One of Vladimir Putin’s most prominent political opponents said he was forewarned last year that he would be jailed if he remained in Russia, but decided to stay and “pay a high price” for his beliefs rather than flee the country.
In a handwritten letter to The Globe and Mail from his Moscow prison, where he is being kept in a cell with three other inmates, Ilya Yashin – a key figure in more than a decade of protests against Mr. Putin’s rule – said he believed that his anti-war voice was “louder and more convincing” from behind bars than it would have been from exile.
“A month before the arrest, I was directly told that if I didn’t immigrate in the nearest future, I would end up behind bars. Why didn’t I leave? To be honest, even the way and the fact that the question was asked felt humiliating. Russia is my home. I was born and raised here, I love my country and want the best for it,” Mr. Yashin wrote in the six-page handwritten letter, in which he answered questions from The Globe that were communicated to him via his lawyer.
“Even in prison, I can still remain a politician but not outside of the country. That’s exactly what Putin was counting on, that all his opponents get scared and leave, and he would explain to the people that we are the foreign agents who ran away back to their masters. That’s why I’ve made the decision to stay, push back and hold my ground, despite the obvious risks.
“And though my current predicament is what it is, I am sure that I’ve made the right choices. Yes, I’ve lost my personal freedom, but I’ve kept my voice, made it sound louder and more convincing. Even though my voice is not speaking through internet streams but from a court’s tribune and from a prison cell, it is still the voice of a person who believes in what he says and is ready to pay a high price for his beliefs.”
June 27 will mark the first anniversary of Mr. Yashin’s initial imprisonment on charges of disobeying a police officer. Fifteen days later, he was charged with the crime of disseminating “false information” about the Russian military during the invasion of Ukraine. In December, he was convicted and sentenced to 8½ years in jail.
Mr. Yashin was jailed because of comments he made on his YouTube channel about what he called “the war crimes committed by Putin’s troops in the Ukrainian city of Bucha.”
The massacre of hundreds of people in the Kyiv suburb – many of whom had their hands bound before they were shot and killed – has been widely documented by media and international organizations, and is under investigation by the International Criminal Court. Russia contends, without evidence, that the discovery of bodies lying in the streets, torture chambers and mass graves in and around Bucha was somehow staged by the Ukrainian military.
Prison hasn’t cowed Mr. Yashin at all. When his appeal of conviction was rejected in April, he told the court via videolink that “Putin is a war criminal, and I remain behind bars – the man who opposes the war he has unleashed.” He warned the prosecutors and judges that they would be viewed as Mr. Putin’s accomplices.
In his letter to The Globe, Mr. Yashin said the war in Ukraine must end with a complete Russian withdrawal, reparations payments for the damage caused by the war, and “handing the war criminals, including the political and military leadership of current Russia, over to the International Criminal Court.”
Mr. Yashin, who will mark his 40th birthday on June 29, says that he is far from alone in his opposition to the war, even though opinion polls show 70 per cent of Russians support the invasion. He pointed to the harsh suppression of a series of anti-war protests that erupted shortly after Mr. Putin launched the war in February, 2022.
“People are getting jailed for likes on social media, for private conversations, for having the colours of the Ukrainian flag in elements of their clothing. A man was sentenced to two years in jail for the fact that his daughter made an anti-war drawing in a school class,” Mr. Yashin wrote.
“There has been a full-blown police dictatorship established in Russia, and the society is paralyzed with fear. … You can of course judge my fellow Russians for being afraid of the maniac in power, whose hands are soaked in the blood of tens of thousands of victims. But before you judge the Russians, ask yourself – wouldn’t you be afraid?”
Mr. Yashin served as a Moscow city councillor until 2021, making him one of the last opposition figures to hold any kind of elected office. Despite Russia’s current spiral into authoritarianism and militarism, he expressed confidence that the country would one day return to “the path of civilized development.”
“Germany used to be ruled by absolute evil that was destroying people on an industrial scale and unleashed the most horrible things in human history. But the Germans were able to make it out of this darkness and created an amazing society based on humanism, justice and progress. … We are not a nation of thieves and killers. We are a nation that’s been taken hostage by thieves and killers.”
In the shorter term, however, he said he was concerned about the health of some of his political allies who have also been jailed for their opposition to Mr. Putin’s regime, including key opposition leaders Alexey Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza.
“Russian prisons don’t make one healthier, and many political prisoners had to face it firsthand. Vladimir Kara-Murza has lost almost 25 kilograms behind bars. Alexey Navalny has been basically tortured in a disciplinary cell for the past six months, his health deteriorating continuously. Alexei Gorinov, incarcerated for declaring a minute of silence in memory of the killed Ukrainian children, had to spend a few months in a hospital due to hyperthermia.”
Mr. Yashin said that he was in good health himself, though he expected to soon be transferred from his Moscow cell “to a colony in one of the regions of Russia” – where his allies fear he will be isolated even from his lawyers – now that he had lost his appeal. He said he worked out regularly to try and stay in shape and ward off the depression that stalks Russia’s prison population.
“I make sure to look after myself, to not сatch colds. I jog in the courtyard, do pull-ups on a bar, protect myself from depression and low spirits. This is probably the most important part, to not get depressed. If you let yourself hit the emotional rock bottom, the physical diseases will follow. I’ve witnessed it here aplenty,” he wrote.
“Working helps. I read a lot every day, write a lot, including composing texts. Every week, I receive letters from my supporters and sympathizers, they are an immense support. And knowing that I’m right gives me strength as well.”