The Frivolous Arrest of Another Russian Dissident
Conferences can be a bit like summer camp: people come together for a few intense days once a year, then return to their regular lives. Last week, in Tallinn, Estonia, I attended the Lennart Meri Conference on foreign policy and security. (I go most years.) I was on a panel with Leonid Volkov, a close associate of the Russian anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny; Volkov also leads a resistance effort against the Russian government’s recent attempts to regulate and restrict the Internet.
The topic of the panel was Russia: civil society, the diaspora, and the possibility of change. For the purposes of the talk, I represented the diaspora and Volkov civil society. I was not optimistic; he was full of hope. He said that it was a tremendously exciting moment to be living in Russia. In one of the country’s largest cities, Yekaterinburg, where Volkov grew up, hundreds of people had been demonstrating for several days against the planned construction of a church in a public park. Several people had been arrested and many had been injured in confrontations with police, but Volkov thought that the protesters might succeed.
Our panel was on Saturday; the conference ended Sunday. I flew home to New York and Volkov flew to Moscow. Early on Tuesday morning, he tweeted that the taxi he was in was followed and then stopped by the police. A minute later he tweeted, “I am being detained, no reason given.” He was taken to a police station and held overnight. On Wednesday morning, he faced a judge, who sentenced him to twenty days behind bars, in connection with a protest that took place last September.
According to OVDInfo, an independent Russian publication that tracks political prosecutions, Volkov was found guilty of violating a law that bans organizing a public event that results in harm to health or property. On Twitter, Volkov recounted the court’s allegation: that, by organizing a live Webcast of a protest on September 9, 2018, against the federal government’s plan to raise the retirement age, he had incited someone to scratch a car. “What do you know, I incited mass disorder by virtue of the spoken word and thought,” Volkov tweeted. “And managed to scratch someone’s Toyota Camry in Moscow while being in Vilnius myself.” In court, he said that he was in Lithuania during the protest. But police testified that Volkov had organized the protest and was therefore responsible for the car-scratching, and also for two people who hit police officers that day.
Volkov, who is thirty-eight, is a software engineer who, in 2013, ran Navalny’s campaign for mayor of Moscow. That summer, in the lead-up to the election, Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison on trumped-up embezzlement charges. Thousands of people risked arrest by protesting in central Moscow that day, and the state backtracked, releasing Navalny the following morning. Alexey Navalny’s brother Oleg, however, was sent to a prison colony: he was a hostage. Following the mayoral election, in which the incumbent mayor triumphed, Volkov left the country to take a job as a tech executive in Luxembourg. After a year and a half, though, he returned to Russia—he wanted to get back to organizing. The state immediately found a crime to charge him with: he was accused of wrestling a microphone away from a television reporter, during a protest in Novosibirsk, and breaking it. I thought that, like Alexey Navalny’s brother, Volkov would become a hostage behind bars. But Volkov was convinced that the authorities were just trying to get him to leave the country. In August, 2016, a court sentenced Volkov to a fine.
The tactic that the state has finally adopted against Navalny is to arrest him for a few weeks at a time, which doesn’t bring out protesters but still makes Navalny’s life very difficult. Now, it seems, the same tactic is being used against Volkov, perhaps in the hopes that he will leave the country and stay out. Volkov did spend most of this past academic year abroad, as a World Fellow at Yale University. According to Navalny’s Twitter account, when the police detained Volkov, they said, “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Like Navalny, Volkov seems to have accepted frequent arrests as part of his regular life. I flew home to New York and took the subway home; he flew home to Moscow and got locked up for twenty days. But he was right about Yekaterinburg: for now, at least, the protesters have succeeded in stopping the construction of the church.