Politics 6 December 2021

Jailed YouTube-blogger alleges threats against family

Imprisoned blogger Yury Khovansky claimed last Monday that investigators were threatening his family in an effort to get him to give false testimony. “I’m scared and I don’t know what to do,” Khovansky wrote in an open letter that detailed the pressure he has faced since being arrested in June for allegedly justifying terrorism.

  • The accusations against Khovansky relate to his rendition of a song mocking government efforts to resolve the 2002 hostage taking at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in which over 170 people died. Khovanksy maintains he performed the song in 2012 when Russia’s laws on justifying terrorism did not include any mention of the internet. If found guilty, he faces up to seven years in jail.
  • In his open letter, Khovansky alleged investigators demanded he admit the song was performed in 2018 (rather than 2012), fire his lawyers and accept a lawyer chosen by investigators. In case he refused, the blogger said investigators promised him a jail term (rather than a fine), and threatened to cause “problems” for his girlfriend, Maria Nelyubova. According to Khovansky, investigators previously threatened to plant drugs on Nelyubova.
  • While he disputes the date, Khovansky has admitted he did perform the song in question. In a video released by the authorities the day after his arrest, he is seen publicly apologizing for his actions. He repeated these apologies in his open letter. “I made an immoral and stupid joke when I performed a song,” he wrote. “Over these nine years, I have repeatedly repented, apologized and made a charitable donation to a charity helping victims of terrorism.”
  • Judging from his letter, Khovansky appeared shocked that he could be asked to admit to something he did not do — and he drew comparisons with the Stalinist repressions of the 1930s. “I did not think that in Russia in 2021 an investigator could openly threaten the family of the accused and demand to confess to what he did not commit,” he wrote.
  • Although less popular in recent years, Khovansky was one of the first individuals to achieve fame in Russia via YouTube, where he has 4.5 million subscribers. And his arrest and claims about threats from investigators come amid a wave of pressure on Russia’s cultural sector.
  • One of the witnesses in the Khovansky case, fellow blogger Dmitry Larin, recently fled Russia and published a video last Thursday explaining his decision. He said his reasons for moving to Bali included a desire for a warmer climate, “social depression”, and the increased attention that law enforcement was paying to bloggers. “When they take you to the precinct and put you in front of the Investigative Committee without a summons, when you suddenly find yourself a witness in a very strange case, you start to think it’s time to leave,” said Larin.
  • It was reported last week that popular rapper Morgenshtern had fled Russia after the head of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, accused him of drug dealing. The musician has since been spotted in Dubai. Morgenshtern may have come to Bastrykin’s attention in October when he questioned the value of the extravagant annual celebrations of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazism.

Why the world should care: In today’s Russia, it’s harder and harder to keep track of the number of comedians, bloggers and musicians who are facing criminal charges, or who have fled abroad.