war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Politics and human rights

Fake Odessa ‘mass riots’ staged for Russian TV

With attempts to cause real disturbances and protests in Odessa having encountered stubborn resistance,   orchestrated versions are being staged, with their participants seemingly receiving money for waving banners, shouting about ‘repression’; blocking roads and overturning cars.  There is a fine line, however, between stunts and serious provocation with conceivably tragic consequences, and both the police and Odessa civic activists are following the situation carefully.

On March 19, a group of young people blocked the road on Ilf and Petrov St, overturned a car, and made a huge din while the camera focus moved from banner to banner, with the words on all alleging grievances over repression, infringements of free speech, etc.

The video is posted here and has been broadcast on the pro-Kremlin Rossiya-24 TV channel.  The latter clearly felt that the outskirts were not good enough and said that the ‘protest’ had taken part in the centre of Odessa.   The police denied that there had been any disturbances, calling the video a fake, while a pro-Ukrainian civic initiative Oberih has been carrying out its own investigation.  It says that the event in fact took place at 7.30 in the morning when most of Odessa was only just waking up and lasted only about 20 minutes.  The participants, it asserts, were mainly from the Odessa oblast with only around 5-7 from the city itself. There were two busloads bringing people, however one was stopped by the traffic police.  There were around 40 people altogether, many of whom they photographed at another meeting on March 21 on Soborna Square.   

On that same March 19, Oberih reported that it had “uncovered and prevented yet another attempt to create a picture for the propaganda media”. Around 60 students gathered on Soborna Square, got into a coach and headed off to make the video.  Some of the students told Oberih members that they’d been promised 50 UAH.  Oberih suggests that in fact those ordering the stunt were prepared to pay up to 500 per person. 

It reports also, providing photographic evidence which has posted, that the same people were involved at the meeting they prevented and at a meeting that did take place on March 21 on Soborna Square. 

Oberih stresses the importance of finding out who the organizers are of these stunts, as well as who commissioned them.  They ask members of the public to contact them with any information. 

The police are now taking the situation seriously. reports that on March 25, a similar stunt was attempted, this time on Pasteur St, with 6 people detained.  Volodymyr Shabliyenko, Press Secretary for the regional police, says that these ‘pseudo demonstrations’ are aimed at creating a negative picture for Russian TV.  According to police and SBU [Security Service] information, a similar scenario was planned with the street being blocked and a car overturned.  Shabliyenko says that the students hired were paid 150 UAH each. 

He warns people, especially students, planning to make a bit of money this way that their actions will be viewed as an attempt to cause mass disturbances.  This falls under Article 294 of the Criminal Code and carries a sentence of between 5 and 8 years imprisonment.  If people are killed, then the sentence is up to 15 years. “Think about that before you agree to such dubious offers”.

Many of the fakes on Russian propaganda channels uncovered last year were reported in the western media as something humorous.  It is 11 months now since a group of pro-Russian activists attacked a totally peaceful pro-Ukrainian rally in the centre of Odessa.  The resulting disturbances on May 2 and fire in the Trade Union building on Kulikovo Pole claimed the lives of 48 people.  They have also been used as part of a monstrous propaganda campaign with Russia claiming that pro-Russian activists were deliberately burned alive.  This in turn has been used in Russian and Kremlin-backed militants’ warmongering propaganda to recruit fighters for their undeclared war in Donbas.

Propaganda kills, and there are no grounds for treating any fakes and propaganda stunts with humour. 

Kyrgyz Mercenary Details Russian Military Role In Ukraine

Video with English subtitles here:

In August 2014, Manas Mambetov, a senior lieutenant in the Kyrgyz Army reserves, arrived in eastern Ukraine on a moral quest to fight "fascists." A week ago, he returned home, accompanying the sealed coffins of two fellow Kyrgyz soldiers and disillusioned by his experience.

Mambetov, who asked that his real name not be used, says he fought with regular Russian military personnel around Luhansk.

"These aren’t conscript soldiers, " Mambetov says, adding that they were "battle-ready units" who fought in the wars in Chechnya and in Georgia’s separatist South Ossetia region.

"Most of them are contract soldiers. From time to time, they are sent in and then pulled out again. But they leave without their heavy equipment. While they are there, they train the separatists, insurgents, leave them their weapons, and return."

European and U.S. leaders and NATO officials have said there are thousands of Russian military troops fighting in eastern Ukraine. Moscow denies the accusation, saying the fighters there are locals and volunteers from across the former Soviet Union.

Mambetov, whose story could not be independently confirmed, says he was one such volunteer. "I was watching television -- Channel One, RTR, and others, " he tells RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, referring to Russia’s main state-run channels. "It was symbolic for me because my grandfather was killed in the war in 1941. My moral principles were guiding me. The television channels were showing swastikas, fascists raising their heads there, Nazis."

But after he arrived in Ukraine’s Luhansk region, Mambetov found a different situation. "I thought that there were fascists there, " he says, "but I didn’t see any. We fought against the regular Ukrainian Army. They had some questionable elements -- the Right Sector battalion and the Donbas battalions, which are composed of volunteers, ultranationalists. Such types are everywhere. But I didn’t see any fascists."

"I had one motive and it wasn’t supported by anything, he adds. "It turned out that everything was agitation, propaganda. This was really offensive to me."

"I fell for their story, " he adds.

Mambetov says he made his way in August 2014 from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, to the southern Russian city of Rostov-On-Don, from where he crossed into Ukraine at the Izvarino border checkpoint. After five days during which his military-service and other documents were checked, he was sent to a reconnaissance unit commanded by a man from the Russian city of Kaliningrad using the nom de guerre Che Guevara. He was paid $1, 500 a month, with bonuses for destroyed tanks and other heavy equipment.

He says it was widely accepted there that the separatist forces are completely controlled by Russian military advisers. Separatist fighters believed that Viktor Penner, economic adviser to Luhansk separatist head Igor Plotnitsky, was in direct contact with Kremlin presidential adviser Vladislav Surkov.

Moreover, the forces in Luhansk are riven by infighting, with many units refusing to obey orders from Plotnitsky. Mambetov says he participated in a punitive action against one recalcitrant unit in which 17 men were killed.

In recent months, Mambetov says, the separatist forces have been increasingly augmented by Russian troops and equipment. Heavy weapons are brought in from Russia under cover of darkness and stockpiled in warehouses that have been cleared for that purpose.

In particular, he says, the Russians have brought in howitzers in recent months, "enough for a whole division."

"The old miners aren’t around anymore, " he says, adding that there are fewer volunteers like himself as well. "Now they are being replaced by regular forces. Their mission is to hold on -- not to surrender any positions under all circumstances."

Mambetov says he stopped receiving his salary in December.

Many of the most devoted separatists feel that Moscow has abandoned them by not recognizing the region as it did with Crimea, Mambetov says.

He says these people will not accept "special status" for the Donbas within Ukraine, as stipulated in the February peace agreement negotiated in Minsk, for fear of reprisals by the Ukrainian security forces. As a result, many are already leaving and the ones that remain feel "they have to fight to the end -- there is no other choice."

Venera Djumataeva

“Liberated Donbas fears return of Kremlin-backed militants more than nationalists”

A recent Russian propaganda channel reduced a 4-minute series of interviews in the city of Sloviansk into 1 minute and then triumphantly reported that “the residents of Ukraine’s Sloviansk trust Putin and don’t know Poroshenko”.  TV ‘Zvezda’ omitted the following answers to whether people trusted Russian President Vladimir Putin: “Of course not”; “He was always an arsehole and please God that he dies!”.

Uncensored versions of that survey and others would not necessarily present a glowing picture of support for Kyiv’s leaders, but they are certainly not good material for Russian propaganda.  According to the latest survey carried out by the authoritative Democratic Initiatives Foundation [DIF] and Razumkov Centre, 50% of Donbas residents believe that they should remain part of Ukraine, while 35% said they were against that.  Of the 35%, 20% thought that the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [‘DNR’] should be a separate state and 15% - that it should join Russia.

Iryna Bekeshkina, DIF Director, points out that Donbas stands out from the rest of Ukraine where the last year has led to a dramatic increase in identification from Ukraine.  If previously people often identified themselves according to region or city, now 73% identify themselves in the first instance as Ukrainian citizens with the increase mainly due to changed attitudes in the east and south of the country.  Even in Donbas, half of the respondents identified themselves in terms of citizenship.

A Ukrainian political nation is forming extremely quickly and all the moves have taken place largely because of the Russian-speaking population.  The Ukrainian-speaking population considered themselves citizens and were proud of their country earlier too. “, Bekeshkina explains.

A survey of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk following their liberation carried out in late November last year found interesting differences between the two cities which are a mere 15 kilometres apart. 

All are united in wanting an end to the war, but divided as what the solution might be.  Kramatorsk is generally more pro-Ukrainian, Sloviansk more pro-Russian.  Bekeshkina explains that industry is still more or less functioning in Kramatorsk. “People work, receive their pay, are confident about the future and are very frightened that the ‘DNR’ will return. They value their situation and are frightened of things getting worse. Sloviansk on the other hand is a depressed city. .. with a high level of unemployment.”  Bekeshkina stresses that language is not the issue, with both cities Russian-speaking.  Corruption, she says, is a divisive and corrosive force everywhere. 

‘Nationalism’, she says, is a real bogeyman in Donbas with a third of the population believing that it is nationalism that divides Ukrainians. 

Bekeshkina suggests only bemusement with such a view, though in fact it is probably not surprising given the fact that while under ‘DNR’ control, they had access to only Russian media which strongly pushes this idea. 

She does, however, point out that “people there are more frightened of the return of ‘DNR’ than they are of Right Sector” [the nationalist party which Russia has been demonizing since the time of EuroMaidan]

The effect of anti-Ukrainian propaganda was also observed by a human rights mission, with representatives from the Kharkiv Human Rights Group, Russian and German human rights groups.  Over the last 3 months of 2014, it made several visits to cities which had been under ‘DNR’ control, including Slovyansk and Kramatorsk during the last three months of 2014. 

They report that after months when the Kremlin-backed militants had done everything to scare the population with reports of ‘punitive Ukrainian forces’, people awaited the Ukrainian armed forces with great trepidation.

The residents of Krasny Lyman, the city liberated first on June 4 recounted how they had awaited with terror ‘purges’; arrests; repression from the Ukrainian armed forces. However the ‘purge’ was confined to a simple viewing of flats, without even checking documents, and the first day of Sloviansk’s liberation began with free sausages being handed out.  There were no reports later either of repression against the local population in liberated cities.”

That was also ignored by the Russian propaganda machine.

«We’ve ceased to be brothers”. How Putin got it wrong

Vladimir Putin may consider Ukrainians and Russians to “to be one nation”, as he believed it appropriate to announce on the anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian Crimea, but he could not be more wrong.  It is precisely Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine over the last year that has lost him Ukraine forever.  As Iryna Bekeshkina, head of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation put it, “we’ve ceased to be brothers”, and the results of the last public opinion services suggest that there is no going back. 

The narrative so assiduously pushed by Moscow about there being a ‘civil war’ underway in Ukraine does not wash with Ukrainians, 70% of whom are now sure that Ukraine is at war with Russia.  Support for moving closer to Russia among Ukrainians has fallen in the last year from 46% to 22%.  Bekeshkina notes that the years of trying to be in both camps – East and West – have passed.  For the first time ever a majority of Ukrainians (46%) would support joining NATO (as against 13% in 2014), with another 20% opting for neutral status (against 42%) . Only 20% (from Donbas, other eastern and southern oblasts) would want a military union with Russia.   Particularly staggering is the result in the DIF January service in the Donetsk oblast.  17% said they would be in favour of joining NATO.  While this is obviously a minority, it is significantly higher than the previous 3-5% support.

“Ukrainians’ love for Russia is fading before our eyes. If in February last year 78% of Ukrainians were kindly disposed towards Russia, this had fallen by the end of the year to 36%.  We have ceased to be brothers. And a parallel process is underway: more and more Ukrainians see themselves in the first instance as citizens of Ukraine”.

There has been a significant increase both in identification with Ukraine and patriotism, with 73% now viewing themselves first as Ukrainians, and only then as residents of a particular region.  All of this has taken place because of changes in attitude in the east and south of Ukraine, those regions where Moscow has particularly tried to stir up separatist sentiments. 

In a recent survey carried out by DIF and the Razumkov Centre, a large majority – 69% consider Crimea to be Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia.  Only 14% view Crimea as part of the Russian Federation, with only 8% of these believing that it was joined to Russia legally.   10% believe that Crimea is neither Ukrainian nor Russian.

The survey could not be carried out either in Crimea itself or in the Luhansk oblast.  It seems likely that the latter’s results would have differed radically from the rest of Ukraine, as did those for Donetsk oblast where only 22% of residents saw Crimea as Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia, and 29% said that Crimea was Russian and joined legally (with 25% saying that it was neither Ukrainian nor Russian).

Donbas was always different from the rest of Ukraine and this was positively encouraged under the rule of Viktor Yanukovych.  In fact, though, no earlier surveys ever found a majority in support of secession from Ukraine.  The Razumkov Centre and Rating Sociological Group carried out a survey from March 28 to April 2, 2014 everywhere except Crimea.  71.4% said that in a referendum, they would vote for Ukraine as a unitary state and only 17.1% were against.

Poignant evidence of what was needed to impose the rule of the so-called ‘Donetsk people’s republics’ was recalled over the last two weeks by many of those forced to flee from Donetsk.  On March 4 and 5 they recalled the huge demonstrations in the centre of Donetsk in support of Ukrainian unity.  The first of those, which brought together around 10 thousand people was a spontaneous and totally peaceful response to the pro-Russian demonstration on March 1 which supposedly elected Pavel Gubarev ‘people’s governor’. 

Gubarev, who led crowds in storming the Donetsk regional administration building and hanging a Russian flag was one of the marginal figures cultivated from around 2006 by Moscow.  He was formally a member of the neo-Nazi Russian organization Russian National Unity.”  At least five other people who played an active role in the 2014 events were at a Russian training session in 2006 run by Alexander Dugin, the Russian fascist ideologue with connections in very high places.  

The peaceful demonstration on March 4 clearly caught the pro-Russian activists unawares. On March 5, pro-Russian activists were reported to have attacked EuroMaidan activists on Lenin Square, with about 10 people on each side being hospitalized.  By the demonstration on  March 13, the mood had changed.  Up to one thousand people gathered that evening for a demonstration in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and against war. They were heavily outnumbered by around 2, 000 pro-Russian demonstrators. 

A Russian Foreign Ministry statement issued on March 14 claimed that “peaceful demonstrators who had come out onto the city streets to express their attitude to the destructive position of those calling themselves the Ukrainian government were attacked by right-wing radical groups armed with shock pistols and bats who had begun arriving in the city the day before from different regions of the country.”

All video footage, for example, here and witnesses told a different story.  So, tragically, did the first death – of 22-year-old Dmitry Chernyavsky, a pro-Ukrainian unity supporter. 

It is important to stress that even in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, neither Russian propaganda, nor a mass influx of ‘Russian tourists’ – of a specific age, athletic build and general thuggish appearance brought in by the busloads were able to create a mass ‘uprising’. 

From April Moscow began bringing in fighters – first mainly mercenaries, some far-right Russian nationalists, though by now an estimated 10-12 thousand current Russian soldiers. 

They were brought in precisely because Putin had got it badly wrong about ‘one nation’.  

Victims of political repression

Dramatic increase in number of Russians who justify Stalin

Would there be such lack of interest if 45% of Germans thought Hitler's crimes 'justified' by Nazi Germany's achievements?

15 years after Vladimir Putin first became President of Russia, a survey has found that Russians’ attitude to bloody Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin has changed significantly.  Changed in the more ‘positive’ direction that history teachers were first told was required back in 2007. 

According to a Levada Centre survey entitled “Stalin and his role in the history of the country”, at the beginning of the 2000s, the majority of Russians still viewed Stalin negatively.  In March 2015, 39% viewed him in a positive light, with 30% of these respecting him; 7% liking him; and 2% - admiration.

There were clear divisions according to age, location and standard of living.  Half of younger respondents were indifferent to Stalin, whereas older respondents (43%) were more inclined to view Stalin with respect.  People in cities, and those with a higher standard of living are more likely to view Stalin with fear, antagonism or hatred than people living in rural areas, and those who are poorer.  Every second respondent in Moscow, for example, was against a monument being erected to the dictator, while Russians over 55, those poorer, living in rural areas, and / or with lower education were most in support of the idea.

If in 2010 one in three Russians considered Stalin a state criminal, now only one in four believe this, though the figures were different for Muscovites (51% saying he was a state criminal); the more affluent (62%) and those with a higher education (33%). 

Since 2012 the percentage of respondents viewing the sacrifices which the Soviet people made during the Stalin period as justified by high aims and the results achieved has jumped from 25% to 45%.   64% of Muscovites, however, and 66% of those more affluent answered that no results, regardless of their aim, could justify the sacrifices. 

It is worth noting that 2012 was when Putin was ‘re-elected’ for his third term as President.  In early 2012 there were huge demonstrations in major cities against his re-election and many in the West had begun talking of a ‘Russian Spring’.  The protests led to a major crackdown with many people imprisoned.  Over the years in question, but especially since early 2014, government-controlled media in Russia (for the majority of the population all that they have access to) has become full of virulent propaganda against Ukraine and now the West, with the hardships Russians are facing, when mentioned, treated as part of a war being waged against Russia.

Interestingly, 69% of respondents were against Volgograd once again being called Stalingrad. As reported, Putin effectively suggested his support for such a move last June. 

In June 2007, Putin told a congress of history teachers that ‘positive moves’ were needed in the presentation of Russian history.  He said that you could read things in history books which make your hair stand on end.

A new history manual for teachers, written by Alexander Fillipov, spoke of Stalin as “one of the most successful leaders of the USSR”.  The book asserted that “in essence, the aim of Stalin’s domestic and foreign policy was the restoration – political and territorial of the Russian Empire”.   It claimed that historians at home and abroad confirm that the main victims of repression from the 1930s to the 1950s were the ruling class, and are “inclined to see rational reasons for the use of force in the efforts to ensure the maximum effectiveness of the ruling elite as the main player in mobilizing society towards the achievement of impossible tasks”.

The outcome of Stalin’s purges was the formation of a new governing class, able to cope with the task of modernization given the shortage of resources – unwaveringly loyal to the upper echelons of power and irreproachable from the point of view of executive discipline”.

A museum dedicated to Stalin is to be opened in the village of Khoroshevo (Tver oblast) where Stalin stayed overnight in August 1943 on his way to an area within safe distance from the front.    As reported here, the initiative came from the Russian Military History Society, a body created by Putin on Dec 29, 2012 “for the purpose of consolidating the forces of state and society in the study of Russia’s military-historical past; countering efforts to distort it; popularizing the achievements of military-historical studies; developing patriotism and raising the prestige of military service”. 

In the meantime, the Perm-36 Museum in the Urals, at the site of the Soviet harsh regime labour camp where Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus died, has been turned into a travesty.  The Museum had up till recently played a vital role in informing the public about Soviet repression, but the Perm-36 Memorial Centre which ran it was basically driven out.  This centre, an NGO, issued a statement , promising that its work would continue, but saying that its efforts to reach agreement with the Perm regional authorities to retain Perm-36 as a museum of political repression in the USSR had proved fruitless.  Since then the Centre has reported that it is facing a check into whether it should be forcibly registered as a so-called ‘foreign agent’. 

There is a museum still at the site, but one in which the camp’s role in repression is scarcely mentioned –  “the words "Stalin, " "dissident, " or "gulag" are nowhere to be seen”.

It is doubtless indicative of the West’s lesser knowledge of Stalin’s crimes that all these surveys, monuments to the dictator and distortions of history are either not reported at all, or given fleeting coverage.  One wonders how they would react if Germany were to come up with 45 % justifying Hitler’s crimes.  Surely worth considering when this sharp increase in willingness to justify horrific crimes comes at a time when Russia has annexed part of neighbouring Ukraine and is showing no intention of stopping.  

Deported peoples

Elected to Crimean Tatar Mejlis – expect repression under Russian occupation

Less than a week after being elected First Deputy Head of the Mejlis, or Crimean Tatar representative assembly, Nariman Dzhelyal has been subjected to a five-hour interrogation and a search of his home. 

Dzhelyal:  “Every member of the Mejlis can expect a search of his home”

There were no grounds for any interrogation or search, but the move was not unexpected.  Since soon after Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, the Mejlis, and Crimean Tatars generally, have faced an ongoing offensive, and Dzhelyal would have been aware when he agreed to coordinate the work of the Mejlis in Crimea as First Deputy Head that he would be targeted. 

The Head of the Mejlis Refat Chubarov and veteran Crimean Tatar leader (and former Mejlis Head) Mustafa Dzhemiliev have both been banned from their homeland.  The First Deputy Head Akhtem Chiygoz was arrested on Jan 29 on surreal charges related to a protest which took place before Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  He is still in custody and seems likely to remain there, despite the lack of any evidence against him specifically, and the legal nihilism implicit in charges over something that took place under Ukrainian legislation and Ukrainian rule.

Zair Smedlyaev, head of the Central Election Commission of the Qurultay [Crimean Tatar congress] is in no doubt that this is a campaign of intimidation by “the Russian government of Crimea”, linked with his appointment.  “So that everybody will be scared of holding posts not agreed with [Sergei] Aksyonov [the leader installed after Russian soldiers seized control on Feb 27, 2014], even in the Crimean Tatar representative body”, he told Radio Svoboda’s Crimean Service.  

Dhelyal had been summoned before for questioning about the demonstration on Feb 26, and if this was not solely aimed at intimidation, it is not clear why he was summoned again.  Another activist present at the Feb 26 demonstration Asan Charukhov was questioned at the same time, and it is unfortunately possible that the FSB have used threats or worse to obtain the testimony they want.  Dzhelyal has been forced to sign an undertaking to not divulge any information.

Ilmi Umerov, elected Deputy Head at the same meeting which appointed Dzhelyal as First Head, coordinating the work of the Mejlis in Crimea, was questioned on March 23 about the same Feb 26 demonstration.  He was asked about Chiygoz’ activities and about who had organized the demonstration.  His testimony totally refuted the charges against Chiygoz, with Umerov explaining that every time he saw Chiygoz during the demonstration, he had been trying to calm people, not escalating the situation”. 

Four Crimean Tatars, including Akhtem Chiygoz,  are facing charges under Russian legislation in connection with the pre-annexation demonstration on Feb 26, 2014.  

The so-called ‘case’ has been condemned by the Crimean Human Rights Field Mission as legally unfounded and politically motivated, aimed solely at persecuting those who oppose the Crimea occupation regime. 

Russia and the ‘government’ it installed, with the use of armed Russian soldiers, on Feb 27, 2014, are trying to change historical fact and claim that the current ‘prime minister’ Sergei Aksyonov assumed control on Feb 26.  He certainly did not do so in any legal faction.  The large protest outside parliament that day was organized by Crimean Tatars to prevent an attempt to seize control of parliament.  There were effectively two demonstrations in the same place: one organized by Crimean Tatars and EuroMaidan activists, the other by the Russian Unity party run by Sergei Aksyonov.  Both he and his party were then extremely marginal in Crimean politics, yet Aksyonov then proclaimed himself ‘prime minister’ following a parliamentary ‘session’ under Russian soldiers’ machine guns on Feb 27.

Two people died that day: one elderly man of a heart attack, and another elderly woman died later in hospital, possibly after being crushed by the crowd.

It is typical of the nature of this ‘criminal case’, that only Crimean Tatars are suspected of trouble.  The Russian Investigative Committee in Crimea claims to have over 150 ‘witnesses’ and reports that 40 people have been given victim status. 

Halya Coynash

Crimean Tatar Mejlis holds important election as repression continues

Update:  Ilmi Umerov was questioned on Monday March 23 about the demonstration on Feb 26.  His testimony totally refuted the charges about the Deputy Head of the Mejlis, Akhtem Chiygoz.  “When they asked me questions about Akhtem, I repeated that I caught sight of him several times on Feb 26, and each time he was trying to calm people, not escalating the situation”. 

Nariman Dzhelyal has been elected First Deputy Head of the Mejlis, or Crimean Tatar representative assembly against which the occupation regime in Crimea has been relentlessly waging an offensive since shortly after annexation.  At the same meeting, another member of the Mejlis, Ilmi Umerov was elected Deputy Head just hours after receiving a summons to appear for questioning on March 23 at the Investigative Committee’s ‘department for particularly important cases’.  

It is unclear as yet why Umerov has been summonsed, and whether he will really be questioned only as ‘witness’.  With the Head of the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov banned by Russia from his homeland and his First Deputy Akhtem Chiygoz imprisoned since Jan 29 on surreal charges laid under Russian law although pertaining to a demonstration held before Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, there seem few if any limits to the lawlessness demonstrated by the occupation regime.

Nariman Dzelyal explained to QHA that he will be coordinating the work of the Mejlis in Crimea.  He stressed that the Head of the Mejlis remains Refat Chubarov, but since the latter is in forced exile, he has been elected as person coordinating the activities of the Mejlis, and regional mejlis “so that there is a specific person for preparing various kinds of decisions, carrying them out, etc.”

As reported here, the occupation regime has resorted to repressive measures against the Mejlis in general and specific members, including veteran Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemiliev, the first to be banned from his native Crimea.  It has also been trying to replace elected members of the Mejlis and Qurultay or congress with ‘reliable’ – pro-Kremlin – people. 

Having banished or imprisoned leading figures in the Mejlis, the occupation regime was clearly hoping to be able to slip their man in as head of the Mejlis.  This person, Remsi Ilyasov, is currently deputy speaker of the Crimean parliament.  Other ‘malleable’ Crimean Tatars would also receive posts in an attempt to seize control of the Mejlis and Qurultay. 

Refat Chubarov issued a statement as head of the Mejlis in which he spelled out both the aims and the methods being applied by the Russian occupation authorities. 

“The most brutal punitive policy carried out against the Crimean Tatar people since March 2014 is ultimately aimed at totally crushing the will of the Crimean Tatar people and their struggle for their rights in their native land”.

Efforts have been made, presumably to test the water, in Feodosiya, with the pro-regime movement Kyyrym, led by Remzi Ilyasov, trying to change the leaders of the regional Mejlis.  The Qurultay Central Election Commission pointed to flagrant infringements in the procedure for such elections and said that they will not recognize the supposed result.

The regime has failed at central level, but is likely to continue trying to take over regional mejlis, and Nariman Dzhelyal’s coordinating role will be important in countering such attempts.

Halya Coynash

News from the CIS countries

Kaliningrad ’flag prisoners’ charged with insulting the veterans Moscow rejects

While 3 Russian nationals, facing 7-year-sentences for raising a flag, are charged with having offended veterans of the Second World War, Moscow is taking measures to ensure that elderly veterans who helped win that War will not be allowed near the parade on Red Square marking the seventieth anniversary of Victory Day. 

The second hearing took place on March 24 in the trial of three men who have been in custody since last March after they placed a German flag on the garage of the FSB building in peaceful protest at Russia’s occupation of Crimea.  As reported. Mikhail Feldman, Oleg Savvin and a friend from Moscow Dmitry Fonarev were trying to point out Russia’s double standards in allowing Russian flags to be flown over a part of Ukraine, while treating the raising of a foreign flag over Russian territory as a crime. 

According to the indictment, the men are accused of a “flagrant infringement of public order, demonstrating overt disrespect for society out of motives of political hatred and enmity and hatred for a social group”. They allegedly “insulted and denigrated the feelings and political orientation of Russian citizens, the feelings of veterans of the Great Patriotic War and the memory of those killed in the Great Patriotic War”.

The court questioned Fonarev who stated that he has an unquestionably positive attitude to veterans and considers them to be heroes.  He rejected all parts of the charges, saying that he was not in any radical organization, did not stir up hatred, had not committed any hooligan acts, and had not planned to insult anyone.

Dmitry Dinze, Feldman’s lawyer, pointed out that the prosecution did not present any expert assessments, and that it remains quite unclear what any of the three are accused of.  Feldman and Savvin are due to be questioned on March 30 and 31.  More details about the case here.

Meanwhile in Moscow

The trial of three young men peacefully expressing their views about Russia’s effective invasion of Crimea is taking place as the seventieth anniversary of the war against Nazi Germany approaches.  It was learned last week that only one veteran from each region, aside from Moscow, has been invited to take part in the events on Victory Day (May 9). 

Should other elderly veterans who once defended the country think to arrive in Moscow uninvited,  they will be met at railway stations and sent, free of charge, to the Clinic for Respiratory Rehabilitation in Zvenigorod (Moscow region). 

The city government has already received a fair number of letters from veterans asking for help to get to the parade.  They are, however, “outside the quota which each region receives”, and will not be permitted to attend.  There will be around 5 thousand guests altogether at the parade, but since only 400 invitations to veterans were issued last year, most of those present will not be veterans.  Nor will they will be foreign leaders, most of whom have decided not to attend the event in view of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. 

Kommersant was told by a spokesperson from one veterans’ association that most veterans do not even try to go to Moscow due to their advanced age and state of health.  Most, if not all, are 88 or older and the travelling would be exhausting, however it is very clear that many wish to be present and are being told that their presence is unwelcome. 

This is in stark contrast to the ceremony marking the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 27, 2015.   There it was the survivors who were heard, not politicians.  Around 300 former prisoners of the Nazi death camps outside Oświęcim in Poland attended and the entire occasion was focused on them. 

It is likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin did not in any case wish to attend another event where he faced being snubbed by other European leaders.  However Moscow tried to push the line that “Putin had not been invited”, with many observers in other countries reacting angrily to the alleged ‘slight’.  There was none.  No politicians received named invitations with countries simply informed of the planned ceremony and asked who would be attending.  Political motivation cannot be denied, but it was of a very specific nature. The decision to avoid any political speeches was made by the directorate of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in full agreement with the International Oświęcim Council shortly after the Malaysian airliner MH17 was downed by Kremlin-backed militants on July 17, 2014.  With Russia waging undeclared war on both the battlefield and the propaganda front, the need to prevent the anniversary being used for political ends was paramount.  This was a day when politicians should keep silent.  

With the ceremony remembering the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the members of the Council were aware that this was likely to be the last round-date anniversary at which most of the survivors would be present. 

The same applies to the Victory Day parade in Moscow.

The three men in Kaliningrad who raised a German flag did so in peaceful protest.  The charges that they insulted the memory of those who died and those who returned home after defending their country are absurd.  They seem monstrously cynical at a time when those who fought and risked their lives are treated with such profound disrespect. 

One Professional Russian Troll Tells All

Translation: Ukraine, rise up! Southeast, sit down, don’t make a fuss, and put up with it.

Former employees of Russia’s best-known "troll farm" reveal what the operation looks like from the inside.

More and more, posts and commentaries on the Internet in Russia and even abroad are generated by professional trolls, many of whom receive a higher-than-average salary for perpetuating a pro-Kremlin dialogue online.

There are thousands of fake accounts on Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, and vKontakte, all increasingly focused on the war in Ukraine. Many emanate from Russia’s most famous "troll factory, " the Internet Research center, an unassuming building on St. Petersburg’s Savushkina Street, which runs on a 24-hour cycle. In recent weeks, former employees have come forward to talk to RFE/RL about life inside the factory, where hundreds of people work grinding, 12-hour shifts in exchange for 40, 000 rubles ($700) a month or more.

St. Petersburg blogger Marat Burkhard spent two months working at Internet Research in the department tasked with clogging the forums on Russia’s municipal websites with pro-Kremlin comments. In the following interview, he describes a typical day and the type of assignments he encountered.

​RFE/RL: Marat, you wrote on your blog that your time at Internet Research gave you enough material for an entire book. Why did you decide to write there? Entertainment? Adventurism?
Marat Burkhard: Yes, adventurism is the right word. Because in my opinion, this kind of work doesn’t exist anywhere else.
RFE/RL: Was it hard to get the job?
Burkhard: Yes, it was hard. You have to write sample texts first, and then they decide if you’re suitable for the work. They weed people out that way.
RFE/RL: What kind of texts?
Burkhard: First they make you write something neutral -- Vegetarianism: Pros And Cons. After that, the assignments start to get more to the point -- for example, what do I think about humanitarian convoys in Donetsk?
RFE/RL: Were you forced to hide your real beliefs?
Burkhard: Yes, I’m pro-Western. That’s natural for me and for them, of course, it’s not. I didn’t write anything about my views. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have hired me; they would have thrown me out immediately. They’re constantly running ideological checks on everything you write. I got caught a couple of times; I had some irresponsible moments.
RFE/RL: Did they immediately offer you a salary of 45, 000 rubles, or did you get gradual raises before you reached that point?
Burkhard: No, I got it immediately -- as long as I met my quota. It’s a real factory. There are production quotas, and for meeting your quota you get 45, 000. The quota is 135 comments per 12-hour shift.

RFE/RL: How many departments are there at Internet Research?
Burkhard: It’s a modern building, four floors. There’s a LiveJournal department, a news department, a department where they create all sorts of images and demotivators (Editor’s Note: Demotivators are satirical graphics that tend to undermine their subject matter), a department where they make videos. But I was never in those departments. Each of them has its own office, tables, and computers, and no one prowls around from place to place. Everyone stays in their spot.
RFE/RL: How many people were in your department?
Burkhard: Twenty.
RFE/RL: Did you work 12 hours a day?
Burkhard: Yes. There were daytime and nighttime shifts.
RFE/RL: Did you need to sit in the office or was it possible to work from home?
Burkhard: There’s no working by remote. At night, a different shift comes in. I worked the day shift.
RFE/RL: So you sit in an office for 12 hours without ever going out? Why such gigantic shifts?
Burkhard: It’s two days on, two days off. So they figure that you need to work 12 hours at a time instead of eight.
RFE/RL: So what did your department do?
Burkhard: Our department commented on posts. Every city and village in Russia has its own municipal website with its own comments forum. People would write something on the forum -- some kind of news -- and our task was to comment on it. We did it by dividing into teams of three. One of us would be the "villain, " the person who disagrees with the forum and criticizes the authorities, in order to bring a feeling of authenticity to what we’re doing. The other two enter into a debate with him -- "No, you’re not right; everything here is totally correct." One of them should provide some kind of graphic or image that fits in the context, and the other has to post a link to some content that supports his argument. You see? Villain, picture, link.
RFE/RL: So all three of you sit together, agreeing on who’s going to do what in this performance?
Burkhard: Yeah, that’s the kind of absurdity that goes on. We don’t talk too much, because everyone is busy. A single comment isn’t supposed to be less than 200 characters. You have to just sit there and type and type, endlessly. We don’t talk, because we can see for ourselves what the others are writing, but in fact you don’t even have to really read it, because it’s all nonsense. The news gets written, someone else comments on it, but I think real people don’t bother reading any of it at all.

So in this way, our little threesome traverses the country, stopping at every forum, starting with Kaliningrad and ending in Vladivostok. We create the illusion of actual activity on these forums. We write something, we answer each other. There are keywords, tags, that are needed for search engines. We’re given five keywords -- for example, "Shoigu, " "defense minister, " "Russian army." All three of us have to make sure these keywords appear all over the place in our comments. They can’t even be conjugated or declined. Sometimes it’s very hard to write when you can’t use any declensions!


Topic: NATO troops are embedded with Ukrainian armed forces
Keywords: ukraine news, russia and ukraine, ukraine policy, ukraine, NATO, PMC (private military company)
Task: Raise this topic on 35 municipal forums

Work begins after an initial post, written by a troll in a different department, is published on the LiveJournal social-networking site under the username flcrbgrjn. The post argues that foreign mercenaries are fighting on the side of Ukrainian soldiers and links to a video that purports to show two American soldiers in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

"The Kyiv junta regularly sics its media on Russia, and they lie shamelessly and recklessly. They argue Russian armed forces are fighting on the territory of Ukraine, but they refuse to provide any proof (because there isn’t any). But when it comes to the matter of Ukrainian armed forces, the American puppets entrenched in Kyiv say there’s no evidence that foreign mercenaries and Western intelligence agents are joining their ranks -- they lie and don’t even blush!"

This post soon appears, according to an alphabetized list, on the Astrakhan city forum. Then the Villain Troll, working under the name Yana24, begins the troika’s work, posting a comment that takes issue with flcrbgrjn’s post:

"What NATO mercenaries are you talking about? So they filmed some kind of American there, so what? It’s still not clear what they were doing there. Russia as usual blames Ukraine for the things it’s doing itself. Everyone’s been talking about your own mercenaries for a long time, and you still haven’t pulled them out!"

The Link Troll then angrily responds to the Villain, rejecting Yana24’s argument and linking to a second report on the alleged presence of American soldiers in Mariupol:

"Did you read the text at all? If you’re up to date with the topic, you should know how much evidence has already been provided that shows the war in Ukraine is continuing because the West and Poroshenko are reluctant to pursue peace. They’ve found things belonging to Western soldiers, and now they’ve found the soldiers themselves. Have they found proof that Russian troops are in Ukraine? Or troops themselves? No!"

Next in line is the Picture Troll, who accuses the West of hypocrisy and adds a demotivator for extra emphasis:

"The West is so two-faced: in every discussion about the Ukrainian conflict the West blames Russia even as it’s providing the Ukrainian armed forces with PMC soldiers representing NATO. It’s a policy of double standards!"

After Astrakhan comes Biysk. And from there,  Bryansk,  Veliky Novgorod, Vladivostok,  Volgograd, two forums in Voronezh, several Russian-wide forums -- for example Chupakabra -- and, at the end of the Russian alphabet,  Chita and Cherepovets.

There are few other comments, but the theme flies to the top of Yandex.

RFE/RL: Marat, can you recall the strangest or funniest task that your team was given?
Burkhard: The funniest was when U.S. President Barack Obama chewed gum in India and then spit it out. "You need to write 135 comments about this, and don’t be shy about how you express yourself. Write whatever you want, just stick the word Obama in there a lot and then cover it over with profanities." In the assignment, there’s always a conclusion you’ve got to make, it’s already written, that Obama is a black monkey who doesn’t know anything about culture. You stick him in ancient India and he chews gum there. It’s funny in the sense that they’re ready to grab onto any little thing. On the other hand, it’s not funny. It’s absurd and it crosses a line.
RFE/RL: The main task of the factory is to write on visitor forums, in particular forums run by Russia’s ideological enemies. Who does that?
Burkhard: There’s a Ukrainian department, an English department. They bombard the websites of CNN and the BBC. They have their own type of targets -- The New York Times, not the Samara city site. It’s a little simpler for us, of course.

RFE/RL: You know foreign languages. Didn’t they offer you a position in one of the foreign departments?
Burkhard: They did. I had a job interview in the English department, but they started to ask me about my beliefs, to which I replied that I was apolitical, I don’t know anything, I don’t follow anything. Apparently, that ended my prospects there. To get a job with them, I should have answered that I follow certain trains of thought. The salary for employees with foreign language skills is more than 45, 000 -- it’s 65, 000 and higher.
RFE/RL: And are some of the people working on social networks -- on Facebook, in particular?
Burkhard: Yes, there are special people working on Facebook. There are about 40 rooms with about 20 people sitting in each, and each person has their assignments. They write and write all day, and it’s no laughing matter -- you can get fired for laughing. And so every day, any news does the trick -- it could be Obama, could be [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, could be Greece, North Korea.

The young people doing this work are barely capable of formulating what’s important about these stories. Even a political scientist can’t be an expert about the entire world, but here people are expected to write about everything. And how you write doesn’t matter; you can praise or scold. You just have put those keywords in.

Then, in order to plump up the political content, they send in a guy to talk about the topic of the day, so that at least the employees have a little background on the topic. But the guy himself has an extremely low level of understanding, so it all looks completely absurd. Incidentally, they gave us a test on ideology, with 15 or 20 questions you need to answer. Anyone who makes a couple of mistakes has to retake it. But anyone who’s simply hopeless just gets fired.
RFE/RL: What do they ask on the exam?
Burkhard: For example: "What does Russia want to happen in the Donetsk People’s Republic?" It’s very difficult to answer, and you have just two or three words. Or, for example, easier questions like "Who’s Psaki?" (Editor’s Note: State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki is a frequent target of Russian trolls.)
RFE/RL: The topic of Ukraine probably dominates.
Burkhard: Yes, they throw everything they’ve got at Ukraine.
RFE/RL: How does your troika work when the assignment is to praise Russia instead of criticizing Ukraine or America?
Burkhard: I once had occasion to write that the majority of Germans support Putin’s policies. That’s how the assignment was worded -- "Say that the majority of Germans support Putin’s policies and are unhappy with Merkel’s." Where they get this from I don’t know, but I have to write about it. It’s funny to write, "The majority of Germans..."
RFE/RL: Does the Villain have a role in such assignments?
Burkhard: If something is pro-Putin, the Villain will have doubts. For example, for Orthodox Christmas, Putin went to Mass at an ordinary village church outside Voronezh and there was sweetness and light all around. A story gets posted along the lines of, "How wonderful, how marvelous, how great, what an amazing man he is." But the Villain disagrees: "OK, come on, Putin went to Voronezh to boost his popularity with the public." To which we answer, "What’s the matter with you, what popularity are you talking about? Yes, he’s popular, but he doesn’t need popularity, he just wants to meet with ordinary people." That’s a funny example.

Next Assignment

Topic: Build a positive attitude toward the domestic policies of Vladimir Putin; the president personally celebrated Christmas with ordinary Russians.
Keywords: president rf, putin news, putin policies, christmas, vladimir putin
Again, the assignment begins with a post published on a LiveJournal account. The post about Putin is prefaced by a fragment from a poem by Marina Tsvetayeva, "It’s a sin to soar over a golden-domed chapel and not to pray in it, " which in this context seems to take on a double meaning. 

Christmas unites!
The blessed holiday of the Nativity is upon us. And on such a miraculous day, which unites all citizens of Russia -- no matter whether you’re a believer or, as they say, "unchurched" -- on the way to the Lord, the Russian president VP was, as always, with the people! Where else but in the provinces, far away from the urban hustle and bustle, is it possible to really experience this holy day? So this year Vladimir Putin visited the village church in honor of the Holy Virgin, located near Voronezh in the village of Otradnoye. And on such a holiday, one of the main holidays in Russia (and in the entire Christian church), at such a difficult time the president was with the people and congratulated all the clerics and faithful parishioners!

On the Barnaul forum,  the Link Troll kicks things off with praise and a linkto a December 31 article, Putin Congratulates Obama And Reminds Him Of The Principles Of Mutual Respect.

"Great article! By the way, the president of Russia, also congratulated the American president, the German chancellor, and other Western politicians on New Year’s Eve. He’s to be commended for expressing his peaceful intentions and conducting normal policy -- something that’s hard to get from Barack Obama."

The Villain Troll appears incensed:

"And what did you find that was so totally amazing in his Christmas message??? I don’t understand!!! Vladimir Putin is an ordinary person!! So what if he’s the president?? If I get on TV and wish everyone a nice Christmas, will you write a nice article about me too??? Finally we’ve found something to talk about!"

The Picture Troll posts a photo of Putin at the church and retorts:

"This is idiotic! Putin is our president. And it’s really great that he went to a village church to congratulate everyone on the holiday. Christmas is a miracle. I envy the congregation. I would have loved to have been there on that great holiday."

Elsewhere, on the Yekaterinburg forum, the Villain Troll attacks Putin’s Christmas appearance as a stunt aimed at distracting the public from the country’s massive economic woes:

"Give your neighbor a sack of buckwheat this year!! Now that’s a good deed!!! Vladimir Putin represents everything that awaits us in the future!! He just went to pray for his ass and ask for forgiveness. He’s driven the country straight to hell, and now what can he do??? Pray, and that’s it!"

The Picture Troll issues a stern reprimand, illustrated with a bucolic photo from the scene:

"Good lord, your language! Christmas is a blessed holiday, and here you are swearing. It’s not worth it. There’s enough buckwheat for everyone, our country will survive the anti-Russian sanctions, no problem. So I congratulate everyone on a blessed holiday and wish everyone peace and goodness. Especially YOU!"

And thus the troika spends the day sweeping through 35 forums. 

RFE/RL: Were people ever fired for ideological mistakes?

Burkhard: Yes, they were. One person got fired right in front of me. I also got in some trouble. There are so many cartoons out there that once I made a mistake and put up a caricature of Yanukovych instead of one of Poroshenko. And you can’t make fun of Yanukovych; Yanukovych is one of the good guys. They immediately called me on the carpet: "How dare you? You really didn’t know that it was Yanukovych?" All this goes on with terribly serious faces. There are tons of managers there who constantly monitor and follow everyone.
RFE/RL: And who are the managers?
Burkhard: People from Internet Research who’ve been there a long time and apparently worked their way up. Their salary, by the way, is two times higher. I happened to see a salary list, and I was just horrified -- 70, 000-80, 000 rubles for reading the crap I write and wagging their finger at me if I make a mistake.
RFE/RL: So who goes in for this work? Are there people there who honestly want to fight Obama or Merkel over the Donetsk People’s Republic?
Burkhard: Yes, there really are people like that. That’s the worst thing: When there’s a lunch break, there’s a kind of cafeteria, with vending machines and coffee, and you hear people -- who write all day about these things -- instead of drinking coffee and talking about something else, they start to furiously foam at the mouth about the very same things. Still something to prove. So there are fanatics.

But the basic majority are just young people who want to make money. They’re so politically illiterate that Putin, Obama... They don’t know the difference. Of course, they’re all for Putin, but they’re absolutely politically illiterate. "Whatever we’re told, that’s what we’ll write about, no questions asked, and we don’t want to know."
RFE/RL: Have you met people in other departments?
Burkhard: The different departments don’t particularly socialize. Friendship isn’t encouraged. The system is very repressive. If you’re late by a minute, there’s already a 500 ruble fine. The employees are under constant pressure. There’s a fine for even the smallest deviation. You’re constantly under threat of being fired, constantly being ordered around. It’s not a very civilized atmosphere.
RFE/RL: Did you get fired or did you decide on your own to leave?
Burkhard: I decided myself, because I can’t engage in absurd work. In terms of life experience, I got it, and to keep going didn’t make any sense -- it’s all absurd. I don’t share this ideology, I’m absolutely against it, I was located in the enemy camp. Two months was enough to understand how everything there is done. To keep on working made no sense, even for money, because it’s such hard work that -- just forget it, forget the money. Just don’t make me go there any more.

By the way, any time a journalist shows up and tries to get in or ask something, they go on high alert. All the curtains are kept closed. We’re all forbidden from going out on the street during the day. They’re really afraid of journalists.
RFE/RL: But there are still a lot of leaks. Three people gave us interviews last week. It’s like a parody of an Orwell novel.
Burkhard: Yes, that’s right, the Ministry of Truth. You work in the Ministry of Truth, which is the Ministry of Lies, and everyone kind of believes in this truth. Yes, you’re right, it’s Orwell.


Guilty of being Ukrainian: Russian court sentences Maidan activist to 2 years

Yury Yatsenko, the 25-year-old student first detained in May 2014 after Russian officials realized he was from Lviv has been sentenced to 2 years low security prison colony.  The charges were only laid after he and a friend had been in detention for some months and bear no scrutiny, but this did not deter Russian investigators nor the court.

As reported, Yatsenko was detained in early May 2014, together with Bohdan Yarychevsky, a recent law graduate from Lviv.  They were originally stopped by police in the Kursk oblast to check their identity.  During the first months after the end of EuroMaidan and Russia’s invasion of Crimea, simply being Ukrainian was treated as something incriminating in Russia.  This was nothing, however, compared to being from Lviv which one of the officers who’d clearly watched too much Russian television called a “fascist city”.   The Kursk officers responded with immense excitement to the Lviv registration, and immediately contacted Russia’s FSB [Security Service]. 

Given the ongoing detention and likely hefty sentences on fabricated charges which film director Oleg Sentsov and two other Crimeans are facing, the comments by police officers from Kurstk on May 6 and 7, 2014 are highly telling.  Days before Sentsov was arrested, the officers suggested that Yatsenko and Yarychesky might be involved in “another sabotage group” like that, supposedly, in Simferopol planning to blow up a statue of Lenin.  This is only one of numerous reasons for believing that the FSB was concocting a ‘terrorist plot’ trial in Crimea with only the casting of opponents of Russian occupation fixed in advance. 

It is important to note that neither man was detained on any criminal charges.  A court on May 8 found them guilty only of an administrative offence by ticking the box ‘private purpose’ on the border entry form, when they should have ticked the ‘tourism’ box. 

They should have been deported immediately but were instead held, still without access to a lawyer or the Ukrainian consul and unable to contact their families, in a deportation centre for three months.

That time, together with the men’s isolation, was used by the FSB for their ‘interrogation’.  They tried to beat out ‘confessions about plans for some kind of ‘sabotage’ in Russia, about having supposedly been sent by Ukraine’s SBU [Security Service] or by Right Sector, the nationalist organization which Russia has persistently demonized.  The FSB also tried to get them to publicly state that military junta had taken over in Ukraine and to ask for political asylum.  Neither was prepared to do so.

When beating and psychological pressure failed, Yatsenko was taken, in handcuffs and with a bag over his head, to the forest and subjected to torture for several hours.

The two young men finally resorted to self-mutilation so as to get to hospital and be able to contact their families.  This gave only temporary respite from the interrogations during which the men were constantly told that if they didn’t cooperate, drugs or weapons would be planted on them. 

Neither ‘cooperated’, however in August Yarychevsky was deported.  Yatsenko, as threatened, was charged, initially with possessing and smuggling 40 grams of black hunting powder.   The charge of smuggling was later removed – either because of the absurdity of smuggling such a tiny amount, or because it clashed with the prosecution claim that Yatsenko was planning an act of sabotage. 

The charge was in any case absurd with the amount in question far too small for the alleged purpose of sabotage.  The expert assessment confirmed that the substance, in itself not illegal and can only have an explosive effective if certain other elements are combined, including a detonator.  None of that was found, and the amount was minimal, yet the judge still  sentenced Yatsenko to two years imprisonment in a low security prison colony-settlement.

Yury’s father, Serhiy Yatsenko, who has been in Russia for the last 6 months in order to be close to his son and try to ensure that the torture methods were not repeated, calls the trial a farce.  Yury’s lawyer, Petr Zaikin has lodged an appeal against a sentence which he calls unlawful and unwarranted.  He believes that the aim is simply to hold Yatsenko in prison for as long as possible, and suggests that the FSB may be hoping to recruit the young man. 

Whether or not that is the case is unclear.  Certainly Russia is persisting in holding a number of Ukrainian nationals in detention on overtly spurious charges.  There are all grounds for concluding that Yury Yatsenko was detained and convicted as a Ukrainian national and that his release as a person unlawfully held is demanded by the Minsk Protocol to which Russia is a signatory.  


New information from a text by Maria Tomak

Perm’s Big Chill

Visitors to the Perm-36 museum in the Urals can stroll through a well-preserved prison camp of the Gulag system established by Soviet leader Josef Stalin. But despite the authenticity of the site, the museum’s new curators are downplaying the camp’s role in the repressions of the Stalin era.

PERM, Russia -- There’s one place in the world where can you see the original, preserved barracks of Josef Stalin’s gulag. It’s the Perm-36 camp in the Urals.

The camp was abandoned in 1988 and restored by local historians as a unique memorial museum to Soviet repression.

But nowadays it’s something else that strikes you as you arrive and flick through the museum’s pamphlet: The words "Stalin, " "dissident, " or "gulag" are nowhere to be seen.

"We don’t want to take sides, " says Yelena Mamayeva, who recently took the helm as the museum’s new head of exhibits. "We’re trying to talk more about the architectural complex, and not to get involved in assessing specific people who served sentences there, and assessing Stalin and so on. Because right now this is not quite politically correct."

This is the new direction of the Perm-36 museum, Russia’s only preserved Stalin-era prison camp, and it has sparked outrage in liberal circles. The changes came after the historians who ran the site for over 20 years were pushed out, smeared on television, and replaced by a state-run organization that promises a more "objective" version of history.

It comes as the Kremlin’s confrontation with the West over Ukraine has sparked fervent patriotism across the country and driven President Vladimir Putin’s -- and Stalin’s -- approval ratings in polls to record highs. 

And yet the battle for control of Perm-36 predates the Ukraine crisis and exemplifies a chill that has gripped this once liberal region since Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012.

"They want to turn Perm into a normal Russian province, " says Viktor Shmyrov, whose Perm-36 organization used to run the museum.

A Provincial Liberal Bastion

And Perm is anything but a normal Russian province.

The city of Perm was informally dubbed the "capital of Russian civil society" in the 1990s. The Urals region has a strong current of liberalism. Before it disintegrated, for example, the Union of Rightist Forces, slain opposition figure Boris Nemtsov’s old political party, tended to perform roughly three times better in Perm than nationwide.

Civil society worked in close tandem with local government. Shmyrov’s Perm-36 received funding from the territory’s first four governors. Funds were even issued for Pilorama, a civil-society forum founded in 2005 that was attended by opposition thinkers and rock stars like DDT front man Yury Shevchuk. The forum, held on the grounds of Perm-36, had the atmosphere of an opposition festival.

Quirky cultural projects also thrived. Perm became known for hip street art.

Under the aegis of Oleg Chirkunov, a former governor who resigned in 2012 in the twilight of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, celebrity art curator Marat Guelman oversaw a raft of contemporary art events and festivals that he branded a "cultural revolution" in the provinces.

Fast forward less than three years and many of these projects have fallen on hard times following the appointment of Viktor Basargin as governor in 2012.

The Pilorama forum has been shuttered since that summer, after the local authorities severed funding. The Perm-based Grani Center for Civic Analysis and Independent Research, an independent think tank, was branded a "foreign agent" and says it will dissolve if it cannot appeal the decision.

Last year, Guelman was fired as director of the Perm Museum for Contemporary Art after he organized an exhibition satirizing the Sochi Olympics. And as budget funds have become scarcer amid the economic crisis, financing has dried up for Guelman’s festivals.

In the last year, Perm’s regional media -- which are being hammered by the economic crisis as advertising earnings fall -- have been forced to show increasing loyalty to the local government to secure state financial support.

’Our Urals Workers Revere Stalin!’

But the most telling example of this chill is the takeover of Perm-36.

"There are very powerful forces at work in this confrontation, " says Shmyrov, adding that he believes his opponents are backed by a powerful conservative clan in Moscow, beyond the reaches of Perm. "The Kremlin has many towers."

It began in 2013 when the Kremlin unveiled plans to designate and finance three federal centers to commemorate the gulag: in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Perm, at the site of the museum.

The local Perm authorities then created a state organization to manage the museum and 600 million rubles ($10 million) in program funds. Shmyrov’s organization was to remain in charge of running the museum, while Tatyana Kursina, a historian and Shmyrov’s wife, was appointed head of the state organization.

But in May, Kursina was fired without explanation. Shmyrov’s organization was then informed it owed over 500, 000 rubles to the authorities, allegations that Shmyrov claims are contestable.

The museum was then hit with regular state inspections and harassment of its visitors. In July 2014, for example, police carried out random document checks on a delegation of Germans who were visiting the museum.

That month, with mounting outcry among rights activists, word reached Putin, who stepped in and appeared to finally settle the dispute, ordering the museum site be preserved.

And yet six months later, the local authorities and Shmyrov were still at loggerheads. Saddled with debt and seeing no breakthrough, Shmyrov announced the liquidation of his organization on March 2.

"We cannot do anything anymore, " he said then. "It’s enough that they’ve seized the museum, seized the property. We don’t even have a kopek in our account. They’ve weighed us down with a bunch of debts, which would be entirely debatable in civilized courts. That’s the situation. We just can’t go on anymore."

On March 11, in a tentative sign of reconciliation, Dozhd TV reported that the Ministry of Culture may forgive the debts it has demanded from the museum. But then, less than a week later, the local Justice Ministry announced it was carrying out an investigation to determine whether Shmyrov’s organization should be branded a "foreign agent."

In the meantime, the new management has planned a number of incongruous events to be held on Perm-36’s territory. They include a World War II memorial event titled No To Fascism and an event dedicated to the Year Of Literature. Another will commemorate 100 years since the birth of Soviet dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a gulag survivor whose nationalist views are in fashion in the Kremlin.

The projects Shmyrov’s team was working on, commemorating the victims of Stalin’s terror, have been scrapped.

However, not all references to Stalin been removed. The museum still features a powerful exhibit on the Soviet camps that was installed under Shmyrov and which includes a large portrait of Stalin and harrowing information on the death toll.

"We’ve ended up between the hammer and the anvil, " argues Mamayeva, the new head of exhibits. "We want to be a buffer, we want objectivity, we want the point of view of the old [prison] personnel to be heard -- the viewpoint of the state, put crudely -- and we want the viewpoint of the prisoners to be heard."

But where exactly this "objectivity" lies is unclear. Perm’s culture minister declined to be interviewed by RFE/RL. So did Natalya Semakova, the state-appointed director of the museum, saying she was just a "pawn" in the conflict.

Polls by the Levada Center show Stalin today enjoys more popularity than at any time recorded, with more than half of Russians now saying he played a "positive role" in Russian history. 

Roadside Communist Party billboards in Perm currently display a portrait of Josef Stalin with a rhyming couplet that translates: "The winds of history have picked up speed. Our Urals workers revere Stalin!" 

And yet Shmyrov, who has been undergoing heart surgery, expressed a dark hope that his museum would one day return. "In the next 20 years, I think a lot will change in this country. I think sooner or later, the museum of the history of political repressions will return, " he said. "But by that time probably we will no longer be here."  (More photos of Perm-36 at this address)

7 years for raising flag in protest at Russian invasion of Crimea

Dmitry Fonarev, Oleg Savvin, Mikhail Feldman

The trial has begun in Kaliningrad of three men held in detention since last March for placing a German flag on the garage of the FSB building in Kaliningrad as a form of peaceful protest over Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea.  Despite quite bizarre charges, they face up to 7 year sentences. 

On March 11, 2014, Mikhail Feldman and Oleg Savvin from a local group called the Public Defence Committee, and a friend  from Moscow Dmitry Fonarev placed a German flag in a glass on the roof of the garage of the regional office of the Russian Federal Security Service [FSB].  As reported, Feldman explained that they were simply pointing to the double standards whereby Russia officially approves of Russian flags being flown in another sovereign state, yet if a foreign flag is raised over Russian territory, this is seen as a crime.

Their act was certainly treated as a crime.  The flag was immediately removed and the three received 10-15 day prison sentences for petty hooliganism.  The prosecution, however, decided that this was not enough and initiated criminal proceedings under Article 213 § 2 of the Criminal Code (group conspiracy to commit hooliganism motivated by political hatred and enmity or hatred to a particular social group). 

OVDinfo reports that the ‘indictment’ in this extraordinary case was read out at the preliminary court hearing on March 16.  Feldman and Savvin stated that they do not understand the point of the charge laid against them and don’t agree with it.  According to well-known Moscow lawyer Dmitry Dindze who is representing Feldman, Fonarev accepted partial guilt without giving any details.

The investigators initially claimed that the activists had raised the flag “as a symbol of Kaliningrad’s secession from Russia”, but later changed this to “insulting veterans of the Great Patriotic War” (WWII).  Maria Bontsler, who is representing Savvin and Fonarev, says that they do not have any war veterans in the case.  The only person with ‘victim’ status is the head of a Kaliningrad veterans’ organization who was born in 1949.  Dindze adds that the investigators are also claiming ‘hatred towards representatives of the authorities’. 

The investigators also asserted at the outset that Feldman had shouted the Nazi  “Sieg Heil!” when the flag was being raised.  Dindze notes that after realizing that Feldman was Jewish, they clearly decided that this was stretching things too much and, as Dindze puts it, “gave the ‘Sieg Heil!’ to Fonarev. 

In fact the charge against Fonarev may also have been because he once held far-right political views. There do not appear to be any independent witnesses with most of the 30 ‘witnesses’ FSB or police officers, but the investigators could still have tried for a bit more credibility.  Considering that the charge involves hooliganism as part of a conspiracy, this would mean that the other two, one of whom is Jewish, found no problem with a Nazi greeting.

The three men first built their own ladder, with all this being photographed and reported on by the FSB staff.  

Feldman is also charged with possession of a small piece of the explosive hexogen (without any case, etc.).  He asserts that this was planted on him, and certainly the investigators’ claim that he kept it at home is not very plausible since no trace of it was found in his flat.  Nor have they explained why he would have taken the explosive substance to the flag raising in any case.

Fonarev acknowledges that he raised the flag, but the investigators are accusing all three men of this.  Feldman suffered from cerebral palsy as a child, and could not physically have carried out the ‘impugned offence’, however the investigators have concentrated on him because he was very active in the Public Self-Defence Committee.

The prosecution is due to be questioned at the next hearing on March 24.  Amnesty International has issued an urgent action over the detention of the three men, asking for their immediate and unconditional release and “expressing concern that Mikhail Feldman, Oleg Savvin and Dmitry Fonarev have been detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression”. 

These three are not the only Russian nationals held in detention and facing long sentences over peaceful protest.  Russia has also responded with politically motivated arrests and detention against, for example, Kuban activists who tried to hold a peaceful demonstration in favour of greater autonomy.  This is in stark contrast to the Kremlin’s extremely active support for so-called ‘separatists’ in Donbas and other parts of Ukraine. 

In the case of the three men in Kaliningrad, there were no secessionist sentiments nor even any demand for greater autonomy, with the protest effectively against Russia’s hypocrisy in annexing Crimea. 

In that context, the charges of ‘insulting war veterans’ are offensively inappropriate. For very many Ukrainians who fought in the Soviet Army against the Nazi aggressor, it is not the three young men who insult the memory of their struggle and sacrifice. It is rather Moscow under Russian President Vladimir Putin which used the same arguments once presented by Adolf Hitler in trying to justify Russia’s aggression and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.


“Prava Ludiny” (human rights) monthly bulletin, 2015, #03