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Ex-political prisoner Andrey Barabanov: from Bolotnaya to Prague

The story of a Russian anti-fascist in the Czech Republic

Anna Yarovaya
Photo by Anna Yarovaya
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Andrey Barabanov was a prisoner of the Bolotnaya case. Six years ago, in May 2012, a few weeks after the protest actions in Moscow against presidential electtoral fraud took place, he was detained at his own apartment and sentenced to three years and seven months in prison. Today Andrey lives in Prague. How the prison influenced the former political prisoner, why the current Russian opposition is deeply sick, and why the absence of “blinders” in Russia may cause the brain crash, Andrey Barabanov explained to “7x7” journalist Anna Yarovoa in an interview.


Barricades are a closed chapter. It's time to move on

When did you decide for yourself that you would leave Russia? At what point did it happen?

— After I got from prison, I had been working for nine months in Moscow, and at the same time working around the possibility to leave for Prague, the opportunity to study in the Czech Republic. As a result, it turned out that I was given a chance to attend the language courses at Charles University for free, and thanks to this, I was able to go to Prague together with my former “associate” Denis Lutskevich.

How did you work around the way to leave: country, conditions?

— There were two options. My friend had good contacts in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. If there was an option to go to Germany or France, I would probably go there. The Czech Republic was a fairly acceptable option, cheap moreover, relatively cheap. In addition, there are old human rights traditions that I can relate.

It turns out that you had not even considered the option to stay in Russia?

— No, I had. But the risks I feel while staying in Russia are too high. Again, I'm not that person who's doing nothing, who cares only about his personal life and doesn't try to participate in public life. On the contrary, I participate all over. Just the level of risk is becoming higher and higher. Despite the fact that you don't seem to fall within the scope of a criminal article, this doesn't mean that a criminal article can't fall on you. This is a matter of desire that some bodies can have. It's easy for them, for example, to create a situation for you so you can't leave the place. The border control should simply be given such a command. Especially regarding people like me, who've been mixed up in a case. I was immediately included in the list of extremists, that is, I'm already there, so policemen visit my house from time to time and explain it with “preventing extremism”. They didn't forget about me, they remind me about it. There is absolutely no pleasure, you are always under control. Under scrutiny.

Except for “preventive” visits, were you pressured somehow?

— For example, in Moscow it happened like that the events, which I was going to attend and where I wanted to speak up, simply didn't take place: they were shut. They didn't let hold them. Then the police came to my house, those from the Anti-Extremist Centre. Anyway, I felt that their desire [to limit my freedom again] may arise at any time.

But were they obstructing your departure? Did they try to interfere?

— No. I think they didn't really need me. Those are their customs: now they need you, tomorrow they do not. Right now, they grapple with anarchists and anti-fascists, and it's very easy to fall under this. When I was in Russia, there was not yet this moment when they were so actively pressuring. So it's not that I'm more or less so lucky, but I'm just less of their [law enforcement agencies] interest.

Have you often traveled home to Moscow for last a year and a half?

— Yes, many times. I go there always when I have a chance.

Aren't there any problems?

— From time to time. For example, I can stay at the border control for a long time, and they don't tell me why, but meanwhile they are checking something in their database. Maybe, it happened with everyone that they were checking the passport for a long time, or the tickets. But that was it in my case.

So, once can say that Russia, in principle, let you go?

— In general, yes. But once there was a strange case: when I left to Prague for two months, cops came to my house and asked about me. As if they didn't know that I was in another country, although they should know this, because they have all the data open. It may be interpreted like you are being monitored, and you are told that you have not been forgotten. Despite the fact that you are in another country. I think that this is not a mistake, but a tactic.

Do you like it in the Czech Republic?

— So so, but probably I just got used to it. I understand that at the moment here it is much more comfortable and pleasant. And the fact that I do not like it, I just turn a blind eye, apparently.

For example, what don't you like here?

— I am a native of a megapolis [Moscow], but now I live in a city with a million inhabitants and without that much happening around. It's hard to live with this, so I just took it as a fact and even found a positive moment in it. There is always a chance to come back to the megapolis.

So, is it a bit boring here?

— Yes. The whole Czech Republic is smaller than Moscow. I had been living in the capital city all my life, except for three and a half years in prison. And even when I was imprisoned, I had been in Moscow prison for two years. But at the moment I can say that in principle I like everything in Prague.

Have you already got the plans for future? What are you going to do: to obtain citizenship, a residence permit, or is there any other forward-looking option?

— The maximum, what I think of is permanent residence. That I will get it at some point, in four years or so. But this is still a very long time, and if during this time some crucial changes take place in Russia, I will try to be a part of it. Apparently, I'm one of those who will take the first ticket and come back to participate in the events that will take place there. I mean, I won't, for example, man the barricades, but I will take some other work, more constructive. Barricades are a closed chapter. It's time to move on.

What did your family say about the departure?

— My family is my mother. She wants me to live in Europe. She goes to bed in peace, but when I'm in Russia, she worries, calls, asks where I am. There is no reason for excitement here. Now everyone who is active, they come to Europe, there is a mass exodus from Russia.


Brain crash or how not to make yourself double-minded

Only some weeks ago Russia elected its president. In his word to the people, Vladimir Putin said that “we are going in the right direction”. How do you assess the elections results?

— It's actually a weird situation: it's always getting worse. I don't like to talk about this negativity, but I can't stop it when being asked such a question. It is very bad that there remains an overwhelming majority that is ready for anything that the current government is going to do. It turns out that people gave carte blanche so that they [the government] could do whatever they want. And they sincerely don't understand that all this also concerns them. Because tomorrow something happens, like where they fall under some, well, criminal case, or even not necessarily criminal, just into some situation. And then they will feel affected, even harder affected. In Russia, they say that if the thunder isn't roaring, the peasant won't cross himself [waiting for the flood to start building their ark – trans.remark]. So, in our case, the man doesn't even want to cross himself, even when the thunder roars right next to him. And it is not clear how to sober him up.

Do you think there is still a chance for sobering him up?

— Some of my acquaintances who observed the whole situation together with me and how I was “locked away” — even this did not give them an understanding that at least they should not look at life through the blinders. In such blinders, which are created by themselves, they come up with some positive moments which in fact do not exist. And they live in this fictional, fantasy world. Because otherwise it is impossible to live. Because otherwise there will be a brain crash. And it is so hard to go through this brain crash for a person with deep-rooted concepts. I saw this on the example of my friends. This happened only to some, but it's still unpleasant.

It sounds scary. Especially if you think about the perspective to live in these conditions for at least another six years.

— I do not see any future during this new Putin's term. When I was “locked away” in prison, it was a beginning of the previous term, and already then it seemed that it couldn't get worse. But no, now you can see that it could. Perhaps, all these six years we will be experiencing the “cutting off” of the freedom hotbeds, the hotbeds of some civil opportunities.

So, it turns out that now there is a situation when people will not remove the blinders, but put another ones?

— Sometimes you have to put on second ones. Because if you do not, your first blinders begin to “crumble”, destruction begins. Because it's hard to come up with explanations for yourself when your friends and relatives get a very small salary, taxes are constantly growing, when some new taxes are constantly being invented and, at the same time, many people are being pressured. Naturally, you need one more blinders to explain why you eat more and more second-rate food, they serve you worse in hospital, and at the same time to tell yourself that the authorities are good! That this is how they defends themselves from geopolitical threats. This is a complex process. That is, people work on themselves. Just they work in the other direction: not in the direction of sobering up, but in the direction of intoxication. They need more and more fixes of Russia Today. And the worst thing is when you see coevals, say 25-30 years old, and these people are “stupefying” themselves, they are not stupid, they are highly-educated, they are modern, they use technologies, but they are engaged in such thought-suicide. They tell themselves: do not think, do not think, split yourself, make yourself “double-minded”, so they develop double-thinking in themselves. Politicians do the same automatically, while young people need to feed their doublethink. Because it is not cultivated and it does not remain on its own, the sources for it must be constantly found somewhere. People say “We do not watch TV”, but they find some propaganda resources outside television, and this give them the opportunity to maintain this doublethink.

But it's comfortable to live this way, isn't it?

— It is comfortable to exist. This is not life but existence, I believe.


It's people's energy to change that matters

Why do you think this year there are no such protests as they were in 2012? After all, then and now Putin won. All the same, but the sentiment is completely different. It turns out that Putin won not only elections, but also the combat with the opposition?

— In many ways he won the combat with the opposition. No matter how much you want to think otherwise. But it is the opposition in many ways to be blamed: there are very few really ardent people in the opposition who are ready for sacrifice. Some of these people are already simply sitting in jail, or they have been killed. Part of protesters supported Navalny, and he took overwhelming majority, “absorbed” opposition, in other words, he associated himself with the opposition and took the leadership on his own. At the same time, he is not a leader, he artificially became so, and this is also largely the reason why there are no protest actions now. Even last year, the protests took place based on some idea that suddenly we could have an alternative candidate. Back then not everyone supported Navalny, but they came out because of this.

And what happened after March 2017?

— Navalny harshly defamed himself. And other regime opponents, too. Yabloko and Parnas as such definitively cease to exist as dynamic forces. It's their political death. It turns out that in the opposition there is no emergence of anything new. I'm personally against leadership, especially so absolute, as, for example, Navalny promotes. I'm against any leadership at all, horizontal connections are closer to me. But the society is so used to the fact that there must be some person that will lead. Therefore, it is very difficult to consolidate the protests and explain to people that it is worth going out now, although in fact after these elections there should necessarily have been major protests. Spontaneous. Without any leaders. Without any organizers. Because right now it is the moment when all this should happen massively, and now the energy can be generated to expand this protest. If this does not happen, it means that the problem is even deeper, and that this is the problem of those people who are opposition-leaning. The opposition seemed to have completely withdrawn into themselves, perhaps it could be called a burn-up.

How exactly did Navalny defamed himself?

— He's always been a figure that was artificially stirred up. He was allowed to suppress other opposition politicians. They let him “overgrow” them. And all his tactics were very strange: I will be authorized for the elections, we will follow the same scenario as in the Moscow elections, where, again, he was allowed to participate and to get his 27 percent of the vote, while Sobyanin, against this background, “won the election” for real. In the presidential elections, the same scenario was played out: there are no elections in Russia, but Navalny launches an electoral campaign for the presidency, wants to get authorized for the elections. Let's suppose that he was allowed, he gains some percentage – looks good. But it turned out in a different way: he was not authorized, he doesn't know what to do, starts Internet hysteria, begins to drag other people, who were authorized, through the mud. He blatantly lies – he lies about numbers, he doesn't know what to do. His headquarters is also lying, dragging others through the mud. It's disgusting, it's just filth. People in the opposition constantly fought with one another, and the authorities only benefited from it. The same happens again. And it doesn't matter how many followers Navalny has, how many views there are on his channel. Important thing is that he didn't prove himself as a political figure. He is a good investigator, but not a politician.

And what if he supported Sobchak at the elections, could it work?

— In principle, nothing would have changed, but he could save face. Maybe he would have saved himself as a politician and would have reached new audiences and laid some kind of groundwork. And what he did to Sobchak – didn't support neither her nor this presidential campaign in general – it was once again the defamation of himself as a political figure. One can't drag others through the mud and lie that cloak-and-dagger.

Everything is clear with Navalny and your attitude towards him. How did you vote in this election?

— I did not vote. And even didn't spoil the vote. But I have no hopes for the institution of elections, there are no illusions at all, especially at the moment. Maybe next time I will react somehow in a different way. In 2012, everything was different: there was energy to go out on the streets en masse. And now this energy is not there and, apparently, the opposition lost from the ideological point of view, it could not provide any alternative. But to replenish the energy, elections don't matter, neither the counting process, but it's important to have people with energy aimed to changes. They should be ready for something. Because now there will be no changes because they [the authorities] have a majority – and an ideological majority, and it's impossible even to oppose them with something serious. At the aggregated level. in 2012, the difference lied in the fact that a very large number of people was hesitant, they didn't have a spiritual staple in a form of the Crimea. There was no staple in a form of the Russian World, nothing was formalized. It's like in Generation P [famous novel by Russian author Viktor Pelevin – trans.remark], where the main character rides the Mercedes and says: “So, where this Russian Idea?” It seems that they found this mud pit, wrote “Our Crimea” on it, and that was enough to form a post-Soviet coherence.


Back at that time there was a window of opportunity

When you went out to the march on May 6, did you expect how it would turn out, what would happen?

— I had some expectations, I had even scenarios: to leave then or go to the march. I was almost out of a suitcase then, and I had the thought – either then or never. I mean, back at that moment there was a window of opportunity. Then there was energy, it could be expanded, and something could be done to achieve some kind of leap. But again, it was not enough of mass character, of people's ability not to go anywhere at all, to forget about their work at that moment, to postpone it, go on vacation or something else. This is how massive, really universal European strikes take place, when half a million people go out, and they don't think that in two hours they should go to the countryside to have fun with their friends, but they think about what is happening now and what they need to achieve now. I really believe that there was such a chance, they just missed it, they thought that it would work out somehow on its own, probably. I was just an ordinary participant, and I was not on board of the Coordination Council or anything else. But they missed the moment.

You went out back then, because you had faith, you were in the right mood?

— I had a mood, a feeling that something could change. For example, I don't have contacts neither with any authorities, nor with political parties. I have leftist, absolutely anti-fascist views. And I know many anti-fascists who don't care about the authorities, but they went out to these marches and walked alongside Navalny, Udaltsov, and others, who played their own game. And there were all the political forces from left to right, centrists, democrats, liberals – everyone. There was a unifying factor. At that moment people forgot about their ideological differences. For them, it was very weird, many of them didn't understand how this was possible at all – that there are leftists, here are right ones, LGBT in the middle. Before they would tear each other to pieces. But that was like the moment of the civil society birth, which was supposed to happen at some point. But it didn't happen like that. Did I suppose that there would be such severe repressions? I did not. That was my fault. This was my misjudgement, and I didn't expect that they would lock me away in jail for such a long time for no clear reason. And that many people would be locked away. That was my fault.

If you had known that, wouldn't you go out?

— I would go. I was asked this question so many times. I would have just left earlier, I would have gone the other way. But I would go to the march anyway. Now it's pointless to discuss it in the subjunctive mood, I think. That's dead and buried. I'm not upset. Just Russian roulette pointed at me. I was the one out from sixty thousand to loose in Russian roulette.


Anti-extremism Centre: the more terrible image to create of a person, the better. Intimidating worked out

Even before the trial, during the motion for a change of custody, you were accused of having links with anarchists, football fans. Why?

— So was the case. Back then I didn't really have any connections to anarchists. Neither with the fans. Well, I knew some people, but I didn't even commit any actions at that moment.

What the allegations relating to the links were based on?

— On some weird findings of the Anti-extremism Centre. They very often make a description of a person without any solid ground. Because the more terrible image to create of a person, the better. The example of Set' [a group of anti-fascists accused in extremism – transl.remark]: the Penza case is going on, and now it's clear that the more terrible they will present a terrorist, the easier it will be to punch through, so that he or she can be “tortured”, to act hard on them. The same is true for the Bolotnaya case: the first people who were detained – me, Maksim Luzyanin, Sasha Dukhanina and several others – were detained very harshly, they didn't know how to take action. Anti-extremism Centre wrote a notice: an anarchist, a football hooligan. Although I had nothing to do with them. I lived at home with my mother, with a girlfriend, I didn't do anything rough. But despite this fact, eight OMON policemen [kind of SWAT – transl.remark] came to my place with machine guns. As if they were detaining a serious extremist. But in fact, they were not!

It turns out that they chose those who definitely couldn't be picked on, who had the ideal reputation, to show that once they were treated so hard, then it will be even tougher with the rest?

— This is the favorite tactic of the Russian authorities: they test it on some categories of people, so then they can pressure others. If no one reacted there, then you can do whatever else, if there is no reaction, there will be no concrete actions. It happened more than once that the authorities tested it somewhere, and in response there were a lot of people going out on the street, and if there was a serious public campaign, then they had to hang back, or release detainees, or something else. And people see it. But do not always understand that they need to remain it until the end. Here it is necessary not to back down. If they hadn't backed down the people from Bolotnaya case, if the protesters had fought off the people that were made a case against, there wouldn't have been a large part of what is happening now, and what has been happening for the last three years.

That is, they realized that their actions do not cause confrontation, so they can continue to crack down?

— Yes. The authorities realized that it worked out. They also managed to intimidate, and to lock away later on. But they failed to communicate to the public opinion that these are rebels and extremists. It didn't turn out to be convincing that they were terrorists and extremists. But they managed to do everything else. And why this Bolotnaya case trial is so important? Because this is, first of all, the biggest political trial. And secondly, it was used to test the future reaction to the events. What's happening now with anarchists, with anti-fascists, with Maltsev's followers – this all is built upon the Bolotnaya case. Everything is interconnected.

It's clear about the society, not all of them have stood up to pressure. But how then did the friends react to the launch of the criminal case against you, especially those who then put onblinders? Did they consider you as a political prisoner?

— They did. Not all my friends are politicized, but they are young, active. Some of them went to rallies in 2012, someone even in 2011. And the authorities managed to realign and frighten them on the background of the Bolotnaya case. Against the background of all the other things, they have been realigned so that they now don't even want to talk about it, and they somehow live in their bubble, in a certain circle, and they say: “Why do you need to keep on coming forward?” They just went out of business, and they no longer expect improvements. And it would be okay if it was just a waiting game, when you realize that you just need to hold out. But not to walk away in the woods, but to get through, to wait a while. But they take some other stand, they have a stance of adaptation, setting up. When I was locked away in prison, during first ongoing detention, I had to prove somehow that I hadn't had a fight with police, I needed to take notes from neighbors or someone else, and when we were looking for witnesses to prove it, one of my friends said personally for me a terrible thing: “I can't testify in the prosecution, because it will damage my banking career”. Here is the choice: either you are a bank clerk or you are telling the truth.


Ildar turned out to be not that tough: he admitted himself that he had just given up and broken down

What had you been doing in prison for three and a half years?

— I tried to maximize the benefits for myself, because otherwise I could have degraded. I was talking, reading, doing sports, writing letters, talking on the phone, looking at something. I tried not to soak up bad prison things, I communicated with my “sidekicks” a lot. Because I could do it. Now I understand that I should have spent ten times less time on communication with other prisoners. I should have just read and developed myself all the time. Actually I should have shut off from the outside world. I should have been locked in a single cell. I would be okay if there would be only food and books.

Is it a kind of paradise for an introvert?

— Exactly. A paradise for a reading introvert.

Anyway, were the conditions normal?

— Yes, they were normal. I didn't have that many conflicts. There were some neighbour disputes. But that wasn't serious. A couple of conflicts, maybe, or a little more. But without assaults or any horror things. Again, we were watched; the monitoring commission and other human rights activists wrote reports about us. Therefore, it was difficult for them [the guards] to do anything. Although the drifters tried to swindle me, I know that some of the Bolotnaya prisoners were swindled even out of money. It's just a commercially mutated gulag with distorted concepts. I was lucky that I was not sent to a torture zone. Now, if I were imprisoned, everything would be much more depressing. Then there was different time, the response was just being designed, and there was no such attitude to send people necessarily to the torture camp. Although the Anti-Extremism Centre, they guaranteed me eight years and Siberian camps, but they did not succeed, because they are too little dots for such a “promotion”.

Were you following Ildar Dadin's story? He, indeed, wasn't lucky, he was sent to the torture zone, in the Segezha penal colony no.7.

— It all was promoted as fighting against a torture system within a prison. At first the campaign was going well, and it seemed that it was possible to achieve some kind of qualitative development, to bring this campaign to the international level. And it was almost brought to the international level. But there was a lack of something. And Ildar turned out to be not that tough: he admitted himself that he had just given up and broken down. It's a bit sad. He probably didn't understand how important his actions and his position were at the moment when he announced the torture. I think that they really took place, and the dude was really very scared. Yes, it was a big case, but they should have got rid of the supervisors, and press criminal charges on the basis of the facts. It was possible to do it. But they didn't do it. I don't blame Ildar. But they just didn't do it.

At what point did Dadin give up? When he left the prison and didn't do any next moves?

— No, the story of the fight against tortures finished when he backfired in prison. When he refused a medical examination, when he refused further investigations against the colony administration. Although it must be noted that in his case they managed to fight off the Article 212.1 [“Repeated infringing of the established procedure for holding meetings, processions and demonstrations”]. They managed to so it, and it's cool. That was a very important point and a big deal. But further they should have struggled with tortures which were constantly taking place there, where people were simply killed. But this hasn't been done. So, the moment was lost. Now they do not take all these reports of torture seriously. And there are a lot of them. It happens everywhere. Almost constantly. No one simply takes them seriously: “Are these people being tortured again?” All this is perceived even by the society in a different way. And it's dangerous, because this is about human lives. It concerns us all.


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