Skip to main content
  • Share to or

‘He chose this path, and we’re walking it with him’ The parents of imprisoned Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin on coping with their son’s incarceration

Source: Meduza

Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin is currently serving an eight-and-a-half year sentence in prison for spreading “disinformation” about the Russian army after speaking out against the mass murder of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine. Journalist Katerina Gordeeva sat down with his parents, Tatyana and Valery, who still live in Russia, to learn how they’re coping with his incarceration, how they support their son in prison, and what hopes they have for the future. Meduza shares key points from the interview.

On not persuading him to leave Russia

We never pressured him on any issue — neither small ones nor something like this. It’s his life, and he has to make these decisions; we can only help. I always told him, “Ilya, no matter what happens in life, know that you have a strong support system. That doesn’t mean you’ll always be right. And if I think you’re wrong, I’ll be the first to tell you.” The decision [not to leave Russia] came in 2012, after the Bolotnaya Square case. Leaving would mean giving up, admitting that everything was in vain.

He didn’t leave then. And then Boris Nemtsov was killed, and he said, “Now, even more so, I can’t leave. Leaving would mean admitting that we lost. As long as I’m alive, I don’t believe that I’ve lost.” We didn’t try to talk him out of it because I understood how he felt, and I can’t imagine him being abroad now. I think it would have been such an ordeal that what he’s going through now is still much easier.

The Yashins: “When the regime ends, the term will end”
Tell Gordeeva

On an exchange

He himself doesn’t want an exchange. His main argument is: “Even if there are any exchanges, I’m far from being the first in line, and probably I’m the last, because there are people for whom it’s a matter of life and death. Secondly, I’m not ready to be exchanged for a hired killer who will then be free. Thirdly, agreeing to an exchange means leaving the country. I could have left the country right away.” I told him, “Ilya, it’s clear which way everything is going. Maybe if the opportunity arises, you shouldn't be stubborn and should agree? After all, who will know whether you gave consent [for the exchange] or not?” He said: “I will know. That’s enough.”

On why they themselves stay in Russia

Because our son is here. We use any possible fleeting opportunity to see [him]. If there’s an appeal hearing, and he’ll be there via teleconference, maybe he’ll see us, and we’ll wave to him. And then he’ll see and make a heart. Maybe we’ll be given five minutes to exchange a few words. Letters are one thing, but it’s another when you can see him and understand by his expression, [by the way] he shuffles papers, what state he’s in, what his mood is. That’s why we attend all the court sessions.

On their son’s sentence

I was shocked when the prosecutor requested nine years for Ilya. I thought I’d misunderstood, I had misheard, because it couldn’t be true. Then, after we’d left the courtroom but before the sentence was pronounced, there was a moment when it overwhelmed me a little. But I quickly pulled myself together, and by the time of the sentencing, we took it quite calmly, philosophically: when the regime ends, the term will end. He chose this path, and we’re walking it with him. We are beside him, we are helping, and what will be, will be.

Even though we’re outlawed in Russia, we continue to deliver exclusive reporting and analysis from inside the country. 

Our journalists on the ground take risks to keep you informed about changes in Russia during its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Support Meduza’s work today.

On family life

We never had any secrets. In our family, we made all our decisions collectively, so to speak. Any decisions — important or unimportant — were discussed by the whole family, and we included Ilya in this from a very young age.

On how Ilya has changed in prison

Valery: He used to have moments where he was very categorical in his judgments. He’d listen, understand, agree, but still stick to his opinion. Now, he’s grown more tolerant. He’s developed [an open-mindedness]; he’s matured and become more resilient.

Tatyana: He’s become kinder and less rigid, paradoxical as it may sound. When he was young, he could break off relationships abruptly. Now, he’s more understanding, he doesn’t judge. Some things make him smile wryly — but without judgment.

On people’s support

We were in Smolensk; the court was hearing an appeal on an administrative case for failing to fulfill the so-called duties of a “foreign agent.” And the [train] arrives just on the dot, so we had to take a taxi and rush into the building. When we got there, a journalist who’d arrived earlier called us and said, “They changed the courtroom because there are a lot of people.” And when we walked in, we saw a full hall — Smolensk residents of all ages. […]

And then these people came up to us — there were these guys, a very young man, a student, young women, and a local lawyer. They said, “Come with us, we'll show you where you can sit, have coffee, eat, and warm up.” It was so touching. Then a charming woman, about our age, maybe a bit younger, came up to us. She said, “I live nearby too, you can always rely on me.” I’ve met a lot of people who say things like, “Hold on, everything will be fine, this will all end.” But no one has ever called my son a traitor or whispered it behind my back.

On the future

During our last visit, which lasted three days and was the first in two years, we could hug and talk about anything. We talked a lot. He said: “What can you do? It’s a marathon.” I told him, “Ilya, I might not make it to the end.” He said: “You’ll make it. I have no doubt.”

the families left behind

Russian political prisoners’ relatives must cope with years of separation and waiting. Here’s how your donations can help.

the families left behind

Russian political prisoners’ relatives must cope with years of separation and waiting. Here’s how your donations can help.

  • Share to or