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A rifle stock to the heart, a fist to the gut: how left-wing activists are persecuted in Crimea

Though some groups may have supported Russian annexation, life under Russian rule has been far from sweet.

A leftist protest in Sevastopol. Photo: Ivan Zhilin / Novaya Gazeta.

This article originally appeared in Novaya Gazeta. We translate it here.

Most news on political repression in Crimea concern FSB raids on Crimean Tatars or pro-Ukrainian activists. But other opposition activists aren’t exempt from the security services’ attention either. As I found out, people who aren’t against Russia, but do oppose the ruling United Russia party are on the receiving end of no less harsh treatment, albeit more rarely.

Anarchy outlawed

On 1 March 2018, police and FSB operatives in Sevastopol conducted a raid against an anarchist group in the city. They searched the apartments of Alexey Prisyazhnyuk, Artem Vorobyev, Igor Panyuta, Alexey Shestakovich and Ivan Markov.

“According to available information, the aforementioned group of people planned provocative protests during the Russian presidential election scheduled for 18 March 2018. This anarchist cell maintains connections with other left-wing radical organisations active in Russia,” this is how media in Sevastopol explained the security services’ actions.

Alexey Shestakovich and Ivan Markov were sentenced to 11 and 10 days in jail respectively. They were found guilty of producing and disseminating “extremist material” (Article 20.29 of Russia's Administrative Code). Other activists were not arrested, and were not charged.

Three days before the searches, Alexey Shestakovich posted a document in the “Anarchists of Sevastopol” group on Russian social network VKontakte. This was a notification filed to the authorities regarding his intention to hold a rally on 10 March at Admiral Ushakov square in central Sevastopol. The rally would be held under the slogan “The position of president is a relic of the monarchy”. The notification was addressed to Sevastopol governor Dmitry Ovsyannikov. The stated goal of the protest was “to remind citizens of their constitutional right not to vote in elections”.

The searches at all the activists’ homes started simultaneously, at 7.30 AM.

“I left for work 15 minutes before,” Artem Vorobyev told me. “My brother, mother and seven-year old child remained home. The agents barged into our home and grabbed my brother. Then they asked him to identify himself. When they understood they had got the wrong person, they released him. He immediately called me and said: ‘Come home, they are looking for you.’ Well, I realised I definitely shouldn’t go home: who knows what charges they could make up. I called my wife, warned her. Then I switched off my phone. The agents ended up waiting at my place until 4.30 in the afternoon. Then they left. I realised they didn’t really need me specifically.”

Alexey Shestakovich was treated more harshly.

“The (security service) operatives came around 7.30,” says Alexey's mother Lyubov Shestakovich.

“Alexey was ordered to lie face down on the floor, in his underwear. They put a plastic bag over his head. I asked them: ‘Why do you need the bag? He'll suffocate.’ And they replied: ‘This is so that no one recognises him.’ He spent the whole four hours of the search in his underpants with the bag on his head.”

The people who were not arrested were, however, questioned as witnesses in a criminal case opened against their comrade Yevgeny Karakashev.

There could be other reasons behind Karakashev’s arrest. He had been actively involved in protesting the construction of an apartment complex in Zaozernoye, a town near Yevpatoria

Karakashev was arrested on 1 February 2018 in the Crimea town of Yevpatoria. He was immediately charged with breaking two articles of Russia’s Criminal Code: Part One of Article 282 (inciting hatred or animosity) and Part Two of Article 205.2 (calls to a commit terrorist acts).

According to investigators, it was two posts that Karakashev made on VKontakte in 2014 and 2017 which broke the law. According to the indictment against Karakashev, investigators identified a “call for terrorism” in a “teletext starting with the words ‘use a grenade against’ and ending with ‘into government offices’ windows’”. The extremism charge was related to Karakashev sharing a clip called “Last interview of the Primorye Partisans” (more on this group here), a video deemed extremist and banned in Russia, in a chat with 35 members.

Right after Karakashev was arrested, Russian media circulated a different version of events: the anarchist was described as a “saboteur sent by Kiev who planned provocations and mass protests during the presidential election.”

The arrest of Yevgeny Karakashev. Screenshot from a security service video.The security service video of Karakashev’s arrest shows that he had been severely beaten. “During the physical examination, the following physical injuries were found: a bruise on the right side of the forehead, 6x8cm in size, a bruise on the right ear, a bruise on the right shoulder 7x7cm in size, a bruise on the right pectus 3x12 cm in size, a bruise on the back, bruises on the knees, a bruise on the right shin,” wrote medical personnel at the pre-trial detention centre. However, no criminal case was opened over the beating. “On 1 February, 2018, E.V. Karakashev filed a request not to investigate the physical damages he had sustained,” says the decision not to open a criminal case, signed by both a district police inspector and district head officer in Yevpatoriya.

There could be other reasons behind Karakashev’s arrest. He had been actively involved in protesting the construction of an apartment complex in Zaozernoye, a town near Yevpatoria. The complex is being developed by Parangon, a company affiliated to Pavel Lebedev, a former Defence Minister of Ukraine. Today, Lebedev is one of the most influential business people in Crimea. At a public hearing on the complex’s construction on 1 February, the day Karakashev was arrested, Yevpatoria mayor Andrey Filonov mentioned that a group of citizens had been resisting the development, before saying: “Do you know about the arrests this morning? Today the FSB arrested a certain group of people.”

The Cossack factor

Four months before the searches at the homes of Sevastopol anarchists, the security services raided Valeriy Bolshakov, leader of the Sevastopol branch of Rot Front communist party.

Valeriy Bolshakov. Photo: Ivan Zhilin / Novaya Gazeta.“They came at six in the morning. First I heard a knock on the door. They shouted: ‘Open up!’ I thought these were some kind of hooligans. I told them: ‘Piss off!’ Then they said: ‘Your pipes are leaking, you are drenching your neighbours!’ I went to the bathroom, and it was dry. I shouted back at them: ‘Get lost!’ Then it was quiet for half a minute... and that's when I heard the cutter tool. The door was pushed open and masked men barged in. Right away, one of them hit me near the heart with a rifle stock, dropped me to the floor,” Bolshakov recalls.

“The others spread across the rooms and started emptying the wardrobes. There were about ten of them.”

A court ruling on a search under a criminal case over “inciting hatred or animosity” (Article 282 of Russia’s Criminal Code) was read out to Bolshakov.

“The case is related to me allegedly insulting the Terek Cossacks,” Bolshakov tells me. “That was back in 2015.”

In late May 2015, Bolshakov recalls, he was walking along Sevastopol’s Istorichesky boulevard, five Cossacks in traditional hats and leather kilts were walking towards him in the opposite direction.

“I burst into laughter when I saw them. I mean, what kind of reenactor fair is this? But when I laughed, they approached me and threatened to beat me up. When I got back home that day, I wrote on VK: ‘A group of battle f****ts disguised as Terek Cossacks is roaming Sevastopol.’’ This was the pretext for opening a criminal case.

“At some point, they changed their tactics: they started praising me, told me they admired my resilience. They offered me a deal’’

During the search, agents seized not only electronic devices, but also party documents from Bolshakov.

“During the interrogation at the Investigation Committee, they barely touched upon the Cossacks. They mostly asked me who the people who attended Rot Front rallies were, who were the party’s members and what were its goals. To all the questions I answered that I wasn't going to rat out anyone,” Valeriy recalls.

“At some point, they changed their tactics: they started praising me, told me they admired my resilience. They offered me a deal: at the court hearing, I was to say that the government has to be overthrown, and in return I get two years of probation instead of seven in prison.”

I said I wasn't interested in playing this game. My general impression was they were going to exaggerate my importance, frame me as some kind of popular uprising leader. Even though, how many people are in our Rot Front branch again? Eleven? I believe they wanted to get easy promotions out of it.”

“You criticised the authorities the wrong way” 

The security services also keep an eye on establishment left-wing groups in Crimea. In June 2016, Crimean media quoted the Republic’s head Sergey Aksenov as saying: “Freedom of speech and opinion ends where wicked defamation of our country, our values, our way of life starts. We have to act swiftly and harshly to curb any attempts of treasonous activities disguised as criticism of the authorities.”

Aksenov’s words were prompted by a rally held in the town of Alushta against local authorities’ construction policies and limiting locals’ access to beaches. The rally, which saw the first clashes with police in Crimea since spring 2014, was organised by Alushta city councilman Pavel Stepanchenko, a member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF).

During Russia’s September 2016 parliamentary election, Stepanchenko crossed the authorities again: he uncovered forged documents which led to KPRF members being barred from electoral commissions (which typically include representatives from all establishment parties, including official opposition). Two weeks later, on 4 October 2016, Stepanchenko was arrested.

Pavel Stepanchenko and Alexey Nazimov.Alongside Stepanchenko, the security services also seized Alexey Nazimov, the editor-in-chief of Alushta's local paper Tvoya Gazeta (“Your Paper”) and Andrey Oblezov, a cameraman. First, these men were accused of commercial bribery, and then of attempting to extort money from the ex-secretary of Alushta city council Mikhail Krasnenkov and businessman Aleksandr Ryzhkov (an aide to the Alushta council United Russia faction leader Dzhamal Dzhangobegov).

According to the investigators, Nazimov, Stenanchenko and Oblezov demanded that the United Russia officials pay them 150,000 roubles in return for them not publishing compromising materials.

The accused, in turn, claim they made no such demands and didn’t have any compromising material either. “Moreover, Krasnenkov was actively seeking for a pretext to give them money,” says Nazimov’s lawyer Alexey Ladin.

In a letter to Novaya Gazeta, Alexey Nazimov wrote that by summer 2016, the situation in Alushta was tense. After the anti-construction protest that made national headlines, city council sessions turned into heated arguments. In early July, Krasnenkov called Nazimov.

“We talked about possible cooperation to relieve the tension,” Nazimov writes. “I told him I wouldn’t write articles praising United Russia and would continue filming hard-hitting reports. However, I said we could find a middle ground where I wouldn’t mention United Russia or call out the top city officials by name but would write something vague like ‘officials’, ‘authorities’. Krasnenkov promised to talk to some people but didn't get back to me. (...)

In early August I got a call from Aleksandr Ryzhkov (the aide to Dzhemal Dzhangobegov). He told me he was dealing with problematic media on behalf of United Russia and that 500,000 roubles were allocated for those media for the remainder of the year. I told him about the solution I’d suggested, he agreed and our talks continued till the end of August. Around 25 August, he drove up to my house in Partenit and said he was ready to give me money, 125,000 roubles, if I presented him the compromising material I was allegedly about to publish. I was taken aback. I spent half an hour explaining to him I had no compromising material. Then Ryzhkov suggested I write an article that he could show to his superiors. I told him to screw himself, and the meeting did not come to anything. (...)

In early September, Krasnenkov appeared on the horizon again and the talks resumed. We came to the meetings with a cameraman Andrey Oblezov. Pasha (KPRF councilman Stepanchenko) also attended one of the meetings. Krasnenkov scheduled the final meeting for noon 4 October at the Kivi-Kivi cafe he owned. We came there with Andrey Oblezov. Krasnenkov called someone and said a person would come who solves all the cooperation issues. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be Ryzhkov! He asked that Pasha Stepanchenko be present at the meeting as well. I called Pasha, and in an hour he came there. I ended up receiving marked money and then getting arrested by FSB operatives.”

Stepanchenko told a similar story in his letter to Novaya Gazeta.

Alexander Ryzhkov stated at a court hearing that he could have been the first to contact Nazimov and offer him money. “However, this is unlikely,” he added during his questioning. “I had a cover story that United Russia allocated half a million rubles for problematic media. After Nazimov asked me how much the party was willing to give, I named this sum.”

Alushta mayor Galina Ognyeva, a witness in the case, told the court that Nazimov “criticised the authorities the wrong way” and thus, she believes, broke the law. “The journalist could have settled the problematic issues with me and corrected his reporting,” she said in court.

During one of the hearings, Pavel Stepanchenko complained he’d been beaten in pre-trial detention. According to the council deputy, physical force was used against him after he asked to call a doctor.

Quoting Stepanchenko’s claim in court:

“The detention centre director Roman Beginin started yelling: ‘F**k you, how dare you tell me I have to provide you with medical care!’ While the police driver was holding my hands so that I couldn’t protect myself, the director struck me at least 10 times: he hit my kidneys, legs, chest and the back of the head. All the while, he kept threatening me: ‘I'll bury you…’, ‘I'll kill you…’, ‘Bring me the taser’.”

The investigative authorities found no grounds to open a criminal case over Stepanchenko’s complaint.

Translated by Kirill Mikhailov. 

 


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