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Our Zoom was booked for midnight Moscow time. It’s always Moscow time, even if many Russian journalists and activists like Perm native Sergei Ukhov have left the country and are in different time zones. Ukhov was on the road and wouldn’t be in a place with internet before 12, so we agreed on that time.
Having followed him on Telegram, I was eager to find out more about what the vibe is like in a region far from Moscow. Perm is the gateway to Siberia, a city of about a million in the Ural Mountains – and it’s a significant part of the military-industrial complex of Russia.
The name of his Telegram channel – Perm 36,6 – is a play on words. Perm 36 was one of the most famous Soviet gulags. 36.6 is the normal body temperature in Celsius, the measure used in Russia.
Ukhov worked with jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s organization in Perm until the government disbanded it, calling it “extremist.” Now, on a veritable shoestring, Ukhov has been running a channel that was meant to be dedicated to uncovering corruption but has switched almost entirely to covering the war in Ukraine.
He said the anti-war movement has been alive and well in Perm. “People are coming out in large numbers – well, maybe not by standards of a U.S. audience – but given that taking a stand can get you a fine or a criminal case, it’s a lot. Every day, there are hearings,” he told me, for those who get picked up for anything from holding up a poster to putting out a post.
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Ukhov pointed out that this week the authorities even picked up two octogenarians for their activism – both of them named Ivan Ivanovich. One Ivan had worked long years with developmentally challenged children. The other Ivan is an artist. He was fined 30,000 rubles – about $470 – which is one-and-a-half to two times his pension, according to Ukhov. But, the channel helped raise some 90,000 rubles for the artist.
Fundraising for fines has become a trend in Russia. Ukhov said raising and donating money is perhaps the only legal means to protest left in Russia. “You can’t write on the internet, you can’t speak out about your position, you can’t go out onto the streets with a placard and stand there in silence, you can’t go to demonstrations,” Ukhov said. “But, you can give five, ten, one hundred rubles to show your protest, and at the same time, you helped a little.”
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The other well-known “Permchak,” as denizens of Perm are known, in the crosshairs of the government is a man named Dmitry Zhebelev who runs a fund called “Dedmorozim,” which means “We Are (or We Do) Santa Claus” in Russia. The group has helped seriously ill children, also trying to bring a little joy to their lives. Zhebelev was fined this week as well, for “discrediting the Russian army” after, according to Ukhov, he spoke out against the killing of children, saying children should not die anywhere. Zhebelev’s life work has been keeping kids alive but he’s seen plenty die, in his case, of illness.
“He’s one of the most popular, the best-known people in the region. He has a stellar reputation in the Perm region. He’s helped thousands of kids with the most difficult illnesses. Many people around Perm consider him a sort of Mother Teresa,” Ukhov said.
Perm 36,6 is also documenting the death of Russian soldiers from the region, posting haunting photos of fresh-faced young men with a few lines about their short lives. Ukhov said they used to get the names from the governor’s office, then it became municipalities, and now it’s the schools who’ve provided information on the dead men who’d graduated from there. This decentralization of data distribution has made the story harder to track. Ukhov said he has confirmed 64 men from the region have died. There may be more. Most were from far-flung villages where he said the military has been the only “social lift” available.
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Ukhov said he and his team of three others are trying also to track the costs of the war in Ukraine, and then put figures in the context of what that money could mean for infrastructure and projects locally if it were spent otherwise. His hope is that this real information will have an impact on people. He also hoped his followers will share what they learn from his channel with others, particularly those who support the war. And, he is banking on his belief that drawing up criminal cases against every person who opens his or her mouth to express critical opinions on the war will cost the judicial system too much time and effort. He expected there will be more fines than jail time for those voicing anti-war sentiment.
Ukhov himself said he has had his own share of brushes with the authorities in Russia, but he still hoped Russians will keep speaking up. “It’s easy for me to say, not being in Russia, but let’s not be quiet. They won’t put us all in jail.”