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Pyotr Mylnikov, a business owner from the village of Olovyannaya in Russia’s Zabaykalsky Krai, has become the first person to be convicted under the new law banning “fake news” about the war in Ukraine. The charges were brought after Mylnikov shared two posts on Viber (in a group chat called “We live in ruins”) about the progress of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On May 31, a court found him guilty and imposed a fine of one million rubles ($16,148). Meduza spoke to Mylnikov about the content of his posts, how he was treated during his arrest, and why he decided to plead guilty.
I’m a businessman; I sell groceries and cleaning products. In addition to that, I worked for a long time in the public services sector — I was the director of a [state-owned] unitary enterprise called Teploset (“Heating network”). I know this system from the inside out — I know how they wind up the meters to rob the population. There’s nothing decent going on in that world.
[In 2007,] I tried getting in touch with the governor because I wanted to get some money for a project to develop the public utility system [in Olovyannaya] as part of a nationwide project [to reform the entire sector]. That’s when they passed a federal law on transitioning the utility system to self-sufficiency, which required getting everything in order, including repairing all of the apartment buildings and the infrastructure. At that point, about 400 billion rubles ($6.5 billion) had been earmarked for the project. Everything in our village is damaged, and we needed a way to save it. I tried to promote this project and ultimately spent about a year on it. Since the village head wasn’t interested, though, nothing came out of it.
That’s when I understood that you can’t achieve anything in this country. You can think you’re trying and trying, and then one day you’ll get fired just because you looked at someone the wrong way — you have to smile at every official.
[In 2016,] I ran in a municipal election, because there was initially not a single candidate. After that, closer to the registration deadline, 14 people from various parties came out of nowhere, even though we usually only have independent candidates. So I decided to abandon that idea; let the people who really need to do that do it.
The story of my chat, “We live in ruins,” which I was criminally prosecuted for, began in 2019, after my trip to Shanghai. I saw what life was like in China, and I came back here and realized our standard of living was stuck somewhere in the past. You wouldn’t believe the way the city’s [Shanghai’s] infrastructure is organized: there’s no traffic, and the city’s huge. It’s the first place I saw that you can build three levels of railroads on top of one another.
I decided to create the Viber chat to discuss the problems we have in our city. For example, we’d talk about corruption, collapsing infrastructure, utility fee increases, and the work of our local authorities more generally. [I choose Viber] because most people in our village have phones that cost 8,000-10,000 rubles and don’t have much memory — 8-16 gigabytes — and Telegram needs a lot more memory to work properly.
I immediately added all of my friends to the chat, and they started spreading the link to it around the Internet. It gradually gained followers. Right now, it has 143 people.
After February 24, the chat started to focus on the war; we expressed our opinions, made fun of the authorities, and discussed everything that was going on. Some people left [the chat] after the war began, and about 30 people left after everything with my prosecution.
There’s no censorship in the chat — everyone can say whatever they want. The people I appointed to be moderators adhere to that principle. The chat includes both Putin supporters and people who oppose him.
I was charged with sharing two documents that had already made it around the Internet; I just decided to send them to the chat. The first one talked about how they were going to burn the corpses of people who died in the war. That’s completely understandable — who’s going to deal with them otherwise? Plus, the Defense Ministry has mobile crematoriums at their disposal, and obviously those are going to be used for something. The second [document] was about how they’re going to send the most committed kids from the Young Army [Cadets National Movement] as soon as they turn 18.
Since our village itself isn’t very big, the chat had police officers, the local prosecutor, and FSB agents in it. I think it was one of them who initiated the case.
I posted the documents on March 5, and sometime around the 15th, I got messages from people I knew that said I was already “in the system.” They said I had almost reached the top of the list, and that they’d come for me soon. I don’t know how they knew.
I was arrested on March 28 on the way to work. Ironically, I had just started to work at the Defense Ministry — my friend had invited me to work there, and I’d submitted an application back in December, before the war. I worked there with heating systems.
When my colleague and I left for work, there were already a lot of police on the road — they were waiting in places where they usually don’t wait. I noticed that they were looking askance at us. Then a police vehicle blocked the road. There were two FSB agents inside: two with masks and one without one. They asked me to go [with them] and pushed me into the car. They accidentally knocked me onto the ground. They started yelling and asking me where I was sending money, who I was funding, what I was publishing. I yelled back, because what they were saying was a load of crap. After that, they took me home and conducted a search. They were looking for equipment: they took my flash drives, one of my computers, and my phones.
After that, we went to the local Investigative Committee office, and the department head took over. They started asking me about the chat, what it is, what gets published there, and so on. They were constantly coordinating the questions with [regional capital] Chita; according to them, that was because my case was the first of its kind, and there was no established procedure for conducting it.
Overall, they treated me fine — nobody threatened me or beat me. For example, when I said I wanted to smoke, they calmly went outside with me and waited for me to finish smoking.
I knew they might give me jail time, but I wasn’t scared. I immediately proposed to the investigator that we skip all the nonsense and resolve the case “in an expedited manner” [without a long fact-finding process]. I wanted to get through it without all those unnecessary proceedings. As a result, it was possible to refer the case to the court in 10 days, though it ultimately took two months.
As far as the video that shows me saying I’d made a mistake, I did that at an FSB officer’s request, allegedly for record-keeping purposes. I willingly agreed — he didn’t threaten me at all. He said he would publish the video, and I didn’t object. In fact, I sent it to our chat myself so that people could see what was going on. I saw irony in it; I pointed out that they were now showing our chat on national TV.
They gave me a state-appointed lawyer, but I didn’t end up employing any legal assistance — instead, I decided to write an honest confession. Why dig my heels in? I really did make these posts with the express goal of discrediting the army. I openly stated that I don’t support the war. I’ve never denied that — not in front of my lawyer and not in front of the investigator. I’ve told the complete truth.
It’s funny, even the lawyer tried to tell me the story about how “Lenin created Ukraine.” Who did they think I was going to prove my case to? The FSB officers said, “What did you do that for? What do you want these problems for? You’re just giving yourself hemorrhoids.” It gives you the impression that people from law enforcement spend days on end watching TV. They actually believe there are Nazis there [in Ukraine].”
After being interrogated by investigators, I was released to go home, no travel restrictions or anything. I calmly ordered a taxi and left. For the next two months leading up to the trial, nothing else like that happened. Sure, I couldn’t work at the Defense Ministry anymore; in total, I worked there for two months. And to be honest, I actually wanted to leave. I was in charge of a heating system, and there were five boiler room managers working under me. In the first month, I made 25 thousand rubles. And the boiler rooms are so dilapidated that they just need to be torn down and replaced.
The trial went by without any problems; the judge monotonously mumbled through everything she needed to say, and on May 26, I got the sentence. They found me guilty on two counts and fined me one million rubles [$16,148].
After the trial, the prosecutor came out and said, “Pyotr Ivanovich, pissing against the wind isn’t worth it, and you won’t accomplish anything all by yourself.” He said there can never be a revolution in Russia — but that’s what they thought in Tsarist Russia, and then they had two.
Right now, the situation with the fine is still ongoing, and I don’t know what’s going to come next. I’m planning to file an appeal to get it lowered, and then I’ll submit a request to pay it gradually. But right now, it’s difficult to say how things will unfold.
I’m not planning on trying to escape. When the war started, my friends in Ukraine started writing to me, asking how things were going here, and didn’t I want to leave. I always say that I was born here and it’s my home. If you’ve got cockroaches in your house, you need to poison them.
Translation by Sam Breazeale
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