Putinism: Meaningless and Merciless

14 December 2015

By Sarah Hurst

Sarah Hurst is editor of X Soviet 

Reflections on a recent interview with Russian human rights defender Andrei Yurov

Reading the interview with Andrei Yurov that was published by Rights in Russia recently, I felt compelled to add my point of view. I have been following the political and human rights situation in Russia closely for almost three years, since my last visit there in March 2013. Yurov’s assessment is very different from my own.

Yurov says: “It would be a lie to say that Russia is governed by a terrible regime that is destroying its citizens day and night. I won't deny that the situation has deteriorated in many respects, but we also need to acknowledge the improvements. The penitentiary system, for example, has become much more transparent. Today human rights defenders are allowed inside the prison walls, ten years ago that would have been unthinkable! And police violence has diminished in some regions because there is more oversight from civil activists and human rights defenders. The situation is still very difficult, but it is not impossible to do something.”

Let me start by saying that Russia is governed by a terrible regime that is destroying its citizens day and night. Not only its own citizens, but thousands of Ukrainian and Syrian citizens. Flight MH17 was also shot down by Russia’s Buk missile system, supplied by Putin [Pictured left, the front page of the UK The Sun newspaper, 18 July 2015]. Who knows which country Putin will decide to bomb next in his endless quest to re-enact World War II and demonstrate Russia’s military supremacy? Recently Putin said, “I hope we won’t need to launch a nuclear strike against ISIS.” 

Many observers got the feeling that if the oil price dropped too low, Putin might “need” to launch a nuclear strike against ISIS. He constantly refers to Russia’s nuclear arsenal and seems to be itching to use it. He’s already trying out cruise missiles fired from a ship in the Caspian Sea and from a submarine in the Mediterranean. A few weeks ago “World War III” was trending on Twitter after Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24. Instead of de-escalating tensions, Putin ratcheted them up with hostile rhetoric and bans on everything Turkish in Russia.

There is no space here to detail all the travesties of Putin’s aggressive foreign policy, but I would like to describe some of his internal repressions. In order to avoid any annoying consequences of these, the State Duma just passed a law that allows Russia to ignore any decisions by international courts that it finds inconvenient. 

So many people die in police custody or in prison in Russia that the syndrome is known as “Russian Ebola” 

As for prison conditions, the Duma is also in the process of passing the “sadists’ law”, which allows prison guards to use force against inmates whenever they feel the need. Although they already do.
Sergei Magnitsky was beaten to death in a Russian prison in 2009. After his death he was put on trial for tax evasion and found guilty. So many people die in police custody or in prison in Russia that the syndrome is known as “Russian Ebola”. In October 5-month-old Tajik baby Umarali Nazarov died after St. Petersburg police took him from his parents.

According to the website Russian Ebola, which tracks these cases, as of November 30, 2015, 189 people had died in custody in Russia in 2015. One of the most shocking cases was that of 16-year-old Ukrainian Vitaly P., who died from a beating at a prison colony in Krasnodar Krai on November 25. Prison staff shouted an insulting term for Ukrainians at him while stepping on his neck and jumping on his head. In September well-known 57-year-old drummer Sergei Pestov died after a beating at a police station in Dubna, Moscow region. 

Prisoners in Russia routinely go missing for a few months when they are being transferred from a jail to a colony, or between colonies. Leonid Razvozzhayev is a Russian opposition activist who was kidnapped from Kiev in 2012. In 2014 he was sentenced to 4 ½ years in prison for organising the Bolotnaya Square protest. In 2015 he went missing somewhere in the penal system and eventually resurfaced on his way to Irkutsk, complaining of heart problems. 

Later Razvozzhayev was featured on Russian television criticising the opposition, talking about their plans for a “colour revolution”. This appearance mainly generated sympathy rather than anger among the opposition, since everyone knows what kind of pressure the FSB can put on a prisoner. Someone commented that Razvozzhayev reminded him of a hostage in an ISIS video.

Yuri Soloshenko is a 73-year-old Ukrainian who was sentenced to six years in prison in Russia for “espionage”. He told a prison visitor that he was afraid he would die during his transfer to a colony. She tried to reassure him that it would just be like any “trip”, but she knew that neither of them believed this.

Yevgeny Vitishko [pictured leftis an environmental activist who was sentenced to three years in prison when he became a nuisance for the authorities at the time of the Sochi Olympics. Amnesty International noted that in the prison colony Vitishko was accused of various violations, including “giving an item of clothing to a prisoner who was cold; sitting on his bed at an unauthorised time; storing food in an unauthorised place; receiving correspondence from a lawyer without notifying the penal colony’s administration; and even having a ‘negligent attitude towards weeding tomatoes’.” A court granted Vitishko parole in November, but he has still not been released as promised, and he has been on hunger strike for three weeks in protest. His condition is said to be deteriorating. 

Oleg Navalny was sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison in December 2014 on trumped-up charges of embezzlement, solely for being the brother of anti-corruption campaigner and opposition leader Alexei Navalny. In his prison colony Oleg Navalny has been repeatedly placed in solitary confinement for several days at a time for alleged violations of rules. 

Crimean film director Oleg Sentsov was seized from his apartment by FSB officers in May 2014. As reported in Variety, he was “severely beaten up, suffocated with a plastic bag so that he lost consciousness, stripped of his trousers and underpants and threatened with rape by a baton to force him to confess.” The only basis for the charge of terrorism against him was that he had been actively opposed to the Russian occupation. 

Sentsov was taken to Russia and tried with anarchist Oleksander Kolchenko. Sentsov received a 20-year prison sentence and Kolchenko a 10-year sentence. They remained defiant throughout their absurd trial. Sentsov said in court: “I was and continue to be a citizen of Ukraine... I am not a serf; I cannot be transferred with the land.” After the judge passed sentence, Sentsov and Kolchenko smiled and sang the Ukrainian national anthem. 

Artist Petr Pavlensky [pictured left], famous for nailing his scrotum to Red Square, is in prison awaiting trial for his action “Burning Door of the Lubyanka”. He shocked the court during his first appearance by demanding that his case be reclassified from vandalism to terrorism, in solidarity with Sentsov and Kolchenko. Since it wasn’t, he said that he would no longer speak in court. His lawyer, Olga Chavdar, gave a powerful speech about the history of actionism in art, but the judge was unimpressed. 

Pavlensky was also due to be in court in St. Petersburg recently for a trial relating to his “Freedom” action in support of Ukraine’s revolution, in which he burned tyres. It was reported that he would be transferred to St. Petersburg for the trial, but he missed a court appearance and his whereabouts are unknown. Chavdar said that she thinks he might be in a psychiatric hospital in Moscow. 

Ukrainians Nikolai Karpyuk and Stanislav Klykh are on trial in Chechnya, charged with having fought with Chechen rebels in the war against Russia in the 1990s. Both men have said they were physically abused in pretrial detention and have disavowed statements they said were extracted under torture, The Moscow Times reported. Klykh was severely tortured after his arrest with electric shocks, was hung from his handcuffs and placed in solitary confinement for long periods until he gave “fantastical evidence,” his lawyer said. 

Karpyuk’s lawyer said his client was tortured intensively for four nights after his arrest and subjected to electric shocks to his arms, legs and genitalia, as well as being kept in a metal cage measuring one metre by one metre, The Moscow Times said. Karpyuk said he was told his wife and 9-year-old son would be kidnapped and abused if he did not confess to fighting in Chechnya. 

Back to Yurov, who says: “It is clear that we have a colossal problem with fundamental rights in Russia, but that has been going on for years. Every year it is getting worse, but I also see some positive developments.” 

It has long been clear that Russia has no real justice system

This year began with the murder of Boris Nemtsov in front of the Kremlin on February 27. In fact, even before then, opposition activist Mark Galperin was given a 38-day prison sentence for holding a sign saying “Je suis Charlie”. Later in the year, leading opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza 
[pictured left with Boris Nemtsov] almost died from a mysterious poisoning that hospitalised him for months. 

The arduous trial of Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko is almost over. Savchenko was captured by separatists in eastern Ukraine on June 18, 2014, an hour before two Russian journalists were killed in a mortar attack on a rebel checkpoint. She was handed over to Russian authorities, interrogated in a hotel in Voronezh and put on trial for the murder of the journalists 
in Rostov Oblast. She was also charged with illegally crossing the Russian border. Before her trial she was on hunger strike for months. A verdict in her trial is expected by the end of this year, and few doubt that she will be found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison. 

It has long been clear that Russia has no real justice system. The film Leviathan vividly depicts this, and includes a scene in which a judge mumbles a verdict incoherently. This is exactly what happens in every courtroom in Russia, with judges feeling no obligation to communicate any reasons for their rulings to defendants. The small number of brave lawyers in Russia who defend political cases are under no illusions, but try to attract as much attention to the cases as possible, to at least make the country and the world aware of what is going on. 

Savchenko’s legal team of Mark Feygin, Ilya Novikov and Nikolai Polozov have made the most of social media, live-tweeting each day of the trial. Mark Feygin has explained that Twitter is essential to him, because he and the other lawyers are denied access to mainstream Russian media. Ivan Pavlov is another lawyer who has been defending high-profile cases. His American wife, Jennifer Gaspar, was deported from Russia last year in an attempt to put pressure on Pavlov.

Pavlov continued with his work in Russia and defended Svetlana Davydova [pictured left], a mother of seven children who was charged with treason and imprisoned in Moscow’s Lefortovo jail. Davydova had called the Ukrainian embassy to warn that a military base near her home was empty, saying that she feared the soldiers had been deployed to Ukraine. Remarkably, Davydova was released and the charge was dropped. Not solely due to Pavlov’s efforts, but also because if Davydova had been convicted of treason, this would have been an admission by Russia that its troops were in Ukraine. 
Several other people have been convicted of treason this year and imprisoned, accused of things like “passing information to the CIA”, although there is immense secrecy around treason cases, so it is often not possible to find out exactly what story the authorities cooked up. 

The Memorial human rights centre – itself labelled a “foreign agent” - has also noted that Russia’s laws on “extremism” are being used more and more broadly. The director of the Library of Ukrainian Literature in Moscow, Natalya Sharina, was arrested in October on suspicion of inciting hatred, because authorities claimed that some of the Ukrainian books in the library were anti-Russian. Sharina said the books in question had been planted by law-enforcement officers and did not have library stamps in them. She appeared in court in a cage, and was placed under house arrest awaiting trial. 

Alexander Byvshev was a teacher of German in the small town of Kromy, until he was convicted of extremism for his pro-Ukrainian poems. He was banned from teaching for two years and ordered to do 300 hours of community service. He was added to Russia’s list of “Terrorists and Extremists” and had his bank account frozen and his laptop confiscated by the authorities. Supporters raised money to buy him a new laptop and he still posts poems and videos on Facebook and YouTube. 

Yekaterina Vologzheninova is a single mother from Yekaterinburg. She has also been added to the list of “Terrorists and Extremists” for reposting pro-Ukrainian material on her page on social media, and is on trial for “inciting hatred”. So many of these kinds of cases crop up now that it is impossible to list them all.

Dozens of people who were demonstrating peacefully on Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012 have served prison sentences for allegedly participating in or organising a mass riot, although it was the police who attacked them and not vice versa. Some who were arrested at the time are still in prison. But the case is not over. Ivan Nepomnyashchikh has been under house arrest since the beginning of this year, accused of hitting a policeman with his umbrella during the protest, and is currently on trial.

Anarchist Dmitri Buchenkov was arrested in Moscow in December, accused of participating in the “mass riot” in 2012, and imprisoned while awaiting trial. Buchenkov’s lawyer says that he was in Nizhny Novgorod on the day of the protest. Meanwhile, an apparently random man from St. Petersburg called Sergei Akhmetov was arrested on the Finnish border on his return from a visit to Germany. He was accused of injuring a policeman at a demonstration in support of Alexei Navalny in Moscow in 2013. Akhmetov said he hadn’t been to Moscow since 2011, but nevertheless was sent to prison to await trial. 

The police now often ignore the fact that the one-person picket is supposed to be legal, and detain people anyway

For some time now, the only form of protest that has been ostensibly legal in Russia without prior authorisation from the authorities is the one-person picket. Many activists, particularly in Moscow, have used this regularly to express their views. However, the police now often ignore the fact that the one-person picket is supposed to be legal, and detain people anyway.

A new law, article 212.1 of the Russian Criminal Code, imposes a penalty of up to five years in prison for participation in multiple unauthorised protests. So far four people have been charged under this law: Ildar Dadin, Vladimir Ionov, Irina Kalmykova and Mark Galperin. On December 7 Ildar Dadin [pictured leftwas sentenced to three years in prison. One of the episodes in his case was a one-person picket, and on another occasion he was not picketing but asking police why they were detaining someone else. Another episode was when he marched with a banner and flares with a few other people. 

Dadin has been beaten by police in a police van after being detained, and photographed covered in blood. He wore the bloodstained shirt to one of his court appearances during his trial. On another occasion he spent the night in a police cell completely wrapped in tape so that he couldn’t move his arms or legs. Dadin participated in Ukraine’s Maidan revolution, which has provoked particular fury on the part of the authorities. Dadin wore a T-shirt with a picture of the Heavenly Hundred who died during the revolution on it to one of his court appearances, and a T-shirt with a picture of Taras Bulba on it to another. Dadin was held under house arrest for almost a year before his trial.

Dadin said before his sentencing that he was prepared to give his life for freedom in Russia and so as not to go down on his knees to “Putin’s fascists”. He repeatedly referred to the Russian government’s violations of the Constitution during his trial, and said that what the judge was doing was illegal. This angered her, and she gave him three years instead of the two years the prosecution had asked for. Dadin’s supporters in the courtroom erupted in anger and distress, and some lay down on the floor in protest, but they were dragged out by court officials.

Vladimir Ionov [pictured left] is 76 years old and exclusively protests by standing silently by himself with his creative placards, which say things like, “We have Putin – we don’t need a brain,” and “Putin is our everything – not counting Kadyrov.” In October while Ionov was picketing a pro-Putin activist threw green chemicals in his face. The attack was caught on video, but although the attacker was identified, he has not been prosecuted. 

Ionov’s trial is almost over and his final statement in court was scheduled to have taken place, but Ionov was hospitalised with heart problems. The prosecutor has asked for a suspended sentence for him, but it would also include a ban on him protesting.
Irina Kalmykova protested frequently in 2014 with her friend Yekaterina Maldon in support of Ukraine. The entrance to the building where Maldon lived in Moscow was vandalised with pro-Ukrainian graffiti, which Maldon believed to be a stunt by the authorities to frame her. She, like many other activists, fled the country and initially spent time in Ukraine before moving to Germany. Kalmykova’s trial for protesting is under way. On one occasion Kalmykova stood outside the prison in Moscow where Savchenko was being held with a sign saying “Happy birthday Nadiya!” Kalmykova was detained for this.

Mark Galperin, as mentioned, served 38 days in prison at the beginning of this year. He has been charged under article 212.1, but his trial has not started. Galperin frequently calls for a peaceful change of government and encourages people to come out on the streets and protest. 

I am not sure that the presence of Andrei Yurov as a human rights defender would be of any assistance to Crimeans or others who are being subjected to Russia’s flagrant violations

Finally, Yurov says: “Another obstacle is that Ukraine has implemented a dangerous law which makes it illegal to travel to Crimea via Russian territory. For the sake of Crimea, Ukraine should repeal that law so that human rights defenders can travel freely and do their work.” 

I do not think that Yurov should advise Ukraine on what laws it should repeal. Crimea is an illegally annexed and occupied territory, and no one should travel there. Yurov is right and saying that Crimeans “face severe humiliations and violations of their rights”. This is a large subject in itself that I will not attempt to go into here. Activists who support Ukraine have been arrested, and Crimean Tatars have endured particularly cruel repressions, considering the fact that they were also deported en masse by Stalin. In addition to the persecution and even murder of Crimean Tatar activists, Crimean Tatar media has been shut down, with the ATR TV station being forced to relocate to Kiev. 

I am not sure that the presence of Andrei Yurov as a human rights defender would be of any assistance to Crimeans or others who are being subjected to Russia’s flagrant violations. At this point, there are no rights at all in Russia. The next step is to bring back the death penalty, as the head of Russia’s Investigations Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, has said he wants to do. Russia’s prosecutor-general, Yuri Chaika, has been exposed by Alexei Navalny for his family’s links with organised crime, but that investigation has simply been ignored. Putin and all of his cohorts are a gang of criminals, and they should be on trial in The Hague, not attending international summits and conferences. 

Photos supplied by the author