Artwork via OKKERSE
RADIO FREE EUROPE: Vlad’s last message came on December 25, right after Christmas lunch as my children were noisily running out of the door for an afternoon walk. “If I don’t get in touch in the next 2-6 days, you can write [about me]. It means I’m dead,” it said, “I took a lethal dose.”? “Sorry,” he added, thoughtful right until the end. He didn’t answer my calls. My panicked messages never reached him, either. They are still marked as unread. I contacted someone in Russia, who I thought could help. A few hours later, police confirmed my worst fears: Vlad had passed away, killed by an overdose of prescription drugs. The teen who had been my daily online companion for weeks was now lying dead on the cold slab of some distant Russian morgue.
His name was Vladislav Pavlovich Kolesnikov [pictured, right]. He was 18.
As a journalist, I had written about Vlad’s troubles before. But when I contacted him again on December 2 to follow up, his answer looked like a cry for help. He seemed desperate and wanted to talk to me about his life. We chatted on Telegram, often several times a day. Most of the time, I just listened. Vlad asked me to tell his story if anything happened to him. He wanted the world to know about the persecution, the violence, and the crushing isolation that can befall anyone in Russia deemed to be different. This was his dying wish.
The incident that sent Vlad’s life tumbling down like a house of cards is absurdly, almost indecently trivial. But amid the hateful war-mongering now spilling from Russian television screens, even a kid’s prank, it turns out, can be deadly. On June 3, Vlad showed up at his school in the Moscow suburb of Podolsk with a T-shirt featuring a Ukrainian flag and the words: “Return Crimea.” In Russia’s current political context, this can safely be called an act of bravery. Vlad was not Ukrainian. He was not a human rights defender or a political activist, either. He was simply a young Russian who firmly disapproved of his country’s actions in Ukraine. And unlike many others, he was not afraid of saying it out loud. A few weeks earlier, he had played the Ukrainian national anthem on his mobile phone during a compulsory visit to the military conscription office.
Several days after the T-shirt incident, he was assaulted by classmates. “Just a split lip, a few bruises, some bumps on the head, and three drops of blood,” he wrote on Facebook, trying to put on a brave face. But those around him had no intention of letting it go. Police officers came to question him. At the conscription office, military officials slapped him with a diagnosis: “personality disorder.” He was excluded from school. “At his own request,” he was informed. Worse still, his own grandfather, a former KGB officer in whose apartment Vlad was living in Podolsk, drove him out of the house.
He packed him off on the train to his father in the small town of Zhigulyovsk, in the Samara region, threatening to wring his neck if he ever returned.That was still not enough. He proceeded to shame his grandson in a scathing interview to the Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid, calling him fat, accusing him of courting the West’s favor, and citing passages from his diary. Komsomolskaya Pravda was only too happy to oblige. Vlad was still 17 at the time, a minor, almost a child.
“Even in my worst nightmare I could not have imagined that such a machine would be set in motion because of a piece of cloth and a small flag,” he later wrote to me. Life in Zhigulyovsk brought him little solace. Rumors of his budding homosexuality did not help. He said his schoolmates routinely beat him up, pushed him around, spat at him, and flung mud and snow in his face. They called him “khokhol” and “pidoras,” crude insults denigrating Ukrainians and homosexuals. “I can’t even remember how many times I’ve been beaten up,” he wrote to me. “Or I’m just walking down the corridor and someone calls me ‘bitch’ and hits me in the ear.” He told me that a local vigilante had pledged to ensure he would “never finish school.”
His father, he said, was unsupportive and had warned him against causing any trouble in Zhigulyovsk. The police had apparently threatened him, too. “For a whole hour, they humiliated me and told me how dangerous it was here,” he wrote. “They made me understand that they wouldn’t lift a finger if anything happened to me. That they would punch me in the face themselves if they could.” Vlad was scared. Very scared. And he was completely alone. Many knew about his plight. Vlad had more than 2,000 followers on Facebook. But for some reason, no compassionate teacher flew to his rescue, no classmate’s concerned parent, no human rights campaigner. MORE