Moscow is suffering from an unseasonable lack of snow this December—the holiday season feels almost incomplete without it. But New Year’s is too important for Russians to allow the weather to fizzle their festive spirit. As ever, they have adorned apartment windows with colorful lights and stocked up on champagne and caviar.
Stella Anton’s home is no different, located some 20 miles outside the capital. But the elaborate decorations that have decked all the rooms in her apartment hide a muted sadness hanging in the air. It’s been a year and a half since her 22-year-old son, Denis Lutskevitch, was arrested for participating in a large anti-Putin protest in Bolotnaya Square, Moscow. Ever since, he has remained in a pre-trial detention center, facing charges of rioting and assaulting police.
A few weeks ago Anton had an inkling of hope that her son would be released under President Putin’s sweeping amnesty. In the course of one week it freed the country’s most famous political prisoners like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, as well as Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. The gesture was timed perfectly with the approaching Olympic Games in Sochi and decisions by some world leaders to boycott the event over Russia’s human rights record. The amnesty was also extended to some political activists, but not to those who were being charged under Article 318 (“committing violence against representatives of the authorities”), like Lutskevitch. His mother knew this, but watching the court proceedings she still couldn’t help crying. A couple of days later, Anton received a letter from her son.
CRIMES AGAINST STATE POWER
Article 318 is contained in a sectio of Russia's Criminal Code called 'Crimes Against State Power'. It refers to the use of violence against a 'representative of the authority', and where that violence endangers their life or health, is punishable by up to ten years in prison. Article 319 follows, allowing for up to a year in the slammer for 'public insult of a representative of the authority'.
“My sweet mother…I understand your sadness. It hurt me to look at you in the courtroom,” Lutskevitch wrote. “I can’t imagine what could happen next. But I think I am prepared for anything.”
Lutskevitch’s buoyancy is something to be admired and is a character trait he’s had his entire life. He was one of the most popular boys in school, not only because of his handsome looks, but also for his ability to find common ground with everyone around him. After graduating as a straight-A student, he joined the army. “He wanted to do everything right,” Anton tells me. “When an army psychologist asked him why he didn’t want to apply to a university instead, he said he wanted to serve and protect his motherland first.”
Lutskevitch went on to serve in an elite marine infantry unit, and when he came home he tried to join the Federal Guard Service, an agency that protects Putin and other high-ranking officials. He was turned down and decided to enroll in university, majoring in cultural studies. Lutskevitch didn’t have a political background, and the gathering at Bolotnaya Square on May 6 he attended with a couple of university friends would be his first political rally.
What started as a peaceful protest against the next day’s re-inauguration of Vladimir Putin had quickly descended into chaos and a violent confrontation between the demonstrators and the police. Lutskevich lost sight of his friends but stayed to protect others who needed help. He was assailed by a swarm of officers wearing riot gear, thrown to the ground and beaten with rubber batons. Afterward, he was dragged away to an armored police van. More than 500 people were briefly detained that day.
Lutskevitch came home the following morning, but didn’t tell his mother where he had been. It was only after she had discovered his bruises that he had to tell her about the rally.
“I kept asking him why he couldn’t have left when it got so messy,” Anton says. “But he insisted that he had no choice.” A month later police knocked on Lutskevitch’s door at 4 in the morning. His mother was in disbelief, but Lutskevitch had already guessed what they came for. Several other people involved in the protest had already been arrested.
“At first I was completely sure that he would be out in a month or two,” Anton says. “How could they keep him any longer if he is innocent?” But their lawyer had hinted to her that a case such as this one was unlikely to move fast and her son could be looking at spending the next year or two in prison.
One of the main allegations against Lutskevitch was that he had attacked Alexey Trayerin, a riot police officer, who had suffered concussion during the clashes and received an apartment in Moscow in recognition for his service. But in an interview that came later, Trayerin said he could no longer recall the person who hit him. Aside from Trayerin’s testimony, there is no evidence proving that Lutskevitch had assaulted anyone, but there is plenty of evidence—photographic and medical—showing that he was severely beaten himself.
In an attempt to bail him out, Anton took out a mortgage, but time after time the court kept extending Lutskevitch’s detention and refusing to grant him bail. His 79-year-old grandmother traveled last December from her native Moldova to see Lutskevitch. He told her she should not worry and he would be out soon. Lutskevitch is still behind bars a year later. She came back and is saying that she won’t leave until he is released. “I am afraid I won’t make it,” she tells me, crying. “It’s easy for people to say that we should be strong, but they have no idea how it feels to live like this.”
Anton is hoping that Putin’s effort to clean up his human rights record ahead of the Sochi Olympics will not end with the high-profile amnesties and that the rest of the Bolotnaya prisoners will be released in the coming month. Together with the families of other imprisoned political activists, she has been lobbying for a boycott of the Olympics and thinks that foreign pressure could have an effect. When I ask her what she is going to do if her son is not released next month, she says she’ll just keep waiting, bringing him food parcels and fighting to see him free again.
“Someone told me in the beginning when he had just been arrested that I would be sitting in prison right next to him,” Anton says. “And that’s exactly how it’s been.”