oDR: Feature

What Russian students being sentenced for their activism want you to know

Editors from the student news site DOXA are in the dock for publishing a video about protests. Before being sentenced, they made these statements

Editors of oDR
11 April 2022, 2.28pm
DOXA editors Armen Aramyan, Natasha Tyshkevich, Alla Gutnikova and Volodya Metelkin

Tomorrow, editors of the leading Russian student news website DOXA will be sentenced in court.

Their offence? Publishing a video about whether Russian teachers should discourage schoolchildren from attending rallies in support of Alexey Navalny in January 2021, just after the opposition leader returned to Russia. Prosecutors claimed that the video, aside from leading to the arrest of over 100 people under the age of 18 at an opposition protest, could have also helped spread coronavirus.

Prosecutors have requested that Armen Aramyan, Natasha Tyshkevich, Volodya Metelkin and Alla Gutnikova receive two years of “correction labour” (akin to community service) – as well as a ban on running websites. The editors say the video was deleted from DOXA’s website after the Russian media watchdog Roskomnadzor asked them to remove it, but several months later, the Russian Investigative Committee began a criminal investigation.

As part of this investigation, DOXA’s editors were placed under permanent house arrest. Together with dozens of other leading intellectuals, Slavoj Žižek, Etienne Balibar and Judith Butler signed an open letter in support of the journal in 2021.

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Today, DOXA is a leading source of information and comment on Russia’s war against Ukraine. In April 2021, as Russia continued to feel the effects of Navalny’s return to the country, openDemocracy interviewed the website’s editors.

openDemocracy is publishing the final statements made to the court by Armen Aramyan, Natasha Tyshkevich and Volodya Metelkin on 1 April.

Armen Aramyan

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Armen Aramyan

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(c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Your honours,

There are not many places left in Russia now where I can speak freely about what is happening in our country. I would like to take the opportunity to say a few words in open court. A month ago, Russia launched the so-called “special military operation” in Ukraine. Thousands of civilians have died because of military actions in Ukraine; 5,000 people, according to preliminary data, died in Mariupol alone. Before I make my final statement, I would like to announce a moment of silence in memory of those who have died in this war. I believe that every public event in Russia should now begin with such a moment.

[Aramyan at this point stopped talking for one minute, although the judge repeatedly requested him to resume his speech]

Your honours,

For 12 months, my friends and I have been under virtual house arrest. The police searches of our apartments that took place at 6am on 14 April, 2021, divided our lives into “before” and “after”.

All this past year we could not study, work, meet friends, or live our normal lives. In addition to working on the journal, I have not been able to do my research. Most importantly, because of the arrest, I have not been able to see my beloved girlfriend for a year now, who in recent weeks was forced to evacuate her family from Kyiv.

Alla and Volodya had to drop out of their last year at the university. Natasha lost her job. What was all this for?

This is all because of a short video that we published in January 2021 — a video in which we simply appealed to the authorities, as well as to universities and schools, with one simple demand: stop intimidating students and schoolchildren, stop threatening them with expulsion for participation in protests. We also addressed words of support to the students and schoolchildren themselves, who were intimidated by the authorities and the administrations of their educational institutions for several weeks.

I am 24. I recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s degree. I know Russian universities, and I know the atmosphere of fear and self-censorship that dominates them. Even in the most daring, freest universities young people are taught this mindset: you are still young, don’t stick your head out, don’t risk your life, we’ll expel you, we’ll ruin your life. I have seen how these often exaggerated and absurd threats affect young people. They take away our freedom and the feeling that we can change something.

Right now, fear and self-censorship are the mainstays of this regime. Every time people begin to unite for the sake of common goals, every time they feel that they have the power to change something, the state immediately perceives this as a threat. For this regime, any opportunity for people to freely associate is a threat, because it cannot govern society, it can only govern a collection of individuals. The authorities immediately react to any attempts to unite, with the aid of repression. The main goal of repression is, of course, fear.

But why, precisely, fear? Fear is generally an effective tool. Fear is effective because it divides us. When we unite with like-minded people, we feel that together we are stronger, that we are no longer just separate people, that together we can do more. And fear makes us feel like we’re alone again. Fear separates us from one another, it makes us look at each other with suspicion. When we are intimidated — when they call us to the dean’s office to threaten us with expulsion, or when we are beaten at the police station to make us give up the passwords to our phones — the state tries to impose on us the feeling that, in fact, we are always alone.

With this feeling of fear, we are always alone. There is no society, there are no common interests, we cannot achieve anything together. Fear makes me evaluate personal risks very carefully: I can be imprisoned, I can be beaten, I can be fired or expelled, something can be done to my family. The state seems to be saying: “There are only your personal problems, personal risks, personal achievements. If you continue to attend to your own personal affairs, we may not interfere in your little life. But as soon as you decide that you are capable of something more, together, we will destroy it in a moment.” When Putin’s regime smashes the remnants of the independent media, declares the largest political organisations extremists, this is an attack on any free association of people.

The terror in which our state engages only has the appearance of rationality. The state, and we, often justify repressions: “Well, yes, we probably shouldn’t have been so radical, we shouldn’t have spoken out so harshly, we shouldn’t have tried to free the detainees, they knew what they were doing.” But this rationality is an illusion. The task of state terror is to intimidate us all, so that we feel threatened all the time, so that we become our own censors — we, ourselves, evaluate our every action.

Self-censorship is not just an order from above by the leadership of the university. Self-censorship is something we do, not them. This is how we respond to fear. Political terror works only if we agree to the rules of the game, only if we are really afraid. The state cannot repress us all, it needs demonstrative victims.

Solidarity is the only thing with which society can oppose this fear. This is a mysterious, irrational feeling that, in fact, we are not alone. Even when we act separately, behind us there are thousands like ourselves, who feel that this is a common cause. They want to come help you, even if they are expelled, even if they are crushed, if they are kidnapped and tortured by the police.

Solidarity — this was the idea behind our video. In it, of course, we did not call for any rallies — we just wanted other students and schoolchildren to feel that they were not alone, that they had support. So that threats from university and school authorities did not sow the destructive seed of self-censorship in them.

Our magazine has never censored or compromised itself because, ultimately, self-censorship leads to helplessness. Irrational fear makes you yourself refuse to act and create change. When you constantly strike compromises with a strong opponent, you gradually retreat, and eventually you find yourself on the edge of a cliff. And at the end there is no other way out — just jump off or wait to be pushed off of it.

We have learned a lot in these 12 months. Thanks to the Investigative Committee [a Russian investigative body], which collected the materials in our case, we first learned about the real extent of the pressure on young people in our country. We saw that intimidation exists not just in individual universities and schools, but that there is already a state program of terror against young people. Preventive talks [to dissuade students from attending] rallies, propaganda lectures about the war, displicing protesting students — all this was set in motion long ago by Russian universities and schools. We could not imagine the scale of the phenomenon. As we said in our video: “The authorities have [really] declared war on youth.”

But we also learned that we are not alone. That it is in the interests of the authorities to make us think that we are a minority, that there is a certain entity called “the people” which is far away from people who protest. This belief is deeply rooted among many, even among opponents of the authorities. But who we saw among the young people who were detained at the protests in January were ordinary teenagers from ordinary families. One has a mother who works at the post office, another’s father is a military pensioner, another’s is a bus driver. We, in fact, are society. It is our actions that speak on behalf of society, not the results of opinion polls, which are answered while stared down by the barrel of an imaginary gun.

Twelve months of prosecution, house arrest, dozens of interrogations, dozens of court hearings, 212 volumes of a criminal case that we were forced to read — all this was a rather severe test for our idea of solidarity, the idea that together, we can do a lot. But I think we managed — from the first day, we saw how hundreds of thousands of people supported us, how students and teachers of Russian universities, despite intimidation, came out to support us, how hundreds of people continue to come to our court appearances a year after the case started. We survived, we kept our sanity, we didn’t give up.

Now, as our state has unleashed the so-called “special operation,” the stakes have risen very high. Our state is no longer just an idle policeman waving his club around. It is now a real dictatorship. It is a war criminal. The state has succeeded in intimidating a lot of people: it has silenced and prevented them from speaking out about this war. And these days, I only think about one thing: how to confront such a strong fear. How to continue to act and support other people when we all want to run away, hide in a cocoon, pretend that none of this is happening. Russians do not support the war — they are so strongly against it that some of them cannot even believe it is happening.

Of course, I can tell you what I think about our case. That this prosecution is meaningless; that, in principle, it is impossible to prove the accusation. The prosecution did not find a single teenager who saw our video, went to the rally, contracted coronavirus and died, because such people do not exist.

But I have little understanding of what words must be spoken in this court in order for them to be heard.

Therefore, regardless of the verdict, I appeal to young people across the country — the same appeal that the expert for the prosecution considered a call to go to specific rallies: “Do not be afraid and do not stand aside.” Fear is the only thing that keeps us apart. In recent weeks, we have seen many examples of heroism, when young people, often young women, continued to take to the streets and protest against the war, despite tens of thousands of arrests and searches. They were tortured in police stations, but did not give up and continued to fight. These days, we have no moral right to stop, give up, and get scared. Today, our every word must be strong enough to stop bullets.

The main question for our generation is not just one of how we can remain decent people under fascism, how to do the right thing and not do the wrong thing. The question is how we can build solidarity and unite in a society that has been mercilessly destroyed for several decades. “We are the youth, and we will definitely win,” are the words that can be heard at the end of our video. And, indeed, who if not us?

Translated by Ivan Gololobov. Edited by Patricia Manos

Volodya Metelkin

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Volodya Metelkin

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(c) ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

“The authorities have declared war against the youth, but we are the youth, and we will definitely win” — this is the closing statement of our video (spoken by Alla [Gutnikova]). We released that video more than a year ago, and a criminal case was opened against us because of this video. That is why we are standing in this courtroom today. This quote consists of two parts, and I will formulate my statement from each individual part.

The authorities have declared war on young people. This metaphor of “war” with the youth, and its meaning, is pretty obvious and doesn't need a long explanation: young people in Russia are left with few prospects and little hope for the future. It has been taken from us. If you are a young, decent person, and want to experience personal growth, get an education, work fairly, have any ambition at all, you’re advised to leave Russia. The sooner you leave, the better, you’re told.

Today, a year after the start of this case, we can say with anger and even with hatred that things have gotten much worse. The authorities have declared war in the direct sense of the term. We are not talking about a metaphorical war with the youth now. We are talking about a devastating, horrifying war against Ukraine and its civilians. It has been going on since 2014, which many of us had forgotten. I myself forgot, no longer giving it the attention it deserved. But everyone certainly remembers it now, after Russia bombed Kyiv on the morning of 24 February, after Putin’s insane nationalistic speech.

The authorities declared war on Boris Romanchenko. This elderly man lived through four concentration camps, including Buchenwald. In March 2022, a Russian shell hit his home in Kharkiv and killed him. The authorities declared war on Boris Semenov, a 96-year-old veteran of the Second World War, who was awarded a medal for the liberation of Prague. Now he is once again in Prague — this time as a refugee — after he was forced to leave his home in Dnipro region because of the shelling. He is still waiting for housing in Prague, though he was offered help in Berlin. There, he can live out the rest of his life peacefully.

[Here, the prosecutor interrupted the defendant, but Metelkin continued.]

The authorities declared war on Mariupol, which has been under blockade for a while now, and where more than 90% of the city’s buildings have been destroyed. Its residents are dying without food or water, they are burying their loved ones right in the courtyards of residential buildings. Take a look at the photos; many can be found in international media.

They have declared war on women and children. Russia is indiscriminately bombing Ukrainian cities, including schools, hospitals, and maternity hospitals. Journalists, human rights organisations, and governments all over the world have acknowledged this. Every day we see a huge number of photos and videos from Ukraine. We are literally watching this war online. But it seems that someone is still getting his military briefs in folders [a reference to Vladimir Putin, who is believed to receive briefings this way].

The authorities have declared war even on those who are fighting for them. Conscripts are among the men that Russia has sent to fight in this war. They don’t want to fight; they surrender and become prisoners of war. They divert their own tanks against orders — they don’t even know how to use military equipment. They’re randomly thrown around in different directions of the offensive (although we have heard about the reduction of the front line, and hope that this will indeed happen). They are dying a terrible death — burning alive in the crushed military columns. In the first few days of the attack, Russian soldiers didn’t know where they were and where they were going. This has already been confirmed and documented many times. They were simply sent to slaughter, many without proper clothing, food, or shelter.

[Here the prosecutor again interrupts Metelkin. “I think this is directly related to the case, so I will continue,” Metelkin replies.]

I have personally heard the story of one woman, whose conscripted nephew sleeps in a Soviet tank built in 1974. We have heard reports that dead soldiers are not being removed or buried properly. They liein Ukrainian fields. Ukrainians ask [the Russian authorities] to take the bodies away, but the Russians don’t answer.

The authorities have declared war on activists and journalists who want to speak openly about what is happening because it is impossible for them to remain silent. Years from now, we will be asked what we have done in this time, how we resisted what is currently happening. We will have to answer to the next generation. Meanwhile, the repression in Russia continues: more than 200 administrative cases and several criminal cases have been filed under new [criminal] articles that were invented under this war [such as spreading “fake news” about Russian military actions]. Lawyers rightly call this military censorship. The authorities continue to scare us, hinting at the abolition of the moratorium on the death penalty. There are those who are not silent, but very few of us.

Now, to the second part of the sentence. “We are the youth, and we will win.” What does this mean? I want to depart from the standard interpretation of these words as a generational conflict, in which young people always replace the older generations who no longer serve a purpose, and that supposedly this makes things better by default. That would be an oversimplification.

In my opinion, these words mean that one day there will be a future. We don’t know what it will be. We cannot see any certainty at this point, but there is no doubt that Putin’s regime will end earlier than its leader (at least, for now) wants it to. In his attempt to preside for life, the president is destroying our country.

The scariest event in contemporary Russian history is happening in front of our eyes. Maybe even the scariest in the entire history of Russia, or as propaganda would call it, “the thousand-year history of Russia”. One of the main tenets of this discourse consists of the fact that Russia, over the course of its entire history, has only participated in just and liberating wars.

I will not go into historical details, but even one piece of evidence is enough: the photos of Kyiv, Mariupol, and Kherson since 24 February 2022. It is enough to know that this narrative about Russia as a liberator simply does not exist any more. Today, we are bombing women, children and the elderly with cluster bombs and high-explosive bombs. Russians react to it in whatever way they can, and their reactions are sluggish, but the world reacts strongly. Life in Russia has dramatically changed for the worse since the outbreak of the war and the new sanctions, and this will last for a long time. Politics, economy, culture, education — all ruined. Everything changes over time, but now one man’s insane actions only accelerate these changes.

On denazification: Russia has coined the letter Z as a symbol of war, which many rightly call a half-swastika. Some countries already want to equate this symbol with symbols of Nazism. There’s nothing else it can be called. It is a new swastika and the new Zieg [Nazi salute]. The Zieg is now indoctrinating Russian students, schoolchildren, and even children in nursery schools.

Russian propagandists have been shouting about Nazis in Ukraine for the last eight years, since 2014: first they allegedly marched on the Maidan, then they somehow ended up in power. We were shown torchlight processions that indeed looked bad. But where is the Ukrainian far Right now? The United Right did not enter the [Verkhovna] Rada, gaining only 2% in the last elections. Some individuals — nationalist veterans of the war in eastern Ukraine — have crawled into politics or have been able to take positions in the security agencies under Poroshenko [president between 2014 and 2019], but we do not have to talk about their influence on politics in recent years. Zelenskyi obviously took a course of reconciliation between the Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking populations of the country.

We have gone way, way beyond Ukrainian nationalists now. We need a denazification and decolonisation of Russia. Rejection of imperial chauvinism, of mocking the languages, cultures, and symbols of other countries and other peoples of Russia. It is the lack of empathy for those who live near you that starts wars.

We come to Yerevan or Tbilisi and expect to be spoken to in Russian. We expect to be provided with services like in Moscow, that we will be welcomed. We see these places as fragments of the great Russia. This is imperial thinking. Russia, as everyone can see, does nothing for neighbouring countries. We need a lot of self-reflection on what it means to be Russian. We need to be as strict as possible with ourselves now.

We have stopped taking responsibility for what is happening in our country, and our country has launched the worst war in its history. We must correct these mistakes. We must understand that nothing is more important than politics now – politics understood as participation in one’s own life, as self-government, as a willingness to accept responsibility, and as concern for what is going on around us. All of this is the foundation on which we need to build a new Russian society. The exodus to the cosy worlds of private interest and consumption in an authoritarian society has led us to terrible consequences. This must end and never happen again.

The community of activists, journalists, researchers, which I am privileged to be a part of, knows what to do. We are ready to work hard, to endure, and to hope. Changes will come, but we all need to prepare collectively for them. To do that, we need to be free.

I’ll adjust the last sentence of the video a little bit — forgive me, Alla, although we wrote the text together, as I recall. I want it to sound like this: the authorities have declared war on the peaceful people and now present a great threat. But we are the real power, and we will definitely end this horror.

Translated by Yana Lysenko. Edited by Jan Surman

Natasha Tyshkevich

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(c) Elena Rostunova / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Today is 1 April, and I am standing in the hall of the Dorogomilovsky court, looking at Judge Tatarulya, at Prosecutor Tryakin, at my colleagues Armen, Alla, Volodya, and at a lit-up plastic eagle, in a small hall covered with faux wooden panels, fortunately not in an cage but still in the dock… This courthouse is a former school building, a typical Soviet school with a common staircase and corridors — for me it is important to describe all this, to document this materiality in which my destiny is being decided.

I address my speech to the honourable court, albeit a different one — the public court, the court that is higher; I know that this speech will reach beyond this space and will spread through many channels. I feel the presence and support of many people.

I invite readers and listeners of this speech to succumb to the pleasure of blurring borders. You are at home, but at the same time, you are with me in the court. Maybe you have left Russia, but the knowledge that you are reading or listening to this, and the idea of having you next to me, lends me support. To sneak like-minded persons into the hearings, we married our partners, and here next to me sits Kylo Meow [activist, partner of Natasha Tyshkevich], who relentlessly supported me both in joy and in sorrow. I had much of both over the past year.

The state forcibly held me, confined me to the space of home, of family, and is trying to infantilise me. I appropriate these spaces for myself and remember all the practices of resistance to the system that I devised at school: to write your own essays instead of their compositions, to elude surveillance, to dream of other worlds, and of course to unite with others despite prohibitions and borders.

Media crosses borders. Media mediates between divided groups. DOXA magazine has been such a mediator, between different social groups and parts of society.

Adults have the soothing Ekaterina Shulman [a prominent pro-opposition Russian political scientist]. But who will speak up in their own words to young people, words against fear?

Institutions are designed to put people under stress, in a constant race. In this way, it is more difficult to express your opinion and unite. Frightened people are easier to manage. It is easier to force them to go to rallies and to participate in flash mobs [public sector employees can be forced to attend pro-government public events]; it is easier to subject them to sexual violence. For many, being expelled [from university] puts them at risk of getting drafted into the army — and this is particularly scary nowadays. It so happened that our audience of 20-year-olds intersected with the audience of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. We showed the 20-year-olds a way out, showed them different possibilities: to work for volunteer organisations and other things. The point [of our prosecution] is not just about public protests. The point is that, by expanding the field of possibilities, we have crossed the path of those who wanted to frighten this generation into going to die without asking questions.

In the hundreds of volumes of our case, which we had to come here to get acquainted with (each time as the first!), there is literally nothing against us: they do not even mention DOXA once, but absolutely everything about contemporary protests, from the motivations of teenagers to go to rallies to the calculations of budget funds spent on truncheons to disperse these rallies, is recorded. The experience of working in an archive gave me the skills to quickly digitise any documents, and the investigators set me as an example to other detainees as if we were in a speed reading competition at school.

However, we are not at school, but in the archive of Putin’s Russia, and while the KGB archives are not open even to historians, and the SBU [Security Service of Ukraine] archives are being destroyed by bombs, we, historians from the future, have now been given a unique chance to explore from the inside how the [Russian] state in the 2020s spent enormous resources on suppressing the genuinely powerful resistance of minors: through family (the screenshots of parental chats), teachers (whole volumes of minutes of classroom proceedings), multiple interrogations (12-year-olds are being asked what Navalny’s economic programme is). And the further I plunge into articles from [Russia’s] regions, the more faith I have in the words from that very YouTube video [which led to the prosecutions] where four youngsters are saying that the youth is us: “All over Russia, there are hundreds of thousands of young people who will fight and protect your rights.” What did we mean? Who are these young people? Intuitively, we appealed to them. And when we got arrested, they actually started to gather around in a broad support group.

It’s interesting, this work with time — I already feel like a veteran of this time-war; I reach out to myself from the future to pull myself by the hair out of the Moscow swamp of the 2020s. The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed and manifests itself through anomalies and miracles. From the future, we can look back and deconstruct the past narrative, knowing that the future was already glimmering through the cracks.

Translated by Elizaveta Solodovnikova. Edited by Rachel Naylor

The translations of Doxa editors’ final words originally appeared in Left East.

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