On March 11, 2014, three activists, Oleg Savvin, Mikhail Feldman, and Dmitry Fonarev, hoisted a German flag at Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) building in the city of Kaliningrad. Now, each of them is facing a seven-year sentence for their symbolic protest against Russian aggression in Ukraine. According to writer Alexander Podrabinek, the current Russian leadership seems poised to resuscitate Soviet-style methods of political repressions.
In Russia recently, freedom has been on the decline. Things that were considered legal and acceptable yesterday are deemed criminal and improper today. The country is spiraling into another authoritarian regime at such a quick pace that current legislation fails to reflect accelerating repressive practices. Political pragmatists, however, operate above the law: hence, the current government is either ignoring due process of law or making a spectacle out of it.
In March 2014, two political activists from the Committee of Public Self-Defense, Mikhail Feldman and Oleg Savvin, together with their Moscow colleague, Dmitry Fonarev, hoisted a German flag over the Federal Security Service (FSB) building in Kaliningrad. In an interview with Novaya Gazeta, they explained that their protest was not to demonstrate support for Germany, but rather for Ukraine. It was designed to denounce the Russian government’s support of the separatist movement in southeastern Ukraine. By flying the flag in Kaliningrad, a city that was part of Germany until 1945 (as Königsberg), the protestors were sending a message: if Russia can hang its flags in Crimea, which is part of a foreign country (Ukraine), why someone can’t do a similar thing in Russia?
Russian authorities promptly recognized the politically charged message behind the protest but had no legal grounds to arrest the men. They were initially put under administrative detention for ten to fifteen days for “obscene language” and then charged with committing acts of hooliganism. Article 213 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation allows for a broad interpretation of “hooliganism”; anything and anybody can be charged under this article without substantial evidence, a practice that has been employed since Soviet times.
Today, the three political activists remain in custody and are facing seven years in prison. Precedence suggests that they will end up serving it, too: a few years ago, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of the band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison under the same article.
Mikhail Feldman, 43, is a biologist; Oleg Savvin, 26, is a manager; and Dmitry Fonarev, 23, is a student. The court’s ruling states that they raised the German flag “as a symbol calling for the secession of Kaliningrad oblast from the Russian Federation and its joining of the European Union, thus seriously disturbing public order.” It is still unclear what evidence the court used to make its ruling, how public order was violated, or who the victims of the protest were.
During times of the Soviet occupation, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia saw many of their young people put in prison for having dared to raise the old flags of their countries in schools and public places.
According to the indictment, “Mikhail Feldman, Oleg Savvin, and Dmitry Fonarev have gravely violated public order, caused public nuisance to residents and showed open disrespect to passers-by who were forced to witness illegal actions, as well as seriously offended and humiliated the feelings and political views of the citizens of the Russian Federation.”
It includes no explanation for how the national flag of Germany—a country with which Russia is not at war and has working diplomatic relations—could have offended the feelings and political views of the Russian people. It would almost be funny, were the three defendants not facing a very real threat of imprisonment. Theirs was a purely symbolic act of protest, yet it has landed them in prison, awaiting the court’s verdict.
Such an extreme response to a peaceful and symbolic expression of protest is indicative of the Russian regime’s return to Soviet-era practices of repression. During times of the Soviet occupation, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia saw many of their young people put in prison for having dared to raise the old flags of their countries in schools and public places. At that time, any form of political protest was punishable under a law on anti-Soviet propaganda or malicious slander of the Soviet regime. Today, such acts are prosecuted under the law on hooliganism.
There is a prison saying inherited from the Soviet Gulag that states, “An indictment can be made to fit any man.” Recent events in Russia prove that this saying still holds true.