8 May 2021
Sergei Davidis heads the programme to support political prisoners of the Memorial Human Rights Centre
Nine years ago, more than a hundred thousand people gathered on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow for a rally ‘For Fair Elections.’ It escalated into clashes between the demonstrators and the police, followed by the Bolotnaya square prosecutions. In 2021 when prison sentences in Russia are given even for likes on Facebook, these events look almost ‘vegetarian'(a reference to a line by Akhmatova): almost every morning now begins with new reports of arrests and searches. On Wednesday, Sergei Davidis, a man who was one of the organisers of the ‘March of Millions’ on 6th of May 2012, was released from a special detention centre in the Moscow district of Mnevniki.
The detention of Aleksei Navalny, the recognition of the Anti-Corruption Foundation not only as a ‘foreign agent’, but also as an ‘extremist organisation’, and finally, a new package of repressive laws that deprives almost everyone who had any contact with the Foundation from voting – all this made professional political analysts and commentators on social networks talk about a qualitatively new stage in the suppression of dissent in Russia. There are fewer and fewer people ready to shame those who talk about the ‘new 1937’ and more and more people who are forced to accept the new rules of the game imposed by the State.
There are people who look at all this and remain optimistic. Among them is politician and human rights activist Sergei Davidis who was one of the organisers of the Bolotnaya rally in 2012 and now heads the programme to support political prisoners of the Memorial Human Rights Centre, another organisation recognised as a ‘foreign agent’ in recent years. On 25 April Davidis was detained by the police for retweeting a tweet by Leonid Volkov calling for a rally in support of Navalny. The court jailed him for 10 days. This jail term [‘administrative arrest’ as it is known in Russian – ed] was a first for Sergei Davidis.
In a conversation with Radio Liberty, Davidis talks about his new experience and, it seems, is trying to cheer up those opposition supporters who are inclined to give up after the mass arrests, thousands of fines and the destruction of Navalny’s headquarters by the authorities.
‘I was ambushed at the entrance’
This was your first administrative jail term. After the protest on 21 April, they came to many well-known people who had previously not been particularly affected by the authorities, some were identified by the cameras, some were arrested for re-posts and retweets, like you. Did you have a feeling that once they got to you, some kind of new stage of pressure on those who disagree with the authorities began?
Well, no, I do not value myself so highly that I can measure the ‘stages’ by myself. In fact, this process is not discrete, but slowly, consistently and confidently developing. Each time, more people are being prosecuted for more and more crazy reasons. And my case is not the craziest. Prosecuting those people who were present at the place of the protest on the basis of photos and video materials is more ridiculous. I made a retweet and I understand the logic of the authorities who believe that this is ‘spreading appeals’, this logic is wrong, but at least understandable. To prosecute people who were just on the sidewalk, not chanting anything, not doing anything, just being in a place where it is not forbidden to be – this, I think, is much more outrageous.
Were you yourself at the 21 April protest?
Yes, of course I was.
Has your participation in the protest been brought up in court or anywhere else?
‘In court, no, since the court was examining the specific charge brought by the Centre for Combating Extremism (TsPE). This accusation was the basis first of the police statement and then of the court decision. The TsPE saw my retweet, and it was this that was taken up as the basis for the administrative prosecution. I also wrote about my participation in the protest, but by current standards this is evidently insufficient. They need photographs from the scene—and evidently I wasn’t caught on camera. I wasn’t there at the very beginning, I was coming to Moscow from another city that day, and there were tens of thousands of people there, but they’re bringing in only dozens. Obviously, it’s a kind of lottery.
Tell us about your impressions from your first time in a special detention centre. People seem to be looking on jailing for an administrative offence as a kind of adventure, an interesting experience. Is it all so cloud-free?
No, in and of itself excluding a person from ordinary life, isolating them from society because they were peacefully exercising freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, is totally illegitimate. Legally, this procedure bears up to no criticism whatsoever. My lawyers Sergei Telnov and Ekaterina Selezneva and I spoke about this in the court of first instance and the court of second instance, orally and in writing. There were no grounds whatsoever for considering me an offender and setting any kind of punishment. This is what I find so outrageous, and without a doubt I’ll be going to the ECtHR [European Court of Human Rights], which I’m certain will recognize my innocence. But from the standpoint of how all this was implemented, I have more complaints against the initial stage, against the processing. Because police officers from the Shchukino district police station were waiting for me in my entryway on Sunday morning. They escorted me to their station and wouldn’t let me leave, although they didn’t say I was under arrest. Then TsPE agents came for me and moved me to the Meshchansky police station, where I was formally arrested for purposes of the police record. But there was no need to arrest me in the first place. Even if they thought I’d committed an administrative offence, they could have sent me a summons, called, come over, said they wanted to see me, but nothing like that was done. In my opinion, this is also a violation of the intent and letter of the law. Nothing whatsoever justifies arresting me on a Sunday morning, especially considering that they didn’t get around to writing up the police record until late Monday evening and didn’t take me to court until Tuesday midday. From the standpoint of living conditions, and from the standpoint of my treatment by police officers, I have nothing particular to complain about. They were as fair and proper as they could be. I have no complaints against the employees of the special detention centre, either. Indeed, it’s an interesting experience. I met comrades in misfortune there, other people who’d been arrested for the same thing, in particular, Mikhail Svetov, Mikhail Kriger, Dmitry Chernyshev, and others.
‘Everyone knows about Navalny’
What did you do for those ten days? What did you talk about with people you didn’t know who were there on other charges?
This is the second plus of my arrest, the broadening of my social experience, my interaction with people I usually don’t get to have such solid interaction with. Understandably, the greater part of the detainees in the special detention centre are not there for political reasons. Some are there for petty theft, some for drug possession, some for failure to pay alimony, some for exceeding the traffic regulations, some for drinking alcoholic beverages, but all of them are people, and all of them are interesting. I spent most of my time with ‘politicals’ like me, since we had a lot more topics of conversation, but at the same time, when you find yourself in an enclosed space for ten days, to a certain extent you have to interact with everyone and there are constant interactions inside the cell. There were nine of us in the cell. As much as I could I tried to explain why people participate in protests and to what end, why they need to do that. I explained the corrupt and autocratic nature of our state and the meaning of its efforts to suppress dissent and peaceful protest activism. People had lots of questions about Navalny, about my appraisal of his return, about the way the state is persecuting him. I think I succeeded in my explanations. For people who knew very little, many things became more understandable, and they would agree with me on questions about which they had initially had some doubts. On the whole, I’d say that the mood of people who have nothing to do with the protests is not pro-state. In the special detention centre I met literally one person who conditionally supported Putin. All the rest disapproved of both the state and Putin personally.
What do they say about Navalny?
People who are unfamiliar with political activism and protests consider politicians to be ‘all in it together’. In their opinion, if a person is engaged in politics, he’s some rich man who wants something for himself.
They weren’t really interested in what specifically Navalny was doing, even though they know everything about him. They have a vague idea that someone is fighting Putin, wanting to take his place. But, without a doubt, people see him as a significant opposition figure. They don’t understand why he came back, because this motivation – to fight, not to give up, to change something, even at a risk to oneself – seems absurd to them. From the point of view of such people, there’s no point in doing something if you can’t get a quick result, including for yourself. Everyone who talked with me agreed that even if there is no immediate result, the struggle for principles, the struggle for long-term results, is also important and necessary, and Navalny’s efforts and the sacrifices he makes deserve respect.
Nevertheless, they see him as a politician, and not as an ‘American puppet who wants to annoy Russia’? Are there traces of propaganda in people’s minds?
Mild ones. I met only one such person, and his convictions were not strongly held. After all, this isn’t something people think about all the time. People parrot what they’ve heard, just because it’s all they’ve heard, but if you walk to them, they literally immediately agree that this position is unfounded and unproven. It didn’t seem to me that the government propaganda was very effective.
‘I’m not going to dig through old posts and delete things’
That’s clear where the efficaciousness of propaganda is concerned, but what about the efficaciousness of new repressive measures and arrests – did the authorities achieve their goals? For example, if there’s another rally will you retweet the tweet announcing it again?
Yes. And at the same time, of course, some damage was done to my job. I was forced to be absent for ten days, and my work is also connected with supporting political prisoners, and this, in general, is not good. Therefore, I will be thinking about how to frame my next tweet or post in a way that minimizes the risks. This is a lottery. Until now, this repressive instrument had not affected me, I did not become its victim, although I have always behaved in more or less the same way – and many others had suffered from it. If now I have become a victim once, it does not mean that next time I will also fall victim. Thousands of people are doing the same, and dozens are being prosecuted.
During the time that you were in the detention center, several notable events took place in political life at once. For example, de facto recognition of the Anti-Corruption Foundation as an extremist organization. Few doubt that this will soon be finalized by a court decision. I spoke with several people who helped FBK financially, and they have already canceled regular donations, are removing the FBK symbols from their social networks, and so on. Are you going to take any steps in this regard? Extremism is a more serious accusation than participation in a rally.
I won’t. Obviously, if the FBK closes, and it will inevitably close, and if it is recognized as an extremist organization, there is no need to specifically cancel donations – there simply will not be an account to which money can be sent. How long all this will last is unknown, and for as long as it is possible to help them in this way I will do it. No, I’m not going to cancel donations. Yes, formally, an old record with a reference to FBK is considered an offence, since the person did not delete it, but there is no corpus delicti, the most this is is an administrative offence, and it seems to me stupid to rummage through my old records to erase something. And the demand itself, of course, is unlawful. Well, I will fight in court, right up to the European Court of Human Rights. Yes, I, of course, will be more careful in the future, that is, after they are declared extremists, unfortunately, it will be impossible to refer to them without a special notification, but giving these requirements retroactively seems to me legally incorrect. I am not going to follow these supposed retrospective requirements.
What do you consider to be optimal tactics for the protest movement in Russia now that Navalny’s headquarters have been closed? Can we speak of any tactics at all in the face of such pressure?
Oh, it’s hard to talk about tactics. In the end, the protest movement is not some kind of structure with a single headquarters that is completely organised from one centre. Each person who expresses their opinion in some way, one that is different from the opinion of the authorities, each person who protests in some way is a ‘protest movement’. People will seek out forms of protest. In the end, continual dripping wears away a stone, and in any case, some channels for the organization of protest activity will of course be found even despite this pressure. In what form is still difficult to say. During the time that I spent in the detention centre, not only was the FBK banned – there were also reprisals against Ivan Pavlov, as well as bills introduced in recent days regarding additional reprisals against undesirable organizations and people who are allegedly associated with them. All this makes life very difficult, of course. But life is stronger than death, and in any case, it will find ways to fulfil itself.
‘The regime remains hybrid’
A question that is often discussed now on social networks is whether this a transition from authoritarianism to dictatorship. Do you think so, or is this not the case yet?
It seems to me that this is a purely terminological issue, and we must first define how authoritarianism differs from dictatorship. In my opinion, dictatorship is a form of authoritarianism – there is no contradiction here.
Did we previously have authoritarianism that didn’t turn into a dictatorship, and has it now turned into one?
The matter is rather different. Some spoke of a ‘hybrid regime’ that combines elements of democracy and dictatorship. Others said that for a long time there was no ‘hybridity’, just a dictatorship. In my opinion, the regime still remains hybrid, since it still needs quasi-democratic procedures to legitimize itself, but if earlier it was – roughly speaking – 70% authoritarianism to 30% democratic procedures, now the proportion has shifted, perhaps 85% towards dictatorship and 15% towards democratic procedures. Either way, there are nominally independent courts, there are quasi-elections, and the government cannot simply say that it is this way by birthright, that it on one occasion assumed this position and must remain there forever. This is actually the case, but insofar as the authorities need to imitate democratic procedures, the regime remains hybrid.
That is to say, a qualitative change didn’t occur.
No, this has been going on for a long time. The process likely began with Putin’s accession. At first, in 2012, it proceeded slowly, and since 2014 especially it has been accelerating. Over the last year, with the amendments to the Constitution and the poisoning of Aleksei Navalny, it has accelerated. However, this process has not been acquiring a different quality. It was already an imitation of democracy, and now they simply deprive virtually everyone they don’t like of their electoral rights. Yes, of course, it is yet more an imitation of democracy, but it’s noteworthy that these procedures nevertheless remain. The forms of imitation are retaining less and less democratic content — even the remnants are eroding — but for now something remains.
Should Putin, in your opinion, be unfazed with what is happening? Or do you agree with the notion from Navalny’s supporters that Putin is terribly afraid?
I don’t think that there is any contradiction here. If he were not afraid, then all these actions would not be necessary, because, of course, this all tarnishes Putin’s reputation in the eyes of the rest of the world. This does not increase his support in society, because these openly repressive practices at least cause bewilderment, and even irritation and outrage among those people who are not directly part of the protests. At the same time, through these repressive actions, a direct, immediate threat to the regime is destroyed or, at least, weakened so that it ceases to be immediate. In this sense, he can be satisfied.
“Smart voting is an effective approach”
You mentioned legitimising through elections. The latest repressive steps of the Kremlin are also often associated with the upcoming elections to the State Duma in the autumn. Do you agree that this is being done for the sake of elections, in which the Kremlin, in principle, has a million ways to produce the desired result, to update, as they say, cogs in a “mad” but completely functional “printer”?
Why else can you deprive people of the right to put themselves forward as candidates in elections? Probably, so that they could not participate in them. The task is to cut off unwanted candidates as early as possible, so that even by the fact of collecting signatures, even by declaring their intention to participate in the elections, they do not pose a threat to the authorities. Of course, a significant part of the current repressive actions, and especially the latest legislative initiatives, are directly related to the upcoming elections. Both the experience of elections to the Moscow City Duma and the experience of various regional and municipal elections last year show that, despite pressure, it is simply impossible to control everything. Weak spots will always be found, and someone can break through these barriers, if not conclusively, then at least to the point whereby it becomes a factor in their day-to-day life. The authorities do not want to allow this. So yes, I’m sure they are trying very hard to protect these legitimating quasi-electoral procedures from any unwanted participation.
The closer the election comes, the more often we hear the phrase ‘smart voting’. How do you feel about that?
I feel positive. Because, unfortunately, the more representatives of the real opposition, from the protest movement, lose the prospect of being participants in the electoral process, stand as candidates and fight for victory, the more essential it becomes to seek other means of using these quasi-electoral procedures for the purposes of democracy and for the weakening of the regime. And ‘smart voting’ is the most obvious, most natural way of utilising such procedures. This is a pragmatic and effective way of dividing, setting some elements of those in power against others and foiling the plans that the government has drawn up. This is an achievable goal and that’s a good thing. And in some places you might get really sound candidates, as they did for the Moscow City Council.
‘It was not possible to push back power in 2012’
Today marks nine years since the demonstration onn Bolotnaya Square. Many believe that a real opportunity for change was missed then , and since then everything has been tailing off. Did the opposition, in particular, the supporters of the Navalny, make any mistakes which expedited the current dire state of affairs?
I don’t think there were any fundamental mistakes made. Neither do I think that there were any fundamental opportunities to change the situation, particularly, in 2012. I don’t belong to the faction of those who speak of a ‘wasted protest’, who cultivate an idealistic interpretation of the historical process.
Because it is impossible to ‘wasted ‘ the protest, it is not a matter of specific people or specific places where people went, but about what people are ready for, what sacrifices, to what extent the protest movement was organised. 2012 was an ‘immature’ phase in the development of the protest movement. It was impossible to count on any significant outcomes. The resources or forces, which are and were then available to the protest movement and to the authorities are completely incomparable.
For the authorities, it is a matter of survival, and in any case, they will cling tooth and nail to the very end. There was no possibility in 2012 of somehow kicking out those in charge. On the contrary, it seems to me that this movement existed for several months and it constructed some groundwork for the future. Attempts to artificially radicalize it from the very beginning led only to the immediate suppression of the protest movement, and in this case the legacy of the protest wave of 2012 would be extremely negative, whereas now it is far from being only negative. The memory of this self-organization, cooperation, and mutual support lives on, and that is positive.
In Belarus, there was a peaceful protest that went on for some time but that didn’t lead to any real results either; it just led to a terrible tightening of the screws.
The issue is that, unfortunately, even with 80% of the population opposing the government, with a high degree of self-organisation, in the absence of an imperial background that distinguishes Belarus from Russia (this imperial background is a negative factor for our protest movement), all the same, it turns out that the protest movement is not capable, at least not quickly, of driving out a dictatorship. As for the fact that it is peaceful – well, non-peaceful protest results in more harsh suppression, and the authorities use more force to deal with non-peaceful protest. The authorities have far greater resources of force. Therefore a transition to non-peaceful protest is not a solution; in fact, it just simplifies the authorities’ task.
Will we not make comparisons with Ukraine?
We won’t make comparisons with Ukraine for a number of reasons. Ukrainian society is fundamentally different from Russian and Belarusian, and most importantly, their political system and economy are different.
“The level of solidarity is growing”
You are the head of Memorial’s programme of support for political prisoners. Now, you’re probably overloaded.
Yes, exactly. Unfortunately, the number of political prisoners is growing steadily, and particularly quickly in this last period, in recent months, which is terribly sad.
So as not to end on a sad note, when looking to the future, what makes you optimistic for Russia?
I’m optimistic about what is completely obvious: structures of solidarity and mutual support are expanding, and the level of this solidarity and mutual support is growing. We see how donations to OVD-info, Mediazona, and other projects, which help victims of repression, are rising exponentially, and how attention to political prisoners is growing. We see how willingly people help detainees by means of parcels. Online it is sometimes too difficult even to cut in, to make or pay for a parcel, because there are too many people willing. These are all important points. And the fact that support for the authorities remains low and is not rising is also an important point. Awareness that the authorities are by their nature against the people is growing. And this is another argument to show that, of course, the situation will change in the foreseeable historical perspective, that Russia will be free. Although, when this will happen and how, it’s not yet possible to predict.