On 10 February, a Russian court sentenced seven young men on terrorism charges in what has become known as the “Network case”. The sentences were impressive:
Dmitry Pchelintsev, 27 - 18 years.
Ilya Shakursky, 23 - 16 years.
Andrey Chernov, 30 - 14 years
Maxim Ivankin, 25 - 13 years
Mikhail Kulkov, 25 - 10 years.
Vasily Kuksov, 31 - 9 years.
Arman Sagynbayev, 27 - 6 six years.
The men were charged with terrorism offences - allegedly, they were part of a clandestine organising which planned a state coup in Russia. According to the FSB, each of them had assigned roles: leaders, communications personnel, sappers and ideological officers. Indeed, according to Russia's security service, members of the “Network” were planning to organise bombings during Russia’s March 2018 presidential elections and the Football World Cup, launching an armed uprising and “stirring up the masses for further destabilisation of the political situation in the country”.
As soon as the case was revealed to the public, defendants in the case began reporting that they had been brutally tortured by the FSB officers who detained them. At openDemocracy, we have tried to cover the case in as much detail as possible - translating and publishing in-depth accounts of torture, violation of procedure and the lack of evidence in the case.
We translate the following article by Yan Shenkman for Novaya Gazeta
Dmitry Pchelintsev’s parents are often told that prison breaks people. “That’s not what’s going to happen to our lads,” Pchelintsev’s dad says. And It’s true. The Network case has been going on for two and a half years, and plenty of terrible things have happened, but none of the defendants look broken, or even as if they’ve lost. The first thing that Dmitry Pchelintsev shouts when we come into the courtroom in Penza is: “I got the song, it’s great! I just didn’t know the melody, but I tried singing it and it turned out OK!”
It’s as if the terrible words “18 years” won’t be said about Dmitry any moment. Or the other defendants - 16 years, 14 years, 13 years, 10 years, nine years, six years.
The song is called “This will pass”, and it’s by the Russian punk band Pornofilmy. The song is about them, the Network Case defendants behind bars. “The honest guys from Penza and Petersburg get a sentence,” the song goes, and then: “With a wet plastic bag on your head, with electric burns on your wrist…”
These lines refer to the torture that the defendants have repeatedly reported, and which, the official opinion goes, did not happen. No arguments, testimony nor evidence have been accepted. Recently, another argument has emerged: several Roma who were forcibly evicted from a nearby settlement are being held in the same detention centre as the Network Case defendants. They have also complained of torture. It seems, in Penza, torture is the norm.
Vasily Kuksov, another defendant, smiles through his plastic mask. He has developed tuberculosis in detention. It’s unlikely nine years in prison are going to benefit him, but still, he’s smiling.
Ilya Shakursky, who received 16 years of strict regime prison, waves at me and makes a sign with his hands “Rotfront”. Stay strong seems to be the message.
The defendants’ mothers are sitting in the first two rows next to the “aquarium”, the glass cage which the defendants are kept in. I expected tears, hysterics, rage, anger towards the court, but not what actually happened: the parents stood in silence, their eyes straight. Not a tear was shed when the sentence was announced, their faces were like stone. Perhaps all their tears had already been shed, or perhaps they wanted to show their sons that they were holding together, so they didn’t worry. “We’re with you,” someone shouted to the defendants. From the acquarium they replied: “No! We’re with you!”
Only four people in the room look like they’re beaten: the three judges and the state prosecutor, who did not allow journalists to photograph or film them. Yury Klubkov, Andrey Balandin, Dmitry Sirota and prosecutor Sergey Semerenko. But it’s clear, they hide their eyes, wrinkle their noses. They’re not happy. But if they’re right, then why do they look so pathetic?
A route to shame, a route to respect
No one expected that it would all happen so quickly. The court resolution took 20 minutes to read out, and the whole sentencing procedure took less than an hour. “They sorted it out quicker than with Konstantin Kotov,” I say to Oleg Elanchik, a rights defender, referring to an activist who was sentenced to four years in prison after the Moscow protest wave last summer. “There was no motive, no extended definitions, nothing.”
“This is only the beginning,” Elanchik replies. “Now all cases will be decided like this. After the Network case, everything is possible.”
Everyone says that the Network case is a historic case, that it will go into the textbooks, that this is a breaking point, a new stage. But why? It’s not a secret that people were tortured in Russia before. That terrorism cases were fabricated, that huge sentences were handed down on the basis of fabricated evidence. Why did Penza shock everyone? Because it’s the first time it’s happened in public. Since the start of 2018, all of Russia’s newspapers and online media have been writing about the Network case. Celebrities, politicians talk about it. At every rally, every picket people talk about the Network.
For the first time in many months, there’s an open discussion of torture in a Russian court. And it’s happening in front of the press, without shame, in the open.
Ekaterina and Evgeny Malyshev's documentary about the Network case.
For the first time, a court officer helps me set up in the courtroom’s press area. He knows I’m from Novaya Gazeta and knows roughly what I’m going to write. What’s happening? What are they thinking about? Are they not afraid at all? Every activist, every person online who is subscribed to political groups now knows these names: state prosecutor Sergey Semerenko, presiding judge Yury Klubkov, FSB investigator Valery Tokarev, FSB officer Vyacheslav Shepelev. But this doesn’t bother them. We think they should be publicly shamed. But for them, this is a route to respect.
Before the sentence, Novaya Gazeta published an open letter by the defendants’ parents to president Putin. The article received more than 200,000 views - more than the number of signatures under other petitions in support of the Network defendants. The headline ran like this: “Vladimir Vladimirovich, you are being deceived, and the whole country is watching!” If somebody wrote me this kind of letter, I would have been touched. I don’t want the whole country to think of me as someone who’s been tricked by some swindlers. But it’s fine for the authorities, it seems. They’re silent.
The parents’ letter has been sent on to the FSB and General Prosecutor’s Office. There’s little chance that there will be any reaction, but still, there’s a chance. It’s not the norm for mistakes to be admitted nowadays - and definitely not crimes. But Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, did comment on the case for the press: interference by the head of state is impossible. All that’s left is to wait for the Prosecutor’s Office to punish themselves, and the FSB - to punish the FSB.
No point in waiting
Evgeny and Ekaterina Malyshev, the hero-like Penza journalists who have covered every court hearing in the Network Case (and who made a film about it), tried to convince me that society has woken up and that this is the main result of the case. And for this, the defendants will pay with years of their lives.
To be honest, I’m not sure that this is the case. Society’s reaction has been minimal. I saw myself how Penza residents reacted to pickets the day before the sentence was issued. “Ah, this is the ‘Moscow case’, it’s about bloggers.” Indeed, bloggers. One woman came up, read a placard, listened to what the picketer had to say, and then started laying out all her own problems: a 70-year old woman had been made the boss at her workplace, no chance of getting justice, etc. And that was that.
I notice this kind of reaction when I was on my way to Penza. I’m sitting on the train reading the paper - articles about Konstantin Kotov, about the New Greatness case, about the Network case. And then I hear: “What is happening in this country! I cannot believe it!” I think my fellow passenger has woken up, he’s also worried. But it turns out that the train steward has given him wet sheets for the sleeper car. And that was that.
No, Russian society has not woken up. Something else has happened: a front of resistance has sprung up, made up of people of different political convictions and different ages. The thing they share in common, though, is that when they hear of injustice by the Russian authorities, they react.
There’s not many of these people, but they’re very public. They hold pickets, write postcards to people in detention, collect funds and food for people in prison, organise flash mobs online, and attend the courts. People used to view them as mad people who didn’t pose much of a threat, but now, after all the brutality of the past year, it’s a front. “But what’s the point?” I ask Vlad Barabanov, an activist who also mixed up in the Moscow case. He’s also come to Penza for the verdict. “They didn’t care about you at all,” I continue.
“But what’s the point of sitting and waiting?” Vlad is an anarchist, and is from the same anti-authoritarian scene a Pchelintsev, Shakursky and the rest of the defendants. But he’s not a member of a political party. He support everyone: Konstantin Kotov, New Greatness, The Network.
Everything has changed. Ilya Shakursky holds a single picket in support of Konstantin Kotov in the courtroom itself. Alexey Minyailo, Pavel Ustinov and Samariddin Radzhabov - who were all convicted in the Moscow Case - record a video in support of the Network Case. Lev Ponomarev, an old liberal human rights defender, attends rallies with red banners and opposition left activists. This isn’t your weekend opposition types, this is a front. They are resisting over months, years.
It’s another question of how effective the resistance is. Alexandra Krylenko is a rights defender who’s been involved in the Network case since 2018. She writes:
“Just don’t write that this is all pointless. We don’t measure how useful it is in terms of prison sentences. It would be strange if we went out on pickets, gave out information and everyone was released. If it was like that, we wouldn’t have to fight. That kind of victory isn’t worth anything.
We’re fighting for these guys not because we want these fluffy kittens back. They were taken hostage by cruel and heartless people. It’s the person who stands up against the blows who wins.
These past few years we’ve learned not to leave people on their own. So that every individual (and what’s more important - every wife, mother, father, brother and sister) did not have to face a prison sentence alone. So that there was someone beside you, someone who would hug you, hold your hand or just look you in the eye. It’s hard to believe it, but that didn’t exist just a short while ago. This is a real victory. A victory for care and support.”
No one should be alone
Aside from a 16-year prison sentence, Ilya Shakursky also received a fine of 50,000 roubles. Which is a particularly cynical move. None of the seven defendants are from rich families. Penza is, in general, a poor town, but the prices are like Moscow. Back in 2018, when the case first started, many of the families took loans to pay for their lawyers.
But now pay attention. Elena Bogatova, Shakursky’s mother, has a monthly wage of around 15,000 roubles (£180), Vasily Kuksov’s mother - 10,000 (£120). They talk about it in the Malyshevs’ documentary on the case. The forensic analyses in the case cost around a million roubles (£12,100.
You don’t have to believe in pickets, in public protest, street actions, but what really works is supporting the parents. And it worked in this case. A few days before the sentence was issued, journalists from a media run by Kremlin businessman Evgeny Prigozhin attacked a Petersburg politician, Maxim Reznik, because he participated in a charity auction to taise money for the Penza defendants. And they attacked with purpose: they sent an official parliamentary information request and a letter to the Prosecutor’s Office. Apparently this is called “supporting terrorists”. If I give Shakursky’s mother 5,000 roubles (£60) towards a care package for her son, does that mean I’m supporting terrorism or not? Maybe I’m a terrorist myself?
This is a general situation. Defendants in the New Greatness case were included in Rosfinmonitoring’s register of terrorists and extremists last summer. Rosfinmonitoring is an official financial intelligence service, and people who have their names put on the register get their bank accounts frozen. Now it’s not allowed to support the defendants neither morally, nor financially. And they need this support.
What do the authorities gain when they try to block financial support to families and prisoners? It’s hard to find a logical explanation for this. The guys are already in prison, their parents’ lives have been ruined. But they need to suffer a touch more?
Of course, the authorities won’t win out. People will continue to support the families, it’s just that activists will have to learn the rules of the underground. They won’t write “in support of the Network” when making bank transfers, but “for those who are worse off than us” or whatever. And the concerts in support of the prisoners will continue, as will the auctions, fundraising - just out of sight. This is what the Network case is about: the Russian authorities are creating an underground out of people who just want to help one another, not desperate fighters for justice and terrorists.
The young men who were sentenced on 10 February are anti-fascists. And the simple logic runs that if there are anti-fascists, there are fascists, too. And from time to time they raise their heads. The secret witness in the case, Vlad Dobrovolsky, is one of them.
Vasily Kuksov asked a question in court: “They want to reeducate me in prison. To become who? A fascist?”
A day before the sentence was issued, Pavel Nikulin, a journalist who was holding a single picket in the centre of Penza, was attacked. They tried to beat him up, ripped the placard out of his hands. “Penza is a right-wing city” they said. I’d love to interview these kind of people - I’d ask how they live, breathe, what they think of the FSB, what they think of the Network case. That said, there’s an answer to this question. Two neo-Nazis had already approached the pickets. When they saw a picture of Ilya Shakursky, they said: “Ah, we know him. It’s good he’s in prison.”
Seven more of these types turned up at a showing of the Malyshevs’ documentary film last Saturday. Big foreheads, tattoos with runes - just what you’d expect. They just didn’t expect that so many people would be there. With seven against 50, they decided not to cause a fuss. Instead, they left - the film wasn’t interesting, it seems. They didn’t like it.
“We’re taught to remember our ancestors, the heroes who defended us from the evil called fascism. We know this, we indoctrinate ourselves with it. And after that I find myself here, a convinced anti-fascist, listening to the testimony of a secret witness who is, in fact, an open Nazi"
The prosecution’s main argument in the Network case was the fact that the defendants played airsoft together. Dmitry Pchelintsev and his friends played airsoft - and if you watch the documentary, you’ll see they didn’t play that well. This didn’t stop the prosecution from considering the game “preparation for a coup”. But the issue is that they weren’t the only ones who played airsoft in Penza. There’s an airsoft team, it’s called Partizan Penza. They get up to exactly the same stuff as Pchelintsev and Shakursky, but they’re much better at it - professional and aggressive. And yes, they’re right-wing. Penza is a right-wing town. Right-wingers can play airsoft, but left-wingers are terrorists.
An hour before the court began, they started letting people into the building. Around one hundred people turned up. The Penza court officers had never seen so many activists and rights defenders in their court before. One of them joked: “It’s like Moscow in 1941!” That is, they’re the defenders of the motherland, and the people who came to support the anti-fascists are… fascists. Seriously? Are you sure it’s not the other way round?
This is what Ilya Shakursky said in his final address to the court:
“We’re taught to remember our ancestors, the heroes who defended us from the evil called fascism. We know this, we indoctrinate ourselves with it. And after that I find myself here, a convinced anti-fascist, listening to the testimony of a secret witness who is, in fact, an open Nazi. and you know, we should give him his due for finding a more humane way of solving… a more humane way of fighting anti-fascists. Now they don’t shoot us in the back of the head when we go into our homes, now they give false testimony about us while hiding behind masks and walls.”
There’s 35 seats in the courtroom in Penza. In Petersburg’s Ice Palace, a concert venue, there’s around 12,000 - it’s a huge place. On 15 February, the Pornofilmy band will play their new album in concert. They’ll also play their new song about the “honest guys from Penza and Petersburg”. When this case started two and a half years ago, Pornofilmy weren’t yet known nationally. They played small venues, and were known in the punk scene, but not beyond. Now everyone listens to them, their songs are played on the streets, subways. They’ve become popular. Vadim Kotlyarov, their singer, sings “My Russia is sitting in prison” and the crowd sings back to him. One Russia is in prison, the other puts her there. But as Kotlyarov sings, this will pass. It can’t last forever.