A lonely radio nerd. A poet. Vladimir Putin’s crackdown sweeps up ordinary Russians

FILE - Police officers detains a demonstrator with a poster that reads: "Freedom for Alexei Navalny,” in Pushkinskaya Square in Moscow on Sunday, June 4, 2023. In the last two years, ordinary Russians have been increasingly swept up in an unprecedented government crackdown, together with opposition politicians, independent journalists and human rights activists. (AP Photo, File)

FILE – Police officers detains a demonstrator with a poster that reads: “Freedom for Alexei Navalny,” in Pushkinskaya Square in Moscow on Sunday, June 4, 2023. In the last two years, ordinary Russians have been increasingly swept up in an unprecedented government crackdown, together with opposition politicians, independent journalists and human rights activists. (AP Photo, File)

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — A lonely man jailed for criticizing the government on his ham radio. A poet assaulted by police after he recited a poem objecting to Russia’s war in Ukraine. A low-profile woman committed to a psychiatric facility for condemning the invasion on social media.

President Vladimir Putin’s 24 years in power are almost certain to be extended six more by this month’s presidential election. That leadership has transformed Russia. A country that tolerated some dissent is now one that ruthlessly suppresses it.

Along with opposition politicians, independent journalists and human rights activists, ordinary Russians have been increasingly swept up in a crackdown reminiscent of the Soviet era. Some human rights advocates compare the scale of the clampdown to the repression from the 1960s to the 1980s, when dissidents were prosecuted for “anti-Soviet propaganda.”

THREE YEARS IN PRISON FOR A RADIO AMATEUR

Vladimir Rumyantsev led a lonely life. The 63-year-old worked stoking the furnace at a wood-processing plant in Vologda, a city about 400 kilometers (250 miles) northeast of Moscow. He had no family apart from an estranged brother.

To entertain himself, he bought a couple of radio transmitters online and started broadcasting audiobooks and radio plays that he had liked, along with YouTube videos and podcasts by journalists critical of the Kremlin and the war in Ukraine. He also shared posts on his social network page in which independent media and bloggers talked about Russia’s attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.

Rumyantsev did not intend to reach a radio audience. According to his lawyer, Sergei Tikhonov, he listened on headphones in his own apartment.

In a letter from behind bars published by Russia’s prominent rights group OVD-Info, Rumyantsev said “tinkering with and improving” radios has been his hobby since Soviet times, and he decided to set up self-broadcasting as an alternative to Russia’s state TV, which was increasingly airing “patriotic hysteria.” To him, it seemed a better technological solution than Bluetooth speakers because the radio could reach everywhere in his apartment, he said in the letter.

But his social media activity eventually put him on the authorities’ radar, and they discovered his radio frequency. In July 2022, police arrested Rumyantsev, accusing him of “spreading knowingly false information” about the Russian army — a criminal charge authorities introduced shortly after invading Ukraine.

Rumyantsev rejected the charges and insisted on his constitutional right to freely collect and disseminate information, Tikhonov says. The law under which Rumyantsev was charged effectively criminalized any expression about the war that deviated from the Kremlin’s official narrative. In December 2022, he was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison.

Tikhonov visits Rumyantsev every so often in a penal colony about 200 kilometers away (125 miles) from Vologda and described him as “calm and resilient,” even though incarceration has taken its toll on his health.

He said Rumyantsev deliberately chose to speak out against the war and refuses to apply for parole as “it is unacceptable for him to admit guilt, even as a formality.”

Russian media reported on the case against Rumyantsev when he was in pretrial detention, and he started getting many letters of support, Tikhonov said. Some supporters put money in his prison account, while others have sent supplies — mostly food, but also books and personal hygiene items, according to the lawyer.

“In addition to making the man’s life easier, this (gave him) an understanding that he is not alone and there are many people who share the same values,” Tikhonov said.

ARREST AND VIOLENCE AFTER A POETRY RECITAL

Artyom Kamardin worked as an engineer, but poetry is his passion.

He was a regular at monthly recitals in the center of Moscow, near the monument to Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. The recitals continued even after Russia invaded Ukraine. One was billed as an “anti-mobilization” recital several days after Putin announced a partial call-up into the army in September 2022.

Kamardin, 33, recited a poem condemning Russia-backed insurgents in eastern Ukraine. The next day, police with a search warrant burst into the apartment he shared with his wife Alexandra Popova and another friend, and took the poet into custody.

Police beat Kamardin, Popova and their flatmate, and raped the poet, both his wife and his lawyer said. All three filed a formal complaint with the authorities, and the allegations were eventually investigated. The authorities concluded that police acted “within the law,” the Russian news outlet Sota reported, citing the lawyer without providing further details.

For the couple, the experience was so traumatic that they “still can’t openly talk to each other” about what happened, Popova said in an interview with The Associated Press.

In addition to Kamardin, police swept up two other poets who didn’t know him, nor each other. They charged all three with making calls undermining national security and inciting hatred. All three were convicted and sentenced to prison terms.

Kamardin got the longest — seven years.

“No one should be in prison for words, for poetry,” Popova said. She said she believes that her husband’s poem “insulted someone so much that they decided to scourge a defiant poet.”

The couple got married while Kamardin was in pretrial detention.

INVOLUNTARY TREATMENT IN A PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL FOR WAR CRITICISM

Unlike dozens of other Russians convicted over speaking out against the war in Ukraine and handed prison terms, St. Petersburg resident Viktoria Petrova is spending her days in a psychiatric facility. In December, she was sentenced to six months of involuntary treatment over a social media post condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Her lawyer has said that doctors can keep Petrova there for as long as they want and extend the term indefinitely once the six months run out. So the ruling “can’t be considered good news,” Anastasia Pilipenko wrote in her blog on the messaging app Telegram.

Petrova was arrested in May 2022 and placed in pretrial detention over a post on Russian social network VK, in which she criticized Russian officials for what the Kremlin insists on calling “a special military operation” in Ukraine, the lawyer told Russian independent news site Mediazona.

In her Telegram blog, Pilipenko has described Petrova, 30, as “an ordinary girl” who “merely shared her thoughts on social media.”

“Ordinary life, ordinary gym, a cat. Ordinary job at an unremarkable office,” the lawyer wrote.

The court ordered a psychiatric evaluation of Petrova after other inmates of her pretrial detention center reported that she kept up her “antiwar propaganda,” Pilipenko said in an interview with a local news outlet. These evaluations are common but in a rare turn, Petrova was declared mentally incompetent.

The lawyer argued that it wasn’t true and her client’s words have been misconstrued, but to no avail — Petrova was committed to a psychiatric facility.

In November, Pilipenko reported abuse by facility staff, saying that they forced a strip search of the woman by male workers, pushed her around, strapped her to the hospital bed and injected her with medication that left her unable to to speak for two days.

“This should not happen to ‘political (prisoners),’ criminals, mentally ill people, healthy people — anyone,” Pilipenko wrote on Telegram. The facility didn’t comment on the allegations, but shortly after she spoke out about it, Pilipenko wrote, the abuse stopped.

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