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‘Traitors of the people’ How Natalya Indukaeva ended up on trial and without a job or friends by scribbling antiwar, anti-Putin graffiti outside the rec center of her small hometown

Source: Meduza

In early March 2022, Natalya Indukaeva, a pensioner from the town of Kolpashevo in Russia’s Tomsk region, painted an anti-war slogan on the wall of the local community center. Within a day, she was accused of “discrediting” the Russian army. Later, she was charged with vandalism, as well. Alena Istomina, a journalist from Novosibirsk, traveled to Kolpashevo to see what life is like when you’re labeled a traitor in your hometown.

Sixty-one-year-old Natalya Indukaeva from Kolpashevo says, “If you’d told me that I would commit a ‘crime’ at my age, I wouldn’t have believed you, knowing well what would happen if I were caught.”

On the night of March 6, Natalya set off to the local community center, where she had worked for many years. To avoid being recognized, she wore a brightly colored jacket, turned inside out, and her son’s cap. She carried a plastic bag from an expensive shop she’d visited in Novosibirsk, which she had kept as a reminder to sometimes treat herself to a bit of shopping. Inside the bag were two buckets of lime. She wasn’t scared — only annoyed that she had forgotten to wear a mask to make herself unrecognizable.

When she got home, she called her son and daughter to tell them what she had done. They said they were proud of her and supported her. The next morning, staff at the community center found the words “No to war! Putin = Hitler!” painted neatly on a wall outside the building.

A gloomy area 

Kolpashevo lies on the Ob River, 230 kilometers (about 140 miles) from Tomsk. The river rises every year, swallowing several meters of sandy cliff and coming closer to the houses on Lenin Street and Dzerzhinsky Street. The only direct bus from Tomsk to Kolpashevo stops exactly where the river meets the road. By early spring, the ice here is already thick enough to support cars. By May, when the Ob floods, the town is totally cut off from the world and you can only reach it by ferry. 

The road to Kolpashevo across the river Ob
Alena Istomina for Meduza
The Kolpashevsky district administration

Thirty-five years ago, Kolpashevo was still a thriving town. It had several industrial works, factories, and a shipyard that provided jobs. After the USSR’s collapse, all the factories closed except for one: the “Metallist” cable plant. People began to leave Kolpashevo, and its population declined. Now they call the town “gloomy” and say that Kolpashevo will vanish inside a few decades if the Ob River continues to rise at its current rate.

Sixty-one-year-old Natalya Indukaeva lives on the town’s edge in a tiny house that’s mostly taken up by a huge stove. Although in need of some repairs, her house is homely with appliqué artwork on the walls and photographs of her children and one of herself as a young woman. 

When meeting the author of this report, Natalya is wearing full make-up. For more than 40 years, she has stood in front of her mirror at exactly 8 a.m. to put on her lipstick, eyeshadow, and mascara, even if she has nowhere to go that day. After school, she went to art college in Tomsk and studied toy decoration. On a visit with a friend to a Komsomol construction site, she fell in love with an artist who wore a long-sleeved sweater like a harlequin. At first, she mistook his moodiness for a “deep inner world.” The couple returned to Kolpashevo and had children, but the marriage was short-lived. 

Natalya’s husband beat her up three times. The last time was when she was pregnant. Natalya picked up a stool and tried to defend herself. After she fought back, her husband filed for divorce. Natalya had to raise her two children alone, with no help either from her ex-husband or his family. But she ultimately found work at the local community center. 

During the Soviet period, Natalya drew propaganda posters. Then she began designing film posters, decorating the walls of the community center, and designing their theater sets. “The whole of Kolpashevo knows my handwriting,” she says. 

Natalya Indukaeva when she worked at the community center
Alena Istomina for Meduza

Despite having an interest in politics, Natalya never joined demonstrations or pickets. She avoided discussing politics with friends, knowing that they watched more TV than she did. She simply didn’t want to argue about it. That changed, however, on February 24, 2022.  

When the war began, Natalya felt for the first time that she wanted to make her opposition known, to show everyone that there are people in Kolpashevo who oppose the invasion. Natalya knew that anti-war protests were organized for March 6 in cities across the country. 

She spent more than a week trying to find others against the war, but her friends just thought she’d lost her mind, and the town’s VKontakte community blacklisted her when she advocated protesting in the streets of Kolpashevo. “I wanted just one person to go out onto the street and shout: ‘We are together! Kolpashevo is also against the war!’ I kept wondering how people can just quietly go about their lives, pretending that nothing is happening. How can they not be interested in politics now? They’ve become such zombies. It’s terrifying,” Natalya said.

The last protest held in the town was back in 2021: a rally in support of Alexey Navalny, after the opposition leader was arrested when he returned to Russia upon recovering from being poisoned. Only eight people turned up then; to the delight of the local propagandists, all of these demonstrators were still in grade school. 

A source close to the town’s officials said Kolpashevo administrators try to take personal credit when reporting to Moscow about the absence of local protest sentiment. But residents who spoke to this article’s author attributed the public’s attitude to fear of job loss, not loyalty to the government. There is only one privately owned factory left in the town; almost everyone works for the state.

“Even if someone works in a shop, for a private owner, they still have a husband, a mother, or son-in-law working in a factory whose management is very loyal to the local authorities, or the police, or the mayor,” explains the source. “And they know that their whole family will lose their jobs if they speak out, and there are plenty who need that work.”

The Young Army Cadets National Movement stages a flash mob in the Kolpashevsky district on March 15, 2022, in support of Russia’s armed forces
The Kolpashevsky district administration

“They were pressured from above”

A police officer arrived at Natalya’s house on March 7 at 11 a.m. “Look what you’ve done,” he said with a smirk as he showed her a photograph of the writing on the wall at the community center. “It looks great!” was the first thing Natalya thought when she saw the photo. “And it was there for a few hours,” she adds, “so it wasn’t futile.”

Natalya describes how she tried to convince the police officer that she had nothing to do with it, but he clearly didn’t believe her. He finished by saying, “They are cameras, and we’ll look at them. So, you just wait. Others will be coming.”

That same evening, what she describes as “interesting, young” officials from the investigative committee visited Natalya at home. They searched her house and confiscated her phone and laptop. They were looking for checks and receipts from a “foreign state” and asked if someone had paid her to write the slogan on the community center. “They practically inspected every payment and store receipt with a magnifying glass,” says Natalya. 

One of the men told her that not everyone in the security forces agreed with the invasion and that he supported her. Natalya is certain that some in the security forces are genuinely on her side but are unable to do anything. “The case drew attention, so they were under pressure from above,” she explains.

The policeman mentioned Natalya’s “anti-Russian attitude” and cited the words of unnamed witnesses. Natalya recognized something she had said to a close friend, Marina. “We’d become friends at work. Sometimes we would sit in a room, shut the door so that others couldn’t hear, and talk and laugh about the other staff,” recalls Natalya. 

The women had bumped into each other near the shop a few days before March 6. “I said to her, ‘I’m surprised everyone is so calm here. It’s so terrible what is happening there. But they’re acting like nothing is happening,’” explains Natalya. “We were friends. I didn’t think she would go and snitch on me. She listened to me, then said, ‘Do you want to know what I think? I’m for it.’”

“Am I supposed to go rob something?”

On March 16, the local court opened a case based on newly codified misdemeanor charges of “public actions aimed at discrediting the deployment of Russia’s armed forces.” 

“I said that Russia is waging war, that Russia attacked first,” Natalya recalls. “I said that we are the aggressors, and that I can’t stay silent while they’re killing people. Me and my big mouth,” Natalya said. After the trial, the young investigator told her that nothing she said could have changed anything; under the new law, everyone pays a 30,000-ruble ($430) fine. “When I heard the amount, I thought: ‘Where am I going to find that much money? Do they expect me to commit another crime, to rob something?’”

Natalya’s monthly pension is 16,500 rubles ($235) — enough to cover her food, communal apartment, wood for her stove, and loan repayments for a bicycle. She spends some of the money to maintain her garden, as well. Katya doesn’t enjoy this work, but she can’t survive without it. “I don’t know, should I take out another loan? My daughter and son can’t help me — they’ve also got debts.” For the first time in the conversation, the smile disappears from Natalya’s face. 

On the way home from the trial, Natalya found a puppy in a dumpster. She now shares her home with the dog and a fat, fluffy cat. “Were it not for my dog, I would’ve gone and cried outside the court and asked them to change my fine to a prison sentence. I’d rather serve time than pay that fine. I can’t afford it.” 

Natalya Indukaeva and her pooch
Alena Istomina for Meduza

Natalya might receive a prison sentence anyway because the authorities have added an additional charge of vandalism. Incidentally, hers is not the only slogan “prohibited” by Russian legislation that’s appeared in Kolpashevo. Two years ago, residents tried to scrub from several residential buildings graffiti that read, “АУЕ” (an acronym signifying a vaguely defined code of honor among criminals, mainly consisting of minors). “One of the buildings with this graffiti is directly behind the administrative offices, a red building on Geologists’ Street,” says an assistant to Natasha Komarova, a district council deputy from the Communist Party. “And that’s where the local teens drank beer, smoked, and hung out. And then the graffiti appeared, and residents of the building surrounded it with barbed wire to keep people away. Then someone wrote on the wall: ‘Putin is a crook’ and ‘АУЕ.’”

It took two years for the building’s management company to paint over the graffiti. To this day, no one knows who wrote it.  

The community center 

The community center is a five-minute walk from Natalya’s house, past several residential blocks, a shop, and a bus stop covered in both obscenities and declarations of love. The graffiti-covered bus stop stands in front of the wooden building of the community center. You can see where Natalya’s words have been painted over in the corner of the wall and concealed with a row of New Year’s trees painted over. 

The “Rybnik” community center
Alena Istomina for Meduza
New Year’s trees cover up Indukaeva’s antiwar message outside the “Rybnik” community center
Alena Istomina for Meduza

Natalya worked at the community center for 14 years. In 2017, Natalya got off to a bad start with the new manager when she and Marina laughed loudly during a meeting and “acted up” in front of their new supervisor. The manager disapproved of such behavior and 56-year-old Natalya was soon offered early retirement. Marina wasn’t fired, but she was transferred to a different role as an attendant. 

At the community center, the author of this article waits for one of the staff members to speak. The employees are evasive, saying there’s nothing they can say because they don’t know anything. “You know that woman used to work here?” whispers the attendant. They explain that that only the deputy director, Veronica Bragina from the Center for Culture and Leisure, can answer my questions. Bragina, who turns out to be a young woman, says she would gladly talk about Katya’s case but needs permission from her supervisors. It’s just a formality, she adds, as the cultural center is always “very loyal” to journalists. 

“Novaya Gazeta? Never heard of it,” she says, writing down the name in her notebook (this text was originally written for Novaya Gazeta, which was shut down after warnings from Russia’s state censor). Then she says into the telephone: “A journalist has come and is asking about the woman who wrote on the wall. Yes, right now. Novaya Gazeta.” Her expression then changes suddenly. She puts down the phone and says coolly, “I’m afraid we won’t be commenting. Please speak to the police.”

“But who reported it to the police? The report says a staff member at the community center found the graffiti. Can you clarify that?”

“I don’t know. Someone just reported it to the police.”

“The woman who did the graffiti — she used to work here…”

“I don’t know who it was. The police don’t report to us. Excuse me, we have lots of work to do.”

“That woman”

A month after her anti-war protest, Natalya says she felt like an outcast in Kolpashevo. At the start of the war, her old friends were simply cautious around her, but now they either avoided her or treated her rudely. “I got on the bus and the local librarian was sitting there. We always used to chat, but we saw each other, and the librarian looked away, as if she didn’t know me,” she says.

“I’m alone out there. No one is throwing stones at me yet, but they are pointing their fingers and whispering behind my back,” says Natalya sadly. Her birthday is soon. She knows that her children will not be able to come, and she is not going to call her old friends, as none of them would come to see her anyway. It will be the first birthday she has celebrated alone. In Kolpashevo, many people now call her “that woman.”

Natalya Indukaeva
Alena Istomina for Meduza

At the bus stop, a young woman is complaining: She doesn’t have money for a taxi and the public transportation in Kolpashevo is lousy. There are buses and marshrutki minivans, but you never know when they’ll come. You just have to take your chances, sometimes waiting for 40 minutes. “Some silly Ukrainians say, ‘Russia is bad, it attacked us.’ But they forget that they brought it on themselves. And that woman… she got a fine, so she must’ve deserved it,” says the young woman.

At a store near Natalya’s house, the assistant whispers to the author of this article that she knows “that woman.” “When she comes in, I don’t say it exactly, but I make it clear that I won’t serve her after what she wrote about Putin,” the woman says, whispering the president’s name. The security guard (who looks no older than 25) takes me aside and promises to tell me everything. “For a long time, there have been nationalist groups in Ukraine,” he begins. I interrupt to ask if he thinks it was right that the woman was fined, particularly since she’s on a fixed income.

Events in the Donbas

'Grandpa, did you kill people?' Meduza reports from the ground in the Donbas, the war's current epicenter

Events in the Donbas

'Grandpa, did you kill people?' Meduza reports from the ground in the Donbas, the war's current epicenter

“In the current situation, we have to defend our country,” he answers. “It’s all linked to the fact there’s a war and people are dying. Yes, it’s terrible. But how were women and children killed in the Donbas? And it’s true — I’ve seen all the materials myself. Do you think if someone said something in favor of Russia in Ukraine, no one would touch them?” In a kiosk near the entrance, there’s a crumpled piece of paper with a huge Z and the slogan referring to the USSR’s World War II victory: “We can do it again.”

“Some bend, others don’t”

In the kindergarten she runs, district council deputy Nadezhda Komarova and her assistant meet this article’s author for an interview. Komarova immediately declares her support for the “special operation,” calling the military offensive “necessary,” but she criticizes schools and kindergartens for participating in the Z campaign, arguing that children, she says, should be “left out of politics.” She is certain that these facilities have not received instructions “from above” and that all the “patriotic” photographs and rhetoric now circulating are the personal initiatives of the teachers themselves. She thinks the main problem in Kolpashevo is that people are afraid to express themselves:

“At our meetings, people have the opportunity to voice their opinions. But they are afraid now and stay silent. [Tomsk regional council deputy Alexander] Kupriyanets visited and tried to encourage discussion. But in Kolpashevo we all work for the state, so we have long forgotten how to express our opinions.”

Komarova believes that many of the locals feel sorry for Natalya Indukaeva but are too scared to express their support because they know that the case will be used as an example “to deter others from doing the same.” Komarova thinks that “dissent” should be dealt with differently, through “explanations and clarification.” “Prohibitions might stop one person while forcing someone else to act,” she warns.

Nadezhda Komarova
Alena Istomina for Meduza

As an example, she describes what happened to her in 2018 when she attended a protest against raising Russia’s retirement ages. The next day, she was called in for a meeting with the manager of the kindergarten where she worked at the time, who told her she couldn’t go to demonstrations. Komarova was angry because the rally’s organizers had complied with all the local regulations, and she had attended it in her free time. She recorded a video describing how her employer had threatened to fire her if she attended another protest. The video made her famous in Kolpashevo, and Komarova became a member of the district council, two years later. “Some bend, others don’t,” she says.

Genetic memory

Meduza tried to arrange interviews with Kolpashevo’s town administrators, but every official refused to speak after learning the subject — everyone except the organizer of the local VKontake community. He sent the following response to the questions:

“You’ve probably read comments in the local groups from people demanding reprisals against that woman… If someone says anything in support of her, they are immediately abused. I think that the handful of people here who are sympathetic to Natalya are simply afraid to talk about it. What’s so awful, is that half of Kolpashevo’s population are descendants of those who were exiled here. What happened at Kolpashevsky Ravine is well known; how water erosion uncovered a burial site and thousands of corpses were found of people who had been killed. But we have learned nothing from history.”

A few hours later, he deleted the message and declined a meeting. 

In 1937, there was a prison in Kolpashevo operated by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). Archival records show that pits were dug in a designated area of the prison yard linked by gangways. People sentenced to death were shot and buried here. In 1979, the Ob River flooded badly in the spring and the receding waters uncovered the mass grave. The bodies of roughly 4,000 executed Siberians washed up onto the shore. The site is now called the Kolpashevsky Ravine and is a memorial to the victims of the Great Terror. 

Kolpashevsky Yar, 1979
Nikolai Panfilov / Kolpashevo city police department

This photo contains graphic imagery

The bank of the Ob River in May 1979 after the burial’s erosion
Tomsk Memorial Museum “Investigation Prison of the NKVD" / Wikimedia Commons

“The bodies were well preserved, down to their facial contours,” says Alexey Pinchuk, a lawyer in Kolpashevo. One of a handful of people in the town who openly supported Natalya, he also offered to defend her for free. “The NKVD cordoned off the area, and people weren’t let in. My great-grandfather was shot in 1937, and his son, my grandfather, tried to go one last time to see his father. But they didn’t let him in. They began grinding up the bodies. More corpses floated away. The police went after them in boats, fished them out, and tied weights to the corpses so they would sink. That’s how we dealt with memory.”

As the son of an “enemy of the people,” Alexey’s grandfather was ostracized and forced to beg to survive. “There’s deep pain in our family,” says Alexey. “There are so many people like that here. We are all exiles. After the Stalinist period, exiles were sent to the timber processing plant here. And it is those same people who are hungry for war and want to make Natalya an outcast.”  

Alexey Pinchuk
Alena Istomina for Meduza

Alexey knows what it is like being an outcast in a small town. The authorities, he says, are keen to “get him out of the way,” so he is being charged with bribing a witness in another case. “For some years, I’ve known that it will only get worse,” says Alexey with a sigh. “I have a family, so I’m learning English and thinking about emigrating. This is my country. I want to live here, but I can see where we are headed, and it is terrifying.”

Story by Alena Istomina

Abridged translation by Helen Ferguson