This Week’s Highlights
The repression continues even after the Navalny protests stop; the company behind the largest fuel spill in Arctic history has to pay record damages; authorities clear the abandoned tent city at Russia’s ‘ground zero’ for the environmental uprising; plus, we report on the fate of two queer Chechens kidnapped by the Russian security forces and sent back to torturers in southern Russia.
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Protests Ended, but Protesters Keep Getting Jailed
In the aftermath of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s trial, Russia’s security forces are still locking up the thousands of protesters who took to the streets across the country. In the two weeks since Navalny’s arrest, authorities have opened almost five thousand cases targeting pro-democracy protesters. This week we bring to light stories of Russians jailed for peacefully protesting for a democratic Russia.
INSIDE SAKHAROVO. We visited a detention center in Moscow that is usually reserved for migrants awaiting deportation but now keeps hundreds of political prisoners kidnapped from the Navalny protests. It’s already overcrowded. There’s also a queue of police vans with detainees waiting for vacancies. Near the building, family members are waiting in line to bring their loved ones food, water, bedding, and warm clothes. The guards must review everything. People exchange slippers and toothbrushes in line as they wait.
“The line moves slowly. By three o'clock at the checkpoint, about fifty people are milling about in the cold. All have huge bags with food, water, bedding, items for basic hygiene. Newcomers also arrive, shouting, as if they were in the doctor’s office: ‘Who is the last in line?’” describes our reporter Lilit Sargsyan.
OUR COLLEAGUE RECOLLECTS WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE CAGED AT THE SAKHAROVO DETENTION CENTER. Journalist and Novaya contributor Ali Feruz once spent months in Sakharovo in 2017 while Russian authorities were planning to send him back to torturers in his home country of Uzbekistan. It was a politically-motivated attack on Feruz for his reporting on abuse of labor migrants by Russian officials. Following international outrage, he was deported to Germany instead.
“IT IS NOT EXACTLY A PRISON; IT IS A MAX-SECURITY FACILITY. The guards let dogs inside the fenced-in area at night. The cells are for two or four people each. On the first floor, there are large chambers that can accommodate 10 to 16 people,” writes journalist Ali Feruz, who was detained in Sakharovo in 2017 and threatened with deportation to Uzbekistan. “In my double room, there were two windows with bars, an iron bunk bed, an iron table with a bench, an iron cabinet, a broom, a basin, a bucket, a sink, a toilet, and two video cameras in the top corner that watched us around the clock,” Feruz adds.
CRUEL TREATMENT OF DETAINEES. There is a growing number of testimonies documenting the abuse of the caged protesters. One went viral. On the morning of February 2, the outlet OVD-Info published a video with a harrowing tale. A young man reads a message in an overcrowded police van: “We were detained at a peaceful rally on January 31, and we are now asking for help and calling attention to the inhuman conditions in which we are being held. More than forty hours have passed since our arrest, and we are still being tortured. We have not yet been fed. For the last nine hours, we have been on a bus where people are forced to stand. We are unable to move. We have no water; we are not allowed to go to the toilet,” he says.
RUSSIA’S NEW SOCIAL CONTRACT IS PENDING. The protests staged in the wake of Navalny's trial are extraordinary and will probably change the country much more than previous years’ demonstrations, warns our political editor Kirill Martynov in this week’s column. Although the events are taking place on the same city streets, the stakes are much higher this time. The end of the protests will likely usher in a new type of social contract that will impose the powerful’s will over the people.
BUT FIRST, MORE OPPRESSION TO COME. The luxury of a decent human life — one in which you are not afraid to say what you think and do not expect the door of your apartment to be broken down some morning — won’t be available for most Russians any time soon, Martynov warns. He expects the ongoing brutal crackdown on the dissent to continue and even intensify in the coming months and years amid weakening public support for Putin’s regime.
“A decisive step has been taken towards creating "Pinochet's Russia," in which "internal enemies" are taken to stadiums because there is nowhere else to keep them. So far, instead of stadiums, they use buses and pack them with detained folks to stand in them for half a day at the gates of prisons. In the coming years, they will destroy everything here — independent media, education, legal participation in politics, and any worthy civil society work,” Martynov writes.
BACKSTORY. Russia has one of the highest incarceration rates globally (26th ) and the 4th largest prison population (half a million inmates). On top of that, the country’s penitentiary system suffers from chronic underfunding, corruption, and widespread abuse. Tens of thousands of prisoners languish for months or years without being charged with a crime. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s penitentiary system has faced scrutiny for its horrifying conditions. In particular, Novaya Gazeta has continuously worked to expose the widespread use of torture in Russian prisons. During the ongoing pandemic, Russian officials failed to safeguard the prison population from deadly COVID-19 outbreaks, forcing inmates into further ‘hyperisolation.’
Mixed Victories for Russia’s Eco-Activism
Last week delivered a mixed bag for the country’s environmental movement. On the one hand, the company behind Arctic’s largest-ever fuel spill was ordered to pay a record fine for its man-made ecological catastrophe. Still, it is unclear where the money will ever reach the disaster zone. In another part of the country, authorities cleared the abandoned tent city at Russia’s ‘ground zero’ for the environmental uprising. This week, our correspondents, Alexey Tarasov in Siberia and Tatyana Britskaya in the Arctic, helped unpack the important developments in both regions.
THE LARGEST ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE CASE IN RUSSIA’S HISTORY. On February 5, an arbitration court in Russia’s Krasnoyarsk region ordered the company Nornickel (sometimes called Norilsk Nickel) to pay a record $2 billion in compensation for the fuel spill that damaged the Russian Arctic last May. Great news, right? Not necessarily, warns our correspondent Alexey Tarasov.
UNCLEAR IF MONEY WILL EVER REACH THE DISASTER ZONE. Russian officials colluded with the company in a coverup of the disaster and offered the world’s largest producer of palladium and nickel to pay a ‘voluntarily’ fine — but only following public outrage. Still, Nornickel fought tooth and nail to avoid paying the damages. After dumping 21 thousand tons of diesel fuel into Arctic rivers near Norilsk, the company wanted to dial down the fine from two billion to just two million US dollars. It has lost. Still, the money will unlikely reach the affected areas. According to Tarasov, this story is another illustration of the driving force behind Russian colonialism in Siberia — maximizing hyper profits based on ruthless extraction of raw materials with zero care about the environmental damage.
“It is significant that all of the participants in the process —from both sides — flew to Krasnoyarsk from Moscow. Local communities from Norilsk and Krasnoyarsk, in fact, had nothing to do with the process. As soon as the amount Nornickel must pay became clear, the tax code was amended to ensure that the final payment would go to the federal government. It won't stay in the affected Norilsk, defying the logic,” Tarasov writes.
“OUR FIRST DAY IN NORILSK, THE RAIN SMELLED LIKE CHEMICALS.” Great timing to remind you about our monumental dispatch from the Nornickel disaster zone, published last year. Our award-winning correspondents Elena Kostyuchenko and Yury Kozyrev spent weeks at the epicenter of the man-made environmental catastrophe documenting how Nornickel is destroying the Taymyr Peninsula for a profit.
“It’s hard having kids around here. Mine cry all the time, they beg me, ‘Please, Papa, let us go play outside.’ But there’s gas out there, and I can’t shake the feeling that this is on my shoulders, that it’s my job to take care of this,” Vasiliy Ryabinin, deputy head of the local environmental watchdog, told the reporters.
MEANWHILE, THE OFFICIAL END OF THE SHIYES UPRISING. A defiant tent city of eco-activists in the middle of the Russian Arctic has been the inspiration for a growing environmental pushback across the country. The Shiyes camp weathered numerous attacks and repressions by local officials in the fight against a massive landfill construction. Last month, it was abandoned by the activist who claimed victory in their 2-year battle. On February 4th, authorities demolished the tent city’s remnants. On the same day, a local arbitration court issued a final ruling in favor of the activists defending the land.
**SHIYES IS OVER, LONG LIVE SHIYES. ** “Russian authorities hated Shiyes so much because it grew into a prime example of a popular Russian protest. It didn’t even have a leadership structure, but still prevailed,” writes Novaya Gazeta’s correspondent Tatyana Britskaya.
BACKSTORY. The Kremlin continues to dismantle Russian environmental regulations to maximize the country’s profits from natural resources. That includes the ever-expanding mining industry, something that Russia’s economy is entirely dependent on for growth. Another contributing factor is the aggressive military expansion in the Russian Arctic as the government rushes to take over new trading routes that are opening up due to climate change. These policies provoke more and more man-made ecological disasters and further abuse vulnerable indigenous communities. The environmental damage has also inspired numerous grassroots eco-movements all across the country — from Shiyes to the Bashkir uprising.
Chechen Terror Remains Unchecked
The story of another two gay Chechen men kidnapped by Russian authorities and shipped back to their torturers in southern Russia made global headlines last week. In fact, the homosexuality of the victims wasn’t the main reason behind their persecution. It has become another grim illustration, however, of the worsening crackdown on LGBTQ+ Russian citizens. Our award-winning correspondent Elena Milashina keeps following the fate of the kidnapped men.
**TORTURE IN THE NAME OF GOD. ** At first, it wasn’t their sexual identity that got Salakh Magamadov and Ismail Isayev in trouble. The men authored an atheist blog. This turned out to be a de-facto illegal activity in Chechnya, ruled by a Kremlin-backed kleptocratic clique using Muslim moral signaling to crackdown on any dissent. Local authorities abducted both men and tortured them until they acknowledged ‘God’s existence.’ Milashina learned about the story some months ago after Isayev, who is gay, contacted the Russian LGBT Network’s hotline. By that time, he had already been detained twice. The first time he was tortured, he was still only 16 years old.
BLACKMAIL AND ‘RE-EDUCATION. ’ Isayev said that he was beaten, held in an unknown place (which turned out to be the basement of a police department), and released after seven days. His mother paid over $4,000 in extortion money for his release. Russian LGTB Network claims that at least 27 people, all members of a Telegram channel for atheists, also ended up being detained and tortured. According to human rights defenders, the detainees were forced to memorize the Koran, the anthems of Russia and the Chechen Republic, and learn Akhmat Kadyrov’s biography, the late father of the Republic’s current ruler Ramzan Kadyrov.
AUTHORITIES FILMED FORCED ‘APOLOGIES.’ In the videos seen by Milashina, a mullah visited the police department to conduct ‘religious lessons’ with the detained men. When they would make mistakes reciting the Koran, the mullah beat them with a stick. Authorities let Magamadov and Isayev go on the condition that they would turn ‘other atheists’ over to Chechen security forces. The men fled Chechnya, and LGBTQ+ activists took them into hiding. However, Russian law-enforcement kidnapped the men again and shipped them back to Chechnya.
WE KEEP FOLLOWING THE VICTIMS’ FATE. Human rights defenders and lawyers managed to track down where Chechen authorities are keeping Magamadov and Isayev. They won’t allow the defenders to see the men and accuse them of ‘participating in illegal armed groups.’ The accusation doesn’t have any factual basis, Russian human rights defenders claim. The European Court of Human Rights has just ruled, demanding from Russian authorities to allow the lawyers to see Magamadov and Isayev.
BACKSTORY. Unfortunately, torture and forced confessions are common in Chechnya, where Putin’s ally Kadyrov rules with an iron fist. Chechnya is a small Southern Russian region with just 1,000,000 people. It failed to break away from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and is now run by tyrannical semi-autonomous officials under the direct Kremlin patronage (that’s Kadyrov). The deeply homophobic regime uses social media shaming and spying in line with a broader terror campaign against dissenting voices. Forced public apologies are a growing form of oppression and aim to humiliate anyone who dares to criticize local officials. Disappearances are common in Chechnya, too, where suspected dissidents, sexual minorities, and even members of the political elite who have fallen out of favor have been abducted, tortured, and executed in recent years.
**Read our full report on the case of Chechen atheists here. **
Other Top-Stories Russia Has Been Reading
- **PEOPLE ARE FREEZING IN ZNAMENSKOYE. **
One of our most-read stories this week was a special report about a town in Russia’s north where the gas for heating has been completely cut off. In the village of Znamenskoy, located in the north of the Omsk region, the air temperature often drops to minus 40 in January. On New Year's Eve, the heating in the town completely stopped working. The authorities informed residents that there was no more gas because the nearest gas field was utterly depleted. In a gas-rich country awash with petrodollars, some residents installed electric boilers at their own expense. But many pensioners can barely cover the cost of their electricity bills, and many space heaters break after just a couple of days. “I have been sitting here wrapped in a duvet, in a hat, in two robes. I will light four burners and warm myself next to them. For half a month I did not undress, I did not wash,” resident Ekaterina Petrovna tells Novaya Gazeta.