The dissenter. An anti-war blogger given two years in prison for criticising the Russian government is determined to see justice — Novaya Gazeta Europe

The dissenter

An anti-war blogger given two years in prison for criticising the Russian government is determined to see justice

The dissenter

Sergey Veselov in January 2023. Photo Yelena Georgieva

Sergey Veselov, a 54-year-old anti-war blogger from central Russia’s Ivanovo region, was sentenced to two years in prison on 17 May for discrediting the Russian army. The charge is just one of many which landed Veselov on the national list of extremists and terrorists.

This article was first published by Novaya Gazeta Baltic.

Falling into heresy

By his own admission, Sergey Veselov had no interest in politics until 2022, when, in the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he broke his heel and was temporarily bedridden. It was during that time that he “fell into heresy” as he now jokingly puts it, reading up widely on the news for the first time and consuming political commentary online in a brand new way.

While reading, he learned about the “Moscow Case”, a series of protests the took place in Russian capital in 2019 against the exclusion of independent candidates from running for the Moscow city legislature.

“Until that moment I was completely apolitical. My first reaction was irony. At the time I believed that there was no real legislative power in Russia. And then suddenly some madmen stormed the Moscow City Duma. I considered this to be a waste of time. But then I started to look into it. It took me a while to understand what all the fuss was about and why they allowed it… Then I started watching Navalny’s investigations.”

“It opened my eyes. But my last few doubts fell away after the attempt on Navalny’s life: you can’t negotiate with this government.”

The heroine of the protest for him was Olga Nazarenko, an associate professor of a university in Ivanovo. Veselov called her “Ivanovo’s Joan of Arc”. Nazarenko passed away in suspicious circumstances in October 2023, but at the start of the war Veselov saw her protesting and was inspired by her courage. Veselov began recording videos on YouTube and created a Telegram channel where he could discuss Russian politics and the war in Ukraine.

“What’s going on in our country is a catastrophe. We aren’t standing on the edge of the abyss, we’re already falling into it, and we’re about to land,” the blogger said.

From blogger to extremist

From the beginning of the war, several criminal cases were brought against Veselov in quick succession. In March 2022, he was accused of vandalism for allegedly writing “No to war” on a local government building. Investigators further alleged that his actions had been motivated by political hatred and included four additional instances of what they deemed “discrediting the army”. According to the Russian human rights organisation OVD-Info, all these additional charges were related to Veselov’s YouTube vlogs.

During the court hearing for his initial charge, Veselov uploaded another video criticising the Russian judicial system, in which he referred to the judge assigned to his case as a “patent cretin”. Veselov was found guilty of insulting the judge and was sentenced to 300 hours of community service.

Sergey Veselov in court, 17 May 2024. Photo Oscar Cherdzhiev / Novaya Gazeta Baltic

Sergey Veselov in court, 17 May 2024. Photo Oscar Cherdzhiev / Novaya Gazeta Baltic

In January, another criminal case was brought against Veselov, this time he was accused of inciting terrorism. Investigators conducted three searches of his home, confiscating all of his electronic devices and documents. In February, Veselov was added to Russia’s official list of terrorists and extremists. A lawyer familiar with the blogger’s case noted that the charge stemmed from a repost Veselov made on social media and that the FSB was now handling his case.

Veselov was detained pending the outcome of the investigation, despite having four children and being the sole caretaker of his elderly mother. His health declined significantly due to poor nutrition and the sedentary routine forced upon him in pretrial custody.

In mid-April, Veselov was attacked by his cellmate, who punched him and threw boiling water at his chest. The blogger was taken to the hospital by ambulance, where he was diagnosed with burns covering 5% of his body, an abrasion on his chin, and high blood pressure.

Sergey Veselov displaying his burns in court, April 2024. Photo: Oscar Cherdzhiev / Novaya Gazeta Baltic

Sergey Veselov displaying his burns in court, April 2024. Photo: Oscar Cherdzhiev / Novaya Gazeta Baltic

The attack was sparked by Veselov’s desire to walk outside his cell, but arbitrary prison regulations stipulate that he can only do so if all other inmates wish to leave as well. Veselov’s lawyer Oscar Cherdzhiev claimed that this incident had been brought about by the prison administration itself.

“The administration has established the rule that if everyone in the cell doesn’t want to go out, then nobody can go out,” Cherdzhiev explained. “They put them in a jar like spiders and provoke conflicts, they put the prisoners in such situations where they have to fight one another.”

Legal battle

Veselov was offered a deal that would see him handed a suspended sentence if all his charges could be combined into a single case. While the statute of limitations had expired for the vandalism charge, those for defamation had not. The hearing on May 17 was initially regarding the charge of justifying Nazism, but the investigator reduced the charge to simple defamation. This was done as the investigators understood that the original charge would have given Veselov a jury trial, which the prosecution risked losing, while a simple defamation charge would be ruled on by a single judge.

“If we try to delve into the meaning of the word ‘discreditation’, it’s impossible for a third party to explicitly discredit someone or something. If a certain gentleman committed a bad deed and another person told other people about it, then who is discrediting who? It’s ambiguous whether I discredited the army or if the army discredited itself through its own actions,” Veselov argued in court.

In his closing statement, Veselov highlighted serious procedural errors in the investigation, pointing out that key witnesses had been questioned together instead of separately and their statements had thus been rendered inadmissible. He also argued that investigators had failed to prove either his authorship of the controversial video or his involvement in its posting.

“Don’t the prosecutors and investigators think that they will eventually have to retract their words? I have no doubt that such a time will come. But for now I’d rather endure the illegal criminal prosecution against me and live with a clear conscience. Let no asshole tell me that I stayed silent while Russia was tearing Ukraine to shreds.”

Sergey Veselov, January 2023. Photo: Yelena Georgieva

Sergey Veselov, January 2023. Photo: Yelena Georgieva

A loving mother

“Veselov’s mother is like a classic mother from movies, always so supportive and attending all his court hearings,” Cherdzhiev says.

Tatyana Veselova has for much of her life experienced Russian political repression first hand, but even she admits that she never could have imagined something as terrible as her own son being arrested at this stage of her life.

Veselov’s mother speaks fondly of her son, describing him as a wonderful and kind man and a true Russian patriot. She recalls that when, years ago, Veselov was forced to interrupt his university studies to serve in the army, he wrote her an enthusiastic letter about how proud he was of a new tank his regiment had received: “Mom, what a tank! Beautiful!”

Sergey Veselov, January 2023. Photo: Yelena Georgieva

Sergey Veselov, January 2023. Photo: Yelena Georgieva

“I love him so much,” his mother said, “we still have such a strong bond, as if the umbilical cord hasn’t been cut. I can feel my son’s feelings from a distance. If my heart flutters, then I know something is wrong with my child. This boy was simply a blessing to me. He has been outraged by injustice all his life, and today he faces it again,” Veselov’s mother said.

Veselova, 77, now lives alone, but her friends, neighbours and relatives continue to rally around her, offering her their support and assistance in any way they can. “I don’t show any weakness in front of Sergey,” she says. “I’m hanging on, and you too, son, hang on. … We’re going to survive this, we’re going to make our way through the asphalt like a blade of grass.”

Sergey Potapovsky

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