Sentenced to eight years in jail, Yashin discusses the war in Ukraine, Russian opposition and how the west can help
Andrew Roth in Moscow – 4 March – The Guardian
“Writing from a cell in a Russian jail known as the Bear, Ilya Yashin remained as defiant as ever. In neat, blue-ink lettering, the opposition politician was able to express himself candidly despite his incarceration. Removing Vladimir Putin from power, he wrote, was a prerequisite to “avoiding the risks of a new world war”.
“As long as Putin retains power, war, or at least the threat of war, will be permanent,” Yashin said in written answers to questions from the Guardian, delivered by his lawyers this week. “This man has gone mad from unlimited power and impunity, he has become a slave to his maniacal ambitions.”
Yashin was sentenced last year to eight and a half years in prison for a broadcast on his popular YouTube channel in which he accused the Russian army of a massacre of civilians in Bucha.
It may take regime change before Yashin, 39, tastes freedom again. Some Russians have taken to coining the jail terms handed down to activists and dissidents as PPZh, an acronym for “while Putin is alive”. In Yashin’s case, he admits that his release date is “difficult to predict”.
“Obviously, I will have a chance to get out of prison if the government changes in Russia,” he said. But this is “not a question of today or tomorrow. It is clear that Putin’s goodwill cannot be counted on. He hates people who have publicly opposed military aggression in Ukraine and considers them enemies.”
Long before Yashin’s arrest last summer, he knew he was in danger. Police had told a girlfriend he was a “step away from prison”, while a lawyer had told him bluntly that “if I did not leave Russia in the coming days, I would end up behind bars”, he said. Friends and family spoke to him about emigrating. “But none of my family manipulated me with a feeling of guilt and urged me to run away,” he said. “And I am very grateful for that.”
Yashin appears at peace with his decision to follow the arduous path of a modern Russian dissident. A veteran of the protest scene that turned out on Bolotnaya Square alongside Alexei Navalny and Boris Nemtsov in 2011, he has evolved from a whiz-kid of the Russian opposition to something like its grizzled wartime conscience. And he seems hellbent – through his own example now – to prove there is a solid bedrock of Russians who oppose the war against Ukraine.
“Why did I refuse to emigrate?” he wrote. “Because from the first day of the fighting, I understood that an anti-war voice should be speaking in Russia. It should speak as loudly as possible under the circumstances. Putin has done everything to silence the opponents of the attack on Ukraine. He intimidated Russians, he established military censorship, forced his critics abroad under threat of arrest. The Kremlin did its best to create the illusion of mass, total support for military aggression in Russian society. And I live here and I know that there is no total support, that many are against the war.”
It is a thesis to which Yashin will return as he descends deeper into Russia’s vast network of holding cells, jails and prisons. He has already been moved five times in the past eight months, including a trip to Udmurtia, more than 600 miles from Moscow. In the Bear, his fellow prisoners include generals, deputy ministers, wealthy businessmen and a few political prisoners. But his cellmates were all arrested on drug charges.
“Strangely enough, I very rarely meet sincere supporters of the war and Putin’s aggressive policy behind bars,” he wrote. “People here don’t really trust the Russian state at all, have faced injustice and are offended by the authorities.”
Those imprisoned for “economic” crimes are more likely to be vocal opponents of the war, he wrote, including businessmen, lawyers and other professionals. “The rhetoric of such prisoners is usually very radical: they have seen the system from the inside, know how rotten and corroded it is by corruption, consider themselves victims of this system.”
But there are others ready to go to fight despite rumours, Yashin said, of overwhelming losses and outrage that prisoners are being used as cannon fodder. As a rule, he said, they are either the very poor or the very desperate, those who have been given long prison terms for serious crimes and see war as “their only chance to gain freedom”.
On a prison train to Udmurtia, he said, he met a 48-year-old man serving a 20-year sentence for murder and robberies. He compared his decision to enlist as a mercenary to playing Russian roulette. “The stake in this game is life and freedom,” he said. “Moreover, with whom to fight and whom to kill, it does not matter to him … It’s like an animal instinct: just to break out of the cage, just to survive, just to get the sentence overturned.”
What were sometimes called the “vegetarian” years of Putin’s rule, the days before political assassinations, mass crackdowns and full-scale invasions, are over. Russia’s democratic opposition is deep in the weeds. Navalny, its most prominent figure, was nearly poisoned to death and has been sentenced to more than a decade in prison.
Yashin, for his part, suggested that with “empty hands” Russia’s opposition would be powerless to enact change from within. “There will be no opposition under Putin’s regime,” he wrote. “For the formation of a normal democratic system, its dismantling is required.”
Asked what the west could do to help, he said he thought it could “send a clear signal to the Russian people that it does not consider them an enemy”.
Russians needed an alternative to Putin’s imperialism, which brought death and poverty, isolation, corruption, arbitrariness, he added. “It would be a big mistake if the rhetoric and sanctions policy of the west degenerate into Russophobia.”
Remarks like these have put Yashin at odds with some of Ukraine’s most ardent supporters abroad. They have said millions of Russians are to blame just as much as Putin for the war. Yashin has always argued the opposite, that “our society has also become a victim of Putin”.
“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t idealise my people,” he wrote. “Yes, unfortunately we have allowed this criminal power into the Kremlin. People believed the propaganda, allowed themselves to be manipulated, did not control officials and security forces. All this is our responsibility. But this does not mean that the Russian people deserve to be defamed.”
In prison, Yashin said, he devotes his time to reading, answering letters from supporters and journalists, and recording his observations for a book. He makes small sketches that “are not very skilled from an artistic point of view but reflect the atmosphere of Russian captivity”.
Yashin has called the killing of Nemtsov in 2015 one of the two worst nights of his life. The other was Putin’s announcement of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Asked whether he thought his own life was at risk, he replied: “It is difficult to talk about this topic. After Nemtsov’s shooting at the Kremlin walls, Navalny’s poisoning, mass killings in Ukraine, you can expect anything from this government.
“But, to be honest, I try not to think about it. Just to keep from going crazy.”