“I became even more angry with all our enemies” FBK employee Ruslan Shaveddinov returned after a year in the army: he served on Novaya Zemlya in conditions that were worse than prison conditions. We talked to him

On December 23, 2019, the apartment of Ruslan Shaveddinov, an employee of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, was searched. The activist himself was actually kidnapped – taken away for interrogation, and then forcibly sent to military service. Shaveddinov spent a whole year on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the Arctic Ocean – during the service, he said that he was forbidden to use the telephone, send and receive letters. That is, the army living conditions turned out to be worse in his case than in prison. On December 23, 2020, Shaveddinov returned to Moscow. Meduza’s special correspondent, Alexandra Sivtsova, talked to him about what it would be like to live in the Arctic, next to bears, and to learn the main news (even about the poisoning of Alexei Navalny) with a great delay.

– What are your feelings from returning to Moscow after a year on Novaya Zemlya?

– I am infinitely happy to return home. See loved ones, colleagues – and a large number of people in general. For the past year, I’ve been surrounded by bears, dogs and a couple of guys who weren’t lucky enough to be there. 

– Did everything feel like a link?

– Yes, this is a return from exile. I was away from everything for a year as a punishment for what we do. For our political and anti-corruption work.

– When you return, will you continue to do this?  

– It would be a great gift for those who threw me into exile – to come back, quiet down, fold their pens and do nothing. But I will continue my activity. I look forward to 2021, when there will be elections [to the State Duma] and with the help of “Smart Vote” we can throw out as many United Russia members as possible.

– When did you find out that you were returning to Moscow?

– I had a magic calendar, which was sent to me in one of the letters. I crossed out the days, I realized that it was already the end of December – and very soon they would have to take me out of here. It will be very strange if I spend the second New Year here.

One morning I was told to change. They said that I might fly [home]. I changed my clothes, they searched me for a long time, held conversations, instructed me how not to behave when flying home – even the flight on Novaya Zemlya was delayed because of this. It seems to me that all the people who sat there and waited to finally go home looked a little askance at me: “Oh, this Shaveddinov, our flight is being delayed because of him.”

– Are they also military personnel?  

– No. There are many workers there who serve the facilities of Rosatom and others. They can be simply called shift workers.

– And your colleagues did not fly back?Advertising

– If servicemen come to Novaya Zemlya, they are sent there from the Arkhangelsk region. They are local, they are sent in July and November. For some guy from Moscow to be brought there in December is nonsense. Therefore, the last soldiers were taken away in November. When I flew away, only workers were with me. All this confirms that no one was waiting for me [in the military unit in December 2019].

– How were you met there a year ago?

– With frightened eyes. The people assigned to watch me on the first day were as scared as I was. They obviously got a call at the last moment, there was no time to prepare much. They looked with apprehension: “Who did they send us?” I was a bad New Year gift.

– How was the service itself?

– From December to early March, I was in a military unit. I was surrounded by servicemen, and there was always a contract soldier with me. He filmed my every action and made sure that I, God forbid, did not get a phone. And then in March they decided to take me 300 kilometers from the military unit, where there is an object “Bochka”  – radio technical post number three. I was taken there by helicopter.

There [in the “Bochka”] there were me and several people who work there. In order to survive there physically, you need light. And there are people who service the diesel and other working stuff. They are there only to support their lives. And they threw me there, because this is the only place on Novaya Zemlya where there was no connection at all.

The biggest of us [in “Bochka”] was six people, but then two flew away, one went on vacation. Almost my entire service consisted of three people. But these people spent two months preparing for the object: they knew how everything worked, were mentally prepared, they had the opportunity to warn their loved ones that they would be out of touch. And I ended up with no skills.

– Did they explain to you why they send you there?

– Nobody explained anything. Early in the morning I was told: “You have five minutes.” I packed my things, put me in a car, brought me to the site and shoved me into a helicopter. I got out of the helicopter, contemplating a bare field of snow, hills and “Barrel”. I was told that I would live here. So I spent nine months.  

“You say that people are being prepared for such a service. How did you manage?  

“If you have two arms and legs, you can exist. But all you do there is to provide for your life. Change floors because they rot, build a roof, glue up the windows. Constantly doing something to survive, or just cleaning the snow.

– How does the “Bochka” itself work?

– This is a wooden extension with aisles, where you constantly go, getting into the compartments of the “Barrel”. A bedroom, a kitchen and a room with radio communication, through which we were contacted and told to open the pad for the helicopter to land.

– Did this happen often?

– 30 kilometers from my “Bochka” there is an object to which the shift workers came. They flew to them once or twice a week – and we were told to be ready, because perhaps an additional [helipad] would be needed.

And they contacted us to communicate and inform that they would fly to us, once a month and a half.

– Who flew to you?

– Representatives of the military unit who are involved in the provision. A helicopter flew in to throw off a sack of flour, canned food, a box of potatoes and cereals. 

– Did you cook for yourself?

– Yes. We all learned the skills of making porridge and made bread ourselves.  

– You said that in order to get water, you had to walk several kilometers. Was there no water in the “Barrel”?

– Until the beginning of June, when there was snow, I went out with a shovel, cut a square of snow, took it to a room where there are several large barrels on the heater, threw snow – and it melted. Then he washed himself with this water, cooked food and used it for technical needs. 

When there was less snow, everyone took a 50-liter canister and went to fetch water [to the river]. It was like a hike: a man with a carbine and two people with canisters.

– What other difficulties were there? 

– I spent all these months without a telephone – I was only given two times to call from the hands of the officer on the speakerphone. Two majors and a lieutenant colonel were holding the phone in their hands – and they gave me five minutes to talk with relatives and friends. They listened to my mother crying after my abduction. All conversations were only in their presence. They recorded it on camera – as if I had limited rights [and could speak on the phone].

Back in October [2020], I had a trial regarding the fact that they sent us expired canned food – their term expired a year and a half ago. We appealed against this, and the military unit admitted that it really happened. But as if they just overlooked it – that this is a mistake and this will not happen again. For the next two months, expired food was not fed. 

We didn’t have medical help yet. We had a lot of renovation work at the Bochka. A colleague of mine was making a roof, a nail hit his eye. The eye was swollen, we reported by radio that we had an emergency here. But we were told that we have to wait five days – if [the tumor] does not subside, they will investigate. Five days later, it got even worse, a week after that, a flight arrived and was taken away. It turned out that there was damage to the cornea – and now his vision is minus eight.

– Did you learn something during the year of isolation?

“Perhaps he has become even more angry with all our enemies.

The only skill I have acquired is running fast from bears. This is an important skill in the Arctic! There were times when you need to clean the helipad and a bear goes there. He doesn’t care what you yell at him so that he doesn’t come close. And he had to chik-chik, quickly run to his “Barrel”, sit out while he leaves, and return to meet the helicopter with food. 

– What is it like to live in the neighborhood with bears? 

– You could meet bears quite often. At some point, they started coming to the porch – already, you know, like pets. They would smell food when we were feeding the dogs or when we were cooking something for ourselves. They lived with us, were not aggressive, because, apparently, they understood that what we cook is the only source of food.

When I saw the bear for the first time, it was scary. It was scary when I went to fetch water for several kilometers to the river: there were bears near the water. When you walk two kilometers, there is nothing around, there is nowhere to hide and run away, and the bears are not afraid of the weapons that the commander who accompanies us has … They are not afraid of shots in the air.

It was scary when they came very close to the door – they could break it down and get to us. Then I thought that I would have to spend a lot of time with the bears, I got used to it and stopped reacting too much. It was lucky they were kind and didn’t attack us.

At first, I only fed the dogs, and the bears came and took food away from them. Then he fed the bears from the window. I saw them sitting next to the “Bochka” and were not going to go anywhere. And so that they would not be sad and lonely, he threw them out of the window. They brought us a lot of canned fish, it was impossible to eat them endlessly, and it was not at all a pity to give them to dogs and bears.YOU CAN READ MORE ABOUT BEARS HERE

– And what was your relationship with the people in “Bochka”?

– Everyone perfectly understood that one must survive and for this one does not need to swear. There was a lot of teamwork and everyone had to pull together. 

– Did they know who you are?

– They did not know there, because they had no connection. And the guys from the military unit on Novaya Zemlya are aware – they were given instructions on who was flying to them, and [said]: “Let’s be more careful with him.”

But when you are 18-19 years old and they tell you that the guy is banned, it makes you want to communicate even more. There were no problems with this, everyone was only interested to know how everything is arranged in our FBK. One respected, the rest [me] supported in words, how beautifully I was brought [into the army] with the police. There was support. 

– You say that you had a calendar. It turns out that letters did come to you?

– Quite selectively and with great delay. Always [gave letters] demonstratively, on camera. I certainly did not receive everything, because now people are writing to me that according to the track [tracking system] of their letters on Novaya Zemlya.

But they brought some letters. Maybe I didn’t know the news, but I learned that everyone was alive from the letters.

– Whose letters did you get?

– People from all over Russia wrote. The funniest postcard that hurt, and then funny, is from the Dominican Republic. People wrote that they send the rays of the sun from there. At first I was indignant – I hadn’t seen the sun for a long time, and then it became funny that a postcard from the Dominican Republic might come to Novaya Zemlya. 

I took all the letters, came [to Moscow] with a huge bag – it is full of letters, they are all very dear to me, I cannot leave them. And now the main task is where to arrange their houses, since they wrote a lot and almost all of them from the regions. A lot of letters from Moscow were not allowed through. 

– Did you receive letters from relatives or colleagues?

– From [his girlfriend] Kira [Yarmysh] received. Mom has a bunch of letters returned [to her]. Russian Post played cat and mouse with everyone and included various excuses: from the fact that the index was not correct and they were in vain accepting letters to the fact that the post office did not work there. But a few letters still came from my mother – there were birthday greetings.

– Could you answer them?

– The letter has a very long journey from there. I wrote, gave it to a helicopter, he would take him to the archipelago itself, and there he was put on a plane. Then the letters arrive here and are distributed. I wrote answers to everyone and I am convinced that no one in Russia wrote as many letters by hand this year as I did. 

– How many?

– I didn’t count, but I wrote to Kira and the Foundation staff every day. It was like that for a month and a half. Then he decided that they would get tired of it, and started less often – once a week. Considering everything, it turns out about 400 letters for sure. And they are all full of stories about my life.

– In addition to letters and rare radio communications, did you have any other connection with the outside world?

– There was a TV, but since the wind is blowing there, there are problems with the dish and antenna – it almost always does not work. But in the spring I watched it and learned the news. It played a cruel joke on me. From the news I learned about the coronavirus. They said that in Moscow many people get sick and die in batches. It was hard that I could not call anyone. https://meduza.io/digests/daily/ru

– How did you find out about the  poisoning of Alexei Navalny ? 

– Kira wrote a letter to me. But she wrote when Alexei was already out of a coma.

Before that, I was informed [of the poisoning] by radio communication. They said, “Your friend in a coma seems to have been poisoned.” I walk and do not understand what is there in general: whether he came out of a coma, what happened there, whether everyone else is all right. A dark moment when you are so ignorant. It was hard.

And after a month or a little more, I already received a letter from Kira, where she told everything in detail. I was shocked, I thought: “How are you all here?”

– During this year you have not been overcome by despair?

– I tried not to despair. It seemed to me that if I was discouraged, it would be a very big gift for all the bad people who sent me there.

Plus, the letters that I received greatly simplified my life, because I could get distracted from the trash that was happening. I’ve read great stories people have written, words of encouragement. This saved me.

– What else do you think is the most important thing you missed in a year?

– I missed a whole year. I know the information, but not all yet. My reaction that I know nothing and naively ask again amuses everyone. But I hope to catch up so as not to sound like someone who has dropped out [of the news stream]. 

I know that we now know who poisoned Navalny. Up to the phones and addresses of these people. Yesterday morning I watched a video of Navalny talking to [the alleged FSB poisoner Konstantin] Kudryavtsev.

Now I still listen to stories about how hard it was for you to isolate yourself. And this is pretty sad, I sympathize. I thought my year was difficult, but it turned out that you had enough ado too.

– When did you find out about the investigation itself?

– While on Novaya Zemlya. There was a day before the flight when I had a “phone call day.” I called [the FBK staff] and said that I might come, but I don’t know for sure yet. Then my colleagues told me: “We recently published a video where we show who was carrying out Putin’s order with pens.”

It’s amazing that this group skated with us for several years . I was shocked. But I haven’t watched this video yet . 

– Wasn’t it scary to come back against such a background?

– I guessed that everything has changed globally, even from the news that came through. But I didn’t want to hide in a corner. I really wanted to return to continue doing what we usually do – namely, we complicate the life of bad people. 

– What exactly are you going to do next?

– Take a break on vacation, and then hit it off in 2021. This is an insanely important year in political matters – the year of elections to the State Duma. Work with Smart Vote, which we put a lot of effort into in 2019. And we also have candidates from the FBK who will run for office. 

– Do you think that the political situation in Russia has changed a lot in 2020?

– Globally, no, but all the same people who did bad things continue to do them. Worse and worse, fewer freedoms.

I just found out about the criminal cases and sentences this year: about the “Network” case, the case of Yulia Galyamina . We learned that the FSB is engaged in political assassinations.

But there are also positive changes. It has never happened that our teams won in regional parliaments. And this year, with the help of “Smart Voting” it worked out . This suggests that everything we did was right. And we will continue to work even harder next year.

– Are you going to sue because of the forced consignment to the army?

– I have a huge number of courts for all violations that occurred during the abduction. We all appealed against this: the call itself, and the abduction, and everything that came with it — the broken door [in the apartment], the disconnection of mobile communications .

Now we are going through the cassation – the last instance in Russia. And then we will file a huge complaint with the ECHR [European Court of Human Rights] regarding my abduction. Because everything suggests that it was a political link. 

– Why do you think they sent you there?

– We [FBK], and I in particular, spent the whole of 2019 under great pressure due to the launch of Smart Voting. My accounts were seized and searches were conducted, there was external surveillance. December 23 is just the final point in the pressure on me.

I was sent to Novaya Zemlya and precisely to the “Barrel”, because this is the only place in the country where there is no connection at all. Even a hint of her, it is impossible to contact anyone.

It is also quite scary, lonely and sad there – this is necessary to intimidate young guys. [Show everyone] that you don’t have to stick your head out, be interested in politics, otherwise it will be like with this – you will feed the polar bears in the Arctic.

– We know that the FSB followed Navalny’s team for at least several years. In the army, they also watched you and filmed everything on video – except for the time in the “Barrel”. Is it probably easier to live with bears?

– Bears are beautiful, but nothing can replace communication with a person, even if he is not good. Initially, you should hear his motivation, why he does bad things, and try to convince him.

It turned out that almost all the guys from the unit were from the Arkhangelsk region, and this is a rather poor region – everyone there understood that they were stealing here. Bad people who followed me with cameras admitted that their parents go to rallies against the landfill in  Shies , receive 10 thousand rubles a month and all this does not suit them.

Another thing is that, while supervising me, they could not do anything, since they were carrying out assignments. But sincere ghouls weren’t there. There were only those who held on to their salaries, because everything is bad with them.

(C)MEDUZA 2020

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