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“This is a public execution”: Russian activist Anastasia Shevchenko on a year of house arrest

Shevchenko is the first Russian citizen on trial for working for a foreign organisation.

Nina Kobzeva
17 March 2020
Image: Nina Kobzeva

Rostov activist Anastasia Shevchenko is the first person to be investigated under new laws banning Russian citizens working for “undesirable” organisations - foreign or non-governmental institutions that have been deemed by the Russian government that "pose a threat to the basic values of the Russian state".

Shevchenko was placed under house arrest in January 2019. Shortly after arrest, her daughter Alina died after being hospitalised into intensive care - she had previously been in a special needs boarding school. In January this year, it was revealed that local investigators had installed a surveillance camera in Shevchenko’s bedroom and recorded her over a period of several months.

More than 12 months later, Shevchenko is still under house arrest. A court recently softened the restrictions on Shevchenko, permitting two hours of exercise per day and conversations with anyone aside from witnesses in her case. But this good news was overshadowed by the fact that prosecutors confirmed their case against her, and Shevchenko now faces up to six years in prison. A member of Open Russia, she has been charged with working for an Open Russia organisation in the UK that does not exist.

We asked Anastasia about life under house arrest - and what she expects when her case goes to trial.

Why do you think your house arrest conditions were changed?

I don’t know. It was unexpected. I didn’t ask to be allowed outside, only to be able to call my children and permit the district doctor to visit me at home. We waited 10 days for the court decision to come via post from Sochi, but even after we received it my friends were afraid of coming round - in case it was a mistake. We instantly went outside with the kids and dog. I put on my white trainers that I’d bought before I was arrested, I hadn’t had the chance to get them dirty all year.

Your lawyers insist that the organisations you are accused of working for don’t actually exist. How does that work?

Before the investigation I was fined twice on administrative charges under Article 20.33 [carrying out activities of an organisation declared undesirable]. The first time was for participating in a debate with a Taganrog city council member from the United Russia party, the second was for organising a seminar ahead of the elections. I was accused of participating in the Open Russia Civic Movement, registered in the United Kingdom. And the first thing I did was search the UK company register, which is openly available. And there were no results, the organisation doesn’t exist. I brought a screenshot from the register to the court. The judge nodded, but still fined me, saying: “Well, you understand why.”

Now I’ve been accused of carrying out the activity of an undesirable non-governmental and non-profit organisation in the Russian Federation - Open Russia (United Kingdom). My lawyers have presented genuine papers from the UK, which have been notarised, that say this organisation really doesn’t exist. But this has not influenced the investigator at all. Law enforcement believes that the Russian movement I was a part of is a British organisation. Although even Alexander Kurennoy [official representative of the Russian General Prosecutor’s Office] has confirmed that the Russian movement is not connected with a British organisation.

How did the case against you start?

I took part in a sanctioned protest where I held a flag with the slogan: “I’ve had enough [of Putin].” I didn’t speak at the protest, I just stood there holding the flag - this is considered a crime scene, and I’ll be on trial in the same district. My crime is that I held a yellow flag, and yellow is the colour of the “undesirable” organisation Open Russia. Not Raiffaisenbank, Amnesty International, Yandex.Eats, but Open Russia.

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Anastasia Shevchenko holds the flag that started the case against her | Image: Nina Kobzeva

Did you notice any signs that you would be investigated?

I thought that the first criminal case on this offence would definitely come in 2019, because they were already opening investigations under the same administrative charge at a mad pace. And the criminal charge was dreamt up completely to fit Open Russia. And it was clear that they would stamp out some [administrative] cases in order to then introduce a criminal charge.

Did I think this would affect me? Of course not, but I still thought that they wouldn’t go for a mother with children at least as the first target. So when the police came to search my flat at seven in the morning, the first thing I asked was: why me? Their choice seemed strange. They still haven’t given me an answer to that question.

How did the search go?

An apartment search is always unexpected. I’d been through some trainings and knew how to behave in this kind of situation, but despite that I was lost for the first hour and a half. No one knocked at the door, I’d gone out to school with my son, and a group of men came towards us: “Anastasia, turn round. Your son is not going to school, put your phone on the table, here’s the search order. Wake up your family.”

Of course, you’re confused, you’re afraid for your children. You think that you now need to wake up your mother and daughter: “Get up, we’re being searched.” And I was without my lawyer initially - someone had left town, someone was still sleeping. It would have been easier with a lawyer.

I remembered that I had to go around the apartment and watch to make sure they didn’t plant anything. We agreed how the search would go and, of course, the police did their job very responsibly - they turned out all the cupboards, moved the furniture, looked in the rubbish. I had an old heavy carpet in the top cupboard, which I could hardly get up there - they even went looking at that. They wanted to find some documents in English. They searched for a long time, and then at one o’clock they took me for interrogation. I told my family: “Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon.” I left the apartment and then never went back.

Why’s that?

We rented that apartment. After I refused to give testimony to the investigator, I had sit in his office until six in the evening - the owner of the apartment didn’t respond immediately, and her relatives weren’t ready to allow me to spend my house arrest in their apartment. So they kept me in jail for two days, then my friend Natalya Krainova offered me her apartment - a big thank you to her.

“I thought that they would let me go, they couldn’t be so cruel. I showed the judge very clearly that my child was 18 years old, but she’s very small, she doesn’t recognise anyone, she has problems with her lungs, she’s in pain, she’s in hospital alone. But he refused everything”

How did you take the decision to put you under house arrest?

It was quite a happy moment. Because before that the court officers had said that, given the security measures they’d applied to me, I’d probably go to investigative detention. Before the hearing, I’d been put in a cell in the court building basement - there was a CCTV camera opposite me, as well as a guard so that I couldn’t escape. The court officers joked: “What have they charged you with? Cannibalism? Are you a serious criminal?”

What was the first week under arrest like?

On the whole, I had problems with the children (my daughter Vlada was 14, my son Misha - seven). They didn’t know how to get to school from the new apartment. Then I had another child in a home [Alina, 18, was in a care home for children with intellectual disabilities], who I had to visit that same week I was imprisoned. The second week I was under arrest, Alina was put in hospital - that meant that I absolutely had to be there. The care workers don’t look after her when she’s in hospital, and the child couldn’t eat solid food, her diapers had to be changed, she had to be kept in certain poses, not everyone can handle that.

I thought that they would let me go, they couldn’t be so cruel. I showed the judge, Andrey Ishchenko, very clearly that my child was 18 years old, but she’s very small, she doesn’t recognise anyone, she has problems with her lungs, she’s in pain, she’s in hospital alone. But he refused everything.

The next day I was charged, and I attended interrogation with my lawyer, and only after did I find out what Alina was in intensive care. The investigator, it seems, understood that it was serious and let me go, but they didn’t make the decision until eight in thevening. I took Alina some food, but I didn’t have time to feed her. Last month I saw what the doctor wrote: during my interrogation, Alina’s heart stopped twice.

After your daughter died, people’s opinions were divided - some said that the “Putin regime” killed Alina, others said that it just happened, the time had come. Do you think that someone is responsible for what happened? Are you angry?

I don’t think she died because we have this regime in Russia. Although, as a factor, of course, it’s possible - we had no medical help, equipment, you can’t even have her at home. But i’m really angry at Judge Ishchenko, because kids should not die alone. Even if her time had come. The fact that she died alone - this is all the fault of the judge who didn’t let me go.

At some point did you realise that house arrest is still arrest?

The first month after Alina died, I didn’t have any desire to go outside. I didn’t want to speak to anyone or prove anything. I only experienced all the pleasures of arrest in March-April, because you don’t want to sit at home in spring.

I was a very active person before arrest, so living locked up was difficult for me. And my new apartment was directly opposite the Investigative Committee building - you get up in the morning to drink coffee and you see your investigator going to work, you look out the window in the evening and see how he’s going home. This extra reminder was unpleasant.

"Initially I devoured all the books I wanted to read before I was arrested. I did exercise - running around the apartment, my daughter even recorded me doing it. I started learning Dutch, helped my children with English, read some books on state management, cooked"

How did you occupy yourself?

Initially I devoured all the books I wanted to read before I was arrested. I did exercise - running around the apartment, my daughter even recorded me doing it. I started learning Dutch, helped my children with English, read some books on state management, cooked. I got a dog. Sometimes I came up with silly things to do - the cycle of the moon, growing flowers, although I’d never done it before. The flower that I planted when I was first arrested has now grown - it bloomed this month.

In May 2019, you announced you were running for the Rostov City Council. In one of your interviews you said that this decision was a dangerous one. Why did you do it?

I prepared for the September 2019 elections for 18 months, I went to all possible courses, I really wanted it. The law says that I could become a city deputy if I was under arrest, there’s been a precedent. I had the chance to get through and thought, why shouldn’t I?

My campaign went ahead without a candidate - I couldn’t talk to anyone, and I had to take the photo for adverts in court. And I have this look of a victim in it - lost, completely sad. When I was training, I learned what make-up to use for official photographs - no highlighter, earrings and so on. But you come to court, there’s a lot of strangers around, the extremism police are in the bushes, watching you to make sure you say something you shouldn’t - it’s probably impossible to avoid looking sad. But still, a candidate shouldn’t have that kind of look on their face.

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Anastasia Shevchenko was not released in order to see her daughter in intensive care | Image: Nina Kobzeva

Was your candidacy refused due to a lack of signatures?

Yes, I was told that this is what would happen from the very beginning. But I don’t regret that we ran the campaign, at least I got to annoy the investigators and those who are behind my case. I was supposed to sit at home and attract as little attention to myself as possible. I think this is why they dragged out my case so long, so that people’s interest in it would fade. And then my campaign - which no one needed - began.

Your daughter Vlada once said on Facebook that she tries to take as many photos of everything outside your apartment as possible. Is this the only way the outside world got to you?

I also had my trips to court - that was a shock for my eyes, adrenaline. You suck in all the elements of the city, the signs. You think to yourself: “Oh wow!” But I still missed the stars and the moon. Because I could only see a sliver of the sky perched on the window sill.

Vlada also said on Facebook that you once tried to remove a tooth with pliers.

That was just me being silly. In December, before I was arrested, I went to the dentist, and they postponed one procedure until January, so I didn’t make it. I was scared that it would start to hurt, and that happened in May. As soon as the pain started, I wrote a letter asking for permission to visit the dentist. And then it started hurting so badly over the weekend that I didn’t just look for the pliers, I used my hands to try and pry it out - I thought I could do it myself. What else was I supposed to do?

I later talked to a police inspector, who said that people on house arrest always have the same problems - they gain weight and have issues with their teeth.

It was recently revealed that someone installed a secret camera in your bedroom. How did you find out about this?

From the investigation case files. I thought that they had just bugged my flat, because they had records of conversations I had at home before I was arrested. This already seemed incredibly vile. I believe that the owner of the old flat gave them permission, and the court issued a permit for a camera to be installed.

I’ve watched the videos, I had to check them against the investigation transcripts. They have very good sound - you can even hear how my cat is digging away in her tray in the bathroom. You could have put the camera anywhere and you could have heard everything, moreover because I talk mostly at the kitchen table, not in bed. So basically there was no need to install the cameras in my room. I think this is a part of the pressure against me. It’s clear that there was nothing criminal to be overheard, no meetings - I have two children at home, what kind of meetings would I hold? I had few guests at home anyway.

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Under house arrest, Shevchenko has been keeping herself busy, including by growing plants | Image: Nina Kobzeva

It was unpleasant to watch the videos, yes - and terrible when I first opened the file and realised that the investigators, extremism officers who surveilled me, and experts who did the transcripts - they had all watched it. A nice bunch. But I told them that I’m now an open book for them. They know everything about me - that I’m not a criminal, that I’m no threat to Russia’s defence capabilities or constitutional order.

How has arrest affected your family?

It has really had an impact on Vlada. She was 14 when it started, now she’s 16 - a completely different person. She’s grown up, of course, and become stronger. I’m probably not the best example for me, given where I am right now. But she still looks up to me. She’s become very grown-up, independent, good at defending her rights. She’s very communicative, I’m not worried about her.

It’s been hard for my son, he’s still going to therapy. He has two fears: that they will put me in prison, and that I’ll get cancer or coronavirus. He’s slept badly this past year, he’s been ill, and they didn’t let me take him to see the doctor even in an ambulance.

It’s also had an effect on my mother’s health, but she’s become very independent - now she can even put money into her account at an ATM. I’ve been very lucky with them. Normally my family saw the city through my car window, and now they know it well, they tell me what’s opened where and so on. And then they have to put up with me too. It’s hard to imagine that a person is at home, you’re constantly in their presence, and you don’t have 15 rooms, but two, and there’s no personal space. Sometimes my son puts two cushions together, makes himself a little space and sits there in the dark. And I’m the kind of person that needs to control everything, and I understand that they would very much like to have a break from me, but no one wants me to go to prison of course.

“They have to put up with me too. It’s hard to imagine that a person is at home, you’re constantly in their presence, and you don’t have 15 rooms, but two, and there’s no personal space”

What are you preparing for next?

I’m preparing myself morally for court. This will be very unpleasant, a kind of public execution. There’s nothing in the investigation about Open Russia in the UK, only rubbish, as my lawyer tells me. Imagine that you’ve been at home talking away for six months - “Misha, go wash your ass”, “What kind of porridge do you like best?” - and then this will all be heard in court. Everything that relates to my life, social media, bank account, friends, who went where with whom. And this will all be read out by the judge over a long trial, and then the prosecutor will be pointing at you as well. And you need to decide how to hold together during this. I very much hope that they won’t show videos from my flat - it’s not that I’m embarrased, but my children sometimes run around without clothes on.

It’s clear that I’ll be found guilty, I just need to go through it and show that I’m a normal person, that I have a sense of my own dignity. That you can humiliate a person for a long time, but they can put up with it and still be stronger than them. And it’s important to show others that when these cases are started, there’s no option but to fight to the end. I know this will be a difficult trial, but I want to see how they’ll behave, how far they’ll go, or whether they’ll behave like normal people. I want to see the excellent work of my legal team in action, I believe in them. I also want to see how dignified I can be during this process. In principle, it’s not important what the sentence is. Assume they give me four years in prison, well thank God, all this will end, and at least something will be clear.

You don’t think it’s possible they’ll issue a fine instead of a prison sentence?

At every hearing on extending my arrest, they say they can’t let me go because I have commited a serious crime and the charges allow for up to six years in prison. When I was arrested, I was told that this could happen. My lawyers are preparing me for this. I’m almost completely sure that they won’t let me off, and that they won’t issue a fine. And forced community work is also unlikely. The scale of this case is such that it won’t end so simply.

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In February, Shevchenko was permitted a two-hour walk every day | Image: Nina Kobzeva

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