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Kagarlitsky: My Most Recent Stay in Prison

I was arrested for a video I published on YouTube, including a joke about the Crimean bridge. It was probably a poor joke, but hardly sufficient grounds for arrest. Unfortunately, Leviathan has no sense of humor. I spent four months in a prison cell.

Transnational Institute Fellow Boris Kagarlitsky, TNI Institute (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED)

I was going to the airport to meet my wife, who was returning from abroad on July 25 last year. But the meeting did not take place. Two polite young men approached me and, presenting their FSB officer IDs, informed me that I had been detained: I was accused of justifying terrorism. Already in the evening of that same day, I was sent under escort to Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi Republic, where I was put in prison.

I was unfamiliar with the Komi Republic, except for the historical fact that during Stalin’s time a significant part of the GULAG institutions were located here, about which, of course, I have read and written extensively. The reason for my arrest was a video I had published on YouTube 10 months earlier. I talked about current events on the video, mentioning – without offering any further assessment – the damaging of the Crimean Bridge by Ukrainian saboteurs. But I also noted that just on the eve of that attack, congratulatory wishes from Mostik the cat to President Putin were spread on Russian social networks; since the cat was the mascot of the sabotaged bridge, I joked that he had acted as a provocateur with his congratulations. It was probably a poor joke, but it can hardly be considered sufficient grounds for arrest, even taking into account modern Russian laws. Unfortunately, Leviathan has no sense of humor. I had to spend four and a half months in a prison cell.

The fact that the arrest took place almost a year after my ill-fated remarks raises various suspicions regarding the political meaning of what happened. This was not the first time I had been in prison. I experienced my first – and longest – imprisonment in 1982, when the leader of the USSR Leonid Brezhnev was dying. Then, state security officers grabbed all the oppositionists known to them, including our group of young socialists, just in case, as a preventive measure. Some time after Brezhnev’s death, we were released without even being put on trial.

What was going on in the Moscow corridors of power at the end of July 2023 is not yet completely clear, although there is hope that sooner or later we will find out (I only found out the real reasons for my first arrest and release much later, when Mikhail Gorbachev was running the country and part of the official archives became available). But it seems that this arrest can be classified as collateral damage in a struggle for power. Imagine yourself as a ball on a football field, where two professional teams are playing. They just kick you, and you can only try to analyze the course of the match based on your feelings.

Despite all that, the experience gained in the Syktyvkar prison was quite useful for me as a sociologist. After all, I got the opportunity for observation, a chance to communicate with people whom I would never have met under other circumstances.

I must give due credit to the prison administration – they put me in a cell with good conditions and calm neighbors. One of them also turned out to be a political prisoner, an assistant to Duma deputy Oleg Mikhailov, who remains the most prominent oppositionist in the Komi Republic. True, we did not stay together for long; the prisoners in the cell were changed often (which gave me the opportunity to get to know quite a large number of people and hear their life stories). Some my neighbors accused of murder and extortion turned out to be very nice and polite in conversation; one vice-mayor of a small northern city, who started a fight during a local holiday celebration and inadvertently killed his colleague while performing with him on stage, was happy to discuss issues of municipal finance, about which he showed himself to be surprisingly poorly informed. Someday, maybe quite soon, I will describe all this in thorough detail.

Although I was not the only political prisoner in Syktyvkar, I happened to be the most famous, and therefore the administration and prison guards looked at me with obvious curiosity, trying to understand why I was brought there and what to expect from this strange case. The trial was stubbornly postponed, although no one interrogated me; for months, nothing new happened. The criminal case was supposed to be reviewed by a Moscow military court, but somewhere along the way the case was lost, and re-surfaced in their office only at the very end of November. The prosecutor's office stated that the joke about Mostik the cat was made "in order to destabilize the activities of government agencies and to press the authorities of the Russian Federation to terminate the special military operation on the territory of Ukraine."

While I was behind bars, a solidarity campaign was unfolding outside, in which many people took part in Russia and around the world. Moreover, it seems that the Kremlin leadership was especially impressed by the fact that a significant part of the voices in my defense were coming from the Global South. In the context of confrontation with the West, Russian rulers are trying to establish themselves as fighters against American and European neo-colonialism, so criticism of them voiced in Brazil, South Africa, or India was received with vexation. Indian economist Radhika Desai even asked Vladimir Putin about my fate during the Valdai Forum.

The trial took place on December 12, 2023. The prosecutor's office demanded I be sent to prison for five and a half years, but the judge decided otherwise. I was released from the courtroom, having been sentenced to pay a fine of 600 thousand rubles (the very next day this amount was collected by subscribers of the Rabkor YouTube channel). True, paying it off turned out to be not so easy: I had to deposit the money in person, but I was also included in the “list of extremists and terrorists” prohibited from conducting any financial transactions. At the moment I have to seek special permission so that I can give the state the money that it requires from me. I am prohibited from teaching, as well as from administering Internet sites and YouTube channels.

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However, they haven’t forbidden me to think and write yet, which is what I’m doing for now.

Boris Yulyevich Kagarlitsky is a Russian Marxist theoretician and sociologist who has been a political dissident in the Soviet Union. He is coordinator of the Transnational Institute Global Crisis project and Director of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements (IGSO) in Moscow. Kagarlisky hosts a YouTube channel Rabkor, associated with his online newspaper of the same name and with IGSO. 

Translation by Dan Erdman. Russian Dissent is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.