The Sheriff. Igor Kalyapin, fighter for social justice

12 June 2020

By Julia Vishnevetskaya


Source: Radio Svoboda

Igor Kalyapin, 52, head of the Committee against Torture, has gone through all the social dramas of post-Soviet Russia: in the 1990s he went into business in his native Nizhny Novgorod, survived police torture in a detention centre and gangster wars, and worked with human rights activists in Chechnya during both Chechen wars – and in the end Ramzan Kadyrov declared him a ‘personal enemy.’

The Committee against Torture, which is based in Nizhny Novgorod but has representatives all over the country, is fighting systematic police violence in Russia.

In 2013, Kalyapin became a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, but in 2015 the Committee against Torture was declared a ‘foreign agent’ by the authorities, and now formally operates as a commercial entity.

Kalyapin constantly carries a gun with him and says he will never emigrate: ‘In case of anything, I will go to the village and live by hunting.’

Here are a few stories from Kalyapin’s life that feature in the film The Sheriff by Julia Vishnevetskaya and Andrei Kostyanov.

Kalyapin’s Monologues

I have always felt a responsibility for what I see happening in my country. Imagine cars lining up at a roadworks on a motorway. There will always be people who begin to drive around in order to avoid the traffic jam, thus slowing it down further. The principles of social justice are being violated – everyone understands this. Then someone goes and gets up on the roadside, preventing these people from passing. In this instance I’d call them the Sheriff, a person who does not simply sit cursing silently in their car, but who takes action. I am not sufficiently self-assured on the road to move off and block the roadside. I’m not a fighter, not someone who can pick up a crowbar and assert justice. I practice this in another area.

We were children when we moved to Kuznechikha (NB.- a district of Nizhny Novgorod), it was not built up in those days, there were high hills covered with dry grass. From time to time someone would set this on fire, huge infernos that were to be admired. We, as children, naturally, would also set fires. One day when I was around eight or nine the police caught us, dragged us to their station and held us for an hour and a half. I sat and listen to their conversations; absolute filth. They were discussing the possibility of taking someone’s bike that had been left unattended in a driveway; they planned to steal it. My childish impression was that this was awful. No hooligans or gangsters talked like this in front of me, so how could these people with stars on their shoulder boards? I first had the idea then, I remember, that I needed to set up a microphone, record this on a tape recorder and bring it to the District Party Committee. The concept has not changed since then. What I did on the Committee against Torture aligned with my idea from that October. Now, thanks to the Human Rights Council, I understand that there is no one to report to because, firstly, everyone knows everything and secondly, no one wants to do anything. The idea has exhausted itself. And so, I lived until I reached the age of Gena the Crocodile, still thinking that I could gather evidence on the bad apples in the police force, tell this to someone good, wise, and in a position of authority and call for measures to be taken.


I always considered myself a technician, I was absorbed in amateur radio.  My father was an electronics engineer. I wanted to be a physicist. I wanted to give humanity an inexhaustible source of energy. I used to think that, according to Marx, the most important thing is to develop the means of production, to develop productive capability and the superstructure will evolve of its own accord.  Ohm’s Law objectively exists, it cannot be repealed, suspended, nothing can be done with it. Physicists study the objective laws of nature, which operate absolutely regardless of whether they are opened or closed, and whether or not they correspond to the course of the party and to the interests of the working class.

Everything suited me in the Soviet system. I remember when I was at school, Sakharov was in exile here in our city. I had great respect for his activities [as creator of the nuclear bomb], and I dreamed of doing the same. I was terribly fascinated as to how such a clever man, a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, who created the most powerful weapon is clearly in the wrong [by being a dissident]. The house where he lived was well known.  I wanted to go and have a chat. But I could never quite make my mind up to do so.


Why do people with a successful scientific career suddenly take up God knows what, realizing that it will give them nothing but problems? A person who gets into physics, should just be trustworthy and to have an impeccable CV. But in 1989, at our academic institute, everyone ceased to care. Some junior scientists and laboratory technicians went out to find other work. They covered poured dirt on these people, and from one article that was intended to expose them I learned the address of a political club. I turned up at the political club and that is where I stayed.

In the centre of the city we set up a tent camp, put a hoarding with all sorts of stuff, we had our so-called Speakers’ Corner, a Hyde Park. Equipped with our radio centre, we hung loudspeakers on a tree. Inside we had an amplifier run on car batteries, we broadcast Voice of America and Radio Liberty to the whole of the Pokrovka district.  Old grandmothers in failing health brought us pies from their nearby homes. The district executive committee held a meeting, to discuss their reaction to this outrage. A criminal investigation was opened, but no arrests were made. The day after the elections, which Yeltsin won, a black Volga came for us. We were taken to the city prosecutor’s office where they handed us the text of a decision to terminate the investigation ‘because of the changing situation.’ I also jokingly asked the prosecutor: what happened to change the situation?  Was it because Yeltsin has been elected? ‘No, he said, ‘I just consulted the New Testament last night, and there it says, “Judge not, that ye be not judged”.’

A short time later I was asked to leave the laboratory, because all the commotion within the political club had given rise to the idea that we should form a separate group at the May Day march carrying the tricolour flag and banners proclaiming “Give Solzhenitsyn back his citizenship!” and “All power to the Soviets!”, which was a very anti-Communist slogan at the time. They detained us all. And when I turned up at work, the head of the laboratory said, “What the hell do you think you’re playing at? People here are happy that we can carry out scientific research and that we don’t have to go on these demonstrations. And yet there has to be one weirdo who goes there on his own. Why can’t you be happy with what you’ve got? Don’t you understand that now they’ll obstruct someone from getting the equipment he needs to defend his thesis – the thesis he’s been working on for two years – because there’s a dissident in our ranks. Write your resignation letter.” This was in 1989.

I had lost my job. Being a dissident is very much a full-time profession – probably more so than any other job in our country, because it means that you can’t be anything else. At the time, I didn’t know that it would all come crashing down in just a few short years. I thought to myself, what’s the point? They aren’t going to let me do anything that involves physics or electronics. The only places in the country hiring people with a degree of that kind were defence companies. My copybook was blotted for the rest of my life. Back then I was still living with my parents, and from time to time I managed to earn a bit of money together with some friends of mine – other poor sods who’d been sacked. We worked on building sites in the private sector, and we built a cow shed. We were given a chunk of smoked meat as payment every day – the guy owned a few cows and pigs and a smoke house, he paid us partly in money and partly in meat – those were hungry times back then, and the meat came in very handy.


Things changed very quickly. I began to think that perhaps I would not be a dissident all my life and end up in jail, and started to wonder who would be putting whom in jail. Three of us – myself and the friends I’d worked with on building sites – set up a cooperative. We tried our hands at manufacturing printed products – little calendars, horoscopes, all sorts of rubbish. We published a commercial newspaper called the Nizhegorodsky listok, and its circulation even grew. We’d managed to start a business with zero seed capital. We were businesspeople with lots of grand ideas but without a penny to our names. There’s a joke people used to tell at the time that goes something like this; two New Russians meet on the street, and one says, “Do you need a trainload of cars?” “Yes. How much?” “Five million roubles”. They shake hands, and head off in different directions – one to search for a trainload of cars, and the other to search for five million roubles. It might sound strange, but it worked. We had a huge sales office at the Nizhegorodsky Commodity Exchange where our brokers worked, dealing in televisions, hoovers, trainloads and truckloads of goods, whatever came along. Once we had two HGVs arrive full of Nasha marka cigarettes that had got drenched on the journey and were unfit for sale. It took us five years to smoke our way through them, and I haven’t been able to look at them since. A similar thing happened with champagne – we came up with the idea of distilling it ourselves, because homebrew could be sold, and champagne couldn’t. But it didn’t work out. We drank that champagne instead of juice, instead of tea – there were bottles of it hanging around everywhere.


All this free enterprise was clearly not created for idealists like me. In 1992, we were arrested and charged with embezzling what was, in those days, an inconceivable amount of money from a bank. The general director and I spent three months in a pre-trial detention centre because we had been charged under an article that, at that time, carried the death penalty by firing squad. In 1992, the moratorium had not yet been implemented. The conditions in the pre-trial detention centre were brutal. It was there that I experienced the full meaning of the word torture. For the first 24 hours after my arrest, I was beaten continuously. Electric shocks and so on were not yet being used at that point, I was just beaten, but they beat me horrifically, non-stop, effectively turning me into a piece of meat. When I was taken to the temporary detention facility the next day to be checked in, the prison administration had to be persuaded to take me – they were afraid I was just going to die there.

I was put in a cell where there was nowhere to sit, and the toilet was overflowing with faeces because the waste pipe was blocked. There were around 80 people, and all the bunks were taken. So around 60 people were sitting and 20 were standing. I also stood. I am an intelligent man – I wasn’t going to force someone to stand up so that I could sit down. I spent almost 24 hours like that. Then I was moved to a smaller cell, about the size of a train compartment, where there were five of us. There, I slept for a whole day. My fellow prisoners studied my case: a respected man, stole $15 million from a bank, firing squad article, decision signed by the regional prosecutor. So, I woke up a respected man.

It turned out later that there had been an attempted robbery by an employee in our commercial department – he disappeared a week before our arrest. I was told candidly: we’re keeping you in custody as a hostage. I managed to get put in the punishment cell and went on hunger strike. They only released me when the actual culprit was caught.



It is impossible to overestimate the negative charge that our law-enforcement system received as a result of the Chechen wars.  Our cops went there, practically everyone, they all went through it.  In each region so-called Combined Militia Forces were formed, and everyone was sent there, including traffic police and investigators. They were sent and they saw torture, nothing was out of bounds, all the while they are being told that it is allowed, because it is a special situation, because there is no other way.  And they understand that there are, it turns out, situations when you don’t need to observe the law.  Those who passed through Chechnya are clearly distinguishable from the vast majority of people by their cruelty, by their madness, by no longer understanding where the line is between legal and illegal violence, and by their competence at using violence.

At first the branch of our organisation in Chechnya was made up of, as everywhere else, local lawyers. Around 2008 we understood that something was not quite right. When we looked at what was happening from the human rights point of view, it seemed to us that the violators, the criminals, were representatives of the authorities. Our Chechen colleagues saw it, as it later turned out, from a different angle.  For them it was the Russian occupiers, and not the representatives of the authorities, who were violating human rights.  Then, when what Politkovskaya called Chechenization happened, when the Russian repressive power in Chechnya was substituted by Chechen, the template began to break.  They were not willing to work on bringing a criminal case against a Chechen, even if he were a violator of human rights.  Instead of someone from the Russian military it was one of their own – who did even more terrible things – but he was a Chechen and therefore untouchable. And on top of that, to prosecute him using Russian law and the Russian judicial system — that was, for them, totally unacceptable.

They began to work poorly. Moreover, the new Chechen punitive authorities would pursue not only their enemy, but also his family and those close to him.  It was possible just to say, “You have a nephew, a brother, we’ll jail them for participating in gangs, we will simply break their arms and legs, but we will hand your beloved sister over for desecration.”  It works a thousand times more effectively.  By far not every Chechen could be broken by torture, but this worked flawlessly.  Many of our lawyers, who were not afraid at all to die from a Russian bullet, were seriously afraid for the safety of their relatives, that they would suffer at the hands of the Kadyrovites.

Then the question was, should we think up something new or shut down the branch, because it was impossible to continue working in such a cowardly fashion, when our lawyers simply would not take on the most difficult cases because they did indeed involve, for them,  mortal danger. I then thought up the idea of combined mobile groups — a group of lawyers from other regions that was permanently present. They replaced each other on а rotational basis.  They worked there three months, and when one person left, he or she was replaced by another. This way we had a group of three or four people that was constantly present.     

Already the Chechen authorities had come to regard us as enemies.  Our legal work caused them amazement.  To come to the Investigative Committee and submit a complaint against someone in Kadyrov’s circle was unprecedented insolence in the Chechen Republic.  The investigator would say, ”I will not accept this.” “But you will!”

But we were not able to prosecute even one Kadyrovite on criminal charges.  In all of Russia we had a total of over 80 criminal cases that we brought to court, and there were convictions in 80 cases.  Over 140 law enforcement officials were prosecuted on criminal charges.  But in Chechnya there was not one case against a Kadyrovite, not one law enforcement official charged.  A person would be taken from his home by the police and he would just never return – we had about 30 cases like this.  Everything came to a stop the moment it became clear which subdivision had abducted the person.


An acquaintance from Chechnya contacted me. ‘Igor, Ramzan Kadyrov wants to meet with you.’ You can’t say no to that type of offer, especially when people are working for you there [in Chechnya]. They sat me in a car, armed men on each side. I thought we were headed for Sentory, I really wanted to see Kadyrov in his home villagе. Nothing of the sort, they took me to Putin Avenue, the central street in Grozny, it turns out he has a flat there. We probably spoke for about three hours, tête-à-tête.

Only one thing was important for him: ‘Is it true that your group’s working for Medvedev?’  I said to him, ‘Ramzan, Medvedev doesn’t even know we exist.’ ‘For some reason people are telling me that you are all out of the FSB.’ I felt like an idiot. There couldn’t have been any rational evidence of that, but the more you deny something the more likely it seems. I said to him, ‘Ramzan, it’s not true, they’ve lied to you, they often lie to you.’ – ‘Well ok, you won’t tell me the truth anyway.’ 

I think his resentment towards me is linked to the fact that he thought I was some sort of senior FSB operative and I turned out to be a human rights activist. ‘Do you also think it was I who killed Estemirova?’ he asked. I said, ‘Ramzan, you say at every opportunity that it is you who answers for everything that happens in the Republic. And it’s true, this is done in your name. Near enough every evening you appear on Chechen TV in army fatigues saying we need to kill these people, put them to the wall.’ I said, ‘Ramzan, do you not think it’s time to stop the war? It’s done, you’ve beaten everyone. Chechnya needs a man of wisdom not a fighter. You need to stop wearing camouflage, you don’t need to record yourself with automatic weapons in the background. Wear something civilian and address people with wise speeches. You’re an adult. You’ve shown everyone that you’re a warrior. No one doubts this.’

He told me about his life, about his childhood, about his father, about how Putin persuaded him to become a leader. ‘Why are they making a laughing stock of me? Am I an idiot or what? I’m an ordinary kid from the village, they made me a member of the Academy of Sciences, everyone is laughing at me now.’ He’s very charismatic. He remembered how he had a dog, which then died when he became an adult, after his father died. ‘That dog died because he always took away my pain. I complained to him all the way throught from my childhood, and I felt better, he took away that pain. It’s so hard for me now that I poisoned him with my pain, he died because of me.’ An athletic, healthy Kadyrov is sitting there crying. My eyes were pinching, he talks so touchingly.

I was absolutely convinced that this was all sincere until I returned to Moscow and told the whole story to Svetlana Alekseevna Gannushkina. It turned out that he told her the same thing verbatim and cried too. And about the dog, and how he resented his father in childhood, who paid little attention to him, how he was very lonely, ran away, behind the barn, behind the house, hiding in the grass. Perhaps he is a great artist. Maybe he tells everyone this and cries sincerely every time.

Then, taking a unique chance, realizing that I would not be killed there and then, I asked a question about Zarema Gaisanova, who was detained and disappeared. We had been having trouble with that case for a long time. It had been impossible for us to question Kadyrov. This woman had been living with an insurgent. One day Chechen policemen broke into her house, the militant was killed immediately, the house was set on fire, and it burned down. They pulled her out, started beating her, shouting: ‘You are the wife of a devil.’ We had witnesses – migrant workers, Azerbaijanis who worked in the neighboring house. They were frightened and hid – otherwise they would have been killed too, in such cases no witnesses are left. And they saw this woman interrogated by Kadyrov, after which she was put in a car and taken away. We had made a request to interrogate Kadyrov, so that he would be officially asked on the record where had Zarema Gaisanov been taken. The investigator, of course, refused to question Kadyrov, he simply couldn’t think about it at all, it must have been terrifying for him.

And Kadyrov puts his phone on speakerphone and calls the investigator: ‘Magomed, why don’t you want to question me on the Gaisanova case? Am I stopping you from questioning me?’ The investigator must have shit himself. Kadyrov reprimanded him in front of me: ‘Tomorrow or the day after, come to my place, introduce yourself, I’ll tell them to let you in, under protocol, as you’re supposed to, interrogate me. I sit and think: “Everybody interrogates Kadyrov, we’ll make news of this. Who, after this, will dare to refuse to come to the investigator?” ‘

I have to give him credit – he fooled me. I walked away from him in complete delight. And of course, the investigator never questioned him. Six months later they tried to close the case on the grounds that, ‘It has not been possible to question the witness Kadyrov because he was busy.’ […]

Translated by Verity Hemp, Graham Jones, Joanne Reynolds, Nicky Brown, John Tokolish and Matthew Quigley

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