First, there were fake Putin graves. Now, there are photos on real graves — and that means potential prison time for Russian opposition activists.
“Putin graves” have been popping up around Russia since last spring
Activists from various anti-regime protest movements have been installing fake cardboard “headstones” bearing Vladimir Putin’s name and portrait since March of 2019. The first among them appeared on March 10 in the city of Naberezhnye Chelny: It was installed near a regional Investigative Committee building to protest new limits on Internet use. That same day, an activist for the Bessrochny Protest (Permanent Protest) movement named Karim Yamadayev was arrested. He was later sentenced to 28 days in jail, while an acquaintance who helped him bring the fake headstone to the protest site got six days. After that initial action, a number of different movements took up the challenge of installing Putin headstones in public places, from Moscow to St. Petersburg and even Berlin. The graves, they said, symbolized the assertion that Putin was dead to ordinary Russians.
At least two of the fake headstones — one in Kurgan and one in St. Petersburg — were the work of the opposition movement Agit Rossiya. The movement posted photographs of the “graves” on its Telegram channel.
In St. Petersburg, two activists were arrested after a headstone appeared across from the city’s legendary St. Isaac’s Cathedral. One of them was Agit Rossiya Press Secretary Grigory Kudryavtsev, who said the fake grave was actually created by another Agit Rossiya activist he had never previously encountered. Kudryavtsev also said that law enforcement officers made efforts to break him down psychologically while he was serving his jail sentence and threatened to fabricate a criminal case against him.
The other activist arrested in St. Petersburg was Bessrochny Protest member Andrey Zheksimbayev. Like Kudryavtsev, Zheksimbayev said he had nothing to do with the fake gravestone outside St. Isaac’s Cathedral. However, investigators argued that the two had worked together on the protest action, and Zheksimbayev was jailed for nine days.
After Zheksimbayev and Kudryavtsev were released, both told journalists that they were being followed and that they had begun experiencing “concentrated attention” from Russia’s Anti-Extremism Center (Center E).
Portraits of Putin and others have now appeared on existing graves, leading to arrests for desecration
On September 19, Agit Rossiya’s Telegram channel announced the appearance of a new protest installation called “What the People Really Want” at the Smolensky Lutheran Cemetery. This installation differed from the organization’s previous cardboard graves in that it involved portraits of public figures pasted onto actual headstones. The images depicted Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, “Putin’s chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russian rapper Timati, and others. Agit Rossiya emphasized that it had received photographs of the graves from another source and that its public-facing leaders did not know themselves who had posted the portraits.
Nonetheless, three activists were arrested in St. Petersburg on September 21. Two of them, Grigory Kudryavtsev and Andrey Zheksimbayev, had previously been jailed under similar circumstances. The third activist was Pavel Ivankin, who, as the editor of Agit Rossiya’s Telegram channel, posted the images of the graves. Law enforcement officers searched all three activists’ homes, confiscating their telephones and other personal devices.
On the night of September 21, Zheksimbayev and Kudryavtsev were released. However, they have been listed as witnesses in a new criminal case that investigates the September 19 action as “premeditated desecration of the bodies of the deceased and the places where they are buried by a group of individuals” under Article 244 of Russia’s Criminal Codex. The maximum sentence available under that statute is five years in prison. Zheksimbayev’s attorney, Maxim Kamakin, told Meduza that the decree opening the case argues that the latest St. Petersburg installation not only targets Russia’s current regime but also insults the relatives of the individuals whose gravestones were pasted over.
Mark Alexeyev, Pavel Ivankin’s attorney, told Meduza that the Agit Rossiya Telegram editor is listed as a suspect in the case. During a search of Ivankin’s apartment, Center E employees seized multiple laptops, cell phones, credit and debit cards, anti-regime flyers, and tennis shoes as well as a printer and a jacket.
Police have claimed they have video evidence to back up the case, but the defense attorneys say otherwise
On the evening of September 23, St. Petersburg’s Vasilyevsky Island Court held a hearing to consider the state’s petition to jail Pavel Ivankin. A junior detective told the court that Ivankin had installed the “headstones” along with other “as-yet-unidentified individuals,” thereby desecrating the graves underneath.
The central piece of evidence in the police’s case against the 36-year-old Ivankin is purported to be a security camera recording from the cemetery. Officers claimed that they were able to recognize Ivankin in the clip by observing his clothing and appearance. The video has not been displayed in court. “Ivankin’s testimony that he is the editor of the Telegram channel confirms his active role [in the headstone action],” the junior detective in the case argued.
However, attorney Maxim Kamakin said that all three activists have an alibi in the case: He told Meduza that data from their cell phone bills shows that they were not at the cemetery when the offending images were installed there. Law enforcement officials have not yet included the bills in their investigation.
During his initial court hearing, Ivankin also emphasized that he had never been to the Smolensky Cemetery and didn’t even know where it was located. The activist said he had received the photographs he had posted from an anonymous Telegram user who asked him to publicize the images on Agit Rossiya’s channel without naming their source. Even then, Ivankin said he did not post all of the photos he was sent. For example, he did not publicize an image of a “grave” assigned to Chechen government head Ramzan Kadyrov. “I just understand how that could have ended. I wrote to the photographer who sent the photo explaining that we wouldn’t post it because the protest action wasn’t ours and we [didn’t want] to take on the additional risk. Plus, it’s stupid — they put him on an Orthodox cross, so it’s obvious that there would be problems [because Kadyrov is Muslim]. So we didn’t post that photograph,” Ivankin explained.
Ultimately, the court closed its September 23 hearing by deciding not to jail Ivankin for the time being. The prosecution asked to delay the court’s ruling on how the activist will await trial for three days so that fingerprinting tests from the cemetery can be completed. Hearings in the case will resume on September 25, and Ivankin will remain in a temporary police holding cell in the meantime.
Activists say the case amounts to political persecution and fear that more suspects will be named
Maxim Kamakin believes there is still a danger that Zheksimbayev and Kudryavtsev will have their witness status in the case changed to that of criminal suspects. The attorney argued that officials were planning to make that change right after the two activists were arrested, but the immediate arrival of their attorneys helped force law enforcement representatives to change course.
Kamakin noted that his client, Andrey Zheksimbayev, has signed a non-disclosure agreement in the preliminary investigation of the case. Nonetheless, all of the activists implicated in the case have said they are certain it was brought forward because of their political activities. They have also argued that the cemetery installation was planned by state security agents as a provocation intended to damage Russia’s opposition movement. “This is political persecution. [The activists believe] they are suffering because of their active position in civic life,” Kamakin affirmed.
Translation by Hilah Kohen