Magazine | February 6, 2017, Issue

To Protest in Russia

An oppressive law and the ordeal of Ildar Dadin

As of this writing, Ildar Dadin is alive and well. He is a prisoner — but he is no longer being tortured, and his family no longer fears for his life. For now.

Dadin is probably the best-known political prisoner in Russia. And he has the unwelcome 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. This article is at odds with the constitution, as democrats are quick to point out. Russia’s constitution was adopted in 1993. And, in Article 31, it 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, at the beginning of last year. She is 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 opponents. He protested unfair 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.

His wife, Anastasia Zotova, is his champion. They met when she was working as a journalist, covering protests such as his. One day in August 2014, she and some friends staged a protest of their own. Ildar joined them. He and “Nastya” talked. “Then we became friends on Facebook,” she tells me, “and, after a while, we became real friends. Then we fell in love.”

She had never met anyone so smart, brave, and honest, she says. “Like from a movie or a song or something. I can’t believe that a man like this is real.” Her mother was not so happy. In fact, she disowned her daughter after Ildar and Nastya got married. “You are the wife of an enemy of the state,” she said. “I don’t have a daughter anymore.”

Anastasia explains that her mother is not pro-Putin. Rather, she is pro–getting along, pro–not rocking the boat. This is the attitude of most Russians, Anastasia says.

Though Ildar Dadin was the first to be imprisoned under 212.1, he was not the first to be arrested under that oppressive law: That distinction belongs to Vladimir Ionov, an activist in his mid seventies. Pro-government hoods beat him up near the Kremlin. “I’m not a warrior,” he said. “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. At trial, he said he wanted to defend the constitution. Russian media reported that his own father testified against him. This is false, says Anastasia: Ildar’s father is proud and supportive of his son. What happened is, the prosecutors doctored a testimony and had the elder Dadin sign it.

Those prosecutors asked for a two-year sentence on Ildar. The judge upped the ante, giving him three years. An appeal led 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.

He was first jailed in Moscow, and then sent to St. Petersburg, and then back to Moscow. Later, he was sent to Penal Colony No. 7, in Segezha, Republic of Karelia, near Finland. During the Soviet period, this town and its surroundings were an island in 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 got a letter out to Anastasia. He did it by dictating it to his lawyer, Alexei Liptser. A lawyer is not allowed to receive an item from a prisoner — an item such as a letter — and take it away. But he may take down a letter, dictated to him by the prisoner.

“Nastya!” Ildar began. “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.” Then, in excruciating paragraphs, he related his experience.

He arrived at Penal Colony No. 7 on September 10, 2016. Immediately, they seized his belongings and threw him into solitary confinement. They denied him even toilet paper. In protest, he began a hunger strike.

The next day, the head of the prison, Major Sergei Leonidovich Kossiev, came to him 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.”

That was September 11. This was September 12: “Employees cuffed my hands behind my back and hung me by the handcuffs. . . . 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.”

Next, “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.’”

The beatings continued — not just of Dadin but of other prisoners as well. In his letter, Dadin made clear that he was not the lone victim. The beatings and humiliations of prisoners were constant. If the worst treatment kept up, Dadin told Nastya, “it is unlikely that I will last more than a week.”

He also had a warning for her: “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 fighting with another prisoner, but this would be a lie.”

Without delay, Anastasia released her husband’s letter to Meduza, an agency of Russian exile journalists working in Riga, Latvia. The Russian authorities denied all charges. Indeed, in a Kafkaesque twist, they threatened Dadin with a libel suit.

One interesting reaction to the prisoner’s letter came from Bill Browder, the American investor who worked in Russia and became a leading advocate of human rights in that country. This happened after 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.”

After Dadin’s letter received attention abroad, his wife was able to go see him. “He looked very bad,” she says — “like an old man. His hair was white. His hands were shaking. He had trouble speaking because he had trouble breathing.”

Soon he was missing — missing within the prison system. That is, the authorities did not tell his family where he was (though they were required by law to do so). He was not at No. 7. Where was he? His family feared the worst. For more than a month, they were kept in the dark. Finally, they were told that he was in Siberia, in the town of Rubtsovsk, near the Kazakh border, at Penal Colony No. 5.

Anastasia talked with him by phone. He reported, convincingly, that he was well, no longer under torture. Publicity — especially as generated by his fearless and loyal wife — seems to have spared him. Others are less lucky.

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.”

I ask Anastasia, “Why does Ildar do what he does? Why does he risk his neck?” He feels compelled, she answers. If there is injustice, he thinks he has to speak out against it. He also thinks that the world should know that not every Russian goes along with the current regime. Then there is this: “He told me that it’s important for him to stay human. We are human beings, who owe something to others.”

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