No room for dissent in Putin’s Russia

The crackdown on an anti-fascist group is the latest case of the government stiffling criticism

February 15, 2020 09:11 pm | Updated 09:11 pm IST

Members of a left-wing group Set (Network) attend a court hearing in Penza, Russia, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. The court convicted seven members of the group of terrorism charges Monday and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from six to 18 years. (AP Photo/David Frenkel)

Members of a left-wing group Set (Network) attend a court hearing in Penza, Russia, Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. The court convicted seven members of the group of terrorism charges Monday and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from six to 18 years. (AP Photo/David Frenkel)

In what has emerged as yet another case of the state cracking down on anti-government activism, a court in the central Russian city of Penza has sentenced seven members of a left-wing activist group ‘Set’ (Network) to a cumulative term of 86 years.

Dmitriy Pchelintsev, 27, received the harshest sentence — 18 years in a colony of strict regime. Others, Ilya Shakurskiy, 23, Andrey Chernov, 30, Maksim Ivankin, 25, Mikhail Kulkov, Vasiliy Kuskov, 31, and Arman Sangynbayev, 27, received somewhere between six and 16 years.

The convicted men are among the 11 people detained in 2017 in Penza and St. Petersburg for “plotting” terrorist attacks during presidential elections and the football World Cup in 2018.

Another activist believed to be a part of the ‘Set’, Igor Shishkin, was handed a three-and-a-half-year term in 2019. So far, he is the only one who has confessed to the charges. He collaborated with the investigation. According to Human Rights Watch, he did so after repeated torture. Two others, Viktor Filinkov and Yulian Boyarshinov, are awaiting their sentence later this month.

What do these young men have in common? Some of them belong to leftist, anti-fascist and anarchist movements, and most of them have been playing a popular outdoor game “airsoft”, in which participants shoot at each other with plastic balls using a pneumatic weapon.

The Federal Security Service (FSB), which has opened a criminal case against them, claimed the games were actually ‘training exercises’ as part of preparation for insurgency. Families of the youth and those under trial as well as human rights experts in Russia and abroad maintain the case was “fabricated” and no serious evidence has been produced by the prosecution while the facts proving that some testimonies were obtained through torture were completely ignored by the court.

Plotting insurgency

What is the most astonishing in this case, experts and activists say, is that the harsh terms were given for just “plotting” insurgency and not for something that was actually done.

“Everything we know about the ‘Set’ case suggests that it was entirely fabricated. A blatantly unjust verdict shows the complete paralysis of the independent judicial system in our country. Unlike those fake terrorist attacks that the accused were allegedly plotting, the court decision itself is the real act of terror that strikes a blow to the very foundation of Russia’s statehood,” says a public petition started on February 12. Within two days, it was signed by over 3,000 people.

Inability of the judges to question ‘powerful’ investigators such as the FSB has been pointed out by many commentators in Russia. “If the judge doubts anything, it means that he has questioned the qualifications of FSB employees, and no one wants to get involved with this. The career of both a prosecutor and a judge can be over in a moment,” said Olga Romanova, head of the NGO Russia Behind Bars.

Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow and the chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, believes double-digit jail terms handed to young men who have neither killed or shot or beaten anybody nor stolen billions is “pure Stalinism”.

“The harshness of the sentences for the throwing of plastic cups and for organising outdoor training, as the Network group did, is intended to demonstrate the State’s readiness to defend itself from any manifestations of dissatisfaction and dissent, even action that is not particularly vividly expressed,” he wrote in one of his op-eds.

Most of the experts speaking out on the case — which is hardly covered by the largely government-controlled mainstream media — believe the fear of mass dissent is something the Russian government is not able to tolerate because it doesn’t really know how to deal with it. The 2019 summer protests rattled Moscow both because of their size and strength and because of the brutal force the police used to crack them down. The Kremlin would not like those incidents being repeated.

Sociologist Konstantin Gaaze reminds that the Russian government has always considered youth belonging to countless anti-fascist leftists groups spread across Russia an important concern. Mainly because these groups, unlike those belonging to so-called “systemic opposition”, are not under the direct control of the Kremlin and the FSB. The Set members violated the monopoly of the Kremlin-sanctioned opposition.

(Ksenia Kondratieva is a journalist based in Moscow)

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