‘Justice is on our side, and Putin is old’: Navalny’s press secretary Kira Yarmysh | Books

In May 2018 Kira Yarmysh found herself in jail for a second time. Yarmysh – press secretary to the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny – had called for people to attend an anti-government rally in downtown Moscow. Its title: “He’s Not Our Tsar”. The tsar in question – Vladimir Putin – was about to be inaugurated as president for a fourth term.

The Moscow authorities refused to sanction the rally. What happened next was predictable. Riot police arrested hundreds of people. Later that month Yarmysh turned up at a police station seeking the release of a fellow campaigner. She was herself detained and held overnight. A court gave her 25 days behind bars for “administrative violations”.

Yarmysh was held in a special detention centre on Simferopol Boulevard, in the south-west of the capital. At the same time Navalny was locked up for similar imaginary violations. “On our release we were discussing how it was for both of us,” she says, speaking over Zoom from a location outside Russia. “He suggested I write a book about it. It was my lifelong dream to write fiction.”

Her debut novel, The Incredible Events in Women’s Cell Number 3, came out in 2020 in Moscow, and appears in June in an English translation. Its early pages are filled with the kind of details you might expect: an absurd court hearing, a 10-day stretch in a seedy, crumbling penal centre run by callous or indifferent guards. But the novel turns out to be strange and unexpected. Its main character, Anya, locked up for taking part in an anti-corruption rally, is prone to supernatural visions. It is unclear if she’s hallucinating, or sharing a cell with fates and furies.

“The intention was never to write a political manifesto. My idea was to make the story as interesting as I could, and to add a mystical layer,” Yarmysh says. The novel mixes fantasy with flashbacks and foreboding gothic moments, as Anya recalls her adolescence and student life. The book’s translator, Arch Tait, describes this genre blend as “unprecedented in Russian writing about life in prison”.

Prison unites people – you can find yourself in there for almost anything

Incarceration is a rich theme in Russian literature, going back to the 17th century, and ranging from Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead, based on his experience of exile to Siberia, to communist-era accounts, such as Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, depicting the hidden world of the Soviet forced labour camp. Yarmysh read Solzhenitsyn’s novella at school, while growing up in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. She says she prefers Dostoevsky to Tolstoy, though Nabokov is her favourite writer. As a teenager she enjoyed Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. A brilliant pupil, she studied journalism at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations, as does Anya in her novel.

This carceral literary tradition is largely a male one. “I wanted to write something new, and definitely from the female perspective,” she explains. Anya’s five cellmates are modelled on the women with “strong beliefs” Yarmysh met during her time in detention. They come from different strata of Russian society: a professional mistress, an addict; and a veteran of the penal system. All are locked up on petty charges.

This cell community is a microcosm of the new Russia, two decades after Putin came to power. “I was trying to capture Russian life as I knew it,” Yarmysh observes. “There is no other place in the country right now where people of such different backgrounds can meet. Prison unites people more than any other institution. You can find yourself in prison for almost anything.”

Alexei Navalny in Moscow, 2020.
Alexei Navalny in Moscow, 2020. Photograph: Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

Yarmysh became Navalny’s press secretary in 2014. Since then, she has spent more than a month behind bars. Her first five-day stay was in January 2018, after she retweeted a link to Navalny’s YouTube channel. Prison conditions – before the invasion of Ukraine – were comparatively benign. The warders were “actually quite friendly”, she says. Her status as a female political prisoner made her a novelty. Though she experienced sexism, with catcalls from male inmates when she went to exercise in the yard, and crushing boredom.

The Russian publication of The Incredible Events in Women’s Cell Number 3 nearly led to the cancellation of the Moscow book fair. Yarmysh was under house arrest for inciting public protests. The organisers moved her event from a large venue to a small one, and then dropped it – apparently on the grounds that love scenes featuring Anya and her best friend, Sonia, were “gay propaganda”. The book is still available in Russia, its jacket covered by an “opaque film”, she says.

In August 2021 she left the country. She acknowledges the Kremlin allowed her to cross the border, in a gap between her latest conviction and the verdict being enforced. By this point Navalny was back in jail. He survived a poisoning attempt in Siberia, recuperated in Berlin and returned to Moscow. It was an extraordinary act of bravery, and a direct challenge to Putin’s faltering authority.

The Kremlin now appears to be killing Navalny. He has dramatically lost weight – possibly as the result of further recent poisoning – and says he is being starved. Yarmysh communicates with him by letter. She says for now he is “relatively all right”. The guards put a prisoner with hygiene issues in his cell; he complained, and prosecutors are now seeking to punish him with another trumped-up criminal case.

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Since last year’s invasion, Russia’s opposition has practically ceased to exist. Yarmysh and other senior figures from Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation are in exile or prison. Criticism of the war on social media can mean a 10-year sentence. The Kremlin has branded Yarmysh a “foreign agent”, a catch-all term that has been applied to activists, investigative reporters and human rights organisations.

“Russia is a dictatorship, and highly authoritarian,” she says. At the regime’s core, she argues, is corruption. “It’s the main cause of the war.” She says Putin has created an “outer enemy” to distract people from their problems and to stay in power. She doesn’t think a plurality of Russians back the invasion, and says: “People are unsatisfied. It’s scary to be vocal about what’s happening. They prefer not to think about it.”

Most Ukrainians have little time for Russian liberals and accuse them of being closest nationalists. They point to Navalny’s flip-flopping over whether Crimea should be returned to Ukraine and hold all Russians accountable for their failure to stop Putin, and for Bucha. Does Yarmysh understand this hostility? “I’m not in a place to tell Ukrainians how they should act or think. Putin invaded their country. They have every right to be angry,” she responds.

Yarmysh, however, does not believe average Russian citizens can be blamed for the horrors taking place in Ukraine. Responsibility lies with the Kremlin and its generals. She points out that western leaders also turned a blind eye to Putin’s crimes, emboldening his misdeeds. Of detention centre staff, she says: “I wouldn’t say they were evil. They were complicit.”

Controversially, Yarmysh opposes the cancellation of Russian icons such as Pushkin. Putin has used Pushkin and the concept of Russky Mir – a common cultural, spiritual and language space – to justify his attack on Kyiv. Statues of the poet have been toppled across Ukraine, and streets renamed, as part of a process of decolonisation. Ukrainian writers say the response is an attempt to free the country from an imperial Russian lens.

There has been a similar purging of Bulgakov. The novelist was educated in Kyiv and opposed Ukrainian independence. Yarmysh suggests these literary targets are misplaced. “I can’t see how Pushkin is to blame. Putin is to blame,” she says. “Of course they are using Russian cultural names to justify all the things they do. It doesn’t mean Russian culture is bad because of this. Pushkin can’t protest. If he were alive today he would.”

Now 33, and based in a European country, Yarmysh radiates optimism. She has published a second novel, Harassment, and is working on a third. Her good humour seems counterintuitive: Putin’s grip on power is as strong as ever; there is little prospect of change or democracy coming to Russia in the near future; and the biggest war in Europe since 1945 rages on, snuffing out the lives of civilians and soldiers.

But she is convinced good will eventually prevail, after a long, dark and autocratic night. “Historical justice is on our side. Putin is old. His regime is obsolete. It will definitely go. I don’t know when this will happen,” she says. But, when it does, “something new and bright will come instead”.

Luke Harding’s Invasion: Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival is published by Guardian Faber. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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