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Popular rapper Oxxxymiron takes part in Get Jailed For A Text, an event he organized in support of Russians sentenced to prison in the wake of protests that swept the capital this summer.

MOSCOW -- It was a very Russian form of protest.

Dozens gathered in a Moscow venue, and thousands before smartphone and laptop screens, to hear prominent actors, musicians, and other cultural figures read parts of literary classics from Russian and foreign authors and historical thinkers.

Across from them sat a woman obscured in darkness, pronouncing indictments against the readers and punishing them with fines and jail sentences for insurrectionary speech.

As the pretend convictions rolled in, accompanied by eerie music played by an orchestra flanking the stage, it slowly transformed from a brightly lit bedroom into a dark, barren prison cell.

Far from a celebration of Russia's rich cultural heritage, the performance on September 19 -- titled Get Jailed For A Text and organized by popular rapper Oxxxymiron -- was the latest in a series of public events held amid a groundswell of support for Russians sentenced to prison in the wake of protests that swept the capital this summer.

The criminal trials, attended by hundreds of friends, colleagues, journalists, and rights activists, form part of what is now known as the Moscow Case - the latest campaign of alleged repression against an opposition movement neutered with the help of Russia's courts.

In the title of the performance, the word "text" meant not a text message as in an SMS -- something Russians have also been jailed for in recent years -- but the literary kind.

"Russia was doomed by an inert, opportunistic government which flew in the face of people's wishes, hopes and needs," went an extract that one actor read from Ivan Bunin's 1918 book Cursed Days. "Revolution was thus inevitable."

Four years in prison under Article 280 of Russia's Criminal Code, the "judge" declared: public calls for extremism.

"So great are the disorder, brutality, arbitrariness, and corruption of the Russian court and the Russian police," read another, from Aleksandr Herzen's 1856 memoir My Past And Thoughts, "that a simple man brought to trial fears not the punishment of the court but the trial itself."

Five years in prison under article 282: inciting hatred and enmity, and debasing human dignity.

Others received four-year prison terms for reciting Ode To Freedom by Russia's national bard Aleksandr Pushkin; for Gandhi's Non-Violence In Peace And War, a text written after World War II; or for lines from Letter To Botkin by Vissarion Belinsky.

All of the charges came from Russia's current Criminal Code. They included extremism, propaganda of terrorism, attempts to overthrow the constitutional order, and inciting violence against a social group.

Art Imitates Life

While all the cases were invented for artistic purposes, some of the convictions -- as well as the performance itself -- made art appear to imitate life.

The 79 performers involved in the show sat behind a wooden desk in a simple bedroom. On the wall behind them hung the 18th-century Gadsden Flag, which depicts a coiled snake and the words "Don't Tread On Me" and is today a symbol for many libertarians. It is the flag which hung in the bedroom of Russian student Yegor Zhukov, visible in the videos he posted to his popular YouTube channel until his arrest on August 1 on charges of inciting mass unrest.

In fact, the entire on-stage bedroom was a copy of the room to which Zhukov returned a month later, this time under house arrest. Minutes into the September 19 show, which was streamed live on YouTube, balaclava-clad men enter and remove the flag from the wall, perhaps evoking scenes from the raid that Zhukov's apartment was subjected to during his arrest.

Zhukov's trial elicited a public campaign in his support and mobilized part of Moscow's student body to gather signatures calling for his release. But it was the conviction this week of 23-year-old actor Pavel Ustinov, who was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for dislocating the shoulder of a police officer despite video evidence to the contrary, that appears to have most directly inspired the performance.

In a reversal by Russian authorities, a court released Ustinov from jail on September 20 pending a ruling on an expected appeal of his conviction. He and Zhukov were among the many defendants whom Oxxxymiron cited as he came back on stage after the marathon reading session to issue an appeal to the audience and those watching online on computers and phones.

Russian rapper Oxxxymiron (file photo)
Russian rapper Oxxxymiron (file photo)

"The law cannot be applied selectively. Neither can solidarity," he said. Citing Ustinov's case, which elicited outrage beyond the world of Russian theater, he continued: "Other, less public defendants in the Moscow Case have already been given terms. And before the uproar over Ustinov had begun, almost no one had paid attention."

Oxxxymiron ended by calling on people to take to social media to share literary texts that might be judged seditious under what he called the "absurd" laws of today. Many have done so.

"The Moscow Case is truly our common case, and how we live in the years to come depends on its outcome," the rapper said.

The latest wave of demonstrations this month was sparked by concerns over growing Chinese influence in resource-rich Kazakhstan.

Following a wave of antigovernment protests across Kazakhstan earlier this month, activists from the volatile city of Zhanaozen say authorities are taking extraordinary measures to prevent them from attending another rally.

While no public announcement was made, workers and activists in Zhanaozen and other cities have implied that they are considering holding new protests on September 21.

But a stern warning was issued on the eve of those possible demonstrations or at any called for by exiled Kazakh opposition leader Mukhtar Ablyazov on the same day in Nur-Sultan or Almaty, the country's two largest cities.

"Destructive forces are...provoking a threat to social security by trying to incite social and ethnic discord," said Deputy Prosecutor-General Berik Asylov in a statement on September 20. It called on Kazakhs "to strictly follow laws, stay away from provocations, and abstain from taking part in illegal actions and activities by organizations banned on our country's territory."

Kazakh officials have resorted to other means in trying to keep known activists from any of the proposed rallies, as at least 50 people have been detained and sentenced to either 15 days in jail or given fines.

Additionally, two leading activists from Zhanaozen, Nurlybek Nurgaliev and Muratbai Zhumagaliev, were sent to training courses in the southeastern city of Almaty on September 12.

The activists, both of whom work for the Ozenmunaigaz company, were expected to return home after one week, but the courses were unexpectedly prolonged for another six days.

"Our classes were supposed to end on September 18 but they were extended until September 23. We think the reason is to prevent us from returning to Zhanaozen [in time for a rally]," Nurgaliev said.

Zhanaozen activist Nurlybek Nurgaliev (file photo)
Zhanaozen activist Nurlybek Nurgaliev (file photo)

Nurgaliev added that the deputy head of the company has traveled with them to Almaty.

Nurgaliev and Zhumagaliev are outspoken campaigners for the rights of workers in Zhanaozen and they often raise social issues, such as low wages and widespread unemployment.

Both of them took part in Zhanaozen oil workers' strikes in 2011 when police shot dead at least 16 people while trying to disperse the protesters.

Nurgaliev was wounded in that shooting. Zhumagaliev was sentenced to a suspended prison term for taking part in unsanctioned protests.

The latest wave of demonstrations this month started with a rally in Zhanaozen on September 2 and quickly spread to other Kazakh cities. The demonstration lasted for several days.

Protesters demanded that President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev scrap his trip to China amid concerns over what they called growing Chinese influence in resource-rich Kazakhstan.

Toqaev went ahead with the trip despite the rallies while dozens of people were sentenced to two-week detentions for taking part in unsanctioned demonstrations.

Zhanaozen resident Kulmurat Sultanbaev, who took part in the original protests, says he was summoned to police on September 17.

"They told me to sign a paper promising that I won't attend a rally on September 21. I refused to sign. If there will be a rally, I'll take part in it. I told them that this is my position," Sultanbaev said.

Several other Zhanaozen protesters say that police have summoned them for questioning.

Zhanaozen police did not reply to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service's attempts to contact them.

Another employee in the Ozenmunaigaz company, Sholpan Otekeeva, said she was being "invited" to a workshop in the neighboring Atyrau region.

The company officials, however, insist that the seminars and workshops are taking place at the initiative of national trade unions and were not scheduled to coincide with any planned rallies.

"We wanted to postpone these trainings until a later date, but with the trade unions we are conducting labor code and labor safety training for 140 unit managers," said Adil Suyeubai, the head of the public relations department at Ozenmunaigaz.

"It has nothing to do with politics," he added.

Kazakhstan has vast lands and huge energy reserves, but much of the country's 18 million population struggles financially.

Written by Farangis Najibullah with reporting by RFE/RL Kazakh Service reporter Sania Toiken

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