Chasing phantom protests Meduza looks into why Moscow police arrested four Pussy Riot activists in a single day
Four Pussy Riot activists were handed 15-day jail sentences in Moscow on June 23, along with four of their friends. Meanwhile, another Pussy Riot member, Veronika Nikulshina, was already serving time on similar misdemeanor charges. All of the detainees were jailed for allegedly disobeying police officers or for minor hooliganism. According to police reports, and some of the activists themselves, they were arrested on suspicion of planning to carry out a protest action on June 22 — Russia’s Day of Remembrance and Sorrow marking the anniversary of the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II. Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova looks into the sudden wave arrests targeting Pussy Riot activists and their friends, and finds holes in the official version of the story.
Standing outside of the FSB headquarters on Moscow’s Lubyanka Square on June 12, artist and Pussy Riot activist Veronika Nikhulshina takes an unlit cigarette out of her mouth and types something into her phone. There are two police officers standing behind her, wearing uniform caps and medical masks. One of the officers is talking on the phone, looking worried. Without looking back at the policemen, Nikulshina helps a journalist from the YouTube channel Redaktsiya remove her microphone — the activist was giving an interview before the police officers showed up. Nikulshina gathers her things and flashes the camera a peace sign as she walks away, accompanied by three police officers.
“The formal reason for the arrest is smoking in a public place,” Redaktsiya correspondent Alexey Pivovarov reported at the time. Later that night, Nikulshina was released from the police station after being charged with minor hooliganism. But on June 16, the activist was detained once again. The next day, Moscow’s Dorogomilovsky District Court found her guilty of another misdemeanor, disobeying police officers, and sentenced her to 15 days in jail.
According to the police report, law enforcement were informed that the activist had “intentions to commit illegal actions related to violations of public order and public safety,” allegedly aimed at disrupting Euro 2020 soccer matches in St. Petersburg. Police sergeant A. G. Zatonsky wrote that he asked Nikulshina to come down to the station and give an explanation, to which she allegedly “reacted aggressively, started recording what was happening on a mobile phone, and refused to proceed to the police vehicle.”
Zatonsky didn’t name the source that supposedly warned the police about Nikulshina’s alleged plans. The activist’s lawyer, Sergey Telnov from OVD-Info, said that the defense plans to challenge the ruling. “During the consideration of the protocol the police tried to prove Nikulshina’s intentions to disrupt the championship with the tickets she bought to St. Petersburg and back to Moscow for June 17. However, there aren’t any matches scheduled in St. Petersburg on that day. Based on the tickets, it’s clear that Veronika was going to return to Moscow that same day,” Telnov added.
Alexander Sofeev and Dmitry Vorontsov
Late in the evening on June 21, Pussy Riot member Alexander Sofeev and his friend, photographer Dmitry Vorontsov, were returning home. According to Sofeev’s lawyer, Mansur Gilmanov from Apologia Protesta, his client had drunk a little wine beforehand. Vorontsov was sober. Sofeev had the bottle of wine in his backpack.
As the two friends were approaching Sofeev’s home and getting ready to part ways, a police van pulled up next to them, Gilmanov told Meduza. “Officers in bullet-proof vests got out [...] And officers in plainclothes — of course we didn’t see their IDs, but Sofeev assumes they were from the Anti-Extremism Center.”
Sofeev and Vorontsov were arrested and taken to a police station. Lawyer Mansur Gilmanov wasn’t allowed in to see them there, but was shown the arrest report and other police reports. “It said that they [Sofeev and Vorontsov] were allegedly inebriated in a public place, which is an offense to human dignity,” Gilmanov recalled. The police didn’t let him photograph the documents.
“After the arrest, we managed to get in touch with Sofeev. He confirmed that they were in a completely appropriate state, they weren’t drunk,” the lawyer continued. “And I asked for them to undergo a medical examination.” According to Gilmanov, the police agreed — and the doctor, a narcologist (addictions specialist), concluded that the detainees “weren’t in a state of intoxication.”
The lawyer wasn’t allowed into the police station the next day either. On June 23, Moscow’s Basmanny District Court jailed Sofeev and Vorontsov for 15 days on misdemeanor charges of minor hooliganism. According to Gilmanov, the police records alleging that his clients were drunk weren’t presented in court. “[The documents said] that they allegedly used obscene language,” the lawyer told Meduza. “This is an obvious falsification. They changed the reports: they removed the ones where it said that someone was intoxicated. And the obscene language appeared.”
Gilmanov added that the prosecution didn’t present any other evidence. The defense lawyer wasn’t allowed to question the police officers who made the arrests.
On the morning of June 22, municipal deputy and Pussy Riot activist Lyusya Shtein walked out of her building and noticed a police van was parked in the alleyway. “Three officers ran up from behind and said ‘Stop.’ I stopped. They said, ‘Come with us.’ I said: ‘What’s the reason for the arrest?’ They said: ‘We’ll tell you at the station.’ They [asked] if I refused to go. I said no, I’m not refusing. And I went [with them] calmly,” Shtein told Meduza.
According to Shtein, the protocol charging her with a misdemeanor for allegedly disobeying a police officer tells a different story. “[They wrote] that they were just walking around, patrolling the Arbat, and saw me with an electronic bracelet on my leg and decided to check what I was doing outside,” said Shtein, who has been under house arrest as a suspect in the so-called “Sanitary Case” since late January. “ [They wrote that] they asked me for my ID card. But this is all complete nonsense.”
The municipal deputy noted that the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) is responsible for monitoring her compliance with the house arrest order, adding that the police weren’t really interested in her electronic bracelet. “They wrote that I refused to answer all of their questions, started to resist, pushed, and behaved aggressively. That is, there’s a report on all of Article 318,” she said, referring to the Criminal Code article for the use of violence against an official (which carries a maximum punishment of five years in prison).
Lawyer Maria Eismont from OVD-Info represented Shtein court. Moscow’s Presnensky District Court denied the defense’s petition to include recordings from the police officer’s chest camera or from nearby surveillance cameras in the case materials.
The police reports and officers’ testimonies were the main evidence in the case. “There were two men [police officers] and a young girl. They sent her to court to testify. She lied so badly that it was super funny. But [I got] 15 days all the same,” Shtein recalled. “My birthday is July 2. I asked the judge about it: ‘Give me just 10 so I’ll get out beforehand.’ She said: ‘Here’s 15 days for you, I’ll send my congratulations to the special detention center’.”
After arresting Lyusya Shtein, the police detained another friend of the Pussy Riot activists — film director Anna Kuzminykh. She was on her way home from a beauty salon.
“In the reports the police officers wrote that they were patrolling the area where Anna’s house is located. They saw a girl walking down the street. When she noticed the patrol car she allegedly looked frightened and changed her gait and route, which seemed suspicious to the police,” Kuzminykh’s lawyer Ilya Utkin told Meduza. “They stopped her and demanded her documents. She allegedly refused to show her documents, in an aggressive manner, and refused to get in the police car to go to the station and verify her identity. She [allegedly] pushed the police officers away and used obscene language.”
The next day, Moscow’s Meshchansky District Court sentenced Kuzminykh to 15 days in jail. According to her lawyer, there wasn’t any evidence in the case aside from the police officers’ testimony. Both the police department and the court denied the defense lawyer access to the footage from nearby surveillance cameras.
Utkin said that at the police station Kuzminykh felt unwell — they had to call an ambulance for her three times. “She has a serious illness, and all of this provoked an attack and a nervous breakdown,” Utkin said. “In her condition, she just cries and doesn’t really say anything.”
A friend of Kuzminykh, who asked to remain anonymous, told Meduza that the police withheld her prescribed medications, saying she had to have a medical examination and permission from a doctor, even though she had her prescriptions with her. “The doctor from one of the ambulance crews allowed it, but the second ambulance forbade it, calling her a drug addict. I don’t know the opinion of the doctor at the special detention center where Anna is being held,” Meduza’s source added.
The fact that Kuzminykh isn’t being given her prescribed medications was also confirmed to Meduza by producer and art director Alexander Cheparukhin, who organized a massive international campaign in support of Pussy Riot in 2012–2013. “In all likelihood Anya didn’t resist anyone, she’s very afraid of being without her medications,” Cheparukhin said. “Anya turned 27 yesterday [on June 24] […] She has a rare disease that causes severe pain in her muscles and nerves. They’re causing her intolerable pain. Anya has difficulty coping with this, [even] with the help of the strong drugs prescribed by her doctors. She’s been deprived of vital medications for hours. Yesterday she called it hell.”
Maria Alyokhina and her friends
Lawyer Olga Karlova from OVD-Info is representing the three other people who were jailed for 15 days on charges of disobeying police officers: Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina, “Other Russia” activist Olga Shalina, and a friend of theirs who asked not to be named.
Alyokhina, like Lyusya Shtein, is a suspect in the “Sanitary Case.” She’s been under house arrest since late January and can only leave her apartment with permission from investigators. Lawyer Olga Karlova told Meduza that on June 21, Alyokhina sent in a written request for permission to go get vaccinated against the coronavirus the following day. “The investigator didn’t say yes or no. According to the Criminal Procedure Code, he should have considered the [application] immediately,” Karlova said.
On the evening of June 22, Maria Alyokhina left home to go get the vaccine. She was accompanied by two friends — activist Olga Shalina and a young man. “They got into a taxi, but people in civilian clothes blocked their way,” the lawyer explained. “Then police officers came over and said ‘Come with us to the paddy wagon.’ […] They didn’t show their IDs.” According to Karlova, her clients got into the police van without “even verbal” resistance.
The defense lawyer has video footage to backup this version of events (Karlova declined to share the recordings with Meduza without permission from her clients, but promised to discuss it with them during the appeal hearing). But Moscow’s Kuntsevsky District Court, which handled the case, denied her request to present the videos as evidence. Once again, the only evidence in the case was testimonies from police officers.
In conversation with Meduza, the lawyer drew attention to violent actions on the part of the police. “[At the station] Olga Shalina refused to take off her cross — it’s an object of religious worship, as she said. It’s on a cord that’s [too small] to be taken off over her head. They [the police officers] said: ‘We’ll cut it off’,” Karlova told Meduza. “When the official witnesses left, they took her [Shalina] to the front office, where I’m not allowed to go, and there they used force. Two police officers held her by the arms and the third cut the cross off with scissors. She has serious bruises.”
‘A red-letter day on the calendar means Pussy Riot is planning something’
“Because June 22 is the day the war began,” said Lyusya Shtein when asked about the real reason Moscow police detained the Pussy Riot activists and their friends. She then explained that the police told her, “in secret and unofficially,” that they received “operational information” that the activists were planning a protest action on Red Square for the anniversary of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War (June 22, the date of the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II).
In his testimony (obtained by Meduza), police officer Evgeny Synkin, who was involved in arresting Maria Alyokhina, Olga Shalina, and their friend, also mentioned an “unauthorized protest” in central Moscow timed to coincide with the memorable date.
“This is a new practice, they detain us on all the holidays. If there’s a red-letter day on the calendar, it means Pussy Riot is planning something — and if not, we’ll detain them prophylactically. May 9 [Victory Day], June 12 [Russia Day] — I didn’t leave the house on these days. And on the 22nd I forgot what day it was and I went out. We all forgot, we didn’t think about it at all,” Shtein said.
Ahead of this year’s Victory Day celebrations, Veronika Nikulshina was jailed for five days for allegedly disobeying a police officer. As in June, the arrest report said that the security forces received information that Nikulshina “intended to commit illegal actions” in order to “disrupt the event” dedicated to May 9.
“[Nikulshina’s] detention was triggered by phantom pains,” lawyer Mansur Gilmanov said of her most recent arrest. The lawyer is convinced that agents from the Anti-Extremism Center (Center E) see Nikulshina as a threat because of her involvement in the “Policeman Enters the Game” demonstration during the 2018 World Cup Final. During the match, four Pussy Riot activists ran on the field at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium dressed in police uniforms. The demonstration earned them 15 days in jail.
“This is a little bit like what happened to me exactly a year ago,” said Pussy Riot activist and Mediazona publisher Pyotr Verzilov, who was interrogated, jailed, and subjected to multiple searches of his home in the summer of 2020. (The authorities also initiated a criminal case against him for failing to provide notice of his dual citizenship — he has a Canadian passport). “When the Investigative Committee officers carried out a raid at my home, they carefully searched for some plans and materials, but then on the sidelines they confessed that they were simply given a command and so they were carrying out [investigative actions], they didn’t really know why.”
Verzilov assumes that these latest arrests took place for one of two reasons: because the security forces are convinced that Pussy Riot is up to something, or because lower-level officers are trying to show the higher-ups that they’re doing something. “It’s absolutely possible, and most likely it’s [the case], that the ‘report’ that went to some high-level police offices could have been the invention of lower-level operatives, who thus create the appearance of fighting against mythical actionism,” Verzilov said, adding that Pussy Riot doesn’t have any “actionist” demonstrations in the works.
“The FBK [Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation] was declared an extremist organization, Open Russia was destroyed, the libertarians were dispersed. What’s left for the Anti-Extremism Center staff? How can they show that they’re necessary to this regime, how can they justify the funding that is allocated to them? I think that they’re using this mechanism — attributing a phantom protest to activists that wasn’t planned at all,” Mansur Gilmanov said. According to the lawyer, the only thing the Pussy Riot members did on the eve of the detentions was record an artistic video that “had nothing to do with politics.”
That said, Lyusya Shtein said the arrests could be related to video. “Anya Kuzminykh, for example, is a director — she’s not from Pussy Riot. But she was arrested as Pussy Riot. I think they [the authorities] saw that we were walking around the city and doing something. They matched [this] to tomorrow being June 22, which we simply forgot about, and decided that a demonstration was being prepared,” Shtein told Meduza. She also underscored that the video had nothing to do with actionism. “We wanted to sell it as an NFT on American platforms,” Shtein said.
Producer Alexander Cheparukhin says he was the one who came up with the initial idea for the project, which was meant to be a music video centered around Maria Alyokhina’s house arrest. “The video isn’t political at all — it’s about love, about the longing of a person who’s in captivity,” he said. “The point of the video was to show how hard such an imprisonment is. Right now, it’s important to Masha that people understand that house arrest is no better than prison, it’s a painful ordeal.”
According to lawyer Olga Karlova, arrests like these ones have become “common practice” since February 2021. The security forces come for people at night, drag them to a police station without any explanation, and then write them up for allegedly resisting arrest, she told Meduza. Oftentimes, the police don’t even specify the grounds for detaining the person in the first place. “I write all this in my complaints, I voice it everywhere, but it’s like fighting a wall,” Karlova said. “You knock your hands bloody, but the wall is still standing.”
Karlova added that the security forces turning their attention to Pussy Riot comes as no surprise: “I think this is being done so that people don’t forget: even if you’re put under house arrest, remember that we can always torture you more.”
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart