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After journalist’s death, this Russian city’s backstory of political pressure comes to light

The recent death of Russian journalist Irina Slavina has a backstory - the overwhelming pressure on activists and journalists in her hometown of Nizhny Novgorod. Warning: readers may find this article distressing.

Andrey Rykov
16 October 2020
Memorial to journalist Irina Slavina in Nizhny Novgorod
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(c) Kommersant Photo Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

On 2 October, Irina Slavina’s day seemed to start like any other. She baked a cake for her mother’s 70th birthday. She went on errands in town. But at roughly half past three in the afternoon, the prominent journalist was dead after setting herself on fire outside Nizhny Novgorod’s interior ministry office. In her last Facebook post, Slavina wrote: “I ask you to blame the Russian Federation for my death.”

In recent years, Slavina, editor of regional website KozaPress, came under constant pressure from Russian law enforcement. She was frequently arrested and dragged through the courts for both her professional and civic activities. On 1 October, Slavina’s home had been searched as part of an investigation into the Open Russia movement - local law enforcement broke down the door to her apartment and confiscated all her computer equipment. She is survived by her husband and children.

Pressure on political activists is nothing new in Nizhny Novgorod. Stories of torture, brutal arrests and fabricated investigations in the city have frequently hit the headlines throughout the country. The city’s anti-fascists, who found themselves “invited” to the local counter-extremism department for “chats” in the late 2000s, tell tales of how the department’s director boasted of his powers, proudly christening Nizhny Novgorod a “red city” - a reference to “red zones”, Russian penal colonies run strictly by the penal authorities, rather than inmates.

Here, we go over some of the most prominent cases of police harassment and persecution in the city.

By the late 1990s, Nizhny Novgorod had already been dubbed “OMON City” for the rough behaviour of its riot police squads (OMON) at football matches, where away fans were at the mercy of the truncheons of local police.

The Antifa-RASH case

“Counter-extremism centres” appeared in the Russian police in September 2008, arising out of organised crime units. They effectively became a new political police force, following free-thinking young people and attempting to “close down” on their most radical members. Counter-extremism officers initially paid most attention to National-Bolsheviks and Neo-Nazis, but they also arrested left-wing activists, calling them in for “preventive” chats and threatening them, but without charging them with anything.

This situation lasted until 2010, when local anti-fascist activists Artyom Bystrov and Albert Gainutdinov were charged by Nizhny Novgorod’s counter-extremism centre with an attack on a well-known neo-Nazi, Dmitry Redkin. Bystrov and Gainutdinov said that their statements were beaten out of them under torture. The case was swiftly closed by mutual agreement, but the next year, the counter-extremism operatives came again - only this time, more prepared.

The second case contained more “incriminating episodes” and more people accused. During a house search, counter-extremism officers even “found” “membership cards” for an anti-fascist organisation (“Antifa-RASH”), which had been printed on a black-and-white printer. The activists themselves, some of them barely known to one another, denied that any such organisation existed. The police probably found the logo on some anti-fascist website, and decided to use the abbreviation as the name of a made-up “extremist organisation”.

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Membership card for "Anti-fa RASH" organisation, fabricated by Russian counter-extremism officers

In the end, the counter-extremism centre remembered a few fights between anti-fascists and neo-Nazis and merged them into the same case, meaning that defendants were also charged with physical harm, beatings and hooligan behaviour.

Albert Gainutdinov managed to hide and avoid arrest, whereas Artyom Bystrov followed him later, fleeing from house arrest - they wound up in Ukraine before receiving political asylum in Canada. The remaining plaintiffs - Pavel Krimonosov, Oleg Gembaruk and Dmitry Kolesov - were amnestied in 2013.

The case of the youthful arsonists

On the night of 1 September 2011, two school students attempted to set fire to the office of Vadim Zhuk, a United Russia member of Nizhny Novgorod regional parliament. They were caught in an ambush by counter-extremism officers, who videoed the incident.

The arrestees turned out to be two residents of Leningrad region: Dmitry Yashkov, 16, and Ilya Ulyanov, 17, from Kingiseppa. They had met at a nationalist forum, and also corresponded with someone from Nizhny Novgorod who remained anonymous throughout the case. This man persuaded the young men to come to Nizhny and take part in a direct action, hired accommodation for them, helped them produce Molotov cocktails and showed them how to visit the MP’s office, as well as finding them police uniforms in which to commit the crime.

Ulyanov’s lawyer Alexander Zakutailo said that his client recognised the third party in a photo: he was, as Lenta.ru wrote, Alexey Dmitriev, a neo-Nazi with ties to counter-extremism officers. The defence believed that counter-extremism officers had enlisted Dmitriev, used him to organise a crime that didn’t take place and then sheltered him – he was never found during the investigation. Yaskov and Ulyanov, on the other hand, got off with suspended sentences and fines of 5,000 roubles.

The pensioner’s arrest

There have also been enough cases of rough police treatment at peaceful political meetings. One of the best known was the arrest of pensioner Liliya Gremina, who had taken part in the first March of the Dissenters – mass street demonstrations held by the Russian opposition in the late 2000s. The authorities, as a rule, refused permission to hold them. The first action in Nizhny Novgorod was supposed to take place in late March 2007, and their participants were to meet up in advance on the city’s Gorky Square. The city council, however, decided to organise a public event for children on the same square - and used this excuse to ban the protest event. The “dissenters”, gathering on the square, were arrested.

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Police ID of Alexey Trifonov | Телеграмм-канал Алексея Трифонова

Liliya Gremina, 70, found out about the planned protest from a wall poster, and didn’t realise that it had been banned. She walked to Gorky Square with a home-made placard wrapped up in a parcel, which caught the eye of police officers on duty nearby. From the results of a public report produced by the Committee against Torture organisation, which provided Gremina with legal support, she was asked to enter a police van after refusing to show her parcel to the cops. After a short argument, when Gremina sat down in the road in protest, they pulled her up off the ground, but she refused to comply, leaning on her hands and feet.

“The police then started to twist Liliya’s arms, but one of the cops sitting in a car grabbed her by the foot and shoved her into the vehicle, one of them hitting her hard in her back. She didn’t see what they used, but she felt a sharp pain in the small of her back,” was the response of the Committee against Torture’s report.

Gremina spent five hours in a police vehicle and police station, where she wasn’t allowed to eat, drink, sit down or go to the toilet. She became ill and was taken by ambulance to a hospital. Later, she photographed her injuries and spoke to human rights advocates. There was no attempt to start a case against the police. In May 2020, the European Human Rights Court (EHRC) awarded Liliya 5,000 euro compensation for moral damage, and the Russian Federation also owes her 2,950 euro compensation for court expenses.

The Staroverov case

Another scandal connected with police aggression took place in Nizhny Novgorod on 15 September 2012. On that day a rally took place on the city’s Freedom Square as part of the nationwide March of the Millions protest campaign. The city authorities refused to permit it, but protesters turned up all the same. And the police used violence against them. One person who was injured was Yekaterina Zaitseva, a member of the Other Russia unregistered political party and organiser of the protest. Riot police officer Igor Lebedev gave Zaitseva a backhand blow with a truncheon and she was whisked to hospital, where she was diagnosed with various serious head and brain injuries.

The Committee Against Torture, representing Zaitseva, didn’t succeed in raising a case against the police officer, although the moment he hit her was recorded on video in close-up.

Yury Staroverov, another member of Other Russia was, however, accused of using violence against a public official. He was standing next to Lebedev and, as the investigation showed, grabbed the police officer’s head and neck, “using physical violence”. The injured police officer, giving evidence in court, went still further. Staroverov supposedly choked him for an entire minute, after which he lost his helmet. However, he admitted to beating protesters standing around him. “These were arms to me, not people”, OVD-Info quoted Lebedev.

In court, the prosecution requested a four-year sentence in a colony-settlement, but Nizhny Novgorod district court gave him a three year suspended sentence.

The “Undesirable organisation” case

Irina Slavina died the day after a house search - at the same time, police visited five other opposition activists in the city, all of them witnesses in an investigation into business owner Mikhail Iosilevich, who is accused of links to an “undesirable organisation”.

In early September, Iosilevich offered a room for training sessions for election observers for Nizhny Novgorod city council. Investigators see these seminars, which are run by the Golos movement, as a project of the Open Russia opposition movement. The latter, created in 2001 on the initiative of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was recognised as an “undesirable organisation” in Russia in April 2017. The Russian General Prosecutor’s Office later explained that this ban concerned organisations with the same name that were registered outside Russia.

This, however, hasn’t saved activists from Open Russia regional offices from administrative and even criminal investigations. In March 2019, the movement took a decision to dissolve itself in the interests of its members, but a new public organisation appeared with the same name. It has no branch in Nizhny Novgorod, and Golos denies any connection with Khodorkovsky.

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Стадион Нижнего Новгорода | Вконтакте

“I don’t think that people are under more pressure in Nizhny Novgorod than in other regions,” says Albert Kuznetsov, who heads the Committee against Torture’s investigation department. “In my opinion, it’s because activists here are more public. They are more likely to publicise instances of pressure, and this is where this impression comes from.”

“My impression is that here in Russia in general, the system is very happy to go along with police violence. And if you don’t fight this problem, it naturally becomes worse over time, and its consequences become more obvious.”

“For a long time, the Nizhny Novgorod counter-extremism centre was headed by Alexey Trifonov, probably the best-known internet-troll in Russian law enforcement. His activity online undoubtedly drew a lot of attention, which also served to draw attention to both Nizhny Novgorod and the ambiguous activity of the counter-extremism centre. In one way or another, they have been involved in an overwhelming number of cases of pressure on local activists.”

Related story

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On 2 October, Irina Slavina died in Nizhny Novgorod, the city she dedicated her life to. Here, Slavina’s colleagues remember her. Warning: readers may find this article distressing.
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