Daniil Konstantinov, a Russian nationalist, was accused of killing a punk in Russia. Lithuania granted him a status of political refugee in 2016. Why did Lithuania host a Russian nationalist?
Nationalism non-Kremlin style
Daniil does not fit a pattern of a typical nationalist. As hundreds do not call themselves nationalists, they are ready to discriminate others at large on many grounds, ethnic or other. As we talk to Konstantinov, he looks different, at least now. He says: “I started as a Russian nationalist. I still am, in a good meaning of this word. It means that Russia and Russians are of higher value for me than the currently widespread ideology of cosmopolitism or liberalism. However, I do not think I am a xenophobe or a fascist”.
For Konstantinov, the Russian identity is about mentality rather than the purity of origin: “It is not about a dog breed. Biology does not matter for me”.
Daniil-led League for Protection of Moscow contributed to Moscow nationalists’ raids against illegal migrants from Central Asia. Konstantinov says “the raids were perfectly legal, with no pogroms; the idea was checking gathering areas of immigrants and their residence rights together with police officers and migration services”.
In its 2012 monitoring, the human rights center SOVA found: “Nationalists get into cellars where immigrants live and start demanding to show documents, only to call the police or the migration services later. These activities are illegal, since nationalists are not authorised to check someone’s documents, leave alone detaining someone. Such raids by far right come in an attempt to replace the security services, something absolutely inacceptable in our view”.
Daniil says he was not involved in this. “Some associates participated in the raids on their own initiative. I didn’t, though. Fighting poor hard workers is not what I want. If you dislike surplus migration, you fight for power, change the legislation and close down borders. Fighting migrants in person is pointless. However, it is true that these communities are favourable for ethnic criminality and radical Islamism; I know this thanks to my time in jail. You should address a reason rather than an effect. Raids in cellars are a wrong way”.
Konstantinov says he criticised his fellows in personal talks; yet, he never opposed them in public. He kept them in the movement and stayed their leader. “There were more important things to think about. The revolution was beginning. I didn’t want to push anyone away. I had to preserve people for upcoming events. Dividing the organisation over the raids would be a bad idea”.
Konstantinov is the only nationalist whom the International Human Rights Society Memorial recognised as a political prisoner. While in prison, in 2012 he was elected to the opposition’s Coordination Council, along with Alexey Navalny, Sergey Udaltsov, Kseniya Sobchak, Sergey Parkhomenko, and the killed Boris Nemtsov. From his speaking and thinking structure, you understand immediately he is a politician. Daniil believes it might be a reason why he was imprisoned and ended up in Lithuania.
The government would always hope they could pull nationalists aside and satisfy them with a little. It proved to be the opposite
Konstantinov told us why he thinks the Russian nationalists have displeased Putin’s regime: “Our last Russian March in November 2011 held slogans “Enough feeding Caucasus”, “Enough feeding the United Russia” and “Enough feeding the Kremlin”. They were very oppositional, naturally leading to the government’s dissatisfaction. The government would always hope they could pull nationalists aside and satisfy them with a little. It proved to be the opposite”.
In his view, the pro-national movement does not exist in Russia anymore. “On one hand, the government and security services have defeated it; on the other one, it has collapsed naturally. Primarily on the issue of Ukraine. The split is so deep I don’t think it’s possible to stick it together again,” – thinks the ex-leader of the League for the Protection of Moscow.
Nationalists for fair elections
According to Konstantinov, nationalists have joined the public protest movement in 2011, together with liberals, leftists, socialists etc. “Up to and including LGBT. A whole spectrum of people coming together. It scared the government, - supposes Daniil. – Not for nothing it was then when they attacked me. When all flows came in one, the decision was made to crush the opposition. They did it. Out of the members of the Coordination Council, everyone is either sentenced, or imprisoned, or has emigrated, or killed, in the case of Nemtsov. It was a brutal devastation”.
Konstantinov participated in protests against electoral fraud on 5 December, called For Fair Elections. “A public protest movement emerged, called the White Ribbons. Some people were speaking about a revolution, labelling it a winter revolution, or snow-white revolution. On the very first day of these events, I participated in a meeting and a rally towards the Central Electoral Commission at Lubyanka.”
Detentions began, with people brought to police for attempts ‘to block Tverskaya Street’. In reality, says Daniil, the protest was spontaneous: “People were moving around from the centre of Moscow, flooding the streets, chanting, blocking streets, and demanding the government to step down. I was in the lead of one of these columns. They arrested me and brought to the police station, along with 11 or so boys and girls of different views, their age ranging from 19 to 30.”
The landmark meeting: either you cooperate, or …
They all spent the night in police cells. Early in the morning, Konstantinov alone was taken to meet someone wearing a coat: “He was tall and ugly, with black circles under his eyes and a heavy stare”.
He put it this way: so, we’ll work together. I rejected this offer. He warned me then that, if I refuse cooperation, my activities would lead me to prison or death
Konstantinov shares that this man looked like someone from the GRU (the Main Intelligence Directorate, ed.), though his ID was from the anti-extremism police. “He said hello, how are you? I am the one who delegated Linderman to Latvia. Do you know Vladimir Linderman? It was a dark and old story; he was brought to Latvia by all but a special train to defend Russian-speaking population there, - explained Daniil. – I asked him, why are you telling this? Do you want to delegate me somewhere? He shared about his work monitoring the opposition and knowing everyone, and offered me cooperation. He put it this way: so, we’ll work together. I rejected this offer. He warned me then that, if I refuse cooperation, my activities would lead me to prison or death”.
Daniil thought these threats were not something serious; it sounded like a jump scare. When let go, he kept participating in protests, joining events at Bolotnaya Square, Sakharov Ave., again Bolotnaya and so on.
Daniil, you are in trouble; they suspect you of a murder. I was confused, not knowing how to react
“All of a sudden, a friend of mine sent me a message on Skype on 1 March 2012. In the ‘E’ centre (the Anti-Extremism Board of the Interior Ministry, ed.) he was shown my photograph, or actually a photo fit. He said, Daniil, you are in trouble; they suspect you of a murder. I was confused, not knowing how to react”, - remembers Konstantinov.
Daniil’s father, with his significant political experience in the past, supposed this was just a provocation for Daniil to leave the country and the political realm. By the way, Konstantinov says that his father “was a co-founder of the democratic movement in Russia. After a subsequent conflict with Yeltsin, was among the leaders of the opposition against Yeltsin. He defended the White House in 1991 and 93”.
The father failed to understand the threat of the new political reality, so he advised his son against leaving the country, something he regretted later. As Daniil says, his father has changed his mind and would like his son to have left earlier. Daniil still believes it was worth staying: “It was a tremendous risk; yet, I am not broken. If I had left with my case pending, I would be on a wanted list and under investigation. I have left after the trial, though. It makes me different from the majority of refugees, by the way; sometimes I snicker at them for leaving before the trial, while I left after it”.
Arrest, alibi and a suspicious witness
Daniil stayed. “I would think twice now; I didn’t then,” – admits he. He did not try to hide, as he moved on in his protest activities for another 22 days.
“They arrested me on 22 March 2012 at home. When they brought me to the police, I received another cooperation proposal. When I said no, they said we were proceeding to a line-up. I didn’t understand what they meant,” – shared he. A lawyer himself, Daniil described the action this way: “They led a witness in, wearing a punk leather jacket, his eyes blurred; I thought it was because of drugs. I was given a label with a number; two line-up decoys put next to me. He pointed at me! He said: this is the one who killed my friend in the beginning of December 2011 at the metro exit. He didn’t remember the date. No one cared. They recorded: beginning of December”.
They led a witness in, wearing a punk leather jacket, his eyes blurred; I thought it was because of drugs. I was given a label with a number; two line-up decoys put next to me. He pointed at me! He said: this is the one who killed my friend
In the court, Daniil could have a look at the package of documents and saw the date was 3 December, his mother’s birthday. “I knew exactly what I was doing on 3 December! I was in a restaurant that I had ordered, with my parents and guests”. Five of them spoke to support Daniil in the court against the prosecutor’s only witness. Having raised the alibi, the lawyer was sure his client was going to be released soon. He was wrong.
The prosecution made every effort to undermine his alibi, Daniil says: “This is a science. The police and security services have many tools to distort the actual situation. Affecting witnesses, documents, video records, and phone billings. Yet, we had quite a firm alibi in trial. There was a strong amount of evidence in favour of my innocence, with witnesses’ statements, photographs from the restaurant, table booking with my father’s name and his phone number. Then the judge says, this might be just a coincidence of name and phone. And they started trying me”.
During investigative procedures pending, the witness had managed to conduct 10 burglaries in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, as he was staying under the state protection as a witness. “They would not reveal these facts to us, - says Daniil. – We have the documents on his criminal record from a district court. Obviously, his evidence was his payment for a court decision; with a record of 10 group burglaries, anyone would have been imprisoned, but he stayed free. This is a serious plea deal. It leaked to media and the web. The things were taking a scandalous turn. In the end of 2012, I was elected to the Coordination Council of the opposition. The trial lost traction”. The court returned Konstantinov’s case for further inquiry.
In cells of Matrosskaya Tishina
With his case pending, Daniil stayed in Matrosskaya Tishina prison. Putin’s prisons do not have a caste of ‘political prisoners’ yet: “In Soviet times, the group of political prisoners had a clear identity in prisons, since there were a lot of them. Others referred to them as ‘political animals’ (‘politicheskiye’, as a specific ‘breed’ of prisoners, transl.). They defended their interests as a group. Nowadays, ‘political animals’ in prisons are few, though growing in number. They are dispersed around the country, one or two per prison, placed in different cells. It is not possible to build a community and stand up for its interests together”.
Formally, the new political prisoners are sentenced as common ones, Daniil says. “I explained to other prisoners that I’m a political breed. They understood easily. The attitude was quite positive, since the criminality is traditionally anti-state”, - points out Konstantinov.
According to Konstantinov, conflicts with cellmates on political matters did not go beyond a normal level: “Conflicts or disputes happen. Personalities and their wills clash. Locked in a five square meters room, like zoo animals, we had to tolerate each other 24/7. It changed me, at least for a while. I am definitely more flexible and accommodating now, and less demanding of other people. I am savvier in dealing with others and able to see through them. It is a rare chance to spend years observing people around the clock, available only in a prison, long hospitalisation or military service”.
Weakness would come and go, says Daniil. At some points, he regretted staying in Russia. “However, never did I regret sticking to my views or joining protests. Your activity is not of particular value, if others can easily make you regret it. It does have value for me”.
In one episode, prison officers tormented Daniil physically. He does not call it torture, since he believes torture aims at getting some evidence. In his case, he was pressurised with the only purpose to break him down physically and psychologically, by applying an electric shocker and handcuffing.
In addition, the ‘tram passenger’ technique was applied to Konstantinov to keep him under stress. “Once you get used to a cell community, they place you in a new cell. Then they notice you have built good relations in another cell, and they bring you to a new place again. I have seen many places, ranging from elite ‘showcase’ cells to the most terrible ones, like in a movie. You know, the door opens, a crowd is standing among ugly beds and curtains,” – explains Daniil.
Out of prison and out of country
Half a year after the beginning of re-investigation, a compromise sentence was delivered. “The trial resulted in a unique way for jurisprudence. After this half a year of trying me as a murderer, with me defending myself against their evidence and accusations, the judge left for deliberations, came back and sentenced me for hooliganism. Not a murderer, but a troublemaker. She immediately applied the amnesty announced by the State Duma in honour of the anniversary of adoption of the Constitution. They released me from prison and prosecution on 16 October 2014”. Daniil says he received a warning to leave Russia within a week. A message came through his father to stop his public activism and refrain from appealing the sentence. “This time, I took the advice”, - says he.
Daniil Konstantinov has spent 2 years and 7 months in prison. He did not see his wife during all this time. Daniil is hungry for a full acquittal in a fair trial with jury and equality of arms: “I would even take a risk to travel back to participate in proceedings. However, it is unrealistic in the nearest future. There is no point in surrendering to the criminals. Thank you; I don’t want a second time”.
Konstantinov would not mind leading the vetting tribunal. “I would sentence entire departments and ministries, list-by-list”.
A week later, Daniil was in Thailand, a visa-free destination available to him. “I wanted relaxation after the imprisonment, with a blast of sun, air and sea. I opted for tropic Thailand that I love”. Konstantinov travelled there with his wife for 2 months. “I realised I should not leave my loved one in Russia after this kind of court decision, seen as a defeat by security services, - explains he. – I noticed surveillance in Thailand. Cautious of being planted drugs on, I decided it was better to leave. Punishment for drugs is severe there, up to death penalty”.
Having contacted human rights defenders, Konstantinov was offered emigration to the US, Ukraine, Sweden, or Lithuania. He chose Lithuania: “Because it is close to Russia physically, linguistically and historically. Lithuania is perfect for a Russian in this regard”. In Lithuania, he started by receiving a local visa; later on, as he learnt that his court decisions had been appealed, he applied for an asylum. His son was born in Lithuania; Daniil calls him vilnietis (Lithuanian for Vilniusian, transl.).
Ideological shock in Lithuania
I thought the country would be quite Russo-phobic, full of Nazi and discrimination, with locals unwilling to talk Russian to me. It proved to be very different, though.
Konstantinov changed his mind about Lithuania after coming here. “Before coming, I had some concerns caused by propaganda. Though I was an oppositionist, I had not have some independent sources of information about Lithuania. I thought the country would be quite Russo-phobic, full of Nazi and discrimination, with locals unwilling to talk Russian to me. It proved to be very different, though. The Lithuanian society appeared to be very tolerant and soft to ethnic minorities. I feel free to speak Russian to anyone in Vilnius. They will either answer in Russian or not, because they do not speak it; they will try to communicate in some way, still”.
It is unimaginable in Moscow or elsewhere in Russia to see someone answering a Tartar in Tartar language, says Daniil. Even if someone had read a Russian-Tartar dictionary and could speak the language, they would not use it, intentionally. In Lithuania, says Daniil, he has experienced open Russophobia only in four individual cases: in a bank, in a Xerox centre, in an accumulator store, and in a pre-school. He emphasises he was looking for these cases for his own interest.
Local Russians showed no understanding to my case; they are rather hostile. Ideologically, it was a shock for me. In my view, they are predominantly pro-Putin and very aggressive.
He observes that some Lithuanians might be somewhat negative against his inability to speak their language; however, it ends immediately when they find out that he is a newcomer who has not had a chance to learn Lithuanian yet. “They are probably negative about Russians who live here for years without even trying to learn their language or use it in practice”.
Konstantinov’s attitudes to local Russians changed while in Lithuania. He used to be a strong supporter of the idea that Russia should defend Russians abroad, including in Baltics. “Not by force, though. I never welcomed incorporation in Ukraine, for example. I thought there were other tools available to support them economically or culturally. I believed it was necessary.
However, local Russians showed no understanding to my case; they are rather hostile. Ideologically, it was a shock for me. In my view, they are predominantly pro-Putin and very aggressive against the opposition. More aggressive than in Russia. They see Putin as a demigod, the saviour of Russia. It applies to all ages. I am not sure anymore if Russia should really support them, today or after change in the future”.
Daniil contacted Lithuanian nationalists, such as the late Kazimieras Uoka. He says he was interested in their ideas and views. Daniil can see two different interpretations of their well-known slogan “Lithuania for Lithuanians”. “If they mean support of the title nation by the government, preserving traditions, the official language, and respecting the Lithuanian history, I am in favour. If they mean discrimination of other nationalities, I am against”.
Konstantinov has recommendations on Lithuania’s treatment of its Russian-speaking groups: “I have two recipes for the state. First, there should be massive and effective counterpropaganda to show the reality in Russia, with corruption, poverty and elite’s betrayal of national interests, all their children studying abroad.
Second, effective social mobility should be available for Russians. When they realise they can grow and develop themselves in this system, their negative attitude will evaporate. A significant bulk of Russians are marginalised in Lithuania, we must admit. Some have suffered after the collapse of Soviet Union. Someone are from poor families. Someone are not successful in learning Lithuanian. It pushes them overboard”.
Defending refugees on stage
Daniil has put on a new hat in Lithuania, playing himself in a documentary performance Dreamland by Lithuanian director Mantas Jančiauskas together with refugees from Afghanistan, Lebanon and Turkey on the Small Stage of Lithuania‘s National Drama Theatre. Vsevolod Chernozub, a former defendant in Bolotnaya case, was another Russian political refugee to perform in the play.
Daniil admits he had doubts regarding his own participation in the play. He disliked the provocative playbill with a huge mosque in Vilnius. „But we have to distinguish between the mass phenomenon and individual lives of people. This play is about individual cases. Locals might be negative about this faceless crowd of people arriving; however, each of them is a personality with his or her story and drama. Having realised it, I internalised the play, - confesses Konstantinov. – I agreed. Moreover, by playing in this show I think I partially defend interests of refugees, including those from Russia“.
Communication in the international team was an interesting experience for Daniil, though not new: “The first time was in prison. The second came on stage. The second one was more pleasant, of course. I have to stress, though, that people are people everywhere, even in prison”.
Surveillance in Vilnius
What little Daniil is not happy about in Lithuania is the service industry: “It needs some screwing up. Not only in Lithuania, but everywhere in Europe, they work very short hours. Moscow and other major cities in Russia offer entertainment around the clock. Moscow is an enormous metropolis, an imperial city, along with other global centres, such as New York, Beijing and Paris, offering everything. This is what you miss in a relatively small European town. Yes, you can enjoy the national spirit for a year or more, and then you feel it’s too small. When wife travels to Moscow, she says there are so many things there! But it’s scary…”
He sat down at my table in a café and looked at me. I met him in a street later. He did it ostentatiously, grinning and watching me go. He wanted me to see him. I think they have an agency here. They let me know I am watched.
‘Scariness’ surfaces now and then in Vilnius. Daniil was under surveillance for a while: “He sat down at my table in a café and looked at me. I met him in a street later. He did it ostentatiously, grinning and watching me go. He wanted me to see him. I think they have an agency here. They let me know I am watched. I wasn’t afraid of them there, nor am I here”.
Differences between Russians and Lithuanians
Daniil is entitled to vote at Lithuanian local elections; he says he will not, though. “I cannot trust someone whom I do not know in person. I don’t care about posters, billboards or electoral platforms; I have read dozens of them, and even written some of them”.
In general, says Daniil, the life in Lithuania is calm and comfortable. They have travelled a lot in Lithuania. “I have seen more of Lithuania than most Lithuanians have. Going for a walk with my kid, I talk to other parents at the playground. They don’t even know some places in Lithuania. As a rule, they travel to just one place, for example Nida. They would travel to Nida every year. It’s unimaginable in Russia. Russians are less conservative and less patriotic. They jump around all over the world”.
Konstantinov explains why the government survives in Russia: “On one hand, you can think Russians are very obedient. Actually, they tolerate the government because they live their own life and don’t give a damn. They are separated from their government. All they want is to be left alone. It’s the national idea now: leave me in peace”.
Daniil says he loves things in Russians that Europeans criticise: “It’s the chaotic nature, a lack of organisation, disobedience to rules and regulations. I think this is a form of freedom that people have chosen under the centuries-long despotic government. Seeing no way to get rid of it, people choose digression and routine over-riding of rules. This is the fundamental difference between a Russian and a European”.
In Daniil’s opinion, Europeans feel a part of their civil society. They see the rules developed by the society as their own rules achieved in the process of fighting for rights and freedoms. “On the contrary, Russians see rules as orders coming from their masters, be it a landlord, a monarch or the Kremlin. We do not respect the government’s will, - argues Konstantinov. – Russians ignore rules almost everywhere. I never wait for a green light if there are no cars. And I know any Russian would cross against the red traffic lights, while Lithuanians are waiting”.