“You must be some kind of political prisoner?” An interview with Dmitry Borisov, sentenced in the “26 March case”

posted 2 Jul 2018, 06:10 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 2 Jul 2018, 06:16 ]
23 June 2018

By Anastasia Medvedeva, for OVD-Info

Source: OVD-Info

One year ago, Dmitry Borisov was living in Moscow, running a hotel business and frequently attending opposition events. On 26 March 2017, he was detained at an anti-corruption rally, and then accused of using force against a police officer. The court sentenced him to a year in a general-regime prison colony. On 7 June 2018 he was released and spoke to OVD-Info about the violence in the remand centre, his switch to prison slang and his evenings with a mug of strong prison tea (chifir). 

Dmitry Borisov / Photo from Irina Yatsenko's Facebook page

What did you expect from life in a remand prison, and how did it actually turn out?

I was not very surprised at all when they jailed me. When I was arrested, about 14-15 policemen came along with the Investigative Committee and immediately told me that I should bring my things with me. I immediately understood that the authorities had decided to get even with me.

I wasn’t shocked by the people in jail, or the situation either. At Petrovka 38 (Moscow Police HQ – trans.) they managed to transfer me from one cell to another three times in two days, so I met different people. One of them was completely normal, and another was already on his seventh “stint” in jail. There were interesting people: those arrested under economic legal articles are generally very intellectually capable.

Of course, there were a lot of prison routines and traditions, but you quickly get used to them. For example, when people arrive or leave, the entire cell gathers together with a mug of chifir. It doesn’t have a big impact on your health, everyone gets just about two sips each. All small celebrations are also marked with a mug of chifir. That brings something human even into a prison.

There was also a lot of slang. I use a lot of words from prison, I still can’t get used to language outside of prison.

And how did the prison warders treat you?

Fine. In Belgorod Jail (in May 2018, Borisov was removed from Moscow remand centre No. 2, “Butyrka”, and sent to remand centre No. 3 in Belgorod region – OVD-Info), their attitude was even respectful. There, the warders saw a bunch of letters and immediately asked “You must be some kind of political prisoner?” For some reason I’m sure this had a positive effect on their attitude to me, as they behaved worse towards the other prisoners. If I’d just been sentenced under Article 318, I think I wouldn’t have even had a chance to explain anything to them. They could have just beaten me up.

In the “assembly” (the cell where they put prisoners on registration, before the different procedures – OVD Info) I met a fellow Belorussian who was aged about twenty. There is something about drugs in Article 228. And this was a wisp of a guy, really small. At the “assembly”, we all smoked. Smoking is the unspoken right of prisoners because, for example, my transfer lasted more than a day. You can’t sleep on the train, but you can at least smoke, you need some kind of a break. But no, here a policeman flew in, grabbed the guy (obviously he picked the smallest of us), took him out of the “assembly” and began to beat him. We heard his screams, and also the policeman shouting at him, “We told you not to smoke!” They threw the guy back in and grabbed another one – a healthy, strapping fighter. They took him off somewhere, and we heard screams. Then we heard electric shocks. In total, there were 19 people, and three were taken off somewhere, we didn’t see them again. Including that fighter.

Of course, this fills you with loathing. You are supposedly a human being and for some reason they start treating you like cattle. For some reason at “Headquarters,” I mean Pre-trial Detention Centre No. 5 (“Vodnik”—OVD-Info) in Butyrka, they are able to find a common language with the prisoners. You can solve things like normal human beings. They can just say, “Guys, here we don’t smoke at all, that’s it.” And it’s over, the prisoners understand.

And did anyone exert pressure on you personally?

No, I’ll tell you honestly, no one put pressure on me. And even in Belgorod, I was put in a two-man cell but I was in it alone. Evidently they were afraid because my case was so high-profile.

But they watched me very closely, all the cells were equipped with video cameras. Through them they can tell you something or simply send a signal. Sometimes I just wanted to go to the window and give an answer to another prisoner - it’s lonely after all. Just as I would move toward the window, there was suddenly a signal: “Beeep!”

And in general everything was strict. You go out of your cell, immediately you hear, “Hands behind your back! Turn around! Hands to the wall!” When they search you, “Hands to the wall! Step back!” I think that if I had stayed there another six months, even after leaving prison I would have stood to the right of every doorway with my hands behind my back before entering. Probably it is all done to oppress a person. But you are already oppressed. A prison term itself does a pretty good job of weighing on you.

Could you tell a big difference between the Moscow prisons and the one in Belgorod?

Yes, you don’t have anything like that in Moscow. I don’t know what the reason is. Perhaps the Moscow prisoners have stood up for their rights. The human factor also plays a role. And, of course, activists and human rights defenders — Moscow is still more accessible for them.

And what kind of relationship developed with the investigators?

They were, let’s say, correct. But what that investigator [Aleksandr] Uranov does, the one who put the Bolotnaya Square protesters in prison…… In his office I saw a printout with eight, I think, Bolotnaya Square demonstrators and their photographs, and written on the paper were their prison terms—from the shortest to the longest. And that poster hung in his office as an object of pride. I can understand when people do their dirty deeds in order to earn their stripes and their stars, but to be proud of it…Do they really not understand what they are doing?

My case got some publicity in the media and he went right to the internet to see where he was mentioned. And he looked at it with such vanity: Uranov jailed yet another one.

I had contact with another investigator. I said to him, “What in general do you think, are you doing the right thing? You take an innocent person and organize all this upset for him?” And he answered, “Listen, after all, you beat him.” So he had latched on to the information that I had ostensibly struck an OMON police officer, even though I had never touched him.

While you were in the pre-trial detention centre, were you aware of the fact that people on the outside were writing and talking about you?

Yes, that goes without saying. Support is absolutely vital. When I went up before the court, my friends were there and human rights activists were there. People were even wearing T-shirts with my portrait on. That kind of thing gives you a boost – you arrive at the court and you can see straight away that people haven’t forgotten about you. I also received letters, with words of support and information about the various campaigns people had organised.

I think that the support I received also played a role in the sentencing decision. There is no question about the fact that I could have been sent down for 18 months or two years, because longer sentences have been handed down to people accused of the same charges (Stanislav Zimovets, similarly charged with involvement in the “26 March Case”, was imprisoned for two years and six months – OVD-Info). Another point that hardly needs making is that my lawyers helped me an enormous amount. Ilya Novikov and Nikolai Fomin defended me with a huge amount of professionalism and flair. I think that the judge had a certain amount of room for manoeuvre – he could award a sentence of between one year and two years, at his own discretion. I don’t think he was entirely free to choose, but he gave the lowest sentence he was allowed to give.

Niklai Fomin and I even joked about placing bets on the sentence I would be given – he said 18 months, but I also thought 18 months, and so the exercise was rendered pointless!

What do you plan to do now that you have been released?

Before I went to prison I worked in the family business, and I intend to keep on doing more or less the same. I’m not so sure about my future as a civic activist. I’d like to chill out for a while, collect my thoughts and think long and hard about what I should and shouldn’t do next. There’s a good chance I’ll keep on doing what I was doing before my arrest – events will keep on coming along, and I’ll be guided by a natural impulse to respond to them or otherwise.

Do you feel that this was an experience you somehow needed to have?

For whatever reason, people who are incarcerated often search for some kind of hidden meaning and are constantly on the search for the real reason they have ended up in prison. I’m not sure there is one – I think that people tend to search for a meaning in everything, and this is a recognised phenomenon according to Wikipedia.

I can’t say that I gained anything out of the ordinary from my year in prison. I probably grew as a person and became better at getting along with others, but that was because I was constantly conversing with people from many different nationalities and with many different world views. You can’t avoid learning a thing or two if you spend a year living with such a large group of people.

The most important thing I have taken away from my year in prison is a desire to really appreciate being free – which is unsurprising, because “all understanding comes through comparison”, as they say. My belief system has not been shaken to its foundations, and I have no regrets or remorse. I still believe that I’m innocent.

Translated by Anna Bowles, Joanne Reynolds and John Tokolish