In honor of the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, I’ve been asked to recount my arrest in that town in 2009. I do so now with pleasure.
I went to Sochi to report on the mayoral campaign, which featured former deputy prime minister and “young reformer” Boris Nemtsov as a protest candidate against a nameless incumbent. Nemtsov was one of the central figures of post-Soviet Russian politics. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and very handsome, with curly black hair and big brown eyes. A grad student in physics, he entered politics on the wave of perestroika and was elected the first post-Soviet governor of Nizhny Novgorod. The region prospered, or seemed to, and in 1997 Nemtsov was invited by Yeltsin to come to Moscow as a deputy prime minister and also, Yeltsin hinted, his potential heir. Liberals were thrilled—and then Nemtsov opened his mouth. He turned out to have the affect of a lounge singer. He liked pretty ladies. If this was the hope of the post-Soviet liberal elite—and it was—that hope was bound to be disappointed. And it was. Nemtsov lasted less than a year in government, and since his expulsion had been bouncing from one liberal party to another as they gradually shrank in popularity and relevance.
In recent years Nemtsov had returned to the scene as a fearless critic of Putin. This was incongruous: Nemtsov liked to go skiing in France with his oligarch friends; he enjoyed the company of young ladies. Why rock the boat? And yet, year after year, his name appeared as the coauthor of reports denouncing the corruption of the Moscow mayor, or of the Putin administration. So great the wound to his vanity when he was expelled from national politics, perhaps, that he had no choice. Who knows? Nemtsov was Nemtsov.
When I visited Sochi in March 2009, Nemtsov had a deep tan despite the wintry weather. He rode around town in a yellow van with his small campaign staff and a crew of reporters, trying to drum up enthusiasm among the populace. People seemed to like him well enough, but overnight posters of him would be torn down, announcements for his events crossed out, his local supporters, such as they were, harassed.
I had never liked Sochi. It is nicely situated on the Black Sea coast with the dramatic Caucasus Mountains rising behind it, but it was built mostly in the 1930s, the Stalin era, and though the sanatoria built back then were beautiful, something of their evil has penetrated into the bones of the place. I had been there once before, in the ’90s, and it rained the whole time and I emerged with a cold. Compared to the old resort towns in the Crimea, where the tsars made their summer homes, Sochi was cheesy. I went to visit the spot of the future Olympic hockey stadium—in 2009 it was just a patch of dirt, filled with debris, right on the water.
Anyway, Nemtsov rode around, he held small meetings, mostly he complained that he wasn’t being allowed on television, that he wasn’t being interviewed by the local press, that the incumbent candidate, who was nowhere to be seen—who literally could not be located by the press corps, try as we might—refused to engage him. There was no question that Nemtsov would lose, but there was some question by how much, and it was an open question too just how fraudulent the result would be. On election day, I was hanging out in Nemtsov headquarters as the results came in. The results were dispiriting—exit polls run by the campaign (its most professional wing) had Nemtsov around 20 percent, whereas the results had him at more like 13 percent. So votes were being stolen, but it didn’t really matter. Still, a stink had to be raised. Toward evening, Nemtsov’s headquarters received a phone call that voting violations had been observed at several polling stations, and his campaign manager, a skinny, hyperenergetic blogger named Ilya Yashin, jumped in a van with a driver to get on the scene. I went with them.
The first place we came to was a school. The observer from the Nemtsov campaign was a punk girl who looked to be around 20. She was from St. Petersburg, she said, but in school in Sochi. She had stitched a Che patch across the butt of her jeans. She told Yashin that she’d observed a woman take three ballots and try to vote with them.
Yashin flew off the handle. He started threatening the calm, professional guy in charge of the polling place, who was trying to explain to Yashin what happened. Yashin wasn’t hearing it. He wielded his iPhone like a weapon, taking ominous photos of everything. “You’re all going to jail for violating the law about elections!” he yelled. As this was going on, an elderly lady came over to me and explained that there had, in fact, been a young woman who’d come in and taken three ballots, but she’d only done so because she was drunk. As soon as people saw her take three ballots, they yelled at her, and as a result she hadn’t voted at all. This seemed an extremely likely account of what had taken place. Yashin wasn’t interested. He took some more iPhone photos and finally we left, to see the next voting violation.
Our next stop was also a school. Here the Nemtsov observers were two young guys, again from Petersburg, who looked like the Strokes. But they hadn’t been the ones to observe an irregularity: rather it was a burly young dockworker, an observer from the Communists, who explained that he’d seen ten identical X marks for the United Russia candidate, and he wanted those votes checked. “I was looking at the votes all day. And for there to be ten consecutive votes for the same candidate, made in the exact same style—no way. Nothing even close to that had happened.”
Here was an actual case of vote-rigging. Yashin was a little less aggressive this time, but not by much, and the woman in charge of the polling station was less cooperative. She refused to accept the Communist’s letter outlining the voting violations he’d seen, even though she was obliged to do so by Russian law. Which Yashin of course immediately told her. When he continued to tell her, in loud tones, she called the police.
Here I should explain that there is a very stupid old law in Russia that mandates that foreigners officially “register” in any city where they plan to spend more than twenty-four hours. Ordinarily your hotel will do this for you, but my hotel was a somewhat marginal hotel, and because I kept planning to move to a better hotel, and also because they were lazy, they had neglected to register me. Which would have been fine, except that now the police showed up and checked everyone’s documents. In my documents, they saw the lack of a registration stamp. “Come with us.”
If the police had been thinking straight, they would not have done this. Later on I would watch the policeman who arrested me get yelled at for doing so. The town was crawling with international journalists, and they were holding a mayoral campaign—the last mayoral campaign before they hosted the Winter Olympics—so why would they go and arrest a foreign journalist? It was stupid. But they weren’t necessarily thinking it through.
The guy who escorted me to his police jeep was young, fat, and aggressive. He put me in a small, airless, pitch-black compartment in the back of the jeep and left me alone for about fifteen minutes, though it seemed longer. Then he got in the jeep and started it, turned it off, drove a little way, then stopped and cut the engine again.
“Hey American!” he called back to me. “You know people in this country don’t like Nemtsov very much, right?”
“Yes, I know.”
“How come you don’t have a journalist card?” He had to yell so I could hear him.
“Because I don’t,” I yelled. “You can look me up on the internet. It’ll say there I’m a journalist.”
“That’s in America you have the internet. Here things aren’t so great with the internet. Some places don’t have the internet. At the police station, for example, we don’t have any internet at all.”
In the end, the police station wasn’t so bad. They kept me there a few hours, but they spent most of the time fielding calls from the international press. What were the police like? They were like police. They were alternately friendly and threatening; they knew they couldn’t keep me there forever but they were going to keep me there for a while. They were not well informed, but neither are American police, in my experience. If they differed in a serious respect from their American counterparts, it would be in their distrust of institutions—they were, for example, under the impression that journalistic materials were paid for by the highest bidder, and written to suit that bidder’s ideological position. I’m aware that this is more true in the West than most of us would care to admit, so in that sense they are right, all media is bought and paid for—but these guys literally thought they could call me on the phone and pay me to write something. I could see, in their own work, that they were not part of a strong institution, that though there were laws (which allowed them to bring me in for lacking a registration), they were supposed to be selectively deployed, and a failure to select properly could lead to consequences against which they were defenseless. They weren’t bad guys, necessarily, but they were part of a corrupt institution, and they had guns.
This was five years ago, during the brief Medvedev “thaw,” when to a lot of people it seemed like the government was going to be more humane, and the state of anxiety and mild dread that had characterized Russian life during the Putin years was finally going to recede. But it wasn’t so. Putin had stopped some of the centrifugal forces that threatened to tear the country apart in the 1990s, but he had failed to create functioning institutions. Medvedev did no better, and when Putin returned to power he found that nothing seemed to work. So he lashed out. But the mess he found was entirely of his making. And in the past two years he’s only made it worse, plunging Russia into a period of nastiness and hatred against minorities not unlike the late imperial period, when the Tsarist authorities encouaraged anti-Jewish pogroms in Ukraine so that people could let off some steam.
All that said, I am sad not to be in Sochi right now. I met some lovely people there—there some excellent local journalists, and a young lawyer named Ilya volunteered to come to the police station with me the day after my arrest, to take care of some paperwork—and I hope they have not been evicted from their apartments to make room for luxury hotels, and I hope that, unlike some inconvenient Russian citizens, they have not been banned from Sochi for their political beliefs. I hope they’re able to get tickets to some of the hockey games, and see the magical Datsyuk, the powerful Kovalchuk, and the unstoppable—on the large surface—Malkin—all trained, it should be said, in the old Soviet sports-shkoly—compete together one more time, and beat the Swedes, with those blinding yellow jerseys, to bring home the gold. Russia could use some good news.