The price of words. Lukashenka’s threats, the murder of a ‘military correspondent’ and the persecution of the Free University – Ilya Shablinsky on the important events of the past week
Photo by Sergei Chugunov

3 April 2023

By Ilya Shablinsky

Source: Spektr.Press

Last week, Belarusian dictator Lukashenka unexpectedly suggested that Ukraine and Russia immediately sign an armistice and come to the negotiating table without preconditions. “Without preconditions” means on Putin’s terms. This is pretty obvious. No one would have given this maneuver much thought, since who knows what kind of nonsense pops into the ageing dictator’s head. But then Lukashenka added something to his unconventional call for peace. He was probably trying to provoke Ukraine somehow. Lukashenka threatened that he and Putin would be prepared to deploy not only tactical, but also strategic nuclear weapons in Belarus if a ceasefire did not take place.

By the way, has anyone read the joint statement from Putin and Xi Jinping after their recent meeting on March 21, 2023? I don’t think it’s particularly interesting to anyone, but regardless, here’s an excerpt: “All nuclear powers must refrain from deploying nuclear weapons outside their national territories and must withdraw all nuclear weapons deployed abroad.”

What is the price of these words? Not even a week later, Putin announced that he was going to deploy nuclear weapons abroad. However, everyone knows the price of Putin’s words.

But this is the same topic that Lukashenka spoke about. As a matter of principle, he had to coordinate a surprise like this with his “friend,” the Russian dictator. And it appears that he did. By all appearances, this is yet another form of nuclear blackmail. From a practical point of view, a threat like this is nothing new — Putin has already deployed everything he could possibly deploy in the Kaliningrad region and other regions. It should be mentioned that placing strategic missiles with long-range and possibly overseas targets 300 or 400 kilometers closer to the western border of Belarus isn’t particularly relevant. Generally, in a game like this, it’s warheads placed on submarines that are of primary importance. But what’s more important at this point is the psychological pressure on Western elites and those living in large European countries. Judging by the ideas advanced by the Belarusian leader, Putin would very much like to end the war satisfied with what he has captured. And that would be about 19% of Ukraine’s territory.

No, neither Ukraine nor its allies will go for that now. The battles near Bakhmut and Avdeevka haven’t given either side an advantage, but as far as anyone can tell, Ukraine is still planning a large-scale summer offensive. And the Russian army is continuing its offensive, although not very successfully. 

On the evening of Sunday, 2 April, military correspondent and blogger Vladlen Tatarsky was assassinated in St. Petersburg during a meeting with readers. His real name was Maksim Fomin and he was a native of Makeevka, in the Donetsk region. In 2011, he was convicted for involvement in a robbery, but he was able to escape from imprisonment in 2014 when fighting broke out in the vicinity of the penal colony. He then took part in combat on the side of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), was again imprisoned, but was later pardoned by the head of the DPR, Zakharchenko, and fought again. In the years that followed, he became a war correspondent, and in February 2022 he began covering events at the front, assuming the pseudonym of Vladlen Tatarsky. He was present at the ceremony on 30 September 2022, dedicated to the four “new regions” joining Russia — occupied fragments of four regions of Ukraine.  As he was leaving St. George’s Hall, he recorded a short video that later circulated online: “We’ll kill everyone and rob everyone…everything will be just the way we like it!” As far as the robbery goes, he’s well versed in that. Some people have already commented on this act of individual-focused terrorism. Some saw traces of the Russian secret services in what happened, and some saw it as an act carried out by Ukrainian professionals. I think that the latter assumption is correct, and that the Russian secret services shouldn’t be brought into it. As a rule, I don’t like conspiracy theories. Ukrainians probably have their own list of goals and their own scores to keep. There doesn’t seem to be much else to say about this murder.

Evan Gershkovich, a journalist for the influential US newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, has been arrested in Yekaterinburg. Twenty-four hours later, a closed sitting of Moscow’s Lefortovo District Court sentenced him to two months’ imprisonment on remand. Gershkovich, a well-known journalist, had been working in Russia for about six years. He flew to Ekaterinburg on 29 March. As his colleagues said, he was planning to interview the governor of Sverdlovsk Oblast who recently came into public conflict with Evgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner PMC. The FSB has accused the journalist of espionage and presidential spokesman Peskov has even said that it’s not a matter of suspicion but that the journalist “was caught red-handed”. Incidentally, neither Peskov nor other representatives of the authorities have explained what Gershkovich was doing when he was “caught red-handed” or what specifically he is being accused of. 

It seems that those who initially interpreted the arrest as a boost to the Kremlin’s reserves for prisoner exchanges are right. It’s not yet clear who they’d like to exchange the journalist for but candidates do exist. As it happens two Russian citizens, staffers of one of the Russian special forces, were recently arrested in Slovenia. Perhaps they will come up too. Be that as it may, Gershkovich is a fairly substantial figure for an exchange: a journalist at a respectable publication and a relatively young professional, in whose fate the American public is taking a lively interest. It seems too that his time spent in a Russian jail will soon become an issue in pre-election clashes in the USA. It looks like the Russian special services thought seriously about who they needed.

The Russian Prosecutor’s Office has demanded that the Free University be designated an undesirable organisation. The University was founded a little more than two years ago by former teachers at the Higher School of Economics, by professors who for many years were acknowledged as the best in their departments. New information technologies provided the opportunity for the university’s work – lectures and seminars took place remotely with the aid of сloud platforms for holding online video conferences. The Free University non-profit organisation was registered in Riga but effectively it was and remains an extra-territorial organisation, its teachers and students based in Russia and abroad. 

The rationale of the university in exile is to offer students in Russia and abroad – Russian-speaking students for the most part – the opportunity to study a number of humanities without being moulded by a revived state ideology. Teaching of technical disciplines had also begun in recent months. Naturally, the Free University is not a political organisation and the attack on it is an attack on academic freedom which is, in fact, guaranteed by Article 44 of the RF Constitution. But who here still remembers the Constitution?  One of the accusations of the Russian Prosecutor’s Office amounts to “an ultra-liberal model of European democracy being imposed” during the teaching process. What is meant by these words, the literal meaning of which is not immediately obvious, is the following: the university permits a critical attitude to any state authorities, including the current political regime in Russia. In actual fact, at the Free University, as at any other, few subjects are linked to the study of contemporary politics but that’s not the point. The statement by the Prosecutor’s Office means that anyone who is publicly critical of the authorities is liable to criminal prosecution. Full stop. This is a totalitarian paradigm. And it already constitutes the elements of a crime under Article 284.1 of the RF Criminal Code – participation in the activity of “an undesirable organisation”. 

Just think for a second: some kind of “imposition” of some kind of “ultra-liberal model” as part of the academic process is a crime, for which the author of these lines could go down for up to four years. And there you have it.   

A whole series of events worthy of attention are linked to the operation of the court and prison systems, as well as to the activities of the special services.  The eventful story of the tribulations of Aleksei Moskalev and his sixth-grade daughter, Masha, is well known, one would like to write “to the whole country” but I’m not sure the said story matters to a particular part of the country. Anyway, Masha’s drawing of a woman and child beneath the flag of Ukraine and the missiles heading towards them brought an angry reaction from her teacher. She reported it to the principal immediately and the principal reported it to the police. Also immediately. The police came for Masha and her father, Aleksei Moskalev, who is a single parent to his daughter. Aleksei was found to have made a couple of anti-war comments on V Kontakte. With the outcome, as we know, that the father was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment by the Yefremov Inter-District Court which heard the case in a single day. And will not most probably be sentenced to even more since he escaped from house arrest and attempted to leave the country via fraternal Belarus but was seized by the valiant special forces.

But what is there to attend to here besides the absurd and cruel sentence of two years for a couple of lines? The way this whole bunch of people attacked the father and daughter. The vigilant teacher, the vigilant principal. They notified whoever they needed to – it’s no joke, after all, an anti-war drawing, and there were rockets in it and a yellow and blue flag. Aleksei Moskalev, to all appearances, understood how things could turn out. He took his daughter out of school and began giving her home schooling. This did not help: both he and his daughter were regularly summoned both by vigilant teachers and by the police. They had not yet decided how to deal with this family. Then the father and Masha moved to another town, to another area (!) where they rented an apartment. But that didn’t help. They tracked them down, raided the place and put him under house arrest. They took the daughter to a shelter.

Now Masha will have to live in that cheerful place for several years. My father, who was left an orphan not without the help of the state, spent 10 years in an orphanage, and he told me a lot about the morals that reigned there. They haven’t changed, I assure you. Where is that compassionate lady of ours who joyfully reported to Putin and willingly took care of the children whose homes had been bombed by her superiors? Where is the whole gang of pro-family activists who grieved over the removal of children from their parents?

On the internet you can find a recent letter from 12-year-old Masha to her father, which gives an idea of the strength of spirit and firmness of character of this girl. And about the fact that she will have to grow up early.

In the end, this story is not only about a child’s drawing, which turned into imprisonment for his daughter and father, and not only about a horde of angry teachers and cops, but also about the fact that even in this darkness and anger you can see a child’s hand, which gives us hope.

On 16 March, Moscow City Court was scheduled to hear the case of politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, accused of spreading false information about the army (about the destruction of Mariupol) and treason. The session did not take place due to the sharp deterioration of Kara-Murza’s health. He was diagnosed with polyneuropathy by the chief neurologist of the Federal Penitentiary Service in Moscow. Polyneuropathy is a multiple lesion of peripheral nerves that impairs sensitivity and blood circulation in the affected area. One of the main symptoms of this dangerous disease is numbness, loss of sensitivity of the extremities. Apparently, in Kara-Murza’s case this is one of the consequences of the two severe poisonings he experienced in 2015 and 2017. The disease is on the list of illnesses that give grounds for release from prison. But this is not to be counted on. Vladimir Kara-Murza is justifiably perceived by the authorities as one of the leaders of the opposition, and such guarantees, even the few that still exist in Russian law, do not apply to them.

In Moscow, a court sentenced Mikhail Simonov, 63 years old, to seven years in prison under Article 207.3 (dissemination of inaccurate information about the army). Simonov was a railway worker, director of a dining car, and lived in two countries: his family lives in Belarus. In March 2022, he wrote these three lines in his account on the social network Vkontakte: ‘Killing children and women, we sing songs on Channel One. We, Russia, have become godless. Forgive us, Lord!’ and ‘Russian pilots are bombing children.’ He wrote the phrase about pilots bombing children above a photo of the Mariupol Drama Theatre. He did nothing else. Simonov was denounced to the Investigative Committee by two vigilant citizens who visited his account.

New criminal cases are opened every week for the offences of ‘distribution of inaccurate information’ about the Army (fake news) or ‘discrediting’ the Army. But the age of the convicted person and the fact that he has many chronic diseases is also noteworthy here. Yet, as we see, in no way did this cool the ardour of prosecutor or judge. An absurd sentence was handed down, as in many other cases, for a few lines.

Simonov’s cellmate, 24-year-old mathematician Dmitry Ivanov, charged with the same offence, drew attention to the case. He wrote to his lawyer that the case of the railway worker should become more widely known.

We have to agree with him. Although it’s impossible to keep track of all the new prosecutions that are launched every week. But let us note that behind every such prosecution is a Russian, who did not want to keep silent, despite the terrible risk of ending up in prison for a long time.

Dmitry Ivanov has also just been sentenced. To eight and a half years.

Translated by Nina dePalma, Melanie Moore and Simon Cosgrove

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