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‘Putin has taken over our country’ An activist imprisoned for attending the last major rally of the ‘Bolotnaya’ protest movement looks back at Russia’s political development in the decade since

Source: Meduza

On May 6, a decade ago, Moscow hosted the “March of the Millions” — a demonstration organized by the protest movement that formed in response to Russia’s December 2011 parliamentary elections. The march ended with violent clashes between protesters and police on Bolotnaya Square, ultimately resulting in the so-called “Bolotnaya Case.” Of its 30-plus defendants, most were sentenced to significant prison terms. On the 10th anniversary of the protest, Meduza special correspondent Svetlana Reiter (one of the original chroniclers of the Bolotnaya Case) spoke to left-wing activist Alexey Gaskarov, who served three and a half years for supposedly rioting.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the protest on Bolotnaya Square that led to your arrest. Do you think about it often?

Yes, of course. Especially now, [since the start of the war], when everything has changed so much. In my mind, I often return to that time, when there was still a chance that things might change.

I don’t know — it’s possible that not everyone feels this way, but in 2011–2012, despite the obvious “castling move” [when Medvedev declined to run for reelection and stepped aside for Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012] and the transparently fraudulent Duma election, there was this feeling that, even if a fairly substantial portion of Russians supported the powers that be (fraud and all), there was no need for us to take radical steps. 

Because, at the time, there was still some form of independent television. The state did not yet have a total monopoly on the media. There was at least the semblance of democratic freedom. People still had illusions, despite what Putin said about “banderlogs” [an invective he leveled at protesters].

Back then it was impossible to imagine the total rejection of alternative points of view that we see today. But looking back, you realize that even then, [the authorities] were already striving to divide society into two camps: loyalists and enemies. Today they’re doing it openly. But ten years ago, it seemed impossible to me.

But the opposition that came out to the Bolotnaya Square protest in 2012 was itself divided. For instance, Anastasia Udaltsova would go on to support the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, while Alexey Navalny had the famous line about how “Crimea is not a sandwich, you can’t just give it away.”

Those divisions weren’t really surprising; all kinds of people came out to Bolotnaya. 

But back then there was one unifying factor. Do you or do you not support the right to democratic freedoms for people with opposing views? Do you recognize their right to influence elections in this country? Everyone out [on Bolotnaya] believed that the Duma elections had been fraudulent, that we needed to fight for certain freedoms, and that once we won them, the opposition could split into factions. For example, there were nationalists at the protest whose views, to put it lightly, were distant from our own.

What about you? How did you end up on Bolotnaya that day?

If you remember, that particular rally happened at the tail end of the protests. It was the last opportunity to speak out before Putin’s inauguration [on May 7]. I hadn’t really planned to go there that day. To me, it seemed like a useless retreading of the past: there had already been lots of protests of the same type, even calls to set up a tent camp. It all sounded pretty unconvincing. 

My friends and I decided to follow the procession to its destination but not stick around for the protest itself. But when we arrived at Kaluzhskaya Square, it was pandemonium: the procession was delayed for an hour. There weren’t enough metal detectors, but there were plenty of disgruntled people.

The May 6, 2012, march down Bolshaya Yakimanka street in Moscow.
Evgeny Feldman

As soon as we made it through the metal detectors, we noticed we were being followed by some cop from the Center for Combatting Extremism. (He was holding a camera, it was almost too obvious.) We made it to the Udarnik Cinema, where the cops had put up an additional cordon that severely obstructed exit routes, which caused some of the protesters to start a spontaneous sit-in. My friends and I tried to go around that whole thing and walked in the direction of Luzhkov Bridge, which was where the stage had been set up [for the protest]. 

On the bridge, we were about to turn around and head home when we found ourselves surrounded and unable to break through. As we were looking for some way to get past the cordon, the cop with the camera who had been following us around ordered some of the riot police to detain our friend because he was wearing a hood. The cops jumped on him, then strangers from the crowd tried to separate them. And then I started dragging one of the cops away — by the leg, because they’d all fallen to the ground in the meantime.

Clashes between protesters and police officers in Moscow on May 6, 2012.
Sergey Ponomarev / AP / Scanpix / LETA

After that incident, my friends and I left. And for a long time, I thought I wasn’t in any danger because our part went down before the real clashes began. But in the end, they charged me with rioting and committing violence against a state official. The case against me had two parts: the first had to do with dragging the cop away, and the second part was about me just standing next to the cordon and grabbing one of the cops by the elbow. But I truly did not understand how I could be charged with mass rioting if the riots in question started later, [after I had already left].

How did your arrest take place?

I was renting an apartment near Zhukovskogo Street. The cops didn’t know my exact address, so they waited for me at three key locations: near the local store, at the bus stop, and on the commuter rail platform. At some point, I needed to go out to get cat food, and they arrested me.

Of the people arrested in the Bolotnaya Case, you had the most experience [with law enforcement] because of your time as a “Khimki hostage.” Did that change how you felt, relative to the others?

[Protesting at Khimki] earned me only three months in prison, but that was enough for a lifetime. The cops were from the Moscow suburbs, and it was a different time: They played all kinds of fun games with me in pre-trial detention, trying to pressure me through cellmates or to persuade me to do this or that. So, on the one hand, after Khimki, I pretty much knew what to expect. But on the other hand, by 2013, when I started my new sentence [on the Bolotnaya charges], a lot had changed: They now split up new prisoners from old-timers and had improved conditions overall. Maybe as a result of reforms, I don’t know. 

And yet, at the Khimki trial, I was exonerated in the end — and that definitely affected my expectations in the Bolotnaya Case. I felt like I could prove somehow that I wasn’t guilty. There was video of the whole thing, and I wrote a minute-by-minute account of my whereabouts. I mean, I was ready to admit that I’d pulled the cop by his leg — whatever, who cares. But I certainly wasn’t going to admit to participating in mass rioting.

Alexey Gaskarov and Anya Karpova in court after his arrest in April 2013, In August 2014, the couple married while he was an inmate in pretrial detention.
Evgeny Feldman

Anyway, I really prepared for the trial, but later I realized what an idiotic waste of time that was. I could just as easily have turned my back to the judge in the courtroom or elected not to participate in the farce at all [without it affecting the outcome].

And so, you went to prison for three and a half years.

Yes. But conditions were better [than before]. At Khimki, they put you in a cold cell and you had to burn your mattress stuffing to boil tea water, whereas the toilet in the pre-trial detention center near Vodny Stadium was behind a partition. There was a plasma TV on the wall and a fridge.

And eventually you were released…

And I was super pissed that I’d had to serve my full sentence. A lot had changed in the meantime: Crimea had been annexed, the war in the Donbas had begun. I left prison fully convinced that life was only getting worse.

For a while, after I’d done my time, I felt like it was important to keep fighting. But the left anti-fascist movement was fading, the whole topic had disappeared somehow, and there was no real political opposition outside the structures Navalny had set up.

I was released in late 2016. The 2018 presidential election was coming up, and Navalny began his presidential campaign in 2017. Of the available options, that one seemed like the most likely to succeed, so I headed up his campaign headquarters in Zhukovsky [near Moscow].

At the same time, you started several educational projects.

The thing is, by the time you’re released from prison, you’ve accumulated all sorts of social debts. When I got out, I realized that I couldn’t just keep on going like before, only doing activism. On top of which, the political field had narrowed dramatically, and all our protests were kind of at half-mast.

I’d also started teaching while I was in prison. There were evening classes there, and, among other things, I taught an economics elective for businessmen with a prison record. After my release, I started consulting, working within the framework of Russian educational reforms.

And then came the war in February 2022.

For me, it came as a complete surprise; it seemed illogical somehow. I was one of those people who thought [war] was impossible in principle. When it started, our emotions drove us out onto Pushkin Square [in Moscow], where the first protest [against the war in Ukraine] was taking place.  

We’d put together some banners and were immediately arrested. After that, it was the prison van, and then several days in jail. I had the “privilege” of being interrogated by special cops with special little questions, but it all ended in a 10,000-ruble [$140] fine.

We kept on protesting until March 6, but after that it became clear that direct anti-war political action had gotten significantly riskier. The new laws on “fakes” and “discrediting [the Russian army]” mean that — as someone with an outstanding felony conviction and two stints in a special detention center (one for protesting in Navalny’s defense [in April 2021] and the other for my participation in the [Ivan Golunov protest of June 2019]) — I’d be looking at a new prison term.

So, on the one hand, protesting is risky, and on the other, it’s ineffective. In Moscow, for instance, it seems like lots of people understand what’s happening, but they’re afraid and don’t react to grassroots protests.

Are you in Moscow now?

Yes. All the work I do is tied up with Russia. I don’t know what I’d do abroad. I’m compelled to watch events as they unfold.

The screws are clearly being tightened to their limit right now; it’s a complete witch hunt. But I still feel an obligation to do something, no matter how small, to make people’s lives here easier. I don’t know what that could be… I have to work harder, to try to explain what’s happening to people who aren’t yet on board.

Putin has taken over our country. The majority supports the war, so it’s important to talk to people outside our information bubble as much as possible. An important discovery I made in prison was that 99 percent of the people in there with me didn’t think like I do. Your fellow inmates are not necessarily people you’d choose to be around; it’s forced socialization. But after six months of talking with you, they understand why you went out to protest on Bolotnaya, that you aren’t bought and paid for, and that you have certain convictions. It’s important to reach people like that. It doesn’t happen overnight, but there’s no way around it.

Interview by Svetlana Reiter

Translation by Maya Vinokour