By Marc Bennetts
Sergei Udaltsov has leftist politics in his blood—his great-grandfather was a Lenin ally. But did he really plot to overthrow Russia’s president using railway explosions, prison riots and teams of Chechen fighters?
Last spring, before the winter snows had yet to melt, several dozen leftist activists gathered outside a Soviet-era apartment block in southeast Moscow to wish a happy 36th birthday to a gaunt, shaven-headed protest leader named Sergei Udaltsov, who had just become the first-ever Kremlin critic to be placed under house arrest.
Bearing gifts and trailing red balloons behind them, the activists—most from Udaltsov’s Left Front socialist movement—burst into a raucous round of “Happy Birthday.” From that point on, the scene rapidly descended into chaos, as waiting riot police moved in to disperse the “unsanctioned demo.”
“Freedom!” shouted one young leftist, as an officer dragged him away. Udaltsov, observing from the glassed-in balcony of his apartment, gave the “V for Victory” sign and shook his head at the commotion his birthday celebrations had triggered.
A year later, the leader of Russia’s hard-left remains under strict house arrest, without access to the Internet, telephone or postal service. When the Sochi Winter Olympics are finally over, and the world’s attention has shifted away from Russia, he will stand trial on charges linked to a seemingly far-fetched plot to topple President Vladimir Putin. He faces 10 years behind bars.
“We are under no illusions. There is no chance that Udaltsov will be acquitted when his case goes to court,” says Violetta Volkova, the gruff opposition lawyer who also defended Pussy Riot and spoke to me earlier this month. “We’ll do all we can, but he is looking at a long sentence.” Volkova’s pessimism is more than justified: Less than 1 percent of criminal trials in Putin’s Russia result in acquittals, even fewer than during Stalin’s Great Terror.Udaltsov has leftist politics in his blood. His great-grandfather was a Bolshevik ally of Lenin who still has a street in south Moscow named after him, while his uncle and great-uncle were Soviet ambassadors. A lawyer by profession, Udaltsov first became seriously involved in anti-Kremlin protests in 1998, when he helped form the radical Red Youth avant-garde movement, whose emblem was a Kalashnikov rifle.Udaltsov later co-founded the Left Front, an umbrella organization for leftist groups, whose slogan is “The land to the peasants! The factories to the workers! Power to the soviets!” Udaltsov’s politics are as alternative as his musical tastes: A big fan of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, he is also into “really heavy, fast underground stuff.”
With his buzz-cut, black clothes and willingness to rough it up with riot cops, Udaltsov cut a distinct figure amid the more cautious middle-class activists who powered the anti-Putin protests that rocked Russia in 2012. He thrived on confrontation with the authorities, once famously “occupying” an ice-covered fountain in central Moscow for the opposition, another time gleefully incinerating a Putin portrait. “‘It’s good to be irrational sometimes,” Udaltsov said after I asked him about his tactics. “It keeps your enemy on their toes.”
Udaltsov also injected humor into the protests. Responding to state-run media allegations that vote-fraud protesters were all wealthy Muscovites, he leapt onto a stage at a February 2012 demonstration and snarled: “I’ve been wearing this jacket for the past three years! It’s you in the Kremlin who are wearing mink coats!” At another demonstration later that year, he turned up in dark glasses and yelled to the crowd: “Let’s all wear sunglasses to the next protest! Black reflects my mood—I’m angry!”But there was more to Udaltsov’s political activities than noisy rhetoric and political theater. Ahead of the March 2012 presidential polls, his Left Front movement signed a cooperation deal with the Communist Party, the country’s second-largest parliamentary faction after Putin’s ruling United Russia. The agreement sparked brief speculation that the Communists and their veteran leader, Gennady Zyuganov, were moving closer to outright, genuine opposition, shaking off years of tepid, token resistance to Putin’s rule. Rumors quickly spread that Zyuganov, pushing 70, had offered Udaltsov leadership of the party.
If they are willing to put this trust in me, then I’d accept it,” Udaltsov commented. “What we are after is rev-o-lu-tion,” he growled, his eyes aflame as he enunciated the word.
Zyuganov later denied he had made the offer, but just the prospect of the streetwise and uncompromising Udaltsov leading the party that had ruled the largest country on earth for seven decades was surely the stuff of nightmares for Putin. Startling wealth inequality and a lingering nostalgia for the social safety nets that the Soviet system provided mean there is a real hunger in Russia for a leftist party with the desire to challenge for power. Tellingly, shortly after the Communists and the Left Front had inked their deal, well-connected sources reported that the authorities had resolved to remove Udaltsov from the scene.
In October 2012, the state-controlled television channel NTV, notorious for its smear campaigns against opposition figures, aired grainy footage that purported to show Udaltsov and other leftist activists meeting in Belarus with an influential Georgian politician named Givi Targamadze to plot Putin’s violent downfall. The poor quality of the video meant it was impossible to identify with any certainty the figures in the clip.
“I’ve got this outrageous idea, but I like it,” laughed the rotund figure named as Targamadze, as he outlined an apparently far-fetched plan involving Chechen fighters, the criminal underworld, explosions on the Trans-Siberian Express and prison riots. The documentary also alleged the men had organized clashes between police and protesters in central Moscow on the eve of Putin’s May 2012 presidential inauguration.
The aim of the plot described by the figures in the video was to seize power simultaneously in Russia’s eastern and western extremes—the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad (squeezed between Poland and Lithuania) and the Pacific port of Vladivostok—creating what was described as a “logistical” nightmare for Putin. “He’ll have to get permission to send Russian troops through NATO states, yeah?” cackled the figure identified as Targamadze. “And, by the time he’s got that, it’ll be too late.”
The footage was aired some four years after Russia and Georgia had gone to war over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, which Georgia’s fiercely pro-American president, Mikheil Saakashvili, had long vowed to recapture. Tensions between Russia and Georgia, a tiny, former Soviet republic on the Black Sea, had also been raised by Saakashvili’s drive to achieve NATO membership for his country, adding to the Kremlin’s fears of encirclement by Western forces. It would not have been worse for Udaltsov’s reputation if he had been accused of conspiring with the devil himself. And the devil was unlikely to pay so well. The NTV documentary alleged Udaltsov was being paid $35,000 a month for his part in the plot.
Right after the documentary had aired, I called Udaltsov to get his reaction. “I never watch that disgusting channel, and I never will,” he said. “But from what journalists have been telling me, it seems NTV gave us some good publicity,” he joked. He dismissed the allegations as “lunacy,” and suggested it was a frame-up by the security forces.
Independent media and opposition activists alleged the involvement of the Russian security services. They also pointed out that identical footage of “Udaltsov” and his comrades had been used to accompany two completely different sections of dialogue. Later that month, an NTV journalist told a Moscow court that he had been handed a disc containing the footage by “some Georgian,” while walking in the street. Court records did not note if the NTV man was smirking as he made the claim.
Targamadze, the former chairman of the Defense and Security Committee in the Georgian parliament, repeatedly denied ever meeting Udaltsov. “The Russian law enforcement authorities identified a goal: to arrest Udaltsov,” he said. “Then, with this goal in mind, they began gathering together a collection of absurdities.”
The day after the film was shown across Russia’s vast territory, the Investigative Committee, an FBI-type agency answerable only to the president, launched a probe into the footage. Within days, its stern spokesperson, Vladimir Markin, would declare the video was “genuine” and showed no signs of doctoring. Time was running out for the Left Front leader.
“The film shown on NTV is a montage,” Udaltsov insisted when I met him later in central Moscow, after he’d had a chance to study the footage. “They are trying to accuse us of organizing mass disorder. Which implies action. Action,” he repeated, for emphasis.
“We could sit here, drink some tea or something stronger, and say anything,” he went on. “Like, it would be good to organize an uprising, or whatever. And, if they are recording us, they can use this for whatever purpose. There was no meeting with Givi Targamadze. I don’t know how they put that footage together, if they took fragments of real conversations from wherever or however. But I can say one thing: Neither I nor my friends planned any mass disorder with Georgian or Western special services.
“Putin got afraid after the first big demonstrations, and when the protest movement started to lose momentum, he took his revenge,” he continued, angry now. “I’ve heard he said after the demo on the eve of his inauguration, ‘Those people ruined my big day, now I’m going to ruin their lives.’ I can believe it—our president is a very vengeful man.”
Less than two weeks after the NTV documentary had been aired, masked police officers raided Udaltsov’s apartment. As police hustled him into the headquarters of the Investigative Committee, the leftist leader tweeted the details of his arrest: “Stay strong and kick things off to the max! They are putting me away!” Then, later: “Don’t stay quiet!” But, to everyone’s surprise, including his own, Udaltsov was released later that evening on bail after being charged with planning mass disturbances.
Konstantin Lebedev, one of the other two leftist activists alleged to have featured in the NTV clip, was taken in for questioning the same day that Udaltsov was charged. Unlike Udaltsov, however, Lebedev was taken into police custody. The third suspect, a 30-something Siberian named Leonid Razvozzhayev, fled to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, where he applied for political asylum with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. During a break in lengthy discussions, he stepped out to buy some food. He did not return. UN officials were perplexed. Razvozzhayev had even left some of his possessions behind.
Some 48 hours later, Razvozzhayev turned up in Moscow, in police custody. But how had he gotten there?
Two strikingly different versions of what had happened to the Left Front activist after he vanished in Kiev soon emerged. According to Russian investigators, Razvozzhayev had been stung by pangs of guilt over his “betrayal” of his homeland, jumped into a taxi and rode 530 miles to Moscow, where he turned himself in and wrote a 10-page confession implicating himself and other key protest figures in the alleged Georgia-funded plot.
Razvozzhayev had a somewhat different explanation.
“Tell everyone they tortured me! For two days!” he shouted to a waiting journalist and film crew as he was led out the back door of a Moscow courthouse by police. “They abducted me in Ukraine!” he said, leaning back to speak, before he was bundled into a police van. Footage of Razvozzhayev’s outburst went viral, and sent a chill through the protest movement.
Meanwhile, Udaltsov had been continuing his opposition activities, taking part in demos and attempting to revive the flagging protest movement in the face of Putin’s crackdown. But his mood was growing darker. “It’s hard for me to operate now,” he said when I met him in February 2013, just days before he was placed under house arrest at the request of investigators. “I’m barred from leaving Moscow and my friends are in jail. We are facing a long winter of political terror.”
Udaltsov’s prospects grew even dimmer in March 2013, when fellow suspect Konstantin Lebedev filed a guilty plea. Lebedev will also, his lawyer says, be testifying against his former “comrades”—Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev. A trial was quickly arranged, and Lebedev was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in a penal colony.
“I wasn’t tortured,” said Lebedev, in a courtroom interview. “I admitted organizing mass riots with Udaltsov, Razvozzhayev and Targamadze. I also confessed to organizing future unrest with them. I don’t feel like a traitor. The people involved in this knew the scale of things. They also knew the possible scale of the consequences.”
Lebedev’s testimony gave rise to speculation that he was a Kremlin agent who had infiltrated the new left. His background was extremely suspicious. A former member of the pro-Putin youth movement Walking Together, Lebedev had been press secretary for the group from 2001 to 2004. He then apparently experienced a complete transformation in his political views, going over to the opposition.
Intrigued, I dug into Lebedev’s past. But, despite rumors that Lebedev had continued to report to the pro-Kremlin youth movement during his time in the opposition, no one would say much. “Look, this is a very dangerous subject right now,” a leftist activist said.
Udaltsov continued to maintain that he had never met Targamadze. But his allies in the protest movement were increasingly of the opinion that Lebedev had introduced the Left Front leader to the Georgian politician with the aim of getting him to incriminate himself on tape.
“I am certain that Lebedev was an agent from the beginning,” said Alexei Navalny, the opposition figurehead and anti-corruption blogger. “He brought Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev to the meeting with Targamadze and recorded it all himself.”
In a further twist, late last year, Georgia’s outgoing president, Mikheil Saakashvili, told Buzzfeed that he had ordered Targamadze to meet the leftist activists. The purpose of the meeting, Saakashvili clarified, was to encourage a peaceful, popular uprising in Russia. Top Saakashvili allies confirmed the conversation had taken place, but insisted there had been no talk whatsoever of bombings, riots or criminal activity. Targamadze again denied having spoken to Udaltsov and Co., and expressed surprise at Saakashvili’s comments. It was a development that created almost as many questions as answers.
One thing is clear, however. Even if the plot to overthrow Putin was genuine, it had absolutely no chance of success. Russia may have a long history of revolution, but a tiny band of leftist activists, even armed with Georgian cash, would have stood no chance against the might of the modern-day Kremlin’s security forces. Udaltsov and Razvozzhayev would have known this all too well.
So did the authorities simply seize on the opportunity presented to them by Udaltsov as talked himself into a hole, riffing—incautiously, naively—on his revolutionary fantasies with his activist friends, perhaps even with Targamadze? “We don’t judge people for words, right?” Udaltsov told me, just before he was placed under house arrest last spring. Unfortunately for Russia’s new left, it appears the Kremlin does just that.
“I’m getting some bad ideas behind these four walls,” Udaltsov told a judge at a rare public appearance late last year, as his lawyers unsuccessfully appealed for an end to his house arrest. The hearing over, Udaltsov was marched out of the courtroom. Turning back briefly, he rasped, “Stay strong! Don’t give up!”
And then he was gone.
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