YEVGENY Roizman tries to conceal his sadness behind a mountain of work at his charity fund in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, where visitors queue to see him.
Roizman, who was Yekaterinburg’s mayor between 2013 and 2018, is Russia’s last prominent opposition figure who is still in the country and not behind bars.
Russian society is reeling from a historic crackdown on dissent as Moscow presses ahead with its military intervention in Ukraine.
All top opposition figures are either in prison-like Roizman’s friend Alexei Navalny or in exile.
Roizman, who openly denounces President Vladimir Putin and his campaign in Ukraine, says he knows he can be arrested at any moment.
“I have no illusions,” the tough-minded opposition politician told AFP, sporting red moccasins.
“But I also have no fear.”
Tall and sporty, the 59-year-old first shot to prominence as an anti-drugs activist fighting Russia’s severe narcotics epidemic.
When he served as mayor, he made himself accessible to his constituents, receiving the city’s neediest people to help them solve their problems.
He resigned after authorities moved to scrap mayoral elections, but he is still closely involved in his charity’s work.
Every Friday the former mayor receives people at his fund located in the centre of Russia’s fourth-largest city.
Requests range from help finding a job to assistance buying Zolgensma, the world’s most expensive drug used to treat children with spinal muscular atrophy.
Come what may
On a recent Friday afternoon, AFP saw several dozen people waiting to speak to the opposition politician including a family with an autistic child, a couple of admirers, and a weeping woman who wanted to emigrate because of Russia’s offensive in Ukraine.
Roizman said he was afraid of speaking to his friends and acquaintances in Ukraine because he “feels insanely guilty”.
“What can I wish Ukrainians?” he said.
“I can ask for their forgiveness and wish them strength and courage.”
He said he and like-minded Russians understood that they were helpless in the face of “absolute evil”.
But he said he was convinced that sooner or later “justice will prevail.”
That Friday, one of his daughters was getting married so the former mayor shuttled in and out of the office throughout the day.
Roizman said he would not buckle under pressure and would continue to speak out and help people.
“Do what you must and come what may,” he said.
The noose around Roizman is tightening.
He was recently fined three times for condemning Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine.
Fellow opposition activists Ilya Yashin and Vladimir Kara-Murza have recently been arrested and are now in pre-trial detention over discrediting the Russian army. Both face a decade in prison.
Roizman’s admirers are worried.
“We’re afraid that they will imprison him like all the others,” said Yevgeniya Kuzmenkova, who travelled from the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.
“So we came to see him and shake his hand before he is persecuted,” said the 36-year-old, who arrived with her husband.
Roizman’s road to opposition stardom has been somewhat controversial.
Born to a Jewish engineer father and a Russian childcare worker mother, he served a prison sentence in his youth.
In the 1990s, he became an entrepreneur when Yekaterinburg was an epicentre of gang warfare.
In 1999, he co-founded a foundation called City Without Drugs and a drug rehab centre in Yekaterinburg.
Rights activists have questioned the centre’s methods, which included handcuffing addicts to their beds and forcing heroin users to go cold turkey.
Its supporters however have reported a drop in drug-related deaths since the foundation was set up.
Roizman was a lawmaker between 2003 and 2007. In 2013, he snatched the mayoral seat from under the Kremlin’s nose, becoming Russia’s highest-profile opposition mayor.
After resigning he never missed an opportunity to needle the Kremlin.
He has a penchant for crude language and has peppered Twitter with swear words to mock officials, much to the delight of his supporters.
“It’s short and brutal anti-propaganda,” he said.
The use of profanities — that can lead to hefty fines in Russia — helps “reveal the true nature” of the official line, he added.
A literature aficionado, Roizman mused about the difficulty of translating swear words into foreign languages.
He recalled a conversation he once had with a prominent Slavist about the translation of works of French Renaissance writer Francois Rabelais known for his gallows humour.
He interrupted the interview to attend his daughter’s wedding, then returned.
When two young women arrived with abandoned kittens, he immediately turned to the new task.
“Do we need to find them a home, then?” he said. “That’s our main line of work.” — AFP