“I vowed to turn the prison into a political anti‑war platform. I believe I have succeded.” In‑depth interview with Moscow politician Ilya Yashin one year after his arrest
Татьяна Фельгенгауэр
“I vowed to turn the prison into a political anti‑war platform. I believe I have succeded.” In‑depth interview with Moscow politician Ilya Yashin one year after his arrest
27 June 2023, 16:54

Art: Maria Tolstova / Mediazona

Exactly one year ago, on June 28, the eve of his birthday, the police detained Moscow politician Ilya Yashin. The Khamovnichesky District Court held him in a detention centre for 15 days for “non-compliance with the security forces.” Yashin never regained his freedom: while he was serving his administrative arrest, the Investigative Committee initiated a criminal case against him concerning “fake news” about the military, due to a YouTube stream about the Bucha massacre. In December 2022, the Meshchansky District Court of Moscow sentenced the politician to eight and a half years in a penal colony. Before the sentence came into effect, he was transferred to Udmurtia, some 800 miles away from Moscow, but was subsequently returned to the capital. In April, the Moscow City Court upheld his sentence. Mediazona wishes Ilya Yashin a happy upcoming 40th birthday and publishes his responses to the questions by Tatiana Felgengauer, which she had mailed to the pre-trial detention centre.

— The idea that you would be detained sooner or later seemed apparent to everyone, and to you first and foremost. Reflecting on your first year in prison, what were you prepared for, and what were you not?

— I was indeed well-prepared, both emotionally and, let’s say, organisationally. I had sorted out my health, preemptively assembled a legal team, signed all the necessary powers of attorney with a notary... And my previous experience with administrative arrests was helpful. All in all, my adaptation to prison life was quick and relatively smooth.

What’s important behind bars is not to pity yourself, not to succumb to despair, and to fill your days with meaningful work. The oppressive feeling of wasted time and life passing you by can be most difficult to endure. So, it’s crucial to devise tasks for oneself that provide moral satisfaction and to maintain social connections with the outside world. I understood all this before my arrest and managed to organise my prison life reasonably well.

That said, there are certainly aspects that are hard to grow accustomed to. For example, the filth. In places like the Butyrka prison, after a court session, you are herded into a holding area where you must wait for hours for the prison van. They cram about twenty people into this space, which is little better than a rubbish dump. Picture a public toilet at a railway station in the middle of nowhere. Dirt, stench, cockroaches, and tobacco smoke hanging thick in the air. You sit there for about five hours, fighting the urge to vomit and cursing everything under the sun. But what can you do? After some time, even that becomes tolerable to a degree.

Another tough thing to get used to is the occasional face-to-face encounters with concentrated, unadulterated evil behind bars. I remember seeing an emaciated old man approach a group of inmates in the holding area and ask for a cigarette. Everyone just silently moved away; not a single word was uttered. I asked, “What’s wrong with this old man?” Turned out, he was a child molester, even featured in a news story. He seemed like any regular old man. You would never suspect such a person if you met him on the street. Or, for instance, during a prison transfer, I struck up a conversation with a fellow inmate. We shared tea and a chocolate bar. Later, he shared details of his life: how he robbed a businessman, tortured him to get the safe code, and ended up decapitating him with a saw... That chocolate bar got stuck in my throat. In everyday life, you only see such characters on a screen. But in prison, it’s common to meet some cutthroat in a holding area or during a transfer. And it’s genuinely scary that such a person can’t be distinguished from a normal one.

— What was the most challenging aspect of pre-trial detention?

— As I mentioned, the hardest thing is the feeling that you aren’t living, that you’ve been put on pause. You’re almost frozen here. You’re getting older, months and years fly by, and you’re inactive, missing everything. You begin painfully counting how old you will be when you get out. You torment yourself, reflecting on what you didn’t get done when free and perhaps will never get a chance to do now. It’s very dangerous to fall into this emotional pit because getting out of it is far from easy. Among my cellmates, there were individuals who had completely lost themselves. Imagine: a guy just lying on his bunk all day, staring at one spot. It’s scary.

— How do you spend your day? After all, there isn’t much to do in pre-trial detention compared to a penal colony.

— You may be surprised, but my days in prison are quite filled. It’s precisely this routine that has allowed me to maintain my mental health over the past year.

I spend a large part of my day with pen and paper. I respond to numerous letters from people who are concerned about me, which gives me a sense of socialisation and live interaction. I miss people dearly here, and letters help me meet and communicate with others, learn something new and interesting. Moreover, I write texts, notes, and columns that are later published by my team on social networks and sometimes in outlets. I also draw from time to time... Some places here are quite picturesque, and I find myself reaching for an iPhone to capture what I see and share with people. But there is no iPhone! At some point, I remembered that as a teenager, I attended art school and indeed know how to hold a pencil.

Aside from all this, almost every day, I answer questions from journalists of various global media outlets and consider this to be an important part of my work. Since my arrest, I’ve given about 50 interviews, including independent Russian and almost all major European publications. In these pieces, I consistently criticise the war, defend my fellow citizens, and try to explain to the Western audience that Putin and Russia are not the same, that we aren’t all swept up in militaristic fervor, and that there is an alternative.

Such paperwork takes a lot of time, and I usually spend a full working day writing. When my fingers tire, I turn to books. If there’s something worthwhile on TV, I might watch it for a change. For example, I did catch the Champions League final. In addition, my lawyers usually visit me twice a week. We also discuss the news, they tell me what’s happening and share stuff. Overall, I don’t feel detached and don’t believe that the past year has been wasted.

— Are you able to keep in touch with your family?

— My parents visited me every month, both in Butyrka and Medved pre-trial detention centers [in Moscow]. They even came to Udmurtia, where I spent a month and a half in the local pre-trial detention center. We communicate through a sheet of glass via telephones. Of course, I miss being able to hug my mom and dad, but it’s better than nothing. Andrei Pivovarov was allowed a single visit with his mother in his two years in prison. Vladimir Kara-Murza hasn’t even heard the voices of his children and wife for over a year. And I won’t even mention Navalny... Compared to them, I’m not in a position to complain.

However, the last time I saw my parents was a long time ago, I think it was on May 4. Since then, they haven’t been able to visit me, although this is more of a bureaucratic problem than a malicious intent. The thing is that the materials of my criminal case have left the court after the appeal but have not yet arrived at the pre-trial detention administration. So, there’s currently no authorized body that could issue a permit for a visit. I’m far from the first detainee to encounter this problem; it’s systemic. So for now, I just correspond with my mom.

Art: Maria Tolstova / Mediazona

— Do you receive many letters? Who writes to you? Has the number of letters changed over the year?

— Every day, they hand me a pack of 20–30 letters through the “feeding hatch” in the cell door. In February, I think, I received my 15,000th letter and lost count after that. To be honest, I’m amazed at the number of people who sympathize with me, and it’s very pleasing. It genuinely gives strength and instills optimism.

And by the way, I wouldn’t say that there are noticeably fewer letters over time. Sometimes there are surges: a published article of mine or a court appearance may prompt people to write more actively, and then I can get a couple of hundred letters a day. And all sorts of people write. There are many young people—high school and college students. There are letters from doctors, pensioners, former police officers and military personnel, teachers, people of all professions you can think of. The geography is also very wide: from Kaliningrad to Sakhalin, from Australia to Iceland.

Girls sometimes send their photos. Someone shares their drawings. And very, very often people send me photos of their cats! I’ve assembled quite a collection. It was funny when I was called into a prison official’s office in Butyrka and he asked me at length about what these endless cats mean and whether my accomplices on the outside are trying to send me some encrypted messages this way. At first, I thought he was joking. But no! He was asking in all seriousness.

— What advice could you give to those who’ve never sent letters to a detention centre or colony? How best to start a conversation with, in essence, a stranger?

— Your letter doesn’t need to be strained. Write about what genuinely interests you. Share something about yourself, convey what intrigues and concerns you. Imagine that you’ve met this person at a gathering of mutual friends and you’re simply walking up to introduce yourself. What would you chat about then? Most likely, it would be some pleasant topics. Apply the same principle when writing letters to political prisoners: keep it light, devoid of unnecessary pomp and drama. And don’t hesitate to include photos, as it’s always pleasant to visualise your interlocutor. You know what your addressee looks like, but they can only imagine.

— With which political prisoners have you interacted this year? Are you able to communicate with them?

— For several months, I was held in the cell next to young poets who read anti-war lyrics in Mayakovsky Square in Moscow. They were eventually accused of extremism, beaten during their arrest, and imprisoned.

In the police van, I got acquainted with a whole group of Telegram channel moderators from different cities across Russia, from Sochi to Krasnoyarsk. They are suspected of attempting to incite mass riots following the Duma elections in autumn 2021.

One day in a holding area, a bearded man approached me and said he was my voter and had supported me in the Opposition Coordination Council elections a decade ago. I asked him why he was incarcerated. The man nonchalantly replied, “For terrorism.” He said he’d thrown a Molotov cocktail into a police van. My eyes nearly popped out... It turned out to be Vitaly Koltsov, a father to a large family, who was recently supported by the jury, and instead of the 19,5 years demanded by the prosecutor, he received a 6-year sentence.

— How do other detainees, non-political ones, react?

— They react with interest. In fact, I am recognised quite frequently here. Among the detainees, I regularly encounter opposition supporters and even my own followers. We talk, of course, discussing a lot of things. I ask people about their criminal cases, how they ended up behind bars, and sometimes I even give some legal advice and help to write complaints. If I come across any intriguing, non-trivial stories, I recount them in social media posts. Perhaps a day will come when I compile these narratives into a book.

As for me, people usually ask questions related to politics. Everyone is concerned about when and how the war will end, what will happen with the economy, whether a new mobilisation is expected, and if there’s a chance that Putin will step down... I catch myself thinking that sometimes such conversations with detainees in holding areas are not that different from the meetings with voters that I held during election campaigns. Except that I used to leave the voters at my own will, but here I am escorted.

Surprisingly, I have hardly encountered any signs of hatred or aggression from the inmates. Odd, right? After all, the state, in essence, has officially declared me an enemy of the people, branded me as a “foreign agent.” In theory, people should at least look askance at me. But there’s nothing like that. Even detainees loyal to Putin tend to express sympathy and describe my case as “overkill.” After all, for someone behind bars, it’s hard to understand how one can get an 8.5-year sentence for a YouTube video, when often people get less for murder and robbery.

— Do you think you've managed to remain a politician while in captivity? How can that be done?

— I believe I’ve managed to engage in political activity as much as it’s even possible in captivity. When I was arrested, I vowed to turn the prison into a political anti-war platform. That is, I planned not just to passively defend myself within the framework of this ludicrous public accusation, but to publicly criticise the war and Putin’s dictatorship during the court process. Overall, I believe I have succeeded. I used every opportunity to speak in court to loudly and clearly say: Putin is a war criminal, and the Russian army should immediately leave Ukrainian territory.

Moreover, I strive, albeit behind bars, to consistently represent and defend the interests of the anti-war part of our society. I appeal to Western politicians from the pages of global media, repeating a simple thought over and over: the Russian people are held hostage by Putin, it is wrong to equate the responsibility of a terrorist and his hostage. Ordinary people should not be punished for the criminal acts perpetrated by the Kremlin junta.

Perhaps it’s hard to call me a politician in the classic and full sense of the word now. Though it’s a big question who is more of a politician—me in prison, or some inept United Russia MP in the State Duma, voting as instructed. However, a politician should vie for power, and behind bars, I’m deprived of that opportunity. In a normal situation, I would be competing with Sobyanin for the position of Moscow’s mayor, not sitting on a bench with a notebook. Nevertheless, I believe that, by refusing to leave Russia, I remained a politician in the eyes of my supporters—people ready to vote for me. This is because I didn’t abandon my supporters and voters, I didn’t run away.

— How do the prison guards treat you?

— My relationships with the prison staff are quite balanced. I haven’t noticed any sadism or desire to cause trouble so far. On the contrary, there are even instances of sympathy and solidarity. In all the prisons I’ve been in over the year, there were long-timers and convoy guards who wished me luck in hushed voices, gave some useful advice on everyday life, and obviously sympathized with me. In Udmurtia, one of the staff even brought in a photo of me with Navalny from the internet and asked me to sign it as a keepsake.

Of course, I understand that if an order is given from above to make my life hell, this conduct won’t last. The system is the system. Sadists and scoundrels would immediately appear. However, I note for myself that no one is trying to break me on their own initiative and the prison guards behave as they are supposed to. Which, in fact, is understandable: they have no particular reasons to love the authorities who put me in prison for my criticism. Salaries here are very small, there’s a staff shortage, overwork and burnout are common, humiliation from superiors is the norm. Naturally, one should not expect riots and strikes from FSIN workers. I think that if changes start to happen in the country, many of them will sincerely rejoice.

— Can you feel a difference in treatment towards political and non-political prisoners in pre-trial detention?

— The situation is much more complex. For example, the prison staff is quite tense about Koltsov. This is because of the corporate solidarity that comes into play. If someone throws a Molotov cocktail at a police van, it means they are attacking people in uniform—people just like themselves. So, in the understanding of the FSIN officers, that person is a real enemy. They treat them accordingly.

In this regard, I obviously have it easier since I’m being tried for my words. There is no need to explain anything here. Criminal cases for videos, likes, and posts on social media are perceived as nonsense by both inmates and prison staff. However, the overall attitude towards “political” prisoners is fairly calm. No one specifically oppresses them, but they also don’t have any privileges. The focus is more on how a person behaves in the prison community and what kind of character they demonstrate in the cell. If you live, as they say here, a straight life, then the attitudes will be normal.

— Do you get news about the war?

— I try to stay informed. During meetings with my lawyers, I thoroughly ask them about what’s happening, and ask for lots of clarifications. Moreover, people often share news in their letters, quote stories from independent media, and include excerpts from various interviews. I might miss something, but overall, I am well-informed.

— Do you know anything about the recruitment of prisoners for the war?

— Recruitment for the war in the colonies is no surprise to anyone. Since last fall, I have met people in holding areas who have mentioned it. One guy said he had returned from a colony near Tver [near Moscow]. From his barracks, 23 inmates went to the front, and only three survived in the end. On the way from Udmurtia, I met a prisoner on the train who was being transferred from a Samara colony. He claimed to have seen Evgeny Prigozhin there, urging prisoners to join the Wagner PMC. He said Prigozhin compared himself to God, saying, “Only God and I can get you out of here.”

Now the Ministry of Defense is handling recruitment in the colonies, and there is less information. But apparently, fewer inmates want to fight. At least, I heard that recently representatives of the defense ministry began to visit Moscow’s pre-trial detention centers and recruit soldiers among the “maintenance workers.” These are the convicted inmates who did not want to go to the colonies and stayed in pre-trial detention centers, performing the functions of handymen and laborers. One of them told me that in Medved center twenty people agreed to sign a contract.

— Do the inmates discuss the war? What do non-political prisoners think about the “fake news” cases?

— From my observations, the war doesn’t spark enthusiasm among prisoners. Even the news and talk shows on TV are watched with curses and, to put it mildly, people don’t show much trust in the propaganda. And when General Konashenkov appears on the screen and briskly reports about the next hundred destroyed “AFU militias” and the enemy’s defeat, his voice is simply drowning in curses.

I sometimes explain during such moments that I was literally imprisoned for publicly disputing Konashenkov’s words. People say that then half the country’s population can be jailed.

What is happening in Ukraine shocks many inmates and creates a sense of humiliation, as it probably does for many citizens at large. Shock because the war has taken such a monstrous scale and has taken so many lives. Humiliation because they still believed Putin that we have the second-strongest army in the world and that we could take Kyiv in three days. Now the troops have been dangling around in Bakhmut for eight months, can’t properly protect their own Belgorod region, and still receive embarrassing slaps on the nose in the form of drone strikes on the Kremlin. The general mood: this is some kind of disgrace.

By the way, at first, I couldn’t understand: how did Prigozhin manage to recruit so many inmates with their skeptical attitude towards the war? But I eventually figured it out and identified two main groups of prisoners going to the front.

First, desperate people with huge sentences who just can’t imagine other paths to freedom. They consider themselves buried alive and are ready to play the “Russian roulette,” just to get a chance at freedom. Second, young guys who have troubled social lives and mostly earn their living through petty crime. They are tempted by the big money promised for participating in combat. These are adventurous guys by nature. We’ll get out of prison, and we’ll even get weapons, we’ll figure it out somehow. And then they return from Ukraine torn apart in zinc coffins.

Art: Maria Tolstova / Mediazona

— Do FSIN guards discuss the war?

— Everyone discusses the war, and FSIN staff are no exception. It also makes them anxious. They are afraid of a new mobilization and that their deferment would be canceled. I remember having a conversation with a convoy officer on the train, and he was trying to convince me that FSIN officers should not be drafted to the front under any circumstances, and especially not him. He told me about his family, showed me a photo of his little daughter... It probably looked comical. It was as if he was trying to persuade me not to send him to war, as if I were not a prisoner in transit, but some minister or general who’s in charge of that.

We also had a “regime officer” from Belgorod in the prison who works shifts: two weeks in a Moscow pre-trial detention center and then back home. He lives with his family literally three hundred meters from the place where a Russian bomb fell off from a military plane. All the windows in the apartment blew out. He came to his next shift almost stuttering after that.

— How often do you reflect on the day of your arrest? Do you believe there was an alternative course of action?

— It was a tense day, but it was bound to happen. From the outset of the war, I was morally braced for that day’s arrival. The thing is, it wasn’t about whether the decision was right or not... I simply couldn’t have acted otherwise. When Putin began to spill rivers of blood, I couldn’t stay silent. I would have lost all self-respect if I hadn’t mustered the courage to vocally, articulately and resolutely object to the invasion of Ukraine. Naturally, I was under no illusion. The State Duma had passed laws on military censorship, my municipality was searched, my closest comrades were arrested, and I was fined for “discrediting” the army on three separate counts. Essentially, the authorities sent an unambiguous message: either leave or be imprisoned. They even politely granted me time to ponder the ultimatum. But once more, I would have lost my self-respect if I had chosen to flee. For me, it feels psychologically more comforting to stand my ground rather than to run.

Guided by my internal compass, I can assert that I’m doing fine. The strain of confinement and the physical discomfort is greatly outweighed by a sense of inner harmony, borne from a clear conscience and preserved dignity. I’ve always lived by the principle, “Do what must be done, come what may.” And I continue to live by this creed.

— If you were to suddenly find yourself at home tomorrow, what would be your immediate course of action?

— I would embrace my loved ones. I’d gather my friends—those who still remain in Russia. I’d stroll along my beloved boulevards in Moscow, walk until I could barely stand from exhaustion. Then I’d relish a sound sleep on a soft, comfortable bed. After that, I’d sit before a video camera and start my next anti-war livestream.

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