1 June 2021
by Ivan Pavlov, lawyer, leader of the Team 29 project, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize
A severe form of spymania began in Russia in 2012-2014, and no one needs to be reminded that those were the days of mass protests on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Prospekt, Cold War rhetoric, then the Crimea, Donbass, and sanctions.
They constantly repeat to us that we live in a time of war: Russia must arm itself, the entire world is against us, enemies are all around. But the enemies are not only abroad, they are also here at home. This militaristic rhetoric creates a mood in society that leads to a feverish search for such enemies — traitors and spies. And, if previously under the law on treason, two or three people were found guilty every year, nowadays it’s up to fifteen — five times more. Taking into account the seriousness of the charge, that is a colossal leap.
The FSB is responsible for the search for domestic enemies. The agency has a plan that needs to be achieved — overachievement is even better — in order to receive awards, titles, and better jobs for exposing enemies of the Fatherland. Not only do the investigators and officers feed at this trough, but so do the prosecutors who energetically fly up the career ladder. But what do you do if there aren’t any real enemies? You need to make them up. Under our laws it doesn’t take a brilliant mind to do that, especially since in 2012 Article 275 on “Treason” was significantly “improved.”
For example, they expanded the circle of people to whom it would be treasonous to give information: previously it was only a foreign state or a foreign organization, and now it includes international organizations. They described in greater detail the term “help,” explaining that help could be financial, material, technical, consulting, or any other type which caused the FSB to have no doubts that anything it felt like could be covered by Article 275. They removed the words “malicious activity causing damage to the external safety of the Russian Federation” and now it is only about “activity directed against the safety of the Russian Federation.” That means that even here the concept was broadened.
In general, Article 275 has become so universal that it can be used, if not against everyone, then against very many. In the high risk group under the article for treason are those who deal in information and have contacts with foreign organizations and colleagues. In the first place, scientists and academics, most usually the elderly who have health problems. For example, Viktor Kudriavtsev had lung cancer, Valery Mitko had had three strokes, Anatoly Gubanov had cancer, and Valery Golubkin had survived a very serious operation.
Evidently the investigators believe that it’s easier to accuse such people, easier to scare them and break them. Here you have a scientific worker, sitting his whole life in an office and circulating in academic circles, and he ends up in the most severe solitary confinement in Lefortovo. The investigator says to him, “According to the charges against you, you should get 20 years of hard labour.” But then he adds, “But if you listen to me, it will be only eight.” Many just sign off on anything they are given, agree to an attorney, named by the investigator, who is convenient for the investigator and often acts against the interests of the defendant. In sum, the country is deprived of yet another academic, the scientific community is scared, some leave science, some emigrate, but some, in another agency, receive stars on their shoulder straps and promotions.
The fact that since 2012 the number of treason cases has quintupled as well as the number of scientists and academics leaving Russia is, I am convinced, no coincidence. But the security services don’t even consider that their actions are bleeding science dry. Or perhaps they do indeed think that academics are more useful in prison sewing shops or as loggers than in laboratories or research institutes. They need to create an atmosphere of fear and don’t give a damn if it damages the interests of the state as a whole.
The military, bureaucrats, top managers of state-owned companies and former employees of the intelligence services themselves are, by virtue of their work, an easy target for the FSB. However, the accusations against them are absurd, and the prosecutors do not even bother to look for someone remotely resembling a real spy or traitor. For example, the radio engineer Gennady Kravtsov, who worked for the GRU [the foreign military intelligence agency of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces], was imprisoned for six years just for sending his resumé to Sweden.
Of course, journalists are also at risk. According to the Criminal Code, treason in the form of espionage is formally defined as collecting or passing on specific information to representatives of a foreign state or foreign organisation. If we translate journalistic activity into the language of the FSB, then it simply looks like the collection and transmission of information, which is how it is basically formulated in the “spy” articles of the Criminal Code. A meeting with a foreign colleague, some foreign correspondent working in Russia, may be interpreted as recruitment; questions posed by the interlocutor may be interpreted as an espionage mission; and discovering a state secret in the answers to questions is a purely technical matter. With us, any information can be defined as a state secret, don’t worry about that! For the KGB, journalistic activities, especially in the sensitive spheres related to the military-industrial complex, military-technical cooperation, the space industry, and international relations, are an infinite source of potential candidates to be accused of treason. And the definition of what comprises sensitive information has been expanded to such an extent that even peaceful topics such as energy, ecology, government and parliamentary activities can come under suspicion.
The third group at risk is geographic. This includes all those living in Crimea and in other regions located close to zones of military conflict. There are many so-called “Ukrainian spies” in Russian detention centres – pensioners, sailors, businesspeople, football players and other random individuals who happen to have found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The transfer of Crimea from one state to another has had legal implications for all the inhabitants of the peninsula. As of yesterday, they were citizens of another country, with which they had been associated all their lives, where they had personal ties, where they had worked and studied. All of that can’t be wiped out in a day. Current relations between Ukraine and Russia mean that all the residents of Crimea are at risk in one way or another, and any one of them can find themselves prosecuted under Articles 275 [high treason] or 276 [espionage] of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation
Svetlana Davydova, who is the mother of several children, Oksana Sevastidi, who works in a baker’s shop, and Anik Kesyan, who makes dumplings for her living, have all been accused of treason. These are ordinary women who have never dealt with state secrets and who have no relation to matters of state security. The nuance is that they all lived in places near to Russia’s military conflicts with Ukraine or Georgia and, having accidentally seen military equipment going through their city, or having heard a serviceman talk in a minibus about the transfer of his unit to the Donbas, they told their friends who lived on the other side of the border. In 2013–2016, at least ten people were convicted of high treason or espionage in Krasnodar Region alone, accounting for almost a quarter of all such sentences in Russia!
In my 25 years working as a lawyer, I have not seen a single real spy. Of course, this doesn’t mean they don’t exist. But it does mean that no one and nothing prevents them from working, because no one here is looking for real spies. That’s hard work. Why put yourself to all that trouble when you can simply come up with a case, send someone to prison and promote your own service career?