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‘I want free and fair elections. To them, that makes me undesirable’ Russian opposition figure Andrey Pivovarov on watching the war unfold from behind bars
In late May of last year, former Open Russia Executive Director Andrey Pivovarov was arrested and charged with “involvement in the activities of an undesirable organization” for a Facebook post that was shared in his name. Pivovarov had just boarded a plane from St. Petersburg to Warsaw when he was arrested; law enforcement delayed the plane’s departure and detained him right in Pulkovo airport. Since then, Pivovarov has been in a pre-trial detention center; the court has repeatedly extended his incarceration. He spent both the most recent State Duma election, which he ran in, and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine behind bars. Meduza spoke to Pivovarov about what he thinks of the war, how the other inmates view it, and how it feels to spend a year in jail for a Facebook post.
Update. On July 15, 2022, a court in Krasnodar sentenced activist Andrey Pivovarov to four years in prison for collaborating with an “undesirable organization.” The following interview was originally published in Russian on June 1, 2022.
Just over a year ago, Andrey Pivovarov’s life looked very different. The leader of the Open Russia foundation, Pivovarov frequently spoke at pro-democracy events and actively worked to develop Russia's civil society. But on May 31, 2021, just four days after Open Russia announced it was disbanding due to mounting pressure from the authorities, Pivovarov’s life suddenly became very small: he was arrested by law enforcement for a post that was shared on his public Facebook page and sent to a pre-trial detention center, where he remains to this day.
For obvious reasons, it’s been impossible for Pivovarov to keep up with the news to the extent he did in his life outside of jail; much of his media diet has consisted of the radio broadcasts guaranteed to inmates by Russian law, and even those come only intermittently. But on the evening of February 22, listening to Vladimir Putin’s now-infamous speech from the previous day, Pivovarov had a sense something big was coming.
“We kept listening to it even after our curfew,” said Pivovarov. “The speech was about recognizing the Luhansk and Donetsk ‘People’s Republics,’ but it was clear Putin was leaving a lot unsaid.”
A few more days passed before he learned his country had invaded Ukraine.
“On the 23rd, a different group of guards was on duty, and their intellect was evidently not up to the task of turning on a radio, so I didn’t learn anything more until the morning of February 24. The officer on duty described the socio-political situation this way: ‘What a fucking nightmare.’ That remains one of the best assessments I’ve heard.”
Despite being one of the Kremlin's most prominent domestic critics, Pivovarov never actually expected Russian leaders to go through with their invasion — even after dozens of reports and warnings from Western media and intelligence agencies that it was likely.
“I remember all of those predictions, but not even a small part of me believed it would happen,” he told Meduza. “I thought it was all saber rattling, a negotiating play, and nothing more. And I have to admit, I was mistaken twice. After the military hostilities began, I was sure that the stage we were in couldn’t last long. I thought it would quickly come to an end; it was bringing enormous costs in every sense, and from a purely rational perspective, continuing it was illogical. But three months have now passed, and the exact opposite has happened. It’s become a confrontation of attrition.”
The prison's pulse
Though prison is the last place Pivovarov would like to be right now, it does give him some insight into the Russian spin machine’s ability to affect the views of an otherwise-isolated segment of society. Most of his fellow inmates only have access to official news sources, making them, in some ways, the Kremlin’s ideal media consumers. Many of their reactions range from apathy to unquestioning support for the war.
“They learn what’s going on from the news on TV, and it looks like one of those war movies that takes place ‘somewhere out there,” he told Meduza. “The old generation, the people who consider themselves politically informed, have been repeating the same slogans from TV about Nazis and an unavoidable preventative strike since mid-March.”
In general, the truth about the war itself is the least of the inmates’ concerns.
“Let’s face it: propaganda works,” he said. “Though that only applies to things happening abroad. When people hear about the government’s domestic successes, it annoys them just as much as hearing about the fairness of the justice system. [...] It’s hard to think about global issues when you don’t even have money for a pack of cigarettes (which is the case for half of the people here) or when they’re trying to give you nine years for a box of weed.”
In many cases, the government’s official messaging belies the reality Pivovarov’s fellow prisoners can increasingly see for themselves. The prison store, for example, has seen the same price increases as the rest of the country: certain items have become 50-60 percent more expensive in the last six months, and inmates have taken notice.
Word of mouth is also a powerful source of alternative information for the inmates, and enough Russians have been sent to war by now that it’s impossible that none of them will be affected personally.
“Once, on our way to court, a zealous young captain decided to share some news he’d read on his phone about the great success Russia was having on the battlefield,” said Pivovarov. “After listening to him go on for a few minutes, a more experienced convict gave him a warning: ‘Buddy, you’d better shut your trap. Two guys in our cell have kids over there. They talked to them yesterday — one of them’s lost a third of his unit already, and the other’s lost half.’ The police didn’t dare argue.”
According to Pivovarov, the prison employees seem even more affected by the war than the inmates. They’re being forced to work more hours, and basic work materials that they’re required to purchase themselves, such as paper, have become more expensive.
Pivovarov has also heard reports of prison guards being offered big money to join the war themselves, though nobody seems to have jumped at the opportunity. “They’ve placed the salary at 250,000 ($4,400) rubles a month. For comparison, a guard’s normal salary here is about 35,000 rubles ($617). Judging from the fact that the staff here hasn’t changed, I think it’s safe to say they didn’t find any volunteers. As one young employee wisely put it, some things are better not to get mixed up in, no matter how well they pay.”
One day at a time
Andrey Pivovarov has now spent over a year in prison. While he clearly hasn’t given up hope, he also makes sure not to take a rosy view of the future. Instead, he tries to assess his circumstances rationally, setting small, achievable goals in order to stay sane and increase his odds of eventual freedom.
“Every day, I do something to bring my release closer, or at least to maintain my connection to the outside world,” he said. “I’ve made it a goal not to relax, not to lose track of what’s happening, and to do everything possible to ensure that as many people as possible know about the political nature and the absurdity of my case.”
The proceedings themselves are moving at a snail’s pace — perhaps because prosecutors pinned Pivovarov that’s unconvincing, to say the least.
“Despite the fact that the case went to trial back in late October, we still haven’t made it through even half of the process,” he told Meduza. “Basically, there have only been two sessions so far. The prosecution’s witnesses who have spoken have effectively testified in my defense. I’m not under any illusions — acquittals in political cases like mine are unheard of. But it seems to me that everyone in this process has had the same thought: ‘What the hell is this nonsense?’”
Given the near-zero chance of winning his case, Pivovarov told Meduza he plans to use his trial as a platform, as other opposition figures like Alexey Navalny have done.
“I want to tell the court [...] and the public [...] that I’m being prosecuted for having my own independent opinion. That I want the country to develop peacefully, like a free and democratic one. That we need to have a parliamentary republic, not a dictatorship. And that I wanted to take part in free and fair elections. And that they’re telling me that makes me ‘undesirable,’ and threatening me with six years in prison.”
Pivovarov’s vision for Russia’s long-term future hasn’t changed, and while his circumstances — and the country’s — are likely much worse than he anticipated at the start of last year, he said he doesn’t have any regrets.
“I know that both myself and the other people from Open Russia just wanted what’s best for our country,” he said. “And the things we were advocating for will form the basis of the new Russian Federation. Our society will inevitably get there eventually, but it looks like the path won’t be simple.”
In the meantime, there’s a bit of light ahead: after a year of refusing, a judge has agreed to let Pivovarov talk to his son over the phone.
“We haven’t spoken for a year now and the man is already five and a half — there’s a lot I want to tell him,” he said. “I miss him.”
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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