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‘There’s no more room for complacency’ Jailed Russian dissident Ilya Yashin is 40. At Meduza’s request, he looks back on his 30th birthday — and speculates about the world a decade from now.
Ilya Yashin was one of the few opposition politicians who chose to remain in Russia after Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, despite the clear threat from the Russian authorities. He has openly opposed the war and has spoken publicly about war crimes committed by Russian soldiers — a decision that earned him an 8.5-year prison sentence for spreading “disinformation.” Even from behind bars, though, he’s continued speaking out against the invasion and speaking up for the rights of Russians. On Thursday, June 29, Yashin is turning 40. At Meduza’s request, he wrote about his memory of turning 30 in the Russia of 2013, as well as a message to his fellow citizens. We’re publishing a complete translation of Yashin’s short essay below.
I have good memories of my 30th birthday. It was 2013. Not the simplest of times, but certainly a year full of hope.
Not too long before that, Putin had returned to the Kremlin against the backdrop of widespread protests that left him feeling insecure. His approval ratings were falling, while public demand for reforms continued to rise. The authorities were opening criminal cases against members of the opposition, the country’s propaganda machine was constantly coming up with new accusations and provocations, and yet this all appeared to be nothing more than an attempt to stop the natural course of history. The scent of freedom was in the air, and change seemed inevitable.
Several dozen people gathered in my favorite cafe (which has since been closed) in Nikitsky Boulevard. I had a rule: no ties and no toasts. Everyone was relaxed and in good spirits, despite the police van posted across the street and the Kremlin media photographers hiding in the bushes. [Boris] Nemtsov joked, “What do Yashin and mob bosses have in common? A lot of cops and paparazzi at their birthday parties!”
A few weeks later, Nemtsov would ask me to lead his campaign headquarters in Yaroslavl, and that autumn he would be elected to the [Yaroslavl] regional parliament. Meanwhile, Navalny would conduct an unprecedented [mayoral] campaign in Moscow and would receive support from a third [27.24 percent] of city residents. Tens of thousands of our supporters would regularly take to the streets. Persistently, step by step, we would take back the space of freedom from the authorities. But then came 2014 and the annexation of Crimea.
Military aggression against a neighboring state turned our country upside down and gave the strategic initiative back to Putin. It’s worth admitting: we weren’t prepared for this corrupt regime to resort to fighting with weapons in hand, that the crooks would turn out to be real killers.
In the years that followed, the Kremlin launched a massacre in the Donbas. Nemtsov was shot dead in the center of Moscow. Navalny was poisoned and then put behind bars. All opposition parties and movements were declared extremist and banned. Independent municipalities and media outlets were crushed. We had to withstand the blow, with the main one coming in 2022, when Putin launched a full-scale war against both Ukraine and dissidents in Russia.
The result is that my 40th birthday is completely different from 2013, which is hopelessly far away in every sense. I won’t see my loved ones or my friends today. Most of the people who celebrated with me 10 years ago have been forced to emigrate. Not all of them have kept their freedom. And not all of them are alive. My company at the table this evening will be my cellmates in the special detention facility: a cocaine drug lord, a major fraudster, and an arms dealer…
Meanwhile, things don’t seem to bode well for the coming decade. What will my 50th birthday look like? Where will I celebrate it? What will become of Russia? Will it even survive?
I don’t have answers to any of these questions. But strange as it may sound, an inner confidence is growing within me that we’ll survive and overcome. There’s no more room for complacency. We’ve all become more experienced, stronger, and more resilient. We’ve shed ourselves of illusions and grown in strength.
It feels like Putin has plunged us to rock bottom in recent years. And now we have two options. We can either settle comfortably at this bottom, pity ourselves, and become resigned to the sad fate that awaits us. Or, we can gather our strength, push off properly, and resurface.
I’m going to try to resurface. Are you?
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