MOSCOW, Russia — Alexei Dymovsky sits in full uniform and stares at the camera with tired eyes.
“Maybe you don’t know about us, about simple cops, who live and work and love their work. I’m ready to tell you everything. I’m not scared of my own death,” Dymovsky says in a YouTube message addressed to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
“I will show you the life of cops in Russia, how it is lived, with all the corruption and all the rest – with ignorance, rudeness, recklessness, with honest officers killed because they have stupid bosses.”
And so Dymovsky continues, in a series of three 2-to-7-minute long videos released over the past week that have together garnered 1 million hits on YouTube, and caused a firestorm across Russia.
In a country where open criticism is seen as a brief luxury offered by the chaotic post-Soviet 1990s, the videos immediately raised questions about Dymovsky’s safety — and the power and fate of the internet in Russia.
One question they did not raise regards the level of corruption and brutality of the Russian police. Those are taken as a given.
Statistics are hard to come by, but just looking at one day in the life of Russia’s police force gives a good idea of how bad it is. On Tuesday, which happened to be National Police Day, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev used his annual speech as a chance to remind officers that their “weapons should be pointed only in the direction of criminals, and not aimed at peaceful citizens."
(The reminder was particularly pertinent following an April massacre at a Moscow supermarket, when a police officer went on a shooting rampage hunting down shoppers, killing three and injuring six.)
In the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk, a police officer was sentenced to 12 years in prison for beheading a 20-year-old man after the two fought over 60 rubles (about $2). In the southwestern city of Stravopol, a 22-year-old police officer was brought before a court for allegedly killing a 17-year-old girl while drunk before dumping the body near her relatives’ house. And on and on.
Dymovsky, a 32-year-old police major stationed in the Black Sea port city of Novorossiisk, said he has had enough.
“I hope others will listen, other officers who don’t want to live on their knees. I think many will understand. I want to work. But I can no longer stand investigating made-up crimes, imprisoning people we are told to imprison. I can’t stand crimes made-on-order. I’m sick of it all,” he says in one video.
Dymovsky was promptly fired after the clips spread across the internet, and a local prosecutor has opened an investigation into libel. The interior ministry has ordered an investigation into the claims, with the report to be presented to Putin.
On Tuesday morning, Dymovsky fled to Moscow, where he held a press conference in a packed room. As the neatly dressed blond made his way through the crowd, one cameraman shouted, “Let the hero through!”
Dymovsky has served in the police force for 10 years, he says in one of the videos, living on a monthly wage of 14,000 rubles ($487) while working “30 out of every 31 days.”
At the press conference, he likened his act to “suicide.”
“I’m a little scared to speak in front of you and the whole country,” Dymovsky says on one video. “I have a wife, who is six months pregnant. But I can’t act differently.”
A work-related injury prompted Dymovsky’s public appeal, after he says local medical officials refused to treat him. Tabloid website Life.ru ran an interview with the clinic’s main doctor, Zoya Vasilievna, on Tuesday, who said: “This major provoked a very strange feeling — his face carried all the signs of psychopathic person.”
An interior ministry source chose another tack to slam Dymovsky, accusing him of working for foreign agents.
“The chosen method, the form and time of publication of the video, is evidence of the fact that Dymovsky is being used by the support of third parties," the source told Interfax news agency this weekend.
“The leadership of several so-called regional ‘human rights’ groups, sponsored, in part, from abroad are actively participating in this affair,” the source said, singling out USAID, the U.S. government development agency.
The U.S. embassy declined to comment on Tuesday. Dymovsky himself denied the claim on Tuesday, saying he had only met foreigners twice before in his life.
What the interior ministry source also appeared to hint at was the format of Dymovsky’s complaint — using a medium that remains largely free of government control.
“It’s about freedom,” said Lev Ponomaryov, one of Russia’s leading human rights activists. “The internet is the only free platform where such things can be made public.”
He said he feared for a coming crackdown on the internet by government authorities, who have taken all major television channels under control, and work with a largely compliant print media.
“I think they will do something,” Ponomaryov said. “They will shut down the internet.”
There have been increasing worries in Russia as authorities turn their attention to the internet, with usage growing every day. In the past couple of years, several bloggers have been charged with extremism for blog posts and comments critical of the government.