National Security & Defense

Prisoner of Putin

The case of Ildar Dadin and what it means for Russia.

‘Nastya! If you decide to publish this information about what is happening to me, then try to distribute it as widely as possible. This will increase my chances of staying alive.”

Ildar Dadin wrote those words to his wife, Anastasia Zotova — “Nastya” — on October 31. He was in Penal Colony No. 7 in the town of Segezha, Republic of Karelia. This is in northwest Russia, near Finland. Where Dadin is now, no one knows. At least his wife and family don’t. They can only hope he’s alive.

Dadin is probably the best-known political prisoner in Russia today. He holds the unfortunate distinction of being the first person jailed under Article 212.1 of the Russian Criminal Code. Those numerals — 212.1 — are notorious among Russian democrats. “No to 212.1,” read their placards.

Enacted in July 2014 and taking effect at the beginning of 2015, this article is somewhat tricky, but it amounts to this: Repeated public protests of the government without the permission of that same government are banned. As democrats point out, the article is at odds with the constitution, adopted in 1993. Article 31 of that constitution guarantees the right to peaceful assembly, rallies, pickets, and so on.

“The Putin regime is sending a powerful message heard throughout Russia of a repressive new reality unseen in decades,” wrote Paula Chertok, a lawyer born in the Soviet Union, and long living in the United States. “If you dare to speak out against government policies or leadership, the authorities will ruthlessly treat you as a common criminal and send you away for years in penal colonies.”

So it has proven. Ildar Dadin is the proof.

He was born in 1982, making him 34 today. He grew up in Balashikha, a suburb of Moscow. As the regime of Vladimir Putin lengthened, he began to protest. He protested the arrest of Putin’s critics (like himself). He protested crooked elections. He protested war in Ukraine. Etc. Often, he stood alone, with a placard, bearing a message. He was exercising what he considered his right to criticize the government, even in public.

Anastasia Zotova met him when she was working as a journalist, covering protests like his. One day in August 2014, she and some friends staged a protest of their own. Ildar joined them. “I said my name, and he said his name. Then we became friends on Facebook and began to communicate. Then we became real friends. And then we fell in love.”

“What’s he like?” I ask her. “He’s a smart guy,” she says, “very interested in books. Jack London is his favorite.” He also likes movies that have heroes, battling evil. He, too, wants to battle evil (and has). He likes to cook — pancakes, for example. And he loves children. He and Anastasia don’t have any of their own, but he has a niece and two nephews, with whom he delighted in playing. “You should have seen a man of more than 30 years,” says Anastasia, “hiding under a bed.”

Ildar and Anastasia lived together for about a year. When he was in prison, they got married. No one who was not a relative was allowed to visit Ildar. So this spurred the wedding.

Dadin was the first to be imprisoned under 212.1, but he was not the first to be arrested: That distinction belongs to Vladimir Ionov, an activist in his mid-seventies. He is part of Russia’s Solidarity movement. One day, Putinist hoods beat him up near the Kremlin.

“I’m not a warrior,” said Ionov. “I’m a simple, unpretentious man in the street. But this is my country. Someone has to speak up when the emperor has no clothes. I mean, really: How much longer can this go on?”

Ionov said he was not concerned about prison. “I’ve lived here for many years. I have nowhere to run.” And yet he did run — to Ukraine, where he sought asylum. It was granted.

“Did Ildar consider running?” I ask Anastasia. “We talked about it,” she says, “but he didn’t want to do it. He said, ‘It’s my country, and I’m not going to leave it but to change it, so that we can have a country to be proud of.’”

He was arrested on January 15, 2015. When he was granted a trial, he said he wanted to defend the constitution. In my observation, dissidents always do this, wherever they live: They insist that the regime is violating the constitution. The regime hardly musters the energy to laugh.

Russian media reported that Dadin’s own father testified against him. This is false, says Anastasia: Ildar’s father is proud and supportive of his son. The prosecutors doctored a testimony and had him sign it.

Those prosecutors asked for a two-year sentence on Dadin. The judge gave him three. There was an appeal, leading to a new hearing. Dadin was not allowed to appear in person. He spoke by video link, from prison. “I am here because I live in accordance with my conscience,” he said. He equated silence with complicity. Ordinary citizens have a responsibility for what goes on in their country, he said.

Dadin’s sentence was reduced to two and a half years.

Since her husband’s imprisonment, Anastasia Zotova has been playing a familiar role, and a hard one. She is the wife of a political prisoner doing all she can to publicize his case, and to keep him alive. In an earlier era, Avital Sharansky played this role for Anatoly (who, after the Gulag, became Natan). More recently, Geng He has played it for her husband, Gao Zhisheng, the Chinese lawyer.

Last year, I talked with Ensaf Haidar, a Saudi exile in Canada. She is playing the role for her husband, Raif Badawi. (To see my piece, go here.)

At first, Ildar Dadin was jailed in Moscow’s Prison No. 4. Then he was jailed in St. Petersburg’s No. 4. Then he was back in the Moscow prison. Then he was sent to Penal Colony No. 7 in Segezha. According to Russian law, authorities are supposed to inform prisoners’ families of the prisoners’ whereabouts. Dadin’s family did not find out he was at No. 7 until he had been there for a month.

It was a very bad month, that Dadin managed to survive.

The Segezha area was an island of the Gulag archipelago. “Segezhlag,” they called it. In the post-Soviet period, No. 7’s most famous prisoner has been Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch whom Putin jailed for ten years (2003 to 2013).

On October 31, 2016, Dadin wrote the above-mentioned, above-quoted letter. Actually, he spoke the letter to his lawyer, Alexei Liptser, as a lawyer is not allowed to receive and take away anything given to him by a prisoner — an item such as a letter. But a prisoner may dictate a letter to his lawyer.

To his wife, through his lawyer, Dadin related his experience. I will do some quoting.

Upon my arrival at the colony on September 10, 2016, I had practically all of my things taken away from me. Two razor blades were then planted [among the remaining possessions] and subsequently “discovered” during an inspection. This is a common practice here. It gives them grounds to throw newcomers into solitary confinement, to ensure that they immediately understand the hell they have entered.

Some more:

I was put into solitary without any official orders. All of my things were taken away, including soap, my toothbrush, toothpaste, and even toilet paper. In protest of these illegal activities, I went on a hunger strike.

Now you will hear about Major Sergei Leonidovich Kossiev et al.:

On September 11, 2016, the colony head Kossiev came to me with three employees. Together, they started beating me. Over the course of that day, I was beaten a total of four times, by ten to twelve people at once. They would kick me. After the third beating, they lowered my head into a toilet right there in the holding cell.

Then came the next day:

On September 12, 2016, employees cuffed my hands behind my back and hung me by the handcuffs. Being suspended in this manner brought about terrible pain in the wrists, twisted out my elbows, and caused horrible back pain. I was suspended like that for half an hour. Then they took off my underwear and said they would bring another prisoner to rape me unless I stopped my hunger strike.

At this point,

I was brought to Kossiev’s office, where he said to me in the presence of other staff, “You have been beaten very little. If I give the order, you will be beaten much worse. If you try to complain, they will kill you and bury you under the fence.”

Thereafter,

they beat me regularly, several times a day. Regular beatings, bullying, humiliation, insults, intolerable detention conditions — this is happening with the other prisoners as well.

Know this, too: Dadin was made to appear in videos, for the authorities’ purposes:

Before filming, they would tell me how to behave and what to do — not to argue, not to protest, to look at the floor. Otherwise, they said, they would kill me, and no one would know about it, because no one knows where I am.

Incredibly, perhaps, Dadin was not interested in fleeing.

I have repeatedly seen and heard how other prisoners are being beaten, so my conscience will not allow me to run away from here. I am going to fight to help others. I am not afraid of death. Most of all, I am afraid of not being able to withstand the torture and [as a result] surrendering.

Referring to a civil-society group, he said,

If the Committee Against Torture has not yet been destroyed in Russia, I ask for their assistance in ensuring my right to life and security and that of other prisoners in Russia.

He said to his wife, “I ask you to openly reveal that Major Kossiev has directly threatened to murder me for any attempt to complain about what is happening.” He said that if the worst treatment continued, “it is unlikely that I will last more than a week.” And he had a warning:

In case of my sudden death, you may be told that I committed suicide, had an accident, was shot while trying to escape, or died while fighting with another prisoner, but this would be a lie. It would have been planned in advance to eliminate witnesses and victims of torture.

Without delay, Anastasia Zotova released her husband’s letter to Meduza, an agency of Russian exile journalists working in Riga, Latvia. The Russian authorities denied all charges. They said that the state’s investigators had found no ill treatment whatsoever meted out to Dadin. There was an incident, however:

Dadin rudely refused to leave his cell, to assume the position for inspection, and he started to grab the guards by their uniforms, as a result of which force and special measures were used against him.

The prisoner himself got word out that this was absurd.

A group of his supporters — perhaps 50 in number — went to the Moscow headquarters of the Federal Penitentiary Service, to protest. Among them, of course, was Nastya. A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that President Putin himself would be informed of the situation.

As for the Committee Against Torture, it does continue to exist, and its director, Igor Kalyapin, was able to see Dadin. He found the prisoner in alarming condition.

One interesting reaction to Dadin’s letter came from Bill Browder, the American investor who worked in Russia and became a champion of human rights in that country. This happened when one of his lawyers, Sergei Magnitsky, was tortured to death. That was in 2009. Three years later, the U.S. Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, designed to sanction those responsible for this crime.

Of Dadin, Browder said, “What shocked me is that they hung him up by his wrists. It brought me right back to seven years ago when Sergei Magnitsky was killed. I pray it doesn’t happen to Dadin.”

When you talk with Anastasia Zotova by phone, as I have, you hear a streak of desperation in her voice, which is entirely understandable. Where is Ildar? Is he still alive? Even the lawyers — human-rights lawyers — are being threatened now.

Anastasia is hearing from prisoners all over the country, through their intermediaries. They want to tell her about the torture they are being subjected to. She is feeling very, very discouraged about the country as a whole.

She believes that the great majority of her fellow Russians are indifferent to people such as Ildar. She feels that she is in a tiny minority — maybe 1 percent — and that the other 99 percent are happy with the way things are. She and Ildar have always wanted to help people. But now she feels a sense of futility. She would like nothing better than to take Ildar away from Russia.

Anastasia may feel more optimistic later. But, at the moment, it’s hard.

At his appellate hearing in March 2016, Dadin was represented by Henri Reznik, a prominent lawyer. He spoke of Russia’s prestige, its honor. “This case is of state importance,” Reznik said. “Will the state tolerate the peaceful assertion of views? There is no place for peaceful demonstrators behind bars. It is an affront to the law.”

It is an affront to the constitution, certainly, and to justice. So is Article 212.1 of the criminal code. Another Russian lawyer, Ekaterina Mishina, writes that 212.1 and the Dadin case “will eventually become textbook examples of the restoration of Bolshevik-style criminal law in post-Soviet Russia.”

At Penal Colony No. 7, Ildar Dadin was told in no uncertain terms that, if he aired his complaints, he would be killed. He aired them anyway. And he said to his wife, “I ask you to publish this letter, because there is a real ‘information blockade’ in this place and I see no other opportunities to break through it.”

His last sentence was, “I love you and I hope to see you someday.” He signed, “Your Ildar.”

UPDATE: On January 8, Ildar Dadin resurfaced. His whereabouts had been unknown for 37 days. His wife talked with him on the phone, and he reported that he was well. He has been transferred to Penal Colony No. 5 in the Altai Republic, Siberia. This is about 2,200 miles from Moscow, where Ildar and Anastasia have their home.

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