— How did your initiative come about, and what is the nature of your work?
Anya: All participants in the initiative have long been involved in supporting prisoners, including some not on human rights organizations’ formal lists of political prisoners. [Note: The Memorial Human Rights Center keeps one of those lists.] After the start of the full-scale invasion, news sources reported on the first direct actions against the war. We started looking for the people who carried them out, because we noticed that existing human rights organizations were not covering arrests for militant activities and were not showing support for the accused. Out of this circle of comrades, the Solidarity Zone initiative emerged.
We assist people who are persecuted for anti-war actions or their preparation. All of them are now in pre-trial detention. The first court hearings have started for Igor Paskar [the first person accused of terrorism by arson], but others are ongoing. From these cases, we know a few people who have already been sentenced, such as Anastasia Levashova. She threw a Molotov cocktail at police officers and was sentenced to two years. We didn’t deal with this case ourselves: we started looking for Anastasia’s information, but Sasha Graf, who has supported female prisoners for a long time, got in touch with her faster.
Yevgenia: Most often, it’s not the prisoners who contact us, we try to find them. In many cases, they don’t have the opportunity to make contact because they are taken straight to the detention center on arrest. However, we have learned how to find them even with very little information (such as the name or place of detention). We locate the pre-trial detention facilities where they are held, send lawyers there to find out case details (relevant article of the Criminal Code, help required, whether relatives are in touch), and offer our support. We pay lawyers from donations, but our assistance is not limited to that. We try to make it more comprehensive. For example, we send parcels, because pre-trial detention centers hardly provide anything, and many essential items are missing. We inform relatives and friends about where the detainees are held and tell them how they can support them.
— Why are other organizations not involved in the cases you focus on?
Yevgenia: There are many reasons for that. Human rights organizations have strict criteria for assistance. Agora, for example, doesn’t work with those who plead guilty. OVD-info helps only those who have participated in public protest. Many people don’t want to work with the authors of so-called “violent actions”, even though sabotage of facilities such as military recruitment offices can hardly be called “violence” in the literal sense.
Anya: On the one hand, it’s good when an organization has a defined focus. Before February 24th, direct action was hardly a mass phenomenon in Russia. So there was no need to include such protesters in the criteria for support. On the other hand, there is also the emotional factor. For example, if the case was initiated for causing slight harm to a police officer (such as the famous “tumbler”) during a protest, and if the person refused to plead guilty, it would fall under the criteria. At the same time, if the person resisted and admitted to this, then the case seems suspicious.
— What is the attitude in Russia toward those who carry out direct actions? Is there a stigma attached to such prisoners?
Anya: The protests in Belarus significantly impacted the perception of protest in Russia. The visible part of the liberal community defined these protests as mass and purely peaceful, leaving the other part invisible: guerrillas, direct actions, and forceful resistance to state agents. In the Facebook field, let’s say, unbelievable Belarusians who give flowers to armed officers are a very persistent myth. This perception shapes the image of a “dream protest” in Russia, in which one can come to the street nonviolently and declare disagreement with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But these issues are not resolved this way. Not that this myth emerged in 2020, but it gained significant popularity then.
“We noticed that the existing human rights organizations were not covering arrests for militant actions and were not showing their support for the accused”
Yevgenia: A lot has changed because of the war. People who engage in direct action no longer seem strange, underground radicals. Many people have started to realize that the person who set fire to the military enlistment office might be a neighbor who couldn’t stand the horror of what was happening. Although none of those we help are recognized as political prisoners, their names appear at letter-writing evenings, exhibitions, and in the media. Of course, there are still those who say, “Oh, this is too radical; can we please not include it in the program!” but far fewer than before.
I also haven’t heard anyone saying these people don’t need any support. But they are not recognized as political prisoners, temporarily or even permanently. We recently had a conversation with Sergey Davidis from the Memorial. He noticed that for most people, it has become clear that prisoners must be supported regardless of their status. However, the Memorial can only consider the cases we work with after sentences So we haven’t met this problem yet.
— What portion of direct actions are planned and executed by experienced activists, aware of safety measures, and what portion are desperate acts of inexperienced individuals?
Yevgenia: Those who are ill prepared get arrested more often. News outlets rarely report successful actions, for example, railroad sabotages. This summer, the Trans-Siberian Railway was paralyzed for quite a while. Nobody was arrested. This is an example of successful and well-planned sabotage based on sound security principles because nobody got harmed. Most people we help have acted more emotionally, we don’t know how well they prepared. The problem is that safety protocols available on the internet cannot be fully trusted. For example, they say you need a separate cellphone with an anonymous sim card, but fail to mention that these phones must be kept in the same space as your personal device. Usually, people keep them in the same apartment. It seems a minor detail, but it can quickly get you arrested. Overall, it is hard to find reliable information.
— Had you had any experience of Russian “justice” and the Russian prison system before the Solidarity Zone? How did it affect you, and does it help you now?
Yevgenia: We all had similar experiences where our loved ones fell into the hands of that system. I had my own experience of incarceration. I spent only a few months in detention, but I learned what it is like. Friends were put in jail because of active political involvement. This is how my human rights work started. When a close person is kidnapped on the street, and you find out about a criminal case, you have to do something, and those skills add up.
Anya: My story as a human rights activist started with friends and loved ones. It often turns out that the experience can be applied in other situations. We invented many things while supporting people in the Network case. That’s when the idea of exhibitions in support of prisoners was born. The format continues in use: quite often there are exhibitions of the prisoners’ and solidarizing artists’ graphic works. This is great, because it attracts an audience that is less involved in supporting prisoners.
— All the cases you work with are qualified as “terrorist.” What are the peculiarities of Russian law enforcement in this respect?
Yevgenia: There are a lot of nuances in Russia! If we talk about the cases we are dealing with now, a lot depends on the region, the department that initiates the case, the number of cases it needs to open according to the monthly plan, and so on. Some people are charged with property damage, others with terrorism, for the same actions.
“A lot has changed because of the war. People who engage in direct action no longer seem like some strange, underground radicals”
Anya: We had an interesting story. We were knocking ourselves out, trying to find a person. It seemed obvious that we needed look for him in the detention center. But he was nowhere. A month later, we found out that he had been fined 500 rubles and freed. But that was an exception. Usually, they make a case for property damage, and then, following orders from above, they turn such cases into “Terrorist Acts” under Article 205 of the Criminal Code.
Yevgenia: Law enforcement and the defense work procedurally. I went to public defense school a couple of years ago. At one of the lectures, I heard the idea that laws and rights hardly work, so if you are a defender, you have to look for loopholes in the criminal procedure code, use them, and establish a relationship with the judge. Litigation looks more like gambling than something that works by the rules, where you can act according to a specific plan. In some cases, if an officer or prosecutor makes a mistake or forgets something, it can be used to the advantage of the defense. And the laws don’t work. For example, there is inadmissible evidence in court, which, in theory, can be removed from the case file. I can’t remember the last time this happened with evidence for the prosecution. But defense evidence is often excluded.
— How does the Russian penitentiary system work, and how do detention facilities differ from those in other countries?
Yevgenia: In Russia, the cost of incarcerating an individual is lower than in any other country. The suicide rate in our prisons is one of the highest in the world. These things are essential, but apart from that, I and other Solidarity Zone participants believe that the penitentiary system generally does not work and does not help people improve. Whether one prison is better than another is not the point: it shouldn’t be there in the first place. It is difficult to talk about what kind of people are in Russian prisons and why because there is no reliable data. In all the Federal Penitentiary Service’s statistics, only the first article in the sentence is taken into account. If a person is charged with several crimes (like Anton Zhuchkov, with the preparation of a terrorist attack, and involvement in the drug trade), the statistics will show only one offense.
Anya: From conversations with prisoners, I conclude that use of Article 228 [Illegal acquisition, storage, transportation, manufacture, processing of drugs], which is typical in Russia, should be classified as political. Then people commonly referred to as “political prisoners” don’t sit in a vacuum. They have cellmates about whom they tell us. I’ve only heard stories about ordinary users, who are going to be in jail for a huge part of their lives. I had never heard about people who have made fantastic profits from the drug trade.
“When a person close to you is kidnapped on the street, and you find out about a criminal case, you just have to do something, and those skills add up”
Yevgenia: The sale of drugs is considered the most severe offense under Article 228 of the Criminal Code. But an oral statement is enough to “prove” the deal: “He shared it with me/gave me some drugs”. Regardless of the amount, even if it’s minuscule, the user can go to prison for 15 years. Because the stigma in our society is so strong, there is rarely any public attention, even to cases where drugs were obviously planted. There is virtually no public support, and when people hear about drugs, they say, “Well, that’s a murky story!” All this affects both users, who should not be in jail, and people who have nothing to do with drugs.