- Share to or
‘They don’t think Russia’s prisons are crowded enough’ Ilya Yashin faces criminal charges for speaking out against the war. Meduza spoke to his lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov.
On the evening of July 12, lawyer Vadim Prokhorov reported that the Russian authorities were bringing criminal charges against his client, opposition politician Ilya Yashin, for allegedly spreading “disinformation” about the Russian military — a crime that could carry a sentence of up to 15 years in prison. Yashin is currently in jail, where he’s serving a 15-day sentence for allegedly disobeying a police officer. Meduza spoke to Prokhorov about Yashin's case, and about one of his other clients, Vladimir Kara-Murza, another opposition figure who refused to leave the country after February 24 and now stands accused of spreading disinformation.
Opposition politician Ilya Yashin’s lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov, last saw Yashin on the morning of July 12, when he visited him in a Moscow detention center. Yashin was on the 14th day of a 15-day sentence for “disobeying a police officer”; neither he nor Prokhorov knew at the time of the visit that the authorities would announce felony charges against Yashin later that day.
On his way out, Prokhorov noticed two police vehicles parked across from the center. An hour later, before he’d made it home, Prokhorov received a call from an unfamiliar number.
“It was a stranger who introduced himself as Investigator Sidorenko,” said Prokhorov. “He said, ‘A criminal case has been opened against Ilya Yashin. We're beginning the search [of his home], and he asked to have you there as his lawyer.’ And the vehicles I had seen at the detention center are now outside of Yashin’s home.”
Yashin stands accused of spreading “disinformation” about the Russian military. Prokhorov hasn’t seen Yashin since the new charges were announced, but he did get to speak to him on the phone.
“He’s as cheerful as ever,” Prokhorov told Meduza. “Morale-wise, as far as I can tell, he’s ready. On the other hand, how can you be ready? He’s strong, he’s got a backbone, but a criminal case is a whole different animal [compared to his 15-day arrest].”
Next, said Prokhorov, the prosecution will request restraint measures against Yashin. “They don’t think Russian prisons are crowded enough; they think we need to stuff some more people in,” he said.
Sign up for Meduza’s daily newsletter
A digest of Russia’s investigative reports and news analysis. If it matters, we summarize it.
Birds of a feather
Ilya Yashin isn’t Prokhorov’s only well-known opposition-minded client. Politician Vladimir Kara-Murza was arrested back in April for the same violation as Yashin — ”disobeying the police” — before being taken to the same detention center and ultimately charged, like Yashin, with spreading “disinformation” about the military.
“The great Ukrainian writer Gogol wrote, ‘You can’t blame the mirror for an ugly face.’ By which I mean, how can you ‘discredit’ something or someone by telling the truth about them?” said Prokhorov.
He told Meduza that they while Kara-Murza denies the charges against him and believes his current detention is unjust, they haven’t appealed the prison’s conditions because Kara-Murza has relatively good cellmates and prison workers — and it could be much worse.
“Obviously, the remand prison is not a luxury resort, and we can’t say we’re happy about it,” said Prokhorov. “But the main issue isn’t the prison — it’s [...] the fact that he’s been charged at all.”
Prokhorov sees the absurdity of the charges against both Yashin and Kara-Murza as a kind of “challenge” on the part of the authorities. Yashin, for example, who doesn’t drink alcohol, was alleged by police to have climbed out of some bushes and begun cursing at them. Kara-Murza was arrested for “changing the trajectory” of the path he was walking in the courtyard outside of his home when he saw police.
“I don’t remember who it was — Varlam Shalamov or Lev Razgon [two Soviet journalists and Gulag survivors] — but one of them had a neighbor in the barracks who was arrested for being a ‘Latin spy.’ The investigation asked everybody, ‘What language do you know?’ And everyone who knew English was put down as an English spy, while this guy knew Latin, so he became a “Latin spy,’” said Prokhorov.
By representing Yashin and Kara-Murza, Prokhorov joins a long line of Russian and Soviet lawyers who have worked to defend dissidents against politically-motivated charges, including Boris Zolotukhin, Semyon Ariya, Dina Kaminskaya, and Sofiya Kalistratova. While Prokhorov told Meduza he doesn’t like to compare himself to “icons” like them, he also said he believes contemporary Russia has already reached Soviet-era levels of political repression.
“The number of acquittals right now is already orders of magnitude lower than under Stalin,” he said. “Even [in the Soviet era,] the charges against people for ‘anti-Soviet propaganda’ and ‘distributing knowingly false information discrediting the Soviet system’ were examined in open hearings. But now they try to keep judicial hearings as closed as possible, which, from my perspective, is absolutely outrageous and should elicit a public response.”
Prokhorov said he believes in the power of opposing an unjust system on a personal level — that there was power in a person denying the Soviet system “one 240-millionth of its strength” by making a quiet decision not to support it — but that things in Russia will likely get worse before they get better.
“The darkness will surely be supplanted by the sun," he said. "The question is when it will be darkest of all. Is it completely dark right now? Or will it get worse? I think it’s the latter.”
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
- Share to or