Conscience and courage. This year’s Boris Nemtsov Award honours five Russian political prisoners who have spoken out against war
Анна Павлова
Conscience and courage. This year’s Boris Nemtsov Award honours five Russian political prisoners who have spoken out against war
12 June 2023, 13:13

Art: Boris Khmelny / Mediazona

This year, the Boris Nemtsov Award, honouring the Russian politician murdered in 2015, has recognised five Russian political prisoners who have spoken out against war. Established for the “brave defence of democratic rights and freedoms,” the award spotlights those who have raised their voices against the invasion of Ukraine, despite facing reprisals—five of the hundreds of Russians who protested and faced repression. Mediazona tells their stories.

Since its inception in 2016, the Boris Nemtsov Foundation has been awarding courageous citizens—politicians and activists alike—persecuted by Russian authorities. The award acknowledges “courage in defending democratic rights and freedoms.” Last year, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy received the award for his stand against Russian military aggression—before his murder in 2015, Nemstov was an outspoken critic of Russian involvement in Ukraine.

“War is the defining event shaping the current situation in the region: Russia, Ukraine, and Europe,” explains Zhanna Nemtsova, Nemtov’s daughter and co-founder of the foundation. “This year, the laureates are those defying the war: Russians. It’s a known fact that any show of support for Ukraine or statements against the war are criminalised in Russia, and people get prison terms fro speaking out. Although mass protest is visible and individual protest often goes unnoticed, it shouldn’t diminish its existence—and we have to speak about it.”

While criminal cases against public figures opposing the war garner much attention, those who were previously less known for their activism remain sidelined and receive less support. The Nemtsov Award this year seeks to rectify that by honouring those without a notable activist background, whose stories haven’t yet resonated widely.

“I believe there are many opposing the Russian government’s policies and the war, and we must keep them in our thoughts and discussions,” Nemtsova insists. “This year’s award is dedicated to them. We mustn’t forget individual stories. I’m reminded of the protest by eight Soviet dissidents in Red Square against the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968—a story known worldwide. The same recognition and support should extend to these people—not even dissidents per se— who protest against war in Russia now.”

The five individuals honoured this year—a history teacher, a journalist, a high school graduate, a restaurant-car director, and a radio hobbyist—come from diverse generations and regions. They represent only a fraction of the hundreds of Russians subjected to repression for their anti-war stance, the very people who this year’s Nemtsov Award is dedicated to.

“If there was one word to describe all these people it would be ‘conscience’, says Zhanna Nemtsova. “And the second word, of course, would be ‘courage’.”

Tushkanov took to the centre of Mikun with a sign saying “Silence, or death.” Art: Boris Khmelny / Mediazona

Nikita Tushkanov, 29, from the town of Mikun, Komi Republic

“I have not changed my stance. I condemn the war. I see it as a crime, like any aggression”

Sentence: 5 years and 5 months in a penal colony.

Charges: Tushkanov called the explosion on the Crimea Bridge a “birthday gift for Putler” and wrote about the annexation of occupied territories of Ukraine. For these posts, he was accused of justifying terrorism and “discrediting” the Russian army.

Before the war: Nikita Tushkanov was a history teacher from the small town of Mikun in the Komi Republic in northern Russia. In January 2021, he was fired from the school for setting a “bad example for children” when he participated in a solitary picket in support of Alexei Navalny, arrested upon returning to Russia from treatment in Germany.

Post-invasion: Four administrative protocols were drawn up against Tushkanov for his posts against the war in Ukraine, including ones about the “discrediting” of the Russian army. In one of his posts, he wrote, “My country has fought so fiercely against fascism that it has become fascist itself.” In December, armed security forces broke into Tushkanov’s Syktyvkar apartment, after which he was arrested on a criminal case and soon listed in the official Register of Terrorists and Extremists.

Court proceedings: The hearing took only one day.

In his closing argument: “I have not changed my stance regarding the ‘incident’ or the events in Ukraine—it remains the same. I condemn the war. I see it as a crime, like any aggression.”

In a letter to Mediazona: “I am doing well, sometimes even excellent (that’s when I have a chance to see the best woman on the planet and my mother). Sometimes I feel like I’m better off than those who are free, and certainly safer than those on the frontlines. I receive a lot of support, I don’t even know why, I receive 20–30 letters a week! ... If I were suddenly at home tomorrow, I would lock myself in for a week with the one who makes my life brighter and introduces me to its new meanings. And another week later, I would post something again and be back here.”

A satellite image of Mariupol Drama Theatre showed the word “Children” written in Russian in large white letters before it was bombed. Art: Boris Khmelny / Mediazona

Maria Ponomarenko, 44, from Barnaul, Altai region

“What on earth is going on in our country? If it’s war, call it by its name, war.”

Sentence: 6 years in a penal colony.

Charges: Ponomarenko’s post about a Russian airstrike on the Mariupol Drama Theatre, which she shared on her Telegram channel, became the grounds for a criminal case on spreading “fakes news about the military.” The airstrike reportedly led to the death of hundreds of innocent civilians who had taken shelter in the theatre’s basement.

Before the war: Ponomarenko worked at RusNews, a publication known for its coverage of protests and persecution of political activists. She was a prominent activist in Barnaul and was fined multiple times for various protests, such as calling the president a liar in a TikTok video and wearing a mask that read “Putin must resign,” interpreted as a solo picketing.

While under arrest: Arrested and placed in a Barnaul detention centre, Ponomarenko, a mother of two underage daughters, was assigned to a cell with windows sealed shut. Suffering from claustrophobia, she broke the glass after two months, earning herself a week in solitary confinement. Upon returning to her cell, she slit her wrists.

After being released to house arrest in November, she stayed in her ex-husband’s parents’ apartment. After an alleged violent altercation with the man, who supports the war, at the end of January, she voluntarily turned herself into the police and was taken back to the detention centre.

In her closing argument: “Had I committed a real crime, then maybe I could ask for leniency. But, given my moral and ethical beliefs, I wouldn’t do that now. Instead, I would like to demand the harshest punishment. To prove my innocence, one only needs to open and read the Constitution. What on earth is going on in our country? If it’s war, call it by its name, war. Then enforce military censorship. Why am I subjected to it now?”

Post-sentencing: Ponomarenko was transferred first to the Biysk detention centre and then, in late March, to a psychiatric hospital for three days. In a letter, she recounted a nervous breakdown triggered by confiscation of part of her food and a forced strip search, leading to physical abuse by the paramedics: “They beat me on the back, chest, stomach, head, and threw me onto the steps.” In the hospital, she suffered another assault by a medic who struck her “on the cheeks, stomach and chest” for not finishing her cocoa in time.

Ponomarenko is now in the Krasnoyarsk penal colony, IK-22. She reported continued abuse from the guards who have confiscated her personal notes and moved her frequently between cells, forcing her to carry her mattress and all her belongings, causing severe back pain.

Art: Boris Khmelny / Mediazona

Mikhail Simonov, 63, had been living in Belarus in recent years

“A phrase is on repeat in my head, likely from a song. ‘My dear, if only there was no war.’ Mum used to say so.”

Sentence: 7 years in a penal colony.

Charges: Simonov was tried for spreading “fake news” about the military due to two posts on VKontakte, a popular Russian social media website. The first post read, “Killing children and women, we sing songs on Channel One. We, Russia, have become godless. Forgive us, Lord!” The second stated, “Russian pilots are bombing children.”

Before the war: Simonov, a native of Voronezh near the border with Ukraine, worked for Russian Railways, serving as a restaurant-car director on long-distance trains. In recent years, between his shifts, he resided in Belarus.

After the arrest: In November 2022, while visiting friends in Moscow following a “tough two-month shift,” security forces arrived. “I was surprised, of course, that they nabbed me. In my old age, and such a thing...” he wrote to a Mediazona while in pre-trial detention.

Simonov’s case became widely known thanks to another political prisoner—mathematician and author of the “Protest MSUTelegram channel Dmitry Ivanov who was sentenced to 8.5 years in a penal colony under the same article in March). He told his friends about Simonov, and they started writing letters to the elderly detainee and support him in court.

While in detention, Simonov’s already frail health deteriorated—he suffered from “prostatitis and lots of various diseases.” A doctor in the detention centre confirmed the exacerbation of chronic conditions, but the prison administration refused to provide a medical report for the court.

During the trial: Two “concerned citizens,” who “accidentally stumbled upon” Simonov’s posts, testified against Simonov. In court, one of them said that she did not like it when people publicly speak out “against the authorities and the state,” the other complained about the “sheer lump of liberalism” on social media. During the closing arguments, the prosecutor insisted that Simonov acted out of hatred for the authorities, calling him the “fifth column,” and his posts a “stab in the back.”

In his closing argument: “My mother was still a little girl when Leningrad was besieged. She told me how she took her already deceased parents on a sled across the Neva river to bury them, how she then survived this terrible Great Patriotic, World War, and hoped that this was the last war. A phrase is on repeat in my head, likely from a song. ‘My dear, if only there was no war.’ Mum used to say so.”

In a letter to Mediazona: “The trial and the sentence, of course, plunged me, an old man, into despair. I was under no illusion that I had a second youth ahead of me, but now it’s almost a dead end, almost the gates to paradise. Or rather, as Vladimir Vysotsky used to sing, ‘Didn’t live long enough, nor could finish my song.’ I have a wife in Brest, Belarus, the same age as me, she has health problems, asks for help... Two old people, one in prison, the other’s navigating a challenging age fraught with health conditions. Who among us will help whom?”

“No to war.” Art: Boris Khmelny / Mediazona

Maxim Lypkan, 18, from Moscow

“The victims of the Ukrainian people in Kharkiv, Bucha, and other cities have deeply moved me, prompting my decision to protest.”

Sentence: Investigation is ongoing.

Charges: Lypkan faced charges shortly after his 18th birthday. The case was triggered by posts on his Telegram channel, an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty where he discussed his anti-war stance, and an attempt to organize a demonstration on the anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine. These actions were deemed as spreading “fake news” about the military.

Before the war: As a teenager, Lypkan developed an interest in politics and attended events held by the liberal Yabloko party, as well as trials related to the ban on the Memorial, a human rights organization and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Post-invasion: He actively participated in anti-war demos and was an administrator of an opposition Telegram channel while still in high school. Last summer, Lypkan was detained during an attempt to lay flowers at the “Wall of Grief” monument, dedicated to victims of political repression. In 2023, he faced charges of “discrediting” the military and organizing an unauthorized protest, resulting in fines while already in pre-trial detention.

One quote: “I regard the war against Ukraine as an act of betrayal by Russia. The victims of the Ukrainian people in Kharkiv, Bucha, and other cities have deeply moved me, prompting my decision to protest. This has become my civic position. In February, I joined my first demonstration at Manezhnaya Square [outside the Kremlin], holding a sign that read ‘No to War.’ Prior to this, I attended rallies in support of Navalny, demanding his freedom” (from his interview with RFE/RL.

After the arrest: A week into his pre-trial detention, Lypkan’s attorney reported that fellow inmates threatened to assign him to the prison outcasts who are often subjected to physical violence and sexual abuse, and forcibly gave him a mohawk haircut. The conflict arose due to ideological disparities with his cellmates, many of whom are hardened criminals, according to his attorney. It turns out that Lypkan, a straight talker, wasted no time in the cell, stating that “stealing is bad” and advocating for the need for some kind of a state control over the society. Consequently, he was promptly moved to a different cell.

In a letter to Mediazona: “I am coping just fine. Nothing excessively bad (meaning dreadful), nor anything positive. The cellmates are reasonable and sympathetic, serving sentences under Articles 150 and 159 of the Criminal Code. Peaceful coexistence prevails, and I appreciate that. I receive numerous letters! As one letter wisely stated: ‘Solidarity is our primary weapon.’ It resonates and remains incontrovertible. They have tanks, whereas we wield words. Such is our unparalleled strength.”

Art: Boris Khmelny / Mediazona

Vladimir Rumyantsev, 62, from Vologda, northwest Russia

“Between ‘disgusting’ and ‘frightening,’ I chose the latter.”

Sentence: 3 years in a penal colony.

Charges: Rumyantsev was accused of spreading “fake news” about the military by using an amateur radio station in his apartment to discuss the war and writing anti-war posts.

Before the war: Rumyantsev, a 62-year-old stoker, had a passion for radio. He ordered a transmitter from AliExpress and started broadcasting on his own, as Radio Vovan. Even before the invasion of Ukraine, he actively spoke out against the authorities, participating in rallies, including those in support of Alexei Navalny.

Post-invasion: Rumyantsev took part in anti-war rallies in Vologda and was fined twice for “discrediting” the military. While previously broadcasting music on “Radio Vovan,” he switched to airing anti-war political programs and podcasts from independent media outlets after the attack on Ukraine.

In April 2022, FSB officers detected his radio signal, conducted a search at the elderly man’s apartment, seized all transmitters, interrogated him, and demanded that he cease his activities. Rumyantsev did not. After the interrogation, he posted a message on VKontakte imitating a “foreign agent” disclaimer, denouncing the war in Ukraine as a war crime and genocide.

After the arrest: In July 2022, Rumyantsev was detained again and charged with disseminating “fake news” about the military. He was sent to pre-trial detention. During the investigation and trial, he steadfastly refused to renounce his views and stated that he did not consider his actions to be a crime. “I believe that there is a real war in Ukraine. Prior to the Russian invasion, nobody was killing anyone there; everything was calm,” the radio enthusiast said during questioning.

One quote: “I don’t see myself as a hero. It’s just that between the two paths to continue on, ‘disgusting’ and ‘frightening,’ I chose the latter,” he wrote in a letter to OVD-Info, an organization helping detainees. “Sooner or later, this will come to an end. It’s disheartening to witness the country squandering its time in vain.”

The illustrations feature photographs by SOTA, Andrey Boka/TASS, Alexandra Astakhova/Mediazona, RFL/RL

Text: Anna Pavlova, with Elizaveta Nesterova

Editor: Egor Skovoroda

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