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Going on empty: interviews with Astrakhan’s hunger protesters

A month ago today, more than twenty people joined ex-candidate Oleg Shein in a hunger strike against disputed mayoral elections in the regional capital city of Astrakhan, south Russia. As the health of those still protesting continues to decline, Svetlana Reiter spoke to two of the strikers to discover what propelled them to such a radical form of protest. 


Note from oDR editors
 

That Astrakhan would become the central focus of Russian politics could hardly have been anticipated a month ago. A small, sleepy provincial town situated at the Volga delta some 800 miles SE of Moscow, the city had scarcely registered on the radar of national Russian politics before. Local politics was uninterestingly typical of the Russian regions, symbolised by the rule of thuggish business interests, a wearied and placid electorate and regular, reliable returns for the ruling party. 

The decision by local politician Oleg Shein and two dozen close comrades to begin a hunger strike on March 16 has transformed Astrakhan's profile. In the weeks since, the city has seen an unprecedented influx of influential visitors: from international journalists to the leaders of Moscow’s protest movement, who are understandably keen to rekindle the momentum of a faltering campaign.

Initially, these Moscow emissaries — who included blogger politician Aleksey Navalny, activist Ilya Yashin and journalist Kseniya Sobchak — seemed to have little impact on the local mood. That remained largely one of indifference. Yet a rally held two days ago in support of the strikers attracted several thousand people, which indicated public sentiment was turning. 

Shein continues to demand a rerun of the March 4 elections, which he claims were fixed against him. The video footage from polling stations, not all of which has been released by the Central Election Committee, indicates he may well have a point. 

As the ex-candidate enters a critical stage in his protest, there are some signs that the authorities may already be listening. Shein is, for example, due in Moscow today for talks Chair of the Central Election Commission, the infamous Vladimir Churov. Any announcement that overturns the results of the election would, of course, be nothing short of sensational. On the other hand, a concession of some sort might be considered necessary to check growing sympathy for the strikers. Whichever way the authorities respond, Oleg Shein and his supporters’ radical stand has already acheived something — that is, quite unexpectedly, to have pushed the pendulum of expectation away from the oppostion and back towards the Kremlin. 

 

'You have to see where I'm coming from'

Dmitry Volkov, 45
Lawyer

I’m chair of the local branch of the ‘Just Russia’ regional political committee in Astrakhan. I went on hunger strike on 16 March, but was obliged to stop a week ago for health reasons.  I have been active in politics for more than 15 years, the last eleven of which I’ve also served as an official election observer.  

My moment of clarity came last year.  I was hoping to be elected a municipality deputy for my party, ‘Just Russia.’  My opponent from the official ruling party, ‘United Russia,’ approached me and said: ‘Dmitry Aleksandrovich, you would have a real chance if you were in our party.’ He told me that the issue was already settled and, unless I was standing for ‘United Russia’, I had no chance at all of being elected.

Political machinations are well honed in the Astrakhan region, as could clearly be seen at the December parliamentary and March presidential elections.

Until the end of February, I was an agent for Igor Bretter, who was standing as an independent for the post of chair of the rural council in the Staro-Kuchergan municipality. Our candidate wasn’t registered, but the Communist Party candidate for the same rural council was a close friend of mine, Faik Sukhanberdiev. On election day I was at his headquarters. Perhaps the most memorable point was when at one of the polling stations the chairman and members of the electoral commission grabbed hold of all the ballot papers and official return, and disappeared into thin air. The returns as recorded by the observers had shown that Faik had won — Faik had copies of the signed reports on the voting results — but the District Electoral Commission went to court and got the results for that station declared invalid. The 'United Russia' candidate, Abdulov, had supposedly won the other polling stations winner with a very small majority, so he was declared the winner. There were only 18 votes between him and Sukhanberdiev. 

'I've got children and I want them to grow up with the rule of law, rather than the rules of the underworld'

It was the same story at most of the city's polling stations. I saw the documents and video clips: one woman had a wad of voting papers stuck down her trousers and during the count the members of the electoral commission were trying to edge her as near as possible to the table.  Presidential votes were counted first and this was more or less transparent, but at the mayoral election the count was marvellous to behold. The commission members formed a tight circle around the table and the observers were pushed out of the way; voting papers were simply transferred from the pile for Oleg Shein to the 'United Russia' candidate, Stolyarov. It was as basic as that.  As was to be expected, the police remained neutral, occasionally kicking out members of the Local Electoral Commission with attendance, or voting, rights. One of our observers was beaten and reports were 'rewritten' on a massive scale. 

Six of the city's polling stations have electronic facilities for automated vote-counting and here Shein won convincingly: you can’t falsify such a count, you understand. But where the counting was done manually, Stolyarov was supposedly 37% ahead, which isn’t exactly consistent. On 15 March we submitted complaints to the Regional Electoral Commission, but they were not accepted. The chair of that commission is Igor Korovin, a former state prosecutor who taught the practical element of prosecution studies in my college. Until recently I regarded him as quite an honest man, but when we went to present him with our proof of election rigging, he called in the police and we were thrown out on our ear.

This was the last straw. On 16 April we announced an indefinite political hunger strike.  We didn't even demand a recount – if they could falsify the reports, then they could also destroy some of the papers recording votes for Shein.

There were initially 10 people at Oleg Shein's headquarters on Sovetskaya street – some from 'Just Russia', some pensioners and young people.  Then others turned up, all election observers who had seen the cynicism and travesties of justice for themselves. There are currently more than 20 people, with people coming and going all the time. I particularly remember Svetlana Lezhneva.  She had been a sportswoman and I became friends with her, because I myself used to do judo – I even took part in a competition with Putin in 1980, though we were in different weight categories. Both Lezhneva and I were 'Dynamo' supporters. I wouldn't have expected such stamina and such calm from a woman. 

I am well-built, so for me the 13kgs I lost over the 3 weeks were not a matter of life and death.  The first 3 days were very difficult, because you think about food all the time and, in addition, Shein's headquarters are over a café and the aromas coming from the ventilation shaft all came our way.  You inhale the smells and salivate all the time, but can do nothing about it. 

Things got easier on the 4th day because of activated carbon and water. Initially I drank fizzy water, but it made my stomach swell, so I changed over to ordinary water. I actually tried to drink as little as possible to avoid water retention. After 2 weeks people started leaving, because the rapid weight loss was too difficult to bear. But those who remained began opening up and we all became closer.  I worked for a long time on fishing boats with crews of 15-20 people and it was just the same: when you're all hugger-mugger and constantly together, you cannot but become closer. I became friends with Elena Grebenyuk, a correspondent for the website 'Caucasian Knot', who has been there from day 1.  She has lost a lot of weight but remains cheerful.  It was she who helped us break through the information blockade. A person of great stamina and very honourable, despite her being a journalist!

By week 3 I started having stomach cramps.  3 days ago I felt really ill and told my friends that I would have to stop.  Everyone understood – no one is held there against their will.  I left the building on Sovetskaya street, got into a car, went home and lay down to sleep, but I wasn't able to break my fast. I tried to eat a piece of processed cheese, but the stomach cramps came back and appalling diarrhoea (apologies for mentioning this).  I got scared and didn't eat any more.  I plan to return to Sovetskaya in a couple of days.

There is no other way of influencing the way things are. Only a blind person could fail to see that the city is in the grip of the mafia.  The last mayor, Sergei Bozhenov, sold all the city property for virtually nothing.  One of his deputies, Mr Sitnikov, was in a Swiss prison for manufacturing false passports and another, Didenko, did time for embezzling 4 million roubles.  You have to see where I'm coming from – I've got children and I want them to grow up with the rule of law, rather than the rules of the underworld.

 

Ex-mayoral candidate Oleg Shein addresses crowds at Saturday's rally in Astrakhan. Shein has lost 12kg since he began his hunger strike with supporters one month ago. Picture: Maksim Korotchenko/maxik2k.livejournal.com

'Radical measures are much more effective'

Alexander Kirpichenko, 26
Correspondent for the newspaper 'Astrakhan Pravda' 

At the presidential election on 4 March I was part of a mobile group of journalists checking for infringements. We started early, at 7 am. We had a driver who sat in the car all the time to stop people slashing the tyres – which has happened – while I and my colleague Sergei Kazanov went into polling stations.  Sergei was a member of the Territorial Electoral Commission (TEC) with attendance rights, but no vote.

Before voting started we went all round the polling stations and saw no evidence of incorrect behaviour. Later we only went to places which had signalled a need – an observer had been thrown out, journalists not allowed in.  So the day passed by middling well.

Kazanov and I split up around 7 in the evening: he went to his electoral commission and I went to polling station no 384, which is in a branch of the Volga Academy of Water Transport.  The building was shut at 8pm and no one was allowed out, even to the toilet.  People were checked off against lists and it all took a long time.  Then, just before the vote count started, at the moment the boxes should have been emptied on to the table, the chair of the commission noticed that my friend, also an observer, had a video camera. It was turned off, but an argument developed and I realised that we were going to be thrown out of the station in the classic manner: just like we were on 4 December at the parliamentary election.  As expected, Bazhanova (the chair) proposed that a vote be taken to exclude us.  She herself wrote: 'The members of Polling Station 384 Electoral Commission voted to remove media representatives who had been making video recordings and taking photographs without permission, challenging audio and video recordings being carried out by Rostelekom.' My camera had also been off all the time and simply lying by my side.

‘Someone joining a hunger strike is highly motivated: even if pies were set out on a table by him, he wouldn't eat. If you're not motivated, then stay at home, eating in the kitchen and engaging in empty discussions.’

I went by car to the territorial commission, only to find that a new metallic fence had been thrown up around the building.  When I stopped to remove the fence, a man came out of the building and said I couldn't film.  I argued to be let in for a long time and did finally get in to meet Kazanov, who said that was was going on at the Commission was completely amazing. He himself had photographed several cars driving up to the back door of the building to deliver sacks of voting papers. Our colleagues requested that the floor above the TEC be checked, as they could hear footsteps (the final reports were probably being rewritten up there), but the police would not grant us access to that floor. 

OSCE observers were also present at the election. Later on I gave a lift to Andreas Gross, Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly member, who was in shock.  The only thing he could say was that the word 'democracy' had no place in Astrakhan.  That night I managed to get 4 hours sleep.  

I expected there would be demonstrations the next day, but there weren't. On 15 March we gathered up all our complaints, statements and film footage, and a group of 6 of us set off the Regional Electoral Commission.  We had drawn up a document setting out our demands, which we handed to the chair of the commission, Korovin, in his office. After a minute's confusion, Korovin called the police and we moved to the conference hall, where we prepared ourselves for our hunger strike, but we were turned out by the head of the Public Security Police  [locally-raised municipal police force, ed]. The next day, 16 March, we went to 'Just Russia' headquarters in Sovetskaya street, got out our laptops, spread out our mattresses, set up web-cameras and were away, as it were.

There were initially 6 of us, but the numbers changed as people stopped fasting and were replaced by others. There are currently more than 20 people there.  It soon emerged that my previous understanding of hunger fasts had been inaccurate.  I was sure that by day 3 we would be lying flat out, exhausted, but it wasn't the case at all.  By day 5 hunger pangs disappear, to be followed a bit later by waves of weakness. If I needed to run 30 metres along the corridor to catch someone up, I could do it, but then I had to lie down. 

Of all the people fasting with us the most amazing was a retired lady, Mrs Kukushkina. She was there from the start, having been an observer at the election.  She was very pleasant, well-mannered and well-educated and she was diabetic. She held out for 3 days, but was then taken away by ambulance. When she was carried out of the building, everyone in the street clapped.

I live alone, because my parents live in Volgograd.  I didn't tell them anything about the hunger strike until the last moment: after 16 days the doctors told me not to fast any more.  I felt OK, but my state of health had deteriorated and the doctors' diagnosis was 'alimentary exhaustion, altered blood pressure and pulse.'

It's hard to fast.  I can't speak for everyone, but when people are in a building for a long time…I saw squabbles developing over nothing, mostly among the women.

None of us were depressed because we were absolutely sure that what we were doing was right, which kept us going.  Someone joining a hunger strike is highly motivated: even if pies were set out on a table by him, he wouldn't eat. If you're not motivated, then stay at home, eating in the kitchen and engaging in empty discussions. Tomorrow [interview recorded 9 April] we are organising a tent encampment next to the Kirov monument, 100 metres from the building where our friends are fasting.  Today I went past and saw the the pro-Kremlin youth are already setting up their tents, so there's clearly going to be a confrontation.

I'm not afraid and nothing scares me: Astrakhan will triumph and our success will inspire people to more radical protest.  I took part because the 4 December parliamentary election showed very clearly that traditional ways of fighting will get us nowhere.  I'm still getting standard brush-off responses to my protests of December and it's already April.  Radical measures are much more effective.  

A version of these interviews was first published in Russian at esquire.ru

About the author

Svetlana Reiter is a journalist working in Moscow. She is correspondent for the Moscow cultural magazine Bolshoi gorod and a special correspondent for Esquire Russia

 


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