension contributions, which amount to 30.2%. The overall total would be around 5.15 trillion rubles (3.96 trillion x 1.302).

Russia’s GDP in 2015 was 83.23 trillion rubles. If we reallocate 5.15 trillion rubles from profits to wages, we arrive at the following ratio.

2015 2015 (%) 2015* 2015* (%)
GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT 83.233 trillion rubles 100 82.233 rubles 100
Compensation of employees 37.471 trillion rubles 45 42.621 trillion rubles 51
Net taxes on manufacturing and imports 9.272 trillion rubles 11 9.272 trillion rubles 11
Gross economic profit and gross mixed income

 

36.489 trillion rubles 44 31.339 trillion rubles 38

In the resulting structure, the share of labor income is slightly higher than the average figure among the G20 countries.

Obviously, many people would lose their jobs after a minimum wage of this kind was introduced, primarily those people who dig pits with a shovel where an excavator should be doing the work. These jobs are safe nowadays only because you can pay people almost nothing in Russia.

In turn, employers would seek to maintain profits by increasing prices for finished products. In aggregate, these effects would shape an economy typical of developed countries.

What Do We Risk?
Many people fear inflation. Let’s evaluate the risks. To introduce a mandatory minimum wage of 25,000 rubles a month, according to the structure indicated above, we would have to increase wage costs by 13.7%. The share of labor costs in the economy is 45%. Accordingly, to cover the increased costs, the price of finished products would have to be increased by 6.165% (13.7% x 45% = 6.165%). That would be the upper limit of possible inflation.

In reality, however, a rise in prices decreases consumption and forces prices to creep downwards. In addition, unemployment and inflation are inversely proportional to one another, meaning the higher the unemployment rate, the lower the rate of inflation.

Additional inflation would be two or three percent, and for the most part it would be spread out over the whole of society, meaning that people who earn a lot would forfeit this percentage of income, while the incomes of the poorest workers would increase significantly.

Of course, such a drastic rise in wages is a rather radical measure, given that the minimum wage is currently even below the subsistence level, and it is bound up with a variety of social benefits that would also automatically increase. But the tenor of the reform is absolutely correct and corresponds to successful examples in world practice.

The introduction of a statutory minimum wages in Germany has lead neither to inflation nor unemployment. In the US, increases in the minimum wage have increased the salaries of low-paid workers while maintaining employment.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Alexei Gaskarov for the heads-up. For another take on the Russian economy’s performance and the figures provided by Rosstat, see yesterday’s featured post, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics,” a translation of an op-ed piece by liberal economist Sergei Aleksashenko.