Olga Misik, a 19-year-old journalism student at Moscow University, is facing up to two years behind bars for peaceful protest. Many Russians know Misik as “the girl with the constitution”: Two years ago, when she was still in secondary school, Misik was active in mass protests that demanded access to the ballot for opposition politician Alexei Navalny and members of his movement.
The state marshaled its special forces troops, lining them up several deep in order to contain the protesters. Misik would bring a copy of the Russian Constitution and sit on the pavement in front of the soldiers to read the law aloud to them.
During those protests Misik met two other young activists, Ivan Vorobyovsky and Igor Basharimov; Vorobyovsky became her best friend and Basharimov her boyfriend. Now the three of them are facing trial together, for ostensibly splashing paint on a guard booth outside the prosecutor general’s office in Moscow. (The prosecution claims that this was an act of vandalism that required about $50 in repairs. The activists say they used coloring, not paint, and left no permanent damage. Available documents support the activists’ version of events.) All three defendants have been under curfew, banned from using phones and the internet as well as from communicating with one another in any way, for eight months.
The young people’s case is part of a broader brutal crackdown underway in Russia. Navalny, who survived an attempted assassination by nerve agent last year, has been in prison since January. Key members of his movement are either in forced exile or on trial. When Russians came out to protest Navalny’s arrest in January and the authorities’ refusal to grant him access to medical care in April, the state responded by arresting tens of thousands of people; most were released within days, but hundreds of people around Russia are now facing trial for peaceful protest.
To instill terror in the population, the Kremlin has been focusing particularly on young people and older adults. Several older women school teachers in Moscow have been dragged in for questioning and threatened with prosecution after facial recognition cameras identified them as protest participants. Misik, who is familiar to Russians, is an iconic target.
The Kremlin is trying to tell Russians that no one will be spared. The statement that Misik made in court is a direct response to that threat. It was translated into English by Yolka Gessen, a 19-year-old student at Bard College.
People often asked, “Aren’t I scared?” More commonly outside the country than in Russia, because they don’t get the reality of life in Russia. They don’t understand the knock on the door in the middle of the night, the arrests and imprisonment without reason or cause. They don’t realize that the feeling of despair is passed on to us through our mothers’ milk. And that that feeling of despair causes any semblance of fear to atrophy, infecting us with learned hopelessness. What use is fear if you have no say in your future.
I have never been afraid. I have felt despair, hopelessness, helplessness, disorientation, anxiety, frustration, burnout, but neither politics nor activism ever struck fear in me. I wasn’t scared when armed thugs stormed my home in the night, threatening me with prison. They wanted to scare me, but I wasn’t afraid. I made jokes and laughed, knowing that the moment I stopped smiling, I would have lost.
When I was in the black crow [Stalin-era prisoner transports] with those thugs on our way to Moscow, I thought to myself, This could be the last sunrise I get to witness for many long years. I was thinking back to my father, who I saw cry for the first time in my life. My mom, who whispered in my ear, “Don’t confess to anything.” My brother, who ran over to the house for me. Igor, who lay on the ground ignoring cops’ questions. I was sad and in pain, but not afraid.
I wasn’t scared when they put me in the detention center. I worried about Igor. I read the letter from my friends many times. My own fate was the last thing on my mind. It is very strange, maybe some sort of coping mechanism, but in those days I wasn’t afraid once.
I can remember the way to the protest well. Promising myself it would be the last in my career as an activist, that I would go into political retirement and focus on school. I was worried and stressed about how things would play out, but unafraid. The night was beautiful. I was aware that it could be my last one in freedom, and yet that did not scare me.
However, after the search, for the past nine months, I have been scared constantly. Ever since the night in the detention center, I haven’t been able to get a good night’s sleep once. Every night I wake from the smallest of sounds. I keep imagining footsteps in the hallway. Panic washes over me from the sound of the gravel crunching under the wheels of cars outside my window.
I feel like all of the fear accumulated over the past nine months is most concentrated in this exact moment, in my final statement, because public speaking scares me more than the sentencing. My heart is racing at 151 beats per minute, and it feels as though it could explode any second now. Goosebumps reach to the very top of my head.
Someone said, “It’s impossible to be afraid if you know you’re right.” But Russia teaches us to always be afraid. A country that attempts to kill us every day, and if you’re not part of the system, you might as well be dead already.
And maybe I was scared on the way to the protest after all, but I knew I had no other choice. I understood that anything else would be wrong. That if I stayed silent this time, I would never be able to forgKremlinive myself. When my kids ask me where I was when it was going down, how could I let this happen, and what I did to fix it, I would have nothing to tell them. What would I say? That I was picketing at the FSB? That’s laughable. A cute little lie to make yourself feel better, one that I could not afford.
And what about your children? When they ask you where you were when all of this was happening, what will you tell them? That you were convicting people?
Of course I was at that protest. I don’t regret it and more so am proud of my actions. In reality, I had no choice. I had to do everything in my power, thus I have no right to regret it. And if I had the option to go back in time, I would do it again. If I was being threatened with execution, I would do it again. I would do it time and time again, until it finally started to make some change. They say that doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. I guess hope is insanity. But not doing something you believe in, just because everyone around you thinks it’s pointless, that is learned hopelessness. And better to be insane in your eyes than hopeless in my own.
On the New Greatness Case
Women who were tried in the New Greatness case told me on Sunday that it made a difference. That it gave them hope. That it matters to them. If even one person behind bars can breathe a little easier after a protest in support of them, then it wasn’t for nothing and I have no right to regret that I might be the one behind bars next.
Maslov [the judge in the New Greatness case] saw the posters addressed to him, personally. Krasnov [Russia’s attorney general] himself asked for there to be a case against us. Meaning my challenge was accepted. Meaning I was heard. Meaning it wasn’t for nothing.
Denying my participation in the protest would not only be unprincipled, it would erase all of the fear and agony, all we have achieved, all of my pain and rage. I can’t afford such dishonor with which our interrogator and prosecutor live their days. The interrogator sitting in his office, made a big show of how principled he was. He claimed that he closed cases with no substance, but in the courtroom he cowered like a dog, indistinctly mumbling something about remaining grounds in my case. I am sad that I won’t see him and won’t be able to tell him to his face how much I detest him. Our young prosecutor, too young to be such a liar and hypocrite, I too detest. It’s impossible not to detest you. I don’t understand how you don’t detest yourself or how you can face your loved ones.
And you, when you extend the term of detention, when you reject every motion by the defense and swallow every falsification fed to you by the prosecutors, you know perfectly well what kind of crime you are committing. You are more clearly aware of your actions than even I was on that fateful night. When you won’t let me speak to the most important person in my life, you know damn well what you’re doing. Do you think it’s right to prosecute someone for being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people? You think you can try someone just because I love him and then forbid us from talking, but you can’t. You can’t stop me from loving. You can’t ban youth. You will never prohibit freedom. You will not suppress the truth.
You can clearly see that the trial will be way more life-changing for you than it is for me. I chose where I stand long ago. It is now time for you to decide which path the rest of your life will take. These debates and outcomes don’t mean or change anything for me. When you sentence me, you are sentencing yourself.
A fascist government never seems fascist from the inside. It seems like just some minuscule, inconsequential censorship and some targeted repression that will never reach you. I’m not the one on trial today. Today, you are deciding not my fate but yours, and you still have a chance to do the right thing. You can’t keep lying to yourselves. You know what goes on here. You know what it’s called. You know that there is good and evil, freedom and fascism, love and hatred, and denying that there are sides to take would be a colossal lie. Those who chose evil have preordered their tickets to the defense table. The Hague awaits all who had a hand in this chaos.
I am not promising victory tomorrow, the day after, in a year, or 10. But someday we will win, because love and youth always win. I can’t promise to make it there alive, but I really hope you live to see it.
You’re lying to yourselves if you maintain that I am here because of the protest at the office of the prosecutor general. You are lying to yourselves if you think you can’t see the bright neon sign saying “POLITICAL TRIAL” that has been the backlight to this whole case. You know why I’m here. You know why these two are here — they are my friends. You know what I’m actually being tried for. For reading the constitution. For my political positions. For being named person of the year. For my principles. For my actions. I might even be flattered by being singled out for a political trial, if only I really were singled out — when in fact the state is repressing anyone who has an opinion.
The prosecution is putting all its efforts into proving that I am implicated in the incident. I’m not going to spend much time showing that they can’t even do that professionally: They are using falsified fingerprint analysis, and, as you saw when you were examining the evidence, there was no trace of paint on my clothes. The prosecution spent nine months trying to prove something I never denied. But what does that matter when no law was broken? What difference does it make whether I was there or not when no crime was committed? Although we are lying a little bit when we say that there is no crime in this case. There is a crime, and it was committed by the police and the prosecutors. And I very much hope, Comrade Judge, that you will not become an accomplice to this crime.
This is precisely why I demand a complete and unconditional acquittal. I am not accepting any half measures, like settling for a fine. I am sure of my innocence and am prepared to uncompromisingly defend it to the end.
We can all plainly see the absurdity of this case, from the pretrial measures to the falsifications already proven by the defense. But that’s not the crux of the issue. The plaintiffs and some of the witnesses and expert witnesses are emphasizing our age, portraying our actions as a sort of youth excess. But the truth is, any one of us is more mature than any one of you. We are more mature than Krasnov who, as Dmitry [Zakhvatov, Misik’s lawyer] has noted, has taken childlike offense at a poster. The truth is, it’s hard for me to speak, but I will continue to speak more and more honestly than any of you, because you have no right to speak at all. The truth is that, even with pretrial restrictions and with detention, in the detention center or in the courtroom, with ankle bracelets and curfew, any one of us is more free than any one of you, because when the three-year term is over — even before it’s over — I’m going to keep saying what I think and doing what I think is right, while you, sadly, lack that freedom.
The past nine months have been very difficult, you know, and I wouldn’t like to repeat them. I kept thinking to myself, What could have happened if, and, Everything could have gone differently. But I was lying to myself, because nothing could have gone differently. From the moment I picked up the constitution, my fate was set in stone, and I accepted it with pride. I made the right choice, and making the right choice in a totalitarian state will always have horrifying consequences. I always knew I’d end up behind bars — it was only a matter of when. I am currently reading Markus Zusak’s book on living under a fascist regime. In it he wrote, “You claim it to be bad luck, but you’ve known all along that it had to come.” This quote perfectly describes my trial. I know what I was doing wasn’t stupid, wasn’t unlucky or accidental and most importantly not a crime. I always knew this would happen and was always prepared. Nothing you do will surprise me.
My lawyer brought up Sophie Scholl today. Her story is shockingly similar to mine. She was put on trial for flyers and graffiti; I’m being tried for posters and paint. Like she was, I am essentially on trial for thought crimes. My trial is very similar to Sophie’s, and today’s Russia really resembles Nazi Germany. Right up to the guillotine, Sophie did not stray from her beliefs. Her story inspired me not to agree to charges being dropped. Sophie Scholl is the embodiment of youth, individuality, and freedom. I would like to believe that to be another thing that makes us similar.
The Nazi regime eventually crumbled, as will the fascist regime in Russia. I don’t know when it will happen, be it a week, a year, or decade, but I know that someday we will be victorious, because love and youth always prevail.
I would like to conclude my final statement with quotes from two wonderful human beings, Albus Dumbledore and Sophie Scholl. I have dedicated too much of my time today talking about fear, so both quotes will be about light. I started with fear and will be ending with hope.
Albus Dumbledore said during the war, “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
Sophie Scholl’s last words before her execution were, The sun still shines.
Indeed, the sun still shines. I couldn’t see it out the window of the detention center, but I always knew it was there. And if now, in such dark times, we can turn to the light, then maybe victory isn’t so far after all. ●
Translated by Yolka Gessen