Tue 26 October 2021

Sarah Hurst reports on the death of a Russian environmental activist and how opposing the Kremlin is an increasingly risky business. 

Russian politician and journalist Nikita Isaev was excited about his visit to Tambov. He had met a large group of residents who were critical of the authorities and praised them on Facebook for protesting against the construction of a huge landfill. He posted a picture of himself on the train on his way back to Moscow.

But he never made it. He died suddenly on the train. He was 41 years old.

Isaev’s last post on the social media platform read: “Heading back to Moscow with a feeling of having done my duty, leaving those who know their region better than me behind to fight. I will put the region on my list of the most active opposition groups. 2019-2021 will be interesting years for Tambov residents.” 

When a critic of the Government dies unexpectedly in Russia there are always suspicions and rarely any kind of inquest or investigation. Isaev was considered part of the “approved opposition” – someone who tried to work within the system and wrote for the pro-Kremlin newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. He made regular appearances on state TV and his New Russia movement was hardly a blip on the radar in terms of influence. He may have died from natural causes.

But, if the FSB in a region decides someone is a nuisance, it can easily dispose of them even if they are aligned with authorities. 

Before going to Tambov, Isaev had written about a threat to the Volga river in Nizhny Novgorod from the planned construction of a paper factory next to a reservoir. His article was called Paper will Survive but the Volga will Die. Isaev commented on Facebook: “I always leave room for dialogue with the authorities… But remember, dialogue is when they listen to me and to the people and don’t pretend to.”

He also said on Russian television that US Democrats would be much tougher on Russia than Republicans, and that it was time to defend Donald Trump. But he pointed out that, unlike Trump, Putin rarely talks to journalists and ordinary people.

Among the other suspicious deaths in Russia in recent years there was the case of Max Borodin, a young journalist in Yekaterinburg who “fell” off his balcony last year after telling friends that there were men in masks and camouflage outside his flat.

Borodin had been investigating the deaths of Wagner private military contractors in Syria in a US airstrike.

The Kremlin is extremely sensitive about the activities of the Wagner Group and three Russian journalists who travelled to the Central African Republic last year to investigate them were shot dead – possibly by Wagner contractors themselves.

Also last year, street artist Alexander Zhunev, who had made a portrait of opposition performance artist Petr Pavlensky, died aged 34 on a train travelling from Perm to Moscow.

In February, 35-year-old rapper Detsl (Kirill Tomatsky) died suddenly after a performance. He had been an outspoken critic of the Kremlin and drugs were not found in his system. 

Some deaths are more obviously murders.

Dmitri Gribov, the head of the Centre for Fighting Corruption in the town of Voskresensk outside Moscow, was beaten to death by attackers with baseball bats, also in February.

LGBT activist Yelena Grigorieva was stabbed to death in St. Petersburg in July.

And a suspected GRU officer has been arrested in Berlin on suspicion of assassinating a Chechen-Georgian dissident, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, in a park in August. In this case, it is German authorities who seem to be playing down the murder to avoid jeopardising ties with Russia.

With Vladimir Putin feeling no resistance, opposing the Kremlin is an increasingly risky business both at home and abroad. 


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