Children to dissidents in Russia

“You no longer have a son”

What happens to the children of dissidents? To tell an unwelcome truth or to protest against oppression takes a lot of personal courage. But only too often the authorities tries to silence dissidents by threatening their children. Oksana Chelysheva, Russian journalist living in exile, tells the story of six-year old Ivan Aksenov.

December 14 2011 Text: Oksana Chelysheva

In November 2011, a small boy named Ivan was arrested in Moscow. At the time of his arrest he was six years old.

Ivan’s father is Sergei Aksenov, well known in Russia as one of the key figures of the political opposition to the Kremlin. In 1997, he became a member of the now banned Edward Limonov Party and is now a member of the organizing committee of the Dissidents Marches in which he participates regularly. He is also a journalist and a politician. In 2001, Sergei was convicted in the “Altai affair” of Edward Limonov. He was released in 2003 and his son, Ivan, was born in 2005.

One day Sergei was taking part in a routine action on Victory Square in Moscow. Opposition representatives gathered there each Tuesday at the same time to chant: “Elections without an opposition is a crime”. Before gathering, they always ask permission at the office of the Mayor of Moscow. And the authorities always deny it.

The Tuesday actions do not last long – only for a few fleeting minutes, but long enough to unfurl a banner and hand out leaflets. The police are always there, awaiting participants who come to protest on Victory Square. Anyone who ventures out to the square knows that the protest action will end quickly. The police will attack them, drag them off to the police vans, and bring them to the police station where they will be charged with some administrative offense such as “participating in an illegal action.” Nonetheless, these despairing Russian citizens continue to hold protests on the square. To sit down and complain about the reality in a post-Soviet kitchen of a Russian “komunalka“ is no longer an acceptable option for them.

On November 1, Sergei collected his son from kindergarten and headed to Mayakovskaya metro station where he left Ivan with his baby sitter, the sixteen-year-old Victoria Kuznetsova. There was nothing out of the ordinary about this. Ivan’s mother was Anastasia Pustarnakova, a journalist who was not shy of oppositional actions. Sergei, Ivan’s father, was even less shy. Both are recent residents of Moscow. Ivan’s grandmothers and grandfathers live in other regions of Russia. For this reason, Victoria regularly looked after Ivan whenever the parents were busy with their work or revolution.

Ivan and Victoria waited for Sergei at some distance from the square where the action was taking place. When approximately 60 persons had been arrested and carried off to the police vans, Victoria moved a bit closer. She called Sergei, who had already been arrested, and began to photograph the remains of the action site.

A fence surrounded Victory Square to prevent rallies in defence of Article 31 of the Russian constitution. The fence was covered with photographs of happy children. There was a huge number of policemen carrying special equipment, sufficient to put down an uprising. Among them were people in civilian clothes. They looked very different from ordinary passers-by: they acted confidently and ordered the police to “grab them and take them away”, their fists poised ready to hit their targets. These types shy the public limelight. It is harmful to them. They were from the Russian political police. The centre for suppression of extremism.

Among them that day was captain Aleksei Okopnyi. He and Sergei were peers. But their lives were different. Оkopnyi was ready to tear the likes of Sergei to pieces like a hound on the hunt. His career had begun in the northern Caucasus. He revealed himself once by telling about his experiences in Chernokozovo (a prison camp) to a young oppositionist. For many Chechens who survived Chernokozovo (in 2000, the name is synonymous with Auschwitz.

It seemed as Okopnyi was on good terms with the officials. In early 2008 he was still working in the Department for Combating Organized Crime headed by Anatolii Kyarov. Kyarov was murdered that same year – probably for operations like the kidnapping of the 26-year-old Rasul Tsakoev, who was discovered on a garbage dump dying from the effects of torture. Before he died, he managed to say that he had been tortured on the personal order of Kyarov. At that moment Aleksei Okopnyi, Kyarov’s subordinate, was already in Moscow. His experience from the northern Caucasus “suppressing extremism” was needed in the capital.

In November 2007 Iurii Chervochkin, member of the National Bolshevik Party, was savagely beaten in Serpukhov, a suburb of Moscow. He had managed to avert some journalists that he was being followed by four men whom he recognized as working at a suburban section of the Department for Combating Organized Crime. One of them was Okopnyi. Chervochkin had also lodged several complaints with the Public Prosecutor about repeated threats he had been receiving from Okopnyi and his colleagues. No investigation ensued. Nor was the murder of Iurii Chervochkin investigated. He died without regaining consciousness one month after the assault.

Despite the fact that all those suspected of his murder were named by name four years ago, his murderers “could not be established” according to the official version.

It was this person, police captain Аleksei Оkopnyi, who sixteen-year-old Victoria Kuznetsova got a picture of with her camera. Six-year-old Ivan Aksenov was standing next to her. And it was Оkopnyi who gave the signal to his pack of thugs, soldiers from the 2nd operational regiment of the Moscow police, whose forces are used to break up rallies and demonstrations in Moscow.

They arrested Victoria and six-year-old Ivan who were then taken to the same Terskoe police station to which Sergei had been taken. However, Sergei was not allowed to see his son. On the contrary, they beat him up and dragged him by his arms and legs to a separate room.

At this time the boy was being interrogated according to protocol by Svetlana Panarina, inspector of Minors’ Affairs – that’s right: interrogated. Victoria wanted to be present at the interrogation with the child, but she was forced out into the corridor. And there in the corridor, that same Okopyi was waiting for her. What was really waiting for her were the threats and forced embraces of captain Okopyi, which were carefully photographed by his colleague, evidently for later discrediting the sixteen-year-old school girl close to opposition circles.

A unique document saw the light of day. It is titled “Explanation”. Like any official document this masterpiece begins with the biographical data of the person giving the explanation: name, date of birth … and in the column “Education” it says “Kindergarten, Group No. 9”.

“In regard to the questions posed to me I can say the following: I live at the address given above together with my mommy and daddy. Mommy works as a journalist for the newspaper “Izvestiya”. Daddy writes on the computer about things that happen”. So begins the document the agents of the law-enforcement bodies are claiming that the child wrote.

The document then continues: “Every Tuesday of every month I go with daddy to Victory Square where he gives me to Victoria. People come there and hold long cloths in their hands and shout something like ‘for truth’…”

One can guess from the following quotation what kind of questions Madam Inspector asked the six-year-old Ivan “My mommy knows where we are and never tells Daddy that I am too little and that I shouldn’t be taken to such events.”

At the same time, captain Okopyi said to Sergei Aksenov: “You no longer have a son.”

By removing the child from the family, the system set into motion the wheels of vengeance against the parents because of their oppositional activities.

The arrest and subsequent interrogation of the six-year-old child and the threats and pressure on the sixteen-year-old Victoria Kuznetsova provoked strong reactions in Russia. However, this is by no means a guarantee that the actions of Okopyi and his colleagues will be investigated.

On the contrary, the hassle led to initiate criminal proceedings against Sergei Aksenov. On November 11, the Public Council attached to the State Department of Internal Affairs of Moscow will hold a special session. Its new composition is headed by a very odious person, Olga Kostina, wife of a member of the staff of Surkov’s office and a person whose testimony turned out to have big importance in the Khodorovsky case.

However, neither witnesses nor Aleksei Aksenov’s parents were called to this session. The members of the Public Council did not need them. Olga Kostina announced: “We have found that the agents of the police acted according to their instructions.” In addition it was learned from her announcement that the E Centre (the department for suppression of extremism) intends to defend “the honour and dignity” of its staff member, and has filed a claim against Sergei Aksenov.

Ivan is now living with Sergei’s parents. His parents are fiercely resisting the pressure being put on them by the state … Police agents continue to persecute Victoria Kuznetsov. The girl’s friends must always accompany her. Okopnyi demanded that she incriminate Sergei Aksenov. The person who threatened her with rape demanded that she give testimony that Sergei attempted to seduce her. But she refused.

Whether or not they will be able to maintain their honour and dignity and their son’s peace and calm depends on many factors, one of which is attention and pressure on the Russian authorities from the public abroad.

The cynical use of children to exert pressure on oppositionists is becoming routine practice in Russia.

In Smolensk, at the end of 2010, criminal proceedings were fabricated against the 26-year-old Taisiya Osipova, the wife of Sergei Fomchenkov, a political activist behind the website The Other Russia. During a search, Okopnyi’s colleagues in the Smolensk office for the Suppression of Extremism planted drugs on her.

Just one thing was demanded of Taisiya at the very outset; namely, that she would testify against her husband. Sergei’s and Taisiya’s daughter almost became a second hostage. They attempted to deprive Таisiya and Sergei of their parental rights. It did not succeed. The attention of journalists and the public helped.

In February 2011, Evgeniya Chirikova, leader of the Movement to Protect Khiminskii Forest, faced a similar threat. The welfare agencies tried to take her two small children from her, citing a declaration from neighbours. It soon became clear that they had not written the statement. The counterfeit document stated, in particular, that “Cherikova’s children are always hungry, they are given no food, and they are dirty. Vagrants go there constantly. The children are always crying, they are beaten and punished …” The effort turned into a fiasco thanks to an active campaign to defend Evgeniya’s children.

I don’t believe the Russian junta has invented anything new. Similar means of applying pressure were used in Argentina between 1976 and 1983 under the regime of the military junta. But the trial of the junta’s leader Jorge Videla and his crew began in March 2011 in Buenos Aires. They were all accused of illegal abduction of a multitude of children of leftist oppositionists. During a hearing, the 33-year-old Leonardo Fossati who had his name returned to him only three years ago, said about those like himself: “We were the regime's war spoils.” I would like to hope that the Russian children of opponents to the regime would avoid the fate of being the special services’ “war spoils”. After all the world has changed – hasn’t it?