Olga and Igor met each other during civic protests in Kuban region. This is where Krymsk flood occurred overnight. Where Kerch Bridge is under construction (connecting Russia with occupied Crimea – transl.). Where Putin has built his ‘palace’. Where Sochi Winter Olympics took place in 2014. Where box forests are dying. Olga was an accountant. Igor was reading law. Both were civic and environmental activists, though Igor’s experience in activism was somewhat longer. They married after Igor’s first arrest. To avoid a second one, they escaped to Lithuania, where they work on a project targeting Krasodar Krai, their homeland. They both agree that authorities have provoked their ‘extremism’. Otherwise, they could well have burned out and quitted.
Igor, 24, has recently undergone a free chest surgery in children’s hospital in Vilnius. Typically, such surgeries are performed for children. In Krasnodar, he was said his disease was incurable or only curable in Moscow for payment.
Interrupting each other, Olga and Igor are telling about their protest actions in a reading room of the Centre of Contemporary Arts in Vilnius. They are particularly detailed on elections they have observed, and the Environmental Watch (Ekovakhta) in Northern Caucasus. Olga feels angry that police officers did not treat her seriously, as an activist, because she is a girl; in their view, she was a supplement to her boyfriend. Igor remembers policemen carrying him in their arms out of a polling station for ‘obstructing citizens’ will expression’, with the fuss used as an occasion to falsify the results.
Personal choice and public elections
Igor joined public protests in 2011, after State Duma elections, when he was 19. “In our region, we joined efforts around the regional branch of Yabloko Party. A lot of young people got involved. Presidential elections followed after the parliamentary ones. We observed the presidential elections. We also observed local elections in our regions on regular basis, such as elections of mayors or district councillors. Yabloko Party was related to an environmental organisation in our region. All activists were members of both the party and the Ekovakhta of Northern Caucasus”.
Igor was a student of law faculty. Immediately, he encountered problems in university, unrelated to his study records or absences. “They kept inviting me for talks, trying to convince I did not need it, or that I was wrong, or that someone was exploiting me, - tells Igor. – At other faculties, they would say openly: we will expel you if you go to the protest. As we were at Law Faculty, they realised it was illegal to ban someone from attending assemblies. Therefore, they would just say politely that we would not find jobs and damage our lives, or refer to some local politicians allegedly utilising us for their own goals. They would conclude that the West and America were involved, aiming at destroying our country”.
Olga joined the protest movement in 2012 after Krymsk where she came as a volunteer to help the flood-affected population. She met activists and Yabloko members there, and was offered to observe elections with them. Golos trained her. A month later, in September, elections to Krasnodar Duma began. “These were my first elections; I was shocked to see what was happening, - admits Olga. – I knew how it should be in according with all procedures. I revealed tremendous violations, both technical and substantial”.
Listed by Olga, violations included: failure to sew the book with lists of voters, meaning that sheets could be removed or inserted; using pens and other inappropriate items; pencil notes; unauthorised persons at the polling station, such as representatives of city or district administrations; hindering observers’ movement around the polling station; elimination of ‘uncomfortable’ commissioners by delegating tasks; box stuffing; and adding fake data to the list of voters. In a couple of episodes, commission members called an ambulance and accused the observer of giving their colleague a heart attack, in an attempt to conceal the stuffing. “They love this trick. In my polling stations, there were two cases when they called an ambulance with an alleged heart attack. They call an ambulance and hide in another room. Naturally, when you try to break into the room in which they are performing some manipulations, they try to press you down: “You have no heart… you are driving a person to death… you do have a mom, don’t you?” It would scare a newcomer. However, it is not convincing when they use this excuse again and again. They are not dying, actually,” – tells Olga, laughing.
Igor notes that any court has never ordered a recount of votes in Russia. Olga keeps speaking in examples: “I have caught a stuffer red-handed. A police officer, the he-man, was standing by; I told him: there is stuffing going on here. No reaction. I almost took his hand and led him, while suddenly he shielded the stuffer with his body, asking: where is stuffing?!”
Igor moves on to a story about more high-profile incidents: “You might have heard about a case in Krasnodar when Suren Gazaryan and Yevgeny Vitishko were sentenced for ‘damaging’ governor’s (illegal – ed.) fence around his summerhouse, just by writing Sanya is a thief and Forest is everyone’s. Yevgeniya Chirikova came to support them near the administration in Krasnodar during the trial. The head of city’s public safety police saw this single protest, one person with a poster; he disliked it and waved me nearer. As I came up to him, he grabbed my hand and put me next to her. Someone from the administration took a photo immediately. Thus, having transformed a single-person protest to mass protest, they accused us of breaching the assembly procedures afterwards”.
The Russian law prescribes that only one person can legally protest without consent of the authorities; for two and more, a notification must be submitted 15 days in advance. “Surprisingly, the court dismissed the case, since a video by other activists showed that I was literally forced into participation”, - tells Igor.
Olympic enthusiasm of FSB
Our interlocutors shared how thorough local administration and security services were in suppressing even theoretical possibilities of protests in run-up to the Winter Olympics. In a relay around Russia, the Olympic torch was about to arrive in Krasnodar. “They shut off half of the city; we considered organising a public action. Originally, we wanted something big. We thought about renting a flat over the torchbearer’s route and displaying a poster with some music, to keep it peaceful and to catch people’s eyes”. It proved impossible to rent anything on that day. The activists had to switch to a single-person protest plan. Yet, the police started arresting all activists a day before the event”.
Coming back to Krasnodar with Olga after visiting her parents, 30 kilometres away from the city, Igor faced a detention. After an alleged good citizen’s notification that he was drunk, he was stopped during leaving a gas station. They both were taken for a medical check-up and spent about three hours in police. “They took us to different rooms, - says Igor. – The boss of a local criminal investigation office talked to me. His only question was about our plans during the Olympic flame relay. I said I am not actually obliged to share my plans with anyone”.
Olga noted that a lower-rank officer talked to her. “We discussed Ekovakhta. There was no negativity on their side whatsoever. They told me about someone capturing a river bank somewhere: why don’t you share it with your organisation to have a look there?” After a while, Olga put a question direct: “Either I am detained, and you notify me with a document, so that I stay here, or I stand up and leave. I started demanding that they release Igor, too”.
Igor’s phone was out of reach. Olga still was at the police station: “I became nervous, as I did not know what happened to him. I started asking them. An investigator came and persuaded me that Igor’s battery had run down, he is fine, we’ll release him soon”. They did release both of them soon, without composing any records.
She called their activism friends from the police station, warning that they had been detained. On their way to support Igor and Olga, people with assault rifles detained the friends, too. The detainers had no idea whom they were dealing with: activists, extremists or someone else.
“As we were meeting each other after the detentions, we noticed the surveillance officers and took a picture. In the morning, too. We felt pity for them and even wanted to offer them some coffee. These people were standing on duty overnight, as we were sleeping”, - shares Olga.
They did not feel fear then, because tougher incidents were yet to come.
Released from different police stations, they left home to bed, having agreed on a meeting next to Avrora cinema in Krasnodar next morning, on the action day. Each of them noticed surveillance on their way to Avrora next morning. As they transferred to Ekovakhta office on a second floor, a saleswoman from a ground-floor store ran into the room half an hour later, shouting: “Guys, someone is smashing your cars”.
aving come down, they saw their cars with tires cut, windows broken, and a strong odour of ammonia liquid from inside. “Subsequently, we saw video of people doing it with their bare hands. It was a group of six or seven lowlifes in their late 20ies,” – Olga is still in shock as she is telling this.
The records of surveillance cameras showed that the unknown men had approached the yard gate that led to their office and pulled the handle; as the gate was locked, they left for new instructions, assumes Olga; they came back to smash their car. “We were lucky that the gate was locked”, - says Igor. “We could have faced a bloody attack,” – adds Olga.
Igor notes that the camera recorded a police officer approaching their car shortly before the incident; during the smashing, a patrol car was passing by. Police car arrived before they managed to call the police and report the attack. “We started telling them what happened. Saleswomen were scared and began telling what they had witnessed. The policemen listened normally and gave some questions first, and then suddenly they detained Igor”.
The ground for arrest was his alleged disobedience to police officers as he was telling about the destruction of his own car. The police refused to accept his complaint on the car incident, claiming this is a role of the insurance company to report the attack, since the car was under insurance.
Igor remembers staying for the rest of the day and overnight in a dim-bulb cell on a narrow bench, a window closed with a piece of metal: “Staying in this cell isolates from a daylight, preventing an inmate from distinguishing between day and night. No way to sit or sleep”. Olga stresses that this cell is for someone neither found guilty nor even tried yet.
In the morning, Igor was placed in a cage during a trial: “They tried 15 of us simultaneously. Out of these 15, there was me, some migrants that had smashed windows in some entrance hall drunk and someone who had been engaged in fighting with the police; he ended up facing administrative rather than criminal charges. There were some other people lined up in a row, and I was the only one put in a cage, as the most dangerous one. This was an old metal cage. I was the only one to be sentenced to 5 days in prison”. Olga referred to some law beyond the memory of any man and obtained an hour-long meeting with Igor. He also received visits from the local ‘E’ centre (anti-extremism agency – transl.).
15 days arrest is not a problem for anyone
After Igor’s release, he and Olga received a proposal to work as observers in Moscow during the elections of the city duma, something that would also allow them to get out of local security services’ reach.
Olga and Igor refer to their own and friends’ arrests and imprisonments as a routine phenomenon: “People in Ekovakhta are used to detentions. 15 days arrest is not a problem for anyone”. On the other hand, they admit that it became problematic when real criminal cases started: “They might leave you in prison even after your 15 days term. This is their tactic to catch someone for an administrative arrest, and use this time to invent criminal charges to keep you in prison”.
Our meeting in Vilnius coincided with the day when Darya Polyudova, another activist from Kuban and their companion in fighting, was released. They could have well shared her destiny if had stayed in Russia. Polyudova spent two years in penal settlement for extremism and calls to violate Russia’s territorial integrity for her repost of a story against war in Ukraine on her social media account with 800 subscribers. Olga and Igor reposted the same information in their Vkontakte group Kuban Open Your Eyes, followed by 3.5 thousand and eventually blocked by the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media.
Olga and Igor says that Polyudova was detained after leaving the city administration where she had come to submit an application for a march For Federalisation of Kuban. The original 15 days turned into years. “It was the beginning of the conflict with Ukraine, with Russian government repeating that Ukraine should be a federation. Local activists said, why not Kuban? It was trolling. They suggested a march for federalisation of Kuban. She was imprisoned as a reaction to her repost rather than the march, though”, - specifies Olga.
Olga and Igor were still in Moscow. “We were going to book tickets home when we learnt that the prosecutor’s office launched several prosecutions for a separatism call”. Igor says that his colleagues in Moscow recommended them to leave. They left for Ukraine on the same day: “We travelled from Moscow to Minsk, and there we took an express train”.
After Polyudova’s arrest, investigators started knocking on Igor’s door. “They came to my old registration address in the beginning; they visited the new one later, only to switch to my sister’s flat. We consulted a lawyer from Agora (an international human rights organisation, ed.)”. He sent a request asking whether there were some criminal proceedings pending against Kharchenko. Igor says that later the lawyer was said on a phone “we are throwing your request to a trash bin”.
They spent three months in Ukraine. “A friend told me later that we could move to Lithuania. Agora recommended that I did not return to Russia. They sent a reference to Lithuania to provide me with asylum”.
Plans in Lithuania
Igor is going to resume his studies in Lithuania. Olga supports him in this. Having passed a 2nd-level Lithuanian exam, he has enrolled on Level 3 courses at Vilnius University; it is financially demanding, though. “This is a financial burden for us, given that courses cost 1.5 thousand euro”, - complains Olga.
She says there is a shortage of free Lithuanian courses in the integration programme for refugees, though they are crucial for further professional studies. Olga says they are not certain about their plans yet: “We keep discussing it. We think and then we change our mind; no clear picture yet. The only thing we know for sure is that we have to study. Especially Igor, who is good in this language. He will probably study robotics, engineering or IT”.
Olga sees no options for herself so far. “I would like to get a profession, but it is not easy. There are no studies available in Russian for professions that interest me; I am still struggling with my Lithuanian,” – shares Olga.
Lithuanian public servant more available than a homeless kitty
Olga and Igor say that they are feeling certain accountability of local servants to Lithuanian people. “It is more open here. You can go and talk to someone at the municipality. You can even meet and talk to a mayor. It is absolutely impossible in Russia. This class of people is beyond any reach. They consider common people to be of lower rank, not worth their attention”.
Olga and Igor wanted to host a homeless kitty in Lithuania. “It was a shock for us, because we couldn’t find one, - they are sharing their experience. – Finding a dog or a cat if easy in Russia. If I want a dog, I just go to a street and find whatever I want. This can be a dog or a puppy, a cat or a kitty. We have not found any here. We have checked some shelters; they mostly have adult animals, while we want a small one”.
“How can it be? This is a country that has no homeless animals. Is it richer than Russia? Or are these people different, with three legs?” – exclaims Olga. Interrupting each other, they move on to tell how the issue of homeless animals is addressed in Kuban: “10 years in a row, a company connected to the city administration gets 11 million roubles per year for collecting and sterilising homeless animals. On paper, they let them go afterwards; they are supposed to put down painlessly only hopelessly sick or aggressive ones. In reality, they just shoot them on streets, in front of adults and children, and collect dead bodies. This firm has an office in Krasnodar. We have visited it several times. This is just a locked door. It is never open. They don’t even have a doorbell”.