Arrested in my pyjamas: I became a Russian political prisoner at 23
Why is Putin so afraid of young people?
At six in the morning on April 14th, I was woken by the doorbell and yelling. “Open up, or we’ll break the door down!” Half-asleep and frightened, I opened the door. Ten or so men entered my flat, holding guns and wearing black balaclavas and bulletproof vests. I was in my pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt.
Was I still asleep and having a nightmare? It felt like it. They pushed me into a room and took my phone and passport. After a while, they asked, “Well, Alla Gutnikova, were you filming a video?”
They were referring to a film I made a few months earlier. In January many young Russians like me took part in protests against Vladimir Putin following the arrest of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent dissident, on his return to the country. Some were expelled from university for their role in the demonstrations.
I was working as an editor at DOXA, an online student magazine in Moscow. Three other editors and I released a three-minute video in which we criticised universities for illegally expelling protesters. As my sign-off, I said, “the government has declared war on young people. But we will definitely win.” We showed the script to lawyers, who said it didn’t contain criminal content.
The law here is a kind of a Russian roulette
But the law here is a kind of Russian roulette. The authorities sent us a letter saying the video was illegal and that we needed to delete it. We did. Even so, here I was, a couple of months later, surrounded by armed men in my apartment. They told me to get dressed and took me in for questioning. I’d read about what happens to criminal suspects in Russia: would they keep me in a basement and torture me?
That evening there was a trial at the Basmanny district court in Moscow. The prosecution claimed that we had involved minors in life-threatening activities: they said teenagers watching our video could be inspired to go to a rally, where they might catch coronavirus and die.
The judge placed me and the other editors under house arrest. We were also banned from using the internet and making phone calls. Two weeks later, after we appealed, the court let us go out for a two-hour walk each morning.
For the first month, I held up well. I tried to see the funny side of it and the potential for anecdotes. I thought about turning my experience into a story, play, or song. But after five months of house arrest, I’m a bit broken. Everything is a haze or a half-dream. It’s like I’m in a movie, but it’s really happening to me.
I first became interested in politics following the assassination in 2015 of Boris Nemtsov, a leading liberal politician. But until recently, my main focus was my education. I was doing a degree in cultural studies at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow – my thesis was on the philosopher Walter Benjamin. When I wasn’t studying, I taught children English and did a bit of modeling and acting. After graduating I planned to work as a teacher or go into publishing.
Like many young Russians, I got immersed in politics in the summer of 2019 after the arrest of Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist who had reported on the finances of Moscow’s deputy mayor and his family, among other subjects. The authorities tried to plant drugs on him in broad daylight (the charges were later dropped). There was a popular slogan: “Me, us, Ivan Golunov”, and unprecedented solidarity among journalists and students.
Young people come along and say: “The king is naked”
Soon after came the events known as the “Moscow Case”, when young people were detained for protesting against Putin. I was trying to study, but all I could think about was what was happening to these demonstrators. My friend and I made stickers saying “the Moscow Case must be stopped” for people to put on their bags and laptops. I was naive enough to hope this would promote change: I imagined these stickers flooding the whole city, that we’d see how many of us there were.
Then, in January, came the controversy about Putin’s palace. Navalny, who had been poisoned by Russian security agents a few months earlier, released a film about Putin’s mansion on the Black Sea. Everybody was discussing it – even people who weren’t interested in politics. It was like a new Harry Potter had come out. I remember thinking: who could want Putin in power knowing the amazing level of corruption? Russians have nothing to eat, but officials have palaces and private jets.
The film led to several protests. It was dangerous to go to them: we all remembered the arrests of 2019, the videos of police beating protesters with batons, the woman with a bloody head. But I still hoped that something would change. There was a sense of unity and widespread enthusiasm. It was very exciting – this dormant feeling that had suddenly become visible.
All over Russia, schoolchildren and university students went to rallies. Fifteen-year-olds took buses to nearby towns just to protest. Some were detained. One child was asked: “Do you know Navalny’s next plans?” Several were threatened with expulsion from school. Parents started to tell their kids: “You’d better not go to the protests, it might be dangerous.” They turned a blind eye to corruption and pretended everything was fine.
Many in our parents’ and grandparents’ generations see Putin as a strong ruler: they think that if he steps back, everything will collapse. It’s hard to argue with people who watch the one-sided coverage on Russia’s state-run tv channel from morning till night. You’re told that being gay means selling your heart to the devil, that feminists want to kill men, that Navalny is spying for the Americans. You’re also told that Russia has the most beautiful women and that the West is decadent. It used to be Soviet propaganda; now it’s Russian propaganda.
Young people can only laugh at this. We get our news online. It’s like “The Truman Show”: you realize Russia is not quite as the propagandists describe it. We look more critically at what is around us; we can’t help but see how bad things are. We come along and say: “The king is naked. The milk yields are not increasing. Life is not getting any better. Everything is bad in Russia.”
The main problem is not fear, it’s a feeling of powerlessness
Once you see the injustices, you can bring them to light through journalism and social media. Navalny’s film has more than 100m views on YouTube. Telegram, a messaging app, is very important for activists: the DOXA channel, where we post links to our stories, has 15,000 subscribers. TikTok is also important – some people use the app to share videos about protests.
My hope that Russia would change came to an end in February. After the rallies and videos, somehow things quietened down. The intimidation makes everyone so scared that they sacrifice their opinion for mythical security. They think: if I just shut up now, don’t stick my neck out, maybe I won’t get hurt. But it doesn’t work that way. You can be jailed for nothing if they don’t like what you’re doing, writing, or saying. It makes you want to crawl into a corner, somewhere you can’t be reached, so you can catch your breath.
The main problem is not fear, it’s a feeling of powerlessness. You can write anything you like on the ballot paper, but the election will still be rigged. You see another trumped-up case where people get ten years in prison for nothing. It’s enough to make me cry. Some of my friends have stopped reading news about arrests and torture. I’m ashamed that I’ve read almost nothing about the people who were arrested for protesting against Putin’s palace – my energy had been drained by the Moscow Case. Worrying for months on end burns you out. People are exhausted.
The authorities hope they can simply squeeze out all the dissenters. That person will leave the country like they’re doing in Belarus, and like they did here in the old days. I’ve read diaries of people who were forced to leave the Soviet Union: they talk about their dreams of returning one day and walking through the city they grew up in. It’s scary.
For activists, living in exile at least gives you a chance to sleep peacefully at night and not to flinch at every rustle and knock on the door. Many young people want to move to Europe and America; to live somewhere with a higher standard of living, more rights, and freedoms, better career prospects.
I understand why people want to abandon this sinking ship, but if everyone goes, Russia will have nothing left. It really will sink. We need people who are willing to sacrifice their comfort, nerves, time, and emotional state to fight for something. If all the activists leave, only the apathetic will be left. Russia will slowly decay and fall apart.
Each time we go to court and the judge looks at us, I think that maybe she will say, “yes, you’ve made your case”, and end our house arrest. Then I laugh at myself for having hope. Most adults I know don’t hope for anything anymore, because they’ve been disappointed so many times before.
I’m at home with my family, I sleep in my bed, I eat good food, my friends come over. When it gets boring I find ways to entertain myself: I read a lot; an artist has painted my portrait; I’ve done several photoshoots. But house arrest is scary – it cuts you off from life. You descend into depression because it goes on and on. Sometimes I just lie there and stare at the ceiling; I don’t have the energy to see guests, to do anything. It’s a bit like quarantine, just without the internet, or hope.
All my friends are getting on with their lives. They’re traveling, finding themselves, going to graduate school, building careers and moving away. I’m just sitting at home, in this kind of childlike state. I fear that I won’t be able to return to my old life, that I won’t be able to graduate or work, that something in me is broken, that I am not the same person I was before.
But I don’t regret making that video. The authorities wanted to send a message to young people: sit still and keep quiet, otherwise you will be put under house arrest. Instead, it had the opposite effect. Our video turned us into superstars. It made young people confident – I guess a lot of them saw us as role models. By arresting us, the government did more to inspire young people to join opposition movements than we ever did: when they see their peers in court, they’re more likely to say, “I can’t keep silent.”
DOXA continues to publicize injustice against students in Russia – it’s just that other people now write the stories. We are one of many publications that have been targeted: the authorities have also tried to silence Insider and Meduza, two investigative news outlets. Individual journalists have been fingered as foreign agents. Every media outlet is under threat. Everyone is worried.
So is Putin: he is afraid of the young. Why? We are less afraid of him than older people are. I was two when he came to power; now I’m 23 and he’s still there. But youth always wins. It’s just the law of nature.