oDR: Feature

“The main tool of management is fear”: how this Russian city became a test site for political prosecution

On 18 February, the first Russian citizen was convicted of working for a foreign “undesirable organisation” in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. As Polina Efimova reports, the city has a notorious track record of political prosecutions.

Polina Efimova
22 February 2021, 12.00am
Protest against constitutional amendments, 22 March, Rostov-on-Don
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(c) Kommersant Photo Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Anastasia Shevchenko, an activist in Rostov-on-Don, recently became the first Russian citizen to be prosecuted under the country’s “undesirable organisation” legislation. On 18 February, she received a four-year suspended sentence for her status as a member of the Open Russia civil society organisation, deemed an “undesirable organisation” by the Russian authorities.

“Why am I guilty? I just want my children and yours to live in a clean and beautiful city, a country where laws and human rights are observed - and where there are no political repressions,” Shevchenko said in her final address to the court, where prosecutors had requested a five-year prison sentence.

Shevchenko’s story is perhaps the most striking – and shocking – in Rostov’s recent history of politically motivated prosecutions.

Prior to trial this year, Shevchenko spent two years under house arrest. Shortly after arrest, Shevchenko’s daughter Alina died after being hospitalised into intensive care – she had previously been in a special needs boarding school. Then, one year into Shevchenko’s term under house arrest, it was revealed that local counter-extremism investigators – colloquially known as “Centre E” – had installed a surveillance camera in Shevchenko’s bedroom, recording her over several months.

“This is a public execution,” she said in a 2020 interview to openDemocracy.

But hers is far from the only case in this southern Russian city of one million people. According to activists, local law enforcement – and in particular the “Centre E” counter-extremism police – pursue active citizens freely. And with a new protest wave in connection with the return of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, the stakes are getting higher.

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Anastasia Shevchenko | Image: Nina Kobzeva. All rights reserved

“Centre E”

Twin sisters Irina and Olga Zenina, key figures in the city’s opposition circles, have long been under the supervision of “Centre E”. In the early 2000s, the Zenina sisters organised rallies in support of Russian politician Boris Nemtsov – and now every year they hold pickets in his memory on 27 February, the date he was murdered six years ago.

But, the sisters say, there will be no rally this year. “After all the events, the authorities did not issue a permit [for the protest],” Olga says. “The authorities went for broke – to crush any protest.”

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Irina Zenina | Image: Polina Efimova

According to Zenina, the Moscow authorities sent a plan to the “regions” – to initiate new politically motivated criminal investigations.

Thus, in 2017 Rostov “Centre E” drew up its first significant investigation against Vlad Mordasov and Yan Sidorov – as local activists call it, “the case of the Rostov boys”.

In November that year, Mordasov, 22, and Sidorov, 19, went out to protest in the city centre in support of residents who had lost their homes in a huge fire that had swept a central district of wooden houses a few months earlier, displacing hundreds of families. As it turned out, they were then swept up in a much bigger story than they realised.

Aerial footage of the 2017 fire at Govnyarka district, Rostov. Source: AirGorod

In response to the fire, Mordasov and Sidorov began a discussion in an online chat group about how to make the city authorities understand the severity of the situation – one person had died in the fire, 564 people were injured and 218 families had been left homeless. (An investigation eventually showed that the cause of the fire was arson - the land was “needed” to construct new apartment buildings.) But the young men did not realise that their chat was being monitored by counter-extremism officers, and that they were being followed.

Together, Mordasov and Sidorov came to protest outside the Rostov regional government building, put their two backpacks on a nearby monument and unfurled a poster: “Return the land to the Rostov victims of fire.” They were then immediately photographed and arrested on charges of “preparing a revolution”.

That same day, around the country, followers of nationalist opposition politician Vyacheslav Maltsev had gathered in public spaces for what he promised was a “revolution” – regime change via spontaneous protests on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Prosecutors, drawing on evidence by “Center E”, accused Mordasov and Sidorov of being members of Maltsev’s Artpodgotovka movement, and claimed they were involved in “preparing a revolution” on the Telegram social media app.

At the trial, Mordasov retracted his confession statement, claiming that he had given it under torture. According to him, a gas mask was pulled over his face and he was not allowed to breathe. An employee of “Center E”, officer Krasnokutsky, then beat Mordasov, the young man said.

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Yan Sidorov in court | Image: Polina Efimova

Two years after the events, Mordasov was sentenced to six years and seven months in prison, Yan Sidorov received six years and six months. A third defendant, Vyacheslav Shashmin, received three years probation.

Both Mordasov and Sidorov made official complaints about torture to Russia’s Investigative Committee, but no criminal investigation was opened into the officers’ actions. Speaking after the trial, defence counsel Marietta Arutunyan stated that six witnesses had claimed in court that her clients had been forced to sign confessions.

The Memorial Human Rights Center and Amnesty International have both recognised Mordasov and Sidorov as political prisoners.

“They are ruining the city”

Fires in Rostov’s historic neighbourhoods have become commonplace in the years since the Mordasov and Sidorov case, with many locals believing they are being started to clear land for constructing multi-storey apartment blocks. In 2017, one of Rostov’s largest and most-loved parks, Aleksandrovskaya Grove, was torn down to make way for new multi-storey apartment blocks, provoking protests in the city. Indeed, Anastasiya Shevchenko picketed the planned construction, drawing the attention of local law enforcement in the process.

“They are ruining the city, destroying its historical appearance,” says activist Elena Mishenina, a member of the Open Russia movement. “New buildings, constant traffic jams, inability to solve waste collection and recycling problems. All of these are the ‘achievements’ of current governor Vasily Golubev and his team.”

Anastasia Shevchenko

Anastasia Shevchenko was placed under administrative arrest twice (for being involved in a public political debate and running an election school) before being placed under house arrest in 2019. She was then criminally charged for her membership of the Open Russia opposition movement, which operates legally in Russia, but has no formal connection to a similarly named organisation in the UK founded by exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The latter was deemed an “undesirable organisation” in Russia in 2017, and was therefore banned from operating in the country.

After Shevchenko was arrested in 2019, her allies retreated from the public sphere. They prefer not to talk about their participation in the work of Open Russia. For members of other opposition movements in the city, the case against Shevchenko became another sign of intensifying repression.

“I realised that I was being watched when I made a critical post online about the Olympic flame, which was supposed to be delivered to Rostov. There was insanity for many months, and even more money was stolen, instead of training athletes. The police immediately visited my home to inform me that I was in danger of violating the law,” said activist Boris Papayan.

“My mobile phone is being tapped,” he claimed. “Once I decided to check how it works. I agreed to meet someone and sent an acquaintance with my phone instead. He took a long route, and I got to the meeting place early. After a while, a counter-extremism officer whom I recognised appeared, and what must have been a trainee officer nearby, too.”

By all accounts, the counter-extremism centre has a database of oppositionists. “I can definitely remember that activists have been under surveillance here since 2015,” says Elena Mishenina, who was not involved in political activity before then.

“At sanctioned protests, officers video and photograph all participants, every time. In 2015, the police tried to demand citizens hand over their passports so they could write their personal information down. But activists here have become more literate, now they refuse to show their passports.

“Law enforcement comes even when we change the location of a rally. They have access to mobile phone operators’ databases, and identify activists’ locations using that data.”

“The rats, the rats are coming!”

The recent nationwide protests in support of opposition politician Alexey Navalny, who last month returned to Russia after being poisoned in August 2020, have also found supporters in Rostov, which held its largest rally of the past decade on 23 January.

According to the city’s branch of Navalny’s anti-corruption movement, 4,000 people attended the rally – which was meant to be held outside the state public library, a traditional site for public protests, and one that is legally protected by regional legislation.

Footage from 23 January protest in Rostov. Source: Rostov Today

However, when protesters arrived on 23 January, they found the square outside the library blocked off – and a large group of what appeared to be public works employees sweeping snow nearby. As it turned out, these men in hi-vis jackets seemed to be identifying activists in the crowd, so that police could detain them.

One of the activists identified was 84-year-old Lidia Olshankaya, who had previously taken up single pickets in support of Anastasia Shevchenko, as well as Vlad Mordasov and Yan Sidorov.

23 January protest

Prior to the 23 January rally, counter-extremism officers arrested several prominent local activists, including Tatyana Sporysheva, a supporter of Alexey Navalny, Valeria Dzboyeva and Ksenia Seredkina, both members of the local branch of Navalny’s movement.

“They tried to break open my fingers to take my phone off me,” said Sporysheva about her arrest. “When I arrived at the police station, a counter-extremism officer started beating me in the back with his knees.”

After Valeria Dzboyeva was arrested, she was transferred to a detention facility some 80 kilometres away, where she spent ten days under administrative arrest.

When Ksenia Seredkina, a mother of a young child, was released from three days administrative arrest in connection with the unsanctioned protest, she was immediately arrested and placed in jail for a further eight days.

“Before the rally, police officers came to my home twice, and tried to hand me written warnings, but I didn’t accept them,” Olshanskaya said.

“I told them that I’m an adult and I know what I’m doing. I think that if you have something to say, then you should say it. The authorities are bringing out a huge number of laws that remove our rights. And the counter-extremism police are digging through our social media pages, placing agent provocateurs there. That’s not about catching terrorists.”

“We rebuilt Rostov after the war. The leaders, ordinary people were all together. And now they are cutting down pines near our house to build 20-storey buildings”

Olshanskaya was detained as soon as she arrived at the square, and was placed in a special detention facility, then court – where she was kept until midnight and fined 11,000 roubles (£100). Activists Irina and Olga Zenina were also arrested, and were fined 10,000 roubles.

“The police report has no information to suggest that Olshanskaya, nor the Zenina sister did not fulfill the police officer’s demands,” says Irina Gak, lawyer for Olshanskaya and the Zenina sisters. “At the police station, the officers used the same report for everyone, only filling in their addresses.”

Yulia Morozova, a physical education teacher in the city, served 10 days for taking part in a picket on 31 January, the second nationwide protest in support of Alexey Navalny – and was detained again as soon as she left the detention centre. Counter-extremism officers were looking for evidence on her and identified her in another photo from the 23 January protest – the main evidence in another charge that put her under administrative arrest for a further seven days.

“I knew I was being photographed by the counter-extremism officers because everyone around me was shouting slogans, and then a few men were walking along silently with cameras, filming everything,” Morozova says. “Then some space emerged around them, and everyone started shouting: ‘The rats, the rats are coming!’”

Irina Gak, who also represents Yulia Morozova, says that her client has been charged with hindering the movement of public transport, but notes that the regional government has put in place special laws to protect the area around the state library for public discussion. “We all too well understand that there won’t be a just court hearing in the country. The courts are violating laws, issuing decisions that go against legislation, and don’t notice procedural violations.”

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Rostov-on-Don | CC BY 2.0 o.did / Flickr. Some rights reserved

In protest against the court’s decision, Morozova started a hunger strike.

“When my daughter went on a hunger strike, I thought I was going to die,” says Tatiana Termolaeva, Morozova’s mother. “I could barely calm myself. I see how my children’s hearts ache over everything that is happening. We rebuilt Rostov after the war. The leaders, ordinary people were all together. And now they are cutting down pines near our house to build 20-storey buildings. I am a builder by profession and I see how the city is being disfigured. Everything is boiling inside me.”

Despite a serious illness, Tatyana Termolaeva goes to visit her daughter in the special detention center. “Once I stood in the cold for several hours to hand over a warm jacket to my daughter. The warden went out and began to scoff that he would not take it. I had to beg him,” Termolaeva said.

Activist Elena Mishenina says that Rostov’s city and regional authorities are “heating up protest moods” with their actions.

“Residents are becoming impoverished, the level of election fraud is growing. Repression does not suppress protests, they just ‘conserve’ them - like boiling water in a sealed tank.”

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