Poets on trial, again. Mayakovsky Readings’ poets face up to 7‑year sentences in Moscow court over anti‑war stance
Poets on trial, again. Mayakovsky Readings’ poets face up to 7‑year sentences in Moscow court over anti‑war stance
27 December 2023, 19:19

Yegor Shtovba. Photo: Alexandra Astakhova / Mediazona

Today in Moscow’s Tverskoy District Court, severe prison sentences were proposed for Artem Kamardin and Yegor Shtovba, poets who participated in last year’s Mayakovsky Readings. Kamardin is facing a possible seven-year sentence, while Shtovba could be sentenced to six years.

The Mayakovsky Readings, a tradition revitalized from the Soviet era, have been held for more than a decade near the monument of Vladimir Mayakovsky in central Moscow. The event on September 25, 2022, was marked as “anti-mobilisation” a few days after Vladimir Putin announced his “partial mobilisation” to the war in Ukraine. The following day, law enforcement conducted searches at the homes of those who took part in the readings.

Nikolai Dayneko, another Mayakovsky Readings case defendant, has already been sentenced to four years in prison. He entered a pre-trial agreement with the investigation, testified against Kamardin and Shtovba, leading to his case being fast-tracked in a closed session. When the prosecution forced him to testify against his peers, Dayneko struggled to conform to the prosecutor’s expectations and admitted fearing repercussions for deviating from her narrative.

Yegor Shtovba and Artem Kamardin are accused of inciting activities against state security and fomenting hatred, as well as degrading human dignity. The prosecution alleges that on September 25, 2022, at Mayakovsky’s monument, an “organised group” of poets gathered, demeaning participants of the invasion of Ukraine.

After sentencing requests were made, the poets delivered speeches in court. We publish the transcripts of their addresses to Judge Panova.

Yegor Shtovba

Your Honour, the criminal case against myself and Artem Kamardin has concluded. From the outset, I maintained my innocence in court: I am not guilty, I did not commit these acts. I stressed this even during the preliminary investigation. I have not broken any laws. I sincerely hope that you are convinced that the prosecution has failed to provide evidence to the contrary.

On September 25, 2022, for the first time ever in my life, I attended an event to read my poems and express myself as a poet. That day marked the beginning of my freedom being curtailed.

The investigation didn’t bother to understand the situation, indiscriminately charging those they could apprehend. It seemed to follow the logic that whoever ran must be guilty. And now, due to someone’s mistake, I sit here as a defendant. What for? The investigator couldn’t answer this. To them, I’m just a name on a piece of paper to be passed along to the prosecutor’s office, and then the court will decide.

This shifting of responsibility, a negligent approach to work that can cost a person their life—in this case, mine. Here, a human life is at stake, but the investigation doesn’t care; they are just doing their job. Someone’s error or indifference, their unwillingness to understand, is why I’m here.

What have I done that’s illegal? Read poetry? Not even a single examination was conducted on my poems. Looking for answers in the indictment: “incitement of hatred or hostility, as well as the degradation of human dignity based on social group affiliation, committed publicly by an organised group.”

According to the investigation, Kamardin recruited me and Nikolai Dayneko, previously unknown to me, to partake in a “crime aimed at inciting hatred and degrading human dignity”—specifically, against militia participants of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics,—publicly, as an organised group. Also, for “making calls to hinder the executive authorities from exercising their powers to ensure the security of the Russian Federation—by encouraging draft-eligible individuals to refuse summons and to not sign them.” Again, as an organised group.

It sounds serious and grave. But it’s merely the investigation’s interpretation. You now must discern and establish the facts. Writing something on paper is easy; proving it is hard. Ask yourself in the deliberation room: did the crime even occur? Did Shtovba commit these illegal actions? Was there intent? What was his motive? Is the accusation supported by presented evidence? What evidence confirms that an organised group was formed between me, Kamardin, and Dayneko?

You will make a decision that affects my future. You’ve seen my parents in court and know that my lawyer and I aren’t exaggerating about their reliance on my support—both financially and in daily life.

I want to address my mother. Mum, I know that you, more than anyone, believe in my innocence and non-involvement. And you know I didn’t end up here through my own doing. Still, I’m sorry for how things turned out, leaving you and dad alone with your difficulties. (At this point, Shtovba’s mother in the courtroom responds, “I know.”) Thank you for your support.

Someone from the authorities simply decided to detain and charge me without understanding—let the court figure it out. Then came the extensions—since I was arrested, there must be have been grounds. Time and again. No one wants to delve deeper, while a person stays in detention. Does anyone care that I’m also human?

Now, Your Honour, the case finally comes to you. You are the first person genuinely trying to understand what’s happening here. Of all those authorised to make decisions, you are the first.

We can now clearly see that the investigation failed to present any evidence of my acquaintance with Kamardin or Dayneko prior to my detention on September 25. I tried to help the investigation, believing it would understand that we were detained by mistake. But the system had already started working, its inertia too strong to see any obstacles.

All my hopes now lie with you. I sincerely hope you will do your job better, lawfully, guided by irrefutable facts, not the investigator’s conjectures or the lies of [secret witnesses] “Arnold” and “Jackie”, and guided by your own convictions, namely your experience and intuition.

There’s a principle of innocence, stating that all doubts are interpreted in favour of the accused, who isn’t obliged to prove their innocence. This is exactly about the testimonies of secret witnesses: their word against mine, and no evidence. Only doubts remain.

Returning to the indictment. What is my so-called criminal role? “Creating a false appearance of mass participation and relevance of the event by actively supporting speakers, jointly reciting poems, jointly voicing statements and calls to refuse summons, active gesturing, and other actions aimed at degrading the dignity of a group.”

Let me comment on each of these points. First: my mere presence and applause at the event are construed as creating a false appearance of mass participation. This is not true. Nor is it a crime—absurd! There were about 20 people, all clapping, which is normal at readings.

Second: How could I recite others’ work if I heard these poems for the first time? I wasn’t even familiar with their authors or their work.

Third: I made no announcements, no calls, no words that could be perceived as offensive or degrading human dignity.

Next: Active gesturing. As usual, no evidence that I gestured actively, raised my hands—nothing.

Fifth: “Other actions.” What are they? What did I do? I did nothing. Why am I here, for what? The phrase about the stability of the organised group is defined by the duration of criminal activity, the constancy of the core participants, the uniformity of the crime, criminal objectives, clear role distribution, and strict subordination. This phrase, as I understand, is beyond proof. The investigation merely asserts it.

Proving the existence of various circumstances is the prosecution’s duty. But there is no evidence. And yet, I sit here. If I’m accused of such serious charges, where’s the billing, the investigative activities, the recording of phone conversations? Where’s the surveillance of me, Dayneko, Kamardin? None of that exists. And why does the investigation specifically mention the period from September 21 to 25, when I was supposedly sought? How did the investigation prove that Kamardin explained to me the plan to commit the crime and offered me to participate? How did it prove that I agreed?

Your Honour, the puzzle doesn’t fit. I believe the investigation is lying and, lacking evidence, is fabricating a case on false witness testimonies from “Arnold” and “Jackie”. Once I was detained, it was too late to backtrack. Thus, the investigator created a false appearance of the charges being relevant. This puzzle fits much better. Yet here I sit.

I implore you, Your Honour, considering all I’ve said, to make the only lawful and justified decision—dismiss all charges against me and acquit me.

Artem Kamardin. Photo: Alexandra Astakhova / Mediazona

Artem Kamardin

It is impermissible to judge art. Artistic expression can be interpreted in various ways, even when it’s presented in the simplest and most direct form. There will always be those who misconstrue it. And if someone is inclined to take offence, they can find it in the most innocuous places.

I had no intention of offending anyone with my poem. Perhaps others had the intention of taking offence, to unjustly punish someone with differing opinions and views.

Just as it is impermissible to judge art, it is equally wrong to judge someone for their opinions, even when expressed publicly. Regrettably, in modern Russia, this practice is all too common, so, with all due respect, I fear the verdict will be “guilty,” despite my complete innocence.

I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that the video evidence presented does not show me encouraging people not to take draft summons or to refuse to sign them. It’s also worth noting that whatever is said or read at the Mayakovsky Readings is solely the responsibility of the individual speaking or reading. These readings, a city tradition dating back to the mid-last century, have no central theme or organisers. Anyone can step up and say whatever comes to mind. This has always been the case, to my recollection.

Furthermore, regarding Article 280.4 [Public calls to carry out activities directed against Russia’s state security], I ask you to note that this is a relatively new law, existing for no more than three months at the time of our arrest, with no established legal practice.

As new laws emerged, banning certain statements, I always adjusted my rhetoric. When the law against discrediting the [army] appeared, and the first person was convicted for saying “No to war”, I stopped using that phrase. Although I still don’t understand how that constitutes “discrediting.” Then came Article 207, the law about “fake news” [regarding the army], and I ceased sharing any information not approved by the Russian Ministry of Defence.

Knowing that certain statements, even those said in private, if made public, could land me in jail, I remained silent… Or rather, I didn’t. Knowing how accusations of forming an “organised group” are thrown around, I might have distanced myself from anyone making such statements. I would have been tormented by guilt and anxiety but would have kept quiet.

I am no hero, and going to prison for my beliefs was never part of my plan. I am a poet and not exactly emotionally balanced, with a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder, or as termed by the Serbsky Institute, a mixed personality disorder, which, however, doesn’t prevent me from being tried.

I implore you, if for some reason you cannot issue an acquittal—though I stress, I am absolutely innocent—to consider a suspended sentence.

I fear that neither my physical nor mental health will withstand prolonged imprisonment. The mere possibility of being imprisoned again, the prospect of being forcibly separated from my family and loved ones again, would be a sufficient deterrent from making any public statements on sensitive issues.

My convictions will not change, as they didn’t under torture, as they wouldn’t with a real sentence, as they wouldn’t even under the threat of death—it’s simply not possible. That’s not how it works. But I assure you, I will no longer express them publicly.

Your Honour, please let me go home.

Editor: Dmitry Treschanin

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