“Life is priceless, but right now, if humans in Russia were put into value, they’d be worthless – that’s how people are treated here by their own government.”
On 3 February 2021, Stirling University graduate and founder of online tutoring platform Inteldis, Elizabeth Frovola, was heading to a bar with a group of friends in Moscow. It was half past one in the morning, and the streets which had seen peaceful protesters marching down them earlier that evening, lay snow filled and empty. Suddenly, a group of riot policemen appeared and rounded up Frovola and her friends, arresting them.
What follows is Frovola’s story of what happened after this encounter:
“On the 3rd of February, I was walking with a friend to the bar,” says Frovola, “the streets were empty.” She points out that, although there had been protests taking place that day against the arrest of Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, she had not been part of them.
“We were just walking on the road, and out of nowhere these policemen came and told us we needed to come with them. I asked them for their names and what the reason was behind our arrest – but they refused to answer.”
The group was thrown into a police-bus, “packed with maybe 30-40 people, five or six even had to stand up inside because it was so crammed,” says Frovola.
After refusing to treat a man with an open head-wound, the police brought the arrested people to the police station.
“They took our passports and our phones and told us they’d arrest us for three hours. They didn’t tell us to call lawyers or anything,” says Frovola. “They were forcing us to sign papers. Some people who wouldn’t sign were forced to put down a fingerprint instead.”
The group was kept in a barren corridor overnight, without any food or water – and had yet to be given a reason for their arrest: “There was no place to sit. It was very cold,” recalls Frovola. “We stayed there, on the cold floor all night. No chairs, no blankets, just the corridor.”
In the morning they were brought directly to court, without any chance of contacting anyone since their phones had been confiscated. Frovola says that she was the only one showing resistance – she demanded the right to a lawyer: “Eventually they said, ‘Okay, give us a number and we will call for you.’ The only number I knew was my mum’s, so I told her that I was in court. I told her I needed a lawyer. I was the only one who got one,” says Frovola.
“The other girls didn’t have lawyers. The court provided them with 40 minutes to contact lawyers, but didn’t give them access to their phones – so they had no means to do so.”
With two riot policemen posing as witnesses, the trial was a lost case before it began. She was accused of taking part in the peaceful protests – an activity which is in article 31 of the Russian Constitution – and of having disrupted the flow of movement on the deserted roads. Frovola received a sentence of 12 days in prison, which was to have an immediate effect.
Prisons across Moscow had seen a sharp rise in the number of inmates as riot-police cracked down on protesters over the previous few days. Frovola says that she was lucky she only had to stay in an overcrowded car for just another six hours following the court hearing: “Some people were moved from prison to prison under these types of conditions – without toilets, without food, without water – because there was not enough space in the prisons.”
Frovola was brought to a Sakharovo Migration Centre, a few hours outside Moscow. “Conditions in this type of prison are so harsh that a sentence served there counts for double the time as a normal prison,” says Frovola.
“It felt like a horrible movie, arriving at the cell. There were five bunkbeds without mattresses, the walls were covered in mould. It was very cold. The toilet was a hole in the middle of the floor. You could see where the toilet was upstairs from marks on the roof and walls.”
“Without any information, they brought us there and just closed the doors, these huge doors. Then they left. We were 10 girls, looking at each other in complete disbelief,” says Frovola.
She describes the behaviour of the prison-guards as deceptive, recalling how they would play psychological games with her and her cell-mates – all of whom she today calls her friends: “They (the guards) were always lying to us. When we arrived, they told us: ‘Oh girls, did you really believe we’d bring you to this horrible place? Of course not, you’re girls – we’re going to bring you to a normal cell, with real toilets.’ Then they brought us to exactly the same kind of cell, but on the second floor.”
Frovola also tells of how the guards would play with their sense of time, bringing them meals at random times. Without phones or clocks to keep track of it, the girls quickly lost track of time: “The light was always on in the cell, always, so you had no clue what time it was,” says Frovola. During the dead of winter in Russia, the hours of sunlight are also few and far apart – wiping out the option of tracking time through daylight.
Frovola refers to the cell in which she was kept as a cage: “There were the 10 beds, a table in the middle and one meter away from it was the toilet – the hole in the floor. And there are two cameras just over the toilet, so there’s no privacy at all.”
“Smokers were with non-smokers – and since we couldn’t exit, they would smoke inside of the room. Of course there were no COVID-restrictions, we were all in the same place without masks – no hygiene-rules. People were smoking every 5-10 minutes,” says Frovola.
Throughout their sentence, Frovola and her friends would spend the majority of their time inside this cell. The only times they got to go out was for their weekly shower and daily walks: “For our shower, which only happened twice, they’d bring us to a special room and police officers would stand there watching us shower behind transparent doors,” says Frovola.
Their only other outing was a daily walk inside a cage-like cell which Frovola estimates cannot have been bigger than 20 square metres. Although they were supposed to be allowed one hour of walking each day, Frovola says that it never lasted for more than 15-20 minutes. “Since we didn’t have any clocks we couldn’t prove it.”
When Frovola’s mother heard of her daughter’s arrest, she immediately headed for the prison with the parcel containing essential items.
“She had to sit in her car outside queueing for 18 hours, because there were so many people that got arrested that same night. In our papers, they wrote that 500 people were protesting. But during this night alone, they arrested 1,800 people.”
“There were more than 200 people in this queue, which was moving very slowly since they needed to check every single parcel. Imagine 18 hours without a bathroom, in minus 20 degrees – she got really sick afterward.”
The parcel finally reached Frovola the next day at 6. It contained water, warm clothes, sanitisers, tampons and snacks – some foods, like fruit and vegetables, were not allowed in. By that stage, Frovola had gone without water for more than 24 hours: “The guards told me to drink the orange-looking tap water in the cell. When I asked them for water, they said they weren’t supposed to give us any water at all.”
Their daily meals consisted mainly of porridge, bread, potatoes and a typical Russian dish of meat mixed with fish. Since Frovola is allergic to lactose, she was unable to eat most of the food they were served. Had it not been for the snacks from her mother and other volunteers, she would have suffered from extreme hunger.
What Frovola found hardest during her time in prison, was the feeling of being stuck whilst the rest of the world lived on outside: “The first few days were emotionally hard – I was worried about my company, about my parents. I didn’t have fear, I wasn’t scared – because it’s not good to show that you’re afraid: that’s what they want. But it was hard to let go of the outside world.
The only good thing about this whole situation, was that people were supportive of each other,” says Frovola, who started teaching her new friends English during their time together in the cell.
“A lot of poems were written in this cage too, a lot of people were writing really good stories – a lot of art came from this, which is a beautiful response to a horrible situation.”
She describes the physical and psychological pain of the last couple of days in captivity as horrible: “You had read all the books that were given to you, taught English a lot. Laying down was really painful for your back since there were no mattresses. I had bruises on my body from the bed. Walking in circles around the table was driving me crazy at this point.”
On 9 February, six days after her arrest, Frovola returned to the court – and was once again convicted of the same crimes, before being sent back to prison. She believes this procedure is carried out to evoke feelings of powerlessness and fear.
Frovola was released on 15 February, at 2:30 and brought home by relatives. She was malnourished, and the unhealthy living conditions had given her Endometriosis, an inflammation of the uterus. It is taking her weeks to recover.
“Although I told everyone I was fine, I had bad nightmares the first weeks after coming home,”says Frovola, who fears being arrested again. She wants to return to the UK, where she would feel safer – but with borders being shut due to the pandemic, that is not an option at the moment.
With her ex-cell mates, Frovola, is currently recording one of the songs written by a girl in her cell. A couple of liberal channels in Russia have posted information about their cases, and there’s an upcoming documentary about their arrest. Frovola is also bringing her case to the European Court of Human Rights – a procedure that can take up to six years to complete – but which might bring her up to 10,000 EUR as compensation from the Russian government.
Pursuing reparation payments is not considered dangerous in Russia, says Frovola: “That money is nothing to the Russian government, compared to the power of scaring people. What’s more unsafe, is spreading words like I’m doing right now – or posting things online.”
Frovola is willing to risk this, to tell the world about what’s going on in Russia. One of the effects she hopes this type of activism might have, is for the European court to freeze overseas bank accounts held by many Russian government officials.
“If nothing else, some people reading this might feel grateful for being free,” she says. “This whole situation has made me realize that suffering for a good reason is not difficult. But when you suffer for no reason, for something that will cause no change, that is awful.”
Featured image credit: Photo by Umanoide on Unsplash