Russia Update: Prison Riot in Chelyabinsk; Police Surround Building

December 9, 2014
Chelyabinsk Investigation Isolation Prison No. 1, fourth oldest prison in Russia.

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here, and see also our Russia This Week and feature Is Putin Really Reining in Hard-Liners? Fact-Checking Gordon Hahn’s Article In The Moscow Times

About 100 prisoners rioted in Chelyabinsk after complaints of mistreatment and confiscation of a mobile phone. Eight inmates cut their arms in protest. Police surrounded the building.

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs‏.


Evicted from Studios, Independent TV Rain Broadcasts from Apartment

Forced to leave its temporary studios after eviction from the Red October building earlier this year, TV Rain is now broadcasting out of a private apartment.

The independent TV has had a lot of difficulties this year due to its critical programming.

After the station broadcast a controversial poll on people’s opinions about what should have been done during the Nazi blockade of Leningrad in 1943, cable operators cancelled their service.

Then the station was received a notice of early eviction from their studios in March.

Despite the pressures, TV Rain has continued to report on such controversial topics as the Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine, creating a special section of their website and being chased away from coverage of funerals by thugs.

Interestingly, the Association of Cable Operators has now come back and said they would like to do business with TV Rain, but they are demanding a 50-50 split of subscriber fees.

TV Rain is sometimes described as the “last” independent TV station in Russia, because people tend to be Moscow-centric.

But there has also been the Tomsk TV station, which is also facing closure now:

Despite Disruption of St. Petersburg Conference, Opposition Plans Round Table in Chelyabinsk

Over the weekend at a conference convened in a local Holiday Inn, activists in St. Petersburg attempted to have a telebridge with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russian businessman and former political prisoner now living in exile in Switzerland, reported.

The organizers expected trouble and weren’t surprised when at 6:30 am, police arrived with dogs to sniff the premises for drugs, as they claimed to have had a report that people were “cooking and using drugs” there. They left after not finding anything

Then police came back and at first prevented some people from entering the building, then shut off  electricity and electricity into the building. When the organizers used a back-up generator, loud music and sirens were turned on to drown out Khodorkovsky’s speech. Officers came into the hall and told everyone that a bomb threat had been called in and they had to evacuate immediately, RFE/RL reported.


As reported, the meeting was called to discuss whether to boycott elections or take part in them. Khodorkovsky, the former head of the oil company YUKOS advocated taking part in elections to show the public an alternative to the government, and to use the opportunity to consolidate forces and learn how to reach constituencies.

The participants in the meeting kept on speaking, but eventually they were forced to stop early because of the loud music.

Watch the video (with English subtitles) below:

Even so, Open Russia, the organization Khodorkovsky has formed abroad to support democracy in his homeland, vows to hold another round table with local opposition politicians in Chelyabinsk on December 17 to discuss the elections again.

About 10 months remain until elections to the Chelyabinsk Region assembly. The city was recently the site of a prison rebellion in which 100 inmates protest poor conditions, and 8 prisoners committed self-mutilation.

Translation: First commentary on the announcement of a round table by Open Russia in Chelyabinsk: “Don’t forget your back-up generators!” : )

Note: The Interpreter is a project of Institute for Modern Russia, which is funded by Pavel Khodorkovsky, the son of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

White House Responds to Petition to Designate Russia as ‘Sponsor of State Terrorism’

The White House has responded to a petition calling for the designation of Russia as a “sponsor of state terrorism”. The petition gathered 105,684 signatures; a threshold of 100,000 must be reached to get a reply — but not necessarily action — from the White House. The petition was filed April 23, 2014, and stated:

In its unannounced war against Ukraine, Russia relies on covert operations which fall squarely within the definition of “international terrorism” under 18 U.S.C. § 2331. Specifically, armed operatives of Russia, acting under disguise, attempt to influence the policy of Ukrainian government by intimidation or coercion. They also try to affect the conduct of a government by assassinations and kidnapping, taking by force government buildings, police posts and military bases of Ukraine. This activity is being conducted on large scale and over prolonged time period, despite condemnation by the USA, G-7, NATO, EU and UN.

Accordingly, Russia must be officially designated as “State sponsor of terrorism”, per the State Department definition.

The White House responded that it had the designation of “state sponsor of terror” for only four countries: Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria. It didn’t explain why it wasn’t making that determination for Russia as such, but apparently it is because its individual crimes don’t rise to that threshold to require a designation for the whole state as such:

We remain deeply concerned by
Russia’s continuing destabilizing actions in eastern Ukraine and its
ongoing failure to fulfill the commitments to which it agreed in Minsk.
We are also very concerned that, according to a U.N. report published in
mid-November, Russia’s noncompliance and ongoing aggressive actions
continue to result in fatalities — military and civilian — in eastern
Ukraine, with an average of 13 per day.

In response to Russia’s
aggressive actions in Ukraine, including its occupation and attempted
annexation of Crimea, the United States and its international partners
have imposed sanctions in Russia’s financial, energy, and defense
sectors. Dozens of senior Russian officials, members of President
Putin’s inner circle, and other individuals materially or financially
supporting actions undermining or threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty,
territorial integrity, and independence are now subject to asset freezes
and travel bans. The United States and our G-7 partners are no longer
supporting development finance for Russia.

We have repeatedly made it
clear that President Putin has a choice. If he is willing to find a
lasting settlement to the conflict within the context of the Minsk
agreements and without setting unreasonable conditions, sanctions could
be rolled back. If Russia continues to flout its commitments and
continues its dangerous and destabilizing actions, then the costs to
Russia will continue to rise.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Criminal Case Opened in Assault of Siberian Editor
Police opened a criminal investigation into the assault of Yevgeny Mezdrikov, editor-in-chief of, a news service in Novosibirsk, a town in Siberia, reported, citing a press release from the local Interior Ministry office.


Mezdrikov turned to police after he was attacked in his office by two unknown young people yesterday, December 8, reported.

The editor is now undergoing observation at Clinic No. 1 in Novosibirsk. Before Mezdrikov himself was assaulted, his web site was struck by a DDoS attack. is a private news and analysis agency founded in 2004. The portal “covers events and conflicts in the Siberian Federal Province,” says the site. “The editors maintain an independent position and have often published materials on controversial political, social and economic topics.”

But it is not known exactly what prompted the attacks. Mezdrikov took his position in 2011 and is one of the leading political journalists in Novosibirsk, says the site.

100 Prisoners Riot in Chelyabinsk; 8 Self-Mutilate; Police Surround Building

According to reports by and Novy Region (, a prison riot broke out in Chelyabinsk Investigation Isolation Prison No. 1, one of Russia’s oldest prisons used for pre-trial detention.

About 100 prisoners were involved in the rebellion, according to the press service Federal Corrections Services (FSIN). The prison has been surrounded by police and nearby streets blocked off.

The unrest was simmering for several days with claims of mistreatment, and then an incident last night touched off the riot.

Early this morning December 9, a mobile phone was discovered in the possession of one of the prisoners. The prisoner refused to leave his cell at the demand of the wardens and called on the other prisoners to commit self-mutilation in protest, a frequent practice in the Russian prison system. 

Other prisoners began banging on the door and pouring water into the corridor, then set some wadding from mattresses on fire. The prison released a press statement as follows (translation by The Interpreter):

As a result, about 100 people (30 cells) supported them. 8 people in various cells made minor cuts on their forearms. All of them were immediately given first aid. No special means or physical force was applied on the prisoners. There are no casualties.

Novy Region reported additionally that the prisoners broke down the wall in between two cells and also banged pots on the doors. They said the incident occurred when the wife of one of the detainees tried to bring in some prohibited items. The prosecutor’s office says the rebellion was led by a prisoner who had previously been in Verkhneuralskaya Prison and had been a witness in a rebellion in Kopeysk Colony No. 6 (he was awaiting trial in the Chelyabinsk Prison).

Human rights activists told Novy Region that the unrest began Saturday, December 6 when prisoners did not get their scheduled eggs as expected and were given kasha (porridge) boiled not with milk, but with water. That’s when administrators ceased feeding them altogether. Then as tensions worsened, the heat was turned off. Relatives began assembling outside the prison Monday, and riot police were summoned — facts that FSIN denied, saying the situation was “under control.”

But by this morning, it was out of control again after the cell phone incident.

Police then surrounded the building and officials from FSIN, the regional Interior Ministry office, the prosecutor’s office,agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Investigative Committee arrived on the scene.

Valeriya Prokhodkina, a member of a public monitoring commission was also outside the prison, TASS reported. TASS did not report the reasons for the rebellion. Prokhodkina said that the riot broke out yesterday December 8 after prison officials stopped feeding the inmates and providing medicine, and also shut off the heat in the cells.

But FSIN rejected these claims and said that the heat was shut off only temporarily due to a malfunctioning, TASS reported. They also said that the search that took place was “planned” and that no one “opened their veins.” In a statement, FSIN said:

The 16 prisoners with the aim of blackmail made minor scratches on their forearms. They were given qualified medical assistance.

Some relatives of prisoners gave a different version of the story, said Novy Region. They said trouble at the prison began when Yakub, the prisoner who was brought from Labor Colony No. 6 arrived, and there was a “division of power” among prisoners. Their relatives were caught in the cross-fire, they said.

On November 25, 16 prisoners at labor colony No. 6 in the city of Kopeyska cut their veins in protest against beatings by spetsnaz forces. Human rights advocate Oksana Trufanova believes that this could be related to the anniversary of a protest against inhumane treatment and torture in the colony. Trufanova has not been permitted to visit the prison.