29 December 2020
By Zoya Svetova, journalist, human rights defender, and a laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Award
In the last few days of an outgoing year, we usually evoke its achievements, joys, losses, dramas and tragedies. 2020 was without doubt a year of much grief and loss. For most of the year, humanity has been trying to live in new conditions, with depression and confusion reigning all around us. Even some Orthodox priests which I had to speak to are giving in to this despondency, which they of all people definitely shouldn’t be doing. Philosophers are asking whether we are approaching end times. But people aren’t built to be in a constant state of despondency, thank God. We search for a support pillar – we search for hope.
And I am no different. Looking back at this past year, I remember those who “got out”. Yes – those who were released from prison. Those for whom 2020 was the return to an old life or the beginning of a new one.
I’ve been following and writing about the fates of those who have fallen into the grasp of the Russian Leviathan for many years now. As a rule, I don’t abandon any of the people I write about, even if I only write about them once. This means that every year I meet one of my heroes who is being released. Whilst making my “Freedom-2020” list, I discovered that there are almost no “politicals” in there – that is, those whose imprisonment is politically motivated, such as a civil activist or oppositionist. Konstantin Kotov is of course an exception, being released on the 16th December. The rest of my former “prisoners” are those who have ended up behind bars either by chance or due to an order, not a political one, but one made from baseness and someone from the security services wanting an extra star on their shoulder strap.
Yuliya Rotanova, an assistant to the general director of the company involved with the Ministry of Defensc (one of the branches of the Oboronservis case), unlike the friend of former Minister of Defence Anatoly Serdyukov Evgenia Vasilyeva (who was released a few months after being sentenced), served almost her entire sentence, leaving on parole just a few months before release. Rotanova was accused of fraud, which she simply could not have committed in view of her position at work. I met with Yuliya at Lefortovo Prison during one of the public-observation commission’s visits. She had been transferred from a standard female jail to be shaken up. Testimony against Serdyukov was needed, but Rotanova had never seen him and couldn’t say anything, nor could she make anything up. By a miracle, cancer was detected in her at Lefortovo by a doctor, and she was released. After her operation, Rotanova was sentenced to 6 years in a penal colony. These stages – the deterioration of her health, being denied parole twice, and then the decision of the Supreme Court – freedom!
In May, Gennady Kravtsov, a former GRU employee who was sentenced to 14 years for treason, amended to 6 years after an appeal, was released from a Mordovan colony. His “treason of the Motherland” was grounded in the fact that Kravtsov, no longer working for the GRU but in a company completely unrelated to any state secrets, sent his resumé to Switzerland in search of work. This was perceived as if he dilvulged state secrets. Kravtsov says that there was nothing confidential in his resumé. Furthermore, the Supreme Court, when halving his sentence, indirectly admitted his innocence.
Malkho Bisultanov, who became well known for his testimony about terrible tortures endured in Omsk penal colony penal colony No. 7, was released in June 2020. Before his arrest he was the director of a small seafood factory and was arrested for extortion (most likely, one of his partners or competitors had ‘ordered’ his arrest) and for drug possession. He said that the drugs had been planted on him by officers of the same police department that had fabricated the case against Ivan Golunov a few years later. Malkho served his full term of eight and a half years in prison. He knows the names of all those who falsified the criminal case against him and remembers those who tortured him in the colony. He wants those people who broke his life to be held to account.
Igor Sokolov was released in July 2020 after serving 13 years in prison for involvement in Shamil Basayev’s gang during the hostage-taking in Budennovsk. This is the strangest and most mysterious case I have ever mentioned here. A study of the circumstances and materials of the case convinced me that Sokolov is not guilty of the charges for which he was imprisoned. He had never been to Budyonnovsk and took no part in the hostage-taking. It is obvious to me that, as often happens, he was the victim of an ‘order,’ perhaps from ill-wishers or business rivals (funny to say, he had a very small business in a small Russian town). Sokolov described his story in the book Here You Are Nobody, which was published by his friends while he was in prison.
In August, an 80-year-old scientist, Vladimir Lapygin, deputy head of the TsNIIMASH Scientific and Technical Centre, was released on parole. He had been sentenced to seven years in a maximum security penal colony in May 2016 on charges of treason. According to the judgment, Lapygin transferred to China a demonstration version of a computer programme developed at TsNIIMASH. Lapygin pleaded not guilty, stating that the file he sent did not contain information constituting state secrets and that the demonstration version was an analogue of a programme previously registered with Rospatent.
None of these people released in 2020 were in opposition to the authorities. I think that before their confrontation with law enforcment agencies, judges, and prison staff, none of them were aware of what Russian investigators and judges were doing and what a Russian prison was like in general. Now each of them could become a kind of expert on these topics. None of them will forget their experiences, no matter how hard they try, no matter how much they dream of erasing that experience from their memory.
And for us, every such story is just one more proof of the monstrously unjust system established in Russia over the past 20 years. We can only rejoice that our heroes are now at liberty, and we can all raise our glasses together and drink. “To those who have been released!” In the hope that next year there will be many times more of these people.