In Russia there are not enough plausible sentences to go round
Wanting to draw public attention to the apparent bullying of a child, a woman reposted a 3-second video and has herself been thrown into prison for disseminating child pornography.
The resulting row has been so vociferous that even loyal supporters of the regime, including United Russia deputies, TV propagandists and public figures, have come out in her defence.
Yevgeniya Chudnovets (31) lives in a small town in the Ural mountains. In August 2015 she had no doubts at all about her interpretation of the video she was reposting: staff members in a summer camp were bullying a half-naked 10-year old. In her closed VKontakte [Russian Facebook equivalent] group, the infuriated Chudnovets demanded punishment for the bullies, but a little over a year later she herself was in court, and the prosecutor was demanding that she be sent to prison for five years.
Evgeniya and her friends refused to believe what was happening until the very end. Andrei Myasnikov, her common-law husband, remembers the day the sentence was handed down: “When we woke up that morning, I was reassuring Yevgeniya that today everything would be settled, we would go to court and it would all be over, no need to worry, she wouldn’t be sent to prison… How wrong I was… We hadn’t even taken any of her things with us, because we simply had no idea that we weren’t just going to hear the conclusion the court had reached and were wondering what we would do afterwards.”
Afterwards… Yevgeniya had wanted to carry on making soft toys (her own small enterprise). Four days before the sentence she had been making plans and posting cheerful messages on the internet: “I’ve got it! My new sewing machine! I’ve been longing for one for a long time and now I’ll be able to sew day and night, awake and asleep, with eyes closed and a smile on my face! I promise my clients that the new toys will be even better quality and more beautiful.”
But she was not able to fulfil her promise. On 8 November 2016, the court sentenced her to six months in prison and ordered that her child be taken into care. Yevgeniya’s letters show that she worried about her three-year old son most of all: “I have been separated from my son, and I know he’s calling for me all the time, unable to understand that I don’t answer his call and thinking that I don’t love him any more. That’s how children think when they’re little, but I love my son and I want to be with him. Lyovushka doesn’t yet know that there are such things as callous courts and prisons.”
The tough sentence handed down to Yevgeniya gave rise to a considerable outcry, and the spiralling absurdity evinced a reaction from people who are normally not bothered by the ineptitude of the Russian courts. The Prosecutor General, for instance, and the head of the Investigative Committee, vied with each other in their promises to check what had happened, members of the toothless Public Chamber came out with hopeful statements, and deputies from various parties were making enquiries right, left and centre. To no avail: on 22 December the appeals court confirmed that Chudnovets was guilty, reducing her sentence by just one month.
The TV “masterminds” from news programme Vesti covered themselves by describing Yevgeniya’s troubles as excesses at local level: “What is making the local authorities tighten the screws if so much attention is being focused on Chudnovets at even the highest level?”
Political scientist Yekaterina Shulman can answer this question. She knows exactly what drives such behaviour: “Clearing up real crimes like murder, drug trafficking or catching people recruiting for ISIS is difficult and dangerous. You have to leave your office chair. Reposting is just a dream because you’re sitting at your computer in the warm and you don’t need to go anywhere or take up the cudgels with anyone. You do your screenshots, take them to the court and that’s someone put away for six months.”
Meanwhile, on 12 January, it became known that the administration of the pre-detention centre had put Yevgeniya Chudnovets into solitary confinment for 15 days. She had covered her feet with a blanket in the draughty cell. Though Chudnovets spent only one day in solitary confinement – she was hastily despatched to a prison camp – she had time for enough impressions: “It’s dark, dank and cold, the floor is covered with flapping rags and the windows have hoar frost on them, even on the inside.”
While the case against Yevgeniya Chudnovets was building up, most commentators almost automatically described Tatyana Kursheva, staff member at the summer camp, and youth leader Danila Bezborodov, as sadists and bullies. But the investigation and the court, which sentenced Kursheva and Bezborodov to 6 and 3 years respectively, is still regarded as questionable by many. For instance, why did the investigating officers who interrogated the 10-year old “victim” ask him mainly leading questions? How is it that the court and the investigation ignored two other videos where the very same child is seen running round the camp half-naked, obviously by choice? Could a conscientious court not have taken into account evidence from other children who told of the “victim’s” wayward behaviour? How could a court refuse to accept Bezborodov’s alibi, and ignore Kursheva’s explanation: “I wanted to film the child’s ‘behaviour’ so as to show him what it looked like to others”?
It would, of course, be good if a higher, independent, court were to look for answers to all these questions. But where would you find such a court in Russia?