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Navalny versus the veteran A defamation case pits Russia’s opposition against ‘RT’ and the pro-Kremlin new media

Source: Meduza

Federal investigators have opened another criminal case against opposition politician Alexey Navalny, charging him with defaming a World War II veteran who appeared with several public figures in a video promoting Russia’s upcoming plebiscite on constitutional amendments. After the advertisement was published by the state-run media outlet Russia Today, Navalny called its participants “corrupt hacks,” though he did not single out the veteran, who was later named as the victim in the defamation case. Prominent members of Russia’s state media also say Navalny is guilty of “rehabilitating Nazism.” Meduza journalists Anna Vilisova and Ilya Shevelev explain what’s going on.

The veteran in the ad and the case against Navalny

On June 2, RT released a video urging Russians to vote in an upcoming plebiscite on amendments to the nation’s Constitution. The ad appeared a day after President Putin announced that the nationwide vote will take place on July 1. The video features celebrities and noteworthy figures like actor Ivan Okhlobystin, cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, and designer Artemy Lebedev (though Lebedev later said he’d been tricked into participating and now urges Russians not to vote in the plebiscite). In the ad, each person reads a phrase from the Constitution’s preamble. At the end of the video, they say in unison: “We accept the Constitution of the Russian Federation.” 

The elderly veteran in the video is a man in Moscow named Ignat Artemenko. This is his first such public appearance.

“We are adopting the Constitution together”
Russia Today

Alexey Navalny criticized the video immediately after it appeared on RT‘s website, tweeting, “Oh, here they are, darlings. I must admit that the team of corrupt hacks looks rather weak.” He called the people in the video “a national disgrace” and “traitors.”

In addition to Artemenko, the video also features famous actors (Irina Kupchenko, Ivan Okhlobystin, and Vasily Lanovoi), athletes (Vyacheslav Fetisov and Adelina Sotnikova), cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, cardiac surgeon Leo Bokeria, former Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoy, Sevastapol Tauric-Chersonese Museum director Elena Morozova, designer Artemy Lebedev, cheese manufacturer Oleg Sirota, Kalmykia presidential envoy Sangadzhi Tarbaev, Black Sea Fleet petty officer Artem Trochin, and Valentina Turova (the mother of a large family). On YouTube, the video has more than 350,000 views, 2,300 likes, and 40,000 dislikes.  

Artemy Lebedev says the video was recorded in January 2020 and RT did not pay him for his appearance. RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan say Artemenko and his family were not paid, either.

Navalny’s tweet quickly attracted more than 13,000 likes and 3,400 retweets. The same day, Ilya Remeslo (a member of Russia’s Civic Chamber advisory body and a notorious critic of anti-Kremlin oppositionists) posted a complaint on his Facebook page asking Russia’s Investigative Committee and the Moscow prosecutor’s office to investigate Navalny’s statement. Remeslo, who is a lawyer, said Navalny should be charged with misdemeanor insulting speech. He also demanded that Navalny be investigated for “involvement in the actions of his supporters aimed at rehabilitating Nazism,” and linked Navalny’s supporters to “an attack on the Immortal Regiment” (an annual event honoring the millions of Russians who died in World War II).

On Facebook, Remeslo attached a screenshot of Navalny’s Telegram post, freezing RT‘s video at the moment when Artemenko appears, making it seem like Navalny’s remark about “hacks” was meant specifically for the WWII veteran. “Of all these people, it was the insult against the veteran that seemed to me to be the most vile and outrageous,” Remeslo wrote. “The rest are quite famous and serious people with money and opportunities. But he is 94 years old — an old man who cannot stand up for himself.”

On June 15, the Investigative Committee launched a criminal case against Navalny. Remeslo told Meduza that the case was opened because of his request. Investigators say Navalny’s comment contained “knowingly false information discrediting [Artemenko’s] honor and dignity.” They also allege that Navalny “pursued the goal of spreading defamation to a wide audience.”

On June 17, state investigators questioned Artemenko and subsequently issued a press release quoting Artemenko as saying that Navalny’s comments “discredited his honor and dignity and caused a deterioration in his state of health.”

Discrepancies in the veteran’s biography

Immediately after the video appeared, some journalists expressed doubts that Artemenko was a real veteran. Columnist Oleg Kashin wrote on his Telegram channel: “This veteran has no evidence that he fought, yet everywhere he is being called a partisan of the Bykhov brigade. But all partisans were awarded the medal ‘Partisan of the Second World War’ and he doesn’t have one.”

Twitter users also drew attention to certain discrepancies in the veteran’s biography. In public electronic databases of World War II participants, there is only one Ignat Sergeyevich Artemenko, born in 1926, from the Belarusian village of Vilyakhovka in the Bykhovsky district, Mogilev region. An Ignat Artemenko is listed on two Defense Ministry portals — “Memory of the People” and “Feats of the People” — but they give contradictory information about his rank and when he started his military service. It’s therefore impossible to say for certain which military operations he might have fought in.  

At a meeting at a school in Moscow in December 2019, Artemenko described how German troops surrounded his village in July 1942. He said he was arrested for helping partisans, then escaped from arrest, and finally joined the partisan detachments that eventually merged with regular units of the Red Army.

Artemenko’s grandson, Igor Kolesnikov, told Meduza that his grandfather went home after the partisan detachments joined the Red Army in 1944: “Those born [before] 1925 joined the troops. They let those born [after] 1926 go home to be recruited [later] through the draft board. [My] grandfather didn’t wait [to receive an award] and left, so there is no medal. He came home and fell ill with typhus. Then they remembered [him] in December [1944] and he was called up [for service].” Kolesnikov said his grandfather had served as a scout during the war, and after the war served in the Air Force and then as a senior officer in an administrative unit.

The veteran’s card on the Defense Ministry’s “People’s Memory” portal says the following: Ignat Artemenko started his military service in December 1943 and finished it in 1982. He was called up by the draft board of Bakhovsky RVK. He was in the 810th partisan detachment of the Belarusian headquarters of the partisan movement. The 86th Sanitary and Epidemiological Detachment of the 65th Army of the Northern Group of Forces, created in April 1945, also was designated as a duty station. Artemenko’s military rank was engineer lieutenant colonel.

In May 1945, Artemenko was awarded the medal “For the Victory Over Germany in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945.” In 1955, he was awarded the medal “For Military Merit.” In 1985, he was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War II degree.

Ignat Artemenko’s card in the Defense Ministry’s “Feats of the People” portal indicates that he began serving in the Red Army in 1945, and that his rank was lieutenant of the administrative service.

The information on both memorial portals was taken from the Defense Ministry’s Central Archive and the Central Naval Archive. The creators of these portals emphasize that not all documents from physical archives are available electronically and that wartime records often contain many errors. Moreover, the processing of documents and information is still ongoing.

Ignat Artemenko is not included in the lists of the 810th partisan detachment on the memorial site “Partisans of Belarus.” However, by the time the detachment joined the Red Army in 1944, it consisted of 1,006 people — and only 41 names are listed on the Belarusian portal.

Some biographical information about Ignat Artemenko exists at a stand installed at the entrance to a veterans’ home in South Medvedkovo in the Moscow region. The exhibit appeared in April 2020, in honor of the 75th anniversary of the USSR’s war victory. 

The biography recorded there (Meduza obtained the full text) says that inhabitants of Artemenko’s village were evacuated before the Germans attacked, but the enemy soon caught up with them, and the Artemenko family decided to return to their home in the occupied territory. 

The biography says that Ignat Artemenko, along with other teenagers, collected weapons and cartridges from the bodies of dead soldiers. These were then transferred to the partisans. Because of this, in 1942, Artemenko was reportedly arrested, taken to the commandant’s office, and prepared to be sent to prison. The text credits the following statement to Artemenko: “I had the opportunity to escape from the escort. Passing through the village, I saw children playing soccer, threw off my jacket so that it wouldn’t give me away, ran into the crowd of players, and disappeared into the forest.”

After some time, the text says, Artemenko met the partisans and joined the Bykhov brigade and “participated in the battles for the liberation of Belarus [and] in the Kharkov battle.” In 1944, a partisan detachment crossing the Dnieper river connected with units of the Red Army. Then, it says, Artemenko fought in the 2nd Belorussian Front, was injured in the spine on the Oder, and spent six months recuperating in different hospitals. He was then transferred to a combat unit and served in Lithuania, Poland, and Germany. He later graduated from officer courses and joined the Air Force in Moscow in 1952. He served in the army for 39 years, resigning with the rank of colonel, the text says: “He served the Motherland for another 25 years in the civil service in the military industry, and resigned only in 1982.” 

According to Artemenko’s grandson, Igor Kolesnikov, the stories about his grandfather’s escape from arrest, injuries, and further military service are true, but Artemenko did not participate in the Kharkov battle.

The campaigns against Navalny and in defense of the veteran 

Navalny’s comments sparked a full-fledged information campaign in defense of Artemenko. Talk show host Vladimir Solovyov dedicated an entire segment of his YouTube show “Solovyov LIVE” to the story on June 2, calling Navalny “Nazi scum” and a “Vlasov bastard” (a reference to a former Red Army general who defected to Nazi Germany). Speaking of Navalny and his supporters, Solovyov said, “It’s strange to expect a human reaction from them. They’re incapable of it.”

Others who took part in Solovyov’s webcast were RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan, Komsomolskaya Pravda journalist and presenter of the Orthodox TV channel Spas Roman Golovanov, entertainer and Kalmykia Deputy Prime Minister Sangadzhi Tarbaev, and Ilya Remeslo (who initiated the case against Navalny).

The guests unanimously condemned Navalny’s post, without mentioning that Navalny never singled out Ignat Artemenko.

Alexander Myasnikov, a doctor and TV presenter who heads a coronavirus information center, also joined Solovyov’s live stream and sharply condemned Navalny and called him “a bottom-feeder.” He added: “This colonel is my blood relative. He is yours, too. He shed blood for us.”

After a week of public controversy, on June 9, Artemenko’s grandson, Igor Kolesnikov, revealed on his VKontakte page that his grandfather suffered heart problems after learning about Navalny’s comments. In the original message, Kolesnikov wrote “Artemenko I. A.,” using the wrong initial for his grandfather’s patronymic. The incorrect initial was then reprinted on RT’s website. At the time of publication of this article, it had not been corrected.  

“He felt very bad,” the grandson wrote. “He had to call an ambulance. The doctor diagnosed him with ischemic heart disease due to nerve damage.” Kolesnikov also shared several photographs showing Ignat Artemenko lying on a bed while a man in a white coat checked his blood pressure.

Igor Kolesnikov and Ignat Artemenko
Igor Kolesnikov’s page on Vkontakte

Igor Kolesnikov later wrote another message: “Grandfather, we will not let you be insulted!” The text was accompanied by a short video in which Kolesnikov, sitting at his grandfather’s bedside, says, “Grandpa, we won’t leave it like this. We will protect your honor, we will defend it, and all your exploits will not be forgotten. We will do it.”

“The offended grandson is overreacting with all this moaning,” editor-in-chief Dmitry Kolesev responded in a Telegram post. “I’m mocking him because I’m sure (I even have some insider information) that all this was organized, planned, and discussed before the veteran suddenly became ill due to Navalny’s insults.”

The veteran’s silence

Ignat Artemenko himself has not made any public statements about the conflict. The veteran’s own voice has been heard only twice: Once in the RT video and a second time in the video posted by his grandson, where he promises to protect his grandfather’s honor. In that latter footage, Artemenko says only these words: “so” and “thank you.”

It’s also unclear if the veteran knew the RT video was part of a campaign to promote Russia’s upcoming plebiscite. Kolesnikov did not reply to a question from Meduza about whether his grandfather was aware of this. Kolesnikov has said he does not believe the video advocates voting in favor of the amendments. “I believe this video is just the reading of the preamble,” he told Meduza. “Maybe I don’t understand something? [In the video] how is he supporting the [amendments] to the Constitution?”

Kolesnikov told Meduza that his grandfather agreed to participate after he “received a call from Russia Today television to read the Russian Constitution’s preamble. “At his age, grandfather has an agreement with me,” Kolesnikov explained. “If anyone calls him and wants something from him, then he hands it over to me, because we had incidents where people extorted money and scammers [came], pretending to be from social services.” 

Artemenko has not seen Navalny’s posts directly. Kolesnikov says he’s described the online news coverage about this to his grandfather. According to Kolesnikov, his grandfather asked his home care attendant to find out what was happening, and he became unwell after learning more.

On June 5, Alexander Mayorov (the deputy chairman of the Mari El Republican Union of Trade Unions Association) compared Navalny to Adolf Hitler. Three days later, the deputy director of the Republican Palace of Youth, Larisa Loskutova, told the publication Mariiskaya Pravda: “This is about a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, a frontline soldier named Ignat Sergeyevich Artemyenko, who shed blood for us. It’s blasphemous.” 

Navalny’s statements also outraged the Federation of Trade Unions of the Rostov Region. Helvi Lattu, the chairman of the Volgograd Regional Volunteer Society Defenders and Residents of Siege of Leningrad, said only an oppositionist is capable of such disrespectful comments. Viktor Snisarenko, the head of the United Peoples’ Front executive committee in Yugra, expressed similar sentiments: “It’s better to be a slave to your homeland than to bow down to a foreign state and carry out vile tasks against your compatriots.”

Vladimir Karagae, the head of the Konda historical museum of local lore in the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District, called for the adoption of a law against insulting veterans and war workers. “Everyone who defended their homeland, participating in battles or working behind the lines, should be immune by law, like [State Duma] deputies,” he told the publication Banner. “And now, while there is no such law, I’m afraid that Navalny will not be punished and he’ll just turn this into a self-promotion and increase his ratings.”

Another defamation case

Alexey Navalny learned about the new criminal case late on June 15, during a debate with the co-founder of the Urban Projects Foundation, Maxim Katz. The debate was broadcast live on Ekho Moskvy‘s YouTube channel. Navalny said the case is a response to his political activities: “Another criminal case has been launched against me today because they do not want ‘Smart Vote,’” he said, referring to his campaign to redirect opposition votes strategically to candidates most likely to defeat incumbents and Kremlin-favored politicians.

Navalny later compared the defamation investigation to a similar case from 2014, when he was fined 300,000 rubles (about $4,300 today) for a tweet where he described Alexey Lisovenko (then a municipal deputy from the ruling political party) as a “drug addict.”

The news website Open Media has published some information about the new case’s possible political background. For example, the outlet’s journalists discovered that Artemenko’s family is connected to a suspect identified in an investigative report by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. According to Open Media, Oleg Lavrov (a partner of Artemenko’s son, businessman Vladimir Artemenko) heads a foundation called “Defending the Fatherland” that helps special forces veterans. Lavrov’s chief deputy at the foundation is Nikolai Brykin, a State Duma deputy from the United Russia party. Brykin was involved in preparing the constitutional amendments that will soon go up for a nationwide vote, and he was involved in the criminal case against businessman Konstantin Dyulgerov, who fled to the United States after funding opposition media in Nizhnevartovsk and running afoul of local law enforcement. In 2019, Brykin played a prominent role in a government investigation into Navalny’s local office in Tyumen.

During the Navalny-Katz debate, the designer Artemy Lebedev (who also appeared in the RT video) joined a live broadcast on Dozhd television and recalled that he had previously paid a fine of 1 million rubles (about $14,310) in a similar case.

“Well, I can tell Alexey: welcome to the club,” Lebedev said. “Once, a couple of years ago, I woke up one morning, picked up my phone, and I had a text message that said, ‘You’ve had 1 million rubles removed from your account.’ I was punished for insulting veterans and they simply deducted the money to throw up a red flag and say: don’t go there.”

The prospects for the new criminal case against Navalny remain unclear, says Maxim Olenichev, a senior lawyer at the “Team 29” human rights organization. “A person can be held responsible for defamation — that is, for knowingly disseminating false information, discrediting the honor and dignity of another person, or undermining his reputation,” he told Meduza. “The operative word here is ‘information.’ You might argue that [Navalny] expressed himself crudely, but it’s an opinion, the expression of which is guaranteed by the Constitution.” Such statements of opinion should not be prosecuted, says Olenichev, though he doesn’t rule out unexpected “turns” in the investigation against Navalny.

Ilya Remeslo says he doesn’t believe prosecutors will have any problem building their case. In his opinion, Navalny’s words contain both an insult (the word “hacks”) and libel (the word “corrupt”). He has offered to testify as a witness for the prosecution.  

Late on June 17, Kolesnikov shared another update, writing, “As grandfather requested, the investigation is in full swing. Ignat Sergeyevich Artemenko was recognized as a victim and Navalny as a suspect. I hope he gets what he deserves! And now, with the earth beneath him on fire, Navalny decides to put himself up as a defender of veterans,” referring to Navalny’s new initiative to raise monthly pensions for World War II veterans to 200,000 rubles ($2,870).

Kolesnikov told Meduza that his grandfather isn’t interested in profiting from the case against Navalny and plans to donate any awarded compensation to charity (though he hasn’t specified the charity).

Story by Anna Vilisova and Ilya Shevelev

Translation by Carol Matlack

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