Azat Gabdulvaleev: “Just one more search of the home of yet another civic activist.”

4 October 2020

By Azat Gabdulvaleev, deputy coordinator of the Association of Election Observers of Tatarstan, board member of the Tatarstan branch of Golos.

Source: Facebook

I didn’t know Irina Slavina and this piece was written before her death. I just didn’t publicise it. I didn’t want to stir up too much horror, I didn’t want to show my weakness, and, in general there were more dramatic events going on in the world than a search of my home. Just one more search of the home of yet another civic activist. Routine, in a word. But now, after the tragedy has occurred, this story might be illuminating in terms of what a search means, how it happens and the power of the impact of such actions on human lives. Irina Slavina blamed the Russian Federation for her death. I expressed my feelings in a similar way. “My country came for me”.

The morning was cloudy. Rain was falling on the window. I was standing in my underpants in my room, and behind me two hefty law enforcement officers were stomping around in camouflage uniforms, body armour, pistols on their belt and wearing some kind of helmets. I almost physically felt them track my every move.

The search began at 6 a.m. just like a year ago. However, that time I was not caught sleeping and there were no armed guards. This time my family members heard a hushed knock, and still half asleep opened the door without waking me and without even looking through the spyhole.

The men in green burst in with heavy feet and loud shouting. The truth is, I don’t remember their orders . They must have been shouting things like “hands behind your heads” or “lie down, don’t move.” After rubbing my eyes a little, the first thing I did was to count my visitors. There were eight of them in total. 

I have the feeling that somebody high up has become overly addicted to detective stories and war movies. It seems not all these bosses have grown up properly yet. You might have imagined there were some sort of terrorists ensconced in my apartment. However, this noisy intrusion could be designed for a purely psychological effect.

The search was commanded by a young and well-fed investigator. She was assisted by three officers from the counter-extremist police. They had brought two young people in executive suits as witnesses of the search. The official document they had authorising the search surprised me a great deal. A year ago they had searched my home for evidence with regard to one very well-known organisation. Now it was about another, no less well known.

My room had already been undergoing a protracted renovation for several weeks. This summer I had replastered the walls and had gone on to the ceiling, but I hadn’t finished yet. The furniture had been moved out of the way and covered with plastic sheets that caused the uninvited guests to get dirty. I sarcastically apologized for the mess.

Then the confiscations began. My home computer fell victim. For some reason they took it along with the keyboard. I couldn’t believe my ears when it seemed they also wanted to confiscate the printer, but they changed their minds about that. In fact, they took all the telephones that were lying out in plain view. One of the agents brought me my smartphone and asked me to switch it to airplane mode. I started to do as he asked but then I thought they might grab it out of my hands while it was unblocked, and I said that I could not remember the code. I was advised to take out the battery.

Then they started to dig through an enormous amount of my papers. Judging from what they confiscated, there was no special logic to it. Last year’s membership card for the Central Election Commission of the Tatarstan Republic, a copy of some court decision, a map of Macedonia, some old correspondence with the Russian Central Election Commission, a five-year old election ballot, the final 2018 voting results protocol from a polling station commission where I had worked, as well as an entire stack of random papers that were absurd and useless for an investigation.

They even took two colourful, glamorous notebooks that someone had written in when they were a young girl. I asked the investigator if she wasn’t ashamed of herself, and with deliberate cheerfulness she informed me she wasn’t.

I was not so seriously upset by all of this happening. At first it was even a bit entertaining. For the second hour of the search, I put on some jogging pants. A bit later, the investigator asked me to cover myself up a bit, and I put on the first shirt I could lay my hands on.

My mood got considerably worse after the search moved into the room of my wife and son. They took away their laptops, which had made it through the previous search. My son didn’t like the investigators digging through his drawings, and my wife also started to get upset at the unceremoniousness of the guests.

This set me off and, to my great regret, I could no longer restrain myself. I called over one of the officers and began to be openly rude to him. Fortunately, the two officers in camouflage were able to calm me down quickly. Very soon I felt the linoleum on my face and handcuffs behind my back. The scene was revolting. I was screaming “Beat me!” but for some reason they didn’t hit me even once.

It wasn’t just this that I was lucky with. A few years ago I had some sort of problem with my shoulder that makes it difficult for me to put my hands behind my back, but I felt nothing this time. If I had, it would have gone hard for me.  

Last year I managed to maintain my dignity. This time round it wasn’t possible. It was very hard to watch strangers mock my family, rummage through their belongings and not be able to do anything to protect those closest to you from humiliation and robbery.  You can at least fight with ordinary bandits, with those in authority you cannot.

Everyone has their weak spot and they found mine. They hit the target. They stopped me for some time being involved in the elections: I didn’t take part as an observer on 13th September. I also wasn’t able to analyse the election results.  

It’s interesting that a raid is not seen as a form of punishment in itself. It’s just an investigative search. However, I’d gladly sit in jail several times for a week or so rather than have one such search. 

My status in the investigation is neither that of suspect nor that of accused. I’m just a witness – of what, I don’t exactly know. Last year they looked for traces of money from one organisation, this time – evidence against another. In general, it was very surprising to fall under two different waves of widespread raids. The coordinator of the Golos movement in Tatarstan, Mikhail Tikhonov, ended up in the same unique situation as me. 

After the first search there was still a sense that something like that happens at least once in everyone’s life. It’s now clear that investigators have already forged a path to my home and will come again. Only the next time it will probably concern a third case.  

Although these criminal investigations are being run from the federal level, Moscow is not that interested in me or in Mikhail Tikhonov, we’re probably unknown to them. The list of people who are to be subjected to repressive measures is drawn up here in Tatarstan. It would appear that someone in the republic did not like our activity during the election campaigns. 

We, as representatives of the groups engaged in election observation, could not ignore the numerous violations at the elections and have always sought to make them public. We have also trained observers. It appears that our work attracted attention and a corresponding command was issued against us. However, one cannot exclude the possibility that this was an initiative of the local counter-extremism police department.  There is also another, more sinister explanation why civic activists nowadays are being trampled underfoot in our country.

The search took about three hours. Then I was taken away for interrogation. There I willingly used Article 51 of the Constitution [the right not to testify against oneself – ed.], but answered some questions. I said I did not know certain people and was not connected with relevant organizations. All that was true.

When I came back home, I did not find anyone. My son had gone to school, my wife was at work. For some reason I remembered the feeling of the linoleum on my face and the first thing I did was to wash all the floors in the apartment. They say that it is not very good to do this after guests have been, but I hope that it will do no harm to these particular uninvited guests. That’s what their job is like.

In the evening I was asked what it was all about. I replied that I had been visited by a country very dissatisfied with its own citizen. But this stupid pathos did not go down well with the family.

I remember from my distant childhood stories about revolutionaries. About Lenin’s grandfather, who while in prison wrote secret notes in milk, using a loaf of bread as an inkwell. To read a message written in that way you had to hold the paper over a candle. I also remember the story about a girl who saved her parents during a search by hiding a typeface in a jug of milk, and drank off the excess liquid.

Now I am more than a little surprised to see how all these half-forgotten tales of the times of tsarism have come into our lives. I am far from being part of the underground or some kind of hero. Unlike the radio operator Kait [from the popular Soviet TV spy thriller Seventeen Moments of Spring based on a novel by Yulian Semenov – ed.] I am not able to hide my equipment after every communications session. You can live like that in the enemy’s rear, but not when you are at home.

I pretty much understand why people are being persecuted now. I am well aware that the same fate awaits us, election observers. But I was comforted by the feeling that our turn hadn’t come yet, and this feeling that these repressive measures have come before their time makes me feel extremely disappointed.

Because of the search, I had to interrupt very important work. It was as though they had torn all the tools of my trade from my hands. It’s a shame I didn’t have enough time. Probably there will never be enough time.

This robbery by the investigators has forced me to suspend my work. But is it possible for me to give up my ideas and beliefs? I think stronger means will be required before I agree to do that.

Translated by Graham Jones, John Tokolish, Matthew Quigley and Simon Cosgrove

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