Stanislav Markelov: the situation of political prisoners in Russia

Since the late 1990s, Russia has seen an increasing rise in the number of terrorism cases - both real and fabricated. Lawyer Stanislav Markelov, in this 2006 article, reflects on the changing nature of the concept of political prisoner, and his own advocacy.

Stanislav Markelov
18 January 2019, 12.01am
Stanislav Markelov
Source: YouTube / Grani

On 19 January 2009, Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova were murdered in downtown Moscow. These killings rocked Russia, as it became clear that they were the latest in a campaign of unprecedented Neo-Nazi violence against migrant workers and anti-fascists. Markelov, a human rights lawyer, activist and anti-fascist, had, by that time, become a prominent public speaker on political repression and anti-fascism. Baburova was a young journalist with Novaya Gazeta, and involved in anarchist activism.

As part of oDR’s series of translations of texts by Stanislav Markelov, we present his reflections on the changing concept and status of political prisoners in Russia, the challenges that lawyers face in these cases, and the overall growth of terrorism offences, both real and fabricated, in the country since the late 1990s.

This article was presented by the author at the conference “Prison: research as a method of struggle (Russia and France, 1970s and 2000s)”, held in Paris, September 2006.


While this article does not claim to cover the situation of political prisoners in Russia fully, I would like to highlight a number of issues and aspects which have not yet been studied or considered as separate phenomena in their own right. A new wave of political prisoners in Russia emerged during that very period when the [Soviet-era] slogan “Free Political Prisoners” seemed to have been fully realised. At the same time, the issue of how to deal with those fighters against the [new] regime who embarked on a course of concrete actions and did not merely spout demagogic slogans and attend countless demonstrations, was completely ignored by the human rights community.

People who fought against Soviet power have stubbornly refused to recognise the equal status of those who call themselves liberals and democrats and are now struggling against the authorities today.

On the other hand, the socio-political situation itself in Russia [during the 1990s] propelled the most opposition-minded youth to direct action, which the authorities perceived as terrorism. Any other form of political activity proved either meaningless or ineffective. Legal elections, rallies, demonstrations and activities of the official opposition parties amounted to a mere “letting off of steam”, whereas more radical actions - such as strikes, blocking roads and so on - were unable to influence the social situation in Russia during the economic decline of the 1990s.

That it was enough to organise a small explosion and that the whole country would hear about it, while any other actions would sink into obscurity, pushed Andrey Sokolov, the first person to be accused of terrorism in post-Soviet Russia, to carry out a symbolic act - the explosion at the empty tombstone of Nikolai II at Moscow’s Vagankovo Cemetery in 1997.

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It was symptomatic that, in reaction to these acts of “symbolic terrorism”, the Russian authorities responded with all too real repressions

Sokolov’s case became emblematic not only for being the first terrorism case in Russia, but also indicative of a new phenomenon of “symbolic terrorism”. In “symbolic terrorism” the object attacked is not some public figure, nor some administrative or economically significant target, but a symbol. Likewise, the “terrorist attack” bears an exclusively symbolic character. Sokolov’s bomb caused a fracture on the tombstone of no more than 50cm.

Following the Sokolov case, the case of the NRA (New Revolutionary Alternative) became the blueprint for this symbolic terrorism: explosions at the monuments of Nikolai II in the village of Tayninskoye and in Podolsk; minor, victimless blasts at the buildings of a military court, a military recruitment office, the military prosecutor’s office and at the “vertical” state-sanctioned trade union offices and finally, the crowning feat of “symbolic terrorism” was the bomb attack in the lobby of the Federal Security Service (FSB) offices in Kuznetsky Most, which was carried out in defence of political prisoners.

It was symptomatic that, in reaction to these acts of “symbolic terrorism”, the Russian authorities responded with all too real repressions. Andrey Sokolov faced 20 years of imprisonment for a 50-centimetre crack in Nikolai II’s tombstone, and he spent three years in detention before the court finally cleared him of terrorism charges and ordered his release. The female members of the NRA (as in the European left tradition, the members of “terrorist" organizations were mainly female) received heavy sentences and one of them, Olga Nevskaya, is still incarcerated.

The end of the 1990s was characterised by the spread of similar actions in other Russian regions. In this regard, undoubtedly, it is the “Krasnodar affair” that stands out.

In response to yet another allegedly uncovered plan for a demonstrative explosion at the Krasnodar regional administration building, all law enforcement agencies joined forces to arrest all suspects and participants, with unprecedented administrative pressure being used. The Krasnodar governor at the time, Nikolay Kondratenko, officially declared before the trial that the accused wanted to blow him up “with funding from Zionist centres”. The lawyer of the accused was under open surveillance, and this surveillance data even came up in the criminal case, with new investigative actions carried out as a result.

The Krasnodar case was also important in terms of the outcome of “cooperating with the investigation” as it’s called. Gennady Nepshikuyev, the only one among the accused who agreed to collaborate with investigators, incurred the most severe punishment and remained in custody the longest. Nepshikuyev’s situation became a model for what happens when a person confesses and cooperates with the investigation - they are deprived of most opportunities to defend themselves, they become a “pariah” in their own community and turn into a puppet in the hands of the investigators. When the criminal case comes to an end, this person no longer holds any interest for the law enforcement authorities who are, accordingly, unconcerned about their fate.

Documentary film about the "Krasnodar Case". Source: AnarkhVideo / Vyacheslav Yashchenko.

Terrorism-related cases have also been marked by unprecedented methods of duress put on lawyers and defendants. In addition to the use of overt surveillance, there have also been instances of denunciations against lawyers, open refusals to allow lawyers to study case materials before court proceedings, administrative proceedings instituted against the lawyers alongside other means of exerting pressure upon them.

The most elaborate way of removing lawyers from cases has been to detain them and attempt to question them as witnesses in a case where they were contracted to act on behalf of a potential defendant. For example, the client (Larisa Shchiptsova-Romanova in the New Revolutionary Alternative case) was detained after their lawyer (Stanislav Markelov) was questioned, thus preventing the lawyer from performing his functions - he now has the status of a witness. While it is possible to appeal this practice of forcibly "making lawyers witnesses", the result in court is all too foreseeable. Given that the pool of lawyers working in terrorism-related cases is rather limited, this practice is a very effective one.

The end of the 1990s was also marked by the phenomenon of pseudo-terrorism. In contrast to symbolic terrorism, in these cases terrorist activities were thought up in order to mask other criminal activities. In conditions where the status of political prisoner is not firmly established, if you are held in the FSB investigative detention centre at Lefortovo, where all terrorism suspects are held, you can find yourself treated better than at other detention centres. You can expect help from the would-be ideological support group, and so it becomes highly convenient to cloak criminal activity with political slogans.

The most exemplary case of this kind is the “Revolutionary Military Council” (RVC), headed by Igor Gubkin. In the mid 1990s, a financial pyramid scheme called the “Youth Housing Complex” (MZhK) was created. Everyone who took part was promised an apartment in exchange for minimal financial contributions. When the scheme went bust, it proved to be much more advantageous to be a persecuted political prisoner than an ordinary financial fraudster. In light of this, the RVC mined the monument to Peter the Great in Moscow. Admittedly nothing was actually blown up, although they declared that the monument had been “blown up metaphorically”. Instead of purely criminal charges being brought, the RVC case was primarily dealt with according to charges of terrorist activities.

The early 2000s would probably have led to the outbreak of a second wave of radical left terrorism - and it was unlikely to have been of a symbolic nature. However, it was at this moment that the Chechen conflict once again flared up, and, in the public mind, any terrorist or quasi-terrorist act was firmly associated with Chechen terrorists. At the same time, unlike in western Europe there was no evidence of interaction between national and radical left terrorist groups. It is possible that this was due to Chechen and North Caucasian terrorism beginning to drift ideologically towards radical Islamism. The combination of national and religious characteristics led to fanaticism among the rank and file of the radical groups and to an incomparably greater professionalism in their technical expertise, organisation, training, discipline and leadership.

The reasons for the constant replenishment of cadres of the terrorist groups in the North Caucasus can be found in the absolute corruption of local government, the brutality of the federal forces and social misery generating a sense of hopelessness. The dominant impulses can be found in comments like “It’s better that I should die as a hero, than be slaughtered like a sheep”, “in any case they already think of us as terrorists”, “there is no prospect here anyway, there is nothing left to do but to fight”. For the local population, the insurgent became a symbol of someone capable of resisting, ready to defend their honour and their land from an external enemy. Later the motivation of faith was added to these factors, albeit one not necessarily underpinned by any serious religious dogmas. For the majority of the rank and file participants, the opposition between the unclean (kafir/munafiq) and the pure warriors of the jihad sufficed. At the same time, the corruption of the authorities, the illiteracy of the clergy, and the constant violence of official power structures only reinforced this opposition.

In recent years, this motivation has become increasingly vague, given the general “Chechenisation” of the conflict. Now the level of animosity in the population has spread and is directed not only against the federal forces, but also against the insurgents and the Chechen formations under the federal chain of command. The fanaticism of the insurgents led to their confrontation with a section of Chechen society. In this regard, it is interesting how the Chechens themselves characterise the insurgents as “people with glass eyes”. At the same time, the dwindling possibilities that insurgents have of carrying out purely combat operations determines their focus on terrorist acts.

To date, the level of terrorist threat in a number of North Caucasus republics is higher than in Chechnya. This seemingly paradoxical statement is explained by the fact that in Chechnya, the wellsprings of war have already dried up, the number of working-age men has decreased catastrophically, the mood “we are tired of fighting” reigns everywhere, while social apathy and the desire “just to survive” prevails in society. The fact that the acute level of violence and destruction in Chechnya had already come to a head plays no small part in this. This had been the case in the early 2000s and, despite extreme levels of violence in society, the social situation in Chechnya now appears far brighter. Against this backdrop, tensions in the other republics of the North Caucasus are on the verge of a situation where “there is no other outcome but violence”, thus creating the most fertile ground for terrorism.

The reason for the explosive growth in the number of cases related to nationalism, of course, is that the Russian government is trying, at all costs, to shift a growing protest mood onto ethnic grounds, fearing any displays of uncontrolled social protest actions

The practice of punitive justice in Chechnya, where any person finding themselves on law enforcements’ radar are declared insurgents and terrorists has created the opposite effect. Many who had been caught up in general “sweep” operations began to position themselves as ideological Wahhabis and national radicals when in prison. A psychological pattern occurs when a person, subjected to persecution for some putative ideology, is then unwittingly inspired with a certain sympathy for it and becomes its follower. Recently, this pattern of induced Wahhabism has been actively spreading throughout Chechnya where the authorities have been using repressive measures against Islamists (the Nalchik case; persecution of representatives of the Islamic Party of Hizb ut-Tahrir in various regions and so on).

The situation with political prisoners in Chechnya has its own specific characteristics, connected to the so-called amnesty. Having officially declared an amnesty, the Russian government did not provide any mechanisms for carrying it out. As a consequence, the implementation (or non-implementation) of this amnesty was exclusively in the hands of the pro-federal Chechen military administration, namely the “Kadyrovites”. It has become common practice that if a former insurgent goes over to the Kadyrov armed groups, he is granted amnesty regardless of what crimes he may have committed, whereas if he refuses, he is officially declared an outlaw, rather than a member of an illegal armed group. The amnesty is therefore not applied and this person is given a long jail sentence.

One of the most revealing cases in this regard is Zaur Musikhanov, who joined an illegal armed formation because, as he explained “my family and I buried eight of our dead on a single day. They were killed when sitting in a basement, eight killed and seven injured. There are hundreds, thousands of such cases in Chechnya.” Musikhanov had been part of an illegal armed formation for around two months, he had not taken part in any armed confrontation, and then buried his machine gun and surrendered after a short time. However, he also refused to join the ranks of the “Kadyrovites”. Clearly, in light of the latter circumstance, he was declared an outlaw and sentenced to 11 years imprisonment. Russia’s Supreme Court, as well the lower courts, refused point blank to consider the question of applying the amnesty in his case - they did not want even to mention this request in their judgment. The Musikhanov case is probably the only criminal case where the fact of refusal to implement the amnesty is documented, and it is a very striking example of the particular aspects of the emergence of people being forced to become political prisoners in the Chechen Republic.

It is interesting to compare the situation of political prisoners from Chechnya with the growing number of those convicted of nationalist activities in Russia’s central regions. Despite the apparent incompatibility of these phenomena, it is the Chechen threat that constantly fuels the nationalist and skinhead movements. The cardinal difference between this category of convicts is that in fact they are actually not accused of committing terrorist acts, but pogroms. The very fact that Russia’s far-right are involved in pogroms very clearly shows its commonalities with similar movements in Europe. It is interesting to note that forces acting from a Russian nationalist position fully replicate the pattern of European far-right groups.

The difference between the criminal right-wing movement in Russia and the European situation is related to the ideological environment which has formed around them. Patriotism and an insistence on Russia’s great power status, which now being promoted and imposed as the official ideology in Russia, immediately takes on a nationalistic character and one of aggressive xenophobia descending and taking root in society.

A vivid illustration of this is the case of the racially motivated murder of an Afghan man, Kh. Khakrezi, which was notable for the fact that a few days previously, his son, who was half Afghan and a resident of Moscow’s working-class suburbs, came home announcing that he wanted to become a skinhead and a Russian nationalist. This kind of incident, reflecting the explosive growth of the nationalist movement, is also associated with the absence of any ideological values opposed to nationalism. Internationalist positions are not common among any significant political forces in Russia, and internationalism is now effectively considered taboo. In their opposition to criminal nationalism, liberals have only been capable of producing slogans such as “soft” or enlightened patriotism. In this situation, it is obvious to assume an increase in crimes on national grounds, and evidently, an increase in the number of prisoners who commit crimes based on motivations of racial and national prejudice.

The reason for the explosive growth in the number of cases related to nationalism, of course, is that the Russian government is trying, at all costs, to shift a growing protest mood onto ethnic grounds, fearing any displays of uncontrolled social protest actions. In this new situation, we see criminal investigations into attacks by Neo-Nazi gangs against anti-fascist activists. The most dramatic event was the murder in St Petersburg of a radical left and anti-fascist activist, Timur Kacharava. Recognising the contentious issue of classifying persons convicted of such crimes as political prisoners, the sharp increase in the number of these cases must be attributed to a rise of political aggression in society as a whole, and the ensuing general politicisation of a section of prisoners in Russian prisons.

The radicalisation of attitudes mainly among young people and the use of punitive law enforcement measures is very clearly shown in numerous cases related to the National Bolshevik Party. The focus of politicised youth on direct action, regardless of their ideological colour, provokes the same reactions from the authorities as the actions of left-wing radicals in the 1990s. Purely demonstrative actions become the pretext for very substantial repression, which enhances the reputation of the National Bolsheviks as a radical, and most effective, force of the opposition. At the same time, there emerges a whole cohort of young people who have experience of prison, and opposing the government, and are ready to accept any ideas as long as they are irreconcilably opposed to the existing order.

The fact that the National Bolshevik phenomenon is no exception is indicated by the activity of Communist militants from the AKM (The Vanguard of Red Youth), who have adopted the same practice of direct action, and are generating its own ideological romanticism of opposing a repressive system.

Unfortunately, we have to state that even a brief review of the current situation of political prisoners in contemporary Russia gives us reason to believe that this category of prisoners will only continue to grow. We can come to this conclusion given the many reasons for the radicalisation of politicised social movements, the expulsion of any protest activity from the sphere of legal politics, and the firmly established conception of official political processes as determined by the authorities, which cannot be influenced solely by legal methods. The marginalisation of political activity leads to repressive actions, which generates political prisoners as a social and legal phenomenon in itself.

Translated by Giuliano Vivaldi.

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