A Russian Dissident Is Sentenced in Moscow
Ilya Yashinâs is the most significant political trial in Russia since Alexey Navalnyâs imprisonment in 2021.By Lucian Kim, a global fellow with the Wilson Center in Washington and NPRâs former Moscow bureau chief.
By Lucian Kim, a global fellow with the Wilson Center in Washington and NPRâs former Moscow bureau chief.DECEMBER 9, 2022, 5:22 PM
Ilya Yashin, a longtime ally of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, has been sentenced in Moscow to eight and a half years behind bars. The verdict concludes the most significant political trial in Russia since Navalny was imprisoned in 2021. The court on Friday found Yashin guilty of spreading âfalse informationâ about the Russian army when he spoke about atrocities against civilians in Bucha, Ukraine, on his YouTube channel. Yashin maintained his innocence.
Yashinâs evolution from minor protest leader to persecuted dissident mirrors the metamorphosis of Russian President Vladimir Putinâs âmanaged democracyâ into a totalitarian state. The severity of Yashinâs sentence starkly presents the existential dilemma for Russiaâs hounded democratic opposition: Stay in Russia, resist Putinâs bloodletting in Ukraine, and go to prisonâor choose exile, scatter around the world, and lose relevance at home. Yashin, one of the most principled Russian opposition leaders, has always said his place is in Russia.
After the verdict was handed down, Yashin, 39, smiled and made the âvictoryâ sign with his handcuffed hands from the glass defendantâs box standard in Russian courtrooms. Afterward, he sent a message to supporters via social media: âWe have no reason for sadness, because we have won this trial, friends. It was conceived as a show trial over an âenemy of the people,â embodied by me, but instead turned into an anti-war platform.â
A few years ago, I asked Yashin if it was not crazy to oppose the Kremlin from inside the country. He acknowledged that may be the case but added that âsomebody has to do it.â Yashin said: âThe Putin regime is happy to get rid of its opponents and does everything it can so that we leave. Thatâs the reason I see my mission to do everything so that Putinâs critics stay in Russia. Thatâs why I havenât left.â
I first met Yashin 11 years ago, when he was at the head of a wave of anti-government demonstrations that posed the biggest challenge to Putin in his two decades in power. The protests broke out following reports of widespread vote-rigging in a routine parliamentary election. Yashin and Navalny, then a little-known anti-corruption activist, were jailed for two weeks after calling on protesters to march on the Central Election Commission. After their release, the two men addressed a huge rally in central Moscow on Dec. 24, 2011.
While Navalny fired up the crowd by threatening to storm the Kremlin, Yashin deliberately lowered the temperature. âWeâre honest, peaceful citizens,â he said. âWe donât want blood or revolution. All we want is honest elections.â Yashin told me that he was for roundtable talks with the Kremlin and amnesty for Putin as the only way to avoid bloodshed. They struck different tones, but Yashin and Navalny remained close political allies.
At 28 years old, Yashin was one of the youngest leaders of the protest movementâbut also one of the most experienced. During the oil boom in Putinâs first two presidential terms, Yashin was a fixture at opposition protests, which typically attracted more riot police and journalists than demonstrators. He was the leader of the youth wing of the pro-Western Yabloko party, where he befriended Navalny. When Navalny was kicked out of Yabloko for his nationalistic views, Yashin was the only party leader who voted against the expulsion.
Yashin later led the liberal Solidarity movement alongside former chess champion Garry Kasparov, now in exile, and politician Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down near the Kremlin in 2015. At the time of his assassination, Nemtsov was preparing a report on the Kremlinâs lies about Putinâs first invasion of Ukraine in 2014; Yashin helped publish it posthumously.
What is striking about Yashin is his consistency. Over the years, he has unwaveringly promoted a vision of Russia as a liberal democracy andâat least until nowânonviolent regime change. Yashin has spent his entire adult life actively resisting Putinâs rule. And unlike most opposition leaders in Russia, Yashin has held elected office.
Until last year, Yashin served in the unglamorous role of head of one of Moscowâs 125 district councils, charged with mundane neighborhood concerns such as the upkeep of parks and location of bus stops. Yashinâs election to the council in 2017 was the result of a concerted campaign by the democratic opposition to chip away at Putinâs political monopoly by first filling Moscowâs lowest elected offices. Yashinâs plan was to use his modest post as a launchpad to run for parliament, but he was barred from last yearâs election because of his association with Navalny, whose political network had been designated âextremist.â
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Compared with other opposition leaders, Yashin was very approachable and always answered his phone. To me, he seemed more interested in the cause of a democratic Russia than stroking his own ego. His earnestness and ability to articulate criticism of the regime won him a dedicated following on social media, including more than 1.3 million subscribers to his YouTube channel. Adding insult to injury, Yashinâs sentence includes a four-year ban on using the internet after his release from prison.
During the YouTube livestream in April that led to his arrest, Yashin discussed the emerging evidence of mass atrocities against Ukrainian civilians following the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Kyiv suburb of Bucha. Yashin mocked the Kremlinâs denials and debunked government propaganda that claimed the killings had been staged. He also criticized a new law on discrediting the Russian military, saying its intention was to silence dissent and create the illusion that everybody in Russia supports Putinâs war. âDespite all the risks and threats, itâs very important that people remain in Russia who are ready to say loudly: âThis war should not go on; it must stop. This war contradicts the interests of the Russian people,ââ he said.
Yashin was taken into custody in June and later charged with knowingly spreading âfalse informationâ about the Russian army, motivated by âpolitical hatred.â In July, a Moscow court found one of Yashinâs fellow district councilors, Alexei Gorinov, guilty on the same charge after he criticized the war at a council meeting. Gorinov, then 60, was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Today, there are very few opposition figures left in Russia who are not behind bars or under threat of criminal prosecution. Before his arrest, Yashin told the independent Russian news outlet Meduza that one of the main reasons he decided not to go abroad was because he could not betray the memory of Nemtsov, whose assassination still looms over Russiaâs democratic opposition.
Even after he was jailed, Yashin said he had no regrets about staying in Russia. âMy prison term will end one day, but my self-respect will remain,â he wrote to Meduza from his cell in Moscowâs notorious Butyrka Prison. âTaking a punch is psychologically easier than running from a fight.â If he has any regrets, Yashin said, it would be his own ânaivetÃ©â in believing that it was possible to achieve political change in Putinâs Russia using âcivilized methods.â
Yashin stayed true to his principles to the end. During closing arguments this week, he politely addressed the judge, Oksana Goryunova, thanking her for making his trial publicly accessible and appealing to her humanity as someone who after work goes shopping in the same grocery store as his mother. âYou know that Iâm innocent, and I know that youâre under pressure from the system,â Yashin said. âRemember that your decision isnât only about me and my personal fateâitâs also a verdict on the part of our society that wants to live in a peaceful and civilized way. That part of society might well include yourself.â
Yashin then used his day in court to attack Putin. âNo one is greeting our army with flowers. We are called invaders and occupiers,â Yashin said. âAlthough my words might sound like a voice crying in the desert, Iâm urging you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, to stop this madness immediately.â
Putin, who often pretends not to be aware of his harshest critics, made a point to show that Yashinâs message was not getting through. Asked during a press conference about the severity of Yashinâs sentence, Putin first professed never to have heard of Yashin and then hid behind the microscopic fig leaf of Russian judicial independence.
Yashin had no illusions that he would be acquitted. But in his message to supporters after the verdict, he said the authors of his sentence were âtoo optimisticâ about the longevity of Putinâs regime. âIâm not afraid, and you donât be afraid,â Yashin said. âChanges are just around the corner, and soon weâll be faced with the big job of restoring justice and humanism in our country.â
Lucian Kim is a journalist who has covered Russia since 2003, most recently as NPRâs Moscow bureau chief. He is currently a global fellow with the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @Lucian_Kim
Must be the Norwegian-style sweater that makes Yashin so dangerous.
I hope he does not give up on non-violent political activism.