Threatening question for Putin opponents: Can you change Russia from prison?

Shortly after Russia shocked the world by attacking Ukraine on February 24, Ilya V. Yashin, a local councilor and prominent opposition figure in Moscow, decided it was time to see a dentist.

The Kremlin was in the process of criminalizing criticism of the war, and Mr. Yashin, a very vocal critic, had decided to stay in his homeland and continue to oppose President Vladimir V. Putin. In the end, he reasoned, prison time was very likely.

“I’m honestly terrified of dentists,” said Mr. Yashin in a recent interview on YouTube, “but I got a hold of myself and did it because I realized that if I ended up in prison, there would be no dentists there. .”

Two weeks after the interview was published, Mr. Yashin, 39, actually arrested. He is now in custody in Moscow, accused of “disseminating false information” about the war. He risks a prison term of up to 10 years.

Mr. Yashin’s arrest highlights the rapidly narrowing avenues of dissent inside Russia as Mr. Putin cracks down on any deviation from the official narrative of the invasion. Beyond that, it has revived debate among the Russian opposition about how leading figures like Mr Yashin can best serve the cause of undermining Mr Putin: Outside the country do they want to reform, or inside a penal colony?

Mr. Yashin remains convinced that he made the right choice. “What crime did I commit?” he asked rhetorically in a handwritten letter from prison to The New York Times. “On my YouTube channel I criticized the special military operation in Ukraine and openly called what is going on a war.”

But some opposition figures disagree, saying that staying and fighting may seem brave, but that prison is an ineffective platform to push for reform.

“Yashin is fearless – he is a fighter, he is brave,” said Dmitri G. Gudkov, a Russian opposition leader who left Russia last year. “I’m sure he won’t back down,” he continued. “But I’m just sad that he wants to waste his life. It’s incomprehensible.”

Sir. Gudkov went into exile after what he described as “credible threats” that a criminal case against him would result in prison time. He said he had encouraged Mr. Yashin, a longtime friend, to also go into exile.

Yevgenia M. Albats, a journalist and friend of Mr. Yashin, who also decided to stay, took the opposite view, saying it was impossible to seriously engage in politics from abroad.

“You can’t be a Russian politician in New York, in Manhattan,” said Ms. Albats in a telephone interview from Moscow. “Yyou can’t call yourself a Russian politician and be in London.” Still, she admitted: “The risks are very high and they’re getting higher.”

Mr. Yashin acknowledged as much in the YouTube interview published shortly before his arrest with Russian journalist Yuri Dud. “I understand that every day could be my last as a free man,” he said.

He later wrote on social media that he believed it was his clear refusal to leave, expressed in the interview, that resulted in his arrest.

In his letter to The Times, which was scanned and sent last week, Mr. Yashin that Russian “prisons are rapidly filling with political prisoners” because Mr. Putin feels threatened.

“These severe oppressions,” wrote Mr. Yashin, “indirectly confirms that the current military campaign is devoid of legitimacy.”

Mr. Yashin knew his outspokenness and his platform would make him a target, and friends agree his detention was only a matter of time. He had been repeatedly fined for “discrediting” the Russian military – mostly by talking about other wars. In April, he shared a well-known photograph of women protesting the Vietnam War in 1969, saying the hypocrisy behind the rationale for the war, expressed in the slogan “bombing for peace”, remained present today.

He was also fined in May for quoting a condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan by Andrei Sakharov, the first Russian to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and the well-known words of a Soviet bard who raised alarm about the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

After the invasion began in February, he continued to call out Mr Putin’s government and held regular live streams on his YouTube channel criticizing the power of the security services in Russia. He also documented a visit to the penal colony with the most prominent Russian opposition figure, Aleksei A. Navalny, and referred to a BBC report on Russian atrocities in Bucha, the basis of his charge of distributing false information.

The only choices open to opposition politicians from Russia today are “emigration or prison,” said Lyubov Sobol, who was forced to emigrate after her boss, Mr. Navalny, survived a poisoning attempt, returned to Russia and was immediately arrested. It was on Mr. … Navalny’s advice that Mr. Yashin went to the dentist.

Mr. Navalny has remained influential in prison. The large team that he assembled before his arrest has been reconstituted abroad. Observers say that maintaining such a public profile from prison requires a large apparatus like Mr. Navalny’s; Mr. Yashin has so far been able to smuggle out messages that have later been posted on social media.

Mrs. Sobol, a lawyer, said she could not criticize a colleague while he was in prison. But she said no one in Russia could fill in for Mr. Yashin, on YouTube or in the political arena.

“He had a huge YouTube channel, a huge audience that trusted him,” she said of Mr. Yashin, who has 1.3 million subscribers. “I know many people who sent his videos to their grandparents. And they changed their minds about Russian propaganda because he spoke a very simple, bright and good language.”

“There are no other people” in Russia who can do that right now, she said.

Mr. Yashin became active in politics when he was 17, just as Mr Putin came to power, and quickly rose to head the Moscow branch of the youth wing of the liberal Yabloko party. When Yabloko reprinted a Russian translation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Mr. Yashin the introduction and warned that the “era of Big Brothers” had begun in Russia.

He eventually became close to opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead in Moscow in 2015 by assassins believed to be linked to Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman who has led the Russian region of Chechnya since 2007. Around the time of his assassination , Mr. Nemtsov was preparing a report on the involvement of Russian soldiers in the war that had begun in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Mr. Yashin completed and published the report, becoming one of the few politicians willing to openly criticize the Chechen leader.

In 2017, Mr. Yashin and other opposition candidates seven out of 10 seats in the local council in the Krasnoselsky district of Moscow.

As council leader, Mr. Yashin quotidian concerns: playgrounds, parking, gentrification. He repurposed his official car and driver as a free taxi for the district’s disabled. On YouTube, he provided regular reports on the council’s achievements and challenges. He called corruption of government bodies and subcontractors.

Faced with constant scrutiny from the prosecution, Mr. Yashin back as council leader in 2021, said Yelena Kotenochkina, who took over council leadership.

Prosecutors were “constantly checking what we were doing,” she said. Mr. Yashin’s reuse of his official car led to an investigation for abuse of power.

In March, another council member, Aleksei A. Gorinov, suggested that the district not hold a children’s event to celebrate the Soviet victory in World War II while children died in Ukraine. Mrs. Kotenochkina agreed. In late April, both were charged under the “False Information” Act. Mrs. Kotenochkina managed to escape to Lithuania; Gorinov was sentenced to seven years in a penal colony.

Mrs. Kotenochkina said the case against her and Mr Gorinov had been a “signal” to Mr Yashin to leave the country or face prison.

And late one June evening, Mr. Yashin detained while walking in a park with a friend, the independent journalist Irina Babloyan. He was charged with disobeying police orders – a false charge, Ms Babloyan insisted – and sentenced to 15 days in prison. As soon as he was released, he was arrested again on false information and is now awaiting trial. Last week, Russian authorities labeled him a “foreign agent,” a government label equivalent to an enemy of the state.

“Now people see: We are not running anywhere, we stand our ground and share the fate of our country,” he wrote.

“This makes our words more valuable and our arguments stronger. But most importantly, it gives us a chance to reclaim our homeland. After all, the winner is not the one who is stronger right now, but the one who is ready to go to the end.”

Alina Lobzina contributed with reporting.

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