Russian political prisoners in the Russian Federation

Edited and translated by Roman Frolov

When reporting about the problem of political prisoners in Russia, mass media in Russia and abroad almost exclusively focus on Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the late Sergei Magnitsky and the “prisoners of May 6, 2012”. This creates an impression that the list of victims of political persecutions in Russia is limited by these people. However, in truth this is only the tip of the iceberg. Many, many others have been imprisoned during last several years for the sole ‘crime’ of being publically active Russian Nationalists. Here I briefly describe the history of the latest unlawful persecution of Russian Nationalists and Russian Nationalist organizations in the Russian Federation. The names and events described in this article are by no means comprehensive; they include only the most publicized instances of political persecution, in which — importantly — the accused did not confess and refused to collaborate with the prosecution.

An approximate number of Russian Nationalists imprisoned during the last decade is around two thousand. Most of them are young Russians, convicted under the notorious Article 282 of the Penal Code (“incitement to racial hatred,” also colloquially known as the ‘Russian Article’ or ‘hatespeech’), usually in aftermath of conflicts with Central Asians or Caucasians.

During the Yeltsin period, Russian nationalists were routinely slandered as ‘fascists’ in the media, and all possible means (mostly electoral fraud) were employed to prevent Nationalists from entering elected state offices. However, people were not jailed for their views. As a result, by using meager but actually working mechanisms of political democracy, Nationalists on occasions were able to break through all the  barriers and get elected. For example, there were several Nationalist deputies in the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR such as Nikolai Pavlov, Ilya Konstantinov, Mikhail Astafiev and Vladimir Morokin. Later in different convocations of the Russian State Duma the national interests of Russians were represented and advocated by such people as Nikolai Lysenko, Sergei Baburin, Nikolai Greshnevikov and Nikolai Kuryanovich. In the regional parliaments, there were such prominent Russian Nationalists as Aleksandr Turik (Irkutsk) and Igor Artemov (Vladimir), among others. The situation changed dramatically when Putin has taken over.

Several Russian military officers became the first victims of political persecution along ethnic lines.  In 2007 (the trials began in 2003), two military officers, lieutenant Sergei Arakcheev and first lieutenant Evgeny Khudyakov were convicted for crimes they apparently did not commit as they were twice acquitted previously on the same charges, first by military tribunal and then by jury trial. Both acquittals were overturned by the Supreme Court on formal pretexts. It’s noteworthy that Ramsan Kadyrov, the current President of Chechnya and a former Chechen rebel, who publically boasted that he “killed his first Russian at the age of 16” [which by chronology implies that this happened long before the onset of the First Chechen war, that is, during the period of genocide-scale ethnic cleansing of Russians from Chechnya, 1991–1994], commented on this acquittal by saying that “the initial cause of the acquittal was the jury’s failure to fully understand the will of my [Chechen] people in this criminal case.

Another Russian officer, the late colonel and Hero of Russia Yuri Budanov [murdered in 2011 by Chechen killers], can also be considered a political prisoner. His criminal case was in our opinion trumped-up under apparent pressure from Chechen extremists. The case is full of ethnic hatred toward Russians.

In 2005 two Russian public activists from Moscow, Vladimir Vlasov and Mikhail Klevachov, were first arrested and then sentenced to long prison terms (18 and 20 years, respectively). In the absence of any direct evidence they were charged with an attempt to blow up a Moscow-Grozny passenger train on June 12, 2005. As in the Arakcheev-Khudyakov affair, the accused were initially acquitted by jury trial, but the acquittal was repelled by the Supreme Court on the formal pretext of an out-of-courtroom contact between a jury member and a member of defense team (the jury member simply asked the attorney for the directions to the courtroom).

At the same time, reprisals began against journalists and editors of Russian patriotic newspapers. In 2006, a criminal case was opened against the editor of “Moskovskie Vorota” [Moscow Gates] newspaper (city of Obninsk in Kaluga oblast), father-of-seven Igor Kulebyakin. He was accused of ‘incitement of hatred’ (articles 280, 282 of the Penal Code). He was arrested but then released under a written pledge not to leave town for the period of trial. Over the course of the trial additional accusations of “establishing an extremist group” have been put forward by prosecution. After the accusatory bias of the judges and their partiality became apparent, Kulebyakin fled. Since then he is on the wanted list in Russia.

Russian patriotic journalists have been targeted for political prosecution. In 2012, Aleksandr Dzikovitsky, the editor of newspaper “Kazachiy Vzglyad” [The Cossack’s Opinion] was sentenced to one year in prison for ‘incitement of hatred’ (articles 280, 282). In Chita, the trial of the editor of the newspaper “Russkoye Zabaikalye” [Russian Trans-Baikal Region] Aleksandr Yaremenko was underway for several years until the period of limitation for the ‘crime’ — newspaper article publication — had expired and the case was dropped. In Novosibirsk, the journalist of the newspaper “Otchisna” [Fatherland] Victor Novikov was similarly persecuted in 2007.

In 2006 the Kazan branch of Russian National Unity [a nationalist political party] was crushed by authorities. The head of the branch, Ekaterina Melnikova, a teacher in a children’s activity center, was sentenced to 7 years for active participation in this oppositional political movement. Other members of the organization — Oleg Ukhanisov, Leonid Kislinsky, Anton Dukhnovich — were sentenced to jail terms ranging from half a year to 4 years.

Political persecution gathered momentum. In 2011, an activist of the “Northern Brotherhood” movement, Anton Mukhachev who established a flourishing business of manufacturing construction materials was jailed for 9 years for “establishing an extremist group” (article 282.1) and nonexistent economic crimes. Pyotr Khomyakov, the ideologist of the “Brotherhood” was sentenced to 4 years; he managed to secure ‘mitigation of sentence’ as he obviously collaborated with FSB during investigation.

In 2010, Konstantin Dushenov, a prominent advocate of Russian Orthodox Christianity and a political activist from St. Petersburg, was sentenced to 3 years for producing patriotic documentaries. After two years of imprisonment he suddenly started writing repentant articles expressing support for Putin and as a result his sentence was slashed and he was paroled. However, this does not negate the fact that his persecution was completely political.

In 2010–2013 political persecution was launched against the members of “Russian All-National Movement” (RONS). Criminal proceedings were opened against Aleksandr Tundikov and Igor Artemov (Vladimir oblast), Vasiliy Kryukov (Izhevsk), Aleksey Kutalo and Tatyana Kungurova (Rostov-on-Don). In 2012 Aleksey Kutalo, who from 2008 to 2010 was the leader of RONS in Vladimir and on numerous occasions was intimidated by the secret services, was arrested “under suspicion of participation in a proscribed extremist organization” and spent 3 months in detention. After release on bail and realizing the full extent of prosecutorial bias, he fled the country and currently lives in emigration, like many other public activists of RONS charged with crimes under articles 280 and 282. Similarly, activists of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), such as Vladimir Basmanov and Sofya Budnikova, were forced to leave the country due to persecution. The leader of DPNI Aleksandr Belov was sentenced to a 1 year suspended sentence under Article 282).

In 2010-2011 the major national organizations of Russian Nationalists RONS, DPNI and “Slavyanskiy Soyuz” have been proscribed after outrageously unfair and, in the case of the RONS, apparently fraudulent court trials. This in essence resulted in outlawing of the entire oppositional Russian Nationalist movement. Curiously, when RONS appealed at the European Court of Human Rights against the unlawful prohibition, the European judges dismissed the claim, stating in effect that prohibiting Nationalist organizations by Putin’s regime is a good thing.

In the spring of 2012 in Moscow a young Russian Nationalist leader Daniil Konstantinov, the son of a prominent Russian politician, the above-mentioned Ilya Konstantinov, was arrested on suspicion of committing a random street knife murder. The charge is fraudulent and outrageous as Daniil has an absolute alibi — at the time of the murder (December 5, 2011) he was celebrating his mother’s birthday in a large company at a public place in the opposite part of Moscow, with many witnesses providing evidence in his defense. At the same time, all the prosecution evidence is based on the ‘testimony’ of a thief and drug addict, A. Sofronov, who during the week prior to the interrogation on the murder case committed four aggravated burglaries and during the week after his ‘identification’ of Daniil as the criminal committed five more burglaries. However, Daniil’s alibi was ignored by both prosecutors and the judge over the entire course of interrogation and Daniil has spent a year and half in detention. The court trial started last week.

Meanwhile, the recidivist thief ‘witness’ Sofronov was not jailed at all. For nine aggravated burglaries he received a  suspended sentence of three and half years (an unprecedentedly mild sentence by Russian standards). Furthermore, in another unprecedented development, the murder case is investigated not by the criminal police but by the political police (“anti-extremist police force”). Many share the opinion that this is the most outrageous political case in the history of modern Russia. Daniil himself asserts that his persecution is revenge for his outright refusal to become an informant for the political police. Needless to say, diehard liberal media such as the newspaper Novaya Gazeta ignore this case as it involves persecution of a Russian Nationalist.

Another groundbreaking case was the trial of Nikita Tikhonov and his girlfriend Evgeniya Khasis who were accused of murder of S. Markelov, the liberal ‘anti-fascist’ attorney, and A. Baburova, the would-be journalist of Novaya Gazeta. All independent experts and even some friends of the deceased claim that the murder charges were trumped-up and that the trial was extremely prejudiced against the nationalist couple. Tikhonov has been sentenced to life in prison while Khasis in the absence of any real evidence against her was sentenced to 18 years in jail. Interestingly, in this case Novaya Gazeta served as a mouthpiece for the prosecution, producing uncritical and accusative material [translator’s note: I have been in touch with one of the journalists of Novaya Gazeta who reported on the case. He promised that after the end of the trial a comprehensive analytical article will appear examining all aspects of the trial, including apparent pressure on the jury, which allegedly was forced to change its exonerating verdict for accusatory one. No such analysis has ever appeared in Novaya Gazeta after the sentencing.].

Other recent highly-publicized cases involved accusations and trials of two highly respected Russian military officers and staunch critics of Putin’s regime, the colonels Vladimir Kvachkov (Moscow) and Leonid Khabarov (Ekaterinburg).  In two separate cases they were accused of preparing military coups, although no real evidence was produced by the prosecution in either case. Both colonels were retired officers and lacked any, even purely theoretical, capacity for preparing a military uprising. Vladimir Kvachkov was sentenced to 13 years and Leonid Khabarov to 4 years of imprisonment. Among others sentenced in these cases were Aleksandr Kiselev from St. Petersburg (11 years) and Victor Kralin from Ekaterinburg (2.5 years).

Russian Nationalist leader Konstantin Krylov, who is a prominent and very influential Russian intellectual and writer as well as the chief editor of the magazine Voprosy , Nationalizmawas sentenced to 120 hours of correctional labor (Article 282) for his words during a public speech at a rally in 2011 against paying what amounts to de-facto governmental tribute to Muslim republics of the North Caucasus (Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia). Literally, he was sentenced for the phrase “It is time to end this weird economic model”, which was considered by the ‘experts’ of the prosecution as incitement to hatred. According to a new Russian law, even such mild conviction prevents Krylov from participating in any official elections or leading any political party, which appears to be the main reason for such prosecutions against opposition leaders in Russia nowadays.

In addition, several young Nationalists were recently sentenced in a trial stemming  from the Manezhnaya Square riot which occurred  in Moscow in December of 2010. This incident involved young Russians who staged a mass protest against the stranglehold of ethnic criminal networks from the North Caucasus in Moscow and their apparent protection by police. This particular incident was triggered by cruel street murder of  Egor Sviridov, a Russian fan of the “Spartacus” soccer club, by a group of migrants from the North Caucasus and their subsequent release from police detention within hours after the crime. A Russian Nationalist Yaroslav Belousov is currently under arrest in connection with the so-called Bolotnaya Square case. In 2012 the head of Sakhalin branch of “Slavyanskiy Soyuz” Ivan Rozenko was sentenced to 4 years in jail.

Pyotr Antonov is a member of RONS whose leader Igor Artemov. Mr. Artemov’s articles have previously appeared on this website.