Kidnapping, suspicious deaths and ‘torture’ as critics say Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on opponents is a return to the days of Stalin

The Mirror

IT was a ruthless operation harking back to the era of Soviet oppression as Russia’s secret services snatched a political foe from a foreign capital.

Masked men seized an opponent of hardline president Vladimir Putin in an audacious daylight abduction after the victim had sought sanctuary abroad.

Bound and gagged, Leonid Razvozzhayev was smuggled back to Moscow and says he was tortured.

The clinical operation in Ukrainian capital Kiev nine days ago has added to fears Russia is returning to the dark days of brutal commissar Joseph Stalin and his Gulag forced labour camps of the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

Razvozzhayev, 39, told activists who visited him in detention last week he had been left handcuffed in a dank cellar and not given food or drink or taken to the toilet for two days.

He also says he was threatened with an injection of a “truth serum”, a ­permanently disabling drug, to make him sign a confession of involvement in a plot to topple the Russian ruler.

“I was in a mask and a hat pulled over my face without slits,” he claimed. “They told me, ‘If you don’t answer our ­questions, your children will be killed.’”

By the time he could complain about his alleged treatment and retract his statement, it was too late.

The authorities casually brushed aside US concerns and announced with a serious face that he had voluntarily surrendered to Russian justice.

Inside the old KGB ­headquarters, the post-Communist regime’s spy chiefs no doubt clinked vodka glasses to another successful ­operation on foreign soil against an ­“enemy of the state”.

And this was not the only sign the Kremlin is returning to the bad old days to deal with its opponents.

One veteran diplomat said: “There’s a strong feeling now that Putin is getting seriously tough with his foes. We’re in a new game.”

As Razvozzhayev was signing his confession, two of the three jailed singers from feminist punk group Pussy Riot were put on jail trains to be dispatched to gruesome “penal colonies” as punishment for their anti-Putin performance in a church.

The treatment of these young mums, Nadia Tolokonnikova, 22, and Maria Alyokhina, 24, has stunned the West and led to protests from the likes of Madonna and Stephen Fry.

Instead of seats, these Gulags-on-wheels have cramped iron cages for ­convicts. They fit four in each but often hold 11. Former prisoner Vadim Ivanov, 49, said: “They clatter slowly out of Moscow, usually east towards Siberia or north to the Arctic, to labour camps that had their heyday in Stalin times.

“The handcuffed criminals, often hungry and shivering from cold, with rats or mice for company, have no idea where they’re going until they get there.

“When they arrive, they can find their warders are the grandchildren of Stalin’s prison guards, the jobs handed down from one generation to the next.”

Maria was sent east to a camp in Perm, once a Gulag capital, while Nadia went to a prison south-east of Moscow reckoned to be the nastiest women’s jail in all Russia.

And many more Putin political foes, including some famous names, may soon be following them.

Nearly all prominent opposition leaders who led street protests against alleged election rigging now face legal action.

Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich once advised would-be Russian millionaires never to assume they would not see the inside of a prison cell.

But under Putin, the number of tycoons has mushroomed and the threat of jail these days is to opposition politicians. One might be ­ex-chess champion Garry Kasparov, 49, as prosecutors examine police claims he bit an officer’s finger as he was arrested on the day of the Pussy Riot convictions.

Lawyer and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, 36, an integral player in last winter’s mass protests, is now being probed for embezzling money – widely seen as trumped up accusations because he has exposed the greed of the Russian elite. He was arrested yesterday after a demonstration in Moscow.

Also under threat is London ­newspaper tycoon and former KGB spy Alexander Lebedev, 52, who faces up to five years in jail after striking another businessman on a TV talk show. He claims he is being targeted over his ownership of Novaya Gazeta, a Russian ­investigative newspaper he holds alongside the Independent titles and London Evening Standard. He has also funded Navalny.

Leftist leader Sergei Udalt-sov, 35, is facing similar charges to the abducted Razvozzhayev and was also arrested yesterday.

Meanwhile, glamorous TV host and opposition activist Ksenia Sobchak fought off a tax probe but evidently ­remains in the sights of prosecutors.

Already long jailed is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, 49, once Russia’s richest man, who was sent to one of Siberia’s loneliest prison camps in 2005, for fraud. Many believe he was really punished for funding opposition parties. The brutality of Russian jails led to one anti-corruption lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, 40, being beaten to death in 2009, it is alleged.

Scotland Yard also suspect Alexander Litvinenko, 44, a staunch critic of the Kremlin leader, was murdered by poison in London six years ago with the ­collusion of Russian secret services. Moscow ­refuses to extradite the main suspect, former KGB man Andrey Lugovoy.Dozens who fear they will get caught in then crackdown have fled to Britain.

And Putin is furious that we give ­shelter to tycoon and former Kremlin power player Boris Berezovsky, 66, who faces financial charges, and Chechen ­independence fighter Akhmed Zakayev.

Both would face instant jail at Polar Owl jail in the extreme north of Siberia, from which no one has ever escaped.

One opposition organiser said last week: “I read about Stalin-era repression when I was a child but I never thought it would return.”

And an analyst warned: “Stalinist ­terror consisted of a chain reaction of confessions, where one tortured person gave up others. If we do not all stand up to be counted, then we will all suffer.”

By seizing Razvozzhayev in former Soviet republic Ukraine, the Russians brazenly acted as if they still owned the independent country.

And that raises the prospect of a ­callous capitalist version of the old USSR.
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