PODOLSK, Russia -- Nikolai Podgornov looks calm and composed. Sipping a cup of black tea in a cafe in this small town just outside Moscow, he speaks slowly, carefully choosing his words.
Only the self-inflicted scars lacing his forearms betray his deep anguish.
Nikolai, 18, is wearing the same gray sweater he donned when he and his best friend, Vlad Kolesnikov, hung a banner saying "F*** war" on a building in Podolsk in June to denounce the Kremlin's support of separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Vlad has since committed suicide following months of vicious bullying over his pro-Ukraine stance, a tragedy that sent shock waves across Russia and beyond.
"I still can't believe Vlad is dead," says Nikolai, who has been taking tranquilizers to cope with his grief. "I cry every day."
He is reeling from a five-week stint in a psychiatric hospital that has left him groggy and disoriented.
His parents, backed by a psychiatrist, persuaded him to check into the facility last fall after he and Vlad staged several opposition protests in Podolsk that landed the teenagers in hot water at home, at school, and with the police.
"I agreed to be hospitalized at the urging of my family and a psychiatrist," he says. "He told me that if I, an antisocial element, wanted to become a respectable member of society, I needed to undergo treatment."
Nikolai believed he could use the time to get some rest, catch up on his reading, and think about his life. Instead, he says, he was administered a daily cocktail of strong antipsychotic drugs that turned him into "a vegetable."
"Because of the side effects of the drugs, all I could do in the spare time when I wasn't receiving treatment was sway dumbly from side to side," he tells RFE/RL. "My brain was in a fog, I couldn't read a single line."
Nikolai says psychiatrists discharged him a few days before his 18th birthday, telling him that keeping him at the clinic after he reached legal adulthood would require too much paperwork. At home, his parents kept him on antipsychotic medication.
"I didn't care about anything anymore, I was empty inside," he says. "I decided to stop taking pills in such quantities, I began spitting them out. I livened up a little after that, but due to the treatment's effects I remember the past few months hazily, like I was in a bad dream."
'In A Bad Dream'
Nikolai now lives with his grandmother in Podolsk. His parents have asked him to leave their house, out of concern for his younger brother.
The troubles that have befallen him since his pro-Ukraine protests have forced him to drop his studies, and his search for a job in Podolsk has been fruitless.
Nikolai says he spends most of his days at home mourning for Vlad, and has suicidal thoughts. "We are similar in many ways," he says, still struggling to use the past tense when talking about his friend. "But I can be diplomatic, I can tell people what they want to hear."
Vlad on the contrary was uncompromising and, according to Nikolai, "didn't see the need to be hypocritical and lie to protect himself."
Nikolai was staying with Vlad when he committed suicide.
Vlad's grandfather had kicked him out of his Podolsk apartment after the pro-Ukraine protests -- which also included turning up at school with a T-shirt featuring a small Ukrainian flag and the words "Return Crimea" -- and put him on a train to live with his father in Zhigulyovsk, a small town in the distant Samara region.
The grandfather had also given a scathing interview to the Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid in which he belittled his grandson, cited passages from Vlad's diary, and declared his own admiration for Russia's secret services.
In Zhigulyovsk, Vlad was lonely and depressed.
In his correspondence with another RFE/RL journalist, he said his new classmates routinely mocked his political views, beat him up, pushed him around, spat at him, and flung mud and snow in his face.
He had apparently been threatened by the police, too. "For a whole hour, they humiliated me and told me how dangerous it was here," he wrote to RFE/RL shortly before his death. "They made me understand that they wouldn't lift a finger if anything happened to me. That they would punch me in the face themselves if they could."
Not A Merry Christmas
Before checking into the psychiatric hospital, Nikolai had promised to visit Vlad for Christmas.
He kept his word. On December 21, he arrived in Zhigulyovsk to spend the holidays with his friend.
He says Vlad, who had been considering suicide for months, immediately confiscated his antipsychotic drugs and stored them away with a lethal stash of pills that he kept in his bedroom.
"Vlad kept repeating that he didn't want to live," Nikolai recalls. "Various people tried to help him leave the country, but he stopped believing in himself."
On December 25, the day Vlad committed suicide, Nikolai says his friend went into his room and ran out several minutes later, shouting that he had swallowed 20 tablets of the antipsychotic drug haloperidol.
According to Nikolai, Vlad felt sick and stumbled into the bathroom. He says Vlad's father opened the door five minutes later only to find his son collapsed on the floor. By the time the ambulance came 10 minutes later, Vlad was already dead.
Nikolai says he did his best to talk him out of suicide. Asked what exactly could have pushed Vlad to take his own life, he says his friend simply "sank into total despair."
Nikolai stayed in Zhigulyovsk until Vlad's funeral on December 27. "I needed to say my last goodbyes to him," he says.
According to him, Vlad's relatives were extremely hostile, criticizing him for coming to their home and calling him a "psycho." Vlad's grandfather, he says, pledged to give him no peace and wrote down his passport details.
Nikolai says that communication between Vlad and his father was poor and that his family was largely unaware of his acute mental anguish. "Vlad constantly pretended to be a positive young man in his father's presence, and Vlad's father thought his son was doing just fine and was optimistic about the future," he says. "Now he blames journalists for this death."
Vlad's Death 'Not In Vain'
Unlike Vlad's family, who believe media exposure went to his head, Nikolai says his friend was grateful for the opportunity to publicly speak his mind about current affairs. Vlad had thousands of followers on Facebook, where he actively criticized Kremlin policies.
In the weeks before his death, however, Nikolai says Vlad had started to doubt that his political engagement made any sense in today's Russia.
Despite Vlad's passing and his own plight, Nikolai says he personally doesn't regret denouncing Russia's actions in Ukraine. "If our actions helped even one person understand that war and lies are bad, then our efforts were worth it and Vlad's death was not entirely in vain," he says.
Vlad and Nikolai had started writing a book about their ordeal, about the use of punitive psychiatry in Russia, and more generally about what Nikolai describes as the tragic lack of human kindness and empathy in Russia.
"In our society, people mean nothing to each other," he charges. "This is what I will write about. This time, on my own."