Four years ago today, on November 5, 2017, Vladislav Mordasov picked the wrong day to go out and protest. Then 21-years-old, he and his friend — 18-year-old Yan Sidorov — took to the square outside of the regional government building in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, with posters demanding support for local residents who had lost their homes to a major fire. The activists were arrested, and later accused of helping “Artpodgotovka,” a banned movement led by exiled nationalist politician Vyacheslav Maltsev, orchestrate the so-called “November 5th Revolution.” Initially, both Mordasov and Sidorov pleaded guilty, but they later stated that they confessed under torture. Nevertheless, the two were convicted and sentenced to 6.5 years in a maximum security prison colony. The Russian Supreme Court later reduced their prison sentences to three years. Both Mordasov and Sidorov were released on Wednesday, November 3. At Meduza’s request, journalist Gleb Golod, who covered the “Rostov Case,” spoke to Vladislav Mordasov about his time in prison and plans for the future.
‘The authorities openly didn’t give a damn’
Before November 5, 2017, Vladislav Mordasov was living the “ordinary life of a provincial guy.” He had a job at a recycling plant and, he says, went to work and went home. “I wasn’t an activist before that day,” he tells Meduza.
Mordasov says he decided to go out in protest that November 5 because “someone needed to.” “There are problems and they aren’t resolved. But I didn’t go out at the call of Maltsev, as was said in the indictment,” he adds. “I watched his channel, like many other YouTube channels. But I wasn’t a supporter of this particular blogger.”
Mordasov is referring to Vyacheslav Maltsev, an exiled nationalist politician turned video blogger who founded a movement called “Artpodgotovka.” Beginning in 2013, Maltsev made repeated claims that Russia would experience another revolution on November 5, 2017, calling on his supporters to occupy city centers across the country until President Vladimir Putin stepped down. The revolution never came to pass. Maltsev fled abroad in July 2017 (he later received political asylum in France) and in October 2017, Russia outlawed his movement as an extremist organization.
One of Maltsev’s videos did, however, lead Vladislav Mordasov to follow a link to a group chat called “Revolution in Russia.” “I asked if there was anyone from Rostov. A guy named Oleg Kotsarev responded. We decided to create our own chat [for] Rostov. I created it, but Kotsarev, who was also an administrator, renamed it to ‘Revolution 5/11/17 Rostov-on-Don’,” Mordasov explains. (Oleg Kotsarev would later act as a witness for the prosecution. During the investigation, he testified that Mordasov called for violent actions. But he retracted his testimony in court, saying that he gave it under pressure).
“The chat stopped being a place to discuss Maltsev fairly quickly and began to turn into a group of opposition-minded guys, who wanted to go out in peaceful protest,” Mordasov continues. “But instigators quickly began popping up, who called for armed resistance. I removed them, made comments, but it’s impossible to moderate a chat with almost 200 people.”
Mordasov says he’s “never been a supporter of violent protest.” He decided to conduct a picket on November 5, 2017, over the government’s failure to help the victims of a fire that destroyed an entire downtown neighborhood that August. “The authorities openly didn’t give a damn about one’s right to private property,” Mordasov underscores. “There’s also a massive amount of other problems, there’s no point in listing them by name, but in every area the system doesn’t function as it should.”
Two days before the picket, on November 3, Mordasov met Yan Sidorov. “He seemed like one of the most reasonable participants in the chat. I invited him and a couple other guys to meet. We met, chatted, and parted ways,” Mordasov remembers. “The next day, I got a phone call from an unknown number.” The man on the phone introduced himself as a police officer and asked Mordasov to meet with him: “I refused and told Yan about it. He offered for me to spend the night at his place, just in case.”
Mordasov spent the next two days at Sidorov’s house. They bought supplies and made posters for the picket. They joked about the possibility of being thrown in prison, but they actually thought they’d be charged with a misdemeanor — at worst. It was around lunchtime on November 5, when they took to the square outside regional government’s offices.
‘You imprisoned me, you pay for it’
This small protest landed Vladislav Mordasov and Yan Sidorov in the prison system for four years. Mordasov describes the conditions he experienced as completely unsanitary. “There were no flagrantly illegal actions there. There was no violence, for example. But the reality didn’t correspond to any sanitary standards — the space was very cramped. The toilets were a complete nightmare,” he remembers.
Mordasov says there was only ever cold water — if there was water at all: “Sometimes they liked to turn off the water completely for several days.” The food was “better than in the army. But still left a lot to be desired” (he describes finding cockroaches in his food, and being served expired eggs and undercooked meat). But Mordasov found overcrowding to be the hardest problem to deal with.“There’s a lot of people, it’s impossible to be alone. There’s constant noise. I really missed being alone,” he tells Meduza. “I spent 22 days in solitary confinement and this was the best time of my entire prison term.”
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Mordasov says he got along well with both the other inmates and the prison staff. He spent his time reading letters, books (like “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand), and newspapers (mostly Novaya Gazeta), and playing board games. In August, he was recruited for prison labor, but he refused to work. “I told the foreman that I wouldn’t work. There are quite a few such people,” he explains. “I’m not against working, but I was unlawfully convicted, and money is taken from employed convicts’ salaries to pay for their upkeep. I’m not comfortable with that. You put me in prison, you pay for it.”
The prison conditions took a toll on Mordasov’s health. His teeth are badly damaged and, just two months before his release, he fell ill. “I had a fever for eight days, nothing could bring it down. But, no matter, I got better,” he says. Mordasov wasn’t diagnosed with the coronavirus, but he says the prison saw outbreaks that coincided with spiking cases in the region. “I didn’t see serious cases among the prisoners,” he adds. “The colony was vaccinated with Sputnik V.” At the same time, the pandemic led the prison to introduce additional restrictions — like a ban on visitors and, in September, penalties for refusing vaccination. “For a year and nine months I saw my mother and brother once, and it was a short meeting,” Mordasov says. “In the abstract, a ban on visits is a violation of rights, just like mandatory vaccination. Nevertheless, I support it. Sometimes saving lives is more important than some small freedoms for people.”
‘This experience needs to be used’
Mordasov says that in 2017, he might have thought twice about picketing had he known the consequences. But today he says he’d do it again — “I don’t regret it.” And now that he’s been released, he has no plans to return to his “provincial” life.
“In prison I studied to be a plumber for five months […] Now, I want [to keep] studying but I still haven’t decided in what field. To start, I need to finish [high school],” he tells Meduza, explaining that he dropped out after the tenth grade and was later conscripted into the army. “I’d like to get a higher education in the field of law or political science.”
In the meantime, Mordasov has plans to move to Moscow with Yan Sidorov — the two remain close friends and they want to put their direct experience with the Russian justice system to use by doing human rights work, with a focus on prisoners’ rights.
“I experienced it all firsthand, I saw how it works on the inside. I saw how an investigation works, what methods they use to obtain confessions. I saw how a court, regardless of a lack of evidence, renders an unjust verdict. I spent two years in pre-trial detention and the same [amount of time] in a prison colony; I understand how the FSIN [Federal Penitentiary Service] system works,” Mordasov underscores. “This experience needs to be used, and Yan and I will work as a team in this field. We want to pay the most attention to political prisoners, but in no case should ordinary people be forgotten.”
Please note. This interview has been summarized for length and clarity. You can read Meduza’s full Q&A with Vladislav Mordasov in Russian here.
We won’t give up Because you’re with us
I’m with you, Meduza
Summary by Eilish Hart