Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, artist and activist Sasha Starost had been involved in the Psychoactive Movement, which aimed to combat the stigmatization of mental illness in Russia and to foster solidarity, creativity and agency among a horizontal community of “psychoactivists.” Now Sasha and other activists are coordinating a project called Black February, dedicated to helping citizens who are being persecuted for their anti-war stance and to strengthening ties within civil society so as to better support them.
In order to help political prisoners, it’s vital to disseminate information about them to a wider audience. At some point, we realized that we lack a space in which all the so-called “anti-war cases” can be brought together. The names of those in jail must not be forgotten. This is how Black February was born. The project’s aim is to support these political prisoners, that is, those who are being imprisoned following the onslaught of rapid amendments to Russia’s Criminal Code, which allowed for the incarceration of those opposing the war.
Initially, we wanted to expand the website that was created to support Sasha Skochilenko — a Saint Petersburg-based artist who is currently in pre-trial detention, having been arrested for replacing supermarket price tags with messages that detailed the Russian army’s actions in Mariupol. Our idea was to use this existing site to gather together all the anti-war cases we were already aware of and to create posts dedicated to each defendant’s story; these posts would offer guidance about to how to help them and would also serve the purpose of educating people about new repressive laws in Russia and their consequences. While we were working, we discovered that for many of these cases there was no available information at all — all that was known was the defendants’ first and last names. So we created a “feedback” bot, with which the accused (as well as their relatives, friends and acquaintances) could correspond and flesh out the details of these little-known anti-war cases. It’s important to personalize the anti-war movement, to give it a distinct voice and face. The more subjectivity is restored to the defendant in each case, the easier it is to know her story — the more difficult it is to violate her rights.
The contemporary Russian state is constructed vertically: the release or acquittal of defendants in fictitious and/or political cases only becomes possible if a directive is issued from above. Such directives tend to come when the cost of imprisonment turns out to be too high for the regime. This can be determined by different factors; reputational damage to those in power, how weighty the sentence is, the background of the accused. However, it’s worth emphasizing that public outcry does not by itself affect a case’s outcome.
It’s hard to imagine a story more sensational than the case of Pussy Riot. Many highly influential people — from the Pope to Madonna — spoke out in the artists’ defense and yet they could not affect the verdict. We can also look at the absurd sentences given to the oppositional politician Alexei Navalny. In his case, everything was blindingly clear: an attempted poisoning, fabricated charges, his deteriorating health condition — really, the violation of every conceivable right. Here, too, neither rallies, nor the media, nor international human rights organizations, were able to influence the court’s decision.
There is an exception that confirms this rule — the story of Ivan Golunov. It’s true that the journalist was released but it is unlikely that this was a direct consequence of the mass demonstrations that took place in Moscow. The Russian authorities, with their huge network of law enforcement agencies, do not take rallies seriously and are well aware that most protesters are poorly organized and can hardly defend themselves. Most likely, in Golunov’s case, the ends simply did not justify the means. Public reaction and publicity likely played some role in assessing whether or not these ends were really all that justified.
Public outcry does not guarantee that the accused is released but it can occasionally tip the scales in her favor. It can also prevent violations of her rights during the investigation and while she is in custody. After all, freedom’s not the only thing you can lose in prison — your health, even your life, can be at stake. Since the beginning of the anti-war protests, detainees in several police departments have faced humiliation, beatings and torture. Russia’s penal colonies open up even more opportunities for abuse. First, they are extremely hierarchical and the rank-and-file officers there routinely abuse some detainees in order to intimidate others and maintain the status quo. Torture, violence or even simply threats are effective ways to secure confessions and “move things along.” Second, officers, more than anyone, understand the value of connections and contacts and evaluate your situation from that perspective. If you are an ordinary citizen and your story doesn’t stand out among similar cases, you’re likely to get lost in the news cycle. Without publicity or campaigns, the chances of suffering something even worse than the incarceration itself are higher.
Beyond Russia’s metropolitan center, political persecution and the extinguishing of independent initiatives and human rights organizations began long before Pussy Riot. In Omsk, Novosibirsk and their neighboring cities, for example, “Siberian regionalism” remains one of the most dangerous political positions you can hold to this day: the idea that the territories beyond the Urals are colonized lands, which must be liberated from domination by the center. Many organizations, grassroots associations and even philosophical circles have been destroyed by regional authorities under suspicion of “separatism.” Each region has its forbidden topics. The degree of coercion varies from place to place but as a rule, the further you are from the center, the more brutal the police repression.
A decolonial perspective offers an answer as to why repression is stronger and protection less effective in the regions. Russia is a highly centralized state, where not only cash but also information streams into the largest cities. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, street actions can take on a mass character. As a result, the whole country sees itself through Moscow’s eyes and, moreover, major publications in both Moscow and St. Petersburg focus on local events, personalities and stories. Both cities wield considerable media power, serving as bases for those activists, politically-minded artists and human rights activists with the most social capital.
With the intensification of political repression, the wave of human rights violations that had swept through the regions reached the metropolitan center. At first, this provoked horror and protests from politically active members of society but they soon became accustomed to it. This isn’t because of some mythical “forbearance of the Russian people.” Sooner or later, any media coverage becomes trivialized. As the human rights lawyer Dmitry Zakhvatov has observed, “Russians are now used to the fact that they can face charges for reposting content online. Unfortunately, we will only feel shocked if they start to hang, draw and quarter the accused on the main square.”
During CO/ACTION, an anti-war festival that was held this June in Tbilisi, we came up with a definition for so-called “unpopular” political prisoners. They typically fall into three categories: 1) those without a political or activist background, who, as a result, have no media support; 2) those facing fictitious and/or political charges but whose prior reputation was not “immaculate”; 3) those whose cases are simply too similar to countless others. Political prisoners from the regions most often fall into the first and third categories.
We can tackle this unequal distribution of power in two ways: either by exploiting social capital or by creating striking and “unique” content. The majority of mainstream news outlets are pretty inert and endlessly repeat the same names, as these names are already familiar to them and their audiences. You can overcome this inertia if you have some leverage and your social capital enables you to fight for justice. Our platform, which mediates between the informational field and those in need of support, should bridge this gap between journalists and victims of repression. Once an activist-led platform begins to offer social services or to initiate campaigns, major publications can then turn to it as a source of information.
What is to be done if a political prisoner falls into all three of these categories? Unfortunately, what works best in trying to attract attention to such cases is “shock content,” bordering on horror. People easily forget those cases that do not shock them, remembering only the most appalling stories. Let me give you an example. In the autumn of 2017, six unknown young people were arrested in the city of Penza. They were accused of preparing terrorist acts ostensibly timed to coincide with the upcoming World Cup and 2018 presidential elections. Amid the furor in response to the numerous human rights violations committed during the investigation of their case, independent media outlets were emboldened to begin publishing longreads about torture in the country’s prisons and penal colonies. Soon the whole country was reading about all this — not only about the so-called “Network Case” («Дело Сети» [Delo Seti]). Although the stories of certain of the defendants became increasingly ambiguous, this did not diminish the significance of what was happening in the media. Ordinary prisoners had been tortured long before the anarchists from Penza themselves experienced it. Human rights activists knew about the existence of entire “torture colonies,” where prisoners were afraid to be sent. Compared with ordinary defendants, political prisoners have a higher status and are subject to less stigma, making it easier to associate with them. It’s easier to transpose their experience onto your own, which means that helping and supporting them becomes easier, too.
How, in general, do people perceive the prisoner? In an everyday sense, the “convict” is an outcast, yet she also has a quasi-mythological character, surrounded by a halo of mystery and danger. The convict is romanticized and dehumanized at one and the same time. Both are extreme manifestations of the same psychological response to the anxiety that those with extraordinary experiences or qualities provoke in us, an anxiety which our consciousness then tries to expel. Extraordinary experiences are compelling and therefore easy to romanticize; yet if they are bound up with extreme suffering, those that undergo them are dehumanized. There is another important aspect to perceptions of the prisoner. A crime is a violation of a social contract, which can elicit fears for both personal and public safety. There is a normative consensus regarding the consequences of such violations. The more serious the crime, the more likely it is that any, even the most extreme of punishments, will be accepted by society as proportionate to the crime itself. Punishment and violence against perpetrators becomes all the easier to legitimize the more severe their guilt is represented as being. In this regard, a political prisoner from an “affluent” milieu, who is seemingly being persecuted for her political stance rather than for her deeds, arouses more public sympathy and interest. This is why the image of the innocently convicted person of unimpeachable moral character plays such an important role in campaigns in support of political prisoners. In the “Network Case,” the defendants’ political stance complicated this image and so articles about torture became the main lever of public influence. The creators of Rupression, a website in support of those charged in the “Network Case,” admitted that they had deliberately “bet” on the impact of the media’s coverage of torture precisely because the accused were previously unknown and the charges against them (planning to commit “terrorist” acts) were unlikely to draw sympathy from the public.
The liberal opposition in Russia has a deeply held prejudice against various forms of “non-peaceful” protest. Neither those accused of violence against police officers at rallies nor those accused of terrorism correspond to the image of the political prisoner as an innocent victim of the regime. It’s amazing that in a state that consistently behaves like an ogre towards its citizens there still remains hope for radical changes that could be achieved by peaceful means. Regardless of the fact that we’ve seen an escalation of police violence at mass protests in recent years, defending oneself or losing control is still perceived as a deliberate provocation. Given that the defendants in the “Network Case” belonged to the anarchist community — one of the only groups in Russia which does not refuse the idea of active resistance to the police — it was hardly possible to count on the support of the liberal media.
It turns out that only if a “non-ideal” political prisoner undergoes extraordinary suffering will she be graced by the public’s support and attention. In my opinion, this is an outcome of what we could dub the “randomizer effect,” corresponding to a particular logic of repression that is constructed so as to seem to be wholly arbitrary. Were the criteria for detention and charges clear and were the list of the accused limited to public figures, we might feel less on edge. We’d feel more confident to attend rallies and pickets and to share ‘seditious’ but important news with each other on social networks. The sporadic detention of random people pulled out of from among the crowd — not only an opposition politician or a dissident artist but a teacher from Penza, a security guard from Ryazan, students from Voronezh, etc. — produces a sense both of chaos and of total control. Whatever I do, they will come for me, they will see me and, most likely, they will punish me. But when exactly this will happen, which of my actions are potentially dangerous and which are not, I do not — and cannot — know.
This “randomizer effect” is both the cause of the collective depression that plagues politically active citizens and a partial answer to the question as to why Russian society has become so atomized. If you stay informed, the sheer number of political cases and their scope constantly jumps out at you. If you remain disengaged, the tactics behind this “randomizer effect” prevent you from realizing that you live in an autocratic state. Given the problematic coverage of “unpopular” political cases, it’s easy to grasp why some Russian citizens are still certain that they live in a country, in which “everything’s okay.”
In order to shatter this certainty, it’s vital to disseminate information about political prisoners as widely as possible, breaking people out of their usual media bubbles. As long as political repression is not taken to be a common and public problem, it is unlikely that anything will change. If citizens en masse do not focus their gaze on the political landscape, some day they will find an unblinking, “all-seeing eye” staring right at them: the logic of repression will do its work until there is not a single free person left in the country. It’s an apocalyptic picture, no doubt. However, having imprisoned all the citizens under trumped-up charges, the enforcement agencies will — by inertia — continue to arrest each other. This would be a ridiculous fantasy if it were not so close to the reality we find ourselves in after February 24. It’s not outlandish but scary. “Horror content” works where empathy fails.