Vladislav Ryazantsev has been assaulted in Rostov-on-Don. Vlad and I covered the entire Sentsov-Kolchenko trial and Nadiya Savchenko’s Donetsk saga together. I arrived in Rostov the first time a couple of days before the Sentsov trial to get my bearings. The next day, I was joined by cameraman Nikita Tatarsky, and we shot a short report about how even the local opposition knew nothing about the trial that was going to take place in their city. Amongst the people we interviewed was Vlad.
Later on, he, a journalist from Mediazona, and I were often the only reporters at the hearings in Donetsk City Court. When people say that Ukrainian media did a great job of covering the Savchenko trial, I recall Vlad sitting alone in the courtroom with his laptop. Mediazona’s correspondent and I would be sitting just as alone in the room where the trial was broadcast. It wasn’t always like this, of course, but it happened.
I would be remiss not to mention the fact that the attack was literally preceded by threats from Chechnya made to the editor-in-chief of Caucasian Knot, for which Vlad wrote. Another Knot correspondent, Zhalaudi Geriev was sentenced in Chechnya to three years in prison for narcotics possession a day before he was scheduled to attend a conference in Moscow entitled “The Media and the Constitutional Court.” You get my drift? It’s not a fact that the attack was connected with the threats. Maybe the local Center “E” guys did their best: they are active in Rostov. Maybe it was pro-Russian militants and mercenaries, who have flooded through Rostov on their way to Donbass. Vlad had publicly taken a pro-Ukrainian stance, and he had a falling out with Sergei Udaltsov‘s leftists and his wife over this point. Maybe it was these leftists who got to him. Whatever the case, threats and aggression towards journalists, made by people who enjoy a special extrajudicial status, open the way to unchallenged violence by anyone whomsoever.
Alexei Gaskarov: Many People Ask Whether I Am Going to Take up Politics. But What Politics Are There Nowadays?
Olesya Gerasimenko Snob
November 1, 2016
Anti-fascist Alexei Gaskarov has been released from prison after serving three and a half years in prison for alleged involvement in the Bolotyana Square riot in Moscow in 2012. Snob asked Kommersant special correspondent Olesya Gerasimenko to meet with Gaskarov to discuss the Bolotnaya Square case, life and education in the penal colony, and the death of the protest movement.
“Why would they ask me about organizing a riot if they knew no one organized it?”
Was your trial fair?
I regret we agreed to be involved in it. Like Soviet political prisoners, we should have stood with our backs turned and kept our mouths shut, and not treated it as an attempt to get at the truth. I had illusions after Khimki. [In 2010, Gaskarov was arrested and charged with attacking the Khimki town hall during a protest in defense of Khimki Forest, but the court acquitted him. — Snob] Several videos showed clearly that the incidents involving me happened before the riot kicked off, according to police investigators themselves. In the end, I ticked off the evidence, the judge nodded her head, but there was no reaction. The entire trial looked as if the decision had already been made, the sentence written out, and let’s get this over as quickly as possible.
So did you push a policeman and pull a soldier out of the police cordon?
I never denied it from the get-go. A year had passed since the rally on Bolotnaya Square. I was working on an important project. I had a week to go, and it was uncool to have to go to jail. I had to go to work on the Sunday the cops came for me. I had gone to the shop to buy food for the cat, and the whole clown show was waiting outside my building: two jeeps and a van. Young dudes half dressed like boneheads stepped out of the van. I decided they were from BORN [a group of radical right-wing nationalists who carried out a series of murders and assaults — Snob]. I was pondering what moves to make, but they produced their IDs.
Did you feel relieved?
No, just the opposite. I could have run from BORN or done something else. So they detained me and kept mum about what the charges were for a long while. They made me lie face down in the van and the whole works. There were lots of things they could have detained me for. We had been defending the tenants of the Moscow Silk (Mosshyolk) dormitories from eviction and the Tsagov Forest in Zhukovsky from logging by developers. And shortly before my arrest, people who are now serving in the Azov Battalion attempted to assault my wife and me. I tussled with them, and it ended up on camera. So there were different possibilities. I was not thinking about Bolotnaya at all. When it finally became clear why I had been detained, I stared at them. It was total rubbish. I told them I agreed to admit what I had done. We had been walking amid the crowd, when a riot cop attacked this dude. A dogpile ensued, and people pulled them apart. I was accused of pulling a policeman’s leg. The evidence was a poor quality video and a forensic report that concluded it was not me. But I knew it was me. So I told them right away, Guys, let’s do this the right way. But they could not have cared less whether I admitted my guilt or not. It would have been a different story if I had confessed to violating Article 212 of the Criminal Code (organizing a riot) or testified against someone else.
Were you asked?
They didn’t even mention it. Why would they ask me about organizing a riot if they know no one had organized it, including from their own wiretaps? They kept the charges to the incident with the leg pulling. Then they found a second incident. A stampede started in front of the police line. People were falling on the ground, and I tugged one policeman by the shoulder to make room. The indictment said I had broken the police line so that everyone could get to the riot. But this line had been at the passage in the other direction.
Did you expect such a sentence?
They had already told me at the Investigative Committee they were going send me down. I said, Well, of course. Later, the Center “E” guys showed up and threatened me with ten years in prison, but I know that could not happen. The rules of the game are still followed, and punishment for a particular crime is usually consistent with ordinary practice.
How do you feel about the case of Udaltsov and his associates?
I have very negative feelings about it, of course. I ran into [Leonid] Razvozzhayev in the pre-trial detention facility, but I wasn’t really able to chat with him, because he was always in very bad shape. Udaltsov and his associates operated like real con men. Before May 6, 2012, they had no clue how the march would go, and there is no mention of sitdown strikes and rushing police lines in the wiretaps. But after everything had happened on Bolotnaya, they began acting in their meetings with Targamadze as if everything had gone according to their plans. Their initial excuse, that they had traveled to Georgia to talk about wine and mineral water, was pure idiocy. Naturally, it is not against the law to have meetings and discuss business. But there is a political ethic that does not let you behave this way. You go meet dudes from the government of another country, a country with whom [your country] recently had a conflict. You ask for money, and you take money. If these meetings had not taken place, the Kremlin would have failed to generate the image of the Bolotnaya Square case that it did. We should not have had to answer for things over which we had no control. The benefits to Udaltsov were personal, but everyone shared the risks.
So you received no money from Givi Targamadze?
Are you kidding? What money?
Who was the anonymous anarchist informer who testifed against you?
I didn’t even find out. I have had nothing to do with them for many years. The guys still have their little movement. Like Tolkien fans, they attend meetings and discuss for hours on end how they should make a revolution. They have been doing this for the last twenty years. It was of no interest to anyone. The FSB sent its people in. They went and had a look at it and said, Well okay, you have a cool club. When Center “E” was established, they went after them big time to push up their arrest stats. All anarchist meetings are open, anyone can come. So they are known to the authorities. The teenager from this scene who went to Bolotnaya and was involved in breaking through police lines was identified in this way. They put the squeeze on him: either we send you down or you tell us what we want to hear. I have no idea why this was necessary, because he just said I was a bad dude and the leader of the anti-fascists and anarchists. But nobody charged me with that.
“The rules of survival are simple: don’t do anyone harm”
Tell me about life in prison. Everyone is interested in that. You know, reveille at six, lights out at ten.
Yeah. As you understand, people who are drug addicts, people going through withdrawal, basically live at night. After lights out, they either smoke or brew chifir [a super strong tea brewed in Russian prisons]. You just set that aside. You have your routine, and basically it is good for you. No one limits the amount of exercise you do: there is a horizontal bar, parallel bars, and a few weights. You are either working or busy with your own things. I got into shape there like I never have before. The point is to come up with as many things to do as possible so you have no spare time at all.
What did you read?
The library there was okay, because everyone who does time gets books and then leaves them behind. They see who has been nominated for the Booker Prize and order their books. It’s not hard to find new releases in prison. I also subscribed to several pro-Kremlin publications, and I read lots of your articles, too. And I read The New Times and Novaya Gazeta. I wanted different viewpoints. Plus, there is a legal video link in there. It is limited to fifteen minutes a day, but in fact nobody keeps track of the time.
Who were your cellmates?
I spent half my sentence in a pre-trial detention facility. The dudes in there had been charged under Article 228 of the Criminal Code [purchase, storage, production, and sale of narcotics — Snob]. Their stories were horrible. One group of teenagers had gotten hash in the mail from Holland, and they had been sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Or there were the dudes who decided to cook amphetamine using a recipe they found on the Internet. They got nineteen years in prison. I was even ashamed to explain what my case was about, because I was surrounded by people facing over ten years in prison. When the trial began, we were kept in Butyrka Prison. They were thieves, crazies, teenagers, street kids, and Dagestanis in there. I also met defendants in the Rosoboronexport case, the APEC Summit case, and the Sochi Olympics case, and I went to the gym with Alexander Emelianenko.
The general population at the penal colony consisted of three hundred men. Eighty percent of them were local dudes from Tula Region who had attacked somebody while drunk, stolen things from dachas, and committed petty robberies. But what is the catch about the general population? That a homeless man who broke into someone else’s dacha to spend the winter got sent down to the penal colony, and his life there is better than on the outside, and he is in the same place as a big-shot businessman who has lost a billion rubles and used to go sailing on his yacht on the outside.
Does this lead to lots of conflicts?
There are lots of conflicts, but the instigator always takes the rap for a fight. That doesn’t mean there are no fights. They are criminals, after all, and they tend to take risks. But the rules of survival are simple: don’t do anyone harm. If you watch TV after lights out, turn down the sound. Don’t drag in dirt. It’s all basic.
Was it easy for you to understand them?
Yeah. In 2010, I was in a pre-trial detention facility with repeat offenders and learned the tricks. And during my early days in the penal colony I read Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn’s stories about the prison camps.
Like a set of rules?
Yes. The Center “E” officer who led the investigation in my case told me a lot and advised me what books to read. When I was on the inside, people asked my advice on how to behave.
When you got out you said the main thing had been to maintain contact with reality and your health. How did you maintain your health? Was the food there okay?
Due to the fact that support from the outside was good, I almost never ate in the cafeteria.
But what about hot meals?
There is a microwave there. The Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) now has taken the approach of not keeping you from improving your living conditions. They need to implement their strategy for improving conditions in the penal colonies, but their budget has been trimmed. When you arrive, everything is crappy. Water is dripping from the ceilings, and there is mold. But they don’t mind if you want to invest your own resources. You write everything up as humanitarian aid, and you get electric kettles and microwaves. We had a projector hanging in our cell for watching films.
Now everyone will want to roll back two years to read books and watch films on a projector.
We also purchased a bunch of armchairs from IKEA. So when the head office comes to make an inspection, they show them how cool everything is in their colony.
I think you wanted to get another degree in prison.
Unfortunately, it turned out the university with which the colony collaborates is just a degree mill that sells them for money. I did something else there. At work, I would often teach the basics of entrepreneurship and planning. There were people doing time in the colony with whom it was interesting to talk, bank chairmen and ministry officials. There was a space, an evening school. I brought around fifty people together and asked the wardens permission to run something like seminars. Everyone had to come up with his own project, and over eight months (my sentence was coming to an end) we would try and whip it into shape, with a business plan as the outcome. At first, they turned me down outright, saying I was in for the Bolotnaya Square case and would lead political discussions. But then there was a change in management at the penal colony, and they met us halfway. It was like a little piece of the outside world.
Generally, of course, the colony’s disciplinary and educational function has been tapped out. There are no resources. The majority of guys in there do not have the most basic skills. They cannot write a letter, but there is no one there at all to educate them. There is this option of watching films on the weekends. They show this rubbish, total nonsense. I went to the wardens and said, Let’s make a selection of good films; we can watch ordinary films in our cells. But they could not even decide to do that. They get their action plans from the head office, where the theorists work. They say, Let’s hold a sports day, even though athletic clothing is prohibited in the general population.
“They aren’t winning this game by turning to crackdowns”
While you were away, the Khimki Forest was cut down. The Moscow Silk tenants were evicted. Anti-fascists fell out over Ukraine. Many of the people who rallied on Bolotnaya have emigrated. When you all; were being arrested one by one, everyone said it would be the case of the century, that everyone would close ranks because of you and for your sake, but ultimately you have got out of prison, the Bolotnaya Square case is still underway, and there is no longer any interest in it. Maybe you went to prison for nothing?
What does that mean, “nothing”? I had no choice. It’s good that the anti-fascist thing is no longer on the front burner. Nowadays, there are no more clashes with neo-Nazis, who were killing people in the early 2000s. Back then, they really needed a counterweight. Our job was to point out the problem and make things decent on the streets. We succeeded in doing this. But the anti-fascist movement cannot defeat xenophobia in society.
What do you think about the split among anti-fascists, that one group went to Kiev, while the other went to Donbass? They were at each other’s throats.
I always assumed that very different people joined the anti-fascist movement, and that was fine. There were aspects that just did not make sense to me. For example, why were European leftists strutting their stuff in Donbass? It looks as if they were totally conned.
As for Bolotnaya, choosing to be involved in this movement was fraught with risks. If we draw an analogy with Ukraine (although many people don’t like to do this), I don’t think that if the events on Bolotnaya had gone further those people would have balked at shooting the crowd. A bunch of people were killed in Kiev, while here in Moscow we were supposed to be scared off by prison sentences. They randomly picked a group of people and put them in prison. The rationale is clear. Whoever you are, if you oppose the tsar, you will suffer. How can we respond to this? We have to debunk the myth that such crackdowns are effective.
But that is what happened. Everyone really was afraid of being hit once with a truncheon, to say nothing of prison. Many members of the opposition have said the fight against the regime is not a worth a centimeter of their personal comfort. You are practically the only who does not think this way. Don’t you feel lonely?
Most people haven’t been to prison, and they really imagine it is the end of world. If I go to prison, I can kiss my life goodbye, they think. I just dealt with it more or less normally. But this is how I see it. When the authorities crack down on dissent, people lower their level of activism. They lose the desire to invest themselves in something. Ultimately, the system falls apart, rather than becoming more stable, as the authorities imagine. The country becomes less competitive. In prison, I saw many people who were doing time for economic crimes, and they all said approximately the same thing. People who have satisfied their material needs develop political demands, and that is fine. Everyone wants to be involved in changing things. When this desire for change is blocked, they are blocking the segment of society that generates the most added value. They aren’t winning this game by turning to crackdowns. Especially because the system is not as terrible as it makes itself out to be.
But people need to remain minimally active. It is too bad that many people have chosen the passive way. I have just got out, and it really seems to me that a lot has changed, even in Moscow itself. Although, theoretically, I saw it all ten years ago, only in Europe. We can live this way a long time. Hence the complexity of the political arguments around Bolotnaya. Given the resources we have have, we could live better, but the way things are also suits lots of people. In this case, the system can survive for a long while. We should not get involved in direct confrontations. This was clear to me on Bolotnaya Square as well. We wanted to get the hell out of there, because it was obvious the sitdown strikes and so on were just what the authorities wanted. But there are other ways of doing things. We don’t have to limit ourselves to demonstrations and rallies.
There are the demands made at Bolotnaya—fair elections and the transfer of power—but there is the option of engaging in specific targeted campaigns in order to develop one’s ideas under the existing regime.
You mean the theory of small deeds?
Among other things. For example, I read that many Bolotnaya activists have gone into charity work. In fact, that is not so bad. What matters is maintaining the energy. Or there is the successful fight against corruption, all those publications that impact the system, whatever you say. Or there are people in the leftist milieu who think there should be progressive taxation: they can also advance their arguments. Or form an anti-war movement given all the conflicts underway.
In prison, I realized how strongly the regime affects people’s brains. There are people who show up there who are not inclined to heavy discussions. Real peasants. All the myths that exist are in their heads. But when you are around them, you don’t even have to argue. Even the most impenetrable guys would change their minds just as a result of conversation. So any work aimed at disseminating information and minimal education is vital.
What did you change their minds about?
A variety of things, including their overall attitude to the opposition. In the beginning, it was even convenient for me, like there were only drug addicts at Bolotnaya, that they all had gone there to score heroin, and everybody would leave me alone [after I would say that]. But over time people see what you read, what films you watch on the Culture channel, that you can help draft a court appeal, and they understand you are not an idiot and would not have gone to a protest rally for a dose of heroin. There were lots of conflicts over Ukraine, especially because there were many people doing time who had managed to fight in Donbas, come back to Russia, and get sent to prison.
Disorderly conduct, theft, and armed robbery. They were typical soldiers of fortune. We even managed to talk about this most difficult issue and iron out our differences.
Is Crimea ours?
I have a simple position on this issue. People went out on the Maidan because they did not like the current regime. I think what happened to Crimea was Putin’s attempt to punish them for this. The Ukrainian people made their choice, Putin didn’t like it, and [Russia] acted like the interventionists during the Russian Civil War. It is not a matter of what the inhabitants of Crimea wanted. It was an action directed against all the values we tried to defend on Bolotnaya.
So it’s not ours?
I consider it a real violation of international law. It was unethical and wrong. Clearly they did this to stick an example in everyone’s face: see what protests have done to the country. But I don’t have an opinion about what should happen next.
To return it or not?
Well yes. Because it is clear that most people who live there want to be part of Russia.
You went to prison in one country, but came out of prison in another country. What was it like finding out on the news about the historic events that were happening on the outside? Did you feel sorry you were observing them from afar? Or, on the contrary, was it easier?
To be honest, the latter. It was often difficult to make up my mind. For example, when refugees left Ukraine en masse, they would come work in the penal colony. You communicate with them and realize there is ideology, and then there are people’s stories, and it was hard to make up one’s mind. I actually thought it was cool this was going on in the background.
What is your work situation? What are you planning to do?
Of course, I would like to do the work I was educated to do, as a financial systems analyst, as it says in my diploma. My old job did not survive the crisis. I will have problems, of course. I have even asked acquaintances at several companies, but I was told no way, especially in offices that work on state commissions or state projects. So things are rough. I will have to start everything from scratch. But I am sure that the fourteen percent have some businesses. [Gaskarov has in mind VTsIOM’s polling data, showing that 86% of Russians support Putin — Snob.]
Earning money is my priority now. Many people have asked me whether I am going to take up politics. Everyone has so many expectations, but what politics are there nowadays? It is impossible to be involved in politics without having your own resources. Of course, I say you shouldn’t be afraid of prison, but it is a serious setback all the same: three and a half years. A lot of missed opportunities and a backlog of problems.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Gabriel Levy for the heads-up
Picketing Tomsk Residents Demand Release of Political Prisoners Novosti v Tomske
April 23, 2016
The rally was held today at the Monument to the Construction Brigades, reports vtomske.ru’s correspondent.
According to our correspondent, around fifteen people were involved in the picket. One of the participants, Anton Sharypov, said that its main aim was to draw attention to the problem of political prisoners.
“In Russia today, there are many people who are subjected to illegal arrest, to what amounts to political repression, for their civic and political stances. We demand the release of those who are in prison and an end to torture and crackdowns so that people can live freely, grow, and help their country. None of these people are terrorists, which is how they are presented. They are ordinary people who work and study, and in their free time they are socialists and anti-fascists. They lend a helping hand to trade unions and grassroots groups. They are not criminals and murderers,” he explained.
In particular, the Tomsk residents at today’s picket supported Dmitry Buchenkov. According to federal media, Buchenkov has been accused of a resisting a riot police officer during the riot on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on May 6, 2012. He was arrested on December 3, 2015.
“We believe this is a provocation on the part of the security forces. There are witnesses who have testified that [Buchenkov] was in Nizhny Novgorod, his hometown, that day. However, he was basically abducted. His lawyers were not allowed to attend his pretrial custody hearing, and his relatives did not know his whereabouts for a long time. Now he is in police custody. They are going to try him on the basis of a photograph of another person. We believe this is political repression,” said Sharypov.
The picketing Tomsk residents also showed their support for Sergei Udaltsov, Alexei Gaskarov, and Tomsk activist Yegor Alexeev, who is suspected of posting extremist videos on the VKontakte social network, and collected donations for an aid fund for victims of political repression.
Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos courtesy of Dmitry Kandinsky and vtomske.ru. Thanks to theMay 6 Committeefor the heads-up
The verdicts on the second group of defendants in the Bolotnaya Square case will be announced in Zamoskvoretsky Court in Moscow on August 18. The prosecutor asked the court to sentence Alexander Margolin and Alexei Gaskarov to four years in prison; Ilya Gushchin, to three years and three months in prison; and Elena Kokhtareva, to three years and three months suspended, with four years of probation. All four defendants have been accused under Article 212 Part 2 (involvement in rioting) and Article 318 Part 1 (use of non-threatening violence against a public official) of the Russian Federal Criminal Code.
On August 4, 28-year-old antifascist Alexei Gaskarov made his closing statement in court. This is the complete text of his speech.
The so-called Bolotnaya Square case has been symbolic in the sense that through it the public sees how the authorities interact with the opposition, with those people whose viewpoint differs from the general line.
The first thing I wanted to talk about is something that was not addressed in the trial, but which I think is important: why on May 6, [2012,] despite everything, so many people decided to be involved in certain events, rather than simply stand another two or three hours in queues, and ultimately did not permit themselves to be beaten with impunity.
The May 6 demonstration was the seventh major event staged by the opposition [during the 2011–2012 fair elections protest movement]. Whereas earlier, before December 2011, a few thousand people attended protest rallies I had witnessed, when you-know-who said the idea of rotating governments was not the best thing for Russia, the core group of protesters increased significantly. And these people did not go organize riots, but went to observe elections in order to understand and record the way the political processes that occur in our country are legitimated.
Everything fell into place on December 4[, 2011, when parliamentary elections were held in Russia]. Despite the fact that the institution of elections had been destroyed much earlier, the large group of people who went to the polls as observers saw how the legitimacy of the current government was shaped. I myself was an observer at those elections, and what we saw was quite straightforward. Indeed, it is a strange situation when you are trying to find at least one person among your acquaintances who would say they voted for United Russia. In fact, such people did not exist: there was no mass support for the government. When they tried to counter the Bolotnaya Square protests with an event on Poklonnaya Hill in support of the current government, they could not gather more than a thousand people.
This subject itself was extremely important, but unfortunately it was not sufficiently popular with the authorities. Fair elections are still the only legal way of changing the political system, and once it has been changed, you can solve social and economic problems. A huge number of people took to the streets. There was almost no reaction on the part of the authorities. The protests were peaceful, the protesters were numerous, and it was obvious the demands they made and the problems they talked about were real, but instead we saw only a reluctance to engage in dialogue and, at some point, flagrant mockery.
A lot of people now do not like what thuggish characters in Ukraine are calling people from Southeast Ukraine. But here in Russia the same thing happened: when people came out on Bolotnaya Square, the country’s president called them Bandar-log and made many other unflattering comparisons. We were told we amounted to only one percent, that only one hundred thousand people in a city of ten million came out to protest, that it meant nothing at all. But later, when they actually allowed a fair poll, as happened during the [September 2013] mayoral election in Moscow, it turned out it was not one percent, but forty percent, a significant segment of society. And I would like to say that we should be glad on the whole that the events on Bolotnaya Square happened as they did.
In all developed democratic countries, protest rallies, the opportunity to express points of view that differ from that of the authorities, generate political competition, which enables countries to find the best way of developing. By the way, certain problems in the Russian economy began precisely in the third quarter of 2012, because it is impossible to build a stable economic and social system when you completely demotivate and exclude such an essential part of society. And it was obvious that this part of society was essential.
The first signal that comes from our case: does the right to protest, which exists in all developed countries, exist at all in Russia? As we see now, Russia has been deprived of this right.
And the second signal, which it is impossible to ignore: has the rule of law survived in Russia? Individuals must be protected from the actions of the authorities not only by a system of checks and balances but also by the possibility of appealing directly to the law in the way in which it is worded. I think this can be seen in our case. There is Article 212 of the Criminal Code: it may be poorly worded, but it is worded the way it is. And it is wrong, I think, to raise such obvious questions at the trial stage, because the law is worded quite clearly. We read a lot of commentaries to the Criminal Code and nowhere did we find that the corpus delicti of “rioting” could be defined alternatively, based on the evidence listed in the charges. Nevertheless, this has been consistently ignored. Even in those decisions entered into the case file, this subject was roundly rejected.
In and of itself, the rule of law is the most important of the institutions that protect the rights of individuals from the state. And, of course, we cannot ignore the selective application of the law to citizens. I realize that Russian law is not based on precedent, but it is impossible not to notice that if, for example, you are a nationalist, block roads, and set fire to shops, but refrain from speaking out against the actions of the authorities, you are only guilty of disorderly conduct. If you go to protest rallies where people shout, “Putin is a thief!” you are, accordingly, liable to serious criminal charges.
There is one last point following from our case to which I would also like to draw attention. I think a signal is being sent: if you are loyal to the authorities, you will enjoy the most favorable conditions; if you are disloyal, you will go to jail. This concerns the evaluation of the actions of demonstrators and the actions of police. It is too obvious that not all the police behaved as they should have behaved. I understand this was not specifically the matter in dispute in our case, but not a single criminal case has been opened against the police. Practically speaking, they have tried to turn the police into a caste of untouchables as part of our case. When there was a public debate on the Bolotnaya Square case, the same phrase always came up: “You cannot hit police.” Even in our group of thirty people charged in the Bolotnaya Square case, only three people actually struck police officers. And yet the whole complexity of this situation was primitivized through a single phrase: “You cannot hit police.”
But it seems to me this way of posing the question dismisses and completely destroys any criticism of the government. We cannot forget that many terrible things have happened in our country (for example, during the Great Terror [under Stalin in 1937-38]), that people in uniform committed all these crimes, and everything they did was legal for all intents and purposes. But now they tell us there should be no critical rethinking of this situation, that it is necessary to stupidly obey the thesis that was endlessly repeated during discussion of our case.
The main thing I would like say, your honor, is that I really would not want it to happen that, after our trial, speaking of the law as an expression of the principle of justice became a sign of bad taste. I would hope that our trial did not pursue any other political objectives that have been imposed on it, that have been set for it—and all that is in the case files—but that we be judged for the things we really did. But if, in this country, the way to freedom runs through prison, we are ready to go. That is all.
On July 24, two other defendants in the Bolotnaya Square case, the left-wing activists Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev, were each sentenced to four and a half years in prison on charges arising from the May 6 demonstration. Supporters of Alexei Gaskarov and the other three defendants being sentenced this month fear similarly harsh penalties on August 18.
Solidarity makes a difference in such cases. While the Russian government claims to be championing “antifascism” in Ukraine, it is sending antifascists and other oppositionists in Russia to jail for long periods. The more support for these activists from antifascists internationally, the better.
Update. On August 18, Alexei Gaskarov and Alexander Margolin were sentenced to three and half years in prison; Ilya Gushchin, to two and a half years; and Elena Kokhtareva, to a suspended sentence of three years and three months including three years’ probation.
Udaltsov: four and a half years in prison. Razvozzhayev: four and a half years in prison.
“You were paid to come here, right?” the girl in uniform at the entrance to Moscow City Court asked out of habit. Then came the long hours of standing with sympathizers, acquaintances, and strangers listening as the sentence in the trial of Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev was read out. The Bolotnaya Square case is only two years old, but it seems a whole lifetime has passed.
Slurring the words, Judge Alexander Zamashnyuk and his henchmen took turns reading out the full version of the idiotic detective story, a puzzle whose pieces have finally fallen into place: long-cherished dreams of violent revolution, the heady atmosphere of the Movement for Fair Elections, the connection with Georgian intelligence and clandestine seminars on how Maidan was organized (then it was still the previous Maidan), the columns of “anarchists and nationalists” on May 6, 2012, in Moscow, the “riots,” with all their participants and “hallmarks.”
The absurd picture of a conspiracy, which just recently provoked laughter, now finds support and understanding in the eyes of the frightened and brutalized “new Putin majority,” who seemingly think it is nice everything ended on May 6, 2012, and that the prison sentences and frame-ups are the price that must be paid for perpetual Russian stability.
Like the other Bolotnaya Square prisoners, Sergei Udaltsov is no longer a symbol of a movement that served its purpose but something much more than that. He is a reminder that resisting, dissenting, and undermining the false unity of the people and the state continue to be historical possibilities.
December 19, 2013 A Muted Joy Four Defendants in the Bolotnaya Square Case Amnestied
The amnesty passed yesterday by the State Duma has enabled charges against four defendants in the Bolotnaya Square case to be dropped. Today, December 19, opposition activist Vladimir Akimenkov and journalist Leonid Kovyazin, who had been held in a remand prison for over a year, were released. Human rights activist Nikolai Kavkazsky was released from house arrest, and charges were likewise dropped against Maria Baronova, who had been under travel restrictions. Our correspondent went to the hearing at the Nikulinsky District Court in Moscow to see how the “prisoners of Bolotnaya” were freed.
Lawyers and journalists waited for the hearing to begin in a small, five-table cafe on the first floor of the Nikulinsky District Court. It had been known since yesterday evening that motions to amnesty four defendants in the Bolotnaya Square case—Maria Baronova, Vladimir Akimenkov, Nikolai Kavkazsky and Leonid Kovyazin—would be filed today. The four had been charged under sections 2 and 3 of Article 212 of the Criminal Code (participating in rioting and incitement to riot). Yesterday, the State Duma amended the president’s amnesty bill, extending it not only those convicted of such crimes but also to suspects and defendants charged under this article. However, the hearing had already been delayed by two hours and the people in the cafe were nervous.
Someone suggested the motions would not be accepted until Vladimir Putin’s press conference was over, because Judge Natalya Nikishina was waiting for a go-ahead from the Kremlin. Someone else claimed that traffic jams were to blame: because of them, the defendants had not been delivered to the court on time.
“In our difficult times, any delay gives rise to conspiracy theories,” lawyer Sergei Badamshin said by way of summing up.
When asked whether the four defendants would be released, lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant answered quite cautiously.
“It often happens that courts like to drag things out until the verdict. In Russia, the authorities don’t like letting people go. Today, I heard that some lady from the Federal Penitentiary Service said that for Nadya [Tolokonnikova] to be amnestied they would need a paper from child protection services saying that Nadya had not been deprived of her parental rights. Can you imagine? What grounds do they have for suspecting her of this? Her daughter has a birth certificate in which Nadya is identified as the mother. But in Russia, if they don’t want to let someone go, they always come up with an excuse.”
Dmitry Agranovsky, Vladimir Akimenkov’s lawyer, was categorical.
“I prepared the draft amendments to the amnesty bill along with MPs from the Communist Party. We ensured that the cases against people eligible for amnesty who have been charged under Article 212 would be dropped not after the verdict, but at the stage where they are currently are. From a legal perspective, Akimenkov should be released today, end of story. Since yesterday, there has no longer been any need for his detention. His complaint has already been filed with the European Court of Human Rights, and if he’s kept in the remand prison even for a day after the amnesty bill is published, that will be tantamount to a real abuse of power, since they are no legal grounds for detaining him. He should be released in the courtroom.”
Agranovsky recited [the final stanza of Pushkin’s poem “Deep in Siberian mines”] with expression.
“The heavy fetters will fall, / The jails will crumble. And freedom / Will joyfully hail you at the entrance, / And brothers will give you back your swords.”
Lawyer Alexei Vetrentsev, who was representing defendant Leonid Kovyazin, did not think his client would be released today.
“I think Leonid will be released from the remand prison only tomorrow. There’ll be paperwork at the prison, and he’ll have to gather his things.”
The expression on Vetrentsev’s face was extremely sad.
“For us, the amnesty is a good decision, but I feel embarrassed before the others. It is inhuman to carry out an amnesty this way, releasing some people while others are left in jail.”
Nine other people were to appear with his client in the cage for defendants at the Nikulinsky District Court. Only two of them, Kovyazin and Akimenkov, were supposed to be released. Baronova, the mother of a young child, had been under travel restrictions, while Kavkazsky had been under house arrest.
“I’m ashamed, but I’m glad, and that’s an objective feeling,” said Baronova. “You can feel as guilty as you like because the others aren’t being let out, but now for the first time in two years I can leave the country for at least a few days. I’m looking here at names of banks that give consumer loans for the New Year holidays, so I can go to Berlin.”
(Left to right) Sergei Krivov, Stepan Zimin, Denis Lutskevich, Andrei Barabanov and Artyom Savyolov. Photo: Gennady Gulyaev/Kommersant
Anatoly, grandfather of anarchist Alexei Polikhovich, another defendant, sat motionless not far from Baronova. Anatoly’s grandson was first charged under “amnestied” Article 212, for involvement in rioting. But after a press conference last year in which President Vladimir Putin spoke out strongly against people who had [allegedly] assaulted police officers, Article 318 (“use of violence that does not endanger human life or health […] against a representative of the authority”), the standard charge, was added to the charges against Polikhovich. Riot police officer Igor Tarasov had then suddenly remembered that at the May 6, 2012, rally, Polikhovich had “hit him in the wrist, causing severe pain.”
Immediately after the defendants were brought into the courtroom, the four lawyers moved to have their clients released in connection with the amnesty decree published yesterday in [official government newspaper] Rossiiskaya Gazeta. The appeals were wholly supported by the prosecution. Judge Natalya Nikishina then asked whether the appeals were supported by the remaining defendants not covered by the amnesty—that is, Polikhovich, Alexandra Dukhanina, Denis Lutskevich, Stepan Zimin, Sergei Krivov, Andrei Barabanov, Yaroslav Belousov and Artyom Savyolov.
Polikhovich replied by chuckling ironically a few times, but the other defendants unanimously seconded the appeals. Stella Anton, Denis Lutskevich’s mother, wept loudly. Twenty minutes later, Judge Nikishina returned to the courtroom and read out her decision: to grant the motions and dismiss the criminal charges.
The first to exit the courtroom was Leonid Kovyazin. His wife Yevgenia threw her arms around him.
“The guys aren’t getting out, and that’s bad,” said Kovyazin, now free. “My joy is severely muted for this reason.”
When asked what conditions had been like for him in the Butyrka remand prison, Kovyazin answered calmly.
“At first, I had conflicts in the remand prison. Then I got used to it: the only tough thing was the waiting. Other than that, the people in prison, who are mostly there on drugs charges, are often quite outstanding. Incidentally, I was surprised it wasn’t only young people who used drugs: there were fortysomething men in jail with me who told me how they had got hooked on heroin on their birthdays. Basically, I can’t say anything good about jail: any term of imprisonment means stress, unhappiness and a few years deducted from your life. For example, it is physically painful to ride in the paddy wagon: it is very cold in winter, and extremely hot in summer.”
Kovyazin had been accused of overturning portable toilets that had been set up in Bolotnaya Square during last year’s May 6 rally, which ended in massive clashes between protesters and police. Kovyazin was frank about his actions that day.
“I had gone to the square to shoot video for the Vyatsk Observer newspaper, but then I lost my cool. When I saw the case materials, the video shot from above, I noticed that at the moment [when police dispersed the rally] only around fifty people remained in the square, but the police were on both sides. I had shot scenes of people being beaten by the police, but then I had put away the camera and yet was unable to leave. Perhaps that was my mistake: the camera distances you from what’s happening, but when you’re involved in the events, it’s different.”
Kovyazin did not deny that he had pushed the toilet stalls.
“It was an emotional decision. After the fact you can discuss it at length and reflect on it, but when you see [people being beaten] . . . I was caught up in the action. Later, when the task force came to arrest me, I said to my brother, ‘See you in five years.’ Fortunately, that hasn’t come to pass.”
After a pause, Leonid continued.
“If I could play it back, I would do what I did, only I would have gone without the camera. As Vova [Vladimir Akimenkov] joked to me, ‘When you get out, the journalists are going to slap you first, then shake your hand.’ Because that kind of involvement is, of course, a violation of professional journalistic ethics. But I don’t believe I was involved in rioting.”
“There was no rioting in the square,” asserted Nikolai Kavkazsky, one of the amnestied defendants and a lawyer with the human rights organization Civil Assistance. “It is obvious to everyone that on May 6 there was a sanctioned march and rally that the authorities wanted to disrupt. People who went to that rally are now on trial, but not the policemen who actually violated the law, which prohibits dispersing rallies. What happened to me, for example? I saw a police officer hitting some unknown people with a truncheon. He was beating them severely, you might say. I went up to the police officer and wanted to say to him, ‘Why are you violating the law on police conduct? Why are you beating citizens?” But I didn’t manage to say anything. He raised his truncheon. I wanted to cover myself with hands, but the blow landed on my arm, and to protect myself from this police officer, I lifted my leg. That was it.”
Kavkazsky was arrested on July 25, 2012, when he left his home to buy new pants. (He never did buy those pants.) Later, in the remand prison, he found that the hardest thing to endure was being cut off from the familiar, everyday world.
“When you’re cut off from the phone and Internet, from interacting with your usual circle of people, you feel completely isolated. That’s the scariest thing. And there’s not knowing. Conditions in prisons are horrible: they’re not meant to observe human rights but to violate them. Everything is forbidden there. Why do they forbid you from listening to music you want to listen to? Why can’t you put duvets on your blankets? Why can’t you eat the food you like?”
Kavkazsky spent nearly a year in the remand prison. He was switched to house arrest only in August of this year because endocrine disorders he suffers from had flared up while he was in custody.
Vladimir Akimenkov, an activist with the now-routed Left Front, was also released from the remand prison on Thursday. At first, he had wanted to turn down the amnesty.
“It’s a Byzantine decision: they’re planning to release some and not others. I don’t understand how I’m better than the others, why guys who have become real comrades to me, people with serious health problems, including fathers and men separated from their other halves, have to be in prison.”
His lawyer convinced Akimenkov to sign the appeal. He did not consider himself guilty.
“I did none of the things I’ve been charged with. I was not involved in a riot that, incidentally, did not happen.”
Akimenkov looked out the window and rubbed his wrists.
“I find it strange to go outside, strange to feel my hands without handcuffs on them. But after I find a job, I’ll be going to the Bolotnaya Square trial, making care packages, giving money and doing everything possible to ensure there is not a single political prisoner in this country.”
In the very near future, Akimenkov plans to attend another trial, that of Left Front coordinator Sergei Udaltsov, accused of organizing the “riot” in downtown Moscow a year and a half ago. The court has yet to begin examining the charges against him.
NB. The original article features a four-minute video of the December 19 court hearing and its aftermath.