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‘I hate that I’m broken’ Two years ago, Dasha Lesnykh’s partner was sent to prison as part of the ‘Moscow Case.’ Photographer Evgeny Feldman captures her life on the outside.

Source: Meduza

In December 2019, “Moscow Case” defendant Egor Lesnykh proposed to his girlfriend Dasha during his final courtroom remarks. The next day, he was sentenced to three years in prison. Egor was charged with assaulting a police officer at a rally after he tried to protect other protesters from being beaten by members of the National Guard. Today, he’s serving his sentence in an open prison near Volgograd; he’s due to be released in June 2022. Approximately once every two months, Dasha is able to visit Egor in prison. Over the course of several weeks, Meduza photographer Evgeny Feldman snapped photos of Dasha before and after one such visit.

Egor and I met on Tinder five years ago. We wrote a few messages back and forth, but I decided that I didn’t need all that and ditched. But he found me. I blew him off for two months, and then we went out together nonetheless. He didn’t write to me for two days afterwards: I scared him. My tactics were stupid; I showed the worst — or rather the weird — sides of me. And if I didn’t scare the person off, it meant that this is my person. Six months later I had already moved to Moscow to be with him. 

On July 27, [2019], Egor was at a protest rally over [opposition] candidates being barred from the elections to the Moscow City Duma. He wasn’t picking up his phone and then I received a photo of Egor sitting in a police van. He was detained and spent two days at a police station. Then things were calm for a while; [he received] a fine, they went to court. I started to get tense when several people were arrested for the incident on Rozhdestvenka [Street]. Egor and I had a conversation about the fact that he was there. Perhaps he was protecting me from the full story.

During a protest rally on July 27, 2019, clashes took place between law enforcement officials and demonstrators, who were opposing local election officials’ decision to bar several opposition candidates from running for the Moscow City Duma. The most serious clashes took place at the intersection of Rozhdestvenka Street and Teatralny Proezd, where Russian National Guard (Rosgvardiya) officers began to beat up protesters. Egor Lesnykh was among those who tried to intervene and stop the police violence. Afterwards, a criminal case was opened against him and several other people on charges of committing acts of violence against officials. In court, Lesnykh said that “he impulsively pulled at a National Guard officer, who was beating a guy and girl [who were] asking for help.”

Then I relaxed a little, but on October 14 uninvited guests arrived: a search [team], official witnesses, and a deflated Egor. We weren’t allowed visits, all my contact with him [was through] letters and an endless stream of packages.

In his final [courtroom] remarks, Egor asked me to marry him. Everyone around us was moved, but I really wasn’t. I once said to him: if you’re going to propose to me, do something more interesting, don’t [ask me] casually while sitting on the couch. It turned out to be more interesting, but not in the way I imagined. We’re ordinary people in these circumstances. 

Egor was given three years [in a regular prison. A court later eased his sentence and he was transferred to an open prison]. And I [was left] alone with the cats. The older one looked for Egor constantly, he stood by the window and meowed, ran out into the entryway and rushed about. And when I put on a video of Egor talking he started to look for him around the room and, when he realized where the sound was coming from, he rubbed up against the phone. After the searches, the cat is still afraid of loud noises, just like me. 

The whole first year I [couldn’t] accept the fact that it was a long story. I kept repeating that he wouldn’t be in prison for more than a year. It was only on the anniversary that I began to grasp that this wasn’t the case. This is a marathon, and I’ve accepted the worst-case scenario. In February 2021, a court decided to release Egor on parole — they gave me hope, I even started looking at wedding dresses. But [then] Egor called and said that he got [a complaint from state prosecutors, who appealed the court’s decision on his early release]. I understood that they wouldn’t let him go.

I’m living in my own personal hell every day. I imagine 384 scenarios of what might happen there. If he doesn’t call at a specific time, the 384 scenarios turn into 571. And he might not call, simply because he’s making something to eat (Egor is serving his sentence in an open prison, where inmates are allowed to prepare their own food). 

For a period of time you remove yourself. I felt like an extension of Egor, without a name. This is my prison term too. Quite a large portion of your life depends on your partner [when he’s in prison]. You go visit, put together packages, resolve everyday issues, you live two lives at the same time. A year and a half ago I always chose Egor, as if there was only the bride of Egor Lesnykh [and not me]. But if you feel bad, you can’t help your partner, and I learned to balance [my needs and his]. We like to credit [women] with martyrdom — the “Decembrist’s wife” and shit.

I’ve been taking care of Egor for two years, but he can’t take care of me in return. At most it’s calls and a few days on a long visit, where I can relax and say that I can’t do this or that. At first I was angry with Egor, as if his actions led to this whole chain of events. I had a big black hole inside for a long time, I howled from loneliness.

I hate that I’m broken. Before I was different, I wasn’t anxious, I smiled more often, I saw beauty around me at every step, I drew more often. I was so tired that I distanced myself from everything. I want Egor, me, and the cats [to be together] — and for us to live somewhere in Crete, in a little house in the mountains 

PArt 1

Before the visit

Egor can call for no longer than 15 minutes at a time, so in the evening, when he has access to a phone, he rings Dasha several times. In the photo, Dasha is waiting for his call.
Despite their daily phone calls, Dasha sends handwritten postcards to Egor. 
A few days before the visit, Egor says that he asked his mother to cook his favorite food. Dasha insists that they cook together at the prison settlement.
Twice a week, Egor’s calls fall around the time when Dasha goes to the gym. The phone rings in her headphones as she waits for the train on the platform.
Dasha takes Krav Maga, an Israeli martial art. She says that apart from the visiting room at the prison, these classes are the only place where she doesn’t feel lonely — thanks to the spirit of sisterhood. 
Egor didn’t let the cats climb on the tables, but Dasha lets them lounge wherever they please
Out of habit, Dasha buys and cooks enough food for two
Dasha talks to Egor using headphones. She’s a little angry ahead of the trip: she wanted to celebrate her birthday with friends, but because of the visit it won’t work out.
Dasha walks past a fence with barbed wire on her way to work. Before, this place always reminded her of the prison, but she’s grown used to not paying it any mind.
Dasha works as an administrator at a recycling organization in Moscow
Dasha’s co-workers see her off before her trip to the prison, wishing her safe travels. She angrily recounts to them how someone told her to have a “nice break.”
To visit the prison, Dasha has to provide a medical certificate confirming that no one at her residential address has contracted the coronavirus in the last three days. Dasha goes to a clinic, where a family doctor asks whether or not she has any “bad habits” and says “it’s about time” she had children.
Egor calls Dasha as she’s about to go into a store. She stands in the snow and talks to him.
Dasha heads home with her purchases: cat food and acrylic paints. 
Movies and television shows remind Dasha of the times when she and Egor watched them before going to bed. Now, she only watches YouTube videos in the evenings. 
Dasha waits for her flight to Volgograd. Egor is serving his sentence in an open prison 50 kilometers (31 miles) outside of the city.
A negative coronavirus test in a prerequisite for visiting the prison. While waiting her turn to get tested at the lab, Dasha pets a stray cat.
Dasha feels better when she buys Egor’s favorite foods at the supermarket. She’s putting together a care package for him. 
A friend drives Dasha from the supermarket to the prison. This is the barrack where Egor lives. The bunk beds inside and partially broken windows can be seen from the road.
Before the visit, Dasha has to write a list of the groceries in the care package
Part 2

After the visit

Dasha leaves the prison after the visit. She tried not to leave Egor’s side during those three days.
Dasha says that during visits she feels in control of the situation, she feels as though she can protect Egor. The feeling of powerlessness returns after she leaves the prison.
After each visit, Dasha waits for the marshrutka (a routed minibus) outside the same abandoned building. It’s like a ritual: she sets down her bags and goes over her last three days with Egor in her head.
Dasha on her way home from work
An upset Egor calls to talk about his day. Dasha calms him down: “You’ll get out soon, and they’ll still be there.”
Inspired by an ad she saw on television during her visit with Egor, Dasha makes him a postcard using one of her childhood photos. Making something with her own hands feels like a way of “showing love,” she explains.
Dasha tells Egor about a recent Yury Dud interview. She tries to make sure that Egor keeps up with pop culture; during their visits, she explains memes to him in person and Egor asks what new material their favorite bloggers have come out with. 
Since Egor’s arrest, Dasha has had trouble confiding in new friends. At work (pictured above), she keeps her distance from her colleagues. She feels like a black sheep: as if everyone has a normal life and she has “weird shit.”
Dasha calls Egor before her Krav Maga class

Story and photographs: Evgeny Feldman

Photo editor: Mikhail Stavtsev

Translation: Eilish Hart

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