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Enemy of the State or its founding element? Yan Petrovsky, Russian nationalist accused of war crimes in Ukraine, was deported from Norway

Source: Meduza
Photo: Giovanni Pigni

In October of 2016, the Norwegian government stripped Russian citizen Yan Petrovsky of his permanent residence. Petrovksy, a resident in Norway since 2004, is a radical nationalist who was suspected of links with neo-Nazi Viacheslav Datsik. As vice-commander of the “Rusich” task force, Petrovsky fought against Ukrainian troops on the territories of the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s republics in 2014-2015. The Ukrainian Prosecutor General and the International Criminal Court (ICC) have been investigating “Rusich” fighters for alleged war crimes committed in Ukraine. Italian journalist Giovanni Pigni met Petrovsky in St. Petersburg to tell us his story.

The police came for him on the 18th of October 2016.

That same day, Ronny Bårdsen, a right-wing activist living in Tønesberg, a small Norwegian town, realized his house was surrounded by armed policemen in bulletproof vests. They said they came for his housemate, Russian citizen Yan Petrovsky. They said it was an issue of national security. As soon as Bårdsen started arguing, the policemen at the doorway pushed him aside and entered the house. After a short search, they found their man: Petrovsky, a tall, 29-year-old tall with a long braided ponytail was desperately trying to contact his lawyer. As Petrovsky recalls, the police officers proceeded immediately to arrest him. While still holding his phone, he showed a fierce resistance until multiple policemen overpowered and handcuffed him. Later on, in the police station, an officer informed Petrovsky that he had five days to pack his belongings and leave the country: Norwegian authorities decided to deport him.

The Norwegian press labelled Yan Petrovsky as a far right extremist and neo-Nazi. According to Ukrainian media, he is a terrorist and a war criminal. The New York Times mentions him as part of a “murky nationalist movement” that, counting on the support of Russian authorities, is seeking to turn European politics to the right. Yan Petrovsky considers himself a Russian nationalist and patriot, illegally deported from the country where he spent his whole adult life.

From Irkutsk to Norway

Yan was born in Irkutsk, on the shores of the Lake Baikal. After his parents divorced when he was still a child, he moved to St. Petersburg together with his mother. From an early age, Petrovsky loved studying history at school and ,in his free time, taking part in medieval re-enactments. (It’s interesting to notice that Igor Strelkov, the notorious pro-Russian leader during the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, was also interested in historical military re-enactments). When he was 16, after his mother married a Norwegian, Petrovsky emigrated to Norway. Even though it was not easy to leave behind his friends and beloved city, Petrovsky managed to integrate quite easily Scandinavian society. “There were no language problems, I already knew English and that helped me to learn Norwegian very quickly”. Living in Tønsberg, one of the oldest towns in Norway, allowed Petrovsky to nurture his interest for medieval history: he often visited the numerous archeological sites dating back to the Viking-era. After finishing school, Petrovsky went to Oslo studying graphic design. Apart from his studies, he lead a healthy lifestyle, cycling in summer and snowboarding in winter.

When asked about the origins of his nationalistic ideals, Petrovsky answers: “I have always been a patriot of my motherland”. He adds that all Russians have patriotism “in their genes”, although “not everyone can discover and understand those genes”. Petrovsky's patriotic feelings have always been coupled with leadership ambitions and the constant desire to stand out from the crowd. “I never wanted to be an "average person" [...], somebody indifferent to everything, who just cares about working and eating, working and eating. I have always been striving for something more so that people would listen to me, follow me in the pursuit of the Russian ideal. And the Russian ideal is very simple: bring light and peace to this world”.

Petrovsky in his design studio in Norway
Source: Yan Petrovsky's personal archive

Petrovsky considers Norway his second Motherland. His arms are fully covered by tattoos with scandinavian runes and the ancient Slavic god of war, Perun. When asked how someone can be a nationalist of two countries, he points out the common past shared by Slavs and Scandinavians, “Norwegians travelled across the territory of the ancient Rus'; Russians settled in northern Scandinavia. We even shared a simplified language for trading called “Russenorsk”.

However, Petrovsky quickly grew disappointed by certain aspects of contemporary Norwegian society. According to him, Norwegians are forgetting their national roots, particularly the new generation is losing its national identity, transforming into a “grey mass.” He is convinced that the excessive inclusiveness and tolerance of Norwegian society lead people to consider themselves more “European” than “Norwegian”.“In Russia it is normal to consider yourself a nationalist, while in Norway it is not really accepted. They are almost afraid to call themselves "patriots". Norwegian society is based on "hyper tolerance" which is an obstacle for people's self-identification”.

It was only natural that in Norway, Petrovsky's nationalistic views were welcomed by a local group of “patriots”. He describes them as “educated, wealthy businessmen.” Evgeni Dyakonov, Russian journalist living in Norway, met Petrovsky and his friends in Oslo. The first impression of them was positive, he recalls:“I really liked them. They abstain from alcohol and drugs, leading a healthy lifestyle[…] They are interested in art and literature”. However, Dyakonov distanced himself from them as soon as they started manifesting their radical positions. 

From a tattoo-studio to Donetsk

After graduating from university, Petrovsky started working in the Oslo tattoo studio “True Metal Tattoo”. John Færset, Norwegian freelance journalist and researcher of radical movements, told “Meduza” that the studio “was regarded to be the meeting place for a small group of armed eastern European neo-Nazis”. In September 2010, the police raided the tattoo shop and discovered illegal weapons, military equipment, and fake documents. Petrovsky and his colleagues were subsequently arrested. The investigation uncovered that the weapons belonged to Russian neo-nazi Vyacheslav Datsik, who had just escaped from a psychiatric clinic in St. Petersburg. Datsik, who was acquainted with the owner of the tattoo studio, had fled to Norway asking for political asylum. (Eventually he was extradited to Russia and remained in prison until March 2016. He is currently in custody after a new criminal case was opened against him). After one month spent in custody, Petrovsky was eventually released given that, according to his words, there was no evidence against him. Since then, life in Norway became increasingly complicated. Customers of “True Metal Tattoo” were scared off by media coverage of the studio. “Journalists started publishing a lot of negative material about me, writing that I am a neo-Nazi, a racist and a terrorist. The radical leftists based in Oslo started vandalizing our studio, breaking windows, a kind of paltry action”.

After his release Petrovsky frequently travelled back to Russia where he was taking on odd jobs as a graphic designer. In 2011, he met Aleksey Milchakov, a young nationalist from St. Petersburg interested in weapons. Seemingly on the same wavelength, the two would regularly hunt and train together. According to Petrovsky, this was exclusively “sport activity”.

Petrovsky in a tattoo salon in Oslo where he used to work
Source: Yan Petrovsky's personal archive

Sport skills proved useful in spring of 2014 when the conflict in eastern Ukraine started and Petrovsky decided to join the ranks of the pro-Russian separatists. “I went there to defend Russian people, the greatest honor for a Russian fighter” he explains. Petrovsky and Milchakov gathered a group of trained volunteers and, after buying the necessary military equipment, joined a “humanitarian” convoy bound to Lugansk. In the summer of 2014, they founded the task force “Rusich”, as part of the “Batman” battalion led by general Aleksandr Bednov. “Rusich” was composed by nationalists from St. Petersburg, Moscow and, as Petrovsky says, “other cities of the Rus'”.As vice commander of the task force, Petrovsky took part in the battles for the Lugansk and Donetsk airports. In the Lugansk oblast’, “Rusich” carried out sabotage missions behind the enemy lines; in the Donesk oblast’ they took part in positional battle near the villages of Belokamenka and Novolaspa,

“Rusich” fighters achieved considerable fame after ambushing and destroying a Ukrainian military convoy next to Metallist on September 5, 2014. Pictures of Petrovsky posing with killed Ukrainian soldiers in the background quickly spread across the internet.

While Petrovsky was fighting in Ukraine, Norwegian authorities issued a notice which revoked his arm license. Petrovsky contested the legality of the decision, defining it baseless. “I had my hunting weapon confiscated just because I went to fight on the pro-Russian side. I immediately appealed. [...]What was that about? Where is it written that I am not allowed to take part in armed conflicts?”.

A "Rusich" memorial rally in St. Petersburg, November 19, 2016
Photo: Alexey Danichev / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

The task force Rusich left Ukrainian territory in the end of June 2015. At the time, the “Batman” battalion was having a dispute with the head of the self-proclaimed Lugansk republic Igor Plotnizky. The leader of the battalion, Aleksandr Bednov, was killed in January 2015 in a showdown with Lugansk Interior Ministry armed forces. “Rusich” commander Milchakov posted on his Vkontakte page that “the group achieved its goals” and that “we are not going to fight further in these conditions since it is unclear what interests we are representing”. Petrovsky and his comrades are not planning to go back to Donbass, being disappointed of the current political situation in the self-proclaimed republics. Petrovsky condemns the political games which, according to him, led to the assassination of Donetsk commander Motorola in October last year. 

From Norway back to the Motherland

After his return to Norway, Petrovsky found new allies in the vigilante group “Soldier of Odin”. In February 2016 he took part in so called “walks” – these are patrols organized by the “Soldiers of Odin” to ensure public order in the streets of Norwegian cities. Despite its mission of protecting everyone “regardless of ethnic background”, the group raised concerns because of its racist and xenophobic tendencies. (Petrovsky's housemate, Ronny Bårdsen was also active in the organization. According to journalist Færseth, Bårdsen was behind the radical online portal Fyret).

As reported in local Norwegian media, some of its members are notorious far right radicals with previous criminal records. The founder of the group, Finnish Mikka Renta is a self proclaimed neo nazi who was convicted in 2005 for racially aggravated assault. The communications director of the Norwegian Police Security Service expressed his concern about “violent individuals” who are usually attracted by these organizations”

Petrovsky disagrees with such allegations. “They [the Soldiers of Odin] just look at the statistics about thefts, rapes and see the kind of people that are usually responsible for those”. These statistics, he claims, show that “ethnic gangs are breaking the law more often”.

According to Petrovsky, after his return to Norway from Donbass, he became the target of political persecution carried out by the Norwegian police. He claims that microphones were found in his design studio and he would often receive calls from “anonymous numbers”. “I would tell them that if they want to talk then we are going to do it in the presence of my lawyer, according to my rights” explains Petrovsky.

On October 5th, Petrovsky's lawyer, Nils Christian Nordhus, received an official notice from the Immigration Service. According to the document, immigration authorities regarded Petrovsky’s connections with radical extremists and his military training as a possible “threat to fundamental national interests”. Therefore, the notice said, they were considering the possibility of his expulsion from Norway and the revocation of his residence permit. Two weeks later Yan was arrested in his house and after a few days spent in custody, deported to Russia.

"Odin's Soldiers" in Drammen, Norway. February 21, 2016
Photo: Heiko Junge / NTB Scanpix / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

The Immigration Service stated that part of the police report on Petrovsky remains classified. A journalist who was present at the hearing prior to Petrovsky's deportation commented that authorities didn't want to specify in what way Petrovsky was posing a threat to national security. Norwegian police declined to provide “Meduza” with any comment regarding Petrovsky's case referring to the Norwegian law on personal data.

Petrovsky is now back in St Petersburg where he lives in his family apartment. Together with his commander Milchakov, he works as an instructor in the “military-patriotic club “Rusich”. This organization is conducting patriotically oriented military training for adults and children. Typical lessons include shooting, military tactics and survival in extreme conditions. Petrovsky is currently awaiting for the trial concerning the revocation of his residence permit, which will take place soon in Norway. He intends to prove that his deportation was the result of a “political persecution” and sue Norwegian authorities for that. “I have been a law-abiding citizen both in Norway and in Russia” he claims.

In November of 2016, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague completed a preliminary investigation into the events that took place in Crimea and Ukraine since November 2013. The investigation is based on a report that identifies Yan's armed group, “Rusich”, as responsible for war crimes. On November 21, the Prosecutor General of Ukraine opened a criminal case against Yan Petrovsky and his commander Aleksey Milchakov, both suspected of “participation in terrorist organization” on Ukrainian soil. Petrovsky rejects all these allegations. “I never committed any war crime, I was protecting Russian people, [...] exclusively taking part in military actions”. Regardless of whether they are innocent or guilty, Yan and his comrades are very unlikely to face international prosecution as long as they are on Russian territory. In November 2016 Russia refused to ratify the ICC Statute preventing the International Criminal Court to prosecute its citizens.

Yan looks calm and optimistic in regard to his future. In case the Norwegian tribunal confirms his expulsion , he will be deprived of his residence permit and banned from entering Schengen countries. The perspective does not seem to trouble him much . “I will be traveling across my Motherland. Russia is a big country”. Even though radical nationalists are often prosecuted in Russia, Petrovsky doesn’t feel threatened by local authorities: “Here I don't represent an undesirable element from a political point of view.[...] To put it bluntly, in Norway I am an enemy of the State. Here I am its founding element”.

Giovanni Pigni

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