Artem Bystrov, who had to flee Russia to escape a fabricate prosecution. Source: Vkontakte.
In April 2011, a group of anti-fascists in Nizhny Novgorod were charged with creating an “extremist organisation” and conspiring to prepare a coup d’état. Not a single one of them was ever sentenced in court, and all but two defendants were later amnestied. But now, after the final defendants have received political asylum abroad, it’s time to talk about what happened in the “Antifa-RASH” case.
Indeed, this case sheds light on how Russian law enforcement fabricates criminal prosecutions – and the events of January-February 2018, when several anti-fascists were abducted and then brutally tortured by the Russian security services. You can read a minute-by-minute description of what happened to one of the activists here. The pretext in 2018 was sadly familiar: alleged participation in a “terrorist organisation” and conspiracy to conduct a coup d’état.
I spoke to Artem Bystrov, one of the Nizhny Novgorod activists, about the 2011 case and life on the run.
“Free for a while”
The strange name “Antifa-RASH” was concocted by operatives of Nizhny Novgorod’s Counter-Extremism (“Center E”) department, who conducted searches in the apartments of five anti-fascists in 2011. According to the investigation, this was the name of an extremist group that attacked Nazis and football fans while simultaneously laying the groundwork for an armed coup. Error-riddled “membership cards” allegedly found during these searches were produced as evidence, together with an charter for the organisation “discovered” by investigators on a seized computer.
The name of the exposed extremist grouping is absurd in and of itself. Not only does it sound like a tautology (RASH is an acronym for Red and Anarchist Skinheads, that is, a grouping of non-racist skinheads united by left-wing views), but the counter-extremism officers didn’t even spell the name right in English on the cards.
These “membership cards” became a fully-fledged meme on the Russian internet, but they were by no means the only evidence that the case had been crudely cobbled together. There were eye-witness taxi-drivers, attesting-witness soldiers, aggrieved parties who admitted that they’d testified under torture – the entire gamut of Russian justice in its most repulsive guise. But even Russian judicial system didn’t hurry to return a verdict in a case that had provoked a scandal across half of Europe. The Antifa-RASH case was monitored by the Russian national press, while solidarity rallies were held in the UK and Poland.
The “membership cards” for the fabricated "Antifa-RASH" organisation.
Eventually, in December 2013, three of the anti-fascists – Pavel Krivonosov, Oleg Gembaruk and Dmitry Kolesov – were amnestied in advance of the Sochi Winter Olympics. By this time, the case had practically collapsed, with the defendants facing a sole remaining charge – that of hooliganism. The amnesty, by all appearances, was welcomed by all parties: the three defendants, the defeated prosecutor’s office, and the court itself, now wearied of pointing out to the prosecution that multiple violations had been committed on their part.
But for Albert Gainutdinov and Artyom Bystrov, the case wasn’t over. Gainutdinov and Artyom Bystrov, the alleged leaders of the group, fled the country before legal proceedings began and were not covered by the amnesty – they’d been put on the federal wanted list. The pair lived in Ukraine for over five years, trying in vain to secure political refugee status. It was only in October 2017 that they were granted residence permits abroad. Bystrov agreed to talk to me about his flight from Russia and his life abroad on the condition that he wouldn’t name the country where he’s currently residing.
Bystrov was the only member of the mythical group to be placed under house arrest. His co-defendants were placed under travel restrictions. Center E’s bête noire Gainutdinov, who published (among other things) information defaming the counter-extremist agency on his streetmob.org website, was out of town while the searches were taking place. After the arrests, Albert lived in Moscow for a time before leaving for Ukraine.
Ahead of the preliminary hearings in March 2012, Bystrov decided to follow his associate’s example. His disappearance came as a surprise not only for the court and the prosecutor’s office, but for his closest friends as well.
“My lawyer once said that, formally speaking, the house arrest period lasts only as long as the investigation. Between the referral of the case to court and the hearing, I’d supposedly be able to ‘go free for a while’. And so I did just that,” Bystrov recalls.
Bystrov maintains he didn’t particularly hesitate with this decision. The anti-fascist is convinced that, even if he had been found not guilty, he wouldn’t have been left to live in peace in his hometown. Center E operatives and FSB personnel, who’d pressured him to collaborate, had hinted as much.
All legal recourse
“Since I’d no plans to travel abroad before my arrest, I didn’t get myself an external passport,” says the fugitive. “Of the ‘near-abroad’ countries I could enter on my internal passport, I ended up choosing Ukraine. Crossing the Belarusian-Ukrainian border, I wasn’t sure they’d let me through, though the risk of an info leak had been minimised. In the end I got to Kiev without a problem.”
The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs ascertained Bystrov’s approximate whereabouts relatively quickly, but, for all the scheming of Russian law enforcement, they didn’t succeed in returning him to Russia. Bystrov says he has seen a extradition query sent by Russian police to their colleagues in Ukraine. This query presented the anti-fascist as an individual who’d been accused under the “hooliganism” article of the Criminal Code (no mention is made of the anti-extremist Article 282, under which deportation from Ukraine is not stipulated) and who’d escaped arrest (Bystrov was under house arrest).
Bystrov recalls that during the reign of Yanukovych, when the two countries’ respective law enforcement agencies were actively cooperating together, he always erred on the side of caution, communicating only with a small circle of people, never revealing his location to anyone and encrypting all his online correspondence.
“I entered the country legally on a three-month permit,” Bystrov explains. “I applied for asylum in Ukraine and, when my application was rejected, I explained my situation to the UN and simultaneously contested the decision of the Ukrainian State Migration Service, which allowed me to continue residing in the country on a legal basis. Despite my status, however, I remained cautious: Russian nationals in analogous situations would sometimes be dispatched to Ukrainian detention centres until the facts of the case were clarified, or else abducted and taken back to Russia – only to end up in prison once again.”
Artyom exhausted all legal recourse for getting the Ukrainian migration service’s decision revoked. But then came EuroMaidan and a change of regime, which allowed him to apply for asylum once again. To no avail, however: in the second half of 2014, Bystrov was asked to leave Ukraine. He lived in Kyiv illegally for a time before obtaining a residency permit in another country.
Despite these circumstances, Bystrov managed to find work and avoided tangling with the local police.
“There was work to be had in Kiev. If you looked for it, you’d find it,” the anti-fascist explains. “There’s always a risk that certain ‘responsible citizens’ among your colleagues might share their suspicions with law enforcement operatives, but if you’re really up against it you run the risk. Naturally enough, there’s a lot less choice when you’ve no documents, and you’ve always got to have one or two options up your sleeve.”
Bystrov recalls that the popularity enjoyed by the ultra-right took him aback even in the first few months of his time in Kyiv. He was particularly alarmed by the fact that the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) Party managed to garner 10% of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections.
The flight of president Viktor Yanukovych, lustration and the wave of euphoria that swept the country in the wake of the Maidan victory all conspired to raise Bystrov’s hopes. He stopped hiding himself away from the local authorities, got married, secured a business grant. He started working in a hardware store owned by a Syrian refugee he met through the UN. In 2015, after the UN gave him a grant, he opened his own electronics department in the store.
The rapidly developing events in Crimea and Donbass in 2014 brought new risks. He contemplated relocating to Crimea, where his wife was born, but Russia’s annexation of the peninsula made this impossible.
Artem Bystrov and a comrade in Ukraine. Source: Vkontakte.
“Once the migration service had definitively refused to renew my residence permit, all I had left document-wise was my internal passport and a Russian military service card, which would’ve aroused considerable suspicion if I’d happened to have them on me during a street check. Also, even five years down the line, people would frequently pick up on my Russian accent. Propaganda was doing its work among the population while yesterday’s Nazi-style criminals and bandits were handed power, epaulettes and weapons. That, in addition to policies of decommunisation and de-Russification and an escalation of hostilities, meant there was very good reason to start being as cautious as possible once again.”
Bystrov’s status was ambiguous. Despite being an undocumented migrant, he couldn’t be deported – he was, after all, under UN protection. And where could he have been deported, what with the country fighting an undeclared war with Russia? Bystrov didn’t rule out the possibility of being placed in a detention facility and then exchanged for Ukrainian POWs, but it never came to that.
“The UN are really doing substantial work in Ukraine,” Bystrov continues. “They supported me financially, legally and morally throughout my five years there, from the word go to the moment I was resettled. I can’t say the same about the migration service – it’s poorly funded, by the looks of things, and this is impacting the quality of its work. Many’s the time I spent all day in the queue, only to be turned away. The constant turnover and shortage of staff, a lack of translators (even from English), a lack of photocopies – all these bureaucratic delights await people who have enough life problems as it is.”
The Ukrainian state failed to provide him, an asylum seeker, with any temporary accommodation. Bystrov was forced to rent apartments and stay in hostels; early on, when money was particularly tight, he even spent some time living in a garage.
In January 2017, following a threefold government tax hike, Bystrov was forced to shut down his department in the store. But he didn’t have to fret over this for long. The spring brought him good news: he’d be able to relocate to a new country, which meant an end to his years-long battle to obtain a Ukrainian permanent residence permit.
A host of countries denied the anti-fascist entry without offering any justification for doing so. But Bystrov himself believes they were put off by his “hooliganism” charge and his radical left convictions, which first-world countries find “unpalatable”.
Had Artyom remained in Nizhny Novgorod in 2011, it’s quite possible that he too would have been amnestied two years later. But the anti-fascist himself doesn’t think along these lines, regarding his destiny as only logical. The city’s Center E, taking on the role of a modern political police, tried its utmost to purge the entire protest-inclined electorate, from the extreme left to the extreme right. Activists from provincial cities with traditionally sky-high levels of proizvol (lawlessness and abuse of power) had it particularly bad. Unsurprising, then, that the anti-extremists eventually got to the radical leftists, Bystrov included.
Fully cognizant of the sheer absurdity of his case – all those paper “membership cards”, the victims beaten up by Center E operatives, the strange witnesses – he looks back at it without regret, unphased by his fate: “I regret nothing. If anyone’s waiting for me to express remorse and regret about my ‘wasted youth’, they can carry on waiting. Enemies remain just that: enemies. As I see it, an amnesty entails leniency to convicts or defendants. Asking to be forgiven for fabricated crimes is something I find humiliating.”
A little more than one presidential term has elapsed since Bystrov’s high-profile detention in April 2011. During this time, the personnel strength of Nizhny Novgorod’s Center E has changed dramatically. As far as we know, however, none of the operatives involved in the case of the Nizhny Novgorod anti-fascists left their posts in the wake of inspections by the Prosecutor’s Office and the Internal Security Directorate, despite the fact that the just-mentioned agencies had been receiving torture-related complaints. In 2017, the European Court of Human Rights found that Nikita Danishkin, another resident of Nizhny Novgorod, had been subjected to torture and awarded him compensation worth 20,000 euros. He was tortured in 2010 by operatives of that selfsame Center E, who forced him to confess that he’d been hatching plans to commit a terrorist act.
But Colonel Alexey Trifonov, head of Nizhny Novgorod’s Center E, remains unsinkable. In May 2017, The Insider traced out the links between Trifonov and provocateurs who splashed liberal activists with zelyonka (brilliant green ink). Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who’d come to Nizhny Novgorod to visit a women’s penal colony, were subjected to just such an attack.
In a statement on its website about the incident, the human rights organisation Zona Prava (Justice Zone) asserts that “at least two Ministry of Internal Affairs officials, Vasily Stepnov and Alexey Trifonov, played a part in organising or backing the attack.”
There have been no high-profile cases against Nizhny Novgorod anti-fascists following the failure of the Antifa-RASH operation. According to local activists, however, Center E occasionally makes its presence felt by staging minor provocations, predominantly involving the disruption of music concerts and festivals. What purpose does this serve? Nobody knows exactly. Perhaps it’s a way of “preventing extremism” among Russian youth. As Nizhny Novgorod residents who’ve been subjected to such “preventative checks” make clear, the destinies of Bystrov and Gainutdinov remain a subject of interest for Center E.
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