“After all this, I still love my President Putin. He always makes sweeping gestures.” Oksana Sevastidi’s first interview after being pardoned by Putin
Photo: Evgeny Feldman for Meduza
In March 2016, Krasnodar’s Regional Court sentenced Oksana Sevastidi – a sales clerk in Sochi – to seven years in prison for treason. In 2008, she sent two texts to a friend in Georgia about military equipment she saw being transported through Sochi. On March 7, 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree pardoning Sevastidi. On March 12, when the decree came into force, she was released from prison. The defence tried to have Sevastidi’s verdict overturned, but, on March 15, it was upheld by the Supreme Court, which, nevertheless, lowered her term of imprisonment from seven years to three. Sevastidi remains at liberty, because Putin’s pardon is in place. Meduza’s special correspondent Daniil Turovsky interviewed Sevastidi.
- How did it happen that Putin pardoned you?
- On February 15, I was at the Lefortovo [detention center]. A center employee said that the administration was calling me in. There they told me that I had to write a petition for pardon. They offered no explanation. I thought that that was what I needed to do then. I had been waiting for a reaction from the president.
- Why were you waiting?
- He promised to find a solution to my situation at a press conference. I believed in him. I thought that at least my term would be reduced. I asked the head of the detention center: “Will this reach the president?” He said: “Of course, you were brought here to Lefortovo for a reason.” He said that everything would be fine, [read a statment saying] that I have no penalties, claims and so on. I gave him the paper. (Meduza’s note: according to Sevastidi’s lawyer Ivan Pavlov, the head of the detention center dictated Sevastidi’s appeal to her. In her petition she was “yet again asked to admit guilt, repent, and ask for the mercy of high officials.”) On March 7, I was in my cell, one of my cellmates was braiding my hair. And then they said on television that they had pardoned me. We all jumped in the cell, started hugging and crying. Then all day long we waited for [news]. None of the detention center [officials] told me anything until March 12. At half past nine, I was summoned and told that I was released. After all this, I still love my President Putin. He always makes sweeping gestures – he helps Ukraine and Syria.
- Do you not think that he was responsible for the system, as a result of which you were imprisoned for sending a text message?
- No. I do not think he is responsible for the sentences. They said the same thing about Stalin – just look at what was occurring under his leadership. But Stalin did not know about all the verdicts.
- You told me that during your time in prison you understood just how important freedom is. Is it not contradictory for you to love Putin and to appreciate freedom?
- No. He saved my life and my mother’s life. I would like to meet him and thank him. And I would tell him about other matters related to treason.
- You are still a member of United Russia? Why?
- I joined when I was still working at the market. We all went together from work and joined. I did not think that they are responsible for anything.
- Tell us about your family.
- I was born in Sverdlovsk. After Sverdlovsk we lived in Maykop, where my mother's father served in the army. When he passed away, we moved to Abkhazia. My grandmother found it very difficult to cope with his death and felt drawn to the sea. We moved to Sukhumi. I started school. We lived there until 1992, until the war began. Then [people started] robbing and killing; looters came to our house [and] beat my mother. We decided to leave. We packed one bag, left our apartment, and moved to Sochi in 1994. There we settled in a hostel ... We went to sell vegetables at the market, spending our days and weekends there for 15 years. Since 2005, I have been working as a cashier at a bread store, because the market was demolished for the Olympics.
- How did you meet Timur Buskadze, whom investigators considered an employee of Georgia’s special services and to whom you sent these text messages?
- Back in Abkhazia, I worked as a dispatcher installing [remote control security panels] in apartments. Timur’s father was my duty officer. I met Timur in 2005, when I was in Georgia. We met at Georgia’s Federal Migration Service when I was receiving my refugee status [due to conflict] in Abkhazia. However, this paper disappeared and the status went along with it. Timur was working as a security guard there when I received [my refugee] paper. He overheard me saying that I worked as a dispatcher and said that his father worked at the company. It was a completely random meeting. We exchanged phone numbers. He said that if I needed any help in Georgia, I should call him. I have never seen him since the summer of 2005. In 2008, we corresponded.
- What about?
- I cannot say (Meduza’s note: Sevastidi’s lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov specified that the messages are still considered state secrets). He asked me, I answered him (Meduza’s note: Sevastidi’s lawyer Ivan Pavlov added that the text messages were no longer than 70 characters. According to Sevastidi’s mother, Buskadze asked whether it was true that there were [Russian] tanks in Sochi, and Sevastidi allegedly answered in the affirmative). The whole city saw this technology. In the middle of the Sochi station there was an open train [carrying] tarpaulin-covered tanks. That is why I mentioned tanks in the text message. Although, in reality, it might have contained bricks [for all I know]. The technology was not visible.
After these text messages, [Timur] and I never communicated again. The FSB checked and found no more calls or text messages. The most interesting thing is that this number, from which I wrote, was not even registered to me, but to my friend living in Greece. It is unclear how they found me.
- You, of course, did not suspect [that anything would] happen to you because of these text messages.
- Of course not! In 2009, I met my husband, who works as a minibus driver. In 2012, we got married. I was working in the same grain store and then quit. My grandmother was ill; I had to take care of her. In addition, because of [my] work in the store, I always under [immense] pressure. We led the normal life of an ordinary Russian family – home, family, work. My husband left early, came home late; while he was gone, I went to [my mother’s house] to clean and do laundry. And so went all [our] days. My plans for March 2015 were to celebrate my 45th birthday, but I celebrated it in prison.
- When did your life change?
- On January 15, 2015, the investigator called me. He asked if I could come to the FSB office in Sochi the next day at 10 am. I asked: “Why?” He said that it was about Georgian citizenship. I said that I did not have it, but that my husband was a citizen of Georgia. The investigator said: “Then on his account. Come!” In the morning I, as a decent person, called a taxi and drove [to the FSB office]. I entered [the premises] and that was it.
I was deceived. At the beginning of the conversation, they asked me whether I knew Timur Buskadze and whether I had written to him. I said that I had. I did not even know how they could know about these messages. I sat there for three hours, after which they went to search my apartment. I lived in a small room in a hostel, so the search went quickly. They took only a laptop and a phone ... I managed to shout to my neighbor [and ask her to] call my mother.
My mother was not allowed to see me when she arrived at the apartment. They had put me in a car. My mother was told that I would return home soon. The phone they seized was, of course, not the one from which I had sent these text messages. They brought me back to the FSB. There they promised me that I would be released shortly.
At around six in the evening, they put me in a car and drove me to Krasnodar. I thought: “What Krasnodar? I need to call home. [They would be wondering where I was].” It was forbidden from calling. We arrived in Krasnodar at around midnight. They once again denied me [the right] to call home. The FSB officer asked whether I [was ready to] admit my guilt [whether] completely or partially. I did not understand anything. And they say to me: “Look, you are facing a conviction of 12 years.” I said that I had written messages, but what else [did] I need to confess? I did not know what [treason] was.
I spend the night in the isolation ward. The next morning, I was taken to court and detained for two months. This all happened [over the course of] one day (Meduza’s note: In cases on treason, the FSB always detains, conducts searches, interrogates, and arrests within one day). My mother was not allowed to contact me. At the Sochi branch, she was told to look for me in Krasnodar. She only found me six days later on January 21.
My relatives found me several lawyers. The first, however, was not a [good] fit, [as] she specialized in murders. Then they were advised [to seek the help of] lawyer Ruslan Zurnadzhyan. He kind of worked well at first.
- Before the verdict, you were at the Krasnodar detention center?
- Yes, in detention center number 5, which is controlled by the FSB. The conditions were good there. There was a constant cellmate turnover. Basically, everyone was there on Article 228. From one of the cellmates, I learned that Aniko Kesyan was [there, as well]. She was a [sixty- year-old Armenian] sentenced to eight years for sending text messages about the same military equipment. She was sent to Mordovia. For the time being, I do not know any more details about her (Meduza’s note: her lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, has taken the case up; he will soon start getting acquainted with the case materials).
On March 3, I was sentenced to seven years in prison. My grandmother’s heart could not stand it; she died. I did not learn this immediately. My mother had a micro stroke. Her face is now distorted.
After the verdict, I waited for an appeal. But the days passed, and my lawyer did [visit me]. My mother did not come either. I wrote a statement addressed to the investigator request that he call me to his quarters, so that I might under what was happening with the appeal. There was no reaction. I submitted an application for a phone call home. There was no reaction. A few days later, I was transferred to solitary confinement and was not allowed to see anyone until May (Meduza’s note: Sevastidi’s verdict was not appealed after the ruling, as her former lawyer had missed the appellation deadline. The appellation application was filed only in autumn 2016, when Sevastidi’s case was taken up by new lawyers working under the leadership of Ivan Pavlov. Krasnodar’s regional legal chamber conducted an audit of Zurnajyan’s actions and found that he had neglected his professional responsibilities in the Sevastidi case.)
I had a very difficult tenure at the colony; I stayed there for nearly a month and a half. I went through five jails. I have seen so many things! I saw at all sorts of women [with] bad attitudes. I am ashamed to even talk about it. But no one came near me.
The most terrible jail was in Yaroslavl. There were rats about the size of horses running around the cells. I stayed there for 20 days. After that, I was taken to the Ivanovo jail, [which] seemed like a fashionable hotel [compared with] Yaroslavl.
Then I somehow received a letter from my mother. She wrote that she had found a lawyer [called] Ivan Pavlov, who was engaged in similar cases. I wrote a letter [requesting] help and sent it to Pavlov. I was sure that it would not leave the colony. But help came.
- You said that you have had problems with your blood pressure. At the detention center, did the doctors look after your health?
- Yes. But all of the medicine was passed along from home. I only have problems with my hands now. My fingers were numb from working at the sewing shop. In Lefortovo, a neurologist evaluated me [and] prescribed a treatment, but they did not have time [to implement it]. Now I will be treated at home.
The colony paid 100 rubles a month. I worked 14 hours a day, six days a week. I did not think to refuse. They told me to work, so I worked.
- You spent a lot of time in a confined space. You probably thought about a lot of things. And certainly thought about why you were convicted.
- No. I thought about my mother and grandmother. I was alone; I could not do anything. [I might as well have] hit my head against the wall. I thought about the fact that my mother has to overcome both my grandmother’s death and my conclusion. It did not matter at all what was happening to me. So now, I want to spend more time with her and go to the cemetery. There are no other plans.
In Lefortovo I had an excellent cell: a two-room apartment for four. There was a television set; a refrigerator. We could watch television whenever we wanted. There were all the channels you could want. But I did not watch; I slept more or talked to the girls. We drank coffee. Over this period, I read only one book - Khodorkovsky’s “Prison and Will”, which I borrowed from my cellmate. I did not know anything about [Khodorkovsky] before. I never watched the news.
I do not believe that all of this is happening to me. Perhaps I will wake up? I have not had a single fine in 46 years. I always lived right; I was brought up that way.
I was released three days ago; I still cannot pick up the phone. When I have to, I have panic attacks. It find it terrifying to sent a text message now. I feel revulsion towards it.
This affair has shaken up my family. In two years, my mother has aged twenty years; I do not recognize her. I no longer believe anyone. And the worst thing is that I do not feel any emotions. It is as if I were dead.