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A Russian activist was transferred to the North Pole to perform military service.  He calls it "political exile."

A Russian activist was transferred to the North Pole to perform military service. He calls it “political exile.”

There are no trees, no internet, no landline or mobile phone connection There is no water at the site except for melting snow and ice. Hungry polar bears are everywhere. So the outpost in Chiracino appears to be an ideal place to revive the practice of political exile in Putin’s Russia, opposition leaders assert.

Here the Russian military dispatched one of the country’s most promising opposition politicians, Ruslan Shavdinov, after security men wearing black masks broke his door and seized him from his home in December 2019.

They called it political exile. “They didn’t even try to train me in military skills,” Shavedenov said in an interview with The Washington Post after his return. Moscow on December 23, exactly a year after his arrest.

Ruslan Shavidinov returned home after a year of political exile in the Russian Arctic, one of the ways authorities have stepped up harassment of activists. (Courtesy of Maxim Litavrin)

The plight of Shavidinov – a close ally of opposition leader Alexei Navalny – offers yet another look at Russia’s increasingly aggressive tactics to silence and intimidate Putin’s critics. In recent months, the authorities have intensified harassment and prosecutions against activists, dissidents, and journalists, freezing bank accounts and carrying out frequent home searches.

The excuse for sending Shavedenov to the deserted Novaya Zemlya region was the mandatory military conscription of men, a method increasingly used to send young political activists to difficult, remote locations. But he maintains that military officials told him that his treatment was political and insists he did not receive a notice of enlistment for service.

A year of military service is mandatory for Russian men between the ages of 18 and 27, but children of wealthy or well-connected Russians can usually escape from it by bribing local military recruiting offices known for corruption.

Allegations of “kidnapping”

Shavidinov is a particularly important enemy of the Kremlin due to his work as a project manager for the Navalny “Smart Voting” tool, which directs voters in elections to the candidates most likely to defeat competitors from Putin’s United Russia party. The next big test for the opposition is the parliamentary elections expected in September.

Navalny said that Shavedenov was the victim of a “kidnapping” operation which Putin apparently personally ordered.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that if Shavdinov evaded conscription, everything would be done according to the law.

Shavidinov, 24, grew up in Istra, a poor town west of Moscow, in an area favored by Russian politicians and billionaires for building country mansions. The inequality infuriated him.

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He said, “Even since childhood, I realized that things were not as they should be, and that there was injustice.” Joined Navalny Staff six years ago.

Shavedenov said that his arrest and deportation from Moscow involved several security agencies, including the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Investigation Committee (Law Enforcement Agency for Serious Crimes), and the military. Such an operation is typical of high-profile arrests of opposition figures, journalists, and activists.

His lawyer, Vyacheslav Gimadi, said the authorities had violated the usual legal procedures for draft evaders, who must send a summons first and then a second summons. He said those who ignore the second subpoena face a court hearing and are usually fined. However, draft evasion is a felony that carries a sentence of up to two years in prison for those who continue to avoid conscription.

For Shavdinov, it all started around him 3:30 pm On December 23, 2019, his mobile phone, internet and power were suddenly cut off in his Moscow apartmentAnd the Leave it in the dark as the sun sets. The special police knocked on his door.

In the previous months, he was arrested and searched several times and his bank account frozen.

“I looked through the hole in my door, and I saw a crowd of people masked,” he said, telling his full story. His lawyer submitted many of the details to the court in July.

Sparks blew as a cutting tool engraved through the two metal doors of the apartment.

Shavidinov did not want to be caught wearing only shorts. He wandered around in the dark looking for clothes, dressed in a hurry and wearing strange socks because he could not see. He said that the police broke into the place, threw him on the ground, handcuffed him, and confiscated his computer, phone, TV and electrical outlets.

“It happened very quickly.”

They took him to the airport, and put him – while he was still handcuffed – in his place Plane and drove him to Arkhangelsk is in the far north of Russia. He said that an admiral in the back and other senior military officials met with the plane before transporting Shavedenov to another flight to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago late that night. He went out in a sharp wind.

“It was very baffled. Things happened quickly. I didn’t have time to be afraid. There were people with cameras and I was thinking that maybe they wouldn’t kill me, because they are recording everything.”

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The next day he was allowed to call his girlfriend, Kira Yarmish, Navalny’s press secretary. It was his only phone call.

Three months later, Shavedenov said he was taken by plane to what he calledPuchkaThere were between three and five other recruits at one time, or the barrel, at a secret, more remote military site, and the helicopter was delivering food every month and mail every two months.

“My job was to clean the runway and get the polar bears away. They were very hungry.” They fell asleep right on my doorstep. In fact, they are very scary creatures. “

The barrel was marked in his memory: one window with old yellow curtains framing a flat field. The other, a helipad and the mountain. For more than a month in the winter, the sun never shines.

To drink or wash, he chops a block of ice and melts it on a wood-burning stove. In the summer, he walked nearly 2 kilometers (1.2 mi) to the river and Recover two 13 gallon cans Of the water, taking care to avoid polar bears.

“It’s clear why I’m sending there: So that I have no contact whatsoever with my family or friends. It’s a huge psychological pressure. You’re alone with bears, wild dogs and two other people.

He added, “You read books or just look out of the window and watch your life pass by.” “Perhaps, if I were a different person, I would not have done it. I would have been desperate.”

He spent a lot of time talking about politics with the other recruits, all of them from the Northern District. He heard in a letter that Navalny was poisoned and in a coma, but for months he didn’t know his mentor had survived.

Military service as “exile”

Russian authorities sent many other members of the opposition to compulsory military service in remote and ruthless locations. Shavidinov claimed that the aim is to deter political activity among the new generation, many of whom feel alienated by Putin’s crackdown and attempts to curb Internet freedom.

He said, “With each year things get worse and less freedom.” There is more political repression, more political prisoners, and fewer possibilities for opposition to action.

“The machine eats and destroys everyone,” he said, referring to the oppressive Russian security apparatus. It is believed that he was sent to “botchka” to smash him – “But I will not give them this gift.”

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“But the court rejected our complaint without justification,” said Shavidinov’s lawyer, who filed a lawsuit against the Russian authorities on charges of illegal kidnapping. He said the Defense Ministry did not provide any official response in court.

“Obviously, it is a political exile due to the illegality of conscription in its form and substance, including the use of search and destination selection processes: a unit so far away, with recruits serving only from the Arkhangelsk region,” Jimadi said.

In June, another member of the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation, Artyom Ionov, was arrested and transferred to a military unit in the Chukotka region in the far north despite having had asthma, which resulted in his being excluded from military service. In July, Ivan Konovalov, press secretary of the small independent medical workers union, Alliance of Doctors, was arrested and airlifted to the Arkhangelsk military unit.

Igor Cherniuk, The former head of Navalny’s headquarters in Kaliningrad, is at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania but faces a Russian criminal charge of evading military service. Alexey Schwartz, head of Navalny Headquarters in Kurgan, is also He faces trial for draft evasion.

“This practice is increasing all the time.” “We are hearing more and more attempts,” said Alexei Tabalov, activist and founder of the NGO, School of Recruits.

“Authoritarianism is growing in Russia,” Tabalov said. We can say that it is not just authoritarian. He has become an authoritarian regime, and we know that Putin will not leave, and as long as he is alive he will rule the country and the situation will only get worse. “

When he returned, Shavedenov carried home a bag filled with letters from his supporters and well-wishers. Remains the last digital imprint of his journey: “botchka” was marked On Google Maps by supporters, nicknamed “Shaveddinov’s Gas Station”, it attracts a host of five-star “reviews” that are actually messages of support.

“There are bears. They are cold. But the company is wonderful,” wrote one supporter, Mikhail Samin.

Another wrote: “Wait, please, and in the wonderful Russian future we will build a memorial to all contemporary political prisoners.”