In Russia, the Price of Dissent Keeps Rising

Russia's activists are battered and demoralized. But not everyone has given up.


MOSCOW — On Nov. 18, the 53-year-old Sergei Krivov fainted inside his glass cage during a hearing at Nikulinsky Court in Moscow. There he was,  stretched out flat on his back on the bench, while the hearing against him and 11 other opposition protesters proceeded. His lawyer, Viacheslav Makarov, repeatedly urged Judge Natalya Nikulina to call for an ambulance, pointing out that his client was unconscious. But the judge waved off the lawyer’s requests. The defender called for an ambulance himself, but when it arrived, the doctors were not allowed to enter the courtroom. Astonishingly, the hearing continued.

Outraged, the journalists and friends of the suspects sitting in the courtroom began chanting, "Shame, shame!" On the day of the court hearing, Krivov was 63 days into a hunger strike protesting his arrest and that of the other 11 suspects of the "Bolotnaya Square Case." The case is named after an anti-Kremlin demonstration that took place on Bolotnaya Square over a year ago, on May 6, 2012, where over 27 people were detained and hundreds of witnesses questioned. Even pro-Kremlin experts consider these arrests "political," though they are quick to blame the suspects for being violent.  

Krivov, an activist of the opposition People’s Freedom Party, was not arrested until last October, months after the protest. Almost every day before that, he staged one-man street protests to demand freedom for his friends who had been arrested weeks earlier. Krivov was finally arrested for grabbing a club from the hands of a policeman; he later admitted his guilt for this action. Russians who participated in the anti-government protests in 2011 were deeply disturbed by the televised images of the exhausted Krivov in his glass cage, confronting a 10-year jail sentence. But the majority of Russians hardly paid any attention to the news from the court. Few know anything about Krivov or what motivated him to go on such an extraordinarily long hunger strike. Activism, indeed, is fading in Russia.

The first time many Russians noticed the Bolotnaya Case was this past Thursday, when President Vladimir Putin expressed his opinion about the opposition activists on trial. Speaking at a gathering of writers, the president stated that "if someone is allowed to violate the law,  like tearing shoulder patches off a policeman’s uniform or punching policemen in the face … Russia will experience the same problems as it did during the Bolshevik revolution of 1917."

The president spoke of "limits" and "red lines," and assured the audience that in Russia, "no one is being snatched or thrown into prison for thoughts, ideas, or political views, and we will never allow this to happen." To a majority of Russians, the word "revolution" is associated with dark, bloody, and hungry times, followed by decades of repression, arrests, and the executions of millions of their countrymen. Revolution? "No, thanks," many of my Moscow friends are wont to say. "What we want is reform, transparency, and justice."

Some observers present in the courtroom audience last Monday wished the president could have been there to witness the chaos with his own eyes. The judge ended up asking everybody to leave the room. Court guards had to carry one of my colleagues out; she had refused to leave the unconscious person until he received medical attention.

The award-winning photographer Grigory Yaroshenko never attended political hearings in the past. Galleries, photography workshops, and casual dinners with friends felt more natural to him than public activism. Yaroshenko told me that it was one thing to read about something on the Internet and form opinions, and a completely different thing to see it with his own eyes. "When the judge refused to let doctors help the unconscious person, who by law was still innocent, I felt like I was a witness to outrageous lawlessness," Yaroshenko told me. "I just don’t see how I’m supposed to act, how to live, how to go on sitting around in cafés when something so cruel is happening around the corner from my house."

Later that day, I joined Yaroshenko and other colleagues at a charity auction organized in support of Denis Sinyakov, an arrested photographer. Sinyakov was detained and then held for over two months (along with another freelance journalist and 28 Greenpeace activists) — at  first for piracy, and then for "hooliganism" after staging a protest action in the Arctic. For the second year in a row, Greenpeace activists attacked Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya oil platform, the first platform producing oil in the ice-covered Arctic. Sinyakov’s colleagues gathered at a Moscow gallery to make the point that Sinyakov wasn’t expressing his political views by attending the protest — he was just doing his job as a photographer.

This isn’t the first time that human rights defenders have appealed to the Russian authorities about political arrests. This week, Human Rights Watch reported on the October detention of three environmental activists from Watchers of the North Caucasus, a group working in the Olympic city of Sochi. The Human Rights Watch report offered a straightforward recommendation: "Authorities should stop harassing and detaining environmental activists and allow them to carry out their work." Back at the gallery, participants spent thousands of rubles buying beautiful photographs by some of Russia’s best photographers to raise money for Sinyakov. Nobody in the room intended to cause trouble for their country; they definitely weren’t aiming for anything as destructive as the revolution of 1917. But for most participants, the unprecedented charity auction in support of a prisoner, right in the heart of Moscow, was a personal revolution.

"We are here to make a difference, to demonstrate the unity of journalists, of free-lance photographers, standing together in support of a friend," said Oleg Nikishin, a lifelong photographer and reporter.

That night, we received good news: The court decided to let Sinyakov out of jail on bail. The auction organizers said that the victory was "very much thanks to our united efforts." At least there was one victory to celebrate this week.

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