Campaigner Vladimir Osechkin, who has exposed corruption and torture in Russian prisons, fled the country after being targeted by Russia’s secret police. But life outside Russia hasn't been easy.
Vladimir Osechkin had just emerged from four years in prison when I first met him at a Moscow dinner party five years ago. I immediately sensed that he (like so many other Russian freedom campaigners) was a man of quite superhuman bravery.
Vladimir was brought up in Samara, southern Russia. He was a very determined young man. By the time he was in his mid-20s he owned several large car showrooms in Moscow, as well as a paintball club and a quad bike company. He had an expensive flat in the centre of town: a model success story in Putin’s Russia.
Vladimir's life changed for good when two Porsche Cayenne were stolen from his showroom. He went to the police, who said they could sort out the problem, but demanded a bribe.
At this point, the summer of 2007, Vladimir made the decision that has defined the rest of his life. Rather than pay the bribe, he wrote a letter of complaint to the City Prosecutor.
From that moment on he became a target. Law enforcement agents would turn up at his showrooms and confiscate his equipment. His staff were threatened and his computers were removed.
He complained, and was taken off to jail and told he must pay $30,000 to be let out. When he refused to pay he was put in cells with drug dealers, alcoholics, and in one case a psychopathic murderer. “It was clear that they wanted to break me in the literal sense of the word,” Vladimir told me, “so that I became an animal and bent to their will. However, I had enough strength and enough will and inner spirit – belief in God – so I kept going.”
Vladimir lost everything, his business, his flat, his cars. He spent four years in various jails. “They moved me over 150 times in prison vans, and over 12 times between regions in so called ‘Stolypin wagons’, train carriages with no windows, and guards with Alsatians and automatic weapons.
Vladimir didn't return to business when he finally got out of jail. Instead, he set himself up as a campaigner
“Even though I was only under investigation, I was being treated like I had already been convicted,” he said. He was often told that if he paid money the nightmare would end. Always he refused to do so.
I once asked Vladimir if he regretted complaining to the Prosecutor's office, pointing out that if he hadn't done so he would still be living the life of a millionaire businessman in Moscow. He is completely emphatic that he regrets nothing and would do the same again.
Vladimir didn't return to business when he finally got out of jail. Instead, he set himself up as a campaigner. He has a website, Gulagu.net (which means “no to the Gulag”), which since 2012 has exposed the systematic collaboration between criminal gangs and Russian state agencies. It has also served as a unique kind of social networking site on which the families of abused prisoners can register complaints, share information, and seek assistance in having the beatings and murders of their relatives investigated. Informed by his own experience, Vladimir has done a great deal of very valuable work exposing the corruption, torture and humiliation in Russian prisons.
He has worked hard to support prisoners who have been falsely imprisoned. He was a strong defender of Vitaly Buntov, who successfully won a case in the European Court of Human Rights after being ruthlessly tortured by staff in prisons in the Tula region for refusing to co-operate with prison management.
He also brought to light the 2012 murder by guards of Artem Sotnikov, a 24-year-old prisoner in the Saratov region’s No. 13 corrective colony, who was killed whilst handcuffed via a combination of electric shocks and a beating which broke his coccyx. Prison authorities claimed Sotnikov had fallen down some stairs.
During a campaign lasting over two years, Vladimir and his Gulagu.net colleagues forced the prison service to follow its own rules regarding obligatory inspections of conditions by civil organisations, and compiled their own body of evidence including x-rays and prisoner testimony to assist Sotnikov’s family in launching a legal case against the Russian Federal Penal Service.
It took time, but those responsible for the murder were eventually sentenced to jail. After a concerted campaign by Vladimir, the head of Saratov’s prison service General Aleksandr Gnezdilov, who had been promoted to a temporary role as vice-director of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) in Moscow following the murder, was forced from office. He returned to Saratov as head of the prison service.
Saratov’s penal facilities have been a particularly brutal arena for the abuses against which Vladimir has campaigned
Saratov’s penal facilities have been a particularly brutal arena for the abuses against which Vladimir has campaigned. Only last year guards at the city’s No. 17 penal colony beat a prisoner named Sergey Khmelev half to death, breaking his nose, three ribs, puncturing a lung and rupturing his intestines by forcing the handle of a shovel up his anus.
Despite the horrors he has had to face and the risks involved in confronting those willing to commit or sanction such acts, Vladimir’s efforts have continued to benefit families across Russia, from Moscow to the Pacific. The Gulagu.net website has over twelve thousand registered members, and its reports of torture and corruption in Russian prisons have been viewed and discussed online over 14 million times since its foundation.
Around the time I first met Vladimir, Russia was still enjoying a mild, if selective, political thaw brought about under the 2008-2012 presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. Medvedev is a lawyer and, even as deeply conservative elements maneuvered darkly behind the scenes during his time in office, his administration took a greater interest in legal transparency.
Vladimir’s work did not escape official notice in this environment. In 2013 he was appointed to lead a working group on prison reform under the Duma, Russia’s parliament. Even in Russia’s state-dominated media, the work of Gulagu.net began to garner occasional press attention.
Despite Vladimir’s boundless reserves of patience and positivity, the pace of change in the Russian penal system remained glacial
Our communications from the time were tinged with a cautious optimism (you need a lot of that to take on Russian officialdom). Even when a law was passed in July 2012 requiring Russian NGOs in receipt of overseas grants to declare themselves “Foreign Agents”, Vladimir took it with a wry smile. “It’s like they’re all becoming like 007 from the Bond films,” he joked to me.
But despite Vladimir’s boundless reserves of patience and positivity, and his elevation in status within the Duma, the pace of change in the Russian penal system remained glacial.
Under the hardline approach to law and order adopted by an increasingly paranoid president Vladimir Putin over the last three years, things have become much worse. Aleksandr Gnezdilov returned to his old job thanks to Putin’s renewed patronage, and his term was again extended earlier this year. These sorts of moves (where people are publicly fired for PR purposes and then surreptitiously snuck back into their old jobs later) are not uncommon in Russia’s patronage-dominated power networks.
Yet Vladimir continued to take on the authorities, with such determination that I wondered whether he might meet with a fatal accident of some kind. If anything, his leadership of the Duma working group offered him more opportunities to become a thorn in the side of powerful people with a stake in the corrupt penal system.
Over the summer last year, Vladimir was heavily involved in protests over the so-called Prison Reform Bill, which critics say legalises the use of brutal measures against inmates by prison guards.
He also started to trace the connections between the prison authorities and criminal gangs with increasingly incriminating results for the authorities. It is therefore not surprising that, despite having once been hesitantly welcomed by a reform-minded government, Vladimir once again began to experience the darker side of Putin’s Russia firsthand, just as he did when he was imprisoned.
For several months last year, he tells me, he was being followed. Last June his Moscow flat was raided by Russia’s state security service, the FSB, whose agents threatened to rape Vladimir’s wife.
Since his departure from Russia, Vladimir’s colleagues have come under intensified attack from those wishing to perpetuate the cycles of violence and corruption on which Russia’s prisons operate
By early September, he finally made the decision to flee Russia with his wife and two young sons. He travelled first to Turkey (where they hid for a month to avoid pursuers) then to Northern Cyprus, and finally arrived in France. He had held out longer than most in his position: colleagues of Vladimir, including respectable lawyers previously involved in work for the Russian prisons inspectorate, began leaving Russia for the US and Europe as early as 2014.
The Russian government has frozen his bank accounts and his family have no connections in France. His application for political asylum there was recently approved. Since his arrival in France the FSB has made repeated attempts to recruit him — effectively to buy him off. Vladimir has refused these offers.
Since his departure from Russia his colleagues, including the heroic activists who run the Gulagu.net website, have come under intensified attack from those wishing to perpetuate the cycles of violence and corruption on which Russia’s prisons operate.
Vladimir has few doubts that this goes right to the top: “These are all Putin loyalists,” he wrote to me recently, “people charged by the FSB and presidential administration with the task of attacking activists and journalists. They want to destroy the site and discredit me in the eyes of the French authorities.”
Vladimir himself is being branded a “traitor” and he has been warned by colleagues within Russia to be alert to the possibility of the FSB finding him and staging his “suicide”. Back in Russia prisoners who have sought help from Gulagu.net are being targeted by authorities seeking forced “evidence” that the website’s coordinators are themselves criminals. In our most recent conversations he still cracks the occasional joke, but his tone has become darker.
“I have never in my life considered suicide,” he recently said to me with grim resolve. I ask him whether he genuinely fears for his own safety. “Yes,” he says, “but not in a cowardly way. I just don’t want to leave my children fatherless. I’m worried about not being able to support my Gulagu.net colleagues.”
I am writing this article to bring his case to public attention. Vlad is one of the bravest, and most selfless men I have ever met. He has done so much to help his fellow men in Russia. Now he needs help himself.
Standfirst image: Tim Goode / EMPICS Entertainment / PA Images. All rights reserved.
About the author
Peter Oborne is the former chief political commentator of the Telegraph and reports for Channel 4's Dispatches and Unreported World. He has written a number of books identifying the power structures that lurk behind political discourse, including The Triumph of the Political Class. He is a regular on BBC programmes Any Questions and Question Time and often presents Week in Westminster. He was voted Columnist of the Year at the Press Awards in 2013.