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Evgeny Roizman leaves a detention center in Yekaterinburg on March 30, 2023, after spending his 14 days prison term for disseminating “extremist” symbols.
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No more compromises How Evgeny Roizman went from a radical anti-drugs crusader to Yekaterinburg’s last mayor and an outspoken critic of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Source: Dekoder
Evgeny Roizman leaves a detention center in Yekaterinburg on March 30, 2023, after spending his 14 days prison term for disseminating “extremist” symbols.
Evgeny Roizman leaves a detention center in Yekaterinburg on March 30, 2023, after spending his 14 days prison term for disseminating “extremist” symbols.
Anna Yurieva / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

By Oleksiy Bondarenko and Morvan Lallouet

Five years ago, if you were in Yekaterinburg (the capital of the Urals and Russia’s fourth largest city) and you wanted to talk to Mayor Evgeny Roizman, you knew where to go. Just head to City Hall on a Friday and get in line. Probably the only elected official among his peers to have an open-door policy, Roizman held individual meetings, listening for hours to ordinary people’s problems and complaints. He continued this practice even after leaving office in 2018. To many ordinary citizens, he was still the “people’s mayor.” Although many of the requests were far beyond what he could reasonably do, Roizman tried to provide guidance and, when possible, involve some of his influential acquaintances directly. After all, he knew “which buttons to push.” 

These meetings ended abruptly in August 2022, when police arrested (and later released) Roizman on charges of “discrediting the armed forces” and criticizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The former mayor opposes the war on the strongest moral grounds, calling it the “triumph of evil” and despairing that many Russians have become “bewitched.” He also has a close personal bond to Ukraine, his grandmother’s homeland. Despite the near certainty of a prison sentence, Roizman says he feels “attached to the [Russian] land,” has not, and will not “budge one millimeter” from “the country he loves.” For this, he risks five years in prison. Evgeny Roizman’s trial resumed on May 10, 2023.

Often labeled a “prominent Kremlin critic” and an “opposition figure,” Evgeny Roizman does not easily fit the typical categories used to describe opposition politicians in Russia. A former anti-drugs vigilante and hostile to “abstract humanism,” it’s hard to call him a liberal. But he’s not nostalgic for the Soviet Union, and he has warm words for Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin. When asked what should be done about the country, Roizman lists the liberal minimal program: free and fair elections, free media, and independent courts. He’s been in politics for more than 20 years now, yet he’s not quite a professional politician, and he doesn’t consider himself as such. 

Before becoming a politician, Roizman has had a life also untypical in the Russian opposition, marked throughout by scandals (some documented and some still mysterious to this day). 

A prodigal son of the Urals 

Roizman’s story is inextricably linked with Yekaterinburg. He was born here in 1962, when the city was called Sverdlovsk. He is from a working-class family: his mother was a nursery teacher in the kindergarten of the gigantic Urals Heavy Machinery Plant, where his father was an electrical engineer. Better known as Uralmash, it has also given its name to a city within the city, a gray industrial company town built from scratch in the 1930s as a constructivist utopia to host workers — at the time about 20,000 people. Coming from a Russian and Jewish background, Roizman has embraced these two identities

A poor, undisciplined student, he dropped out of school at the age of 14, and after short stints of work, he became a petty criminal. Roizman was arrested in 1980 and charged with theft, fraud, and carrying a knife. The exact crimes remain mysterious: his verdict describes burglaries at apartments and how he stole from women with whom he was “in close relationships” — specific offenses that Roizman denies. 

He spent three years behind bars — enough for rehabilitation. After going free, he found a job at the factory where his father worked. Roizman also resumed his studies, from night school to Ural State University, where he was an on–and-off student for 19 years. He ultimately graduated as a historian and archivist. 

Over the years, Roizman would develop quite a complex public image. A well-read man, versed in Russian and Jewish history, he’s become famous for his outbursts and prolific use of mat (profane slang). In him, you find the depth of the Russian intelligentsia — a poet and the founder of a free icon museum — but also a marathon-running, streetwise, tough guy, what many would call a muzhik. And, to the Russian public, Roizman is best known for his role in the War on Drugs.  

The War on Drugs comes to Yekaterinburg 

Among the many evils Yekaterinburg witnessed in the 1990s, the explosion of heroin use was one of the worst. It was in this decade when Roizman became a successful businessman after launching a jewelry company. A healthy teetotaler, he was outraged by what he saw and decided to take matters into his own hands. In 1999, with two acolytes, Roizman created the City Without Drugs foundation. Its tactics included “certain extreme measures, such as marching alleged drug dealers down the street with signs around their necks, burning down the homes of those believed to be dealing drugs, and beating up alleged drug dealers and users alike.” This vigilantism also took on openly racist connotations against Yekaterinburg’s local Roma and Tajik communities. 

Roizman’s foundation not only aimed to scare away drug dealers: it also hoped to cure addicts. The group opened rehabilitation centers based on coercive, cold turkey methods, leaving addicts “handcuffed to bedsteads and staring at the ceiling.” To this day, Roizman is unrepentant, claiming that these methods were necessary, effective, and acceptably harsh. The authorities would nonetheless send several of Roizman’s associates to jail on charges of arbitrary detention (he believes these cases were opened for political reasons, which is certainly possible). 

A young drug addict in Yekaterinburg sits in a room decorated with a poster of Evgeny Roizman on August 31, 2007
Oleg Nikishin / Epsilon / Getty Images

In his crusade, Roizman could count on powerful allies, including one of Yekaterinburg’s organized crime groups, Uralmash, whose heavies participated in many shows of force against drug dealing. The gang emerged in the late 1980s, a collection of young, working-class men who hung out around a local sports club — precisely Roizman’s own background. Beginning with racketeering, Uralmash expanded and ultimately established itself as a legitimate business venture in the eyes of the local elite (even the region’s governor embraced it). 

Though no one denies that the City Without Drugs foundation and Uralmash were associated, the nature of their partnership remains controversial. According to some, Uralmash “organized” the crusade, while Roizman claims they merely “supported” the foundation because heroin was so evil that even gangsters were afraid of it.

At the very least, financing various charities and nonprofits shored up the gang’s legitimacy. By this time, Uralmash aimed to enter politics and had even created a local political party to get started: the Social-Political Union, whose initials (OPS) are the same as “organized crime syndicate” in Russian — surely a coincidence. Their leader even managed to get elected to the City Duma. For criminals with open political ambitions, a xenophobic, strong-hand platform was a good bet at the ballot box.

Indeed, all this was to many locals’ liking, and it made Roizman a popular man. He caught the eye of the governor of the region, Eduard Rossel, who nominated him to serve as one of his advisors, kickstarting a long and bumpy political career.

Mr. Roizman goes to Moscow

In the late 1990s, Yekaterinburg was still a city battered by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and its metallurgy and mechanical engineering sector had suffered heavily. But thriving finance and IT sectors were starting to turn around the city’s fortunes. As the capital of Russia’s Sverdlovsk oblast, Yekaterinburg was also at the center of a strong regional identity and historically tense relations with Moscow. At the start of the decade, when several of Russia’s ethnic republics claimed autonomy from the federal government, the Sverdlovsk region made some of the most prominent non-ethnic demands for economic and political autonomy. In 1993, Governor Rossel even declared the creation of the Urals Republic, unilaterally elevating the status of the region.

This experiment did not last long, but Yekaterinburg retained a relatively independent-minded elite and lively opposition politics. 

Roizman’s first forays into politics weren’t about policy, opposition politics, or regional identity. For Roizman, politics was a tool for personal use. By this point, his popularity and methods had attracted the attention of law enforcement. Under increasing pressure, the police had arrested him several times. He now claims he “never aspired to politics” and “had a very specific aim to avoid imprisonment, to prevent the dismantling of the City Without Drugs foundation, and to stop [his] business from being destroyed.” In other words, it was all about parliamentary immunity. He ran as an independent, a local, and a down-to-earth vigilante, using a slogan from the popular sequel to Aleksei Balabanov’s film “Brother”: “Power lies in truth.”

Enjoying the regional authorities’ support, Roizman won. 

Pragmatism characterized his initial experience in office. He summed up how dysfunctional the parliament was with an aphorism: “In the Duma, as in the army, if you don’t know what to do, do nothing at all.” But he didn’t reject offhand cooperation with the authorities, declaring he’d be “ready to support the authorities when […] they’re acting honestly and correctly.” Similarly, he was not hostile to the support of oligarchs, including assistance from Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then Russia’s richest man and a lavish sponsor of the opposition. Just before his downfall, Khodorkovsky offered financial support to Roizman’s campaign. Roizman says he refused the money but remained on good terms with the former oil tycoon, arguing that having “any ally was very important” at the time.

Roizman’s name has never been attached to a particular political party or any specific ideology. He has used political parties instrumentally, never really getting involved in party politics or creating his own. Roizman successively got closer to Just Russia (led by Sergey Mironov) and Right Cause (led by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov) — two parties ostensibly at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Both collaborations did not last long, most likely because the Kremlin does not tolerate political parties with strong, independent-minded candidates.

Yekaterinburg’s last mayor 

Following Russia’s 2011–2012 protest movement against fraud in national parliamentary elections, the Kremlin decided to experiment with local democracy, reintroducing gubernatorial elections and allowing the registration of opposition candidates. Roizman ran for mayor in his hometown in 2013, and his friendship with Mikhail Prokhorov paid dividends — the billionaire’s new party supported him. 

Defeating a candidate from Putin’s party is no easy feat, but the entire Sverdlovsk region was in shock when voters went to the polls. In 2012, an outsider from Tyumen was appointed to serve as acting governor, greatly disappointing local elites and the general public. Then a rather dormant issue, regional identity resurfaced and dominated the run up to Roizman’s mayoral campaign. His opponent was from the country’s ruling political party (United Russia), was fairly unknown, and had spent part of his career working in another region. In his campaign, Roizman positioned himself as the local candidate. He boasted, “When I became a deputy, I didn’t move to Moscow, I didn’t start making money, and I saw my voters from the first day to the last.”

The race was a dirty game. The authorities attempted to force him out of the race by threatening members of his team and unleashed a slanderous campaign pointing at his shady past and alleged ties to the criminal underworld. Despite all odds, he won with a 33-percent plurality.

Yekaterinburg Mayor Evgeny Roizman meets with a group of constituents in his office on October 17, 2013.
Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

Being a mayor in Russia was not an easy job either. At that time, Yekaterinburg had a bicephalous power system with both an elected mayor and a “city manager” appointed by the United-Russia-dominated city council. The city manager was responsible, among other things, for overseeing the city budget. Additionally, Roizman had limited room to maneuver while the regional authorities prepared the ground for the outright abolition of mayoral elections.

After Roizman’s victory in Yekaterinburg and opposition politician Alexey Navalny’s good showing in Moscow’s mayoral election that same year, it seemed that local democracy was not such a good idea for the Kremlin after all — not if the opposition could actually win.

Roizman grew closer to Russia’s “nonsystemic opposition,” joining a demonstration for peace in Ukraine. Starting from a rather convoluted position on the annexation of Crimea, he then condemned it unreservedly. Once again, he tried to aim even higher. Building on the issue of regional identity, Roizman attempted to run in gubernatorial elections against Moscow’s chosen outsider, but by the time the window of opportunity had already closed. Officials rejected his candidacy registration, and Yekaterinburg soon abolished local mayoral elections altogether, yet again.

Evgeny Roizman, Yekaterinburg’s last elected mayor, resigned in May 2018. He was now out of politics once more, though he remained the “people’s mayor” for those who still came to wait in line outside his charity, the Roizman Foundation.

Roizman’s trajectory shows the importance of place in Russian politics and the relative irrelevance of labels. He has agreed to many compromises in life, many of them perhaps dubious. For his city, for its inhabitants, for his country, and also for himself, Roizman was willing to work with organized crime, with oligarchs, and with the political establishment. But the authorities weren’t interested, in the end: a vocal mayor, however powerless, still poses too great a threat in modern-day Russia.

For all the tradeoffs Roizman accepted over the years, this man who so passionately loves Russia did not compromise when Moscow launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. It was evil, he believed, and he would resist it, even at the cost of his freedom.

A version of this article originally appeared in German at Dekoder.

By Oleksiy Bondarenko and Morvan Lallouet

Oleksiy Bondarenko got his Ph.D. from the University of Kent. He is a lecturer in politics and quantitative methods at the University of Warwick. His research focuses on regional politics and informal institutions in Russia and Ukraine.

Morvan Lallouet is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Kent, and a visiting lecturer at City University, London. He researches the Russian liberal opposition, and has co-authored the book Navalny: Putin’s Nemesis, Russia’s Future? 2022)

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