By Sarah Hurst
Outside Moscow the penalties for any form of dissent are even more arbitrary and harsh than in the capital itself. Regional authorities seem to be competing to prove how many “traitors”, “extremists” and “fifth columnists” they can convict. It is only necessary to have expressed support for Ukraine on a personal social media page that only a few friends view to fall into the net. Funnily enough, after being prosecuted, people sometimes become more politically active rather than less.
Darya Polyudova, 27, from Krasnodar, was added to Memorial’s list of political prisoners in October 2014. She was detained after calling on social media for people to join an unauthorised “March for the Federalisation of Kuban” that was planned for August 17, 2014. A judge found an excuse to jail her for two weeks for “minor hooliganism” after an alleged dispute with a passer-by on the street. But instead of releasing her after the two weeks had passed, Polyudova was taken into custody on extremism charges. At the time she only had 38 followers on social media.
On February 25, 2015 Polyudova was released from detention with an agreement not to leave the area before trial. In May she was sentenced to 10 days in prison for handing out leaflets that said “Russia and Ukraine without Putin”. In June she was sentenced to another 10 days in prison without any real reason being given. In July she was sentenced to five days in prison for two posts on her VKontakte social media page. In October she was sentenced to 15 days in prison for reposting an anti-Nazi video clip made by two Russian satirists, who spoke out in her defence.
In December Polyudova was convicted on the extremism charge for encouraging people to go on the march in 2014 and sentenced to two years in a prison colony. She was allowed to remain free pending her appeal. In her final statement in court Polyudova said: “A guilty verdict by this court is intended to frighten people with repressions, but the government is turning more and more people against it. You can’t put everyone in prison. You put one person behind bars today and tomorrow thousands of people will come out on the streets. The regime will collapse anyway and everyone will be free.”
Svetlana Davydova, a mother of seven young children in Smolensk Region, became famous after being charged with treason and taken to Moscow’s Lefortovo prison in January 2015. Her “crime” was to have called the Ukrainian embassy and warned them that a military base near her home was empty and that the troops had probably deployed to Ukraine. In early February Davydova was released and the treason charge, for which she could have received up to 20 years in prison, was eventually dropped. Most likely because finding her guilty would have proved that Russian troops really were in Ukraine.
After the treason charge was dropped in March, Davydova gave a press conference with her lawyer, Ivan Pavlov. She said that she wouldn’t be asking for compensation, because taxpayers’ money could go to better causes, but added that Nadiya Savchenko should be released.
On April 6, an assistant to Russia’s prosecutor-general wrote a letter to Davydova in which he said: “On behalf of the government I offer you an official apology for the harm you suffered as a result of the criminal prosecution... which was closed on 13.03.2015 by the Investigations Department of the FSB... in connection with the absence of evidence of a crime.”
Since her prosecution Davydova has continued to express her views on Facebook, where she has also published electronic messages she has sent to Putin and the responses she has received from civil servants. In one of the letters in October 2015 she wrote: “Now it is as if everyone had forgotten that a certain Vladimir Putin took the investigation of the brutal murder of Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov under his personal control, and it seems that Vladimir Putin himself has forgotten this too. And in all the time that the investigation has been going on, nothing has been heard from this controller. They said on TV that V.V. Putin was taking it under his personal control! This really turns out to be quite rotten control by Vladimir Putin. You work badly, Vladimir Putin! My personal assessment.”
In March 2016 Davydova wrote to Putin: “How many Russian soldiers did Ramzan Kadyrov kill, carrying out the orders of Akhmad Kadyrov (his father) to kill as many Russians as possible? How many mothers in Russia never got to see their sons, who were carrying out the orders of the Russian government in Chechnya, and were killed at the hands of Ramzan Kadyrov and others like him by the will of Akhmad Kadyrov? Answer the specific questions in this message, Commander-in-Chief President Putin, for your foot soldier Ramzan Kadyrov, as he calls himself.”
The last woman in this series, although almost certainly not the last who will fall victim to Putin’s repressions, is Yekaterina Vologzheninova from Yekaterinburg. Vologzheninova is a single mother and supermarket cashier who has a large collection of framed pictures of Boris Nemtsov on the wall of her flat. Her Facebook profile picture has a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag tint over it. Vologzheninova was convicted of extremism in February 2016 for her reposts of pro-Ukrainian images to a small number of friends on VKontakte. She has been added to Russia’s list of extremists and terrorists. A judge sentenced her to 320 hours of compulsory work and ordered her laptop and mouse to be destroyed. Supporters of Vologzheninova immediately started a campaign to save the innocent computer mouse.
“I’m not a member of the opposition. I’m not a white ribbon or a civic activist,” Vologzheninova told Grani.ru. “It’s just that when all this lunacy started after the Olympics... First Crimea. It was impulsive, but I got interested: it was supposed to be a referendum, but why the military, then?... Before that I watched the Maidan, transfixed,” she continued.
“But the events in Donbass were the detonator,” Vologzheninova said. “It got interesting. Firstly, all the TV channels were saying that there was a junta and Banderites there. It was selective and didn’t add up in my head. I started looking at various websites. I wanted to find out what was really happening... I wanted to understand Ukrainians’ thoughts about what was happening, to hear the victims’ side of the story. I wanted to understand their pain and distress.”
The destruction of Vologzheninova’s laptop (or “execution”, as her fans call it) has not stopped her from writing about politics on Facebook. She has a picture of Savchenko as her cover photograph with a quote in Ukrainian about not giving up. It seems that no matter how many women Putin tries to crush, there will always be more ready to resist.
Originally published on X Soviet on 7 March 2016 and reprinted by kind permission