Alexander Podrabinek: Murder in Tyumen

“Russian counter-terrorism police say they prevented an imminent Islamic State attack in the Siberian city of Tyumen, as two armed terror suspects were eliminated in an intense raid with heavy gunfire and explosions. The militants, who were holed up in a private home, refused to lay down their arms and opened fire at the law enforcement on Friday. ‘They were neutralized during a gunfight,’ the National Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAC) said. There were no casualties among civilians and security personnel as a result of the exchange of fire. The terrorists were planning an attack in [a] public place in the city and the decision to launch an operation was made swiftly, the NAC said. Numerous unconfirmed videos on social media appeared to show the nighttime operation in full swing, with heavy gunfire, a building on fire, and a score of police cars and military vehicles amassed in the streets.” Published on April 12, 2019, by user AS2017

Murder in Tyumen
Alexander Podrabinek
Grani.ru
April 14, 2019

The killing of two suspected terrorists in Tyumen has been spun as a showcase counter-terrorist operation. It went off without a hitch, that is, you do not count the spontaneous undertaking by curious locals who attempted to livestream it on the internet. On the other hand, Tyumen Regional Governor Alexander Moor had lots of nasty things to say about local video bloggers, commentators, and social media users.

On Friday, security forces cordoned off the area around Amur Street in Tyumen. They claimed two Islamic State terrorists had holed themselves up in a private house in the street. The cordoned-off area was declared a counter-terrorist operation zone, and approximately one hundred local residents were forcibly evacuated from the area. I think it superfluous to ask whether the suspected terrorists noticed the evacuation or not. If the terrorists had been real terrorists and the operation itself risky, not a staged textbook operation, the security forces would have tried to use the element of surprise. But no, all possible eyewitnesses were first removed from nearby houses, and only then did the security force go after the “terrorists.”

tyumen“Counter-terrorism operation” in Tyumen. Photo by Maxim Slutsky. Courtesy of TASS

The two people who had been designated terrorists were killed, of course. Half of their one-storey wooden house was burnt to the ground. This makes sense: the fire destroyed inconvenient evidence. The Russian Investigative Committee reported that two machine guns, two explosive devices, and religious pamphlets were found in the house, along with twenty-first-century weaponry in the shape of electronic devices. In short, they predictably found the usual kit of the modern “terrorist.”

Surprisingly, the fire did not damage the damning evidence. The explosive devices did not explode, the religious pamphlets were not reduced to ashes, the smartphones did not melt. If we recall that in many other cases the Russian security forces planted weapons and narcotics on “suspects,” nothing surprising happened. The “clues” the investigators need will be entered into physical evidence, while the stuff it does not need will not be registered anywhere.

We might learn the identities of the dead men in the coming days. Someone must have known them, and someone will tell us about them. The security forces identify them as “terrorists,” but the charges filed are not for terrorism, but conspiracy to murder and attempted murder of a law enforcement officer. This is odd, as is the fact that the FSB carried out the counter-terrorist operation, while the Investigative Committee has headed the investigation.

The Investigative Committee and FSB claim the “terrorists” were Islamic State members who were planning massacres in public places. They have not made any details of the case public, much less the overall circumstances. We are asked to take their word on it, although after the “bags of sugar” in Ryazan, Alexander Litvinenko’s murder, the attempted assassination of the Skripals, and many other exploits, the security forces cannot imagine the public will trust them.

The Tyumen “terrorists” have been accused of conspiracy to commit a crime (Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 30), but they were unable to commit any crimes because their lives were taken. Along with their lives, they were deprived of the chance to defend themselves and attempt to prove their innocence in court.

Is it possible they were real terrorists and eliminating them was necessary to ensure the safety of others? Of course, it is possible. On the other hand, are we not aware of numerous instances when the security forces provoked crimes only to kill the “suspects” while covering their tracks—their own tracks more than the tracks of the “criminals”? I have in mind not only the crimes of the NKVD but also the events of the past two decades, especially in Dagestan and the rest of the North Caucasus?

One of the most telling examples of this kind was the so-called Nord-Ost hostage crisis at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in 2002. While freeing the hostages, the security forces killed all thirty-six terrorists. Most of them were killed by being shot in the back of the head while lying unconscious, knocked out by the poisonous gas the special forces released in the theater’s auditorium. They thus got rid of the defendants and the need for a trial, a trial during which parts of the story that shed an unflattering light on the regime could have come out.

Heir of the old Soviet ways, the current regime has aspired to conduct all cases and campaigns against people who have opposed it under arms and people who have fought it with words and people who have been the accidental victims of deliberate provocations by the security services in secret. Reporters are not allowed into counter-terrorist operation zones, inconvenient eyewitnesses are rubbed out, defense attorneys are made to sign nondisclosure agreements, and court trials are held in closed chambers.

Consequently, we have no reliable means of judging whether a particular individual has committed a crime or not. We are well aware, however, that despotism and lawlessness are fond of silence but no friends of publicity. We have been through this before. So, every time a clandestine operation is carried out, every time “criminals” and witnesses are eliminated, and every time a trial is heard in closed chambers, we have every reason to suspect the security forces of provocation, dishonesty, and fraud.

Thanks to Nastia Nek for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

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How the Cheka Became the FSB

Мonument to Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky on Shpalernaya Street, near the Smolny, Petersburg city hall. Photo courtesy of yakaev.livejournal.com

How the Cheka Became the FSB
The notion of the Cheka’s superiority is one hundred years old
Pavel Aptekar
Vedomosti
December 20, 2017

On December 20, 1917, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (VChK) aka the Cheka was established. Its successors will mark its centenary today. Numerous reforms of the secret services and the transition from socialism to capitalism have had little impact on how the leaders and officers of the secret services view their mission and social standing. The notion of Chekism, the superiority of state and official necessity to the law and justice, have proven tenacious. But if they were previously justified by the interests of the Party, they are nowadays often used to achieve personal ends.

Initially, the Cheka’s powers were insignificant. They were supposed to conduct preliminary investigations of crimes and refer the cases to tribunals. Soon, however, the Chekists were endowed with the right to carry out extrajudicial actions.

As Cheka deputy chair Martin Lācis said in 1919, “The Cheka is not a court, but the Party’s combat unit. It destroys [criminals] without trial or isolates [them] from society by imprisoning [them] in concentration camps. Word and law are identical.”

But we should not exaggerate the degree to which the Chekists were independent. As follows from a 1919 Central Committee decree, “The Chekas [sic] have been established, exist, and function only as direct agencies of the Party, guided by its directives and under its oversight.”

After the Russian Civil War, the commissars of justice, first Dmitry Kursky and later Nikolai Krylenko, spoke of the need to limit the powers of the Cheka. (In 1921, it was renamed the Joint State Political Directorate or OGPU.)

Dzerzhinsky insisted, however, that “our right to shoot [people] is our reserve. On the ground, we must conspire with court chairmen.”

The interests of state and revolution were placed above the rights of Soviet citizens to freedom of opinion and protection from illegal prosecution. Specific notions of revolutionary duty and the good of the revolution generated numerous provocations and trumped-up cases against “socially dangerous elements.” The Chekists honed the techniques of mass arrests and falsified cases during the trials of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The scope of the work done by the secret services gradually expanded. In April 1930, the OGPU established the Gulag (Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps) and was given control of the militia (i.e., the Soviet regular police). In July 1934, the OGPU was transfigured into the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs or NKVD, which was given control of the archives and civil registry offices. In 1936, Genrikh Yagoda, a career Cheka officer, was replaced as the People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs by Nikolai Yezhov, a Stalin appointee and Party functionary who would play a key role in carrying out the Great Terror of 1937–1938.

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Yagoda (middle) inspecting the construction of the Moscow-Volga canal. Behind him is Nikita Khrushchev. Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Chekists competed in their cruelty to detainees and demanded that quotas on executions and arrests be raised. Moscow’s directives were magnified by initiative from the regions.

“The Central Committeee has explained that the use of physical coercion in the practice of the NKVD has been allowed since 1937 at the behest of the Central Committee. […] The method of physical coercion was contaminated by the scoundrels Zakovsky, Litvin, Uspensky, and others. […] But this in no way discredits the method itself, since it is applied correctly in practice,” Joseph Stalin noted in a signed coded telegram, dated January 1939. So when Laventri Beria replaced Yezhov, the overall crackdown abated, but not cruelty to defendants.

In February 1941, the NKVD was divided into two people’s commissariats, the NKVD per se and the People’s Commissariat for State Security. Led by Vsevolod Merkulov, it took over foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, and protection of high-ranking officials. The NKVD remained in charge of interior troops, border troops, and prisoner escort troops, as well as the concentration camps and the militia. The organizational reforms were kept up even during the Second World War. In July 1941, the two people’s commissariats were merged, but in April 1943 they were divided once again.

The powers of the security forces were considerably limited after the death of Stalin and execution of Beria in 1953. In 1954, the Ministry of State Security or MGB was replaced by the Committee for State Security or KGB, formally overseen by the USSR Council of Ministers. In the reality, the security services were subordinated to the Politburo, but they were stripped of their control of Interior Ministry troops, the penal enforcement agencies, the state archives, and the civil registry offices. During the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods, crackdowns were selective and isolated, but this had no impact on the confidence of Chekists in their own rightness in the battle against dissidents and the prevention of potential “anti-Soviets.” The KGB was still the “armed detachment of the Party” that the VChK had been under Felix Dzerzhinsky.

In the early post-Soviet years, the secret services underwent a number of large-scale reorganizations. The KGB was initially renamed the RSFSR Federal Security Agency, and then the Russian Security Ministry, and an attempt was made to merge it with the Ministry of the Interior or MVD. (The Constitutional Court overruled Boris Yeltsin’s decree to this effect in January 1992.) It was then split up into a foreign intelligence service, a border guards service, a counterintelligence service, a government information service, and a bodyguard service. More important, however, were not these structural changes, but their implication that the lack of oversight over the secret services had been called into question, as well as their alleged right to intervene extrajudicially in the lives of people and the life of society. Numerous documents, demonstrating the lawlessness and tyranny of the Chekists during the Soviet years, were declassified.

However, after a cohort of former secret service officers came to power, the circumstances changed radically, and the new leaders of the secret services have once again claimed exclusivity. Former Federal Security Service (FSB) director Nikolai Patrushev’s statement about a “new gentry,” uttered long ago, in 2000, was implemented with extreme alacrity. Former FSB officers have taken up key posts in many sectors of the government and economy. The FSB has regained control of the border guards and FAPSI (Federal Agency for Goverment Communications and Information), has stripped juries of the right to hear terrorism and espionage cases, and forced the adoption of new, expanded interpretations of laws governing the violation of state secrets. Today’s Chekists have learned to protect state interests in a way that bolsters their own standing and material well-being. They will mark their professional holiday today with complete confidence in the future.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Hunter Heaney: Open Letter to Vladimir Putin

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

December 7, 2016

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

Dear President Putin:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Hunter Mora Heaney
Executive Director
The Voice Project

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

Anna Karpova: My Wedding Night

My Wedding Night
Anna Karpova
August 7, 2014
Snob.ru

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“And now, the newlyweds can seal their union with a kiss.”

Lyosha and I had long ago stopped listening to the young woman from the registry office and were already sealing our union.

I reluctantly let go of Lyosha’s hands so he could hug my parents and his parents. Our mothers were hiding faces moist with tears behind bouquets.

“Let’s leave the young people alone for a few minutes.”

Everyone left, closing the transparent door of the room where prisoners meet with lawyers. The guard peeked shyly through the glass, and the smell of fresh bread wafted in from the corridor: there is bakery on the first floor of Butyrka prison.

“You’re so cool when I touch you, so . . . real.”

“I love you very much.”

“I love you more.”

We didn’t talk much. We cuddled each other and winced at every rustle, afraid the guard would come in to take my husband away.

I clung to Lyosha as if it would slow down time.

“What should I do tonight when I leave and you stay here? How should I finish this day?”

I had been tormented by this question since we had set the date for the wedding.

“Go out with someone, but if you’re tired, go home to the cat.”

“And what will you do?”

Lyosha laughed.

“You all ordered me a festive meal, so I’m going to eat.”

There was a guilty knock at the door. A prison officer informed us our time was running out.

“When we get out of prison—I mean, when I get out—I will hold you for days on end.”

I cried and buried my head in Lyosha’s shoulder. My husband had been calm all this time.

“My heart is going to leap from chest now,” he suddenly said.

We embraced our parents and the staff from the Public Oversight Commission who had come to the jail to congratulate us. Thanks to them we have photos of the wedding ceremony. Lyosha was being led away—without handcuffs, but under guard.

Now I was going to leave the place, but Lyosha was staying here. A chill emanated from the walls, and behind me countless doors slammed shut. The sound was like the sound of a guillotine’s blade falling.

Now I was going to get out of there and bawl. I would not go out with anyone. I would not go home to the cat. I would sit down on the steps of the remand prison. Better yet, I would lie down on the steps, and I would wallow there until they let Lyosha go. The leaves would fall from the trees, then it would snow, then it would melt, and the branches on the trees would bud, but I would still be lying there, because my life was over.

Everything turned out exactly the opposite. Rather than lying down and dying, I came to life. Despite the period of mourning I had declared, the people who came were so sincerely happy for me that I started to feel happy for myself. I went out, and then I went home to the cat, and I wasn’t left alone for a minute, because everyone knew and understood I was horrified by the fact I didn’t know to how end this day.

At home, the first thing I did was hug Jean-Paul, the huge teddy bear that Lyosha had given me for my twenty-third birthday. If you pinch his paw, he says clever things. On the day of my wedding, he said, “Love means conceding the person you love is right when he’s wrong.”

I had imagined my wedding night differently. Anya, one of my future bridesmaids at my future, real wedding on the outside, was falling asleep on a nearby couch.

“Hey, what do I do with my ‘wedding’ dress? I was wearing it when the guard led my husband away down the corridors of Butyrka prison.”

“Nothing terrible happened today. I haven’t seen you so happy in a long time. Put that dress on more often.”

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Anna Karpova married antifascist activist Alexei (“Lyosha”) Gaskarov on August 6 in the Butyrka remand prison in Moscow. Tomorrow, August 18, Gaskarov is scheduled to be sentenced with the second group of defendants in the Bolotnaya Square case. Read his closing statement at their trial here. Images courtesy of Snob.ru and Gaskarov.info.

UPDATE. On August 18, Alexei Gaskarov was sentenced to three and half years in prison.