Crushing the anarchists Following a suicide attack on the FSB, Russia has cracked down on leftist activists nationwide, sweeping up more than a few random bystanders
On Halloween last year, a 17-year-old anarchist set off a bomb inside the Federal Security Service’s office in Arkhangelsk, killing himself in the blast. An investigation into the terrorist attack has led to a sweeping crackdown on leftist activists across Russia, with many arrests, hundreds of raids, and some felony charges. Federal agents have taken a special interest in “Narodnaya Samooborona” (Popular Self-Defense), the country’s biggest anarchist organization, which the authorities blame for the Arkhangelsk bombing and more than 200 other “extremist actions.” Meduza special correspondent Pavel Merzlikin looks at the persecution of anarchists, following the attack on the FSB, and how the campaign has dragged in random bystanders.
“A radicalization of the youth”
“Comrades, a terrorist attack is about to be committed inside the FSB building in Arkhangelsk, and I claim direct responsibility.” This was the message Telegram user “Valeryan Panov” posted in the anarchist channel “Rech Buntovshchika” (Rebel Talk) on the morning of October 31, 2018. Panov said he was targeting the FSB because it “fabricates criminal cases and tortures people.” By this time, the Federal Security Service was roughly a year into its investigation of the “Set” (Network) organization, a supposedly terrorist community of anarchists and antifa activists. Panov said he expected to die in the attack, and signed off with the parting words: “I wish you a bright future of anarchist communism!”
A few minutes after these messages appeared on Telegram, a young man in a black coat walked into the FSB’s office in Arkhangelsk. He then removed a bomb from his backpack and triggered it, killing himself and injuring three federal agents. Russia’s Investigative Committee immediately classified the incident as a terrorist attack — the country’s only terrorist attack in 2018, according to data from the National Security Council.
The perpetrator, it turns out, was a local 17-year-old student named Mikhail Zhlobitsky. A devoted anarchist, he often corresponded with fellow activists in Telegram chat groups, was well versed in the history of anarchism, and operated a VKontakte account under the pseudonym “Sergey Nechaev,” several sources in the movement told Meduza. Other anarchists say they knew Zhlobitsky only through his messages online. He’d carried out no militant actions before the FSB bombing, and he was not a prominent figure in the movement. The teenager wrote in chat groups that he was ready to join the fight against the state, but he wanted to wait until he was 18, so he could answer for his actions independently.
Arkhangelsk officials immediately announced that the bomber acted alone, and sources among local anarchists told Meduza the same thing: Zhlobitsky was a “loner” who didn’t belong to any organizations. Nevertheless, the Federal Security Service and the Interior Ministry stated after the attack that Russia faces “a radicalization of the youth,” and both agencies vowed to fight back and prevent incidents like the office bombing and a campus shooting in Kerch that took place just two weeks earlier (when 18-year-old polytechnic college student Vyacheslav Roslyakov set off a homemade bomb and fired a hunting rifle at students and teachers, murdering 20 people and injuring more than 40, before killing himself).
After the attack in Arkhangelsk, Russian law enforcement executed a series of raids across the country, and these investigative measures continue to this day. Most recently, in April 2019, the news agency RIA Novosti reported that the federal authorities have tied the bombing to the anarchist organization “Narodnaya Samooborona” (Popular Self-Defense), charging the group with 247 different “extremist acts” in 40 different cities.
Meduza spoke over email to representatives from Narodnaya Samooborona who insist that the movement played no role in the FSB attack. Zhlobitsky was never a member, they say, though he was subscribed to its social-media community and sometimes wrote in the group’s public Telegram chats. The movement’s spokespeople say it’s no mystery how federal agents settled on the “247 extremist acts” number: they simply counted all the anarchist events reported on Narodnaya Samooborona’s social-media channels, despite the fact that many of these gatherings were single-person pickets and some were staged by anarchists from other movements.
The FSB is actively seeking anyone involved in either Narodnaya Samooborona or the Arkhangelsk bombing. According to human rights advocate Pavel Chikov, the authorities have carried out roughly 100 raids in connection with the Arkhangelsk case. Meduza’s sources say the number is even higher.
The Narodnaya Samooborona movement first appeared in 2013, after a schism in another well-known anarcho-communist group: “Avtonomnoe Deistvie” (Autonomous Action), which formed in 2002 with the goal of destroying the state and all its institutions. Sources in Russia’s anarchist community told Meduza that Narodnaya Samooborona presented itself from the start as a decentralized movement with activists in cities across the country. The group’s self-described main goal is “the achievement of a classless, stateless society” by popularizing the idea of anarchism, which is why Narodnaya Samooborona mainly practices advocacy and stages public demonstrations, picketing buildings and holding small marches. The movement also operated a separate project called “Pryamoe Deistvie” (Direct Action) to counter “apartment raiding,” where members guarded apartments against scammers and collectors who were trying to repossess tenants' homes.
By early 2018, Narodnaya Samooborona had effectively become Russia’s biggest, most important anarchist organization, sources told Meduza. The group itself says it is “basically the only public anarchist movement operating nationwide.”
As Narodnaya Samooborona developed, Russian anarchists turned increasingly to public demonstrations, reviving activity that disappeared in early 2017. For some campaigns, such as rallies in support of political prisoners, the group was able to unite anarchists from 30 to 40 different cities. Not every participant was a Narodnaya Samooborona member, but the movement grew and new activists were emerging constantly. (There’s no reliable record of how many people belong to the organization.)
Anarchists aggressively protested Vladimir Putin’s re-election in March 2018, spray-painting graffiti and gluing posters and stickers wherever they could that read, “Choose freedom, not a president.” Many of these campaign materials listed Narodnaya Samooborona’s website.
In early February 2018, the movement called on members and other anarchists to stage demonstrations in support of the “Set” case suspects. “It’s obvious to us that what’s happening is just an attempt to purge the anarchist movement ahead of the 2018 presidential election,” said a statement published on the group’s website. The call to arms led to small rallies across the country. In Moscow, a group of young people dressed in black, carrying flares and posters that said “The FSB is the main terrorist,” marched down Myasnitskaya Street, passing the FSB Border Service building. A few days later, anarchists in Chelyabinsk hung a banner with the same text from the gate of the local FSB office. Officials later apprehended the supposed perpetrators, who say they were then tortured with electric shocks and interrogated about Narodnaya Samooborona. Russia’s federal authorities are still pursuing members of the organization to this day.
Confessions under torture
Since February 2018, Russian officials have tried to link suspected Narodnaya Samooborona members to various criminal cases. For example, law enforcement arrested multiple Moscow anarchists in March 2018 on suspicion of attacking an office that belongs to the political party United Russia. Police searched their homes and questioned them about Narodnaya Samooborona (information about the attack was published in the group’s social-media community) and about anarchists’ growing public activity. Several suspects say the authorities tortured them during their interrogation. Moscow anarchist Svyatoslav Rechalkov says he was forced to identify as Narodnaya Samooborona’s leader, even though the movement is deliberately leaderless. He later left Russia, but state investigators reportedly still believe he is the head of the group. Narodnaya Samooborona’s representatives told Meduza that it’s simply convenient for the federal authorities to accuse protest movements of being controlled from abroad.
Moscow State University graduate student Azat Miftakhov — another anarchist suspect in the attack on United Russia’s office — also says he was tortured after he was taken into custody. The authorities arrested Miftakhov in early February 2019, and initially tried to charge him with bomb-making, but they couldn’t produce the needed evidence to make this case. Instead, Miftakhov was released from jail and then immediately re-arrested on charges of attacking United Russia’s Moscow office. Hundreds of scholars around the world have called for Miftakhov’s release, but he is still jailed at Butyrka prison, while investigators build a case claiming that he was also a member of Narodnaya Samooborona. Miftakhov denies the allegations.
Miftakhov says he believes he’s being prosecuted because of his political beliefs. The only evidence currently against him is testimony from a secret witness who supposedly identified him as one of the perpetrators a year after the attack on United Russia’s office. The mystery witness apparently says Miftakhov’s “expressive eyebrows” gave him away. The human rights organization “Memorial” says Miftakhov is a political prisoner.
After the terrorist attack against the FSB in Arkhangelsk, crackdowns against suspected Narodnaya Samooborona members intensified. Anarchist activists told Meduza that federal agents have said directly during raids and arrests that this is the agency taking its revenge for the bombing. They say the Federal Security Service has resolved to destroy Narodnaya Samooborona.
The eighth-grade anarchist
Narodnaya Samooborona says the federal authorities launched a massive campaign against its 30,000 VKontakte subscribers, following the Arkhangelsk attack. Police and FSB agents identified individual members and conducted “preventative talks” with them about their ties to anarchism and Narodnaya Samooborona.
During a mass sweep in Moscow, officials arrested 14-year-old anarchist Kirill Kuzminkin on November 4, 2018 — two days before a nationalist march, which he was supposedly planning to target in a terrorist attack, according to the newspaper Kommersant. Journalists later learned that Kuzminkin wanted to attend the demonstration with several friends, to get into a fight with the nationalists. He’d been arrested in the first place, it turns out, on suspicion of illegally manufacturing and storing explosives as part of an organized group, and he was never charged with terrorism-related crimes. The FSB thought Kuzminkin had accomplices, but it was never able to identify any. On April 16, 2019, federal investigators lowered the charges against him, removing the “organized group” component.
Kuzminkin’s relatives deny the charges, as well, arguing that his interest in chemistry explains why the authorities found “something like a detonator” and different “common components,” like potassium nitrate, when they searched their home. The family did not respond to questions from Meduza about the case.
Federal agents targeted the 14-year-old anarchist because he was supposedly in contact with Mikhail Zhlobitsky, the Arkhangelsk bomber. Sources told the magazine RBC that Kuzminkin and Zhlobitsky met on social media and discussed technology used to build explosives, and reportedly communicated not long before the latter’s suicide attack on the FSB building. Kuzminkin’s father says his son and the Arkhangelsk bomber were merely members in “one online group.”
The eighth grader has been in pretrial detention since last November, keeping up with school assignments while in state custody, as investigators continue to collect evidence. Meanwhile, Kuzminkin’s case is just one of many opened in the aftermath of the Arkhangelsk blast.
A community that justifies terrorism
Kaliningrad native Vyacheslav Lukichev says he first got into anarchism about 10 years ago, when he was in grade school. As a teenager who always read a lot and took an interest in history, he says he decided that this ideology “is the most correct.” Ever since, Lukichev says he’s always tried to show by example that “anarchists aren’t on the fringe.” He devoted himself to studying the theory of anarchism, volunteered at animal shelters and orphanages, and staged environmentalist rallies. Lukichev has simultaneously worked different jobs (he was recently a chef at a vegan cafe), all while dedicating his remaining free time to activism. He says he’s placed stickers throughout the city and drawn graffiti in support of persecuted anarchists and antifa activists, which has resulted in several beatings by Kaliningrad’s neo-fascists.
Lukichev is 24 years old today. He’s been a member of Narodnaya Samooborona since the movement emerged, participating in its public events, promoting it on social media, and he even opened a specialized library in the city for anarchists and antifa activists. Lukichev says these exploits have made him well-known to local law enforcement, as well. Since 2018, he’s also been on Interpol’s wanted list in connection with an attack in Kyiv on Dmitry “Verbich” Ivashchenko. Lukichev denies any involvement in the assault, and says no one in Russia has tried to arrest him in connection to the case.
On November 4, 2018, however, Russian officials arrested Lukichev in connection with a different case. Officers grabbed him at a bus stop, where he was waiting to go to an animal shelter with his girlfriend and her friend. A “suspicious car” approached the bus stop, and six masked men exited the vehicle, forcing all three of them into the back seat, before taking them to the city’s FSB office.
Lukichev’s lawyer, Maria Bontsler, says her client was interrogated and tortured for 36 hours. She says federal agents tried to tie Lukichev to the Arkhangelsk bomber through questions about Narodnaya Samooborona and its members. Lukichev refused to confess to any terrorist activity, but the FSB was aware that he'd created and administered a Telegram channel with connections to Narodnaya Samooborona: “Prometei” (Prometheus), which had roughly 4,000 subscribers at the time. Some of these subscribers also used the Telegram chat channel “Rech Buntovshchika” (Rebel Talk), where Mikhail Zhlobitsky posted his terrorist confession.
After Arkhangelsk, someone in the “Prometei” chat group posted a screenshot of Zhlobitsky’s suicide note, adding a short criticism of the attack that also praised the bomber’s heroism. The FSB accused Lukichev of authoring this post, and he ultimately confessed. Lukichev says he agreed to take responsibility in exchange for the release of his girlfriend and her friend.
Lukichev told Meduza that he only reposted the comment about Zhlobitsky’s heroism from another Telegram channel, though he acknowledges that he believes the suicide bombing was a brave act. He nevertheless disapproves of the attack because it provoked a wave of political repression against Russia’s anarchists.
On March 14, after more than four months in pretrial detention, Lukichev was fined 300,000 rubles ($4,695) for justifying terrorism, and his name was added to Russia’s Federal Financial Crimes Agency’s registry of extremists and terrorists. He is trying to challenge the ruling, and he says he plans to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights. Lukichev says the public outcry surrounding his case helped keep him out of prison. (Several animal rights and human rights organizations spoke out in his support, including “Memorial,” which condemned his trial as politically motivated.)
“There’s an element of public punishment”
Vyacheslav Lukichev isn’t the only person convicted of justifying terrorism in reactions to the Arkhangelsk bombing — there are at least four more known cases.
On February 6, the authorities searched the home of Svetlana Prokopyeva, a reporter who works at Radio Svoboda and other outlets, as part of an investigation into the journalist’s comments about the FSB attack while speaking as a guest on the radio station Ekho Moskvy v Pskove. In the course of her remarks, Prokopyeva observed that the state “itself raised” a generation of people who are now fighting against its repressive policies.
Officials also raided the radio station’s office, and a court later fined the outlet 150,000 rubles ($2,350) for the misdemeanor offense of abusing press freedoms. A court also fined the website Pskovskaya Lenta Novostei for publishing a transcript of Prokopyeva’s radio comments. Both the archived broadcast and the transcript are now deleted.
Prokopyeva is still under investigation. Tumas Misakyan, her attorney, told Meduza that the case has been extended until June 2019. He says he’s confident in his client’s innocence, arguing that nothing she said on the air justified terrorism. Misakyan says he expects the case to be dismissed.
Prokopyeva told Meduza that she’s continued doing her job, despite the investigation, focusing primarily on editing other journalists’ texts. “Of course, there’s an element of public punishment. They’re trying to blame me for doing my job. Thinking about what’s happening and analyzing current events is what journalists do for a living,” Prokopyeva says, emphasizing that she hopes investigators will drop their case.
The Russian authorities have charged three other people with similar offenses. Ekaterina Muranova, an anarchist living in Karelia, is under investigation for writing the following about Mikhail Zhlobitsky: “... but before my eyes stands the ghost of glorious 19th-century heroes and dynamite, which so selflessly perished for the struggle.” Investigators say Muranova also wrote “May he rest in peace! Hero!” in a comment below several images of a demolitionist that she shared on Narodnaya Samooborona’s VKontakte group page. Muranova has refused to testify in the case, invoking the Russian Constitution’s protection against self-incrimination. She is currently free, but unable to leave town until the investigation is finished.
Nadezhda Romasenko, a 52-year-old Communist Party activist from the city of Vytegra in Russia’s Vologda region, has also been charged with justifying terrorism because of a post on VKontakte. Police say they received an anonymous complaint against her repost of Zhlobitsky’s suicide note and her caption: “Well done.” Romasenko now says she doesn’t approve of the Arkhangelsk terrorist attack and considers what she wrote to have been “stupid.” At the same time, she says she suspects that police opened a criminal case against her in the first place because she frequently attends local public protests.
The last suspect accused of justifying Mikhail Zhlobitsky’s act of terrorism is Pavel Zlomnov, who lives in St. Petersburg. The FSB arrested Zlomnov back in January 2018 for illegal weapons possession. Relatives claim the arresting officers beat him up, before sending him to a pretrial detention center in the Gorelovo District notorious for prisoner abuse. Human rights advocates have repeatedly said the facility’s officials even recruit some detainees to attack fellow inmates to force confessions.
In early February, Zlomnov was released on his own recognizance after the investigation’s maximum timeframe expired, but federal agents re-arrested him almost immediately, this time on charges of justifying terrorism.
Zlomnov’s attorney, Pavel Yasman (a lawyer for the former Open Russia movement’s human rights project), told Meduza that the case is based on the testimony of other pretrial detainees who supposedly heard Zlomnov call Mikhail Zhlobitsky “a true people’s hero.” To make matters worse, Zlomnov is now implicated in a third criminal case for insulting a state official (in jail, he allegedly offended one of the guards).
Zlomnov’s brother and father, Mikhail and Andrey, are both lawyers and they are assisting in his legal defense, but now they’ve also been charged with criminal activity (for supposedly insulting FSB detective Dmitry Sablin, the agent responsible for Zlomnov’s case). In response, more than 40 attorneys in Moscow and St. Petersburg formally protested the harassment of their colleagues.
“Everyone should be ready for the crackdown”
In early April 2019, the Russian authorities continued raiding new suspects in the investigation into the Arkhangelsk terrorist attack. Officials targeted both anarchists and what would appear to be completely random bystanders from Moscow to Khabarovsk, searching the homes of teachers, musicians, street artists, and activists from other political movements. Some of these people were subscribed to Narodnaya Samooborona on social media, while others say they’d never before heard of the organization. The authorities asked about the movement, the bombing in Arkhangelsk, about anarchist chat groups on Telegram, and even about first-person-shooter video games.
The FSB also searched the home of Moscow Helsinki Group lawyer Alexander Peredruk’s parents, trying to determine if their son had any contact with Zhlobitsky before his suicide attack. During the raid, federal agents confiscated Peredruk’s computer and memory card. He told Meduza that he doesn’t understand why the FSB is looking at him, given that he didn’t know the Arkhangelsk bomber. Sergey Golubok, Peredruk’s attorney, has formally asked the Investigative Committee to explain the reason for the search of the Peredruks’ apartment, but there’s been no response, so far.
The FSB has assigned witness status to several of the individuals whose homes it’s raided, including Mikhail Kargin, the base guitarist of the Astrakhan black metal band “Doden Grotte.” FSB agents and federal investigators came to Kargin’s home on the morning of April 2, and seized his computer and mobile phone, searching for potential correspondence with Zhlobitsky. Officials also confiscated his collection of dummy ammunition, which the band uses to decorate its costumes for performances.
Kargin told Meduza that the officers asked him if he knew Zhlobitsky and if he belonged to Narodnaya Samooborona or any other anarchist communities on social media. The musician explained that he’d never had any ties to anarchists or any other political activists. “I have no clue why they came to me,” Kargin says. Most of the people interrogated by the authorities in connection with the Arkhangelsk attack offer similar testimony.
Vyacheslav Lukichev says his interrogators once showed him Narodnaya Samooborona’s supposed subscriber list, but he claims it included many random bystanders. Lukichev says he doesn’t understand the logic that determines whom the FSB raids next, but he guesses that all it takes to end up on the list is subscribing to Narodnaya Samooborona’s community on social media or even “liking” one of its posts. Being even remotely acquainted with any suspected anarchist activists is also highly incriminating.
“The crackdown affects not only supposed members or participants of specific acts, but anyone who reads the content or takes an interest. They want more to go after the idea of anarchy itself than to suppress the movement or punish the activists behind specific demonstrations,” say spokespeople for Narodnaya Samooborona.
Activists say they believe the authorities are using these methods against the anarchist movement to try to fabricate a large-scale extremist case against the community. Representatives from Narodnaya Samooborona say the federal government’s interest in anarchists is based on the movement’s public demonstrations, which means it’s possible that officials might try to consolidate their many criminal investigations, for example, by expanding the “Set” case or opening a “Narodnaya Samooborona” case.
Lukichev says some anarchists are intimidated by the authorities’ growing attention, and the number of public rallies is already declining. Narodnaya Samooborona says the government crackdown has forced it to eschew the public activity it used to promote, such as guarding apartments from “raiders.” The movement continues to organize anarchist campaigns and activism, representatives say, but it operates more covertly now than before. The group has started explaining carefully to new members how to practice proper secrecy, and new members are told not to fear the FSB. According to Narodnaya Samooborona, everyone should be ready for the crackdown — “both morally and just so you know how to act when the feds come for you.”
Translation by Kevin Rothrock