‘A faded semblance of my old life’ Doxa editor Alla Gutnikova on the year she spent under house arrest — and what she plans to do next
On April 12, Moscow’s Dorogomilovo District Court sentenced four former editors from the student magazine Doxa to two years of corrective labor and banned them from "administering websites." The pretext for the case was a video showing the editors condemning the persecution of other students for supporting opposition politician Alexey Navalny. The editors spent the following year under a “ban on certain activities”; for example, they were prohibited from leaving their apartments for more than two hours a day and from using the Internet. Meduza spoke with Doxa editor Alla Gutnikova about what life was like under the ban.
— You’ve been sentenced to two years of corrective labor. The biggest question is usually whether they’ll give somebody probation or real jail time. For a "political" case, this is something new. What do you think — why this sentence?
— Corrective labor is such a confusing sentence. It seems to me that they just weren’t quite sure what to do with us, because there’s no evidence at all. And they can’t release us because we live in Russia — they don’t acquit people here. As far as I understand it, the punishment works like a fine paid in installments. If you have a main job, then you can work and just pay 20% of your salary to the state treasury. If you’re unemployed, they’ll find work for you — apparently they’ll set you up in the Federal State Budgetary Institution.
They didn’t explain anything to us, not even how they would count the time we spent under house arrest. The judge just said it would be two years, and that the sentence itself was very extensive — they would need until Friday to print it. Apparently, they've had run out of paper in Russia — and it might be because of our case, which is 212 volumes long. It includes the administrative detention protocols and the transcripts of the interrogations of all of the teenagers who were arrested during the January protests last year. Almost none of it has anything to do with us or proves our guilt, but they decided to attach them anyway.
Additionally, not one of them [the people detained in January 2021] knows of Doxa, none of them saw the video. A lot of people were arrested for no reason, just because, in their own words, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. For example, running errands, going on a date, or they were just curious to see how the protest was going.
— What grounds did the court have in the end for passing a guilty verdict, given that the case fell apart?
— No grounds, but they didn’t need any. The court had a very strange argument: “Sure, not one minor ever saw you, knew what Doxa is, or watched your video, but they do have the Internet and use ‘the video host YouTube,’ so they could have seen it. Plus, all of this was a year ago. Maybe they were ‘honestly mistaken.’ Maybe they actually saw the video and forgot.”
We had linguistics expert Irina Levontina on our side. They said her qualifications weren’t enough and that her expertise was just a private opinion. That was enough to convict us.
— Do you plan on appealing the sentence?
— Yes, of course — it’s a political case and an absurd sentence. It was totally jury-rigged, and not very well. They could have fabricated something more interesting, but it literally crumbled into pieces.
— You were put under a “ban on certain activities,” which was practically identical to house arrest. How did that affect the trial?
— We were under the ban on certain activities for a year [Note: the ban took effect on April 14, 2021, and was lifted on April 12, 2022]. I think it’s accurate to call those preventative measures “house arrest,” because they de facto were. The ban on certain activities assumes that you’ll continue to live your normal life, but that you'll just be banned from doing certain insignificant things. But in our case, we were prohibited, for example, from leaving our homes, with the exception of a two-hour-long morning walk; from sending mail and using “the Internet information and communication network,” as they call it.
If they’d given us a different, less severe punishment, of course, this year wouldn’t have been so difficult. It feels like the punishment [consisted of] the process itself, the unbelievable barrage of legal proceedings. My lawyer, Dmitry Zakhvatov, said he had never seen anything like it in his life. They interrogated us thirty or forty times. We immediately pled the 51st [article of the Russian Constitution, analogous to pleading the Fifth Amendment in the U.S.]. In theory, they shouldn’t have required any more of us.
Every part of the legal proceedings was absurdly large — it was like Gulliver’s Travels. In the “Sanitary Case,” Lyusya Shtein had six volumes, I think, while we have 212. [Our] case wasn’t worth a damn, and if they'd really tried, they could have finished everything in two months, but they decided to keep us at home as punishment for two years instead.
When I was under [house] arrest, I decided to live my life as fully as possible and to maintain the level of activity that I had beforehand. Before, I was studying; teaching kids the humanities; working as a nanny, model, and actress; editing Doxa; doing literature and activism; and doing documentary theater at Teatra.doc’s student documentary theater laboratory.
The last day before the search [April 14, 2021] is a good example of the life I had before. That morning, I met up with a friend, we did a shoot, then I worked on my thesis in the library, then I went to the Doxa office for a work meeting. I hadn’t seen any of them for a long time — I missed them, and I wanted to hug them all. After that, my now-husband — back then he was just my love — and my close friend and I worked and listened to a song called “I’m so in love with everything and I can’t sleep.”
Being in love took up a lot of time, and danechka (who requests that his name be written in all lowercase letters) and I read our diaries to each other. It was a busy, interesting, joyful day in the life of a young humanities student. The following day, at six in the morning, it would all come to an end, and for the next year, my life would become a faded semblance [of my old life] in which I would just try not to forget who I was and what it was all for.
I devoted a lot of effort to trying to maintain something like my “former” life. I acted in a feature film and shaved my head right on screen. We finished up our play and I took part in the reading remotely, through a video I recorded ahead of time. Photographers would come — they took quite a few pictures of me. Fifty shots were taken over the course of my arrest. After the interrogations, I managed to get a photo taken of me on the playground next to the Investigative Committee building, where there was also a beautiful park nearby. I kept writing: a few of my collections, a large autofiction piece called Shira Shirim’s Swan Song, and several pieces on F-pismo and Gryoza.
I tried to read and work. At some point, I started editing pieces on Doxa again, but I had to do it in a more convoluted way because of all of the bans [note: on March 4, 2021, Alla Gutnikova, Natalia Tyshkevich, Armen Aramyan, and Vladimir Metelkin stopped working at Doxa]. I wanted to keep doing the work I was interested in.
In isolation, despite the colossal support we were getting from loved ones, acquaintances, and even strangers, it was very difficult to maintain good mental health. Activists from Open Space helped me find a free psychologist, and that saved me, but you still feel a huge amount of loss. Your entire life is just destroyed, you’re cut off from everything, and there’s nothing you can do. It’s difficult to take. I had some very tough times, but luckily I was able to make it through.
— How do you feel now that your ban has been lifted?
— I’m really glad they didn’t give me a real prison sentence and that the measures have been lifted, but now’s not the time for rejoicing. Just like in [Anna] Akhmatova’s Requiem, now is a time when “only the dead could smile, happy in their peace.” Thank God they didn’t send us to jail, but it’s not like I can just be carefree and do all the things I missed. I can’t imagine going to the movies or to a party or to out bars right now. It’s not the time for joy, on the contrary — it’s a time for mourning.
— Your criminal case isn’t the first time the authorities have put pressure on Doxa. Did you ever imagine that posting a video could result in these kinds of consequences?
— Those other cases were within the university. After they opened the case against us, they asked us, you know, RKN (Roskomnadzor, Russia’s censorship agency) blocked your materials online — did you really not see that as a sign? We posted the video on January 22, and the notification came on the 26th. We deleted the video then. They didn’t open the case until April 14. [We had] several months to leave, but it didn’t occur to me or to any of my colleagues that this could be something serious. I always saw myself as a small person — not in the sense that I don't matter, but in the sense that nobody needs me. You would think it wouldn’t occur to anyone to open a criminal case against some students for a video that lasts two minutes and thirty seven seconds. A video that says people should defend their constitutional rights. Before publishing the video, we showed the transcript to our lawyers, and they said everything was fine. Levontina’s assessment confirmed it. It’s a very cute little video about protecting your rights — there was nothing aggressive or dangerous.
Nothing suggested there was any trouble to come. When the police came to search us and I sleepily went to open the door, my friend said, “Be careful, it could be a district police officer.” That was the biggest danger we could imagine.
— You’ve taken academic leave from the Higher School of Economics. Are you planning to go back and finish your studies? What do you think — is there a chance they’ll give you trouble?
— I had to take a year off because of the house arrest and the criminal case. I simply couldn’t take the state exams and [defend] my thesis because those things were online. I couldn’t physically go to the university, either. It was very difficult to study, because the library is closed at the time of my morning walk, and I’m not allowed to use the Internet. But I tried to do some work on my diploma, to read some and study. I don’t see any reason I won’t be able to finish my bachelor’s. My sentence doesn’t prohibit me from finishing college and taking the exams. So far, the Higher School has been saying they’ll do everything they can to let me finish.
— They banned you from being a website administrator — are you planning to return to your work at Doxa? If so, what will your role be? What do you want to do now?
— Nobody explained what it means to “administer a website.” I’m an editor — I work with words, with text. I don’t “administer” anything. I’m planning to do the same work I was doing before: science, literature, editing, activism, education. I want to get back to my activities, to my work. I want to finish my bachelor’s and move forward with my studies. I really miss my busy, meaningful life. I want to keep living it, but not in the sense of “living my private little life.” I don’t think that’s the right position to take.
Are you asking if I plan to lie low and keep my head down like a little mouse? If I’ll stick my tongue up my ass? No, I don’t plan to do that. I don’t want to and I’m not willing to betray my views, my convictions, my values. If I decide to betray everything I believe in, I don’t know what I’m supposed to live for.
— Doxa reports on the problems of modern education and universities. What challenges have students been facing since the war began? How is Russian education changing?
— I don’t know how to talk about this without sounding crazy. When we recorded our video a year ago, students were being pressured against expressing their views — they were being threatened with expulsion or other consequences within the universities. Now it’s probably even worse. I don’t think anything good is going to happen to Russia’s education system anytime soon, and that’s very painful.
Politically active professors are being fired under various pretexts, some of the best institutions are falling apart, disbanding, or facing criminal charges, and their employees are forced to leave [the country]. Our video mentioned that threats to people’s freedom of expression can only lead to the collapse of science in Russia, of our most important institutions, which our generation will have to rebuild. A year later, that’s only become more true. It’s very painful to see what’s happening with Shaninka (The Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences), the Higher School of Economics, and many other universities.
Science has always searched for the truth. The fact that the Liberal Arts department (at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration) is being renamed the “General Bachelor’s” is symptomatic of something greater — it’s very telling. For science, culture, and education, freedom of speech and thought are important; they allow people to do research in peace. We didn’t have much of those things before, and now it looks like everything will totally collapse. Even the place I really, deeply loved — the Higher School of Economics’ School of Culturology — is almost completely destroyed. That really hurts.
— How does it feel when international philosophers like Slavoj Žižek speak out in support of you?
— It’s a funny feeling when you read philosophers in university and then they sign a letter in your support and record a video clip that you watch later in the Dorogomilovo District Court along with a judge and a prosecutor. This whole process has been very funny — it resembles a clown show, a load of nonsense, because nothing can surprise me anymore. I haven’t had any direct contact with them, but I hope my career continues and I get the chance to talk to them in a more substantive way — not about the criminal case, but about science and philosophy.
— In past interviews, you’ve said that a lot of people see you as a delicate, helpless little girl. Have you managed to transform that image?
— We live in a pretty patriarchal country. I look feminine, and what's more, I often act quite feminine. On some level, I think that protects me, because it means that law enforcement, investigators, and the federal prison service don’t take me seriously. But since it’s just a representation of the image, it doesn’t matter so much. Though I am glad that in some spaces, other than the ones where I have to communicate with police officers, investigators, and so on, I can express my sexuality and opinions in peace and be who I am — without worrying about my appearance or about the gender patterns I’m supposed to follow.