On August 17, Moscow’s Tagansky District Court initiated proceedings on the so-called “roofers’ case”: Last year, roofer Pavel Ushivets scaled the golden pinnacle of a Stalin-era skyscraper and painted half of it blue to resemble Ukraine’s national colors, then planted a Ukrainian flag on its spire. Instead of arresting the roofer, though, police arrested four base-jumpers who happened to climb the building that same day. According to writer Alexander Podrabinek, the vandalism case initiated against the base-jumpers is ridiculous both in form and in content, and the accused are essentially being held hostage.

 

Alexander Pogrebov is one of the four base-jumpers who were detained on August 20, 2014 near the skyscraper on the Kotelnicheskaya embankment of the Moscow River. Photo: TASS.

 

On Monday August 17, Moscow’s Tagansky District Court initiated proceedings on a criminal case concerning the August 20, 2014, painting of the star-shaped spire atop a Stalin-era Moscow skyscraper. Four defendants—Alexander Pogrebov, Alexei Shirokozhukhov, Anna Lepeshkina, and Evgeniya Korotkova—have been accused of vandalism motivated by political and ideological hatred.

The skyscraper in question lies east of the Kremlin on the Kotelnicheskaya embankment of the Moscow River. According to the prosecution, these four young people painted the top half of the star-shaped pinnacle blue to resemble the Ukrainian flag. The accused are pleading not guilty. They claim they were just parachuting off the skyscraper and did not touch the star. They are well-known base-jumpers, and this was not their first jump. The four make no secret of their hobby, and on August 20 of last year, they made a video of their base jump.

Corroborating their story, a few days after their arrest, a well-known Ukrainian roofer named Pavel Ushivets, better known by the nickname “Mustang Wanted,” published his pictures and video on the Internet as proof that he had been the one to paint the star atop the skyscraper that day. Mustang assumed full responsibility for the bold action.

Yet the Moscow police were slow to respond and failed to detain the clever Mustang Wanted, who, following his act of protest, returned safely to Ukraine. In Russia, he was put on the wanted list.

After letting Mustang escape, the police arrested the first people it could in connection with the skyscraper. They happened to be four harmless base-jumpers who had decided to conquer the Kotelnicheskaya embankment building that same day. They came slightly later than Mustang, failed to reach the spire of the building, and did not even notice the repainted star. The police officers on the scene were no doubt overjoyed at the stroke of luck that literally fell out of the sky, saving them the trouble of looking for and pursuing the real culprit.

Accusing four random people of someone else’s crime is child’s play to the Russian police, who have ample experience in this area. Considering the political nature of the crime, the prosecutor’s office and the court will likely pay no mind to the inconsistencies of the state’s case. And the police and security forces simply do not care; their wellbeing and their professional careers depend entirely on their superiors’ good graces—not on public opinion.

Still, Mustang Wanted kept insisting that the accused were innocent, and was prepared to give testimony. He even expressed his willingness to surrender to the Russian authorities in exchange for the release of imprisoned Ukrainian politician Nadezhda Savchenko.

Vandalism is the act of defacing buildings or other property. Yet how can a Ukrainian flag deface a piece of Moscow? And why should it be considered indecent or offensive? This is nothing but a knee-jerk reaction of law enforcement officials fixated on promoting imperial patriotism.

Federation Council member Konstantin Dobrynin appealed to Mustang’s conscience, reproaching him for letting other people suffer for his actions. “If this Ukrainian roofer says that this story is of his making, then he should voluntarily surrender to Russian law enforcement, so that the innocent people who have been arrested by our policemen won’t suffer. That’s why this Internet hero will have to face reality, not Facebook reality, and prove to our investigators that he alone is responsible,” Dobrynin said.

In saying this, Dobrynin, a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament, suggests treating the defendants as hostages. It’s that simple. He does not call for the immediate and unconditional release of the innocent. Instead, he calls on Mustang Wanted to come to Moscow and turn himself in, thus trading himself for those arrested by the police.

Mustang is refusing to go to Moscow. He is willing to give testimony from Kiev, which, incidentally, is an easy thing to organize technically: interrogation on behalf of another country is common practice in international relations, using video link or other modern technologies.

In reality, the Moscow investigators don’t need Mustang’s testimony. They already know he was behind the daring stunt. They need Mustang himself. And if he’s not there, they will take out their ire on others.

Mustang, meanwhile, is trying to help the accused. He auctioned off his paint-stained shoes, in which he climbed on top of the skyscraper, and sent the 150,000 hryvnias he received for them to the unlucky base-jumpers so they could pay their lawyers.

The criminal case is absurd both in form and in substance. In form, because the investigators—as in the well-known joke in which a man searches for his keys under a streetlamp across the street from where he’s dropped them—are looking in the place with the best light, and not where their mark actually lies. In essence, vandalism is the act of defacing buildings or other property. Yet how can a Ukrainian flag deface a piece of Moscow? And why should it be considered indecent or offensive? This is nothing but a knee-jerk reaction of law enforcement officials fixated on promoting imperial patriotism. It has nothing to do with vandalism whatsoever.

Mustang’s stunt is a political action—not vandalism. It would have been fair for the Moscow authorities to sue Mustang for the cost of repainting the star in its original color. Many Muscovites (including the author of this article) would have considered it an honor to participate in raising the funds for Mustang’s fine.

In spite of everything, this case has reached the court, and a guilty verdict is likely. In the worst-case outcome, each of the accused could be sentenced to up to three years in prison.

The Institute of Modern Russia wishes a happy birthday to Lyudmila Alekseyeva, who celebrated her 90th anniversary on July 20.

Lyudmila Alexeeva occupies a unique place in the history of human rights, being one of the most outspoken and respected rights advocates in Russia and beyond. Due to her dedicated efforts, resilience, strong morale, and ever dignified stance, thousands of people have more freedom in Russia today.

We are grateful to Lyudmila Alexeyeva for her support, her invaluable, selfless and incredibly long service, for her ability to speak truth to the authorities, for her adherence to high ideals and beliefs. Lyudmila Mikhailovna, you are an example to all of us. Thank you.

Our newsletter delivers a digest of analytical articles and op-eds published on our website, along with the latest updates on the IMR activities on a monthly basis.