Cold Justice In Siberia: A Teenager Swallowed By Putin's System
Busted for hanging anti-government posters, 15-year-old Nikita has been jailed for almost a year on charges of 'terrorism,' and has yet to even go to trial.
KANSK — Everywhere, hearts. In his school notebook, Nikita wrote the words "Pushkin is a genius." Next to it, he drew a heart. There are hearts too on the letters he sends to his mother from prison. "I miss you, I love you," he writes. A year separates that declarations of love to the Russian poet and the letters the teenager now writes from jail in Kansk, in Siberia, which he entered at the age of 14, on charges of terrorism.
The notebooks contain other clues. In several places the letter "A" appears, written with a felt-tip pen and circled in the anarchist way. There are reflections too. The middle schooler wonders about "the social conventions invented by the middle class to distinguish themselves from the people who go barefoot." He wants to escape — "far from the noise of firecrackers, the grandmothers who curse against dogs, the insults of passersby."
Later on, investigators dug deeper. They demanded a report from the teenager's school. Nikita Ouvarov "sees school as a hostile environment, reacts badly to educational measures, refuses to follow the rules and norms established by society," the school wrote. The words might describe any number of adolescents, and yet in this case, the document played a key role in the decision to keep the boy in custody.
All Nikita and his mother have now are the letters, which the latter guards religiously, along with the school notebooks, in a well-secured cupboard in the two-room apartment they used to share.
Six months without exchanging a word.
Ever since her son was jailed, 11 months ago, Anna Ouvarova, 43, has not been allowed to have a single visit with him. She has only been able to see him at the court, during brief appearances. Their first phone conversation was only allowed in December, seven month after Nikita was jailed. Six months without exchanging a word. Even bringing books to her son was a challenge, as permissions are unpredictable. The Three Musketeers was rejected.
Nikita was arrested on June 6, 2020, along with his friends Bogdan and Denis, both of them 14 as well. The night before, the three boys pasted "subversive" posters in the city center. "Freedom for political prisoners," the posters read. Another one, which they stuck on the front of a police station and on the local headquarters of the FSB RF, Russia's primary security agency, read: "You fatten, we beg."
In Kansk, a rusting, former industrial city located on the edge of Siberia, the incident — the first and last action of the short lived "Free association of Kansk-Anarcho-Communist-Revolt," as the teenagers liked to call themselves on social media — was eye-catching from start. But it became even more so as the weeks went by, the investigation deepened, and the case grew bigger.
Kansk, a rusting, former industrial city located on the edge of Siberia. — Photo: Kukhmar Kirill/TASS/ZUMA
The three teenagers are now accused of "preparing to commit terrorist actions' and of making explosive devices. The story, though, says as much about the arbitrary decisions of security services as it does about the escape fantasies of a group of teenagers doomed to live in a bleak city with little opportunity.
From the very first hours in police custody, Bogdan and Denis confessed to everything, signed everything, including a document where they ask expressly that their childhood friend, Nikita, be placed in detention because they "fear for his life."
Bogdan has been under house arrest ever since. Denis was initially given the same treatment, but then he too was sent to jail — for surfing on the Internet from home. As for Nikita, he refused to confess. Hardheaded, he still refuses. For both his mother and his lawyer, Vladimir Vasin, this stubbornness explains all the punitive measures that have been taken against him since then: the fact that he's barred from receiving visitors, that phone calls were refused too until recently.
In one of the letters he sent to his mother, the teenager says he does not resent Bogdan and Denis: They were scared, pressed by the endless nighttime interrogations. He only holds a grudge against the "pettiness and cowardice" of the FSB agents. Anna Ouvarova, for her part, shared with the two other mothers the anonymous donations she received after the story of the Kansk anarchists was published in the Russian press. The two mothers adopted the same careful strategy as their sons, refusing to speak out.
The boys have yet to go to trial, and it's unclear when, in fact, the trial will take place. So far no date has been set. All three boys face the same charges — and risk life imprisonment — but it's likely that the heaviest sentence will be given to Nikita. The FSB accuses him of being the leader of this "criminal group," the one who "trained" his comrades and dragged them down the terrorism path.
The investigators are showing a singular relentlessness. In February, they summoned half of his class to determine if Nikita was the author of a "Putin thief" tag found on a school desk. There's talk in the city that he'll likely get eight years, because of his stubbornness. Anna is coming to term with the situation. In Russia, only 0.2% of trials end in an acquittal. She hopes he will not be sent too far away, that he will be treated well. She also cries a lot.
The trio formed a fine team. Nikita, the most structured, ideologically speaking, is a passionate reader of anarchist writer Kropotkin. Bogdan has the chemistry skills. Their endless discussions about politics, and the revolutionary ideas they shared in text messages are damning already. Even worse for them are the trips they took to abandoned buildings, where several times they threw Molotov cocktails on brick walls. In the fields surrounding the city, they also detonated handcrafted bombs, crafted in the abandoned garage that they used as their general headquarters.
Some of their achievements where video recorded: the three of them laugh out loud. Sometimes they were accompanied by girlfriends.
Since the beginning of the case, Nikita's position has not changed. He acknowledges that they experimented with explosive devices, but denies that they ever intended to use them for any kind of attack. Truth be told, the case seems ridiculously empty. Investigators insist that the boys planned to carry out an attack "before Aug. 31, 2020," but they don't offer any details, any picture of what the supposed attack would entail. All they point to is the "particular interest" the anarchists showed in FSB and police buildings.
Truth be told, the case seems ridiculously empty.
In the abundant correspondence they exchanged and that Le Monde was able to access, the three friends share the idea of "blowing up" one of these buildings, but only virtually — in Minecraft, a video game where players can design entire cities. The only concrete example noted by the investigators was talk about "breaking the back window of an officer's car." They also highlight a discussion about "throwing a grenade in the bania (sauna) of Putin." All the rest of the accusations are based on Bogdan's and Denis'" confessions.
How radicalized were Nikita and his buddies? Given their interest in chemical experiments and the growing rejection of Russian power, perhaps they really would have tipped over into violence. Or not. The investigation is so filled with holes and manipulations that it is impossible to know for sure. What is clear is their teenage rebelliousness, and their forays into the Internet, a custom made world where dreams know no limits.
A regional crackdown
Nikita spent hours on his computer, his portal to a brighter outside world. He was as interested in corruption in Russia as in the "yellow vests' in France. "Back in the day we all played together outside, but we didn't think any harm would come from it." Anna recalls about her Soviet childhood. "We also used to make explosions everywhere, in the village, we used to do that too. We took metal from my father, a welder. But we were still good, obedient children."
Ouravov'and his mother after he was released from jail, on May 4. — Photo: Светлана Власова/ Facebook
Teenagers versus adults. There's nothing unusual about that. And yet, here in this most provincial of cities, in the outer reaches of an authoritarian state, the clash has taken on outsized proportions. "Kids doing silly things and getting into trouble is just something that happens. But the adults should be able to deal with it as adults," Nikita's lawyer, Vladimir Vasin, laments.
For a year now, an epidemic of "school terrorism" has spread everywhere in Krasnoïarsk, the region in Siberia where Kansk is located. Dozens of teenagers have been arrested for allegedly planning attacks. Some, such as Aliona Prokudina, whom Vasin also defends, were sent to psychiatric hospitals. The teenager posted a video online where she appears holding a fake gun in her hand, warning about killings in school. In most of the cases, authorities waited for children to celebrate their 14th birthday before taking action. The age of criminal responsibility gives a whole new dimension to the cases.
On the evening of May 4, just as we were wrapping up our reporting, Nikita Ouvarov was released from jail. His mother sent us a picture of her hugging him. But the relief is limited, cautious. His release is the consequence of an appeal decision. But another court has already decided to extend this detention until June 8.
Forcing him back into jail "is inhumane," says his lawyer. "But that's how this country works." Vasin also just learned that the trial is supposed to take place before a military court in Khabarovsk, 4,000 kilometers away, in the Far East.