Irina Kalmykova is from Ukraine originally. However, it was in Kogalym, West Siberia, where the milestone story happened to bring the Russian woman with her under-age son to Lithuania in March 2016. The birthplace of Russian oil company LUKOIL, Kogalym is represented by ‘K’ in the abbreviation.
LUKOIL is out of Lithuania now; yet, Irina is in. “When Alikperov (the president and co-owner of LUKOIL – ed.) was in short pants in Kogalym, Sobyanin (the current head of Moscow – ed.) was its mayor and my mom was the town’s accountant general,” – Irina is starting her story from distant Soviet past. “Later, Sobyanin and Alikperov rose high and started to steal, - she added. – Before that, stealing was limited because of the barter trade practices. Under barter arrangements, cars were exchanged for oil. It was a hunger time”.
As she was fighting for reestablishment of her unjustly destroyed business, someone set on fire a house where she lived with her husband and three kids. When later in Moscow she protested, at that point as a citizen, her daughters Lena and Lesya fell victims, one ending up in a prison, another found killed on a street.
Kogalym – Vilnius
Small business-owner’s unexpected resistance literally drew a fire on her, with someone burning out her house.
Corrupted officials destroyed her trade business in Kogalym to please their cronies. Providing state contracts to friends was key for getting kickbacks, Irina says. Small businesswoman Kalmykova was not one of the ‘friends’. “Firms from Moscow captured everything, including my shop among many others, and the market place. Soon after the opening of wholesaler Lukoiltorg, they ordered the tax authorities to eliminate us”. Irina was accused of tax evasion in amount of 8 million roubles (114 thousand euro). Secured on her own house, her loan of 7 million roubles (994 thousand euro) for business development was interpreted as her firm’s income.
Failure to pay 500 thousand roubles (7 thousand euro) of taxes is enough for a criminal prosecution, with a prospect of up to ten years of imprisonment.
Kalmykova managed to oppose the multi-million charges and reduce them down to 40 thousand roubles, or 570 euro. Irina says this little amount was the last excuse for prosecutors to deny their defeat. Without a lawyer, she managed to reject the accusation and return her good name; it was not enough, though, to reclaim her business or compensate losses.
The next night after their escape, on 25 January 2015, her elder daughter Lesya was found dead on a street in Moscow.
Small business-owner’s unexpected resistance literally drew a fire on her, with someone burning out her house. Rather than specific people with names, she sees the whole system working against its own citizens as the key perpetrator.
Out of a huge Soviet-style wall cupboard in her rental flat in Naujininkai, a neighbourhood in Vilnius, Irina takes her certificate of an award for contribution to Russia’s economy, an eloquent testimony of her former business success. The fight to reclaim all her losses brought her to Moscow, where, willingly or unwillingly, she became an active and outspoken oppositionist. As Irina is telling her story, she is flipping through her legendary album, once signed by the now-killed opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, Nadiya Savchenko and others.
Kalmykova is a rare case in Russia of being accused under an openly political criminal article 212.1, for participation in rallies, meetings and pickets, with a maximum punishment of up to 5 years of imprisonment.
Released on her own recognizance, she continued her civil activism. However, when she learnt from her lawyer that another detention during a street picket would be enough to arrest and imprison her for years, she decided to flee the country through Belarus along with her son Ruslan. As Ruslan turned 14 and he had no passport, they got stuck in Belarus. To flee through Ukraine, they had to turn back to Russia for a short time. These memories give Irina the creeps; it was a long pull to the top of an ice-covered hill at 25 degrees below zero to cross the borderline, something made possible for her with assistance of Ruslan and a local guide. She believes border officers pour water on it to make it icy.
Having not showed up in due time to a court in Moscow, Kalmykova was put on Interpol wanted list. The next night after their escape, on 25 January 2015, her elder daughter Lesya was found dead on a street in Moscow. Irina wanted to go back to Russia to bury the daughter against all odds; however, she had to take care of her under-age son. In Belarus and Ukraine, they barely went out, afraid of arrest. Her daughter Lena was in prison by then.
One of our few meetings with Irina took place on 15 November 2017, on the day of her daughter’s release. The day was full of looking forward to meeting the daughter, anxiety and practical hassle. So far, the bureaucratic obstacles are still obstructing the meeting. Yet, Irina is hopeful.
Lithuanians’ perspective of Siberia is different
After the multi-million charges from tax authorities, Irina suffered a stroke in Russia. In Lithuania, she had to work hard cleaning floors in a furniture factory, sapping her health. Now, having got a disability, Irina is not entitled to an allowance; to get it, she needs to refuse a retirement pension in Russia, a mission impossible in a country where she is wanted. Lithuania pays the refugee 160 euro to compensate her rent; Caritas pays 152 euro for basic needs. “I get nothing more, but some people help me”, - Irina says with gratitude.
People in Lithuania responded to Irina’s story. After a story in local media about a Russian refugee becoming partially disabled and in need of two surgeries, many locals offered help. Their empathy was a revelation for Irina.
One day, a woman called her from the region of Kaunas; her family had been deported to Siberia when she was a child. Irina told that the woman offered help; she said people in Siberia had been kind-hearted to them, offering milk. “This woman has no idea how different Siberia is now,” – comments Irina ruefully. – “We lived in West Siberia. In sub-zero temperatures, a car would never pass someone waiting on a stop. People would give each other a lift. I can feel this kind of support and responsibility here, in Lithuania. Siberia is different now”.
Irina’s mother left her warm Kharkiv, Ukraine, for earnings in frosty Kogalym in 1985. This was a new settlement outside Surgut, under construction in a wetland covered with sand. As a specialist, she received her housing soon. Irina remembers that when economic hardship came to Ukraine, with food stamps for all commodities, money shortage and inflation outpacing salaries, her mother took her to Siberia were wages were high.
Irina tells Azerbaijani and Lithuanian constructors had their own settlements in Kogalym. The Lithuanian one had red roofs, remembers she. “When the food was on stamps, the Lithuanian shop had everything, but only for Lithuanians. My mom was allowed to shop there as an accountant general. Kogalym had cows, but the hay had to be transported from offsite; therefore, only preschool and schools had milk. Others used milk powder. However, Lithuanians had real milk and curd, too. Only the luckiest were allowed to shop there”, - remembers she.
Having stayed in Russia, Irina applied for her Russian citizenship only in 2001, when her son was born.
Business emerging and ending
Irina started her own business from market trade at 40 degrees below zero. “A wig on a hat, a sheepskin on a jacket, felt boots on high shoes”, - Irina is recalling her business style. – “Standing on a marketplace, I would sell cookies and sweets. Later, vegetables. We made a window in our small Moskvich cube truck; I would stand inside double-bent, selling stuff. The oven helped to keep the fruits warm. In those times, LUKOIL hired locals for good North-style salaries. People had money to buy lots of fruits and vegetables.”
Sometime later, Kalmykova opened her own store in a cellar. With her children, she would work at all positions. In 2003, having become a warehouse owner, she started obtaining state contracts for supplies of detergents and stationery to schools and kindergartens. Her firm was also licensed for itinerant trade of air balloons.
Out of about 50 thousand town’s population, a half would buy her balloons, Irina says. “People had plenty of money in Siberia. I would purchase 100 thousand balloons. These were expensive ones, compared to those made of gum. 100 roubles (about 1.5 euro) the cheapest. We had no competition. Wearing a costume of Malvina (a female character from the Russian adaptation of Pinocchio fairy-tale – transl.), Red Ridinghood or Pierrot, Lesya would sell them around. They were very popular on holidays during free concerts with showmen from Moscow. Moscow would be left without celebrities for such days, because LUKOIL would pay them a lot”. Irina interrupts her story with a song about Kogalym, ‘a town in the middle of Siberian winters, wetlands and taiga’.
Good times for locals are over, says Kalmykova. “Hiring locals, LUKOIL would pay them ‘northern’ bonuses. With a salary of 10 thousand, one would get a 5 thousand ‘northern’ extra pay. To stop this practice, the company started importing workers from the rest of Russia shift-by-shift; they switched to Ukrainians, Tajiks and Uzbeks later. These work for kopecks. With LUKOIL the only employer, people are left to survive. Trade and municipality are the only alternatives”.
A wig on a hat, a sheepskin on a jacket, felt boots on high shoes”, - Irina is recalling her business style. – “Standing on a marketplace, I would sell cookies and sweets.
Moscow and Kogalym celebrated the City Day on the first Sunday of September, along with the Day of Oil Worker. In 2004, it had to happen on 5 September. On 1 September, terrorists attacked a school in Beslan during the celebratory assembly. 314 hostages died, 186 out of them children. After an operation by federal special troops, the day of mourning was announced in Russia. “We had bought a lot of balloons for the celebration, - Irina is remembering the life-changing day. – The supply arrived and we had to do something about it. We had also purchased the gel. With Lesya, we were at work. In the office, our tables were standing against each other, with phones on both. As she was dealing with the arriving articles, I was sitting and talking to my mom who was in hospital. Lesya’s phone kept ringing. It was about midday. Finally, Lesya gave me the receiver. As my mom was on the first receiver, another one told me: your house is on fire. I threw both phones away and ran out”.
Her son, 2, was home with Lena, 15, who managed to bring him out of fire safe and sound. Irina says the fire report noted an arson by an unknown person. “First, we tried to put it out by water from a wash basin, - remembers Irina. – But the fire was spreading. It started in the bedroom. They had thrown something inside. We had no fence then”. After three years of construction, they had been living in their house for only one year.
Lesya’s phone kept ringing. It was about midday. Finally, Lesya gave me the receiver. As my mom was on the first receiver, another one told me: your house is on fire.
Left on a street in Siberia with three kids, she did not even get a temporary living. Only four years later did she receive her house insurance money.
“I sent a letter to Putin. Wise enough. As a common person, I complained with the local authorities. Having received a response from Khanty-Mansiysk, I headed there. Out of the gate, they told me: c’mon, let’s see if you’re as good in working as in complaining. I understood everything immediately,” – tells Irina. She had to go through another tax inspection and to provide them with all original documents. After flying them in boxes from Kogalym to Khanty-Mansiysk, she faced new evasion charges in the amount of one million roubles. Again, Irina was able to fight back and avoid criminal punishment, as she lived in extreme conditions in Khanty Mansiysk. “We had no money and had to sleep in our Gazel car in woods and wash ourselves in a harbour”.
Going to Moscow where Putin lives
I travelled to where Putin lived. With all my documents and a lot of hope. Eight years passed in walking around Moscow. I would visit the presidential administration or the prosecutor’s office almost every day.
Irina left Kogalym for Moscow in 2008 in a search of justice. “I travelled to where Putin lived. With all my documents and a lot of hope. Eight years passed in walking around Moscow. I would visit the presidential administration or the prosecutor’s office almost every day. One day, I sat down with Ruslan inside the presidential administration and said: I’m not going anywhere! Police officers brought be out. My complaints were forwarded to the perpetrators at the regional administration. They would send pointless formal responses. Later, they said they are not going to respond anymore”.
They rented a flat in Moscow. “It was costly, but my daughters worked. We organised an outlet, trading balloons, souvenirs and some childish knickknacks. It was quite good at some point. Lesya and Lena dropped their studies. They couldn’t afford it, as they had to work. I had to recover after my stroke. At first, I was lying. Lesya looked after me”.
They would apprehend me five times on some days. I was loud-mouthed, you know. During street actions, I would always be arrested. I ended up in a prisoner van more than 50 times.
What Irina wanted in the beginning was just getting a housing for her children. Soon enough, from a bankrupted entrepreneur, she turned into a political opponent of the system, facing a political criminal case. Going to meet prosecutors became her everyday business. “They would apprehend me five times on some days. I was loud-mouthed, you know. During street actions, I would always be arrested. I ended up in a prisoner van more than 50 times. No police department wanted to accept me. I would always be a pain in the ass. They had to transport me around Moscow to find a place for me”.
Irina says her Interpol case includes five episodes:
First. She was arrested on 5 December 2014 in Mumu café, Chistye Prudy, Moscow, after an action to commemorate the unexpectedly massive protest after the Duma elections in 2011, when the Central Electoral Commission of Vladimir Churov had announced 146% turnout. Police officers told Kalmykova that she resembled a suicide assassin (the video footage from the action).
Second. On 15 January, during the Manezhnaya Square action for freedom of political prisoners, a crowd wearing Colorado Ribbon hats chanted “Maidan shall not pass” (=will not happen), while Irina stood next to them adding “… by Manezhnaya Square” (=Maidan will happen). Irina said, the police officers ignored the young aggressive Colorados, but detained her
Third. Irina was apprehended during a single-person protest on the birthday of Nadiya Savchenko in front of Matrosskaya Tishina (Sailor's Rest prison, transl.), where Savchenko was being imprisoned.
Fourth. Detained at Lubyanka in front of the headquarters of the Federal Security Service of Russia, where she came with colleagues, holding flares and slogans “Freedom to Nadiya Savchenko!”.
Fifth. On the Day of Entrepreneur, Irina was sitting at the entrance of the Ministry of Economic Development, soaping a rope that symbolised the suffocation of the small businesses.
Lena was surrounded. People from the kiosk heard her shouting for help: look what they are doing! They forced drugs into her panties through her waistband
In summer 2014, Irina worked in the electoral team of Yabloko party together with her daughters. Driving around on a van, they were distributing leaflets and party newspapers. “Yabloko people loved the way we worked. Lena could distribute a pile of leaflets very quickly. They even made a video of her doing it,” – the mother is proud of her daughter.
One day, when Irina left for the headquarters, the girls had to follow her soon. “Lesya called me and said, mom, they have detained Lena, - remembers she. – As Lena was taking a taxi, Lesya was out to break up the money. When she was back, Lena was surrounded. People from the kiosk heard her shouting for help: look what they are doing! They forced drugs into her panties through her waistband”. Lena was imprisoned for 3.5 years.
As daughter Lena was staying in prison, someone abducted daughter Lesya. Three unknown men forced her into a car on her way back home and drove her around the city for three or four hours. “Is your mummy missing you? – the kidnappers were asking. A year later, she was found dead, - tells Irina. – I think she was killed. She called her granny on 25 December. Lena was assumed to be in hospital with pneumonia. She called and said she had been taken out of the hospital and kept in police for two days. They would ask her where I was. They didn’t beat her, though. She was supposed to book a ticket and travel to her granny. All of a sudden, she disappeared. No contact. The granny became nervous. She called the police, but they said they knew nothing. She called all hospitals and all mortuaries; no result. When I crossed the border on foot and reached Belarus, my mom sent me a message that Lesya was dead. She died on 25 January and was placed in a mortuary where my mom called!”
The mother says Lesya “was not a noisy type, preferring to stay under radar and on a safe side”.
One day, Kalmykova was detained with her son. Together with many adults, he was pushed into a prisoner van in Chistye Prudy, Moscow, on 9 May 2013. This was an anniversary of Occupy Abay, a protest action. “They were playing soccer with other guys, - remembers Irina. – We were joining the standing protest one by one, with white ribbons. I was standing bare-footed. It was summer-hot. As we moved on, waving the ribbons, they started detaining us. I couldn’t leave him alone. He was 11. He was afraid at first, tears flowing over his face”.
This is how Irina described the detention:
The prisoner car was full of detainees. Resisting and shouting, people were forced into it. The detainees started shouting to passers-by that an 11-years child was in. To silence them, the policemen began closing the windows. It was hot and stuffy. The kid was under stress. In the police station, the child services met them and started giving him questions: “Why did you come here with your mum? – Why not, is it a problem to go for a walk with a mom to a park? This is the Victory Day, a holiday. – And where were you going? – We were going to buy an ice-cream with my mom, and they grabbed us. And look, Article 31 of the Constitution guarantees people a right…”
“It gave them a huge laugh, and they applauded,” – remembers Irina, laughing. She adds, confused: “We did a circle dance on the Red Square in 2012. We played thread-needle, and no one detained us”.
Irina says she was not afraid for her children at first. She did not assume something like this would happen. “I spent three months on a hunger strike in front of United Russia office in 2013. Being detained thrice per day, I received threats to lose my parental rights. I thought these were empty threats, since my kids were fine. You need a good reason to take someone’s children. Lesya and Lena took care of Ruslan when I was out.” Lena was imprisoned after a year. One more year later, Lesya was found dead.
“Saving my children? – contemplates Irina. – I never thought about it. Saving a child today doesn’t give her a future. I thought beyond today. Saving them just for today was not an option”.
Irina says she moved to Lithuania for her child. “Should Ruslan not have come back from Dagestan, where his father had taken him in 2013, I would not have left. I would be there until the end. Being with my son makes me happy. He didn’t want to lose me. I realised that he would be left alone, if I am imprisoned. Lena was in prison. Lesya had found a boyfriend. I didn’t care about my own life anymore. After my life experience, I thought I must tell the others you can’t just stay at home silent. I wanted to keep my civil stance”.
Lithuania is different
If you don’t like something in Russia and you go to the street with a slogan ‘I stand for peace’, you get arrested. You can get detained just with an empty sheet of paper
“If you don’t like something in Russia and you go to the street with a slogan ‘I stand for peace’, you get arrested. You can get detained just with an empty sheet of paper”, - Irina is arguing to those who say that Lithuania has no freedom of speech. – “When I meet someone from Moscow boasting that their city is so secure and happy that the police is checking everyone everywhere, I think I don’t need this kind of security”.
Kalmykova is surprised why some people in Lithuania feel they do not have a freedom of expression. “To understand the difference, they should try saying something. If they are unsatisfied, they should not stay at home. They tell me: we don’t have elections, either. OK, have you tried being an observer? Have you seen a ballot box staffing? No? Then how do you know whether you have real elections? How about evidence? In Russia, we have plenty of examples. I have never met someone with such an example here”, - says Irina, filled with indignation.
Ruslan is 16 now. His teenager dreams from Dagestan followed him to Lithuania: holding no driver license, he wants a BMW. Indifferent to politics, he is still proud of his mother.
“Politics is about life! It changes the bread price, too,” – the mummy is outraged. As the son stays silent, we are changing the topic: “Does a car price depend on politics?” – “Yes”, - answers Ruslan, showing much more interest. He smoothly proceeds to the fact that 500 roubles can buy ten cars in Dagestan. “Ten BMWs”? – “No, LADA PRIORA”, - answers Ruslan. “Why do you need a car?” – “I would drive around the city with my friends, - dreams he. – I would drop the mum to her street actions or political meetings. In Dagestan, dads train their kids so that they all can drive when they are seven or six years old”.
Ruslan misses his elder sister Lesya. He is more childish when he remembers to her. He is happy that Lena will come to Lithuania soon, released from jail. He is even more of a child when he speaks about his dog, now hidden behind his room door, scrabbling and whining from time to time. He proudly announces that Chucha, a mixture of Rottweiler, Eskimo and a sheep dog, is 7 months old; unwillingly, it brings about an image of a monster with a tail crumpled up. Then, he opens a door; gentle and fussy, Chucha runs in. As Ruslan is playing with her, I dare to ask: “Who do you think is to blame for your sister’s death?” He answers thoughtfully: “I don’t know”.
As his mom enters a room a second later, she repeats the same question and asks someone, either herself or her son: “Isn’t it the Russian state?”