“This whole story feels as if suddenly, a truck drove into you on the street,” said Svetlana Gordienko, a resident of Russia’s far-eastern Khabarovsk. “Except imagine if it turned out that having a truck driven into you was something totally normal, and legal.”
The situation Svetlana is now in began in May 2021, when a squad of 11 officials swarmed her apartment, where she lives with her partner Maksim Smolnikov, and her two children. “They had already started to break down the door, but I managed to open it,” Svetlana recalled. “The riot policemen burst into the house and pushed Max up against the wall.”
The group – a combination which included police, riot squad, and FSB security service officers – had come for Maksim. A popular local street artist who goes by the name of Xadad, Maksim has been charged with a charge of justifying terrorism, punishable with a fine of up to 1,000,000 rubles (almost 10,000 GBP) or imprisonment of 5 to 7 years. He is now in a pre-trial detention centre where he will remain until 10 July.
“It seems to me that such excessive detention is due to the fact that we were on vacation all April, travelling around central Russia – our hungry investigators were scared that Max would move,” Svetlana wrote on Instagram.
His crime was a message he had written about 17-year-old Mikhail Zhlobitsky on social networking site VKontakte. Zhlobitsky, a student and anarchist, set off a bomb in an FSB building in Arkhangelsk in 2018. The explosion, declared an act of terror, resulted in the youth’s own death while injuring three officers. In his post, Maksim pointed to state repression as the motivation for the suicide, and expressed sympathy for the deceased youth’s family and friends.
Nothing was said of Maksim’s post from 2018 until much later, and in February this year, officers visited Maksim at work with orders to begin interrogation into the Zhlobitsky case. At the time, no more came of the matter.
“But since then, Max seemed to be waiting for all this to develop, waiting for the next summons for interrogation, and wondering what was happening – but there was definitely no arrest, pre-trial detention or charges of justifying terrorism,” Svetlana said.
Herself identifying as a leftist, Svetlana believes that while Maxim became the target of his "terrorist" views in support of the 2018 explosion, the real reason lies in his personal and political views – leftist and anarchism – and his support for liberation and self-organisation.
Featuring his iconic cloaked figures, the art of Xadad often highlights issues such as repression and persecution, freedom and self-organisation. Image from xadadbabax / Instagram
“He is very interested in the concepts of freedom, justice, violence is abhorrent to him. Politically, of course, he is more of a leftist, with anarchist views,” said Svetlana. “In anarchism, the most beloved idea is self-organization, and independent thinking in general.”
With a crackdown on anarchism and leftism seen in Russia through recent years, and in particular after the bombing, Russian watchdog OVD Info has recorded more than 20 criminal investigations launched for purported “justification of terrorism” – all linked to the 2018 Arkhangelsk explosion.
“Perhaps they want to prohibit people from calling themselves anarchists,” Svetlana said.
“I think that the explosion in Arkhangelsk was a fatal event that untied the hands of the authorities to pursue those whom they wanted to pursue.”
A bigger problem
Anastasia, a resident of Khabarovsk who enjoys exploring the city discovering all Maksm’s artwork, was shocked when she read the news on Facebook.
“I think it was an act of intimidation,” she said. The case – in my opinion – was Maksim's participation in last year's rallies related to the arrest of the Governor Sergei Furgal,” she said, referring to the arrest of popular politician Furgal who was arrested on murder charges which he denies. “Some other activists present have also been arrested since then; I guess they are all links of the same chain,” she added.
In times both current and past, terrorism, or the justification of, remains an arbitrary crime and a powerful word widely dealt out for any number of charges.
Evgenia Shamina, an activist with recently formed leftist collective Только сами (Tolko Sami or Only Yourself) explained the persecution that left-leaning activists face in Russia.
“The basic principles of our collective are: the absence of any hierarchy, feminism, veganism and animal protection, equality and mutual assistance,” she said. “We opened on 7 March, and since then, the police have already visited us twice – both at events dedicated to political prisoners.”
Members of the Tolko Sami collective gather for a meeting / Image by Tolko Sami
Her own involvement began with providing legal assistance to political prisoners in 2018. “There is an incredibly huge number of political prisoners in Russia,” she said. “I have no legal education,” she said. “But one day my friend disappeared, and then he was found. He was taken by police from a bus stop and later charged with justifying terrorism – an incident similar to what happened with the artist Maksim Smolnikov.”
And through her own observation and political research, Evgenia has come to learn the persecution does not stop after time has been done.
“Even after prison,” she said, “the problems of anarchists do not end.”
Spreading the word
Having set up fundraising efforts and awareness groups for Maksim, Svetlana now awaits news on the verdict which will be delivered in July.
“I feel kind of strange. I am scared, indignant, and ashamed at the same time,” she said, “It is scary because there is no understanding of how to behave in this situation – what defence strategy to choose, or what future lies ahead.”
For now, she hopes to continue to spread the word as she waits for more news.
“I hope they will not delay the investigation and this will really end,” said Svetlana, who has since set up groups of support for her partner online and in person. “But, there have been no acquittals in such cases yet. These are Russian realities.”
Anastasia tries to stay hopeful, but remains unoptimistic. “Guilty, but with a suspended sentence – it’s the only possible happy ending for this case,” she said. “It's so damn unfair, and I hope my predictions are wrong.”
Whatever the result of the case, an uneasy, underlying truth is impossible to ignore: as rarely as these cases make international headlines, anti-leftist clampdowns continue to rage rampant throughout the country.
“It's absolutely common for Russia,” Anastasia said. “Publicity, naming and shaming are the only peaceful weapons we have for now. We need to spread the word, we need to tell the world about the situation, again and again. Like the saying goes, ‘drops of water can pierce rocks’.”