“Everyone in prison has oppositionist views”: Team 29 interviews Konstantin Kotov after his release
Photo: Dmitry Zair-Bek, Team 29

16 December 2020

Konstantin Kotov, who was convicted for violating the rules for holding public events under the so-called Dadin article, was released from Penal Colony No. 2 in Pokrov, Vladimir Region. Altogether, he spent 493 days in prison. In September 2019, Kotov was sentenced to four years’ incarceration, and in April 2020 the Moscow City Court reduced his sentence to 18 months. And now, today, at six o’clock in the morning, Konstantin emerged a free man.

Source: Team 29

First, let me congratulate you on your release. How are you spending your first day at liberty?

I was released at six o’clock in the morning, quite unexpectedly. I thought it was going to be as it usually is for everyone, at around twelve, but they pushed me out earlier. Friends and acquaintances were already waiting for me outside, and my wife Anya (Anna Pavlikova, a figure in the New Greatness case — Team 29) arrived quickly. So I saw everyone and then we started out for Moscow.

What have people said to you, asked about, most often today?

Naturally, they’ve asked me how I feel. I say I have chaotic feelings, but mostly joy. I’ve seen so many relatives, friends, and acquaintances – and all in the flesh. They’d been writing to me all these months, but now at last I could shake their hands.

What did you dream of doing first in freedom when you were in the penal colony? ‘When I get out I’m immediately going to do something, eat something, drink something’?

Yes, naturally, I felt a little like a drink because alcoholic beverages are forbidden there. Well, and some kind of unusual food: pizza, sushi. I’ve already been provided all of that. Well, and most of all, naturally, to hug everyone, shake everyone’s hand, say thank you. I’d pictured this so many times and now it’s all coming true.

From today’s pleasant events to your difficult 493 days in the penal colony. It seems to me that prison is something you can’t prepare for, nonetheless, during that swift trial, you must have given some thought to the fact that the verdict might not be in your favour and allowed for the possibility of incarceration. How did you imagine prison then, and how did it turn out to be in fact?

Prison did not turn out to be like I’d imagined it. I’d read the relevant books, Oleg Navalny about his imprisonment, but the reality was very different from my expectations. When you land in prison, it’s another world, there are other concepts from what you encounter in ordinary life. You have to get used to it and live according to the prisoners’ code of conduct.

It’s especially hard for me to imagine the first day in prison. You land in a cell and who meets you there, what questions they ask, what they themselves say? How was it for you?

When I walked into the cell, the first question, naturally, was, what are you in for, what crime. The crime there characterizes the person, it explains what you’ve been sentenced for. Then the conversation begins and you tell the story of your criminal case. Mine was very specific. Everyone there is used to “drugs,” “fraud,” and “larceny,” but here there’s a political prisoner doing time for rallies. So this was what they talked about, they told me what had happened to them, how they’d ended up in this place; that’s how you get to know each other.

Is it a tense situation? Aggressive?

I wouldn’t say so. Yes, at first they’re on their guard. How are they to know what kind of person has joined them, what to expect from him? But then people adjust. For the most part people are appropriate, they understand there’s no point displacing their aggression, their anger at that court, at law enforcement, at the organs, on their cellmates. We happen to be living together now and we have to shut our eyes to each other’s minor deficiencies.

How many of you were there in the cell?

Originally it was a small cell, six men, while the investigation was under way. But then, when I went to prison, I had 20 in my cell.

Twenty men in a close space on a daily basis?

Yes, it’s hard. People smoke, everyone’s always doing something, busy with something. Finding a place where you can be left alone and relax is not all that easy. But we passed the time okay, I wouldn’t say it was fun, but it was okay. We interacted, told jokes, watched television. You can live like that for a fairly long time and despite the confined space find reasons to laugh.

How did your cellmates react to your crime?

Their first reaction was amazement. When they heard I got four years for picketing, for peaceful protest, that amazed them, naturally. How can anyone be given such a long sentence for something like that? From their standpoint, it’s a minor violation. The second question was always why did you need that, why did you get involved with that? Couldn’t you have sat quietly, worked, and not gone out anywhere? The thing is that everyone doing time there, they committed their crimes for personal benefit, not because they wanted to help someone. Therefore, my behavior seemed unusual to them. But I explained all that.

And how do prisoners regard the Russian state and the Russian authorities in general?

Almost everyone in prison holds oppositional views. People see everything, they are dissatisfied with the government, they curse it. They see what is happening to those at liberty and what is happening to those in  prison – nobody has any  illusions. But they think that it’s futile to do anything. They say that it’s better to know your place than to strive and climb, that way you will get through and survive. That’s the general opinion.

Well, that pretty much reflects the opinion of the majority of Russians in principle, doesn’t it?

Yes, exactly. Of course, when they heard that I had been sentenced to four years for picketing, for a peaceful protest it surprised them: how can they give you such a long stretch? From their point of view this was minor infringement of the law.

And as for the management of the prison, what were they like and how did you interact with them?

Initially, our dealings did not work out at all well. As soon as I arrived, they tried to put pressure on me, put me in maximum isolation, so that I could not communicate with other convicts, and so that I might not to see anything other than the barracks where I lived. Such tensions remained almost until the end of my sentence. But towards the end of my stay in the prison, I began to try to build a dialogue. They heard me, I heard them, and for the last few months I’ve been living a relatively normal schedule. It had originally been something like the Cold War.

We know that you have been reprimanded twice for handing over gloves to another prisoner. You were given ten days’ solitary confinement for not saying hello to a prison officer. Are these the incidents to which you refer? Was that bullying? Or is that how everyone is treated?

No, not everyone. As I understood it, these actions were targeted specifically against me. As soon as I arrived, I told the prison staff that I lived by the law, that I was a law-abiding person.

When I said, “If you have rules, I’ll follow them”, they replied, “Well, you want to live by the rules – you will live like that, and for every little thing that is formally a violation of the internal order, we will punish you.”

Of course, everyone there sends each other cigarettes or mittens, and the administration turns a blind eye to it – such is normal human behavior. But, in my case, it was immediately curbed, I was immediately reprimanded. And the man who helped me, as far as I know, lost his parole because of it.

But wasn’t there a feeling that, despite this approach and these people, let’s call them “the dirty tricks brigade”, nothing really terrible could happen to you in prison, because you had attracted the attention of the public? So they wouldn’t have had you killed or stabbed?

Yes, indeed, there was. The pressure on me was more psychological: my living conditions were uncomfortable. But on my second day in the prison, my lawyer, Maria Eismont, came to me. We had a talk and she came almost every two weeks for the duration of my sentence. And the administration could see that I was not alone, that someone could always come to me, and whenever something happened, I would tell them about it. That was my protection, and, without it, I think that things would have ended up much worse for me.

How did people from the penal colony administration say goodbye to you? What did they say to you before your release?

I had, as I’ve said, a relatively sudden exit and I managed to speak only to a few members of staff. They requested I “stop provoking the authorities, protesting, and start to live a quiet and peaceful life”.

They said that?

Yes. Exactly like that: come on, stop. But I didn’t think I’d broken the law, and I still don’t to this day. I am innocent, was tried unjustly and will seek exoneration.

But even in these “requests” from the colony administration there is a sense they don’t believe your sentence was legitimate, but take it to be a part of the struggle. So you “provoke the government”, and it responds – with a kind of reaction that has nothing to do with justice.

Yes. But when I told them I was innocent of any crime, they always replied: what you did is not important to us. There is a judgment from the court, a sentence, you’re here with us, therefore be good, follow our orders.

The pressure put on me was mostly psychological: they made my living conditions difficult. But on the second day in the colony, the lawyer Maria Eismont came to see me. I talked to her and she came almost every fortnight for the entire duration of the sentence.

Did you receive a lot of letters?

Yes, a huge number. When I was in Moscow, it was mostly emails, but in the penal colony I also received actual letters, delivered by Russian Mail. Hundreds and even thousands of letters. This was very encouraging.

And how were you able to read emails?

That’s through the website FSIN-mail [FSIN – Federal Penitentiary Service – ed.]. People write letters to the given address and then they print them out and bring them to you in your cell. And I would write a reply on the form on the back.

How and who delivers the letters? Is there some kind of friendly postman that everyone is waiting for?

Yes, in fact. Only he is not a friendly postman, but a censor. And he doesn’t only deliver letters but sometimes erases whatever hasn’t passed censorship. And so, yes, on certain days this person delivers bundles of letters to the cells. I always received the most, it was actually a bit embarrassing: I was constantly receiving letters, and some others wouldn’t receive any at all.

What did people usually write about?

At the beginning it was mostly words of support: we know that you’re innocent, please, hold on, we are thinking of you, we love you and are waiting for you. And then a correspondence would start, and we would talk about all kinds of things. One person who wrote would talk about himself, about the events that interest him, about how he spends his time… that is, all kinds of things. One man would always send me chess assignments, so I could occupy myself with something, another acquaintance sent me chapters from Oleg Sentsov’s book, as I had marched with him at a protest. I got all kinds of things in the mail: funny photographs, postcards with cats that said “Cats demand freedom for Kotov” and so on.

And you’re not just being polite, the letters actually helped you? You had the time to read them and respond?

Yes, of course. I’m not just being polite, they really did help me. Imagine: all day you have the same kind of regimented activities, inspections etc, and then a letter comes from outside – and of course it is encouraging and helps you to gather strength, regardless of the unpleasant conditions.

Perhaps the happiest event during your imprisonment was your wedding to Anna Pavlikova, a defendant in the New Greatness case. How did you two get together in the first place? Tell us the whole story of your relationship.

We met during Anna’s prosecution, when she was in custody. And I just decided to help. I learned about her story, wrote to her, helped her mother with the parcels. Then, under pressure from civil society, Anya and Masha (Maria Dubovik, a defendant in the “New Greatness” case – Team 29) were moved to house arrest. That’s how I first saw Anya in person and visited her. And then this story happened to me, and we, in a sense, switched places: first I supported her, and now she sends me parcels.

So today is the first day that you’re both free and together?

For me it is, but Anya was given a suspended sentence – she is still on probation.

But you can walk and ride in a cab together, like now, that’s what I mean.

Well, yes. You can say we’re free, but it’s important to remember that Anya’s story isn’t over. She’s facing an appeal, and the defence will insist that the verdict be overturned completely.

Why did you decide to get married in prison without waiting for release?

Because we didn’t know what would happen next. I originally got four years, when would I get out? Far from soon. Long visits in prison are only allowed between family members, so we decided to get married. It was also, of course, a gesture of support for each other.

What is a wedding in a prison like in general? What happens?

We got married in the detention centre while I was in Moscow, and the wedding turned out to be a rather formal event. Anya came, she was brought by family and friends who waited outside the entrance to the Matrosskaya Tishina, two officials from the registry office brought her to me. We were given just a couple of minutes, they even put the ‘married’ stamp in my passport without me, just let us exchange rings, kiss each other – and that’s all. I gave my ring to Anya, and I was taken away. That is, we were not allowed to celebrate the event.

If you had been told straight away that you would serve 493 days instead of four years, would you have decided to get married in prison anyway, or would you have postponed?

I don’t know, it’s hard to guess right now. I think we needed this wedding, it was the right decision, and we can celebrate now, when all the friends and family gather. We’ll definitely have a full-fledged wedding now we are free.

Since we are talking about personal life: you are a programmer by profession, and in 2016, if I am not mistaken, you became radicalized in terms of your relationship to the state and became, as you are now presented, a ‘civic activist.’ How did this transition take place?

I wouldn’t say that 2016 was any kind of borderline year here. I have always had such views, oppositional, let’s say, to the current course. I went to Bolotnaya Square (where there was a major demonstration in May 2012 – translator’s note) and Sakharov Avenue (another place for protests – translator’s note) in 2012 and participated in all these rallies. Then for a times I was mostly engaged in work and I didn’t take part in any protests, but not for long. I soon realised that I couldn’t continue living like this. For me the trigger must have been the Oleg Sentsov case, I decided I had to support this brave man and  started to go on pickets with posters and demands to release Sentsov and all political prisoners. And then there were the New Greatness and Network cases, it all escalated and I started to engage in civic activity.

Did you know about the existence of the “Dadin article” at that time? Did you know that you were facing a criminal sentence for, as it says, “repeated breaches of the regulations governing public events”?

Yes of course. Immediately before the arrest, the district police officer came to me and handed over an official piece of paper, which stated that a repeated violation could be punishable by a criminal sentence. But I also knew that the case of Ildar Dadin was the only one of its kind at that time. I saw that the authorities were not particularly applying this article and would not apply it, simply because it was absurd and resonant, that is, if one more such prosecution were initiated, society would immediately rise up and the authorities do not need that.  But it turned out that the authorities didn’t care. They did not care about the opinion of the society and they are ready to make such absurd accusations against an innocent person. I did not expect, of course, that my appearances at peaceful rallies could end in criminal prosecution. It turned out that it could.

And yet, the same police officer informed you about the potential consequences of you going  onto the street, and the protest itself , unfortunately, was unlikely to change anything in the country, you still decided to go. What for?

First of all, I believe that my actions were not unsuccessful. Yes, we will not change anything immediately, but the critical mass is being formed. When people who think that nothing can be changed see that others are standing up for themselves and also for them and are not afraid, this is very important. My opinion is that it’s necessary to show by personal example, by personal actions, that you need not be afraid and must act according to your conscience. That’s why I came out then.

What’s next? Will you continue to go to rallies and pickets?

In some form, of course, I will continue to engage in human rights activities. Now I need to collect our thoughts, to realise what has happened in the world, what has changed. I see that now Yulia Galyamina is being tried on the same charges and that were laid against me. I will try to attend her trial. Other trials are also underway, legislation on rallies and protests is being tightened. That is, the authorities are tightening the screws; during my imprisonment the human rights situation has only worsened. I believe that it is still impossible to be silent. I’ll think about in what forms to express protest. The main thing now is to not forget about those who are behind bars. We must defend their rights, attend their trials, write letters, we must support the innocent.

On behalf of Team 29, I would like to offer you our resources for this kind of work, if you are interested. For example, you could host a programme on our platforms, and we are ready to provide you with airtime.

Thank you so much for this opportunity.

You are approaching home, so I have only one question left –  and not even to you, but to the person who, by chance, witnessed the interview: the taxi driver who was driving you. He heard our entire conversation. What does he think about it?

He says: Stand up for your rights!

Translated by Marian Schwartz, Graham Jones, Mercedes Malcomson, Simon Cosgrove and Ecaterina Hughes

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