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Soviet artists drew a message of freedom. A KGB agent named Putin investigated.


RIGA, Latvia — A Russian historian was browsing an exhibit on Soviet dissidents in a dark corner of the St. Petersburg Political Museum last month when the name on a 1976 KGB search warrant came out: “Lieutenant. Cheese fries.

Historian, Konstantin Sholmov, had found a previously unknown document relating to President Vladimir Putin’s early career in the KGB, specifically the investigation of the most daring and poetic Soviet-era manifestation of the city, in which two artists painted letters four feet high on the stone. and Paul Fortress.

“You can crucify freedom, but the human soul knows no chains.”

One of them, Yuly Rybakov, now 76 and the dissident and rights activist who coined the words, said in an interview that he thought Putin was once again turning Russia into a gigantic death camp. prisoners.

Putin’s career as a KGB officer has long explained his approach as president. But his role in finding the house of the other artist who painted this slogan, Oleg Volkov, was not known until Sholmov came across the document at the Museum of Political History of Russia, captured it and post it on Facebook.

St Petersburg opposition politician Boris Vishnevsky says this is definitive proof of Putin’s personal involvement in the search as a 23-year-old KGB lieutenant – a precursor of his 23 years at the helm of Russia, which were characterized by a harsh crackdown on political dissent, the persecution of independent journalists and the repeated imprisonment of opposition figures.

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Putin got a diploma in law from Leningrad State University in 1975 and joined the KGB that year after being targeted for recruitment earlier. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he could not confirm whether Putin participated in the 1976 investigation,

While Putin is waging a brutal war against Ukraine for reasons that are unclear to many citizens, Sholmov said, the 1976 protest should send a message of courage to today’s Russians and inspire them to s ‘to express.

“We all knew where he worked and who he was,” Sholmov said, referring to Putin. “But in the current situation, I think everyone is trying to figure out what they can do to stop the war and oppose the regime. And now the focus has been brought back to these artists, which is very symbolic, because they knew very well in 1976 that they were not destined for success, but for a criminal affair.

“They knew it and they took this step anyway,” Sholmov said. “Now probably a lot of people are coming back to this case and thinking it’s an example to follow.”

Rybakov and Putin – one who has spent his life fighting for freedom, the other who has spent his life crushing it – symbolize the long standoff between the secret police and political dissidents over the fate of Russia.

Rybakov was born in a Soviet gulag in 1946. His mother, an administrative assistant, smuggled food to starving prisoners and fell in love with Rybakov’s father. Yuly Rybakov grew up surrounded by dissidents and founded an underground group that transcribed and distributed tiny books by banned authors.

The group posted leaflets and snuck into transport depots at night to paint slogans on the back of trams. Rybakov still laughs at the memory. He saw his role as confronting evil.

He spent years discovering the execution of his great-grandfather during the Stalin era. The prosecution seeks to bury the evidence.

“I hated the diet,” he said in the interview. “I realized early on that we were living in the largest concentration camp in the world, and that we had barbed wire along the perimeter of the territory.”

“The KGB of course hated us,” he added. “They didn’t like the idea that we wanted to be out in the open and have our work exposed to lots of people. Our idea was to create a union exhibition of non-conformist art. They didn’t like us talking to foreign journalists and meeting foreign diplomats.

In May 1976, Rybakov’s close friend, dissident artist Yevgeny Rukhin, died in a fire in his attic studio in Saint Petersburg, where he was meeting friends. A woman, Ludmila Boblyak, also perished.

Rybakov and other activists were convinced it was KGB arson and attempted to hold a memorial display at the Peter and Paul Fortress along the Neva River, which was quickly crushed. Then they went on a hunger strike. “I got a phone call from a strange man who said, ‘We don’t care. In fact, it’s better for us if you all starve.

So he and Volkov decided that painting a slogan on the fortress wall – or an inscription, as he calls it – would have more impact. Crawling along the bank one August night with buckets of white paint and rollers, Rybakov’s blood pounded in his temples.

“I was scared, but I had been involved in this underground activity for a long time, and I knew that at some point I would end up in jail,” Rybakov said. He told Volkov the words he had found.

“Oleg became very worried. He said, ‘It’s too long. We’ll never finish it in time.’ They managed to paint the slogan, threw their rollers and paint in the river, washed their hands and left trying not to run.

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The river overflowed that night, and the next morning police dancing in a boat attempted, rather clumsily, to cover the letters using coffin lids from a nearby workshop. But a few weeks later, Rybakov, Volkov and two women were arrested. Volkov, who died in 2005, was present when the KGB raided his apartment.

“The search took a long time and was very unpleasant. And as we just found out, one of the guys who did the search was our future president Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,” Rybakov said.

Ryabkov said Putin also participated in a raid on the apartment of one of the arrested women, Soviet poet Julia Voznesenskaya, who told friends she recognized Putin from the investigation after he was named interim president in 1999.

The KGB seized cameras, film negatives of banned books, typewriters and tape recorders. Rybakov and Volkov were accused of anti-Soviet activities. Rybakov was sentenced to six years in a penal colony above the Arctic Circle, and Volkov to seven years. The arrested women, Voznesenskaya and Natalia Lesnichenko, were released after both men insisted they had not participated.

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After living in the intellectual milieu of Soviet dissidents, Rybakov was shocked by the apathy of most inmates. “Before, I had no idea what my people were like, and after my release, I had my doubts as to whether these people even wanted freedom and whether my fight for their freedom was worth it. But this kind of discouragement did not last long.

For some Russians, this is a question that resonates today.

Rybakov said his 1976 protest still stands “because unfortunately nothing has changed”. He said the KGB has always been “the bloodiest of all the security services” and no one should be surprised that Putin built “a fascist regime and now he is restricting our civil rights”.

After the collapse of the Soviet state, Rybakov became a politician, legislator and human rights defender. When Chechen rebels took 1,500 people hostage in a hospital in the Russian city of Budyonnovsk in June 1995, Rybakov and others offered themselves as hostages in exchange for women with newborn babies.

Years ago, he was told by a security guard that the yellowed 11-volume KGB file on him and Volkov had been abandoned in a building with other documents, so he took it, dumped it. browsed and donated it to the museum.

When he recently learned that the file contained Putin’s name, he said he was “surprised and laughed, because knowing the KGB so well, I had no illusions about Putin. He has always been KGB and will always be KGB.

“It’s a small thing,” he said. “But it’s important because it shows what his ideas were and what he’s become.” Still, Rybakov remains hopeful. “I don’t know when or how, but this regime will fall,” he said. “And finally, after its fall, Russia will begin its path to freedom.”

Natalia Abbakumova contributed to this report.

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