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'Maybe It Was All In Vain': Former Navalny Coordinator Opens Up After More Than Two Years In Prison

Ruslan Akhmetshin was arrested in May 2022, and charged with "rehabilitating Nazism." In October of the same year, he was sentenced to 30 months in prison. He was released on December 15.
Ruslan Akhmetshin was arrested in May 2022, and charged with "rehabilitating Nazism." In October of the same year, he was sentenced to 30 months in prison. He was released on December 15.

Ruslan Akhmetshin walked out of prison in the northern Arkhangelsk region on December 15. He was greeted by fellow activists who embraced him, took his duffel bag, and whisked him off in a waiting car.

The former head of opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's representation in Arkhangelsk had an ambiguous reaction to his release.

"On one hand, it is freedom," he told RFE/RL's North.Realities. "You can go wherever you want. You don't have to line up. You don't have to do morning exercises. You can eat normal food."

"But on the other hand, there is dismay and a feeling that maybe it was all in vain," he added.

His elderly parents, he said, have quite different political views from his, taking their cues from state television -- or the "zombifier," as Akhmetshin calls it. And he needs to see a dentist.

"Dentistry is pretty bad in prison," he said. "No painkillers. Old equipment. Incompetent practitioners. Now I have big problems in this regard."

'Imagine A Cell With 14 Inmates'

Akhmetshin, 49, got his start in activism in 2018, when he joined large protests against the construction of a landfill in the Arkhangelsk region town of Shiyes.

In January 2021, Akhmetshin joined nationwide protests against the arrest of Navalny, who was detained upon arrival from Germany following treatment for near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning that he alleged was carried out by Russian security agents at the behest of President Vladimir Putin.

Akhmetshin got his start in activism in 2018, when he joined large protests against the construction of a landfill in the Arkhangelsk region town of Shiyes.
Akhmetshin got his start in activism in 2018, when he joined large protests against the construction of a landfill in the Arkhangelsk region town of Shiyes.

Navalny is now serving a 19-year prison sentence on charges he says are politically motivated. His current whereabouts are unknown, with lawyers and associates saying they have been unable to contact him for over two weeks.

Akhmetshin was arrested on January 23, 2021, and sentenced to 80 hours of compulsory work.

After that, the persecution came quickly. In March 2021, Akhmetshin and other activists in the region were investigated for allegedly belonging to an "extremist organization." Their homes and offices were searched, their computers and telephones confiscated.

Authorities began investigating Akhmetshin for some of his social-media posts, including one in which he accurately pointed out that the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were allies from 1939 to 1941 and jointly started World War II.

He was arrested on May 9, 2022, and charged with "rehabilitating Nazism." In October of the same year, he was sentenced to 30 months in prison, including the nearly six months he'd spent in pretrial detention. He was released on December 15 at the expiration of his sentence.

"Jail and prison are a cross-section of society," he said. "I met a lot of different people there. And they are indifferent to what is going on outside. They live in their own little world."

Many of the people Akhmetshin met were imprisoned on drug-related offenses.

"I had no idea about this problem," he said, referring to what he called "a drug epidemic" in Russia.

Akhmetshin was released on December 15.
Akhmetshin was released on December 15.

Akhmetshin explained that his time in custody was divided into three periods: about six months at a pretrial detention center --or SIZO, as these jails are known -- in Arkhangelsk, several months in SIZOs in Yaroslavl and Kirov while his appeals were being heard, and the remainder of his sentence at a prison in the settlement of Talagi, about 15 kilometers from Arkhangelsk.

Incarceration in SIZOs, he said, is "the most disorienting situation for those who get caught up in the penal system."

"Imagine a cell with 14 inmates, each of whom has been allocated 2 square meters," he said. "And then remember that people sometimes spend years in a SIZO."

There was an unventilated toilet in his cell, he added.

The exercise yard at the SIZO in Arkhangelsk is arranged in such a way that "the sun never shines there."

"People who don't see the sun for two years develop dermatitis," Akhmetshin said. "They are covered with brown spots and boils. And it definitely has psychological effects."

Aleksei Navalny
Aleksei Navalny

"And people in a SIZO are under investigation," he stressed. "Their guilt has not been established. They should be held in relatively humane conditions. A person who is convicted of running someone down with his car while drunk will be living in a prison more or less comfortably. But someone under investigation is held in the most inhumane conditions."

The only advantage of a SIZO over a prison for convicted inmates, Akhmetshin argued, was that in the former you could at least try sleep as much as you wanted.

"In prison, you can't do that," he explained. "You get up a 6 a.m. and you are not allowed to sit on your bunk until 9 p.m. If you sit down and rumple your bed, they will write you up with an infraction. A couple of infractions and you can forget about early release."

'The Walls Were Weeping'

Akhmetshin appealed his conviction and, as is the normal practice in Russia, was sent out of the region during his appeal process. In his case, he was sent to the Kirov region after making a short stay in Yaroslavl.

"Convicts walk to the train chained together," he recalled. "Dragging their duffels. It is very humiliating."

The pretrial detention center in Kirov
The pretrial detention center in Kirov

"There is no opportunity to get legal help during this time," he added. "No contact with one's relatives."

The remand prison in Yaroslavl he recalled as a "black" prison.

"Others from Astrakhan were placed in a terrible place -- in a basement infested with rats," Akhmetshin said. "I got a good cell, but with a drug addict. A 34-year-old weightlifter with mental problems. Over two weeks before I was sent to Kirov, I could hardly communicate with him."

Conditions in Kirov were hardly better.

"It was a barracks from the time of Catherine the Great," he said. "The walls were constantly weeping with the damp. The cells were cold, about 12 degrees Celsius. There were spiders everywhere. Rats. I fell ill several times there, including with COVID."

The food was so repulsive that Akhmetshin would often flush it immediately down the toilet rather than endure the smell.

"I am very grateful to activists in Kirov," he emphasized. "They brought me parcels. Thanks to the money they gave me, I was able to order food from a local store. I lost a lot of weight, which I was able to regain later when I got back to Astrakhan and got some sunshine and fresh air."

'I Don't Have A Future With Them'

By the time he arrived back in the Astrakhan region settlement of Talagi after his appeals were rejected, nearly a year of Akhmetshin's sentence had passed. Conditions at the prison were much better than what he'd previously endured, he said. Most inmates were offered the opportunity to work at local enterprises, but Akhmetshin was denied this chance because his passport had been confiscated.

"But no one stopped me from grabbing a shovel and a rake, so I dug out 15 nice vegetable beds," he said. "I had three nice months of exercise, good sleep, and physical health. In the fresh air and sunshine, I even got a bit of a tan."

Friends greet Akhmetshin after his release.
Friends greet Akhmetshin after his release.

He was able to create a prisoners' gardening club, through which it was possible to order seeds and fertilizers.

"Now the warden can report to his bosses that he is 'socializing the prisoners,'" Akhmetshin said.

In the autumn, Akhmetshin volunteered to work in the kitchen, and later he was asked to organize the prison library.

"It was a complete mess," he recalled. "I went through the entire collection. Threw out old stuff, separated everything else into categories and reshelved them. Now everything is in order."

Toward the end of his sentence, Akhmetshin was assigned to shovel snow in the settlement. The town administration would send a driver, and he was accompanied by a guard who "enthusiastically grabbed a shovel too."

During his prison term, the Memorial human rights organization listed him as a political prisoner and encouraged people to send him letters. Although he received many of them, prison censors were ruthless with his outgoing mail, Akhmetshin said, usually destroying his letters.

"It was prohibited to describe daily life or discuss other prisoners or political topics," he said. "So what could I write? That I saw a crow or eight cats? That would also have been an issue too since there weren't supposed to be any cats in prison."

He took many of the letters he received home with him when he was released.

"Now I will answer a lot of people," he pledged.

Akhmetshin said he cannot get his ID documents back until he pays the 600,000-ruble ($6,500) fine that was imposed on him for organizing unsanctioned demonstrations in 2021. He said he was not able to pay that now, but if he could, he would -- and then he would leave Russia.

"Here, it seems, most people think differently from me," he said. "I don't have a future with them."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's North.Realities. This story is based on reporting by correspondents on the ground in Russia. Their names are being withheld for their protection

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