Free Darya Polyudova!

By Christopher Ford

On 22nd June, to mark the anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, the Russian socialist group Left Resistance issued a statement, warning: “Since the beginning of 2021 political repression in Russia has become more intense. ……. 80 years ago German Nazism attacked our motherland, but now it is the fascist regime within our country which is eliminating all the honest and brave people in the country.”

They were seeking to draw attention to the plight of Darya Polyudova, a socialist activist who has been sentenced to six years in a prison colony by the Western District Military Court in Moscow.

John McDonnell MP has joined calls for her release and submitted an Early Day Motion (EDM 207), highlighting that human rights organisations, including the Memorial Human Rights Centre and Amnesty International, consider Polyudova as a prisoner of conscience and that the 31 year old activist has been peacefully exercising her right to freedom of expression. It urges the Russian Federation to release Polyudova without delay. Labour MPs Clive Lewis and Kate Osborne have also demanded that the Russian Federation release Polyudova.

The Military Court No. 235 convicted Polyudova for crimes which in any democratic country would be considered no more than freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.   Polyudova was charged under Russia’s notorious ‘terrorism’ legislation, with her actions considered to be “public calls to extremist activities” under Russia’s criminal code.

The crimes in question relate to posting on the social network VKontakte (the equivalent of Facebook) and other social media posts.  Alongside the six-year sentence, the judges added a four year ban from working in the media, organizing mass events or posting information on the Internet.

The Russian state has a history of persecuting Polyudova for her activities ever since the war with Ukraine began in 2014.  Polyudova and her comrades of Left Resistance have taken a genuine internationalist stand against the Kremlin, showing immense courage in their protests. 

Left Resistance declares that “Crimea is not ours!” and that“We are against the so-called “people’s republics”, meaning the Kremlin’s proxy states in Donetsk and Luhansk.   “We consider Putin’s capitalism to be the culprit of all the ills that are happening in the country.” 

 Polyudova wrote of the Maidan rebellion in Ukraine, that for the Russian people: “The Ukrainian Maidan showed us the experience of the fraternal people. ….Of course, imperfect rulers also came to power in Ukraine. On the one hand, the situation in Ukraine is now unfavourable due to Russia’s military aggression… Nevertheless, Ukraine has shown us the experience that if we are not afraid, if all dissatisfied citizens go out, we can achieve change in the country.”

Polyudova has consistently opposed Russia’s military involvement in Syria and aggression against Ukraine, showing solidarity with the Tatars and other Ukrainian political prisoners held in occupied Crimea and Russia.

Polyudova has sought to expose the hypocrisy of the Kremlin who held phoney referendums to justify occupations in Crimea and East Ukraine under the guise of ‘self-determination’. In turn she has called for self-determination of regions inside the Russian Federation, holding a demonstration in January 2019 under a banner reading: “Kuril Islanders: Stop feeding Moscow! Long live the Far Eastern Republic!”  Polyudova suggested that the island inhabitants hold a referendum on independence from Russia.

Harassment and persecution of Polyudova have continued since 2014 when she was arrested for posting photos of herself on the Russian social network VKontakte – she was carrying political banners such as “No war with Ukraine but revolution in Russia”. 

Polyudova and her comrades had planned a march in favour of greater autonomy for the Kuban region, but she was arrested on 15th August 2014, while another two of her comrades fled the country fearing that they would be next.

The authorities claimed Polyudova’s social media posts amounted to “calls to commit extremist activities” and “calls to commit actions threatening the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation”.   In fact the self-determination she called for is, on paper, a legal right in the Russian Federation. 

Polyudova was held in pre-trial detention until February 2015, when she was released under travel restrictions. She was then sentenced to two years in prison on 21st December 2015. Her crime was “calls to separatism or extremism”, over a banner she held up during a picket on April 4th, 2014.  This read “No war against Ukraine, but revolution in Russia!” In addition she had reposted somebody else’s post on social media containing the phrases “Wake up, people! Why can we not get rid of Putin and then make a socialist revolution?!!!””.Amnesty International recognised her as a “prisoner of conscience.”

Polyudova was released in October 2017, but she was not silenced and continued to attend and organise protests.  

Polyudova has been charged over a reposted photo and publication which she did not add anything to.  On 14th February 2019, she reposted on her VKontakte page, a photo of the Chechen militant Shamil Basayev with the words: “When we demanded a referendum, the Russians came and killed all those who didn’t manage to run and hide.”  

This was a post from political émigré Andrei Romanov in which the latter expressed the following opinion: “The Urals and other republics which in future secede from Russia need such individuals as Dzhokhar Dudayev; Shamil Basayev; and Aslan Maskhadov. Great sons of the Chechen people.”  He also wrote that Ural residents should learn “to fight against the Muscovites – upholding their independence since Muscovy will not simply let them go.”

The prosecution had claimed that, merely by reposting this, Polyudova was justifying terrorism and saying that it should be emulated.

In fact, Polyudova has expressed views that have been shared by many other public figures. As regards the alleged ‘terrorism’, she did not prepare and was not going to prepare any terrorist attacks and during the search of her room, the Russian authorities found nothing but posters, laptop and phone – all normal for an activist.

Following the old Russian saying that He Lies Like an Witness’ – the testimony of prosecution witnesses in the trial lacked any credibility. The VKontakte page in question had been blocked – as such prosecution witnesses could not see or read the material on the page at the time the witnesses themselves claimed in their testimony.

Polyudova in her social media posts has peacefully expressed her views, something many do on Facebook and Twitter every day.  But clearly to oppose Putin and stand against the wars of the Kremlin is as much a crime in Russia today as it was in the time of the Tsars. 

Polyudova is a courageous socialist and internationalist – she deserves the support of the global labour and socialist movement.

Christopher Ford is a member of Walthamstow CLP and organiser of the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign.

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Image: Ukraine Solidarity Campaign.

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