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Nikita Kulachenkov

‘My story is probably the most grotesque’

In 2014, Nikita Kulachenkov worked in Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) in Moscow. With Navalny turning 38 in June, his friends had to think about a gift. They took inspiration from a memory about Alexey’s tweet from two months ago about a poster on a fence in Vladimir town, east of Moscow.

Together with his colleague Georgiy Alburov, Nikita travelled to Vladimir a day before Navalny’s birthday. They found the poster and made a gift to the birthday boy a day after, on 4 June. Surprisingly, Navalny’s flat was searched two weeks later, the poster seized and recorded as a ‘stolen piece of art’. Law enforcement launched prosecution against Nikita Kulachenkov for a theft of ‘Bad Good Person’, a poster created by artist Sergey Sotov.

Nikita fled Russia. He ended up in Lithuania as a political refugee. A native of Moscow, now based in Vilnius, Nikita was even on lists of Interpol because of the pennyworth poster. Though the Interpol’s international arrest warrant was immediately cancelled following Kulachenkov’s refugee status in Lithuania, it has no period of limitation in Russia. At least for as long as the current government stays in power, says Nikita: “It will stay forever, until this USSR 2.0 gets over”.

Bad Good Pelican

In 2017, we are taking a picture of Nikita Kulachenkov near a wall of a house in Vilnius with a graffiti of a red pelican. Created in dozens by an unknown graffitist around the city, the paintings depict pelicans: wearing glasses, a hat, a tie etc. For Nikita, the pelicans serve as a Lithuanian equivalent of what he ‘stole’ in Russia. As Nikita jokes, even a dog eaten in a Korean café could be a ground for prosecuting him, as this could be qualified as cruel treatment of animals. He claims there are officers in Russia monitoring activists 24/7 and producing a criminal case out of anything that can be interpreted this way.

Before working with Navalny, Nikita had individually investigated into economic crimes for eight years. He enjoyed warm welcome at the Foundation: “Cool, come work with us”.

“I had made a long journey, starting with participation in Strategy 31 (Russia-wide civil movement for defending the freedom of assembly, Article 31 of the Constitution). I participated in protests of Limonov, who is a crazy guy, in 2007 and 2008. I ended up quitting my normal office job and starting to cooperate with Navalny Foundation”, - shares Nikita.

Kulachenkov had supposed that cooperation with Navalny could lead to something bad for him. However, he did not think it would happen so fast. He spent only a year in the Foundation: “Just having settled in, I received ‘my own criminal case’, as I joke”. Kulachenkov did not believe the case would be actually activated. Yet, from the very outset of the case, Nashi movement had targeted him. Days after the search, Nikita saw the allegedly stolen poster on a huge billboard on Kutuzovsky Avenue in Moscow, shouting: “What is good and what is bad?”. It stroke him that Nashi activists had easily received access to the physical evidence in FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) case, scanned and printed it out in a large format. Simultaneously, the Russian media launched a smear campaign about the ‘thieves working in FBK’ and Navalny himself keeping the stolen ‘canvas’.

Nikita was actually an initiator of the ‘theft’: “Let’s go for it? – I said. – Let’s go”. There were 40 or more posters. We found exactly the one Alexey had posted, and brought it to Moscow. For two months afterwards, the Investigative Committee and FSB pressurised the crazy man who produced these posters. He is an odd man; he fits a term ‘local madman’ very well, a kind of town’s specialty with his unusual paintings. It took them months to change his mind from ‘it’s great someone needs them’ to ‘I feel pain for this poster taken away from me’.”

In spring 2014, some people who claimed they represented local administration, interviewed Sergey Sotov, 66, an artist and a yard-keeper with 26 years of experience. We have no official information on who the interviewers were: investigators, Nashi activists or someone else. Sotov would paint on pieces of paper, glue them on cardboards and expose his works on a long fence. Left under rain and sun, marked by someone’s writings and removed like old playbills, the pictures would be replaced by new ones on regular basis. The artist would never have thought of reporting someone who had taken them.

“When reporters from NTV found him, he said that someone must have liked his poster if they had torn them off and taken away. When asked if he had ever tried to sell them, he said no. Then they asked him why he had filed a complaint, and he answered: “Some unknown people just forced me into a car and said to sign a paper”, - Nikita is quoting events of four years ago.

In his first interviews, Sotov even stated that he had tried to recall his signature and called the prosecutor’s office, where he had been said that the statement was lost and promised to call back once found. Situation changed for Sotov after some time: he would come to the court with a jeep, with his own lawyers, and present statements he would not be able to produce himself, in Nikita’s opinion. The artist has also organised several personal exhibitions, participated in the collective Naïve Art exhibition, with his works exposed in Moscow galleries and some ending up in private collections.

An amnesty for me!?

Nikita called Sotov from Lithuania to Vladimir to apologise: “What a sad story. Unwillingly, we forced him into this story and signing an accusation”.

Nikita says Sotov has stopped exposing his works on the fence. “The Investigative Committee asked the Vladimir City Administration whether it is legal to expose paintings there. They answered no; it is illegal, since there is no permit for this kind of exposition. Which basically means that I had to remove the poster to terminate the administrative offence!” – shares Nikita, his own unexpected revelation giving him a good laugh.

The artist Sotov, who has passed, inter alia, a certain chauvinistic period in his creative path, estimated the cost of his poster “Bad Good Person” at 100 roubles first and at 5.000 roubles sometime after. Anyway, it is just 70 euro. According to Nikita, there had been several expert assessments of the work, until one of them revealed the value thereof sufficient for launching criminal prosecution. As a result, a yearlong trial sentenced Nikita’s ‘accomplice’ Georgiy Alburov to 240 hours of community service. Yet, he was granted an amnesty in honour of 70th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War.

Wary of a tougher punishment, Kulachenkov had left the country before the trial. He probably could have been treated the same way as Alburov. Nikita admits that his departure might have made his situation worse: “Community service is better than emigration. However, I could not have assumed that I would get off with community service, with all these searches at my home, my parents’ home and at the Foundation along with phone tapping and convoying to interrogations. Alexey (Navalny – ed.) was under house arrest then, with a threat of being imprisoned. In the end, his brother (Oleg Navalny – ed.) was imprisoned. It was happening when I was in Cyprus, making up my mind on whether I should go home or not”.

Russian FSB called to Vilnius

Nikita says that FSB investigators offered him a safe return under a condition of eventual travel restrictions. It sounds better than coming back and being arrested at the border. However, Kulachenkov found it abhorrent to make deals with the Investigative Committee and improve their statistics, so that they can claim they have convicted two persons in Navalny team. He strained thinking of facing a trial in a falsified criminal case: “There would be people sitting, a judge, a prosecutor and lawyers. They would all pretend that this is justice, a real trial. I was not going to participate in this”.

Nikita remembers the day when he left Moscow: “I packed by pack-sack and said good-bye to my granddad, whom I am not sure I will ever see again. I left hopeful that this grotesque would not result in a criminal case. Apparently, I underestimated the absurdity of this machine”.

At first, investigators would call Nikita from Moscow to Vilnius, asking: “Nikita, why are you escaping us?” One of the calls was particularly interesting, Nikita says. Before getting a refugee status, Nikita was staying in Lithuania on a visa. When it expired, he travelled to Belarus to prolong it, a stupid idea as he admits now. In Belarus, he was arrested on a ground of the Interpol warrant ordered by Russia. Instead of 8 hours, a term allowed by law, Kulachenkov stayed arrested for 15 hours. Sitting on a bench, Nikita observed a Belarusian border officer typing with one finger “FSB Russia” in a search engine. He found a phone number, but his calls to Russia for instructions were ineffective. At some point, someone responded to his call; luckily, they failed to get his point and hung up. Belarusians were getting nervous, an arrival of a lawyer making it worse. They did not know what to do, said Nikita. “Then I told them: what if I just sign a paper that I voluntarily show up to the Russian FSB. It made them happy and they said OK”. Relieved, they let him go. Nikita came back to Lithuania by a train. Two weeks later, a Russian investigator called him and asked, “Nikita, why didn’t you come? You promised!”

Nikita’s parents and an older daughter visit him in Lithuania. Sometimes he meets them in a neutral state. One day, being under protection of the Lithuanian government, he travelled to Cyprus to meet his family. He was arrested again because of the Russia-ordered Interpol warrant and spent about a month in a Cypriot prison.

“I feel definitely safe in Lithuania. However, I am still on Interpol lists. Fun is fun, but once on a list, even if deleted, I always risk getting to a country that has not deleted my entry. They would imprison me, and it would take them days to look at the case. Or, if this is a country which loves Russia very much, they can just agree informally”, - supposes Kulachenkov.

“I am sad”

“Am I a victim? – Nikita asks himself. – I did not want to leave Russia. I am not going to stay in Lithuania or elsewhere. I had many opportunities to find a job abroad. I have studied in the US. However, I never wanted to emigrate. Living in Lithuania has its advantages, yet. I enjoy flying around Europe for 30 euro. In Russia, it is financially inaccessible. Even if you can book a ticket, a flight takes 4 hours. From Lithuania, you can get to any city in 1,5 or 2 hours for a weekend, if you plan slightly in advance”.

Nikita says very good housing is affordable in Vilnius, costing about a quarter of his income. Finding a good house with a yard in a quiet place is challenging in Moscow. He agrees with many who say that pavements are bad in Vilnius. However, affordable quality housing compensates this.

“Are there things in Vilnius that I would long for, if returned to Moscow? This is a good question, - says Nikita. – There are such things, I think. It is so convenient: if you want a walk in a real forest, you can drive for 10 minutes and have it. Or if you want to ride a bike through wild nature, you drive for 15 minutes, take out your bike and enjoy woods, fields and rivers. There are such places north of Vilnius. It is unavailable in Moscow. Even after an hour on a train, you don’t reach real nature; it would be just a kind of a park. As I can ride 50 or 60 kilometres per day, it is quite sad to be restricted to a park, 10 kilometres long and 5 kilometres wide. Here, you are free to travel long distances. Forests are clean and fresh”.

On one of his bike trips, Nikita had a different experience. He happened to ride through Vingis Park in Vilnius on the Day of Russia. “It looked a bit scary. I think it was in 2015. Some people were waving flags of Donetsk People’s Republic”, - remembers Nikita.

Nikita promises to vote at local elections. “(As a refugee – ed.), I cannot participate in national voting. However, I will willingly study the platforms of municipal candidates, discuss them and vote at local polls”.

Nikita also has childhood memories related to Lithuania. A week before starting school, he participated in the Baltic Way, a peaceful action on 23 August 1989. It happened when he and his family were visiting their distant relative, a Lithuanian who had suffered Soviet repressions. So far, he has not found his face on the action photos in Gediminas Castle museum.

“There are many things I can tell about Vilnius. Yet, I am sad. I have spent all of my life in a city of 20 million where I had lots of friends and many opportunities to find new ones. Opportunities are 20 times more limited here”, - concludes Nikita.

New audience of FBK

Nikita Kulachenkov continues working for FBK distantly. “I had to make staying at home my new habit. Though I was used to work away from office in Russia, too; yet, I had an opportunity to come to office and to meet people. I am also missing my teaching profession, since I can’t do it here”.

Nikita says the Foundation has about 30 employees now; out of them, three are involved in investigations. “They also hire many people for producing websites and their content by making our findings user-friendly and fun-looking. It is not enough just to investigate and publish your findings, because only few dull fishes read serious studies”, - shares Nikita.

Kulachenkov says that their readership is overwhelmed with written studies, so they had to find a new one: “People are tired of reading our stories. They are well aware of actual situation in Russia. However, we have learned that Youtube has a vast audience ready to watch movies. We have launched some. People were interested. The new audience does not want to read. They don’t care about investigations; yet, they find our movies fun”.

Nikita says they have been focusing on Youtube audience since last autumn. “The people who saw our Youtube movies took to the streets in March (26 March 2017 – ed.). It is difficult to estimate how many, but it was very visible. The question being, whether they are going to do it again”, - he is not sure.

It Nikita’s opinion, raising awareness about financial and other offences of Russian officials is not a goal in itself, since Russians understand the reality well enough. The point is to provoke dissatisfaction and rejection: “You can ask a taxi-driver in any Russian city, and he will tell you about their governor’s and mayor’s houses or cars. With a salary of 1.5 million roubles per year, they drive cars costing 5 million, such as Land Cruisers. People are aware that officials steal and rig elections. They have been hearing for 15 years that it is OK for a mayor to behave this way. Therefore, our task is to go beyond telling them that their mayor is a thief. This knowledge should be converted into understanding that this is wrong”.