On 5th September 2012 Leonid Kovyazin, a video cameraman and journalist working as a freelance correspondent for the independent weekly Kirov newspaper ‘Vyatsky Nablyudatel’ (Vyatka Observer), was arrested for taking part in the ‘mass riots’ of 6th May. He is currently being held in Moscow’s pre-trial detention centre No. 4, along with other people detained in connection with the Bolotnaya Square fracas. If convicted, he could spend between three and eight years in prison.
Open up! Police!
I take a taxi to the village of Kostino, on the outskirts of Kirov. The driver edges carefully along the uneven road, swerving to avoid ruts and potholes. I’m met at the entrance to the three storey building by a slightly tipsy man with a cheap cigarette between his teeth: ‘You’re here about Leonid, the lad that got arrested? Go up to the second floor, press the bell hard, the old granny’s deaf!’ I find the door with difficulty on the badly lit landing and press the bell. A serious looking young man with glasses opens the door. I’m in luck today – Leonid’s older brother Vassily is visiting his grandmother. ‘Come in, put on these slippers, this is Leo’s room…’ The furniture in the room is old, acquired in Soviet times; the sideboard contains a tea set with flowers on it and photos of relatives; on the faded wallpaper is a football poster: ‘Spartak – the Champions!’
Leonid Kovyazin was in Moscow as a freelance correspondent of the regional newspaper Vyatka Observer on the day of the 'March of Millions'. Police have accused him of overturning portable toilets to build barricades against them. He faces a wait until November to be tried and the possibility of up to 8 years in prison.
There is a student ID badge hanging on a nail. ‘Yea, my brother did cultural studies at the Humanities University in Kirov’, says Vassily. ’He’s always been interested in art, painting, philosophy, cinema… He’s been into video for a while now; he applied for a place at Marina Razbezhkina’s documentary film school in Moscow, got through the first interview. But then he got arrested…’
‘Leo’s like a son to me, though he’s my grandson. My actual son came back from Afghanistan and shot himself... Drank a lot, then one day he took his gun and turned it on himself.’
Nine people turned up in the village of Kostino to arrest the budding film director: a team of special investigators from Moscow, a squad from the Kirov police department and attesting witnesses in plain clothes. The ring at the door came at 6am. His eighty year old grandmother Faina Ivanovna opened it. Today she has had to leave her bed to talk to me. Her blood pressure hasn’t fallen since the police visit, arrest and house search, and she can’t get over that terrible day when they took her grandson away. ‘I asked “Who is it?”, and they said “Open up! Police!” They turned the whole house upside down, emptied all the cupboards; they even cut the mattresses open, trying to find something. I asked the one in charge, “did my grandson kill somebody? Is he a thief?” He said, “We’re not allowed to tell you anything. Get his things together, he’s going with us.” And they took my boy off to Moscow.’
Granny Faina’s eyes are wet with tears, of old age and grief. New grief - and grief from a long time ago. The tears fill the wrinkles around her eyes. ‘Leo’s like a son to me, though he’s my grandson. My son came back from Afghanistan and shot himself... Drank a lot then one day he took his gun and turned it on himself. So then there were just the two of us here, Leo and me. He helped me in the house, studied, worked. Didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t hang around with girls… Now I’m on my own here, all alone. I don’t sleep at night, I walk around my room, and when finally I doze off I dream about prison. I don’t suppose you know when they’ll release my Leonochka?’
The old woman looks at me hopefully, her wrinkled bony hands clutching her knees, but there’s nothing I can tell her. All I know is what anyone can find out from the internet: Leonid Kovyazin could get up to eight years in prison for taking part in mass riots during the ‘March of the Millions’ in Moscow on 6th May, the day before Vladimir Putin was sworn in for his third term as Russia’s president. So his grandmother may not live to see his release.
‘He thinks he’ll be sent down. They’re accusing him of overturning portable toilets to build barricades against the police – in other words, he took part in mass riots. That’s a serious charge.’
Leonid’s elder brother Vassily has visited his brother in the detention centre. ‘Leo had no complaints’, he tells me. ‘He’s in a cell with three others, all of them decent people. The only problem is the meals – Leo’s a vegetarian. But we put some money into his account, so he can buy food for himself.’ I ask whether Leonid thought he might be released soon. ‘No, He thinks he’ll be sent down. They’re accusing him of overturning portable toilets to build barricades against the police – in other words, he took part in mass riots. That’s a serious charge. At his preliminary hearing they showed footage of him moving toilets that were lying on the ground. I think that even if he did knock them over, he caused no harm to anyone. He was filming the march for the Vyatka Observer and probably got involved in what was happening because he couldn’t stand aside and watch the riot police laying into defenceless people with their truncheons…some of them were old people and children.’
The storming of the newsroom
The police had even planned to storm the offices of the Vyatka Observer, the newspaper that Leonid Kovyazin was working for, as though it was a training centre for Islamist terrorists. ‘For some reason they decided that we might be capable of resistance’, gasps Yulia Shevtsova, one of the paper’s journalists, a slim red haired young woman with big eyes. ‘They drove their truck right up to the building, so that they could attach a steel cable to the window bars, pull them out and invade our office. The guy in charge was an investigator from Moscow by the name of Gorelov. I said to him:”My desk is next to the window. Have you any idea how much you frightened me?” He looked at me, then at my colleagues – almost all of them women – and decided against storming us…’
'The police even planned to storm the offices of Leonid’s, as though it was a training centre for Islamist terrorists.'
Yulia goes silent, a look of confusion on her face: it’s as though she still can’t quite believe it happened, as though it felt like being part of a scene from some strange TV detective series…
‘The investigator suggested we look at a clip on YouTube, called “Demonstrators Smear Themselves with Excrement”. It showed Leo touching a portable toilet that had been moved by young protesters. And for that he might be sent down for five to ten years. I said, surely you don’t put people behind bars for that? They replied that the rioting on Bolotnaya Square was extensive, that a lot of riot police had been injured… That people have to answer for their actions, and that a court will decide what happens to Leo, but that it will certainly mean prison. We’re all still in a state of shock here, everyone on the paper! Leo used to film an interview programme for our website, and now we haven’t got a cameraman.
The Vyatka Observer has asked its readers to donate money to a bail fund for Leonid Kovyazin: they need to raise 500,000 roubles. There has been a good response, with some readers offering 100,000, some 1000, some only 100 roubles, but the fund is gradually growing. The question is whether Moscow will change its ‘pre-trial restrictions’ and release the journalist on bail. Many believe that this is unlikely, since the case against him is clearly being orchestrated from above and he can’t expect any favours.
Friends in Kirov have not forgotten Leonid Kovyazin, organising pickets demanding his release and donating money to a bail fund.
Civil activists Tatyana Zhdanova, Anton Dolgikh and Artur Abashev wrote to Kirov’s liberal governor Nikita Belykh, asking him to stand as guarantor for Leonid Kovyazin. They recently received his reply, where he wrote that ‘according to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, a guarantor must be able to guarantee that the individual for whom he offers surety will appear in court and participate in investigative procedures’, and that he is unable to give such a guarantee. However he is prepared to make a contribution to Leonid Kovyazin’s bail fund, if the court decides that he may be released if he signs an undertaking not to leave Moscow.
A letter with the same request – to stand surety for Leonid Kovyazin – was also sent to billionaire and media magnate Alexander Lebedev, owner of the Russian newspaper ‘Novaya Gazeta’ and the British ‘Independent’. It was signed by several dozen members of the Russian intelligentsia: actors, directors, artists and journalists. One of its signatories was Boris Pavlovich, artistic director of the Kirov young people’s ‘Theatre on Spasskaya Street’, where Leonid Kovyazin was an actor for several years. I speak to Boris in the darkened auditorium of the theatre in an interval between rehearsals of their upcoming production. The first night is approaching, they are having the last run throughs; unfortunately, though, the actor playing the one of the lead characters has been arrested…
‘If he says he was trying to protect people from the riot police, I believe that he had no other option but to do what he did. Although it’s a rather paradoxical idea, isn’t it – to protect people from their protectors?’
‘We are doing a version of Aeschylus’s ‘Oresteia’, Boris explains, ‘and Leonid was our Aegisthus. Obviously we’ve had to replace him, but all the box office takings will be going to his bail fund. As someone who has worked with Leonid in our drama workshop for four years, I can say that he is no extremist; he’s a romantic, a man in search of beauty, driven only by idealism. He spent five years at the Philosophy and Cultural Studies faculty of the university, reading Plato, Berdyayev, Bergson, Heidegger ; he was taught to fight for the freedom of the individual, freedom of thought, creative freedom. And if he says he was trying to protect people from the riot police, I believe that he had no other option but to do what he did. Although it’s a rather paradoxical idea, isn’t it – to protect people from their protectors? Lev Rubinstein [contemporary Russian poet and essayist – trans.] has a good analogy: if a woman is being sexually assaulted on the street and screams, she can’t be accused of breaking the law even if it’s after eleven o’clock at night. And strictly speaking, enormous numbers of people are guilty of public order offences at rallies, but what can they do if they are being assaulted?’
‘Do you think the ‘assaults’ will ever stop?’, I ask Boris Pavlovich. ‘You know’, he says, ‘we’re about to do a show based on Saltykov-Shchedrin’s satirical “Story of a Town”. Our show’s all about the fact that in Russia even very obvious things can turn into their opposite in a second. And this element of the absurd in Russian life may be scary, but it can also inspire hope. If it is absurd from the start, maybe it will end just as absurdly?’
As I leave the theatre the actors are rehearsing a scene from ‘Stupidville’, the name of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s town and the title of their show. The scene is about a mayoral election, contested by two powerful local ladies: the German Amalia and the French Clementinka. One regales the townspeople with beer, the other with vodka; they drink the lot, dance, have their election meetings and then doze off again until the next election... So it goes on until they finally elect as mayor a man so terrible that ‘the earth shook and the sun grew dim’, and whose reign of terror and destruction brings the town’s story to an end.
Editor’s note: Besides Leonid Kovyazin, 16 other young Russians were arrested in connection with the demonstrations on 6th May. They were: Andrey Barabanov and Artyom Savelov (unemployed), ‘Left front’ activist Vladimir Akimenkov, businessman Maxim Luzyanin, students Yaroslav Belousov, Stepan Zimin and Aleksey Polikhovich, Mikhail Kosenko (who is registered as disabled), former marine Denis Lutskevich, research chemist Fyodor Bakhov and human rights campaigner Nikolay Kavkazsky. Some are being detained in custody awaiting court decision; others have been released on bail. One 18 year old anarchist, Alexandra Dukhanina, is under house arrest. All the ‘Bolotnaya prisoners’ have been accused of participating in a riot and using violence against police. Specifically, Kovyazin is charged with moving portable toilets, Dukhanina with throwing stones and businessman Luzyanin with chipping a policeman’s tooth enamel.