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With All Eyes on Ukraine, Russia Dumps Its “Toxic” Leftists in Prison

Sergei Udalstov, center, at a protest in Moscow, October 23, 2010. Photo by Evgeniy Isaev, CC 2.0.

Sergei Udalstov, center, at a protest in Moscow, October 23, 2010. Photo by Evgeniy Isaev, CC 2.0.

After a long trial, a Moscow judge has sentenced two leftist activists who were at the forefront of Russia's 2011-2012 protests, Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhayev, to 4.5 years in prison for organizing mass riots on the eve of Putin’s inauguration in March 2012. Udaltsov, the leader of the Left Front, and Razvozzhayev, an activist and aide to parliamentarian Ilya Ponomarev, join 12 others jailed in connection with the Bolotnoe Case. Amnesty International has declared several of those jailed, including Udaltsov, to be prisoners of conscious. Among Russian Internet users, there are many different opinions about Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev’s politics, but there is a broad consensus that Amnesty International is right.

Originally, the charges against Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev included a third defendant: Konstantin Lebedev, who entered a guilty plea and reached a deal with investigators. Udaltsov has been under house arrest since 2013. Razvozzhayev wasn't so lucky: he's spent all this time in pre-trial detention. When investigators first charged him with planning to incite a riot in Moscow, Razvozzhayev fled to Ukraine, where Russian security agents abducted him off the streets of Kyiv and forcibly returned him to Russia. The third man, Lebedev, is now free on parole.

According to the Kremlin, the clashes between police and protesters at a protest in Bolotnaya square in 2012 were the result of a conspiracy to overthrow the Russian government. Federal investigators based much of their case on surveillance footage of the three activists meeting with the Georgian politician Givi Targamadze, who vowed to send the trio money to fund their plot. The video was part of an opposition-smearing documentary, “Anatomy of a Protest 2,” which aired on the Kremlin-friendly television station NTV.

During the trial, Udaltsov admitted that he did meet with Targamadze to discuss starting a liquor business. Many consider the footage faked and the plot a Kremlin concoction, but such suspicions did little to prevent Udaltsov’s and Razvozzhayev’s conviction. Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch called the trial a “mockery of justice,” adding,

This trial is meant to intimidate protesters in Russia. The sentences people have been getting, the fact they spent so much time in custody before trial, it's meant [to show] that the price of taking to the streets is very high.

The price is indeed high, as prosecutors have assured. Udaltsov’s and Razvozzhayev’s convictions couldn’t come at a worse time, as of the world’s attention is diverted from Russian domestic politics to the war in Ukraine. What is more, as radical leftists, Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev are problematic for many who sympathize with Russia’s opposition. In addition to his neo-Stalinism, Udalstov broke with many Russian liberals over Ukraine. He supports the annexation of Crimea and the “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine. About Crimea’s referendum, he declared,

Я советский патриот, считаю разрушение СССР величайшей ошибкой и преступлением, поэтому расцениваю присоединение Крыма как маленький, но важный шаг в сторону возрождения обновленного Союза.

I am a Soviet patriot and consider the destruction of the Soviet Union the greatest mistake and a crime. Therefore, I regard the absorption of Crimea to be a small but important step towards the revival of a renewed [Soviet] Union.

Despite his leftism and views on Ukraine, Udaltsov and Razozzhayev have received a lot of sympathy from Russia’s liberals online. This isn’t to say that this support hasn't come without caveats. Many preface their remarks with a clear statement that they didn’t support Udaltsov’s politics, but agree that his trial was a travesty of justice, saying he and Razozzhayev are prisoners of conscience.

For example, v_fedotov wrote on LiveJournal:

Мне совершенно не близки коммунистические взгляды. Ни в теории, ни тем более в том виде, в каком они были у нас реализованы на практике. Я не хочу революции и с большой опаской отношусь к профессиональным революционерам в кожаных куртках (и с маузерами – так и хочется добавить). Трудно себе представить свободные выборы, на которых я был бы готов проголосовать за бывшего члена “Сталинского блока за СССР” и доверенное лицо Зюганова.

I’m by no means somebody with communist views. Not communism in theory or the way we experienced it in practice. I don't want a revolution and I'm very wary about professional revolutionaries in leather jackets (carrying revolvers, I should add). I have trouble imaging a free election where I'd be ready to vote for a former member of the Stalinist Bloc for the USSR,” or someone who was a representative for Zyuganov in his presidential campaign.

Nevertheless, v_fedotov continued,

Однако всё это не имеет никакого отношения к делу. Отныне Сергей Удальцов и Леонид Развозжаев – стопроцентные политзаключенные. Люди, которых приговорили к 4,5 годам тюрьмы ИСКЛЮЧИТЕЛЬНО за их политическую деятельность.

However, all this is irrelevant to the case. Henceforth, Sergei Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhaev are one-hundred percent political prisoners. They are people who have been sentenced to 4.5 years in prison SOLELY for their political activities.

Denis Bilunov echoed this sentiment on Facebook:

Удальцов и Развозжаев – несомненные политические заключенные, наш долг всемерно поддерживать их.

Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev are definitely political prisoners. It’s our duty to support them in every possible way.

Zoya Svetova, a writer for the liberal magazine The New Times, wrote on Facebook that she feels that the 4.5-year-sentence says the prosecution, which asked the judge for 8 years, failed to prove its case. If they weren't sentenced for the crime they were accused of, Svetova asks, what was their offense?

И все таки за что Удальцов и Развозжаев получили четыре с половиной года? За пьянки с неизвестными грузинами? За то, что пили за Сталина? Или потому что Удальцов был одним из самых популярных оппозиционных политиков?

Увы, при авторитарном режиме оппозиционерам приходится сидеть в тюрьме. Только хотелось бы понимать, за что они сидят. Понятно, что извалять в грязи и оболгать можно любого. [...] То ли мы в декабре 2011 -ого были слишком наивными. То ли что то с нами пошло не так.

Was it for getting drunk with suspicious Georgians? For drinking to Stalin? Or is it because Udaltsov was one of the most popular opposition politicians?

Alas, under an authoritarian regime, the only place for oppositionists is in prison. It's just that I'd like to know why they are in prison. It’s clear that you can drag anybody through the mud and smear him. [...] Either we were too naïve in December 2011, or something went wrong with us.

Liberal activist Ilya Yashin, on the other hand, pointed out that Udaltsov had become politically toxic even for the Left. Reminding people that, just two years ago, there were rumors about Udaltsov taking over Russia's Communist Party, Yashin tweeted,

Remember that Udaltsov was Zyuganov’s representative in the presidential elections? No one from the [Communist Party] leadership came to see him in court.

And finally, in reference to Konstantin Lebedev’s deal with prosecutors, Alexey Navalny's Twitter account captured many people’s sentiment by writing,

Meanwhile, quietly sitting and sipping his tea somewhere, is that beast and provocateur Lebedev, who set up [Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev] and sent them to prison.

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