To Not Die as Slaves: Solidarity Zone’s Mission to Aid Russia’s Radical Anti-War Protesters


Ivan Astashin, hecksinductionhour, Alexander Leonidovich, Translated by Thomas Campbell. Thanks to Simon Pirani for the heads-up.

June 2, 2024
Ivan Astashin
Ivan Astashin

Muscovite Ivan Astashin knows firsthand what human rights activism, Russian prisons, and terrorism and arson charges look like. As a young man, he was close to Eduard Limonov’s National Bolsheviks and was arrested as part of the high-profile Autonomous Combat Terrorist Organization (ABTO) case, in which a group of young men were charged with a series of arson and terrorist attacks.

At the turn of the 2000s and 2010s, this story was widely discussed in the media, sparking debates over whether the arson attacks were justified. Astashin was convicted of torching an FSB district office in 2012 and spent over nine years behind bars.

Upon his release, Astashin worked for Andrei Babushkin’s Committee for Civil Rights and was involved in defending the rights of prison inmates. In February 2022, Astashin joined the protests against the invasion of Ukraine and was soon forced to leave Russia.

Astashin is now involved in the campaign Solidarity Zone, which aids Russians who have been arrested for radical anti-war protests.

How did the “Solidarity Zone” come into being?

When full-scale war broke out, large protests took place in many Russian cities, and criminal charges were filed against protesters, both charges of “violence against police officers,” which have been routine at protest rallies (police officers themselves use violence, but they don’t pay for it), and charges that were newish for Russia.

There was Anastasia Levashova, who threw a Molotov cocktail at police officers. There was the case against Anton Zhuchkov and Vladimir Sergeyev: they were detained near Pushkin Square in Moscow on 6 March 2022 on their way to an anti-war rally. A Molotov cocktail was found in Sergeyev’s backpack. The police did not know what they guys were planning, so they were able to accomplish part of what they’d planned. Zhuchkov and Sergeyev had planned to commit suicide publicly at an anti-war rally as a sign of protest—they were so desperate. As they were being detained, they took lethal doses of methadone. The police failed to notice this. They put them in a paddy wagon and beat them up there, but on the way to the station the police realized that their detainees were quite sick and took them to hospital. They were saved in the intensive care unit at the Sklifosovsky Institute.

Zhuchkov and Sergeyev were sent from the intensive care unit to a pretrial detention center after being charged with “attempted disorderly conduct.” According to police investigators, the men had been planning to set fire to empty paddy wagons. When detained, Sergeyev said that they “wanted to torch a couple of paddy wagons,” emphasizing that it was empty vehicles they had intended to target. At first, we wanted to find out the address where we could write to Zhuchkov and Sergeyev at the pretrial detention center, so we asked OVD Info, but we also learned that OVD Info would not defend them, as theirs was not a peaceful protest.

We realized that none of the existing human rights organizations was willing to take on such cases. We decided to take on Zhuchkov and Sergeyev’s case: we published the address to which people could send them letters and found them a lawyer. A little later, the authorities started charging people with arson attacks on military recruitment centers, and so we decided that we should also aid such people. By September 2022, we had launched Solidarity Zone’s social media accounts and expanded our work.

Do I understand correctly that the attitude of OVD Info, Memorial, and other human rights organizations to people engaging in “non-peaceful” anti-war protests has changed? Have their motives become clearer to these human rights organizations?

Yes, their attitude has changed. As I see it, it changed after the military mobilization, when people began setting fire to military recruitment offices en masse in protest. Now it is easier to get announcements of fundraisers for such detainees reposted. But the position of human rights organizations has remained the same.

We had a public discussion with Sergei Davidis, head of Memorial’s Support for Political Prisoners project. He said these people should certainly be supported, that in most cases they have been wrongfully charged with violating Article 205 of the Russian Criminal Code (“terrorism”), but that whereas the criminal code articles on “discrediting” the army and “disseminating fake news” about the army clearly contradict Russian law and international conventions, and people charged with violating these laws can be designated political prisoners without a detailed examination of their cases, then with regard to people who attempt to torch military recruitment centers, Memorial examines the cases in detail and is guided by international criteria. They have designated twenty such people political prisoners, but the number of these cases is many times greater.

All human rights organizations have their own focus. OVD Info deals with cases related to peaceful protest; First Department, with high treason cases; and the Net Freedoms Project, with freedom of expression cases. Our cases do not fit these criteria. Before we started, there was no organization which was willing to support such people.

Is your campaign volunteer-driven? How many people are you assisting now? How do you define the people you support?

We support people who have been arrested for anti-war protests, for radical anti-war actions, although nowadays virtually all anti-war protests are radical. We handle cases where people actually set fire to a military recruitment center or a railroad signal relay box, and cases where they were merely planning to do such things.

Or they weren’t even planning to do such things, but the security services have fabricated a case against them, alleging that they were planning to torch a military recruitment center, as happened to Ivan Kudryashov.

We are currently supporting nineteen political prisoners. In almost all cases we pay their defense lawyers and organize fundraisers to this end, and in many cases we are also involved in arranging for parcels and care packages to be sent to the prisoners and replenishing their personal commissary accounts at their detention facilities. We talk publicly about their cases and similar criminal cases. We did a count in September 2023, and at that time there were around three hundred people in Russia facing criminal charges over radical anti-war protests. There was no further info on half of these people: we could not find out whether they were under arrest or wanted by the police.

We try to cover such cases as much as we can because we are a volunteer organization: we don’t get paid or have permanent funding, although we would certainly like to have such things. We raise money for political prisoners through cryptocurrency and PayPal donations. We also do personal ruble-denominated fundraisers to pay lawyers through the platform Zaodno (“In Cahoots”).

In the first quarter of 2024, we spent 900 thousand rubles (approx. 9,100 euros) paying for care packages and one-off visits by defense lawyers. When lawyers defend our prisoners in court, we organize personal fundraisers. Sometimes we hold events in Europe to raise money, and sometimes other campaigns hold events to raise money for us.

Let’s imagine that a programmer in Tver has been arrested for attempting to set fire to a military recruitment center. His relatives are scared: they are unlikely to want to do business with a volunteer campaign based in Europe. How do you reach out to those accused of anti-war protest?

Actually, we are increasingly being approached by relatives of arrestees as we are becoming famous. We are recommended in various chat rooms dealing with support for political prisoners. Often people contact OVD Info, and they suggest contacting us.

Aftermath of an arson attack on a military recruitment center in Kemerovo
Aftermath of an arson attack on a military recruitment center in Kemerovo

We also search for information on detainees ourselves. If you have at least a first name and a surname, you can find the rest of the information in the public domain. But sometimes you cannot find out which thirty-year-old native of Voronezh has been detained. There are such case, unfortunately. Information can be obtained when a person is added to the list of “terrorists and extremists” via court filing. When a person is in the database, the locale of the pretrial detention center where they are held is identified as well. In many cities there is only one pretrial detention center, so we can dispatch a lawyer there to offer assistance to the arrestee and get their take on the case.

Some argue that publicity is not always beneficial to defendants in political criminal cases given the current conditions. Does Solidarity Zone not take this approach?

Our opinion is that publicity is beneficial in most cases. Despite everything, the security services still don’t like their lawlessness to become public. This still entails inspections, which, although they are formal procedures, are still unpleasant for them.

Publicity is a defense against torture and coercion. Also, you cannot raise money to pay a lawyer if there is no publicity. Without publicity, a person will not receive letters from supporters and well-wishers, but letters are very important. Publicity has practically no effect on the sentence nowadays, neither positively nor negatively.

So the lawyer is the prisoner’s link with the outside world? If a person ends up in this situation, they will still get a brutal sentence of ten, fifteen or twenty years or more, won’t they?

The lawyer is the only person who can visit someone in pretrial detention centers and penal colonies without limits on the number and length of visits. During the investigation phase of a case, relatives usually do not have visitation rights, especially if the individual has not pleaded guilty. So the support of a lawyer is very important.

As time goes on, this is less and less the case, but what the lawyer does can still affect the sentence. If a person has a court-appointed defense lawyer, they often tell them to agree to every deal offered by the prosecution and to sign every paper they ask them to sign, so the sentence will be shorter. Ultimately, however, the investigators and prosecutors add new charges, and the sentence is huge. But if there is a lawyer who really defends their client, they at least make sure that no new charges are filed.

A lawyer can go after the gross violations on the part of the state. Take Ivan Kudryashov: there was no evidence in his case, and so he should have been acquitted. But there are no acquittals in Russia, so he was sentenced to six years for “planning a terrorist act.” This is a short sentence by today’s standards, but his lawyer got it reduced on appeal to four years and ten months.

Although Ilya Baburin was just sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for violating six articles of the Criminal Code. For one incident—planning to torch a military recruitment center—he was charged with violating four different articles, for one and the same thing! And the lawyer could do nothing.

Ilya Baburin in court/d
Ilya Baburin in court/d

There are news stories of phone scammers conning people into torching military enlistment office, of people being offered money on Telegram to torch railway signal relay boxes. Do you handle these cases?

We have been approached about such cases. Those people shouldn’t be in jail, of course. It is doubly cynical that the pensioners who were conned have also been charged with terrorism, although in terrorism cases what matters most is the person’s intent. We have limited resources, however, so we only assist people who take an anti-war stance, which is an important criterion for us.

You also have the criterion that the defendant not testify against anyone else. Whether they pleaded guilty or not doesn’t matter.

What matters is that they didn’t willingly testify against others. Anything can happen under torture.

The number of people who go down the road of torching military recruitment centers and railway relay boxes has not been decreasing, has it? Not all those who oppose the war and Putin have left the country or gone to jail, have they?

On the contrary. Whereas previously we tried to write about all arrests on such charges, we now realize that our small team cannot cover all the arrests because they occur almost daily. Often little is known about the detainees, but the news reports say that the person was on a mission for the Free Russia Legion, meaning that the person has an anti-war stance.

When a person engages in such actions, they seemingly first of all undergo an existential crisis because they live in a quasi-fascist empire that has also attacked its neighbors. Does this person want to do something even though they realize that their life may be in danger?

Yeah, that’s right. In the cases that are well known, the defendants say they wanted to do something, to take radical action by way of protesting.

In 2022, Navalny supporters were often detained for such actions, such as Igor Paskar, who threw a Molotov cocktail at an FSB building, or Vladimir Zolotarev, who set fire to a Russian National Guard building in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. People used to go to protest rallies, but then there were no more protest rallies. Another motive we can observe among such people (Zolotarev and the anarchist Alexei Rozhkov, who set fire to a military recruitment center in March 2022, spoke of it) is that they couldn’t tear themselves away from the news about Ukraine. At some point it was impossible for them to just read all of it: they had to do something as well.

When the military mobilization began, people realized that all of this was not happening somewhere far away, but could affect them. Many people realized that they would go to jail, but they went to commit arson because they thought it was better to go to jail than to go fight a criminal war. Roman Nasryev and Alexei Nuriyev were sentenced to nineteen years each for attempting to set fire to a military registration office in the Chelyabinsk Region. This phrase in Nasryev’s correspondence jumps out: “It’s time to start—or we’ll die as slaves.”

There are how people who are primed for a long-term confrontation with the military machine, for guerrilla actions, and for greater degrees of security. And if you look at the reports of sabotage, not every one leads to the capture of the perpetrators.

It is clear what could have prompted radical action in February 2022. In the autumn of 2022, it was the mobilization. But how can it be that someone tolerated the war for a long time and decides to act only now? Or are these just “guerrillas” who have avoided capture for a long time?

That is a good question, to which I have no answer. We know generally about those detained for radical protests in 2022, but there is still little data even for 2023. We can assume that some people went abroad in 2022, but had to return to Russia because they could not settle down here. Some people may not have resisted in 2022 because they hoped that everything would end quickly, but now they see that nothing ends by itself.

The case of Sergei Okrushko can be cited as an example. He is Ukrainian but has a Russian passport. In 2022, he went to Moldova, whence he wanted to enter Ukraine and work on humanitarian projects. But he was not allowed to enter Ukraine because of his Russian passport. He was forced to return to Russia. He got a job at an oil refinery (as an electrician) and set off an explosion there.

Are you also a wanted man in Russia? What are the charges?

The authorities have not yet responded to inquiries about what the criminal charges are, although my lawyer submitted a request over a month ago.

After this interview was recorded, Moscow’s Cheremushkinsky District Court published information that it had been petitioned to arrest Ivan Astashin in absentia on charges of “condoning terrorism.” Other details of the case are still unknown.