Eyewitness: Russia Arrested in my pyjamas: I became a political prisoner at 23
Why is Putin so afraid of young people?
by Alla Gutnikova
six in the morning on April 14th I was woken by the doorbell and
yelling. “Open up, or we’ll break the door down!” Half-asleep and
frightened, I opened the door. Ten or so men entered my flat, holding
guns and wearing black balaclavas and bulletproof vests. I was in my
pyjama bottoms and a sweatshirt.
still asleep and having a nightmare? It felt like it. They pushed me
into a room and took my phone and passport. After a while they asked,
“Well, Alla Gutnikova, were you filming a video?”
were referring to a film I made a few months earlier. In January many
young Russians like me took part in protests against Vladimir Putin
following the arrest of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent
dissident, on his return to the country. Some were expelled from
university for their role in the demonstrations.
the law here is a kind of Russian roulette. The authorities sent us a
letter saying the video was illegal and that we needed to delete it. We
did. Even so, here I was, a couple of months later, surrounded by armed
men in my apartment. They told me to get dressed and took me in for
questioning. I’d read about what happens to criminal suspects in Russia:
would they keep me in a basement and torture me?
evening there was a trial at the Basmanny district court in Moscow. The
prosecution claimed that we had involved minors in life-threatening
activities: they said teenagers watching our video could be inspired to
go to a rally, where they might catch coronavirus and die.
judge placed me and the other editors under house arrest. We were also
banned from using the internet and making phone calls. Two weeks later,
after we appealed, the court let us go out for a two-hour walk each
the first month I held up well. I tried to see the funny side of it and
the potential for anecdotes. I thought about turning my experience into
a story, play or song. But after five months of house arrest, I’m a bit
broken. Everything is a haze or a half-dream. It’s like I’m in a movie,
but it’s really happening to me.
first became interested in politics following the assassination in 2015
of Boris Nemtsov, a leading liberal politician. But until recently, my
main focus was my education. I was doing a degree in cultural studies at
the Higher School of Economics in Moscow – my thesis was on the
philosopher Walter Benjamin. When I wasn’t studying, I taught children
English and did a bit of modelling and acting. After graduating I
planned to work as a teacher or go into publishing.
young Russians, I got immersed in politics in the summer of 2019 after
the arrest of Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist who had reported
on the finances of Moscow’s deputy mayor and his family, among other
subjects. The authorities tried to plant drugs on him in broad daylight
(the charges were later dropped). There was a popular slogan: “Me, us,
Ivan Golunov”, and unprecedented solidarity among journalists and
Young people come along and say: “The king is naked”
Soon after came the events known as the “Moscow Case”, when young people were detained for protesting against Putin.
I was trying to study, but all I could think about was what was
happening to these demonstrators. My friend and I made stickers saying
“the Moscow Case must be stopped” for people to put on their bags and
laptops. I was naive enough to hope this would promote change: I
imagined these stickers flooding the whole city, that we’d see how many
of us there were.
Then, in January,
came the controversy about Putin’s palace. Navalny, who had been
poisoned by Russian security agents a few months earlier, released a
film about Putin’s mansion on the Black Sea. Everybody was discussing it
– even people who weren’t interested in politics. It was like a new
Harry Potter had come out. I remember thinking: who could want Putin in
power knowing the amazing level of corruption? Russians have nothing to
eat, but officials have palaces and private jets.
film led to several protests. It was dangerous to go to them: we all
remembered the arrests of 2019, the videos of police beating protesters
with batons, the woman with a bloody head. But I still hoped that
something would change. There was a sense of unity and widespread
enthusiasm. It was very exciting – this dormant feeling that had
suddenly become visible.
over Russia, schoolchildren and university students went to rallies.
Fifteen-year-olds took buses to nearby towns just to protest. Some were
detained. One child was asked: “Do you know Navalny’s next plans?”
Several were threatened with expulsion from school. Parents started to
tell their kids: “You’d better not go to the protests, it might be
dangerous.” They turned a blind eye to corruption and pretended
everything was fine.
Many in our
parents’ and grandparents’ generations see Putin as a strong ruler: they
think that if he steps back, everything will collapse. It’s hard to
argue with people who watch the one-sided coverage on Russia’s state-run
TV channel from morning till night. You’re told that
being gay means selling your heart to the devil, that feminists want to
kill men, that Navalny is spying for the Americans. You’re also told
that Russia has the most beautiful women and that the West is decadent.
It used to be Soviet propaganda; now it’s Russian propaganda.
people can only laugh at this. We get our news online. It’s like “The
Truman Show”: you realise Russia is not quite as the propagandists
describe it. We look more critically at what is around us; we can’t help
but see how bad things are. We come along and say: “The king is naked.
The milk yields are not increasing. Life is not getting any better.
Everything is bad in Russia.”
The main problem is not fear, it’s a feeling of powerlessness
you see the injustices, you can bring them to light through journalism
and social media. Navalny’s film has more than 100m views on YouTube.
Telegram, a messaging app, is very important for activists: the DOXA
channel, where we post links to our stories, has 15,000 subscribers.
TikTok is also important – some people use the app to share videos about
hope that Russia would change came to an end in February. After the
rallies and videos, somehow things quietened down. The intimidation
makes everyone so scared that they sacrifice their opinion for mythical
security. They think: if I just shut up now, don’t stick my neck out,
maybe I won’t get hurt. But it doesn’t work that way. You can be jailed
for nothing if they don’t like what you’re doing, writing or saying. It
makes you want to crawl into a corner, somewhere you can’t be reached,
so you can catch your breath.
problem is not fear, it’s a feeling of powerlessness. You can write
anything you like on the ballot paper, but the election will still be
rigged. You see another trumped-up case where people get ten years in
prison for nothing. It’s enough to make me cry. Some of my friends have
stopped reading news about arrests and torture. I’m ashamed that I’ve
read almost nothing about the people who were arrested for protesting
against Putin’s palace – my energy had been drained by the Moscow Case.
Worrying for months on end burns you out. People are exhausted.
authorities hope they can simply squeeze out all the dissenters. That
people will leave the country, like they’re doing in Belarus, and like
they did here in the old days. I’ve read diaries of people who were
forced to leave the Soviet Union: they talk about their dreams of
returning one day and walking through the city they grew up in. It’s
For activists, living in exile
at least gives you a chance to sleep peacefully at night and not to
flinch at every rustle and knock on the door. Many young people want to
move to Europe and America; to live somewhere with a higher standard of
living, more rights and freedoms, better career prospects.
understand why people want to abandon this sinking ship, but if
everyone goes, Russia will have nothing left. It really will sink. We
need people who are willing to sacrifice their comfort, nerves, time and
emotional state to fight for something. If all the activists leave,
only the apathetic will be left. Russia will slowly decay and fall
Each time we go to court and the
judge looks at us, I think that maybe she will say, “yes, you’ve made
your case”, and end our house arrest. Then I laugh at myself for having
hope. Most adults I know don’t hope for anything anymore, because
they’ve been disappointed so many times before.
at home with my family, I sleep in my bed, I eat good food, my friends
come over. When it gets boring I find ways to entertain myself: I read a
lot; an artist has painted my portrait; I’ve done several photoshoots.
But house arrest is scary – it cuts you off from life. You descend into
depression, because it goes on and on. Sometimes I just lie there and
stare at the ceiling; I don’t have the energy to see guests, to do
anything. It’s a bit like quarantine, just without the internet, or
All my friends are getting on
with their lives. They’re travelling, finding themselves, going to
graduate school, building careers and moving away. I’m just sitting at
home, in this kind of childlike state. I fear that I won’t be able to
return to my old life, that I won’t be able to graduate or work, that
something in me is broken, that I am not the same person I was before.
I don’t regret making that video. The authorities wanted to send a
message to young people: sit still and keep quiet, otherwise you will be
put under house arrest. Instead it had the opposite effect. Our video
turned us into superstars. It made young people confident – I guess a
lot of them saw us as role models. By arresting us, the government did
more to inspire young people to join opposition movements than we ever
did: when they see their peers in court, they’re more likely to say, “I
can’t keep silent.”
continues to publicise injustice against students in Russia – it’s just
that other people now write the stories. We are one of many
publications that have been targeted: the authorities have also tried to
silence Insider and Meduza, two investigative news outlets. Individual
journalists have been fingered as foreign agents. Every media outlet is
under threat. Everyone is worried.
is Putin: he is afraid of the young. Why? We are less afraid of him than
older people are. I was two when he came to power; now I’m 23 and he’s
still there. But youth always wins. It’s just the law of nature. ■
Alla Gutnikova is an editor at DOXA
As told to Sarah Collinson and Josh Spencer
PHOTOGRAPHS: ALEXANDER GRONSKY
“Fearless: the women fighting Putin”, a co-production of The Economist and Hardcash Productions for ITV will be broadcast in the UK at 22.45pm on Thursday November 11th
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