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They Said ‘I Do’ in a Moscow Prison

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Nadezhda Shtovba did not wear a white dress to her wedding. There were no bridesmaids or groomsmen. She and her husband, Yegor, did not exchange wedding bands either — rings are banned in Butyrka prison.

That is where Yegor Shtovba has spent the past 15 months in pretrial detention. In September 2022, he had read a love poem written for Nadezhda at a public gathering, his first time sharing his work in front of a crowd. He was detained that night as the police raided the event, and was eventually charged with “public calls for activities directed against state security.” The police accused him of cheering an antiwar poem read by another poet, an act that he denies.

His marriage to Nadezhda, in a short ceremony last month in a prison in downtown Moscow, was the first time the couple had any physical contact since his arrest.

“For 10 minutes, we just stood and hugged,” said the newly minted Ms. Shtovba, who recently turned 18 and sews plush toys for income.

The wedding, in the presence of a registrant and prison officials, was a testament to their young love, which can be glorious but also complicated, confusing and hard to navigate even in good circumstances. In Russia, an authoritarian state in the midst of severe crackdown on freedom of expression, it can turn the joyous moment of marriage into a trying struggle.

Nadezhda Shtovba after her wedding ceremony in a prison in downtown Moscow.Credit…via Aleksandra Popova

“Of course, I didn’t expect to get married this young,” said Ms. Shtovba, excited about using the last name of her new husband, who turned 23 last month. “But as his girlfriend, I don’t have any legal relationship with him, and it would be impossible to see him.”

There are hundreds of political prisoners in Russia, according to Memorial, a human rights group that is itself banned by the authorities. Some are well-known opposition politicians, like Aleksei A. Navalny and Ilya Yashin, whose 8.5-year sentence for criticizing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was upheld last month.

But hundreds are lesser known, and most have loved ones who are fighting to maintain a connection with them while they are “in the zone,” a slang term for high-security prisons in Russia.

“When they tear away from you the most beloved, dear person with whom you are planning a family and planning a future, it is very difficult,” said Aleksandra Popova, an activist whose husband, Artyom Kamardin, was a co-defendant in Mr. Shtovba’s trial.

Last week, Mr. Shtovba was sentenced to five and a half years in prison, and Mr. Kamardin, also a poet, was sentenced to seven years, for what the authorities characterized as undermining national security and inciting hatred. The lengthy sentences illustrate the Kremlin’s determination to stamp out any form of antiwar protest.

Nadezhda and Yegor met the way a lot of young couples do: at the mall, by happenstance. They chatted on social media constantly, she recounted in an interview, eventually becoming best friends before falling in love. They took a break for a while, and had just started seeing each other again when Mr. Shtovba was arrested.

Courtship can grind to a halt and relationships are put to the test at a time when both parties are facing the psychological and emotional stress that comes with prison conditions in Russia, and a justice system in which judges pronounce a guilty verdict in more than 90 percent of criminal cases.

Mr. Shtovba was detained on Sept. 25, 2022, several days after the Kremlin began a domestically unpopular effort to mobilize at least 300,000 men to fight in Ukraine. He had finally racked up the courage to read in public some of his love poems, previously only shared with Nadezhda, and decided to go to a poetry reading in Triumfalnaya Square in central Moscow, next to a statue of Vladimir Mayakovsky, a poet from the early 20th century.

For 13 years, the “Mayakovsky Readings,” had attracted opposition-minded attendees. It was a spot with history: In the late 1950s and ’60s, dissident poets gathered there to recite their works and those of other independently minded writers. The readings were eventually violently suppressed and banned, until their revival in 2009.

At the September 2022 gathering, Mr. Kamardin, an engineer and activist, read a poem called “Kill me, militiaman” and a short — vulgarity-laced — couplet condemning the war.

The police soon started detaining people, including Mr. Shtovba, whom the authorities say was cheering as Mr. Kamardin spoke, an accusation that his wife and his lawyer deny. He sent Nadezhda a message telling her that he would not be able to meet her that night as planned, and then went incommunicado.

The next day, the police searched the apartment where Mr. Kamardin and Ms. Popova lived with another roommate. Ms. Popova said in an interview that security forces made her watch a video of Mr. Kamardin being sodomized with a bar from a dumbbell in another room in their home. Then they forced him to film a video begging for forgiveness for his actions.

Ms. Popova said that the officers beat her, dragged her by her hair and applied superglue to her face and mouth.

It was shocking, Ms. Popova said, “that in the center of Moscow, the authorities can torture someone and no one does anything.”

News organizations reported on the episode at the time, some citing Mr. Kamardin’s lawyer discussing the violent treatment. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International recounted the incident and called on Russia to end torture and cruel treatment of people in custody.

The Russian interior ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Moscow investigators said at the time of the arrest that the police had been within their rights to use force and denied any wrongdoing.

With her husband in jail, Ms. Popova needed to move out of their apartment. With security services surveilling her and her husband in prison, Ms. Popova said, “It is hard to find the feeling of home.”

Ms. Shtovba, for her part, said she felt an uncomfortable sense that her life was continuing while her husband’s was frozen in time.

“I have this awareness that I’m walking around, my life goes on, and he’s standing still, because he’s just not near me,” she said. “It’s hard to be aware of this.”

Prosecutors accused Mr. Kamardin, Mr. Shtovba and a third defendant of acting to humiliate “militias who took part in hostilities,” specifically those in the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, breakaway regions of Ukraine that Russia illegally annexed last year.

Since then, both men have been held in Butyrka, a prison since the days of Catherine the Great. Mayakovsky, the early-20th-century poet, is said to have written some of his first verses there before the Russian Revolution, and other writers like the poet Osip Mandelstam and the Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were held there in Soviet times.

Last May, nine months after Mr. Kamardin was detained, he and Ms. Popova wed in a bare ceremony similar to Nadezhda and Yegor’s. With normal wedding rings banned, Mr. Kamardin tried to persuade the prison security to let him use the plastic rings from the neck of a bottle. He was turned down. But he did manage to borrow a fancy suit jacket from a wealthy prisoner accused of bribery.

“I was so nervous to see him, to touch him, because I was worried that he could fall apart if I touched him,” Ms. Popova said. “The fact that you can hug that person, touch them, and they won’t disappear like some kind of ghost — that was so important.”

“The first time hugging in nine months — it gives you a new strength to continue to live, you understand what you are fighting for.”

Mr. Shtovba soon followed suit. After Nadezhda turned 18, he sent her a letter through the prison’s electronic mail system containing one sentence: “Will you marry me?”

She sent another one back: Yes.

Soon Ms. Shtovba will be able to see her husband without a glass or plastic divider separating them; once he is transferred to a new facility, the pair will have the right to conjugal visits.

Ms. Popova, who organizes letter-writing campaigns and supports prisoners by mailing them food and clothes, was waiting for Ms. Shtovba when she emerged from her brief wedding ceremony on Dec. 6.

“She told me that she was afraid to touch him, hug him, afraid she would break him, that he was so fragile,” Ms. Popova said, in an echo of her own experience. “She said she had sort of forgotten that Yegor is so tall, that she feels like Thumbelina with him. I mean, it’s so weird and so sad when you forget what your loved one is like, what he smells like.”

In a message on the Telegram app after the wedding, Ms. Shtovba said it was true.

“Well, I am very unaccustomed to him.”

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