The Petersburg Hunger Strike: An Interview with Leonid Gegen

Leonid Gegen (Novosibirsk) is a participant in the artists’ hunger strike now in its eleventh day in the Parterre Garden of the Smolny Institute, the home of the Saint Petersburg city administration. He is also a friend of Artem Loskutov, a Novosibirsk artist arrested on May 15 by officers of the Interior Ministry’s Center for Extremism Prevention. Although Loskutov has formally been charged with narcotics possession, he and his defenders claim that the drugs were planted by the arresting officers, who thus took revenge on him for his unwillingness, earlier the same day, to report to their offices for a “discussion.” 

Petersburg journalist Sergey Chernov conducted the following interview with Leonid on June 1. The original (Russian) text can be viewed at Sergey’s LiveJournal.

Leonid: Artem is my best friend. I’ve known him for a long time.

Sergey: What happened in Novosibirsk? How was he arrested? Do you really think they planted the marijuana on him?

Leonid: Of course they planted it. The fact is that, although now people say he is the organizer of the Monstrations, in reality he isn’t the organizer, just one of a bunch of amazing people involved with them. The Monstrations are these brilliant May Day youth demos that have taken place since 2004.

Leonid Gegen in the Parterre Garden of the Smolny (Saint Petersburg), 1 June 2009

The idea was that everyone would come out in whatever clothes they wanted to and bearing any slogan they liked, preferrably absurdist. The only goal was self-expression. There was nothing political about it.

But the regime is now trying to control everything whatsoever, everything that happens in the country. Any phenomena not sanctioned by the authorities are mercilessly suppressed. The Monstrations are precisely this kind of self-organization. They come about completely spontaneously: people just show up on their own or with small groups of friends after talking over the phone or communicating through the Internet.

In essence, the Monstrations aren’t organized by anyone in particular and never have been. So naturally they can’t be controlled by the authorities. But the authorities feel they have to combat them somehow anyway, and so they decided to “appoint” Artem Loskutov the “organizer.”

The Center for Extremism Prevention has been harassing Artem for the past year. At last year’s Monstration they tried to kidnap him—to push him into a car and haul him away for a “discussion.” This year, they had been telephoning him constantly. On the day he was arrested, they had called him and invited him to come in for a discussion. He told them he wouldn’t come in because, according to the law, everything happens only after a written summons is sent, that they didn’t have the right [to call him in just like that].

In the evening, after he’d left work, he was approached by several men in plain clothes. Without identifying themselves, they pushed him into a car, drove him into a nearby courtyard, and searched his bag. Official civilian witnesses [as required by law] were on hand for the search, but they were completely strange witnesses—they had criminal records, which is curious.

They found eleven grams of marijuana.

Sergey: How much do you need to open a criminal case?

Leonid: For a criminal prosecution you need ten grams. That is the most strikingly cynical thing: they found exactly eleven grams, no more, no less.

So [Artem] is faced with three years in prison, but for some reason it’s the Center for Extremism Prevention that is handling the case, not the State Narcotics Control Commission [Gosnarkokontrol]. And originally they also tried to charge him with “organization of a criminal band for the purpose of carrying out mass disturbances, [and] pogroms of shops and offices”—some kind of total nonsense. This came out at the preliminary custody hearing: that [Artem] is the organizer of some kind of riots.

Then the state investigator began [to change tack]—he said that Artem is being charged only for narcotics [possession], that there is nothing in the case [about organizing riots].  But now the prosecution’s case is falling apart before our very eyes because they have no evidence. They don’t even have [Artem’s] fingerprints on the packet of marijuana. 

Now they are trying to put the brakes on the fingerprint analysis: they don’t want to take [Artem’s] fingerprints and so on. They’re trying to pressure the witnesses. They’ve been summoning the parents of his friends and his girlfriend. They show them the videos that Artem and I shot together or that Artem shot himself, and they say to them, “Do you see what a horrible person he is? How is it possible [to make such films]?

They’re putting pressure on [Artem’s lawyer]: he has been getting strange calls from unknown phone numbers, provocative phone calls. The police aren’t letting Artem’s mother or his girlfriend, Lyuba, see him. And they’re offering him a deal: he confesses his guilt and they give him a suspended sentence. That is the kind of pressure they’re exerting.

A big international [solidarity] campaign is under way—both in Russia and in other countries. In Germany, for instance, artists have organized a defense fund for Loskutov.

Sergey: In Germany?

Leonid: Yes, in Leipzig.


The photo below was taken by Sergey Chernov on the ninth day of the hunger strike (5 June 2009). The caption on his LiveJournal reads: “Leonid (on the left) looked really bad. He sat with his head down and his eyes closed; he didn’t react to anything.”IMG_2317

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Filed under activism, contemporary art, interviews, protests, Russian society

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