Vsevolod Chernozub, an editor, author, political activist, currently a political emigrant and, since recently, a political scientist, can easily detect local undercover agents in public places even in Lithuania: “They have some unknowingly detectable features in the way they act”. Vsevolod says that he has been detained more than 50 times in Moscow.
Vsevolod Chernozub was a member of governing bodies of the united democratic movement Solidarnost, established in Russia in 2008. Originators of the movement included Boris Nemtsov, Garry Kasparov, Ilya Yashin, and Vladimir Bukovsky.
Vsevolod spent his childhood in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine. He studied in RGGU (Russian State University for the Humanities, transl.), Moscow: “It was the very beginning of 2000s when Mikhail Khodorkovsky took the trusteeship over the university through Yukos company. Leonid Nevzlin (one of the Yukos managers, ed.), became a rector, and Khodorkovsky the head of the Trust Board”.
Nevzlin emigrated to Israel in 2003. The Russian court sentenced him in absentia to life imprisonment on a charge of organisation of murders. Khodorkovsky was arrested in autumn of the same year. Chernozub says that RGGU was the university of the liberal youth from Moscow and the rest of Russia. “It was the reason behind Khodorkovsky’s interest. He had ambitious plans to change the country. He wanted his own large personal pro-humanities elite. Many of my study mates are rather well known people, such as Krongauz family. The Krongauz senior is an outstanding linguist. His daughter is a creator of many media projects; she is in Riga now, working on Meduza. Tikhon Dzyadko was an anchor of Dozhd. Alexey Durnovo works at Ekho Moskvy and is the editor-in-chief of Diletant magazine. Our university was a focal point. Imprisonment of Khodorkovsky politicised many in RGGU”. 10 years later, Vsevolod ended up in Lithuania as a political refugee.
“Many people in Moscow were long afraid of taking to the streets after the tough dispersal of communists defending the Supreme Council in 1993, when Yeltsin used tanks for shooting. Many hated communists. Some people supported them, and some opposed them, but what mattered was that many of them were killed. It was a civil war episode, - says Chernozub. – With hundreds shot dead and a huge turmoil, people were afraid of street protests for 15 years”.
10 or 15 years later, this trauma passed. A new generation saw ‘coloured revolutions’ in Georgia, Ukraine, Serbia, and Kyrgyzstan.
“Angry about electoral fraud, people protested (after the presidential elections in 2012, ed.). Law enforcers detained hundreds; out of them, one hundred was sentenced to the administrative arrest of 10 to 15 days. The wave of Bolotnaya rallies followed, with 70.000 protesting. At Sakharov Square, more than 100.000 people showed up. People felt they can make a difference, - remembers Chernozub. – Yet, when Putin won elections in 2012, only 20.000 protested. This number could have been fantastic a year earlier; however, it felt like a defeat after the previous bigger protests. Our leaders promised to keep fighting, but the overall anticipation was negative”.
Vsevolod says that they decided to call one more rally before the presidential inauguration: “We wanted to show that many are unhappy about the re-election of Putin. We thought there would be 10 or maybe 20 thousand protesters; all of a sudden, more than 100.000 participated. It was May and warm weather. This was when the Bolotnaya Square happened. The police provoked turmoil and riots, leading to a bloody battle. It gave the ground to open up the Bolotnaya case on mass riots and attempted coup. Many were arrested; I was on many photos and videos”.
Khimki Forest vs. Bolotnaya Square
“In my subculture, I had some public profile. With my colleagues, we believed that it gave certain immunity. At first, they would arrest random students or pensioners. They would representatively select someone to arrest from the right wing and left wing youth. This was their terror tactic. They switched to my community later”.
Vsevolod decided to leave for Kiev in 2013 and to wait until things settle down. “We had the Khimki Forest case some years earlier. This was a long-standing deforestation case with many people involved. People from a private security firm together with neo-Nazi attacked the (anti-deforestation – transl.) camp in Khimki and beat up all the camp members. Hundreds of Moscow anti-fascist activists gathered in Khimki to hold a march, attack the local administration with explosion cartridges and leave a lot of graffiti. They showed courage to oppose assaults”.
Chernozub says it scared the Russian authorities; they launched a large prosecution and arrested several Khimki activists. “Dozens emigrated to avoid arrests, but came back after a year or one and a half. The case was closed, resulting in formal sentences to two persons. We expected the Bolotnaya case to end in nothing as well,” – explains Chernozub. The Russian law enforcement announced in summer 2013 that the period of limitation in Bolotnaya case is prolonged up to ten years.
“Shortly before that, Leonid Razvozhayev was abducted in Kiev. He was trying to apply for asylum there. They also wanted to abduct Filipp Galtsov who now lives in Sweden, - tells our interlocutor. – They accused this 20-year old guy as if he were the key initiator of the burst-through at Bolotnaya and the leader of the radical youth fighting the police. He had to spend weeks at home, leaving nowhere. The UN hired guards for him and offered shelter in their office space”.
Chernozub says that both Ukrainian and Russian security services watched him in Kiev: “It was annoying. We were concerned over possible deportation or some other interventions”. It encouraged Vsevolod to leave Kiev soon.
“Experience of normality”
Vsevolod came to Lithuania in the end of 2013. Half a year later, he received a political asylum. “Lithuania had a ready infrastructure for hosting refugees, - affirms Chernozub. – Local human rights defenders understood how they could help us; they had experience of assisting Belarusians during their crackdown in 2010-11. Many received the status of refugees and learnt to find a job and to survive”.
A law on foreign agents was in action in Russia already. Some organisations started moving to the “Middle West” or “Far West”. Vsevolod notes that Lithuania has a centuries-long record of offering free shelter to refugees from lands of Moscow: “I studied at a university established by an historian, and I have definitely read the correspondence between Kurbsky and Ivan the Terrible (ed.: the Russian military commander Andrey Kurbsky escaped the disgrace of Ivan the Terrible in the Great Duchy of Lithuania). The Old Believers live here since old times, too (ed.: the Russian Empire formally labelled adherents of the Old Belief as ‘schismatics’ until 1905, leading to prosecution by church and secular authorities). I did not know many of them before; I meet them often now”.
The presence of Russian-speaking community helped Vsevolod to opt for Lithuania, with his wife then pregnant and in need of a Russian-speaking doctor.
Vsevolod says that Russians are not inclined to typical diaspora life: “Russians do not socialise with each other very much. We have contacts in our political community, and not so much with the rest of Russians here. We are working on creating a political environment. Holding events, inviting Russian experts, sociologists and political scientists. Some people come here on purpose, while others just agree to give a lecture as they are passing by. Events range between public and rather private, with 20 people coming together in a café. In general, Russians are worse in networking than Poles, Jews or Ukrainians”.
Lithuania is remarkable for its ‘experience of normality’, outlines Vsevolod: “In Russia or Ukraine, you keep feeling that the world is not normal and everything is upside down. People in Lithuania find it difficult to grasp that policeman might be someone who is not performing his duty; he is just someone wearing a badge and carrying a gun, who is preoccupied with his ‘small business’, such as controlling someone’s vegetable kiosk, patronising or grabbing someone’s business”.
Chernozub says that many people in social services of Russia hate their job: “They use the public service for their personal gain through informal fees, bribing etc. Supposed to help others, the social workers and police officers actually hate their job”. Vsevolod says that he does not have experience of living in a detention centre for refugees in Pabradė, Lithuania, because his family rented a flat in Vilnius; he has heard some testimonies, though. “People’s impressions of Pabradė are predominantly negative, - he says. – Yet, people working outside Pabradė, e.g. in Rūkla or Caritas, are very different. They are kind and compassionate. It surprised me, because no one loves refugees anywhere, even in Europe. Still, they work hard to help us”.
Along with short distance to his child’s pre-school, the comfort of living in Lithuania is about friendly neighbours in his apartment block, says Vsevolod: “It makes a quality of life much better”. However, Chernozub, as a foreigner, finds it difficult to fulfil himself in Lithuanian-language environment: “I will stay a foreigner forever. My kid might be local. As a human being, I feel comfortable here. Still, I cannot fulfil myself as a journalist or columnist, because people use a different language here. I will never be good enough in Lithuanian to use it in journalism”.
In Vsevolod’s opinion, for a Russian-speaking person interested in politics, journalism or public life, Moscow is the best place for professional self-fulfilment. “Kiev is turning into an autonomous player because of certain developments. Still, even many humanities-oriented Kievans traditionally see Moscow as their capital. To become the most famous Russian-speaking scholar, one has to live in Moscow; to become a famous Russian-speaking author, the path goes through Moscow, too. This is a vast and endless cultural industry”.
Chernozub says that he personally knows many contemporary Russian artists, Pussy Riot activists, managers of festivals and actions, directors, and poets. “I was detained with a film director, my age mate, in his 30ies. He created a movie about ‘Lyokha the Stud’ (“How Viktor "the Garlic" Took Alexey "the Stud" to the Nursing Home”, ed.), receiving many awards now. Fyodor Amirov, one of the most gifted pianists of Russia and the world, was together with us in the police station”.
OMON is like a shot
Vsevolod considers 2005 as the beginning of his political activism. “I have been detained more than 50 times. The first time was 11 years ago, in September. People would make jokes, calling it my baptism. Mass detentions started around 2006. In early 2000s, everyone was free to protest anywhere. Even Limonov’s activists would stand near the Kremlin, shouting “Revolution!” and “Freedom of assembly!” Since 2004 or 2005, they started step-by-step prohibiting almost all street actions”.
Authorities banned the commemoration of Beslan school terror attack that activists wanted to hold several years after the combat assault. “The ban shocked human rights defenders. Yet, they dared to go out to the street as a matter of principle, to show that assemblies must not be banned. This is a gross violation of constitutional rights and the European convention. Lev Ponamoryov and Yury Samodurov, the-then director of the Sakharov Centre (the Sakharov Centre had to reopen in Kaunas in December 2017 following its recognition as a foreign agent in Russia – ed.), organised the action. We were standing near the Solovetsky Stone at Lubyanka, holding black posters “In Loving Memory”. Chernozub remembers a crowd of police officers running up to them and shouting:
Stop your meeting; otherwise we will detain all of you.
On what grounds?
Your assembly is banned.
Assemblies cannot be banned.
We don’t care; we have an order.
Show your documents.
We’ll show documents at the police station.
“It was police that time. In contrast to the OMON (riot police, transl.), regular police officers take longer to detain someone; they round up and wring hands. If you say, I’m not going anywhere, and sit down, they take you up, they might kick you, and throw into a bus, literally. OMON is different. Like a shot, three two-meter toll guys come up to you and take you under your arms; you have no time to react. They are silent like wood”.
Vsevolod notes that regular police officers were holding a girl on a well-known photograph during the detentions of the Don’t Call Him Dimon action (26 March 2017, ed.). “They always produce such foolish pictures. When OMON comes, they just grab you on a go, like a sack. If you resist, they choke you to make you quiet immediately”.
Vsevolod admits that detentions always cause stress impossible to get used to. “Sometimes they apprehend you immediately after your arrival. Sometimes you just come and say hello to your colleague, and then you don’t even notice how you end up in a police bus. Or you see someone following you from your house entrance to a metro station, and there is another one meeting you there”.
Vsevolod says that he can easily detect a local undercover officer in Vilnius, too. “Follow me to the train station, and I will show you a policeman in civilian clothes. Yes, I mean a local, Lithuanian one. They are easy to spot because of the way they act. I spot them in McDonald’s, sitting there and drinking tea”.
In Chernozub’s opinion, Lithuanian police officers are different from Russian ones, because the latter do not catch violators. “If someone parks improperly or beats a neighbour drunk, they do not deal with it. No, they come to work in the morning, they start their computer and check their files, and then they plan arrests, attacks or threats on someone or inventing fake evidence against someone”.
As explained by Chernozub, Russian police or OMON officers are never spontaneous. “If they are cruel, such was an order. With no order, they will do nothing. Well, they might overdo sometimes to show their loyalty, or to grab someone. As a rule, they will not react to any marches or street blockings, if there was no order to attack. If the order was to be soft, they will smile and shake your hand”.
Police’s press service is very professional and well-resourced: “Their press team is responsible for the image. When you meet someone from there, they have very good teeth and they are always sun-tanned. They are nice and attractive, like celebrities. A colonel of Moscow police press office looks like a TV star. He would hug and kiss you. You try to dodge, he comes off, and then a crowd covers you and brings you away. I think they would shoot me down easily, if ordered”, - assumes Vsevolod.
Chernozub says the police is always very thorough in their public statements and press releases: “They highlight key points to instil an opinion that the street action was illegal. They construct an alternative reality, in which they are seemingly right”.