Note: the opinion and word choice in the interview may not coincide with the opinion of the editors.

Andrey is coordinator of the Czech branch of Youth Democratic Movement "Vesna" (Spring)

Could you please tell us about your life and activism before the war and moving abroad?

I became interested in politics around the beginning of Navalny's campaign. I can't say what exactly has prompted me to participate in oppositional activities; maybe it was one of his videos. My first rally was on May 5, 2018, the day of Putin's inauguration. Protests took place all over Russia. At that time, I could avoid the arrest.

In the autumn of the same year, when they began to discuss the retirement age raising, Navalny announced protests again. My classmate and I came to Navalny's headquarters and we asked for leaflets to post them around the city. We started with a couple of hundred, then more, until we reached a thousand a day. After that, we went to the volunteers’ meetings, helped to prepare the rally. At the rally itself, I've volunteered to interview the participants about how they learned about the action, in order to understand which agitation methods are more effective. After 15 minutes of asking, the riot police grabbed my hands for the first time, knocking out a tablet with notes from my hands. People fought me off—this happened several times during the procession.

I climbed the entrance canopy and started yelling chants. When I got down, the riot police trussed me up, took me to the station, drew up a protocol, but the case was finally closed, because when a person is under 16 years old, he/she cannot be held administratively liable (I was 15). I was placed in a temporary detention center for minors—an analogue of a special detention center for children. The conditions there are not much different from the special detention center for adults.

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How many of you were there?

There were 15 people in the paddy wagon, I was separated at the police department, and I was sitting at the juvenile inspector. More than 600 people were detained. All departments were packed. I was taken somewhere on the outskirts.

A couple of hours later, my mother picked me up. It was not easy for her, she did not strongly support my position and considered all this a useless and pointless business with great risks. She did not support the regime, but she worried about me, especially after Politkovskaya and Nemtsov murders and the repressions of the opposition. I didn't really listen.

After the arrest, the police passed information about the incident to the school. There was a lot of pressure there. They called me for council meetings, tried to set up a police record, accused me of speaking out against my country, and repeated clichés about Western puppeteers, manipulators. Threatened me with expulsion.

What was your classmates’ attitude?

Classmates were neutral: most did not understand what was happening. It was mostly joking that I was constantly at rallies and I constantly had problems with the police. I was considered an authority on political issues, from whom you can get an opinion on sensitive issues: elections, significant events in politics. But there were guys who actively supported my position, but they themselves were afraid to go themselves [to the protests], because they witnessed the problems I had at school because of it.

After I was detained at the rally, I met Masha Malysheva, a volunteer lawyer at Navalny's St. Petersburg headquarters. When the juvenile commission was appointed for me, I asked in a volunteer chat for a lawyer, and she offered to help. We became friends. She defended me on commissions until I was 18, and then in courts.

How many legal cases did you have?

There were many undocumented detentions: I was taken to the [police] station, held for several hours and released without the documents that I demanded, or simply was kicked out. Sometimes they put me in a car and let me go straight from there, sometimes I ran away from the paddy wagon. If you count these cases, it would take two dozen cases. This is not so much, many activists have more: my friend Yevgeny Musin has more than 70 arrests for actions, pickets and participation in rallies.

How did these detentions subsequently affect your daily routine?

Most of the activity took place while I was a minor and studied in school. There were problems at school, detentions, pressure, threats from teachers, including the ones caused by agitating in the school itself. I also participated in school life. When the school rules were amended to ban using phones in school, I opposed it, refused to give the phone, urged others not to follow idiotic rules that violate the law. I uncovered a corruption scheme in the school cafeteria, when the cooks were stealing the food assigned to the students.

Did they let you finish your studies?

They let me finish my studies, but there was a critical situation after another detention, just when the phone banning rules were introduced and I refused to give my phone. My mother was called to school, the director began to put pressure on me, threatening that they would expel me now if I did not agree with this rule and would not stop participating in actions. And they put pressure on my mother to take the documents from school herself. But I warned my mom that, according to the law on education, they had no reason to expel me, that they would mislead her, and insist that I quit myself—they really like to do this. Mom refused to take the documents from the school. They got angry and began to do more harm to me, especially some teachers.

Tell us about life outside of school.

After the action on September 9, 2018, the so-called indefinite protest appeared in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Activists, who refused to disperse after the action, announced an indefinite protest until their demands for the cancellation of the reform plan, government resignation, repressive laws cancellation, and freedom for political prisoners were met. In St. Petersburg a few dozens of people went out every day for another few months for actions: small rallies, single-person pickets, and performances. The participants were actively pursued by the police, detentions took place almost every day for two years, people continued to go out every day, but with less frequency and in smaller numbers. In the winter of 2018, we went out to Nevsky Prospekt almost every evening some of us came after work, some after school—and there we stood with pickets in every 50-100 meters. One of our favorite places even had a separate police patrol to detain us in case of any taboo slogans.

It was around the same year that the practice of detention under the Police Report Database, or PRD, appeared (in Russian it is called КУСП —Книга учета сообщений о правонарушениях. They had informers whose complaints were used to detain activists. If they receive a complaint against you, they take you to the [police] station for an explanation. They would take a person from the street, keep him at the station for 3 hours, take an explanation, confiscate a poster to check for extremism and release him/her, thereby disrupting a solitary picket. This practice was actively used in 2018, detaining dozens of people one by one, taking them to the station and releasing them without protocols.

There were times when it was possible to stand on the Nevsky Prospekt with a poster “Freedom to political prisoners” for hours. The most effective method was to hang banners with a short, bright slogan about a specific issue on bridges, buildings, and roofs. It was a safer protest method with less risk of detention. Our guys were involved into the municipal elections as volunteers, journalists, and participated in the city and country political life under constant police and Center E baiting.

Tell us about your work at SOTA - independent news website

This media periodical consisted mainly of activists covering protests, elections and political events in Russia and the CIS. I worked there until February 2022, combining it with activism. At the end of 2020, I went to the elections as a journalist, traveled to regions—to the Leningrad region, Pskov region, Velikoluksk region. I have been to regional elections, where I was detained in order to prevent recording of violations.

I traveled to the protests in Belarus in 2020 as a reporter. I went on my own, hitchhiking 900 kilometers from St. Petersburg to the border with Belarus. They didn’t let me through the checkpoint, saying that I had no legal reasons to enter the country, but in fact, the entry of foreigners, especially journalists, was restricted because of the protests. I walked a few dozen kilometers along the border and crossed it at night, bypassing the checkpoint. I caught a ride, and drove to Minsk. It was the third month of the protests, they were still in the active phase, but were already beginning to fade. I contacted the activists of the movement A Country to Live in, and they introduced me to the protest leaders. They showed me the Square of Changes —one of the most popular protest yards in Minsk, where the security forces killed one of the activists—Roman Bondarenko.

In general, what were your impressions of Belarus and local protests?

Very positive: there was a strong sense of solidarity and interaction between people. I have hardly seen anything like this in Russia. Everyone there was involved in opposition activities. I have not met anyone who would support the Lukashenko regime, except for one elderly woman from Russia. Russians are often afraid to say that they are against Putin because they are afraid of the consequences. People there were not afraid, they spoke openly. Their solidarity, unification and effective methods of protest, conspiracy—all this was very inspiring. But it hurt that the protests were too peaceful. No, I do not think that violent methods are necessary, but something more radical is needed than just going out into the street and then dispersing.

How did you get into the army?

During another action in Pskov, I was detained and handed a summon, although I was 17 years old. The summon indicated December 14, and my birthday is December 13. My health condition did not prevent me from going to the army, and I didn’t have an opportunity to escape the army service. I decided that I’d rather go voluntarily now, as we say: the earlier I start, the earlier I leave. I passed a medical examination, and got assigned to the Space Forces, to a unit near St. Petersburg, so on December 15 I went to the distribution center.

Stereotypes about painting grass and other things did not come true. There was almost no hazing (dedovshchina in Russian) either. The conditions were not as harsh as they say, but it was in the units near Moscow or St. Petersburg, in the regions the situation was probably worse, but I didn’t hear about any kind of tough stuff from there.

Were you active in the army?

No, it is prohibited by law in the army. The army unit received information about what I was doing in civilian life. They had a serious conversation with me that it was better not to do anything like this in the army, otherwise there would be serious problems.

What happened after the army?

During the time that I served in the army from 2020 to 2021, a lot had happened: Navalny returned to Russia, then he was imprisoned. Investigations about the palace, and Navalny's poisoning had appeared, the largest protests since 2012 had happened. Immediately after them, Navalny's headquarters were banned and dispersed: some were imprisoned, some were forced to emigrate. Many people, including my friends, had left the country.

Have you thought about leaving?

No, I didn't even think about it. I understood that there was a high risk of ending up in prison, but I hoped that this wouldn’t affect me. I have never been abroad, except for Belarus and Ukraine, when I was a kid. I saw myself only in Russia, I planned the future only there. I wanted and still want to travel around Russia, to see our big and beautiful country.

When I came back, I was planning to enter the St. Petersburg Polytechnic University in the spring of 2022.

At that time, it became almost impossible to engage in activism without serious risks. The entire opposition turned out to be destroyed: no actions, no rallies, people were imprisoned. I thought that I could conduct them myself. On December 15, I came back from the army, and on December 31 I took the leaflets saying "Putin is wanted", which we had posted two years ago, found the roof and threw them out from there, then I laid low for a couple of days.

In January, I went out every week with my friends for pickets on Nevsky. It was tense because there were frequent patrols there. When a complaint came in and the police were already driving in our direction, we ran off. We've supported Zarema Musayeva, we had pickets on the anniversary of the murder of anti-fascists Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova.

The crisis happened on January 29. I was picketing on Nevsky Prospekt with a poster “Putin is a thief” for about 3 hours, when a passerby reported me, calling the police right in front of me. I want to note that the reaction of 95% of passersby was positive. Literally, just three or four people stopped and expressed dissatisfaction.

When the minibus with the police arrived, they didn't even understand who to detain, and I just left before they realized anything.

The next day there was a knock on our door. Mom came to the door, they said: "Hello, we are here for your son, he is waiting for us." I wrote to my mother that it was the police. By that time, my mother was more aware of my activities, she had already encountered similar things, and replied there were no such a person, and they were mistaken. They continued knocking for another half an hour. About an hour after that I received a call from an unknown number, and a voice said: "Good afternoon, my name is Igor, I am from the Ministry of Good Deeds. We want to make you a business proposal." It was a call from Center E. I refused the meeting and heard: "Don't think that your pranks on December 31 (action with leaflets) will go unnoticed. Don't you think you can get away with it?" I recorded the conversation and sent it to the editors office, after which they published an article about activists and journalists recruitment to the Center E.

On the day of verdict for Nikita Uvarov case we made banners "Child in Prison", "Freedom to Nikita" and hung them on the same roof from where I spread the leaflets. This is when they set up surveillance outside my house. I spent two days with friends, then I decided that sooner or later they would catch me anyway, and went home. When I arrived, the cops jumped out of the civilian car and immediately armlocked me. One of them, a bearded Armenian, openly provoked me into a conflict. While police was seraching me and taking away all my personal belongings, I managed to inform my friends about the detention.

I was taken to the police station. After the interrogation and threats, I was arrested under the article about organizing a rally. This is an arrest of up to 10 days and or fine of up to 20,000 RUB. I was left in a cell overnight. The court was scheduled for the next morning, but the judge adjourned the meeting to get acquainted with the case materials and let me go straight from the courtroom.

My SOTA colleague was informed about my detention. But the main part of the editorial staff was not aware of my actions, they decided that this was due to non-cooperation, and released an article that the SOTA journalist was detained near the house after a recruitment attempt. But then it turned out that I hung a banner, and this was the reason for the detention, after which they stopped working with me, saving their ass and their reputation.

A week later, there was an action of long-haul truckers against the covid restrictions. I attended it as an outside observer and photographer. I was trussed up together with the participants, and taken to the police station. A bearded Armenian with a colleague came especially for me. I was taken up to the first floor to the office of the criminal investigation department head. This bearded man beat me there a little for the old grievances’ sake. They began playing the good-cop-bad-cop with his colleague. The colleague said: "You have a number of options for the further development of events. You either stop doing all this now, and everything will be fine for you, or you keep doing it, and you are going to have really big problems, you know which kind. Although there is another option: you can continue to perform your activities. But you must notify us about them: time, place, participants. We will sometimes detain you pro forma so as not to reveal this conspiracy."

At first I wanted to tell them to shove it, but I realized that if I abruptly refuse now, I’ll probably go to the special detention center. And I was wondering what cooperation conditions would be offered. It was a long dialog. They wanted me to provide all the information about actions, activists, contacts, social networks, messages, chats, basically everything , right down to who sleeps with whom. In return, they offered a monetary reward in the amount of 10 to 20 000 RUB (note: median income in 2020 was 32,422 RUR), and help with university enrollment and employment. I had to sign a cooperation contract with their division, and had no right to disclose it. I said that I would think about it and answer in a week. I thought that on February 27, when I would make an action devoted to Nemtsov, it would be such a public response, like: "Guys, no, sorry". I was released with a fake protocol.

How do you remember February 24th?

I had to go on my work shift, and then the telegram channels began to broadcast messages about Russian missiles bombing Ukraine. I was in shock, I didn’t go anywhere, I just couldn’t work. In the evening we were planning to go to the center for action against the war. Closer to the evening I read the news that my friends were being detained right at the exit from their houses. From my window I saw a police van. I climbed out the window and went to the demonstration

After the Nemtsov action, I was hiding at my friends’ place. The next day my brother, with whom we are very similar in appearance, was detained. It was the end of February. On the March 2, I had a court session, where I was fined 20,000 RUB. As soon as I left the court, the cops seized me again, took me to the police station, there was a court hearing again and this time I was arrested for 8 days. I was informed that Center E wants to imprison me under the “Dadin article” (named after activist Ildar Dadin)—if you have two court decisions that have entered into force, this is considered an administrative violation, if three and more—a criminal one.

After eight days in the detention center, I was visited by an old friend, a bearded Armenian. He said that I had two options: either go to jail, or cooperate with Centre E. I decided that I would rather go to prison. They gave me the last 24 hours of freedom to change my mind.

How did you end up in the Czech Republic?

At the beginning of February, I got my international passport so that in a critical situation I would have the opportunity to leave, although I had no idea where: no money, no friends abroad, what would I do there?

I called Masha. We decided that I still need to leave urgently. She made up a plan. I came home from the special detention center, took a small backpack, a sweater I still wear to this day, documents, a laptop, and equipment, turned off the phone, threw out my SIM card and went to my friends. Till the last moment, I was thinking that they would take me off the plane right at the airport. But everything worked out. Later, I realized that they simply did not expect me to be able to leave so fast. Or they basically wanted me to leave so I would stop my activities.

On March 10, I landed in Istanbul. I simply had no idea how I can live there, what to do without language knowledge and education. There was only one option: to apply for asylum in Europe. So I would receive protection from Russia and a guarantee that I would not be sent back there, at least I would have some kind of stability and legalization. Most EU countries have stopped issuing tourist visas to Russians, and humanitarian visas took a long time to proceed. When you are not in your home country, you cannot apply for a visa from the embassies of other countries, meaning in this case I had to return to Russia and request a visa from the embassies of the EU countries. But it was impossible, so I wrote a letter, where I explained that I had left because of persecution, that I was threatened in Russia.

Finally, I got a call from the consul of the Czech Embassy in Istanbul and I was told that they would try to find out how to help me. There was no response from them for a few weeks, but after less than three weeks, the Czech Consul in Istanbul reached me out and said that they were ready to issue me a visa.

Two days after the application the visa was ready. When I arrived in the Czech Republic, I applied for asylum right at the airport, they gave me a refugee certificate, explained what to be ready for and took me to a closed migration center. The conditions there were not bad, despite the bars, it was comfortable, three meals a day, Internet access through local computers: all private equipment was taken away. I stayed there for about a week, then there was the first interview with the migration police. I retold the whole story of detention and arrests. The entire interview took about 6 hours. Then I was given a temporary identity card and told that I was being transferred to the camp until the final decision, which I am still waiting for.

How did you contact the Czech branch of “Vesna”?

I have been actively supporting them since 2020. With the help of a former coordinator of Navalny’s headquarters in St. Petersburg, who is now also in the Czech Republic, I contacted Sasha (name changed), a Vesna activist from St. Petersburg, who had left back in 2018-2019. He introduced me to other members of the Czech branch, where I immediately applied to join as an official participant, and we began to raise the Czech movement.

How did it happen that you became a leader of the Czech branch?

At the end of June, there was a meeting of all the activists of the Czech branch, where we adopted a new statute, held elections for leadership and working positions. I didn't want to be promoted to coordinator, cause I live far from Prague, and it's hard to do such work remotely. But no one, except me, wanted to take this responsibility, which is not paid in any way. Everyone was busy with their work or studies. Finally, I got promoted and got elected. We organized several evenings of letters to political prisoners, actions on June 12, a support action to Gorinov in July. We constantly participated in rallies and began to expand our branch. Finally, it has grown from 4–5 to 15 people.

What do you think is the main difference between the Russian opposition and activism abroad and in Russia?

I was not in Czech Republic during the most massive protests (March 26). I know that the Czech Republic is not the most popular country for political migrants, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how well this issue has evolved here, there is more activity in Czech than in Georgia. Of course, even here I meet people who do not understand why we are doing this, but the rest of them are very proactive. For example, we prepared the action [with a coffin] ( in 4 days, and the materials were obtained by the joint efforts of activists and supporters.

But comparing anti-war activity in Russia and abroad is not really fair. In Russia, with the outbreak of the war, there was a massive anti-war protest, thousands of people were coming out every day. Many were detained, but there was no mass fear at that time. In the special detention center where I was there were hundreds of those arrested at the protests, but their arrest did not destroy them morally, we continued to unite and stand against. People who do something here understand that nothing threatens them. So the value of Russian rallies abroad and in Russia differs a lot in favor of Russia. And even here, in Europe, people who already have a residence permit, permanent residence or even citizenship, are afraid to do elementary things: speak out publicly, show their face at demonstrations. Yes, many people still have families in Russia, but I can say from personal experience: police barely visit relatives, you have to be a well-known person to attract such attention. The chance that one of the family members will be fired or there will be some other serious consequences is almost zero.

Who and where do you see yourself after the war? What should change in Russia for you to return?

I didn't really think about it. It is not clear how long this war will last: a year, 8, 10 years. It is not clear how it will end. There are a lot of questions, but as long as Putin and his gang remain in power, as long as opposition court cases are not closed and political prisoners are not released, there is no way for me to go back to Russia if I want to remain free.

What is the value of activism for you personally?

Even abroad, it is a very important thing: our goal is to unite Russians here to help the opposition and political prisoners in Russia, to show and reveal to the European community what is really happening in Russia, to tell about those people who are still fighting and how they can be helped.

What would you like to say to the European community and Russian activists abroad?

I would like to say to activists abroad: stop conflicting and fighting with each other, look for those things that unite you, stop being afraid, be more active, initiative, courageous and stay united for our goal—Free Russia. As for the guys in Russia, I can only say: do not give up and do not despair, do what you think is the right thing to do. Russia will definitely be free.

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