“It’s hard to describe the feeling of being tasered.” Alexei Runov tells the story of torture that led him to flee Russia, and the challenges of Russian refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine
Вениамин Волин
“It’s hard to describe the feeling of being tasered.” Alexei Runov tells the story of torture that led him to flee Russia, and the challenges of Russian refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine
23 December 2022, 12:13

Alexei Runov / Courtesy photo

Antifascist activist Alexei Runov recently revealed that on January 25, 2018, FSB operatives tortured him with a stun gun. The reason? At the time, Runov shared an apartment with Igor Shishkin, who was detained in the “Network” case (“Delo Seti”). The practice was standard: pushed to the floor of a minibus, shocks from a stun gun, then a formal interrogation with the FSB. That same evening, both Shishkin and Ilya Kapustin, another witness in the case, were tortured in the same fashion, but only Runov was let free. After laying low for several months, he managed to cross the border illegally into Ukraine, where he stayed up until Russia’s recent invasion, when he was again forced to flee. Veniamin Volin spoke with him for Mediazona.

Alexei Runov grew up in a small city in the Nizhny Novgorod region, east of Moscow, before moving to St. Petersburg, where he lived until 2018. The 29-year-old says that he held antifascist and anti-authoritarian beliefs, occasionally participating in protests.

“I found and kept up with like-minded people on the internet, went to concerts, played sports, joined tournaments (both “official” and strictly for antifascist activists), participated in political actions and occasionally afterwards spoke with officials at the police department’s Center “E”, or received phone calls with threats of verbal and physical abuse. In general, as a person who wants to change life for the better, I tried to do everything that I thought was useful and right,” Runov recalls.

At the end of 2017, he realized he’d been emotionally burnt out, and decided to put his life back in order: Runov got a new job, joined a coding class, and retuned to practicing martial arts. He also moved, renting a room in an apartment in St. Petersburg’s Povarsky Lane, where fellow anti-fascist Igor Shishkin lived with his wife Tatiana. Alexei had big plans for the next year, but the evening of January 25, 2018 would change his life forever.

January 25, 2018. “It’s hard to describe the feeling of being tasered.”

Returning home from work, Alexei was surprised to not see his neighbor Igor Shishkin or his pet Labrador, Sonya. This didn’t sit well with him, and soon Tatiana came in, alarmed as well, saying that she couldn’t contact Igor. At nine in the evening, there was a knock at the door.

“We went out to the corridor,” Alexei recalls, “and people with buffs covering their faces stormed in, with pistols in their hands, shouting ‘FSB!’ I remember my first thought was that this was some kind of joke. But when they shoved my face to the floor and walked over me a couple of times, I realized that everything was serious.”

No one explained to him what was going on. The security forces just started searching the apartment, Alexei recalls. “They brought me to the kitchen, took my phone, and one of them asked for the password to unlock my phone, putting a kitchen knife up to my leg. Being in a state of shock and some confusion, I told them.”

The young man was taken to his room, where a search was already underway, and asked about how he met his flatmates. “They told me I was a terrorist, and that I’d be put away for a long time,” the antifascist says. “If you basically remove all the threats and bullying, they were asking about myself and my social circle. It wasn’t my first experience with this kind of interrogation, so I knew how to communicate with them, using general phrases, and referring to my difficulty remembering.

The search and interrogation took about three hours. Alexei was told to get dressed and go with the men. When he asked where and for what, the security forces, he says, “did not answer anything. They tied me up, dragged me outside, and brought me into a minibus that was standing at the entrance.”

“They put me on the floor of a minibus, cuffed me with my hands behind my back, put a black bag on my head, asked if I could breathe in it, and, having received a satisfactory answer, began asking questions, prefixing each question with a stun,” he recalls, describing the torture that then began.

The questions were like those asked in the apartment: friends, acquaintances with specific people or organizations, Runov says, “including asking about some ‘Network’.”

“The torture lasted for about half an hour, as, it seemed to me, the first shock hit me in the back of the neck, which was held for a couple seconds. Then they used the stun gun on my back and palms,” the activist says, “It’s hard to describe the feeling of being tasered. I only remember that my muscles cramped, and I had these uncontrollable shudders. After all the questions, we started moving, but I couldn’t understand where we were going. I was scared of not knowing, I didn’t understand what would happen next, and I assumed that the torture would continue.”

Runov was brought to the FSB directorate building on Shpalernaya Street. “They put me in the waiting room and told me to wait,” he recalls, “They handed me a bag with things from my room so that I could get dressed, since they dragged me out of the house only in shorts and a T-shirt. I sat in the waiting room and waited for a call to the investigator for about an hour, during which time another person was brought to the waiting room. They brought him to me and asked if I knew him, and he asked about me. But we didn't know each other. Now I assume that it was Ilya Kapustin, who also went through torture in the ‘Network’ case.”

Ilya Kapustin was, apparently, similarly tortured with a stun gun in another minibus at the same time as Alexei Runov, all because Kapustin was familiar with another detainee in the case, Julian Boyarshinov. Kapustin was seized on the street on the evening of January 25, dragged into a minibus, also knocked to the floor, and shocked with tasers.

“If I didn’t know the answers to some question, for example, when I didn’t understand who or what they were talking about, they shocked me with a stun gun in the groin area or on the side of the stomach,” Kapustin said when interviewed by Mediazona in 2018. “They electrocuted me to say that one or another of my acquaintances was going to arrange something dangerous. There were questions about whether I was a member of this or that organization, where I went, whether I was in Penza, they asked for details from the lives of my acquaintances. And at the same time, they would poke me with a shocker. At some point, one of them said that they could throw me out somewhere in the forest and break my legs. And I started anticipating this moment when everything would end, because they tortured me for so long that it was already completely unbearable.”

Another antifascist, Viktor Filinkov recalled the same torture with a stun gun in a minibus in 2018. “He alternated electric shocks in the leg with electric shocks on my [cuffed] hands. Sometimes it struck on the back or the nape of my neck: it felt like slaps on my neck and head. When I screamed, I was gagged or threatened. I didn’t want to be gagged and so I tried not to scream, but it didn’t always work out. I gave up almost immediately, in the first ten minutes. I shouted: ‘Tell me what to say, I’ll tell you everything!’ but the violence did not stop.”

Filinkov was detained on the evening of January 23, and after a night of torture, he gave confessions to an FSB investigator. Then on the afternoon of January 25, the court sent him to prison. So, at the same just that Ilya Kapustin and Alexei Runov were being beaten by FSB operatives with tasers, Filinkov was examined by a doctor in the isolation ward. The doctor, unsurprisingly, failed to take note of the signs of torture.

February – March 2018. Life in hiding and an illegal move to Ukraine.

Alexei recalls that after about an hour of waiting, together with the field investigator, he was taken to an FSB investigator who interrogated him. But then there appeared to be no protocol for his case file (as with the interrogation of Ilya Kapustin). Late at night on January 26, the activist was released from the FSB building on Shpalernaya Street, and warned that he should not “disappear” because “they hadn’t finished talking yet”.

“While I was walking home, I had the feeling that at any second a minibus could pull up and take me away for more ‘conversations’,” Alexei admits.

All the same, he made it home, where he found Igor Shishkin’s wife. “Tanya had already called human rights activists by that time, and we decided to take her rabbit to a vet following the stressful situation,” Alexey recalls. “We were cautious to leave the house, and I could feel my heart was still racing. I still clearly remember that I was walking with the rabbit’s things, telling the crying Tanya what had happened to me, and trying to somehow cheer her up, because I understood that she was worried about her husband. Although I understood myself that nothing good had happened and would not happen in the near future.”

At that moment, they still didn’t know what had happened to Igor. Later, Shishkin would tell how he and his dog were in the car under the house when the security forces broke in with the search of his wife and neighbor. Igor was detained together with the pooch when he left the house to pick up a parcel. Then, he received the same treatment as Runov: they threw him on the floor of the minibus, which was followed by “screams, blows, and shocks from the stun gun raining down.”

“Put simply, your whole body is pierced with the most severe pain, the brain doesn’t really understand what is happening. As long as the current passes through your body, you don’t belong to yourself. The scream bursts out of you involuntarily. It’s all pain and loss. The shocks were interrupted only to make time for questions,” Shishkin recalled.

In Shishkin’s case, that stun gun wasn’t the furthest his interrogators would go. He was taken out to a forest belt around the city, tied up with a dog leash through his mouth, and struck by further electric shocks, with the help of a unique “dynamo” machine. “They connected wires to their thumbs and started twisting their special ‘barrel organ of pain’. It was at this stage that I broke down, because I finally realized that they would do anything with me for as long as they needed.”

Igor Shishkin was in the FSB building when his wife Tatiana and neighbor Alexei were brought there. “They reported that my wife and our neighbor were in the neighboring office, and if I mouthed off, they’d ‘just withhold diabetic medicine, and violate [his] wife’. Knowing these animals, I finally gave up and resigned myself,” Shishkin recalled.

He then gave all confessions that the FSB officers demanded of him in the case of the “terrorist community”. On January 27, the court sent him to jail, while his neighbor and his wife remained at large.

Now Alexey Runov thinks that he was detained and tortured “for keeping company.” He was unlucky to be a neighbor of a person who the KGB found so interesting.

“But at that moment it seemed to me that some kind of preventive repression was taking place and I avoided the worst of it,” the activist says. “I couldn’t understand at all why I got off so easily, and I still don’t fully comprehend it.”

After being tortured and interrogated by the FSB, Alexey decided that he would no longer have a quiet life in Russia. The antifascist recalls that he spent the first day exhausted and didn’t know what to do next. Then it occurred to Alexei that the FSB had released him for a while for some unknown purpose, but would eventually arrest him anyway. And during the search, all his tech and his passport were seized from him.

Courtesy photo

“To switch go underground—to go into a sort of hiding—was for me, at that time, the only possible way out of the situation,” he says. “It was hard to leave the life I was so used to, and I still feel nostalgic and wonder if everything could have been different. But it’s just what happened.”

He began to hide, hardly left his premises for four months and waited for the opportunity to get out of Russia without a passport. “Eventually, I managed to illegally cross the border with Ukraine and come to Kyiv,” says Alexei. He refuses to tell any details about crossing the border for security reasons. He was in Ukraine by May 2018.

2018 – 2022: Life in Ukraine, without documents

In Ukraine, Alexei Runov felt more at ease. After arriving, the activist rested for a couple of days and organized his documents to apply for political asylum, finding legal support from a local organization called Pravo na zashitu, or “Right to Protection”. Alexei had to get acquainted with the immigration system in Ukraine: he remembers that then the proper department was only open two days a week, and that there was only an in-person queue. If there weren’t problems with forms, then something else would come up.

“Over time, I managed to get an interview, create my case, receive an asylum seeker’s certificate and an appointment to come in a month to get the results of the first stage of the procedure for obtaining refugee status in Ukraine,” says Alexei. This certificate allowed him to legally stay in the country, and became his only document for the next four years.

He followed a standard path that seems carved out for political refugees: refusals, appeals, further interviews. His attempts to leave for Central and Western Europe were unsuccessful, so Runov decided to stay in Ukraine.

He liked everything about the country, but without documents it was difficult to find work.

“I looked out for every opportunity, and specifically sought some kind of unofficial arrangement,” he recalls. “I went to interviews and explained that I could not officially work due to my refugee status, and my documents wouldn’t allow me to work in an official capacity.”

As a result, he first got a job at a building materials warehouse, where he worked for six months, and then for two years in an online casino support service. “The work was interesting, sedentary, a walk in the park,” he remembers of the online casino. “I still keep in touch with many of my former colleagues. But I was tired of this monotonous job, all my colleagues with whom I started working left for higher positions in the company, and I was not promoted. I suspect this was due to problems with my documents.”

After a while he found a similar job: “A friend who worked there vouched for me, so there was a different attitude.” But this position only lasted three months, and ended with the start of the Russian invasion.

In his free time, the activist lived much like he had in Russia: he spent time with friends, or went to punk concerts. “Initially, I had only one acquaintance in Ukraine, who I’d met a couple of times at sports tournaments for antifascists in Russia,” says Alexei. “We didn’t really keep in touch in Russia, but in Ukraine I lived in his apartment with him and his wife for about a year. They jokingly called me their son. They helped me solve some of the everyday problems. They helped out when my life hit speed bumps, and I, in turn, helped them in every possible way.”

That friend was a fan of Arsenal Kyiv, a football club famous for its antifascist fans. Alexei joined this circle: “We practiced martial arts together, walked, went to the bathhouse, and I was also able to take part in a couple of contractual fights and several street brawls. I made friends at work, in the punk scene, and at the gym where I trained. In general, I didn’t have any problems with socializing.”

In Kyiv, according to Alexei, no one treated him badly for being Russian and not knowing the Ukrainian language: “Therefore, the statements of Russian propaganda that Russians are being oppressed, humiliated and eaten in Ukraine made me laugh. I couldn’t even imagine then that a large number of people took it seriously.”

Without documents, it was not only difficult to find a job. He couldn’t, for example, open a bank account—he had to use cash or friends’ cards. It was also more difficult to contact doctors, and free medicine was not available to him: “For me, as a diabetic, it was quite a stressful moment. At first, I had to buy medicines and visit doctors at my own expense. A year and a half later, I learned about the organization Rokada, which helps refugees with various household needs.” They helped him with food cards and access to medical services at a clinic where he began to receive diabetes medications for free and underwent an examination: “It made my life much easier.”

Runov admits that the most unpleasant thing in life without documents for him was the lack of stability. “I couldn’t plan my future normally because I was a disenfranchised immigrant. Except for those cases when, due to the lack of documents, I could not get some promising jobs, I could not yet go abroad or spoil my own relationships with girls, because I did not see any development and came up with a bunch of non-existent problems for myself.”

But there were also more serious concerns, he says: “There have been cases in Ukraine when citizens who left for political reasons from countries such as Turkey, Belarus, or Russia were detained and put in deportation prisons, issued orders to leave the territory of Ukraine or deported to their homeland. Therefore, I did not feel completely safe with the certificate of an asylum seeker.”

The anti-fascist was not detained at the request of Russia and the Russian special services did not try to kidnap him. But on February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.

February 24, 2022. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and attempts to flee the country

Alexei recalls that since the beginning of February in Kyiv, the idea of war became more and more realistic. “Everyone hoped that there would be no war. But really, this was wishful thinking,” he says, “so my friends and I had made plans to participate in territorial defense exercises on February 26, to get some basic skills.”

But on the morning of February 24, he woke, like all those in Kyiv, to the sounds of explosions outside his window. “I was lying there, listening, trying to understand what was going on. About a minute later I realized what the sound was, and then there was another explosion five minutes later. I laid there, trying to figure out what to do next. A friend called me, and told me it was time to get up, because the war had begun.”

At midday Alexei connected with some friends. “I went to visit them,” he recalls, “to read the news and wait for information from some others, who’d gone to see where you could get weapons from the Ukrainian territorial defense. On that first day there were these huge lines, since everyone wanted to register and protect their homeland, so my friends weren’t able to register.”

At night they took turns sleeping, and the one who stayed up had to wake the others at the sound of sirens, and everyone went down to the basement. During the night they had to wake up and go down four times. In the morning, the friends again tried to join the defense, but to no avail. “People in the city walked with this businesslike calmness,” he says of the atmosphere in Kyiv. “I didn't notice any panic. Everyone was already mentally ready.”

By noon they arrived at the metro station, which had already become a bomb shelter. They found some acquaintances there already. “We went down to them, stood, talked, and I watched the latest news, where I learned that Zelensky was calling Putin for peace talks. Here I had a panic attack, as I imagined what would happen if negotiations took place. I started crying, a lot of anxious thoughts flashed through my head, and I couldn’t think normally after this panic attack for a couple of hours.”

Alexei decided that he needed to leave Kyiv. He found out that there were evacuation trains from Kyiv to Lviv, and said goodbye to friends in the subway then immediately went to the station. The platform at the station was packed with people. Alexei recalls that he still could not come to his senses and gather himself. When the train arrived, it was impossible to get into it: people filled it in within a couple of minutes, and no one else could squeeze in.

“We all stayed on the platform and just watched the train leave,” he recalls. “This failure sobered me up a little. I finally came to my senses when we were walking from the platform to the car and, hearing the sound of an airplane or a rocket flying overhead, leaned against the wall.”

Alexei Runov / Courtesy photo

He again joined friends in the territorial defense queue, and again didn’t get through. They decided to go home for the time being.

“At that moment, I tried to calm down and soberly assess the situation, and my prospects for the future,” the anti-fascist recalls. “I’m a citizen of an aggressor-country, without all my documents on hand, and with a chronic illness that requires constant medication. I remembered all of these problems that I’ve dealt with, and realized that only more would come. And if I’d have the strength to solve them all, I couldn’t be sure.”

At that time, the “Right to Protection” organization spread information through a chat-space, where lawyers explained how people like Alexei could leave the country. He decided to try to travel to Europe, packed his things, asked friends to take him to the train station, where there was another evacuation train in the evening. There were slightly fewer people, and Alexei was able to squeeze onto the train. He was traveling in the same compartment with eight more people and two dogs. “The atmosphere was tense, no one could fall asleep the whole way,” he recalls. “People shared their experiences, talked about loved ones with whom they couldn’t contact, and quietly cried.”

February 2022: Failures at the border, and a Ukrainian interrogation

In Lviv, he was met by other friends. At that moment, there were already huge queues at the Ukrainian border checkpoints, Runov recalls. “So I called a taxi that could take me to the back of the traffic jam ahead of the border. The traffic jam was 32 kilometers long, and I walked it for 7 hours. Along the road, near small settlements, there were people out to support those leaving by car and foot with simple homemade meals and tea.”

He got to the border at night and, seeing a huge queue, decided to get some sleep in a cafe nearby. “When I woke up a couple of hours later, I returned to the place where I saw a huge queue last time, and realized that I had underestimated its scale five times. I decided to return to Lviv,” says Alexei. Having reached the city by hitchhiking, he, with the help of friends, found Polish volunteers who were taking refugees across the border in a minibus. They went to the pedestrian border with Slovakia, but he was again met with failure: only citizens of Ukraine or EU countries were allowed to cross the border.

“During this trip, they checked my documents at one of the checkpoints and decided that my journey was over,” Alexei recalls of the journey to the border. “They started threatening to shoot me, calling me a saboteur, a fire coordinator, and only the volunteers and my charisma managed to explain everything so I could go on unharmed.”

Alexei and the volunteers decided to try again the next day. This time, the activist was detained by police officers in the small town of Khyrov near the Polish border and taken to the legal department for trial.

“It all happened from a stupid coincidence of two situations,” admits Alexei. “The first was that one of the volunteers decided to approach the border guards with me in advance in a city near the border to find out if I would have any problems crossing the border. The second was that when I first filled out my refugee certificate, with which I lived for all four years, five tattoos that were visible at that time were recorded as special signs for me and this column was not updated in any way afterwards. And I managed to add another 35 tattoos to the previous five.”

It seemed suspicious to the police: “They called the employees of a vague department, who asked me to say the word ‘strawberry’ on camera and commenced pouring out threats. One of the volunteers and I were taken to the police station. There, after I tried to move away and lean against the wall, as I was tired over the previous few sleepless days, they handcuffed my hands behind my back, put a white bag on my head, kicked me a couple of times and started asking why I was a saboteur and why I came to Ukraine. I tried to calm them down, explained who I was and why I was there, and they understood me. Deciding to let the Ukrainian security service sort it out, they took the bag off my head, apologized, and gave me some tea.”

It was late in the evening, and the security service officers weren’t supposed to arrive until the next day, so Alexei spent the night on the couch in one of the offices. When the officers finally appeared by the evening of the next day, they looked “quite threatening,” the activist recalls: “I didn’t have any bright prospects about what was coming. I mentally prepared myself for the fact that beatings and torture were about to begin, so I fell into a kind of stupor. It is worth mentioning the employees, since they didn’t touch me once. We just spoke. One of the employees, who had a buff on his face and a machine gun in his hands, immediately disappeared somewhere, the second just calmly watched what was happening, the third played at being the bad cop, shouting at me from time to time and at one point knocking a bottle off the table near me. The fourth played the good cop and spoke with me calmly, in a quiet tone. I can’t attribute any specific role to the fifth employee, since he was digging into my phone and making unpleasant comments of my loved ones and everyone he saw throughout my photos.”

“There was quite a bright moment in this chat when, already a few minutes before the end of the interrogation, I was told that they would now lead me to the firing squad,” says Alexei. “And they asked if I wanted to call someone to say goodbye. This question made me think. I was already very tired, and for some reason the thought that I would be shot didn’t cause me any negative feelings. Already at the beginning of the conversation, I was so upset and decided that nothing good would happen. So, this development of events seemed to me quite a good outcome, and I somehow even exhaled with relief. But I decided that I didn’t want to call anyone, and I didn’t want to upset anyone by saying goodbye, so I refused. They looked at me and were surprised.”

The employees left the office. “I sat and waited for a couple of minutes, then I heard the car engines outside the window and realized that everything was over, and nothing would happen,” Alexei recalls. “After a couple of minutes, the police officers came in, said that everything was fine and they would let me go tomorrow, offered me tea and fed me some salad.”

Alexei Runov believes that it helped him a lot that in the department he was able to call friends from the phone of one of the Polish volunteers. Friends contacted human rights defenders, and they got through to the Commissioner for Refugee Rights in Ukraine.

On the day of this interrogation, Alexei turned 29 years old. “So far, this is my brightest birthday, and few people can boast that only Ukrainian security and police officers congratulated him,” he laughs.

These days: Waiting for asylum in Europe

The next morning Alexei took a taxi to the border with Poland. They let him through without any problems, only spoke with him in an office for a couple of minutes, where they asked about his future plans. By late that night he was already in Warsaw, where he was also met by friends and taken to spend the night in an activist squat.

He lived in Warsaw for a week until he found out that volunteers were taking refugees to France from Przemysl, a city that became the main transit point on the way from Ukraine through Poland.

Alexei immediately headed to Przemysl and in a couple of days found himself in France, where he applied for political asylum. “I’ve already been granted refugee status, for six months after applying,” says Alexei. “I work part-time in several bars, sometimes work at concerts venues, which allows me to cover my household needs and send money to various initiatives in Ukraine. My immediate plans are to continue studying French, keep up with my paperwork, find a job and housing, and to seriously treat physical and mental health. Just to live.”

“I still can't decide for myself whether the decision to leave Ukraine was the right one, but at that moment I didn’t see any other way out,” he admits. “I was tired of living with all these problems due to not having documents, and it was hard to give up the opportunity to live like a human being.” Most of his Kyiv friends are now in Ukraine, but several of his acquaintances died in the war, and others were captured by Russian forces.

Alexey does not regret his long-standing decision to leave Russia after being tortured: “I have no idea what I would be doing there now. Back in 2014, I went to a rally in Nizhny Novgorod against the intervention in Ukraine, waving slogans which now get you a serious sentence. Since then, repression has only intensified in Russia, and life for people is becoming more and more difficult. My friends in Russia are not safe because of their views. The recently launched case against antifascists in Tyumen, who experienced torture, shows depressing trends about the growing momentum of this new wave of repression.”

Editor: Egor Skovoroda

Translation: Jack McClelland

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