MOSCOW -- Mikhail Bykanov went out for a stroll in his city on a Saturday evening. Two nights in police custody and one court case later, he returned home a convicted man.
Bykanov, a public-relations manager at an energy consultancy, left his apartment around 8 p.m. on July 27 and walked south into central Moscow. It was the end of a hot summer day and his girlfriend Inna Kolesnikova was out with friends. Bykanov messaged to say he was going to exercise in a nearby park.
He had spent the afternoon at home, doing household chores and following online reports from an opposition protest that was being violently suppressed by riot police throughout the city. Bykanov had never taken part in politics, but he was curious. On his way to the park, he planned to walk past the protest and get a sense of the mood, he said.
As he later told the judge, Bykanov approached Trubnaya Square just as a crowd rushed in his direction, fleeing from police armed with pepper spray and truncheons. Bykanov instinctively turned and ran with it, then sat down on a bench to take a breather. When a protester beside him began loudly cursing the police, officers seized both men and carried them to a waiting riot van. Bykanov’s possessions were confiscated and he was taken to a police station on the outskirts.
Bykanov was one of 1,373 people detained by police that day, according to protest monitor OVD-Info. More than 60 have since received short jail terms, and criminal prosecution has been initiated against at least four people, meaning they could face years in prison if convicted. There have been no acquittals.
Bykanov, who is a friend of this reporter, says he was not involved in the protest: He simply found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
He wasn’t the only one. That morning, designer Konstantin Konovalov was jumped by riot police as he was out on his morning jog, and left with a broken leg. Before the protest even began, 89 people had been detained.
But like those who took to Moscow’s streets intending to protest, Bykanov and others swept up in the clampdown were aided from the outset by an organized network of lawyers, NGOs, and opposition activists who ensure no one is left to face Russian courts alone.
A key link in this chain is OVD-Info. The nonprofit rights group and website was set up, during a wave of opposition protests that began in December 2011, to identify people detained at rallies and defend their legal rights. Funded largely through public donations and in part by the European Commission and the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), it is the go-to place for information on their fates.
When Bykanov was shoved into a police van that Saturday with 22 other people, all men, someone was immediately assigned to send their names to OVD-Info’s encrypted channel on the messaging app Telegram. When rallies are held, several dozen volunteers work into the night fielding calls from protesters and contacting lawyers from a list OVD-Info maintains.
Shortly after the group had been delivered to the police station in Moscow’s Filyovsky Park District, west of the city center, two rights activists sent by the organization arrived to bear witness and explain to the detained men their rights under Russian law.
According to Grigory Durnovo, a long-time employee of OVD-Info and one of 30 on its staff, this is not the typical scenario. Access to detainees is increasingly being restricted, since police often insist that only certified lawyers with specific authorization be allowed access to detainees. On July 27, more than 80 police stations were enlisted to receive people detained at the protest, Durnovo said, and the organization was unable to send its activists to each one.
“The work usually ends when it’s clear how many people are being held overnight and how many they released, and a few volunteers work into the following morning,” Durnovo said. “But now, we have a never-ending amount of work, with volunteers taking calls and helping us 24/7.”
A Spartan Cell
Sometime after his arrival at the police station, Bykanov was given his cell phone back. He immediately messaged his friends and girlfriend Kolesnikova. He was told he’d be released within three hours, and Kolesnikova -- who had an early morning flight to Riga -- came to take him home.
She sat outside the police station until 4:30 a.m., when it became clear that Bykanov would be held overnight. She then went home to get some sleep, before returning the following morning. The trip to Riga would be postponed.
According to Bykanov, the conditions in the cell he shared with one other detainee, Dmitry Asavkin, were spartan. Two wooden benches a meter-and-a-half long and 40 centimeters wide lined the walls. It was hot and stuffy, and the ceiling lights were constantly switched on. Bykanov was given crackers and tea for food, nothing more. He tossed away the wet, foul-smelling bedcovers he was provided.
On one side of the cell was a glass wall, and through it Bykanov could observe the night-time ritual of a typical Moscow police station: snippets of conversations among the officers, intoxicated men with bloodied faces being led in, and many people he took for migrants from Central Asia being hauled in without documents.
“It was like watching a talk show. Everyone’s fighting and shouting,” Bykanov said after his release.
He was let out several times to spend time in the yard. On one such break from confinement in the cell, the policemen on duty began teasing the detainees. “So why did you guys go, what for? Are you going out again on August 3?” Bykanov recalled one officer saying about a rally planned for the following weekend.
When Bykanov insisted he had not been attending the rally and asked why the officer refused to believe him, he endured an extended tirade about how the protests are an American plot to destabilize Russia.
“Guys, you understand nothing. You’re being controlled. It’s the CIA that is manipulating you,” he recalled the officer saying. “The protests are just the beginning. This is part of a protracted campaign to oust the regime and seize Russia’s resources.”
Asavkin confirmed the account in an interview. Like Bykanov, he said he was not protesting but was grabbed by police as he walked near Trubnaya Square on the evening of July 27. He was fined 10,000 rubles (about $155) for alleged participation in the protest.
Defending The Detained
Since Bykanov could not legally be held for over 48 hours, a hearing was scheduled for 9 a.m. on Monday, July 29, to determine his fate. Among the first people to arrive that morning at the Dorogomilovo District Court, a short drive from the police station, was Nadezhda Kuzina, a jurist contacted by OVD-Info in the wake of news about mass arrests.
Kuzina is one of 20 jurists and 37 lawyers affiliated with OVD-Info, according to Durnovo. She is paid a modest salary by the organization to represent people detained at unsanctioned rallies.
“It’s a very small amount, incomparable to what lawyers usually make,” she said in an interview. “But each person has to decide whether he’s prepared to do this or not.”
That day, Kuzina was due to begin a new job, but she cancelled that and other appointments to help Bykanov and others detained by police on July 27. Along with two colleagues, she stayed at the courthouse late into the evening, filling out documents on the detainees and awaiting their arrival. Kuzina, who had worked with protesters before, said it was a typical situation.
“We sit there from 9 a.m. on, and we never know if they’ll come or not or if they’ll even be sent to that court,” she said. “We just go to the assigned court, and we wait.”
Bykanov was brought in at 4:30 p.m., almost eight hours after his scheduled hearing, accompanied by his cellmate Asavkin and two other fellow detainees. Their hearings were held in turn, two of the hundreds conducted in courts across Russia’s capital that day for people detained in connection with the protest.
In The Dock
Bykanov’s hearing lasted around half an hour. As he stood in the same ripped jeans and red T-shirt in which he left home for his stroll on Saturday evening, the judge read out his indictment:
“In the period between 14 hours 20 minutes and 20 hours 20 minutes, as part of a group of citizens numbering around 5,000 people, attracting the attention of citizens and media outlets and ignoring repeated appeals from police officers, [Bykanov] chanted the slogans ‘Concede!’ ‘This is our city!’ ‘We are the power here!’ ‘Putin is a thief!’”
“That means he willingly took part in an unsanctioned mass protest,” the judge continued. “In the course of which he impeded pedestrian and vehicle transport.”
Bykanov gave an extended account of how he’d spent his Saturday, saying that he could not have been at the protest at 2:20 p.m., and denied the accusations aired in court. He was allowed to call Kolesnikova in as a witness -- she backed his account and forcefully argued that he had no part in the protest that took place that day.
As evidence of Bykanov’s alleged participation, the judge showed a grainy video posted to Telegram by news outlet Mash, and later republished on Facebook, which shows a group of protesters blocking the Garden Ring, a wide avenue that circles central Moscow.
Then, after a long break, the judge returned to the courtroom to reread the indictment against Bykanov -- this time in the form of a ruling -- and pronounce him guilty of participating in an unsanctioned rally. Like his cellmate, he was fined 10,000 rubles.
“The feeling that common sense may prevail never left me, until the last moment,” Bykanov said after the guilty verdict. “Then I felt anger and indignation. A personal anger at the judge, the police, and everyone involved in this.”
Over 2 million rubles ($31,000) in fines have been levied against people whom courts judged to have taken part in the July 27 protest. Ahead of new protests planned for August 3, OVD-Info is enlisting further volunteers and calling for donations. Durnovo said that on July 27 alone, the rights group received 2.34 million rubles ($36,000) from the public.
Bykanov’s fine is the minimum punishment for participants in illegal protests, and the same punishment received by all 22 people that he was detained with. They have since maintained contact over a special chat group on Telegram, exchanging details about their hearings and their plans to appeal.
'Slapped In The Face'
Following his release, Bykanov’s co-workers and friends sent celebratory messages, writing “Hooray!” and “Congrats!” Some added that he should understand what kind of country he lives in, and that he got off more lightly than might have been expected. Both Kolesnikova and Bykanov said they were disappointed by the reaction and its air of resignation.
Following his ordeal, Bykanov said he remains skeptical about the leaders of the opposition to President Vladimir Putin and his government, feels little sympathy for them, and has not been inspired to join the broader protest movement. But he said if a protest was held against arbitrary arrest, he would certainly join.
“If I don’t win justice in the legal way, I don’t know what I’ll do next,” he said. “Will I join an illegal protest, or throw a rock at a police station or courthouse window? I don’t know, but this has angered me.”
“I now have personal evidence of how rotten, dishonest, and unjust this system has become,” he said. “I had never before collided with it personally in this way, but now that I have it has stunned me somewhat. It’s like being slapped in the face, for no reason, and not being able to do anything.”
He was working with Kuzina to appeal the court’s decision before the deadline, planning to request access to cameras mounted in the vicinity of Trubnaya Square to secure video evidence of his version of events. If his appeal is denied in Moscow, he plans to continue his fight for justice all the way to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
Meanwhile, Bykanov said that police came to the address he is registered at on the morning of August 2, a day before the new protest, and left a contact number with a relative. Police have also visited Asavkin and other former detainees in the Telegram chat group.
On August 1 Pavel Chikov of rights group Agora said police officers had begun visiting the homes of people accused of taking part in the July 27 protest, asking that they sign a document which threatens criminal prosecution if they ever again take part in an unsanctioned rally.
Kuzina, who has seen dozens of similar cases, said almost all defendants go on to appeal their guilty verdict. But Moscow’s courts have become tougher to navigate and challenge.
“The system has begun to react more harshly against protesters. There are more fines, and more arrests,” she said.
That brings more work, and longer working hours.
“We didn’t use to have such deadlines and such a packed schedule,” said Kuzina, who looked physically exhausted as she defended Bykanov in court. “I often mix up the time or forget the day of the week. You’re constantly assessing risks, making calls, and writing out documents.”
In 2018, Russia recorded a 0.23 percent acquittal rate, meaning the chances for defendants seeking justice for unlawful arrest are vanishingly small. But Kuzina, who as a human-rights lawyer works to overturn even slimmer odds, is not deterred.
“I really love my country,” she said. “I want us to live in a democratic, rule-of-law state, where citizens are not afraid of going on the street, where they can openly say that the work of state organs does not satisfy them, and where state organs listen to them and change accordingly.”
“But I don’t work against any state, any machine, or any specific judge,” she added. “I work against the violation of citizens’ rights.”