‘When you’re nearly 100, you can’t be too afraid’ A WWII vet explains why he still protests in the streets of Novosibirsk
Translation by Alexandra Cole.
About a week ago, the publication 7×7 released a story about World War II veteran Vladimir Stepanov from Novosibirsk, a participant in the Soviet operation to capture the Kuril Islands. For over a decade, he has been suing local officials as well as participating in protests and pickets. In June, he was detained for a picket demanding to investigate the theft of apartments. The following is an abridged translation of the 7x7 article, published with permission.
According to the Constitution
One Saturday morning, a small crowd gathers on Lenin Square – adults and young people, preparing to take turns picketing against political repression. One of them holds a poster: “Stop the repression of decent people.” Nearby, sits a man in a captain’s hat – veteran Vladimir Stepanov. He greets and speaks with some of the picketers; today he came just for encouragement.
Lenin Square is the center of Novosibirsk. This is the location where many activists attempt to hold demonstrations, though the mayor’s office almost never grants permission. Vladimir Stepanov says that here, on the square, he wanted to hold a rally on July 30th. The authorities claimed that a different demonstration, 200 people from the Young Guard, were already scheduled in that area for 7:00 am to 10:00pm.
“We took it to court – it was a sham. The mayor’s office specifically hides behind such events in order to disrupt ours. Judge [Sergey] Malakhov from The Central District Court of Novosibirsk believed that, I’m even ashamed to say, his nonsensical meeting would take place as early as seven in the morning. We were denied permission to hold a rally,” the activist tells “7×7”.
At a court hearing to appeal the refusal from the mayor’s office, activist Yana Drobnokhod said that she was on Lenin Square that day, and the members of the Young Guard – about 20 people instead of the declared 200 – were there for only half an hour, from noon to 12:30 pm.
Vladimir Stepanov was born in the Trans-Baikal region in 1925. He enlisted in the army at age 18, and in August 1945, participated in a landing operation against Japanese troops during World War II, capturing the Kuril Islands. He was then demobilized and began working as a cartographer. Vladimir moved to Novosibirsk, got married, and had two sons.
Vladimir began to go to rallies and organize them more than 10 years ago. He has been detained and charged, but never fined. He has received compensation for illegal police actions against him twice. Stepanov says that each time he went to court and proved that he was acting in accordance with the Constitution.
"It’s a Shame"
Stepanov first participated in a protest for the return of unlimited public transportation for retirees. On January 1 2011, unlimited public transportation was capped at 30 trips per month. The veteran says that this led to 23 rallies by retirees in a year. Participants were prosecuted for almost all of those events. In 2011, during one of these demonstrations, Stepanov was attacked by members of the patrol regiment and put into a police van. Vladimir's complaint was not considered in court.
In recent years, Vladimir Stepanov has been picketing in support of orphans and demanding an additional investigation into the theft of 1,500 subsidized apartments, which more than 100 government officials bought from the Novosibirsk mayor’s office at below-market prices. The apartments were intended for veterans of the Great Patriotic War and orphans.
On June 4, 2022, Vladimir went out on a one-man picket. On one side of his poster is an appeal to Nadezhda Boltenko, a member of the Federation Council from Novosibirsk: “Return the four assigned apartments to orphans.” On the other side, a question to the former governor of the Novosibirsk region, Vladimir Gorodetsky: “Where did the 1,500 apartments go?”
“I came out to this very place,” the veteran points to a small space near the monument on Lenin Square. “The policemen came up and said, ‘Take it away, take it away. I put away [the poster], started walking away, but then the police caught up to me and detained me.”
The police took Vladimir to a small police building right on the square – to the “house”, as Stepanov himself calls it. Seven or eight employees gathered there and offered to take the activist to the police station. Vladimir refused, but other activists who had gathered near the “house” recommended that he go. Then Stepanov got into a police car and went to the station. There, charges were drawn up against him. Vladimir Stepanov plans to file a lawsuit against the police officers.
“I am in a solo picket with a statement about a crime, and they made such a show of it. People are watching – a veteran is being arrested and taken away – it’s a shame,” says the activist.
Demanding an investigation into the theft of apartments, Vladimir writes letters to local and federal officials like Andrei Travnikov, the governor of the Novosibirsk region. His appeal was forwarded to the Ministry of Justice, and they replied: “The functions of the Ministry of Justice do not include searching for stolen apartments.” This was the only answer that Stepanov received from the authorities in five years of battle.
"Sanity must prevail"
The veteran says that he continues to show up mainly to inspire young people, who tend not to support the current government. In his opinion, the seniors have already “completely agreed with these politics.”
“As a veteran of the Patriotic War, despite my age, I come, campaign, speak, organize. Next Saturday again [the mayor's office will issue permission to hold a rally] on a site completely unsuitable for rallies. All because the mayor’s office is afraid of mass participation.”
Vladimir is offended by what is happening on the territory of Ukraine now. He says that the Ukrainians were the most friendly nation to the Russians.
How do you feel about the war?
And how about your friends and relatives?
Opinions vary. We have family conflicts. Some people think that we should fight. And why fight, I ask, for what?
You see, some believe in this propaganda [on TV]. After all, three TV shows, “60 Minutes,” “Time Will Tell,” and “Who is Against?” hammer into our brains daily what a wonderful president we have and what fascists these Ukrainians are. Some believe it, since no other programs are offered.
Do you watch TV?
I do, it’s important. I watch and discuss.
What needs to happen for the war to end?
Just one thing: sanity must prevail. But it is not there yet.
Are you afraid of repressive laws? Almost everything is banned: any statement, any utterance. Are you not afraid of your position?
I will be 100 years old in two years. I’m 98. So one can’t be too afraid.
There is a theory that when young people who have not lived a single day in the Soviet Union come to power, something will change. Do you agree?
New, sane people must come, yes, they will definitely come.
At the end of the conversation, Vladimir Stepanov showed us his letter in support of the activist Natalya Shamina, who goes out to pickets to defend the forest in Novosibirsk’s Akademgorodok district. The veteran remains sitting on the bench and watching those who come out with posters on the square.