Interview with the Vesna’s Czech branch coordinator Andrey Kysh
Note: the opinion and word choice in the interview may not coincide with the opinion of the editors
Could you please tell us about your life and activism before the war and moving abroad?
I became interested in politics around the beginning of Navalny’s campaign. I can’t say what exactly has prompted me to participate in oppositional activities; maybe it was one of his videos. My first rally was on May 5, 2018, the day of Putin’s inauguration. Protests took place all over Russia. At that time, I could avoid the arrest.
In the autumn of the same year, when they began to discuss the retirement age raising, Navalny announced protests again. My classmate and I came to Navalny’s headquarters and we asked for leaflets to post them around the city. We started with a couple of hundred, then more, until we reached a thousand a day. After that, we went to the volunteers’ meetings, helped to prepare the rally. At the rally itself, I’ve volunteered to interview the participants about how they learned about the action, in order to understand which agitation methods are more effective. After 15 minutes of asking, the riot police grabbed my hands for the first time, knocking out a tablet with notes from my hands. People fought me off — this happened several times during the procession.
I climbed the entrance canopy and started yelling chants. When I got down, the riot police trussed me up, took me to the station, drew up a protocol, which was eventually canceled, because when a person is under 16 years old, he/she cannot be held administratively liable (I was 15). I was placed in a temporary detention center for minors — an analogue of a special detention center for children. The conditions there are not much different from the special detention center for adults.
How many of you were there?
There were 15 people in the paddy wagon, I was separated at the police department, and I was sitting at the juvenile inspector. More than 600 people were detained. All departments were packed. I was taken somewhere on the outskirts.
A couple of hours later, my mother picked me up. It was not easy for her, she did not strongly support my position and considered all this a useless and pointless business with great risks. She did not support the regime, but she worried about me, especially after Politkovskaya and Nemtsov murders and the repressions of the opposition. I didn’t really listen.
After the arrest, the police passed information about the incident to the school. There was a lot of pressure there. They called me for council meetings, tried to set up a police record, accused me of speaking out against my country, and repeated clichés about Western puppeteers, manipulators. Threatened me with expulsion.
What was your classmates’ attitude?
Classmates were neutral: most did not understand what was happening. It was mostly joking that I was constantly at rallies and I constantly had problems with the police. I was considered an authority on political issues, from whom you can get an opinion on sensitive issues: elections, significant events in politics. But there were guys who actively supported my position, but they themselves were afraid to go themselves to the protests, because they witnessed the problems I had at school because of it.
After I was detained at the rally, I met Masha Malysheva, a volunteer lawyer at Navalny’s St. Petersburg headquarters. When the juvenile commission was appointed for me, I asked in a volunteer chat for a lawyer, and she offered to help. We became friends. She defended me on commissions until I was 18, and then in courts.
How many legal cases did you have?
There were many undocumented detentions: I was taken to the police station, held for several hours and released without the documents that I demanded, or simply was kicked out. Sometimes they put me in a car and let me go straight from there, sometimes I ran away from the paddy wagon. If you count these cases, it would take two dozen cases. This is not so much, many activists have more: my friend Yevgeny Musin has more than 70 arrests for actions, pickets and participation in rallies.
How did these detentions subsequently affect your daily routine?
Most of the activity took place while I was a minor and studied in school. There were problems at school, detentions, pressure, threats from teachers, including the ones caused by agitating in the school itself. I also participated in school life. When the school rules were amended to ban using phones in school, I opposed it, refused to give the phone, urged others not to follow idiotic rules that violate the law. I uncovered a corruption scheme in the school cafeteria, when the cooks were stealing the food assigned to the students.
Did they let you finish your studies?
They let me finish my studies, but there was a critical situation after another detention, just when the phone banning rules were introduced and I refused to give my phone. My mother was called to school, the director began to put pressure on me, threatening that they would expel me now if I did not agree with this rule and would not stop participating in actions. And they put pressure on my mother to take the documents from school herself. But I warned my mom that, according to the law on education, they had no reason to expel me, that they would mislead her, and insist that I quit myself — they really like to do this. Mom refused to take the documents from the school. They got angry and began to do more harm to me, especially some teachers.
Tell me about life outside of school.
After the action on September 9, 2018, the so-called indefinite protest appeared in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Activists, who refused to disperse after the action, announced an indefinite protest until their demands for the cancellation of the reform plan, government resignation, repressive laws cancellation, and freedom for political prisoners were met. In St. Petersburg a few dozens of people went out every day for another few months for actions: small rallies, single-person pickets, and performances. The participants were actively pursued by the police, detentions took place almost every day for two years, people continued to go out every day, but with less frequency and in smaller numbers. In the winter of 2018, we went out to Nevsky Prospekt almost every evening some of us came after work, some after school — and there we stood with pickets in every 50–100 meters. One of our favourite places even had a separate police patrol to detain us in case of any taboo slogans.
It was around the same year that the practice of detention under the Police Report Database, or PRD, appeared in Russian it is called CUSP (КУСП — Книга учета сообщений о правонарушениях). They had informers whose complaints were used to detain activists. If they receive a complaint against you, they take you to the [police] station for an explanation. They would take a person from the street, keep him at the station for 3 hours, take an explanation, confiscate a poster to check for extremism and release him/her, thereby disrupting a solitary picket. This practice was actively used in 2018, detaining dozens of people one by one, taking them to the station and releasing them without protocols.
There were times when it was possible to stand on the Nevsky Prospekt with a poster “Freedom to political prisoners” for hours. The most effective method was to hang banners with a short, bright slogan about a specific issue on bridges, buildings, and roofs. It was a safer protest method with less risk of detention. Our guys were involved into the municipal elections as volunteers, journalists, and participated in the city and country political life under constant police and Center E baiting.
Tell us about your work at SOTA — independent news website
This media periodical consisted mainly of activists covering protests, elections and political events in Russia and the CIS. I worked there until February 2022, combining it with activism. At the end of 2020, I went to the elections as a journalist, travelled to regions — to the Leningrad region, Pskov region, Velikoluksk region. I have been to regional elections, where I was detained in order to prevent recording of violations.
I traveled to the protests in Belarus in 2020 as a reporter. I went on my own, hitchhiking 900 kilometres from St. Petersburg to the border with Belarus. They didn’t let me through the checkpoint, saying that I had no legal reasons to enter the country, but in fact, the entry of foreigners, especially journalists, was restricted because of the protests. I walked a few dozen kilometers along the border and crossed it at night, bypassing the checkpoint. I caught a ride, and drove to Minsk. It was the third month of the protests, they were still in the active phase, but were already beginning to fade. I contacted activists A Country to Live in, and they introduced me to the protest leaders. They showed me the Square of Changes — one of the most popular protest yards in Minsk, where the security forces killed one of the activists — Raman Bandarenka.
In general, what were your impressions of Belarus and local protests?
Very positive: there was a strong sense of solidarity and interaction between people. I have hardly seen anything like this in Russia. Everyone there was involved in opposition activities. I have not met anyone who would support the Lukashenko regime, except for one elderly woman from Russia. Russians are often afraid to say that they are against Putin because they are afraid of the consequences. People there were not afraid, they spoke openly. Their solidarity, unification and effective methods of protest, conspiracy — all this was very inspiring. But it hurt that the protests were too peaceful. No, I do not think that violent methods are necessary, but something more radical is needed than just going out into the street and then dispersing.
How did you get into the army?
During another action in Pskov, I was detained and handed a summon, although I was 17 years old. The summon indicated December 14, and my birthday is December 13. My health condition did not prevent me from going to the army, and I didn’t have possibility to escape the army service. I decided that I’d rather go voluntarily now, as we say: the earlier I start, the earlier I leave. I passed a medical examination, and got assigned to the Space Forces, to a unit near St. Petersburg, so on December 15 I went to the distribution center.
Stereotypes about painting grass and other things did not come true. There was almost no hazing (dedovshchina in Russian) either. The conditions were not as harsh as they say, but it was in the units near Moscow or St. Petersburg, in the regions the situation was probably worse, but I didn’t hear about any kind of tough stuff from there.
Were you active in the army?
No, it is prohibited by law in the army. The army unit received information about what I was doing in civilian life. They had a serious conversation with me that it was better not to do anything like this in the army, otherwise there would be serious problems.
What happened after the army?
During the time that I served in the army from 2020 to 2021, a lot had happened: Navalny returned to Russia, then he was imprisoned. Investigations about the palace, and Navalny’s poisoning had appeared, the largest protests since 2012 had happened. Immediately after them, Navalny’s headquarters were banned and dispersed: some were imprisoned, some were forced to emigrate. Many people, including my friends, had left the country.
Have you thought about leaving?
No, I didn’t even think about it. I understood that there was a high risk of ending up in prison, but I hoped that this wouldn’t affect me. I have never been abroad, except for Belarus and Ukraine, when I was a kid. I saw myself only in Russia, I planned the future only there. I wanted and still want to travel around Russia, to see our big and beautiful country.
When I came back, I was planning to enter the St. Petersburg Polytechnic University in the spring of 2022.
At that time, it became almost impossible to engage in activism without serious risks. The entire opposition turned out to be destroyed: no actions, no rallies, people were imprisoned. I thought that I could conduct them myself. On December 15, I came back from the army, and on December 31 I took the leaflets saying “Putin is wanted”, which we had posted two years ago, found the roof and threw them out from there, then I laid low for a couple of days.
In January, I went out every week with my friends for pickets on Nevsky. It was tense because there were frequent patrols there. When a complaint came in and the police were already driving in our direction, we ran off. We’ve supported Zarema Musayeva, we had pickets on the anniversary of the murder of anti-fascists Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova.
The crisis happened on January 29. I was picketing on Nevsky Prospekt with a poster “Putin is a thief” for about 3 hours, when a passerby reported me, calling the police right in front of me. I want to note that the reaction of 95% of passersby was positive. Literally, just three or four people stopped and expressed dissatisfaction.
When the minibus with the police arrived, they didn’t even understand who to detain, and I just left before they realised anything.
The next day there was a knock on our door. Mom came to the door, they said: “Hello, we are here for your son, he is waiting for us.” I wrote to my mother that it was the police. By that time, my mother was more aware of my activities, she had already encountered similar things, and replied there were no such a person, and they were mistaken. They continued knocking for another half an hour. About an hour after that I received a call from an unknown number, and a voice said: “Good afternoon, my name is Igor, I am from the Ministry of Good Deeds. We want to make you a business proposal.” It was a call from Center E. I refused the meeting and heard: “Don’t think that your pranks on December 31 (action with leaflets) will go unnoticed. Don’t you think you can get away with it?” I recorded the conversation and sent it to the editors office, after which they published an article about activists and journalists recruitment to the Center E.
Good afternoon, my name is Igor, I am from the Ministry of Good Deeds. We want to make you a business proposal.” It was a call from Center E. I refused the meeting and heard: “Don’t think that your pranks on December 31 (action with leaflets) will go unnoticed. Don’t you think you can get away with it?
On the day of verdict for Nikita Uvarov case we made banners “Child in Prison”, “Freedom to Nikita” and hung them on the same roof from where I spread the leaflets. This is when they set up surveillance outside my house. I spent two days with friends, then I decided that sooner or later they would catch me anyway, and went home. When I arrived, the cops jumped out of the civilian car and immediately armlocked me. One of them, a bearded Armenian, openly provoked me into a conflict. The police searched me and took away all my personal belongings. While I was being searched, I managed to put my hand in my pocket, supposedly looking for the passport that they demanded from me, and so I informed my friends about the detention.
I was taken to the police station. After the interrogation and threats, I was arrested under the article about organising a rally. This is an arrest of up to 10 days and or fine of up to 20,000 RUB. I was left in a cell overnight. The court was scheduled for the next morning, but the judge adjourned the meeting to get acquainted with the case materials and let me go straight from the courtroom.
My SOTA colleague was informed about my detention. But the main part of the editorial staff was not aware of my actions, they decided that this was due to non-cooperation, and released an article that the SOTA journalist was detained near the house after a recruitment attempt. But then it turned out that I hung a banner, and this was the reason for the detention, after which they stopped working with me, saving their ass and their reputation.
A week later, there was an action of long-haul truckers against the covid restrictions. I attended it as an outside observer and photographer. I was trussed up together with the participants, and taken to the police station. A bearded Armenian with a colleague came especially for me. I was taken up to the first floor to the office of the criminal investigation department head. This bearded man beat me there a little for the old grievances’ sake. They began playing the good-cop-bad-cop with his colleague. The colleague said:
“You have a number of options for the further development of events. You either stop doing all this now, and everything will be fine for you, or you keep doing it, and you are going to have really big problems, you know which kind. Although there is another option: you can continue to perform your activities. But you must notify us about them: time, place, participants. We will sometimes detain you pro forma so as not to reveal this conspiracy.”
At first I wanted to tell them to shove it, but I realised that if I abruptly refuse now, I’ll probably go to the special detention center. And I was wondering what cooperation conditions would be offered. It was a long dialog. They wanted me to provide all the information about actions, activists, contacts, social networks, messages, chats, basically everything , right down to who sleeps with whom. In return, they offered a monetary reward in the amount of 10 to 20 000 RUB (note: median income in 2020 was 32,422 RUR), and help with university enrolment and employment. I had to sign a cooperation contract with their division, and had no right to disclose it. I said that I would think about it and answer in a week. I thought that on February 27, when I would make an action devoted to Nemtsov, it would be such a public response, like: “Guys, no, sorry”. I was released with a fake protocol.