On 30 March 2015, Aleksandr Byvshev, a schoolteacher from Russia's Oryol region, went on trial, accused of 'extremism' for writing a poem opposing the annexation of Crimea one year ago.
If Byvshev is found guilty, he could face a four year prison sentence. But that is not his only problem. After a denunciation on national TV by the chair of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee, Byshev has not only been pilloried in the press, but has even received a death threat in the mail. Indeed, as the propaganda machine whips up accusations of conspiracy and treachery, Byvshev has acquired all the hallmarks of a pariah. But as Byvshev's trial goes ahead (with significantly less press coverage) in a small town just south of Oryol, there's room for hope – and despair – when it comes to justice in Russia.
'Sabotage against Russia'
Aleksandr Byvshev lives in the village of Kromy (pop. 6,838) in the region of Oryol, in the southwest of European Russia. If you believe Wikipedia, Byvshev, the author of three published poetry collections, is the only famous person ever to be born there.
A year ago, Byvshev taught German in the local school – again, the only person in the village qualified to do so. This academic year, pupils are no longer able to study German: Byvshev was sacked in August 2014 for writing the lines: 'Not an inch of Crimea to Putin's goons / Tolls the tocsin in wounded hearts.'
Aleksandr Byvshev. Courtesy of the author.
‘I was taught not to lie as a child’, Aleksandr tells me. 'If Russia seizes Crimea from Ukraine, then we have to use the word "seized", not euphemisms about "historic reunification" and lies about Stepan Bandera followers planning to come and massacre the entire population.'
On 1 March 2014, at the height of the annexation campaign, a poem written in Ukrainian and entitled ‘To Ukrainian Patriots’ appeared on Byvshev’s VKontakte social media page. It read as follows:
An unknown special forces guy appeared there.
(Not a squeak from the Kremlin about ‘secret aliens’).
‘Not an inch of Crimea to Putin’s goons’,
Tolls the tocsin in wounded hearts.
As you meet the Muscovite thugs,
Answer them as Bandera did:
‘Let the invaders choke in their blood!’
The only way to deal with the scum.
Greet the foe as your forefathers did,
Don’t let an alien boot on your soil.
Make them eat lead porridge,
And God keep you in your deadly fight!
It’s early to put your bullets away,
Russia threatens a battle march.
May Shukhevych’s spirit live on in you!
And let the Lord lead you on!
On 14 April 2014, a local Kromy newspaper printed an article about Byvshev under the headline: 'Russia has no room for patriots like this!'
'In an unquiet time,' the article reads, 'when our external enemies have bared their teeth and have hunkered down, ready for a deadly attack, there are people ready to undermine our country from the inside. One of these people is Aleksandr Byvshev ... This poem, written by a Russian, expresses full support for Ukraine’s desire to make advances to Europe. The horrors of fascism – Katyn, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Babii Yar – have evidently been forgotten by our fellow countryman. So deftly the Western media manipulates people’s minds, presenting Russia as an invader to the eyes of the world.'
Although Russia’s Criminal Code prohibits a case being brought against an individual on the basis of an anonymous statement, Byvshev was nevertheless charged under Article 282 ('Incitement to Hatred or Enmity').
No one at the regional police headquarters would comment on this infringement of the law. ‘We sent complaints about the charge to the district and regional courts’, Byvshev’s lawyer Vladimir Suchkov tells me, ‘but they were both ignored’.
The regional officers of Centre E (the special police department charged with conducting the 'war on extremism') began their investigation of the school teacher on 1 April 2014. Here are a few extracts from the report made by the Centre’s chief, Sergei Stebletsov, a man obviously not lacking a sense of humour:
In Room No.173, Police Captain S.N. Stebletsov of the Oryol Regional "Centre E", with the assistance of Ye.V. Polyakov, a staff member of the Oryol Regional "Centre E", completed an operational-investigative exercise, ‘observing’ the personal VKontakte social media page of the individual using the nickname "Aleksandr Byvshev".
The observation took place by means of an office computer plugged into the Internet.
The observation took place in natural daylight and in cloudy weather. [What effect the weather could have had on the operational-investigative exercise is not clear – I.Zh]
The observation consisted of the following actions:
On the computer desk we create a text file entitled 'Screenshots', in which we shall keep the ‘screenshots’ taken in the course of the operational-investigative exercise, with the aid of the 'Print Screen' key on the keyboard.
We opened the 'Google Chrome' browser on the computer’s monitor and then the 'Yandex' search engine and enter 'Vkontakte' in the search box.
On the right hand side of the opened page we see the news stream of the user "Aleksandr Byvshev", which includes a post containing a poem in a language resembling Ukrainian and entitled "To Ukrainian Patriots".'
The officers sent the poem off for linguistic analysis, and were vindicated in their conclusion. The expert assessment carried out by Oryol University lecturer Lyudmila Vlasova concluded that:
'The hostile nature of the poem’s statements regarding Russians is clear from the references to Russia’s state organs and to President Putin ("Not an inch of Crimea to Putin’s goons").
'The said statements contain direct and indirect calls to Ukrainian patriots to carry out the following physical and other actions in relation to the enemy (Russians): to greet the enemy in the same way as their ancestors ('Greet the foe as your forefathers did'); have their arms ready and to hand ('It's early to put your bullets away'); believe that their (Ukrainian) mission is sacred ('And let the Lord lead you on!').
In short, writes Vlasova: 'the text of the poem "To Ukrainian Patriots" contains statements of a derogatory nature about Russians.'
'The poem contains statements of a derogatory nature about Russians.'
On 16 April this report was sent to the Investigative Committee, Russia’s main investigating authority, and a criminal case opened.
The investigators are always right
When Byvshev and his lawyer Vladimir Suchkov received a copy of the accusation statement, they applied to the court for a second linguistic analysis of the poem - they disagreed with Vlasova’s conclusions.
The court granted their application and the poem was sent to the Guild of Linguistic Experts in Documentary and Information Disputes (GLEDIS), whose experts Igor Zharkov, Aleksandr Mamontov and Galina Trofimova analysed the text once again and came to the following conclusions:
'The text in question may be seen as the author’s contribution to a discussion – a free and open debate on subjects of public interest [...] The text contains many statements of various types (factual, judgmental, analytical, generalising) [...] The text contains no statements, which could be read as incitements to hatred or disparagement of individuals or groups on grounds of gender, race, ethnicity, language, origins, religious beliefs (or lack thereof) or membership of a social group.'
In October 2014, the GLEDIS experts’ conclusions were presented to the court. After studying their report, Judge Yelena Gudkova refused to admit it as evidence, thereby accepting the validity of the charge against Byvshev. The poem was declared 'extremist' and Vlasova's report remained the only expert evidence in the case.
Judge Yelena Gudkova refused to admit the second report as evidence.
'Quake at the slightest sound'
On 16 December 2014, Byvshev received an envelope containing an anonymous note through his letterbox. It read:
'On 8 March 1944 all the members of the family of a close friend of mine were savagely tortured by a group of Banderovites in the village of Nova-Brikulya in the Ternopil region of Ukraine. I have spent my life looking for an opportunity to avenge them. And now the moment has arrived. Are you hoping for a humane trial and help from the human rights fifth-columnists? Pray to God that you will live to stand trial. Because you are more likely to hear my sentence first. And my sentence will be a very harsh one. And you will hear it on your knees. For the moment, I am giving you time to say goodbye to your poor old parents. But as you go around, look about you and quake at the slightest sound. I will appear before you without warning, and the time and place of our meeting is still undecided.'
'Pray to God that you will live to stand trial!'
'I have taken the threat seriously,' Aleksandr tells me. 'The envelope was in my letterbox, so someone knows my address. The sender also mentions my parents, both of whom are in poor health, so he knows about my family circumstances. I showed the letter to Sergei Bazhenov, the local Chief of Police, and he promised to look into it, but I'm under no illusions about whether this will happen.'
The Kromy police refuse to comment on the threatening letter.
On 2 February 2015, Aleksei Pushkov, chair of the State Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, discussed Byvshev's case on a TV show on the state-owned TV Tsentr channel.
'We have a new scandal going on with writers like [Ludmila] Ulitskaya, [Viktor] Erofeyev and company. They support the right to express hatred towards our country and extremist declarations such as "Make the Russians eat lead porridge!" This is what Aleksandr Byvshev, a teacher from Oryol, has called for in his poetry.' Byvshev's line, just to remind you, did not mention Russians specifically – it referred to 'enemies' and 'invaders'.
'Prominent writers are supporting the right to hatred in our country.’
The TV show included an item accusing Byvshev of russophobia. 'It's a clinical case,' says Yury Poliakov, editor-in-chief of The Literary Gazette, an influential intellectual publication (if of the old guard), told the interviewer. 'To have such hatred for the country he lives in and whose language he speaks!'
The climax of the show was a misquote from another of Byvshev's poems.
'And here's what Byvshev wrote about the tragedy in Odessa!' announced the programme’s host, referring to the incident in May 2014, when 48 people were killed during a standoff between supporters and opponents of EuroMaidan:
'The only way to kill these pests is with fire,
The beetles burn up quite happily.'
'That poem was written a year before the Ukrainian crisis began,' says Byvshev. 'I wrote it when I was collecting Colorado beetles off my potatoes and set them alight on some newspaper.'
Aleksandr Byvshev's trial began on 30 March. The presiding judge, Margarita Gridneva, has never been involved in a political trial. Prior to the trial, Byvshev and his defence lawyer Vladimir Suchkov were far from optimistic about the outcome: 'I don’t think the case will end in an acquittal, despite the absurdity of the accusations,' Suchkov tells me. 'But the offence he is being charged with doesn’t automatically entail a prison sentence if he’s found guilty; he could get off with a heavy fine, of up to 300,000 roubles [£4,000]. I hope the judge will take into account the fact that his elderly parents depend on him.'
Aleksandr Byvshev himself was less positive: 'I'm prepared for the worst,' he says. 'The punitive machine is already in motion.'
The accusation file on Byvshev is based on the evidence of 43 witnesses. But one is struck by the fact that many witness statements are almost exactly the same, word for word.
Straight to the prosecutor's office
Byvshev's trial is going ahead without much press coverage. There are only two journalists in the courtroom. On the first day, the prosecutor read out the accusation, and on the second, eight witnesses were called – teachers from Kromy's high school, former colleagues of Byvshev. Headteacher Ludmila Agoshkova was the first to take the stand.
'A Crimean patriot sent us Byvshev's poem. He asked himself: “How can this kind of person work in a school?” When I read the poem, I had an immediate negative reaction. I took it immediately to the former prosecutor of our neighbourhood, Maksim Grishin.”
According to Agoshkova, after having read the poem, she organised a survey of her students. She asked them whether Byvshev talked about politics during lessons. One student recalled that their teacher had said 'Putin's really lost it now – invading Crimea' during a lesson.
On 8 May 2014, the school's teachers' council met on the recommendation of the local prosecutor's office. All of Byvshev's colleagues publicly condemned the poem in support of Ukraine.
'I thought that Aleksandr Mikhailovich [Byvshev] was incredibly annoyed that no one stood up for him. After the council meeting, he stood up and said: "My mum is Ukrainian. What do you order us to do?"
Agoshkova couldn't remember neither the poem's content, nor its title: "I read it once, and that was a year ago."
'But what about inciting hatred towards the Russian people, or only towards the state?' the prosecutor inquired.
'Of course, towards the Russian people,' said the headteacher confidently. 'You understand, for us, Putin – especially after the return of Crimea – is someone who has forced Russians to believe in themselves. We felt his power, and his resolve. And when Crimea returned – we all welcomed it: "Crimea is ours!" And it always was ours. And only Byvshev wrote: "Occupiers!"
History teacher Valery Sukhorukov, the second witness, was no less harsh on his colleague. 'I liked Aleksandr Mikhailovich's poems about our town. Then there were some poems with criticism of Putin, Medvedev – I read them too. But those about Ukraine, that was the limit.'
'I noticed his liberal views long ago'
Ludmila Agoshkova's son Aleksandr accused Byvshev of 'russophobia' in court. 'Byvshev and I started arguing fiercely back in 2008, when the conflict in South Ossetia broke out. I'd already noticed Aleksandr Mikhailovich's extreme liberal views. I already understood what he represents. After all, he was arguing in favour of Georgia.'
Judge Margarita Gridina inquired in response: 'What are extreme liberal views?'
'Well, what does the word "liberal" mean in our country? It implies all russophobes.'
'The word Libero means freedom. Are freedom and russophobia one and the same thing?'
'When it comes to our liberals ... Well, you can basically put an equals sign between them.'
Speaking about Byvshev's poem, Agoshkov admitted that he did not understand it, seeing as he does not know Ukrainian.
'But I did understand one or two things. The call to kill the "Putin Chekists," for example.'
'There's no such call in the poem,' parried Vladimir Suchkov, Byvshev's legal counsel. 'There's a call not to give an inch of Crimea to Putin’s chekists.'
'I understand,' answered the witness. 'If you're not going to give up the land, it means you're armed. And if you're armed, you're going to kill.'
The icing on the cake, however, was the testimony of Vyacheslav Kostyakov, an English teacher. 'Byvshev openly supports splitting up our people. He supports the right of Ukrainians to independence and European choice. I believe that we cannot allow that. We are one people: Ukraine, with the possible exception of Galicia, is Russia. With the help of his sponsors, Byvshev is promoting the murder of Russians.'
'With the help of which sponsors?'
The witness fell silent.
'Perhaps you mean Yatseniuk or Turchinov?' continued Suchkov, barely holding back laughter. The prosecutor and judge were also looking at Kostyakov with a smile.
'No. I mean the members of the Russian PEN Centre. I saw the programme on television. They are against Russia.'
'Do you have any evidence of PEN Centre's involvement in sponsoring Byvshev?'
'No. But the director of our housing maintenance company said that some gang gave 1.5 million roubles [£20,000] to Byvshev.'
'Which gang?' The accused could barely hold himself back from laughing. 'Is that the Cosa Nostra or the masons?'
'Well, I heard that Byvshev goes to Unistream Bank and receives bank transfers there.' Kostyakov suddenly became rather unsure of himself. 'Although you know, you can probably just strike all of that from the record. It's all hearsay.'
Room for optimism
After the witnesses were questioned, Vladimir Suchkov was optimistic: 'There are no concrete pieces of evidence to suggest the accused is guilty. The witnesses don't even remember the poem. Of course, in terms of Article 282, the judge can still not only send Aleksandr to jail, but also fine him – up to 300,000 roubles [£4,000]. But we hope that he will be acquitted.'
Byvshev abstained from commenting on the proceedings. And so do I. But we await the judge's verdict.
Standfirst image: Graffiti in Luhansk, Ukraine. (c) Qypchak / Wikipedia.