Freedom to say that two plus two makes four. Why mathematician and activist Dmitry Ivanov was sentenced to 8.5 years in prison
Елизавета Нестерова
Freedom to say that two plus two makes four. Why mathematician and activist Dmitry Ivanov was sentenced to 8.5 years in prison
20 March 2023, 12:33

Dmitry Ivanov. Photo: Alexandra Astakhova / Mediazona

On March 7, Dmitry Ivanov, a mathematics student at the Moscow State University and creator of the Protest MGU Telegram channel, was sentenced to 8.5 years in prison for spreading “fakes” about the Russian army. As fakes the prosecution considers his refusal to call the war in Ukraine a “special military operation”, as well as his reports about war crimes, killing civilians and destroying civil infrastructure in Ukraine. Mediazona tells the story of this case and how Ivanov got his sentence.

“Don't give up/sell out your homeland, Dima”, was the inscription that appeared on March 16th 2022 on the door of the Dmitry's Moscow flat. The student had lived there all 22 years of his life. The message was complemented by three huge letters Z. Ivanov joked at the time: “We've already cleaned the door, simple Soviet acetone helped with the paint.” The Protest MGU Telegram channel he created and maintained was writing about the war and anti-war actions within Russia, until its author was detained outside the university on April 28th. He has not been released since.

On April 29, the Nikulinsky District Court put Ivanov under a 10 day arrest for “organising a rally,” which is how the law enforcement officers qualified one of the posts on his channel. He served his sentence at the Sakharovo Center for Illegal Immigration near Moscow. On May 9, he was detained on his way out and again arrested under the same article of the Administrative Code—this time for 25 days. The student missed state exams and failed to submit his thesis. After serving his sentence on June 2, he was immediately detained again, this time on criminal charges. From the special detention center, he was taken for interrogation to the Investigative Committee.

Ivanov managed to hand over the Protest MGU admin rights to his friend Nikita Zaytsev. Later, Ivanov's friends created a separate channel in his support—Prison MGU.

“I have been lucky with the symbolism of dates since the beginning of my imprisonment: I have already been tried on Victory Day and the day of the beginning of mobilization, I was transferred to the pre-trial detention center on Russia Day. Another court hearing will be on the anniversary of Navalny's return to Russia. At the time, it seemed that all the masks were off, and there was nothing left to shock us. If only we'd known what was going to happen in a year,” Dmitry Ivanov wrote in one of his letters to Mediazona.

What Dmitry Ivanov is accused of

The case against Ivanov was handled by the first department for investigation of particularly important cases of the Investigative Committee. Like most cases under the “military fakes” article, it was initiated on the basis of “operational and investigative data”—a report on the student was written by Lieutenant Colonel A. Kapustin, an operative of the FSB for Russia in Moscow and the Moscow Region. He copied several posts from the Protest MGU Telegram channel, and Justice Captain K. A. Myagkov, the investigator for particularly important cases, concluded that they were sufficient to initiate the case.

The prosecution insists that the activist, “acting on grounds of political hatred” and “foreseeing that socially dangerous consequences in the form of undermining the authority and discrediting the incumbent state power were imminent,” from March 4 to April 4 2022 distributed the following statements via Telegram:

— The Russian army attacked the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station.

— Russian armed forces are destroying cities, civil infrastructure and killing Ukrainian civilians.

— Russia is waging a real war, not a “special military operation.”

— Russian aviation has suffered significant losses in this war.

— Russian soldiers committed war crimes in the cities of Bucha and Irpin.

Most of the publications that Ivanov is charged with are reposts of other people's statements: politician Alexei Navalny, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, BBC journalist Ilya Barabanov, blogger Maxim Katz, and the authors of the news public Lentach.

From a broken phone to a compromised defence: how operatives and university administration persecuted an undesirable student

In 2018, Dmitry Ivanov was studying at the Faculty of Computational Mathematics and Cybernetics and, together with dozens of other students and teachers, protested against the World Cup fanzone being set up under the windows of MSU's main building: the building's residents complained that the preparations were already interfering with work during the day and sleeping at night, and the crowds of fans would make life in the building unbearable.

So Ivanov created the anonymous Protest MGU channel, where he described in detail the struggles of students and scholars against the developers. Later, he began reporting on other protest actions. On December 16th 2018, Ivanov was detained at a protest outside the FSB building in Moscow: the infamous “Center E” officer Alexey Okopny, who is known for his violent methods against protesters and activists, did not like the fact that the student had taken his picture.

The very next day, Ivanov's channel ceased to be anonymous. “Hi, my name is Dima, I am 19, I study at Moscow State University, and today I became a victim of torture”, the student wrote. He said that after he was detained, the law enforcers demanded the password to his phone. Because of his refusal they beat him and threatened to rape Ivanov with a police truncheon. Having failed to achieve their goal, they simply broke the phone. So the access to Protest MGU was lost. Ivanov created a new channel with the same name and detailed his experiences in the first post.

This put Ivanov among the famous activists who were the first to be snatched from the crowd during protests by the security forces. On February 2, 2021, he was detained at a rally in support of Alexei Navalny who had returned to Russia after being poisoned; then the Meshchansky Court sentenced the student to 30 days in the Sakharov Center for Migrants for the first time. At the migrant detention center where Moscow opposition activists were taken that winter, Ivanov received a second penalty for arguing with guards, adding another 10 days to his 30 days for protesting.

Ivanov's friends estimated that he spent a total of 101 days in administrative detention in 2021-2022.

On June 1, 2022, he was supposed to hand in his diploma, but he got released from the special detention center the day after this particular date. Ivanov's defence asked the court to reduce the term of his arrest by at least a day and applied to the examination board with a request to postpone it, but it did not bring any success. In July, Ivanov was already expelled as having failed the state final examination.

“I came out of the underground, saw the building with the paddy wagon, and decided to testify”. Witnesses for the prosecution

The investigation into Ivanov's case lasted for two months. During this time the IC questioned several witnesses; only one of them—the activist's school friend Yuliaslava Korolevich—testified in his defence. The security officers searched the house of Korolevich and her mother and then took the girl for interrogation. She only said that she knew Dmitry “as a person who can listen, help in a difficult moment, intelligent, rational, and logical in character.”

Other witnesses in the case were not searched. All of them did not fail to call themselves patriots during interrogations, and the wording of their testimony against Ivanov is repeated almost word for word. Each characterized the arrested student “negatively as an anti-Russian fascist,” and his posts on his Telegram channel as “inconsistent with the position of the Russian Ministry of Defence.”

The most talkative among the witnesses was the former dean of the Faculty of Fundamental Physical and Chemical Engineering at Moscow State University, Lyudmila Grigorieva, notorious for her confrontation with student activists. In 2021, she had to resign after she called the university's initiative group “Western liberals” who “grunt, crawl and shit all the time for scraps.”

When questioned, Grigoryeva described herself as “a patriot of the country and a person who strongly loves her country, as well as advocating goodness, state power, unity and public order.” She felt it was her duty to testify against the student who—she believes—is a “fascist, who belongs to a political cult.” According to her, “Ivanov hates people who do not share his liberal views, defends all the dregs of society.” In the courtroom, Grigoryeva expressed the hope that not only Ivanov, but also another opposition mathematician from Moscow State University, associate professor Mikhail Lobanov, would pay for his “anti-Russian activities”.

Three other witnesses for the prosecution are Aliaksandr Krasilnikau, Daniil Afanasyev and Kirill Barysevich, former subordinates of Grigoryeva. In court, neither of them (nor the former dean herself) could explain how they ended up in the investigator's office and decided to testify against Ivanov. “I was walking from the metro and saw the building with police wagons, so I decided to testify,” Krasilnikov said uncertainly. Each of the three repeated Grigorieva's epithets about the student verbatim; in court, they read out their testimony from their phones or on a piece of paper.

What links Ivan Lyamin, unemployed, and Mikhail Zhuravlev, artist of the Kolomna Philharmonic, to the Ivanov case is not at all clear. In court, Lyamin explained that he had “accidentally stumbled upon” the Protest MGU Telegram channel, sometimes read it, then told an acquaintance about it, who advised him to contact the Investigation Committee. Zhuravlev claimed that he decided to testify so that justice could be served: “Otherwise, freedom of speech has become too much.”

During the interrogation Zhuravlev said that Ivanov was “trying to disorient his readers with regard to the events in Ukraine, to impose a sense of guilt for the special operation not only on Russian citizens but on all Russians, and to try to form public opinion among Russian citizens about the need to stop the actions of the Russian Armed Forces on Ukrainian territory in order to preserve the nationalists' power.” The witness could not repeat such a long wording from memory, and the prosecutor had to read out his written testimony in court.

Evidence and witnesses for the defence

The prosecution considered as sufficient evidence of Ivanov's guilt the fact that the publications in the Protest MGU Telegram channel diverged from the official bulletins of the Ministry of Defence and were therefore “knowingly false.” This was the conclusion reached by linguistic experts from the FSB who testified in court.

Lawyer Maria Eismont asked psychologist Veronika Konstantinova and linguist Igor Zharkov to prepare an independent examination of the activist's posts. They came to the conclusion that at the time of publication, the information from Ivanov's posts was not “knowingly false” for him; the prosecutor countered that the experts were only “trying to discredit the actions of the investigation.”

In addition to the expertise, the defence presented the testimony of seven people—unlike the prosecution witnesses, all of whom were personally acquainted with Ivanov. Andrei Stroganov taught him computer science at school, Ivanov worked on his diploma with Alexei Borodin, a senior researcher at the Institute of Systems Programming, and five-year Moscow State University student Ivan Shmatin is not only friends with the defendant, but also knows Lyudmila Grigoryeva: “The man is hyper-concentrated on people who share democratic values.”

They all described the defendant as an honest person and a talented mathematician. The same was said by activists Irina Yakutenko and Konstantin Kotov, with whom Ivanov had participated in a solidarity campaign with political prisoners — mathematician Azat Miftakhov and those involved in the New Greatness case. Mathematician and left-wing politician Mikhail Lobanov, for whom Ivanov worked on the Duma election campaign, was also summoned to court. He described how the defendant was involved in university life; according to him, “Dima uniquely did not harden himself, even when persecuted for his views.” Grigory Mikhnov-Vaytenko, bishop of the Apostolic Orthodox Church and human rights defender, helps Ukrainian refugees stranded in Russia. Their stories fully confirm the veracity of Ivanov's posts, the cleric said in court.

Baton and dog in court, subpoenas to the Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Defence

On January 19th, Ivanov was beaten by a guard. The reason was that the defendant did not immediately leave the “aquarium” after the regular session, but stayed behind to ask Maria Eismont when she would visit him in the pre-trial detention center. Later, it turned out that the guard's name was Alexei Nikolayevich Zhalnin.

Without allowing the defendant to speak to his lawyer, Zhalnin took him into the escort room. The next day Ivanov told Eismont that the escort brought him down the stairs, turned off the video recorder and beat him on the head and ribs with his feet and baton, tried to lower Ivanov's head into the toilet bowl and threatened to “put a stick in his anus”, while the second escort “watched” this and “did nothing.”

The defense complained about Zhalnin's actions to many instances, but so far to no avail. However, at subsequent sessions Ivanov was escorted by emphatically polite officers, judge Daria Pugacheva inquired whether he had any grievances against the guards, and bailiffs stopped allowing listeners who couldn't remember the name of the judge into the courtroom—previously it was enough to give the defendant's name at the entrance. A service dog whined incessantly in the courtroom.

Coincidentally, all these security measures were put in place when Eismont's lawyer persuaded the court to summon Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia's UN representative Vasily Nebenzia as witnesses. “Ivanov is charged with a serious crime on the basis of comparing his texts with the statements of Nebenzia, Lavrov and Konashenkov. This means that these people are essentially witnesses for the prosecution, hence he has the right to question them in court,” the lawyer argued.

Maria Eismont has tried to use such a technique before, in the case of politician Ilya Yashin, but then the court did not even issue summonses to high-ranking officials. In Ivanov's case, the subpoenas reached their addressees, but the witnesses ignored the summons.

“That's quote from George Orwell. Shall I explain it to you?” What else Ivanov said in court

Before the debate in court, Dmitry Ivanov was questioned himself. Answering prosecutor Yulia Pravosud's questions, he told why he, as a student, had written about pension reform, how he checked the sources of information for reliability and which media outlets he trusted. Then, the state prosecutor tried to lead Ivanov to the conversation about the fact that the Russian language was allegedly banned in Ukraine.

“Do you know Zelenskyy 's attitude towards the Russian language at all?”

“In general, it is his native language. He knows it perfectly well.”

“Is the Russian language is banned in Ukraine or is it not?”

“I have not heard that the Russian language was banned in the territory of Ukraine. As far as I know, it was used as a basic language in many regions. Mariupol city hall maintained all its social networks and websites in Russian even after 2014.”

“I see, and how is about Zelenskyy 's position? Does he allow communication [in Russian]?”

“Probably if he banned communication in Russian, the mayor of Mariupol would not speak publicly in Russian, would not conduct resources in Russian.”

Prosecutor Pravosud then read a Protest MGU post in which Ivanov conceded that he would face criminal charges for speaking about the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine.

“Why did you, knowing about the criminal liability, still write in your Telegram channel?”

“‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows’—that's quote from George Orwell. Shall I explain it to you?”

“No, it makes sense,” the prosecutor admitted.

On 1 March, prosecutor Yulia Pravosud requested 9 years in a general regime penal colony for Dmitry Ivanov—out of a possible 10 years under this article of the Criminal Code. 

“Our problem is a lack of initiative and collaboration”, Ivanov said in his final statement on March 4. “We wait for leaders to guide us, but we must take action ourselves. Volunteer, aid refugees, and support political prisoners. Build horizontal connections with like-minded individuals, whether neighbors, colleagues, or classmates, and work together to achieve shared objectives. Don’t ignore those who need your help. Let’s improve this world for ourselves and our children. We like to repeat, like a mantra, the words “Russia will be free!” But Russia is ourselves. And what it will be depends only on us. The war will inevitably end, and only then, will the regime that has unleashed it will cease to exist. This is the law of history. And we have a lot of work ahead of us, which must begin now. In this work, I believe, we are destined for success. Russia will be free. Because we will make it so.”

He gave this speech in front of a half-empty hall—dozens of people came to the court to support the activist, but only a few were able to get into the room, the rest were not allowed in by bailiffs. The lawyer Maria Eismont asked at least the ambassadors of the United States and Czech Republic to be let in, but court officials slammed the door in their faces with the words: “No room!”

More volunteers and activists came to support Ivanov at the verdict on 7 March—there were so many people that not even everyone could enter the courthouse. But almost no one got into the courtroom—bailiffs only let Ivanov's mother and a few journalists into the courtroom. Here's a video of him answering some of the questions in English, right before the sentence was announced.

Dmitry Ivanov talks about war right before the sentence is announced

Judge Darya Pugacheva sent Dmitry Ivanov to a general regime colony for 8.5 years. Only six months less than the prosecutor requested.

Editor: Dmitry Tkachev

Translator: Darya Fomina

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