PRAGUE -- Czech authorities have denied asylum to a Russian man convicted for a social-media post stating that the Soviet Union collaborated with Nazi Germany and jointly "unleashed" World War II by attacking Poland.
Vladimir Luzgin, an auto detailer from the central Russian city of Perm, was informed of the decision on his asylum request during a May 15 meeting at the Czech Interior Ministry.
"They explained that they didn't find grounds for my political persecution," a visibly deflated Luzgin told RFE/RL outside the Czech Interior Ministry in Prague following the meeting. "Of course I'm disappointed," he said, adding that "life goes on."
The Czech authorities wrote that it "was not within their expert competence" to "engage in polemics" regarding the truthfulness of the historical events in question, and noted a lack of detail in Luzgin's asylum application as reasons for the denial.
"He did not encounter any negative reactions personally [in Russia], and he was not exposed to any action that could be described as persecution," the authorities said in a written judgement.
"I thought I was going to quit smoking today," the 39-year old said as he lit up a cigarette. He now has 15 days to decide whether to appeal the decision.
Luzgin fled Russia following his June 2016 conviction under a statute criminalizing the "rehabilitation of Nazism" that critics and historians assail as part of a broad effort by Russian President Vladimir Putin's government to manipulate history for political purposes.
Luzgin's case is one of the most high-profile of more than 10 convictions under the statute signed into law by Putin in May 2014 following Russia's seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and amid the escalating war in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv's forces and Russia-backed separatists.
His conviction was based on language in the law criminalizing the denial of "facts recognized by the international military tribunal" in Nuremberg, Germany, after World War II and the dissemination of "intentionally false information about the Soviet Union's activities during World War II."
The crime is punishable by up to three years in prison, though Luzgin was spared incarceration and fined 200,000 rubles ($3,240). The Russian Supreme Court upheld the ruling in September 2016.
Luzgin declined to pay the fine and fled to the Czech Republic. After leaving Russia, he told RFE/RL's Russian Service in December 2016 that he decided not to pay because he does not consider himself guilty.
He has filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in connection with his conviction.
'Unleashing World War II'
The criminal case against Luzgin was based on a December 2014 post on the popular Russian social-networking site VKontakte. The material in question was a repost of a list of talking points defending Stepan Bandera, a World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist who collaborated with Nazi Germany against the Soviets but who also fell afoul of the Nazis.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center accuses followers of Bandera, who remains a venerated figure for Ukrainian nationalists, of participating in the "mass murder of Jews during the initial stages of the Holocaust."
After mass protest in Ukraine swept Kremlin-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February 2014, Russian officials and media repeatedly denounced supporters of his ouster as "Banderites" and "fascists."
But it wasn't the defense of Bandera in Luzgin's repost that landed him in trouble, and prosecutors did not accuse him of approving of Nazi crimes.
Instead, the court convicted Luzgin for language in the repost stating that the Soviet Union and Germany "actively collaborated" and "attacked Poland together, unleashing World War II," according to a copy of the verdict in his case.
(Left to right:) German civil servant Friedrich Gaus, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Soviet leader Josef Stalin, and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov in Moscow in 1939.
The repost, which the court said drew around 20 views on Luzgin's Vkontakte page, referenced the 1939 nonaggression pact -- so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact -- between Adolf Hitler's Germany and Josef Stalin's Soviet Union.
The pact paved the way for the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, as well as the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland two weeks later and the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States in 1940.
Soviet authorities long denied the existence of a secret protocol between the Soviets and Nazi Germany agreeing on spheres of influence in Europe between the two powers, though the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies ultimately condemned the pact in December 1989.
Putin himself has criticized the pact, while at the same time comparing it to dealings with Hitler by other leaders before the war.
"All attempts to appease the Nazis between 1934 and 1939 through various agreements and pacts were morally unacceptable," Putin in Poland in 2009. "We must admit these mistakes. Our country has done this."
But Putin has shifted his public remarks on the matter in recent years, saying the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact "made sense for ensuring the security of the Soviet Union" and suggesting there was nothing wrong with what he portrayed as a Soviet effort to avoid war.
'A Matter Of Time'
Proponents of criminalizing the "rehabilitation of Nazism" in Russia say it is necessary to "defend the historical record" about World War II, in which an estimated 20 million Soviet citizens lost their lives.
"We will not allow history to be rewritten," Russian lawmaker Irina Yarovaya, a key backer of the law, said of the push for the statute in 2013.
But some Russian historians have sharply criticized the law, calling it dangerous "for society's historical awareness" and for academics attempting to conduct objective research.
Days before Luzgin learned that he had been denied asylum in the Czech Republic, the Russian rights group Agora released a report in which it found at least 100 cases of prosecutions or bans by Russian authorities over the past decade related to public speech on history-related subjects.
According to Agora's research, they include 16 convictions in a total of 17 criminal cases.
"There are only a few criminal cases so far, but the number is growing," one of the report's co-authors, attorney Pavel Chikov, told RFE/RL.
More broadly, Russian authorities in recent years have stepped up prosecutions for online posts deemed to violate anti-extremism laws that critics say are often abused to stifle dissent.
So far no one in Russia has been sentenced to actual prison time after being convicted under the "rehabilitation of Nazism" statute, Chikov's co-author, Damir Gainutdinov, told RFE/RL's Russian Service.
"But it's only a matter of time," he added.