But this is the outcome of a 20-year slide towards dictatorship. Russia’s antifascist movement has been a prime target for both armed nationalists and the state: it culminated in 2017-19 with the torture and imprisonment of the “Network” case defendants. In July this year, one of them, Ilya Shakursky, sent this letter from prison, looking back at the antifascist movement’s history. It was published on Avtonom, the anarchist web site. Translation and notes in brackets by People & Nature.
|Ilya Shakursky in court in 2020. Photo: Penza News / Free Russia House|
Ilya Shakursky: letter to a friend
It went like this. My friend shared his thoughts with me: he had arrived at this discomforting realisation that after my arrest, everything was finished – as if our world was sharply divided into “before” and “after”. It seemed that that life, in which we were immersed for many years – the atmosphere of the dvizha [slang: roughly, movement/ milieu], the concerts, demos, discussions, journeys, street fights, performances – had disappeared, had dissolved into fear and into the constraints that shroud so many of us. It seemed that that life had mutated into nostalgic reflections on those times when just to be yourself in Russia had not yet become so dangerous.
Of course, the root cause of my friend’s predicament is the reality: in the regions, the movement comprises fairly small circles of people, and all the activity depends on their enthusiasm. So it is not surprising that in a small town, after high-profile arrests, everything goes quiet. But now – when there’s a widespread tendency to analyse the history of the almost-destroyed antifascist and anarchist movements in present-day Russia – I have read in several articles the opinion that this latest defeat of the movement began precisely with the “Network” case. My own impression is that the movement at that time, although it suffered from a lack of coordination, exactly in 2016-17 began to aspire to, and head towards, unity and amalgamation.
We all know well about the devastating defeat of the young, audacious movement of the early 2000s and its consequences. It was then that the state power recognised the strength of the antifa, the subcultures, the anarchists and ecologists that it could not control. That all came to an end with the deaths of Fyodor Filatov (antifascist, founder of the Moscow Trojan Skinheads, killed on 8 October 2008 by the Militant Organisation of Russian Nationalists (BORN)], Ilya Dzhaparidze (antifascist killed by BORN on 27 July 2009), Ivan Khutorskoy (antifascist killed by BORN on 16 November 2009), (Stanislav) Markelov and (Anastasiia) Baburova (antifascist lawyer and journalist, killed in broad daylight in central Moscow by BORN on 19 January 2009), the “Khimki case” (showtrial of activists after the big Khimki forest protests) and emigration. The 2000s ended with Exodus (Iskhod) by Pyotr Silayev (author and antifascist activist). Among us – young antifascist and anarchist men and women – that book was a big hit.
Time passed by. 2011: a vendetta in response to the break-up of the movement and the radicalisation of new people. 2012: Bolotnaya square (a big anti-government rally, followed by mass arrests). 2014: Maidan and the start of military action in Ukraine. We, young people whose outlook was shaped by these events, tried to re-awaken and breathe life into the flickering flame of the dvizha. Concerts, squats, days out, fist fights, graffiti, lectures, FNB (Food Not Bombs, Moscow) and free markets. We lived by all this: it was our culture, our self-expression and our inner inspiration. We got to know each other, we were inspired by the experience of our older comrades. We took the road of struggle, we cultivated an atmosphere, we kept the movement going – or at least we tried. And we reached the point where the spirit of the age put in front of us the need for militarisation. The stakes were raised. We realised we were getting closer to the point at which we would have to defend ourselves, to fight to survive. The times changed. …
Autumn of 2017. Arrests. Tortures. Exile from the country. New repressive laws. “The Network”. Sentences. Zhlobitsky [the 17 year old who suicide-bombed the FSB office in Arkhangelsk]. Attempts to protest and resist. People’s Self-Defence (anarchist network). Kansk (a case brought under terror laws against teenagers who put up protest posters). And again, tortures and repression. The 2010s came to their end, and now it was our “Exodus”. But not all of us could get across the desert. Some stayed right where they were. And here was the bleak emptiness that my friend told me about, that has reigned since 2017. Time has passed, and there is nothing left of that life that swirled around us. Fear infuses everything. Some were just tired out, some escaped, some – so it seems – went out of their minds and became completely different people. The desert swallowed people in endless emptiness. It’s as if previously optimistic, active people were shackled hand and foot by depression, apathy and disillusionment. Very few lights were left burning.
The new reality: crowds of roughnecks, saluting Nazi-style; billboards calling on people to sign contracts with the army; arrests and sentencing of dissidents daily; (Zakhar) Prilepin (leader of armed Russian nationalists in eastern Ukraine) in the state Duma [parliament]; anarchists and antifa outside the law; Stalinism; quotations from (Ivan) Ilyin (by Putin); imperial flags and red banners.
When we were arrested, with every interrogation I realised more clearly that the chekists [security police officers] didn’t want simply to combat allegedly criminal activity or to strike fear into us. No, their aim was destruction – destruction of the ideological enemy that we represented. Destruction of those whose ideas of freedom and equality are absolutely alien to them, who hate “chinks” and “faggots” and love busty women and hunting parties. Portraits of those who executed the anarchists of the last century hang on their office walls, and, as if returning to the past, they are doing that Bolshevik work again. They started with the anarchists, and the Nazis they could not control, and ended up with the liberals and pacifists. The desert melts into the burning heat of repression. There’s no water and no life.
And why am I writing all this? This letter is to my friend, whose heart is full of sadness and mourning – but by writing to him, I am writing to all of you: to all with whom I met in the woods outside Moscow at concerts by Volodya Ukrop and Natasha Chetverio (antifascist singers); all, who listened to “MDB” (Moscow Death Brigade, a punk and hip-hop band) on earphones, when taking a train to a stand-off with the “boneheads” (a “white power”/ racist subculture close to skinheads); all who stood in defence of the Mosshelk dormitory (where activists supporting residents resisting eviction were arrested); all who raised our flags at the demonstrations in central Moscow in 2017; all who spoke openly about problems of discrimination, and who wrote letters to Lyosha Sutuga (an antifascist activist) when he was in prison; all who wore “Will Power” (“Sila voli”) T-shirts; all who read “Avtonom”; and all who threw away those papers summoning us to chats at the Centre “E” (the state Centre to Counter Extremism). We lived through all this together, and now we are again living through hard times that plant the darkest thoughts in our minds. But, friends, there’s no point in throwing up our hands, there’s no reason to convince ourselves that our community is dead, or that our spirit has been extinguished.
When the chekists fastened on to the term “Network”, they actually misunderstood something. They thought that we would hand over our party membership cards and renounce our responsibilities to an alleged organisation. But the anarchist movement’s networks exist without any clearly-defined structure. The network of the anarchist and antifascist movements is the smiles of two people who don’t know each other, but who catch each other’s eye in the metro with some characteristic attribute; it’s when you are in a city that’s not your own, but then someone sends you the number of a place to stay and it becomes your own; it’s when we get to know each other by a single handshake, more than likely without knowing each other’s real names; it’s when we can travel hundreds of kilometres to support our guys in a big street fight, support musicians we know or join an environmentalist sit-in. Neither the investigators nor the prosecutors and judges understand this. And for that reason they are unable to destroy us.
The European dictatorships of the 20th century annihilated those whose experiences, and heroism, is a source of inspiration for many of us today. Franco thought that he had wiped out the Spanish anarchists; Hitler thought that he had taken out all the German antifascists. But today we see how big the antifascist festivals in Berlin are, how substantial are the areas of European cities occupied by the anarchists.
It seems that we – rebels, idealists and dreamers – were always alien, marginal and incomprehensible for this country. But anyway, we are at home here. And after this next round of destruction and repression, we will rise again among new generations of young people, right here in this place. Yes, we lived through that last phase; yes, right now it’s that time when it seems that every day is more fearful and more difficult than the last. But we need to preserve in ourselves, at all costs, the honesty that has been awakened in our hearts, that spirit of freedom and the struggle for it that brings us together.
The recent blows struck at the movement have hurled some of us over the world, but they have not broken the links of solidarity and friendship. So let’s not bury ourselves in the darkness of these times, let’s continue to be ourselves, and to do all that we can to clear the darkness away.
Ilya Shakursky, July 2023. The letter was passed on by Ilya’s mum, Elena.
To support Ilya:
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More in English on Russian antifascism
A letter from Ilya Shakursky sent in 2021 is here. People & Nature reported on the “Network” case verdicts here, and on other aspects of the case here, here, here and here. For the Russian Reader’s much more comprehensive coverage, start here. A recent comment on the security police’s attempts to link Azat Miftakhov, the jailed Moscow anarchist, with their invented “Network” is on OpenDemocracy here. The Rupression site has more information.
An overview of the antifascist movement’s history was recently posted on the Avtonom site here. On the campaign of killings of antifascists by armed nationalist groups at the end of the 00s, see here. Reports of the trial of the BORN killers here and here, and more on the fascists’ links with the Kremlin here. A memoir of Ivan Khutorskoy is here.
An article explaining why Russian and other antifascists began to mark 19 January – the anniversary of the killing of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasiia Baburova – is here, and an interview with Anastasiia’s parents here. A report of a demonstration in London on the 10th anniversary is here.
There’s a report on the 2010 battle for Khimki forest, which was threatened by road construction, here, a retrospective written in 2017 here, and a focus on the antifascists’ involvement here.
🔴 In Russian, a blog by Ilya Shakursky