‘I’d be willing to work against this government with Satan himself’ We talked to a suburban Russian policeman who spied for the CIA, fought in eastern Ukraine, and got sentenced to 13 years for treason
In 2015, former police officer Yevgeny Chistov was sentenced to 13 years in prison for treason. While Chistov was working in law enforcement in the Moscow suburbs, he passed confidential information about Russia’s police force as well as a number of other government agencies to the CIA. Meduza special correspondent Pavel Merzlikin made contact with Chistov, who is serving his sentence in a prison colony. Told in a combination of traditional reporting and directly transcribed dialogues, this is his story.
It’s November 12, 2015. The Moscow Regional Court is about to issue its decision. The defendant stands in a transparent cage — he’s a heavyset man wearing an athletic jacket and threadbare jeans. Former policeman Yevgeny Chistov is 31 years old, but a deeply receding hairline and a short beard make him look a decade older. Chistov listens to his sentence with a slight smile on his face.
That evening, snapshots of Chistov’s smile would circulate through Russia’s state-owned TV stations, greeting viewers on Channel One and Rossiya 24. The former officer had been convicted of treason and sentenced to 13 years in a high-security prison colony. From 2011 through 2014, he had secretly worked for the CIA and transferred confidential information to American intelligence agents.
It was all because he had hated the Russian government since he was a child.
The early years
Yevgeny Chistov was born on November 7, 1984, to a family of Moscow physicians. He grew up in Zvyozdny Gorodok, a military zone in the Moscow region that was closed to the public and contained the Soviet Union’s famous Star City cosmonaut base. Chistov’s grandfather worked at Star City, so his family was granted an apartment there.
Svetlana Skvortsova, Yevgeny Chistov’s mother, told Meduza that when her son was in primary school, he studied karate, learned English, and enjoyed going fishing. He took an interest in politics at a young age as well. “Even as a little boy, he saw that what they show on television is very different from reality. He didn’t hang around in the streets: he stayed home reading newspapers and magazines. He wanted to know how people lived. He always wanted everything to be fair,” Skvortsova explained.
By the time he entered the 11th grade, the final year available in Russian secondary schools, Yevgeny had decided for certain that the Russian government was not at all to his liking. The high schooler found Boris Yeltsin to be “a worthless leader who screwed everything up” even as he left “the rudiments of democracy” in place behind him. Those rudiments, in Chistov’s view, were then “destroyed by Vladimir Putin.”
Chistov believes there has only been one ruler in Russian history who really tried to do something good for ordinary people: Alexander II, who eliminated serfdom in the Russian Empire.
Among contemporary politicians, Chistov is willing to set anti-corruption and opposition activist Alexey Navalny aside from the rest. “Navalny does excellent investigative reports and sheds light on the government’s atrocities. He shows people they’re being robbed. It’s surprising that the people remain blind to what he tells them. Unfortunately, he doesn’t go any further than [investigative reports] and organizing protests,” the former police officer said.
Determined to fight against injustice, the young Chistov began studying law. During his time at the Russian University of Cooperation, Chistov’s fury toward the government only grew stronger, and he began to support Eduard Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party, attending protest marches and handing out party literature. Chistov even applied to become an official party member: the NBP was supposed to send him a membership card in the mail, but it never arrived.
“I felt as though they were the only organization that was actually doing something to resist the Russian government instead of just rambling. But the NBP wasn’t close to my heart: for me, it was a protest party. I was young,” Chistov explained.
Over time, the National Bolsheviks’ methods started to look ineffective to Chistov as well, but his hatred for the Russian government remained. The law student believed that “life was only getting worse for the Russian people.”
He decided to try to defend the Russian people by joining the police. In his final years at university, Chistov found work as a local officer’s assistant in the Moscow region’s branch of the Internal Affairs Ministry (MVD), which constitutes Russia’s national police force. Once he graduated, Chistov was named a lieutenant, and he began working on criminal cases in the area before transferring to a duty officer’s post in the Shchyolkovsky District northeast of Moscow. According to Chistov, most of the cases he dealt with in that position were petty thefts or robberies.
Meduza: People are always criticizing the MVD [Russia’s police force]. Is that fair?
Yevgeny Chistov: It’s not the best place. There are a lot of good things about it, but there are a lot of bad things, too. There were good, decent people on our team, but there were assholes, too. Corruption is a major scourge in the police, but there are some honest people there.
Personally, I don’t regret my choice [of profession]. Somebody has to defend ordinary people.
Were you proud of your work?
Pride is a bad character trait to have. But I felt that I was probably helping people who had gotten into a rough spot, at least somehow. There were rape cases and things like that, for example.
How did your job in the MVD interact with your hatred toward the government?
I joined the MVD to defend the people. To defend the law, not the government. Not everyone in the MVD loves the government. In our law enforcement and security forces more generally, there are a lot of people who are against the government. But for them, that doesn’t go beyond private conversations around the kitchen table.
Didn’t you ever feel ashamed that you worked for the police?
Did you ever break the law in your work?
Yes, I did, but I won’t say how. I don’t want to have to stay here any longer than I’m already expecting.
Did you fabricate criminal cases against innocent people?
No, I never fabricated cases, and I never planted anything on anybody. Sometimes, my coworkers did — they would plant ammo cartridges on people, for example. I think it’s the stick system’s fault. There are three main problems at the MVD: the stick system, corruption, and idiot employees, though there are plenty of those in our country no matter where you look.
Why is corruption so widespread in the MVD?
The level of decency and honesty among employees is low. There’s a desire to make money off of people instead of helping them. Plus, to be honest, the pay isn’t great.
Do you agree with the slogan “Pigs are Russia’s shame”?
I do. There are pigs in the MVD who really are Russia’s shame. But there are just regular cops out there, too.
A love affair with the CIA
Chistov emphasized his sense that he got to know how ordinary Russians live even better while he was working for the police. In the process, he said, he came to terms with the fact that he should do everything possible to change the situation in Russia. “In our country, the people suffer for the government’s sake. The population is impoverished, we’re isolated from the international community, and there’s corruption all around. While the television anchors tell the people that it’s all the Yankees’ fault, government corporations sell oil and gas from public lands and use the money to line their own pockets,” he argued.
After his experience with the National Bolsheviks, Chistov had no desire to get involved in other opposition movements: “To overthrow this government, you need long-term, painstaking work. You can’t just go out into the street with a bunch of posters, scream a little, and then go have a beer."
By 2011, the police officer made a decision to begin working with the CIA. Chistov believed that the American intelligence agency was the only organization capable of putting up a real fight against the Russian government. The policeman also believed fervently in the maxim that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and those two convictions in combination led him to reach out to American agents.
Why did you decide to work with the CIA? Being against the government and being a spy are very different things, after all.
For me, it’s one and the same. I’d be willing to work against this government with Satan himself.
Do you really think a government established by the U.S. would be better for Russia?
I don’t believe that. I believe that with their help, we can deal with the current government, and then the Russian people can choose their own government in democratic elections.
So the U.S. could help take out Putin, and then they’d just step aside? Why would they quit halfway through?
I don’t think they would step aside, but I think we could negotiate with them. Our relations with the U.S., the way they are now, have led to Russia’s international isolation, sanctions, and they won’t lead to anything good in the future, either. I think our relationship with the U.S. should be constructive and professional.
When you had just come up with the idea to work with the CIA, were you prepared for the possibility that you might be caught?
I understood perfectly well that I could be caught and put away for a long time. But I wasn’t afraid. I believed the ends justified the means. It was a noble risk to take.
Recruitment and state secrets
Yevgeny Chistov claimed that it took him all of 10 days to make contact with the CIA. He declined to reveal the means he used to get in touch with the agency but emphasized that anybody could do the same if they so desired. Evidence from other Russian treason cases backs up that claim: Some Russians even made contact with the CIA through the agency’s website, though the CIA itself now discourages Russians from using that particular means of self-recruitment.
According to the investigators who worked on Chistov’s case, employees of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow helped the police officer spy for the CIA. However, Chistov himself claims that he made “initial contact” with the agency through other means. He refused to comment on possible embassy involvement in his espionage work. The CIA and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow did not respond to Meduza’s requests for comment.
After Chistov established contact with American intelligence agents, he offered to send them confidential information about Russian intelligence services and other government agencies. The CIA agents involved asked their new informant to leave the country in order to discuss that possibility. The suburban police officer was then given a significant task: He was to collect information on the MVD, the FSB, the Defense Ministry, and Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).
For three years, Chistov pursued his mission as a spy alongside his regular job as a local policeman.
How can your average police officer get access to confidential information?
I was the officer on duty in my police station. There are safes at the station with defense plans in case of an attack, civilian defense plans for emergencies, and plans for defending vital facilities. All of those documents are marked confidential.
But how did you get information about other agencies? Did you recruit people there?
I didn’t recruit people for the CIA, but I pulled people toward helping me directly so I could get information that interested me. I gave the CIA information about employees at the SVR, the FSB, and the FSO [Federal Protective Service]. (In 2015, another former police officer named Roman Ushakov was sentenced to 15 years in prison for providing similar kinds of information to the CIA.)
What kind of employees were they? And how did the CIA use the information about them?
I couldn’t say. I wouldn’t tell you if I knew.
Could those employees have been in real danger because of the information you conveyed?
I can’t answer that.
Would it bother you if they had been in real danger?
No, not if they were working for Russian special services. They’re Putin’s dogs, and they’ve dedicated their lives to defending a system that oppresses the Russian people. To me, they’re traitors, just like I’m a traitor to them.
You paid for information. How much did Russian agents ask for it?
A lot of them are prepared to pay, and they’re always on watch for offers. Price is an open question for all of them, and different kinds of information have different values. It can range from tens of thousands of rubles to millions of rubles [hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars].
Could the secrets you bought seriously affect Russia’s defense readiness?
No. That wasn’t my goal. My goal was to cause damage to the Russian executive branch, to the government, the FSB, the FSO, and other agencies that guard Russia’s governmental system and its constitutional system. My goal was to compromise them and their illegal actions.
During elections, for example. One acquaintance of mine gave me information that showed the Communications Ministry had sent an order blocking certain phone numbers that might be used by people who aren’t loyal to Putin so that the numbers could just be turned off during elections [or protests]. I passed that document on to the CIA.
What were you able to catch other agencies doing?
I didn’t catch the FSO doing much of anything at all, but the FSB is really making miracles happen. They’re the ones holding up the current regime.
I can’t tell you everything because I’m afraid for my life. I can only say that it’s related to torture and murder.
Of opposition activists? Of extremists?
Extremists and terrorists. They don’t use these methods against opposition activists. It’s possible that when I’m free and out of the Chekists’ reach, I’ll write a book about it.
Did you give [the CIA] anything aside from the specific documents you’ve described?
I wrote reports on the internal political situation in Russia, on the popular mood, things like that. I wrote about MVD special operations, preemptive operations, reinforcement operations, how we handled protests, intra-agency orders. It was a pretty decent pile of information.
I think that all in all, my work was about average in terms of productivity during that time period. It probably broadened the CIA’s view on the Russian police a little bit.
What did you tell them about police operations at protests?
All of the police’s actions at those kinds of events are curated by the Chekists. I developed a system to analyze the FSB’s actions at protests and how they manage the cops.
What cops do at protests is the dirty work, like putting up cordons and dispersing demonstrators. The FSB’s job is to get its people as close as possible to the protest leaders so they can pick up on the leaders’ instructions and coordinate the cops [accordingly]. There are always FSB officers among the demonstrators to find and target the most active protesters.
You know, Vova [Putin] should really be putting up a monument to [FSB head Alexander] Bortnikov already. I’m surprised that he’s been able to hold onto the country so long with the population this disgruntled.
How did you get this information about how special services operate during protests?
I knew people in the [intelligence] agencies. I had a lot of friends in the FSB.
I worked on minimizing the FSB’s influence. I wanted to follow the FSB’s orders in real time as they were issued to cops during protests. Then, I could pass all that on to trustworthy people among the opposition leaders.
The CIA helps the Russian opposition?
If I had an answer to that question, I would still say I didn’t know anything. I would like them to be able to help somehow. That’s all I can say.
Are there people working for the CIA in the Moscow police force now?
If I knew, I would still say there definitely aren’t.
Are there people with CIA ties in every government agency?
I’m not going to comment on the CIA’s activities. God help them in this difficult work.
Did the CIA pay you for the secrets you gave them?
Yes. I can’t say the exact amount I was paid, but it was enough to live on. A lot more than my MVD salary. They paid me money, but I needed the money for my work as well — to buy and pay for information.
I want to emphasize that I didn’t do this for the money. I did it because of my political and ideological beliefs.
A double life
Svetlana Skvortsova said that she never noticed anything suspicious about her son’s life. The MVD didn’t notice either: from the outside, Chistov’s life seemed exactly like that of any other officer. Among other things, he still lived in a one-bedroom apartment in South Butovo that he had inherited from his family.
“You don’t need any real conspiratorial behavior. You just have to behave like you usually do while keeping your goal in mind and kicking into gear in time when you have to do something or get ahold of some document [that might help the CIA]. You don’t have to live a double life,” Chistov said of his experience working with American spies.
Chistov claimed that his work was curated by a small number of CIA officers whom he never met in person. Instead, he said they communicated by leaving messages in designated secret compartments around Moscow. Chistov’s handlers used that same network of compartments to pay the police officer for his work.
According to Chistov, the CIA handlers were all American citizens who “were present in Russia on diplomatic missions.” When asked directly whether they were employed by the American embassy, Chistov declined to respond.
Chistov did not take the risk of handing over confidential information within Russian borders. Once or twice a year, he would leave the country for Western Europe or the Arabian peninsula, where he would hand over any new information to a CIA liaison responsible for transferring documents and data safely within the agency. In the course of three years, Chistov made five such business trips. Meduza has obtained documents that confirm the police officer’s overseas flights.
Chistov explained his trips abroad to family and friends by saying he had a side job in a foreign company. They believed him and didn’t get into details. The police officer was sure that nobody knew about his work for the CIA. He said he felt completely safe.
By the spring of 2014, Chistov believed he had given the CIA all the information he could access from his job in the suburban Moscow police station. He decided to transfer to a different division of the MVD, the Special Center for Interagency Security in the Domestic Forces. Chistov was certain that he could use a new position there to gain access to large quantities of confidential information, but his superiors declined his request to transfer. In May of 2014, Chistov resigned from the Russian police force.
By that time, he had already developed a new plan: leaving Russia for the war-torn Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Chistov told his mother that he felt he could not stay home after the Trade Unions Building in Odessa was burned down, killing more than 40 people. In fact, Chistov hoped to infiltrate the ranks of Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists to collect intelligence on Russia’s involvement in the eastern Ukrainian conflict.
“I had to see the separatists from the inside: Who the commanders were, the coordinators, the instructors, and so on. Who was working with them from the Russian side. And you can only figure that out by embedding yourself in their forces,” Chistov explained. He emphasized that he did not receive the CIA’s approval for that strategy but nonetheless planned to hand all the information he received over to its agents.
Chistov left for the Donbas in July of 2014. He simply signed up through a VKontakte group, traveled to the Rostov region, and met a group of separatists who brought him over the border. The new recruits were separated into various units, and Chistov was sent to the “Ghost” Brigade in the Luhansk Region city of Lisichansk. The area was an active battle site in the summer of 2014, and pro-Ukrainian troops ultimately forced soldiers for the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic to abandon the city by early fall. Amid those events, the former policeman became a machine gunner, and his name even appeared in a pro-Ukrainian database of suspected Russian agitators under the title “Russian mercenary.”
What kind of people ran the selection and distribution process for new recruits?
It’s a very smooth, bug-free system. I can’t name the people, but they’re professionals. Let’s just put it this way: I think they were Russian soldiers taking a little vacation.
Who fought there with you? Why did they go to the Donbas?
Some went for ideas, and some went for money. There were also people who were just bloodthirsty, who just wanted to shoot other people.
I won’t say Russian intelligence agents weren’t involved in the Ghost Brigade, but I won’t say they were either. I have to protect my life and my family’s lives.
What kinds of missions did the Ghost Brigade carry out?
I fought in battles to take Lisichansk from the Ukrainian military and the Donbas volunteer battalion in the Ukrainian MVD.
Didn’t it give you pause that you were killing people who were against the Russian government just like you?
I went there to collect information, not to kill people. So I didn’t kill anybody. It’s very simple to avoid killing people: you can shoot over their heads and just give them a shock instead. When there’s a war on and you’re in the heat of a chaotic battle, it’s impossible to know who’s shooting whom and who’s hitting whom. From 500 meters away, nobody can see whether you’ve hit someone or not. Nobody suspected anything.
How did you collect information?
I’m hesitant to say because I’m essentially in the hands of Russia’s special forces now. I’ll just say that you can photograph maps and documents. You can report on things.
What were you able to find out?
I found out a whole lot about how Russia and its special forces are involved in the conflict. I had concrete proof of their involvement. I don’t want to talk about it now.
How long were you there?
From July to early August [of 2014].
That was when the Boeing was shot down. Did you find out anything about that?
I don’t know anything about that. That was far away from us — we didn’t even hear about it. The [Ukrainians] were attacking from all sides at that point, so we weren’t thinking about the Boeing.
Why did you leave so soon?
When they advanced on Lisichansk, we attacked from one of the roadblocks in the area. Some of our commanders, the ones from Ukraine, retreated and left us behind. We had to get out of the firefight on our own. I couldn’t live with that, so I told them to go to hell and went back to Russia. They apologized for putting me in that situation, and they didn’t stop me from leaving. I hitchhiked and took taxis back on my own.
You weren’t wounded?
Just a light contusion — I didn’t lose consciousness. A shell from a tank exploded near me.
What were your impressions overall? What’s the war in the Donbas about, and who’s fighting it?
I had good relationships with everybody in my platoon, but they all had positive attitudes toward the government. They would say, “We wouldn’t make it without Vova.” The locals had various reactions. Some people were kind, and some people would say, “When are you going to get the hell out of here? We’re sick of this war.”
Nobody thought the Ukrainians were fascists. There was an understanding that Ukraine’s soldiers didn’t want the war either, that they were sick of it too. The way they explained the need to keep fighting was very simple: they said they were “defending the results of the independence referendum” [for the self-declared Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics].
All in all, you know what’s going on there right now? Russia and the U.S. are fighting a war down to the very last [Ukrainian]. It’s clear from media reports that the States aren’t involved directly, but they have military advisers there.
Chistov returned to Moscow in August of 2014. He began preparing to transfer the information he had gathered to the CIA and took a trip to his favorite fishing spot. Soon enough, however, he got a tip that the FSB knew about his work for the CIA.
Chistov began preparing to escape from Russia under the guise of a typical vacation: first, he would fly to Thailand, and then he would go from there to the U.S. His ticket out was for September 26, 2014. That same day, Chistov was arrested just as he was packing his suitcase with his mother nearby.
“They rang the doorbell, and then a crowd of muscular guys came in. I thought they were robbers, but it turned out they were FSB,” Svetlana Skvortsova told Meduza. “I started screaming, but they didn’t explain anything. Yevgeny was very calm, though. He said, ‘Mom, don’t worry, I’ll deal with this myself.’ They took him away, and that was it.”
Soon afterward, FSB agents revealed that Chistov had been named as a witness in a case surrounding a Moscow-based CIA spy ring.
Can you describe the interrogations?
The FSB made me a range of offers that I can’t tell you about. When I refused, I stopped being a witness and became a suspect instead.
They showed me materials from their surveillance of the Americans that had led them to me. The only thing I could do was warn the Americans that they had caught me. I can’t say how I did that.
All in all, I was shocked at the evidence the Chekists had put together. They had everything. They knew about the Donbas — they’d followed me there — and so on. I freaked the fuck out.
How did they find out?
They got interested in me when my liaison in Moscow got caught and couldn’t lose the people who were following him. The Chekists saw him put an undercover letter to me in a mailbox.
Later on, the FSB agents were able to figure out the whole secret compartment system in Moscow. They watched the liaison put out a spy rock with money in it, sat there for 10 days, and saw who took it. That was me.
When did that happen?
They saw him put in the letter in 2011. They saw the rock in 2014.
So they were working to figure you out for three years?
Yes. I don’t know how long I was working with my cover blown. (The FSB did not respond to questions regarding their investigation of Chistov.)
Why didn’t they take you right away?
I think they wanted to catch the whole group, but they ultimately couldn’t catch anyone but me because the Americans had been warned, and they stopped coming to Russia. They decided to arrest me just to avert the risk that I would leave Russia and not come back.
Chistov said that he was pushed during the interrogation process to cooperate with investigators and testify against himself, with interrogators threatening to ruin his parents’ lives if he did not comply. Ultimately, the former police officer pleaded guilty to receive as short a prison sentence as possible when his case went to trial.
To await trial, Chistov was jailed and sent to the Lefortovo Pretrial Detention Center. He spent a year and a half there, from September 2014 to March 2016. Even after serving time in a high-security prison colony as well, Chistov still calls that year and a half the worst period of his life and the pretrial detention center “hell on earth.”
Chistov’s mother recalled, “They let a very limited number of people into the SIZO [the Russian abbreviation for pretrial detention centers] on a daily basis, so I had to get to Lefortovo at 3:00 AM to deliver my care packages. I remember: it was winter; there were blizzards; it was the dead of night with nobody around. And I would stand there with the packages and wait for the gates to open up.”
How did the crime you were charged with affect how you were treated in the SIZO?
People would toss the word “traitor” my way pretty often. Nobody understood that I had done all those things for the sake of people like them.
All in all, being in the SIZO was just horrible. In the winter, they would turn off the heat in my cell, and I got frostbitten kidneys because of it. For the first half year, they gave me cellmates who clearly weren’t well psychologically. One of them tried to hypnotize me — one of the possessions he kept with him in the cell was a skull. Another one would talk to himself and swear he would stab me. Then, they started locking me up with normal people. For example, they put me up with Alexander Reimer, the former head of FSIN [Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service]. On the surface, he behaved just fine. I don’t want to comment on other people’s opinions of the [penitentiary] system.
They didn’t give me any medical treatment — they would just send me away [when I asked]. By October of 2014, I had developed neurosis. My hygienic situation wasn’t good, I was constantly shaking, and I had anxiety. I made a complaint to the prosecutors’ office, but I only got them to admit that they’d investigated and found a lack of medical care in my case a week ago. (The results of the investigation are in Meduza’s possession; FSIN officials declined comment.)
What kind of people worked in the SIZO?
Normal people, just scared and ruthless toward others. It’s very slimy work, monitoring and oppressing people who are in a bad place already. I don’t think a decent person would go work in that kind of system, and the system makes the people who do get into it even worse.
What was the most difficult thing about the SIZO?
Enduring the conditions they kept us in. It was also hard that nobody supported me but my parents. I waited for my friends or family or the CIA to show me some kind of support, but they never did.
The CIA didn’t help at all?
After I was jailed, there was no help whatsoever. I don’t know why. I can’t say. I wrote to them twice after I was arrested, but I never heard back.
Have you lost faith in them?
I’m disappointed, but I didn’t betray them from my end. I’m an honest and loyal person. When I decided to collaborate with the CIA, that was a conscious, ideological decision on my part. I’m still loyal and faithful to them no matter what.
Are you saying that because you think they’ll still help you somehow?
No — I’m just keeping my word regardless of what they’ve done.
Once you landed in the SIZO and you didn’t have the CIA’s help anymore, did you regret that you had gotten involved in all this in the first place?
No. I did everything I could to free the people from this government. If anyone thinks they can do better, let them try.
In 2015, the Moscow Regional Court began considering Yevgeny Chistov’s case. The final charge against him was “treason in the form of espionage.” The FSB argued that Chistov had acted on “self-serving motivations,” not ideological ones.
“The man just made a mistake. He started down this path because he wanted to make a profit, but he repented and admitted guilt right away. From his very first days [in custody], he started confessing and cooperating with investigators,” Chistov’s attorney, Liliya Polenichka, said at the time.
Four years later, Polenichka told Meduza that her arguments were part of Chistov’s defense strategy. She added that Chistov himself also didn’t contradict investigators when they said he had helped the CIA for the money. “In court, he said that he had betrayed his homeland for money so that they would give him a shorter sentence — that’s what [the investigators] promised him. In reality, he did all of it for ideological reasons,” the attorney explained. Chistov himself emphasized to Meduza that money played no role in his decision to spy for the American government.
Because Chistov’s case involved state secrets, most of his hearings at the Moscow Regional Court were closed to the public and the press. However, the case didn’t include any accusations related to the former policeman’s trip to the Donbas or to his intelligence gathering in agencies outside the police. Polenichka confirmed to Meduza that Chistov was charged only with transferring confidential information about the MVD.
Polenichka also clarified that all of the prosecution’s evidence was based on the FSB’s investigation of her client. Investigators were unable to find any witnesses who could testify to Chistov’s work for the CIA. Polenichka declined to discuss Chistov’s involvement in spying on agencies outside the police force, saying she was bound by attorney-client privilege.
On November 12, 2015, Chistov was sentenced to 13 years in a high-security prison colony. Russia’s treason statute provides for a sentence of between 12 and 20 years. “I think the sentence was very harsh. The case only included the MVD, after all, and experts couldn’t find any quantifiable damage he had done to the government,” Polenichka said.
Why weren’t you charged with spying on other agencies? Why just the MVD?
The Donbas wasn’t included because, officially, Russian intelligence services don’t recognize that Russian forces are involved in the conflict. If the materials I collected in the Donbas had been part of my case, then it would have been clear that Russian forces really are involved out there. In the end, the Chekists just destroyed that evidence.
In terms of the other documents, the FSB people told me themselves that the information I got on the MVD was enough to put me away, and the court didn’t have to know everything. Plus, I think they didn’t want the court to know that they intentionally let me walk free for three years and let the information keep leaking out.
Did you think to give that information to anyone outside the CIA? To journalists or human rights activists, for example?
At first, I thought the CIA would know how to dispose of my information best, but after my arrest, it was all destroyed by the Chekists.
You pleaded guilty. Was that part of your deal with the FSB?
I made a deal with the Chekists that I would confess to what they gave me, and in return, I’d get a minimal sentence and decent conditions in prison, meaning I wouldn’t be in Siberia or the Far North. (Chistov is serving his sentence near the western Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod.)
Did they keep their promises?
Not in full. I asked the court to give me a sentence less than the legal minimum, but the prosecution asked for 16 years. In the end, they gave me 13 years in the colony and two years of partial house arrest. They also confiscated my car and stripped me of my rank in the police. The prosecution even appealed my sentence in the Supreme Court and argued it was too light, but they lost. For my part, I was counting on getting 10 years or so.
How were you treated in court?
I remember very well how the prosecutor said to me during one of my pretrial hearings, “They used to shoot people like you.” I responded, “People like you used to shoot millions of innocent people.”
In the bigger picture, the court didn’t listen to my arguments at all. It wasn’t much of a court — more of a kangaroo court, really. By the time I was sentenced, I didn’t care at all anymore. I was so sick of being harassed at Lefortovo and in court, of being abandoned by everybody I counted on, that I didn’t care about the sentence. I just wanted to get out of the hell that is Lefortovo.
The prison colony
Yevgeny Chistov was brought from Lefortovo to Prison Colony No. 11 in the Nizhny Novgorod region, which houses former judges and law enforcement officers who have been convicted of serious crimes. The colony’s prisoners have said in the past that conditions there are not as harsh as they are in a typical high-security prison because the colony’s staff members understand that they may someday end up in the prisoners’ shoes.
Chistov was labeled as a possible escapee and put on a watch list in the colony. Every two hours, he had to show up at the prison’s watch tower for an attendance count. At night, prison employees woke him up by shining a flashlight in his face — they had to check whether he had run away, they said.
The former policeman claimed that he continued to suffer from a lack of medical care in the prison colony as well. His mother told Meduza that she was unable to send him the medications he needed because the prison colony’s clinic did not have storage areas with the proper conditions to preserve them.
Chistov submitted a complaint to prosecutors about his lack of medical care, and he also complained to the European Court of Human Rights about conditions in the colony more generally, including overcrowded bunks and improper nutrition. When the court requested more information from the colony’s staff, they produced documents saying the colony’s conditions did, in fact, correspond to regulatory norms. Chistov believes the documents were falsified, and he has already submitted an appeal to that effect. FSIN’s press service did not respond to Meduza’s requests for comment.
What are conditions like in the colony?
A little better than in the SIZO, which was hell — but no two prison colonies are alike. I think things would be a lot worse if I were somewhere in Siberia.
The conditions here are more or less bearable. I can go to church, read books, take walks, exercise, try and get my health back, think about life.
There are 96 people in our group, and we live in barracks. In the last two months, our everyday lives have been bearable, but before then, there were violations — overcrowding especially. We used to be stuffed into the barracks like sardines, but people write complaints to the European Court of Human Rights from here, and then Russia gets fined, the colony gets a drubbing, and they get orders to put things right.
Do you work in the colony?
I worked for two years in the dining hall like Papa Carlo — 10 hours a day, no weekends, no vacations. I worked so that my family wouldn’t have to send me money for extra food. I was paid 6,000 rubles (almost $95) a month, but only about 40 people in a thousand get that kind of salary in the colony. The rest get 50 – 200 rubles (79 cents - $3.15) a month.
My salary was enough to buy coffee, candy, and hygiene products in the local kiosk. The prices here are like in a supermarket in Moscow, so you can’t exactly splurge.
Now, I don’t work anymore. In March, they put me in a penal cell for a week because I kept submitting complaints about the conditions in the colony. A week later, they said that if I didn’t quit my job, I would be sent to the penal cell again. They wanted to make life as hard as possible for me because of the complaints.
What were conditions like in the penal cell?
It was a shabby, smelly old cell, like in a prison. With plank beds that are only lowered at night. I was locked up there alone, but there’s room for two. They put people there if they break the rules or get all disobedient like me.
My health got worse in the penal cell, but the prison administrators wrote that I’d been examined by a doctor. That’s not true, and prosecutors have confirmed that it was a lie. (Documents to that effect are in Meduza’s possession.)
Did you send any complaints to human rights advocates? To an ONK, for example?
Yes, but they’re useless. I sent complaints everywhere I could, but nobody helped me.
Are people tortured in your colony?
There’s no real violence here. But they can make life hell for you, send you to the penal cell, things like that.
Has the FSB tried to put pressure on you while you’ve been in the colony?
At first, they would come by and ask me questions. They wanted me to do interviews with journalists and say I was against the CIA. Then, they stopped. But I know they’re being briefed on everything I do.
Are your parents allowed to visit you?
My parents and my aunt come to visit me, nobody else. Being here has shown me who people really are. My ex-wife has disappointed me the most. We were divorced, but then we made up. In the end, she abandoned me in prison. (Meduza was unable to make contact with Chistov’s ex-wife.)
They let you have visitors four times a year, but in practice, I get two or three. That’s because [my family] doesn’t have enough money: the tickets to get here, food, and housing aren’t cheap. There are three types of rooms you can rent for longer visits: economy suites, junior suites, and luxury suites. The different suites have different sizes and living conditions. You have to pay between 1,800 and 6,600 rubles ($28.40 - $104.12) to stay with your family for three days, which is the maximum allowed.
A lot of people say that if you’ve got money, you can live in a prison camp about as well as you would outside one. Is that right?
Yeah, you’ve got that right. I can’t say anything more than that.
What kind of people are in the camp with you?
Everyone here is a felon. There’s a range of convictions: robbery, murder, rape, drugs. The only ones I’m suspicious of are the pedophiles and rapists. The convicts here treat me all right. There are assholes too, of course, but mostly, they’re all right.
There are decent, educated people here, too, people you can have a real conversation with. Comrades, you could say. They’re here for taking bribes.
Have you run into anyone who’s in prison on fabricated charges?
Here, everybody says they’re innocent. It feels like I’m the only person here for an actual crime.
Was it hard to integrate yourself into the prison hierarchy?
There isn’t one here. There are just unwritten rules. After all, the people doing time here aren’t organized criminals — they’re mostly former cops. The only thing that’s truly hard is that I feel terrible for my family.
A plea to Trump
From within the prison colony, Yevgeny Chistov managed to make contact with journalists from The Guardian (he asked that Meduza refrain from revealing his means of communicating with the journalists). In early December of 2018, the British newspaper published an op-ed by Chistov under the title “I was a CIA spy in Russia – and now my family is in danger. But Trump can help.”
In that opinion piece, Chistov argued that he loves Russia and believes Vladimir Putin and his associates are robbing the country. “I believed that no good could come of the Russian people unless the Putin regime were overthrown. Then I was caught,” he wrote.
Chistov used the Guardian column to ask U.S. President Donald Trump for asylum for himself and his mother. “After my crime in favor of the US, my family and I are in great danger in Russia. […] But in the U.S., my family could live safely,” he wrote, asking Trump to exchange him for Russian prisoners held in the United States.
In his efforts to spur a prisoner exchange, Chistov sought help from Ivan Pavlov, an attorney specializing in treason cases. Pavlov told Meduza he was unwilling to comment on Chistov’s situation.
After his op-ed was published, Chistov said, his life did not change in any way. He told Meduza that nobody reacted to the piece: not Trump, not human rights advocates, not the FSB, and not the administration at his prison colony.
Did you and the CIA agents discuss ahead of time what you would do if you were caught?
Yes, but I can’t comment on that. They haven’t held up their end of the deal yet. I’ve done everything I can and more.
Why do you think the U.S. government would get you out?
It’s not just about me. It’s also about everyone else who’s worked for them. They shouldn’t abandon their own.
Do you think the government over there is less cynical [than Russia’s]?
I hope so. I think it’s wrong to abandon your own. As for them, only time will tell.
Your op-ed was addressed to Trump, who himself has been accused of being quite cynical and not at all pro-democratic.
I’m not going to comment on American politics. That has nothing to do with me. That’s the Americans’ business. I’m only concerned with what’s going on in Russia. I wrote to Trump because he is a president who could get people out of prison who have helped the United States.
Would you be willing to live in the U.S.?
I want to live in a democratic Russia, not under Putin’s tyranny. If I don’t have any other choice, I’d be willing to live in the States.
In your opinion, what does the U.S. want from Russia in the larger scheme of things?
It would be advantageous for them if Russia had a democratic government that they could negotiate and do business with.
Ultranationalists would say that they want Russia to be weak so that it can be controlled.
I disagree. I think they would be more interested in having Russia be controlled by us, by Russians, but with a democratic system that would enable them to negotiate with us. They’re not scared of Russia or the idiots who run it.
Do you think that they’ll help you get out of the prison colony in the end?
I do hope that the Americans will get me out of here. In any case, my sentence will end sooner or later. I hope the Chekists won’t get wise and go after me like they went after Skripal.
Hopes and dreams
It’s July 2019. Almost five years have passed since Yevgeny Chistov stopped working for the CIA. Chistov himself has insisted that the SIZO and the prison colony haven’t changed him much. He still believes the CIA will help him, and he’s still categorically opposed to the Russian government.
“In the prison colony, I realized that things are even worse in our country than I thought. Nobody gives a shit about the people who are sitting in prison, disenfranchised. There’s a sense that I’m like a prisoner of war here. It seems as though the system is so rotten that it’s impossible to reform at this point. I’ve also become convinced that I did the right thing. The Chekists and the security agents shouldn’t be running the country,” Chistov explained.
The former police officer is certain that most Russians hate the government just as he does. In his view, they simply aren’t willing to act out of fear of the country’s security agencies.
Svetlana Skvortsova expressed solidarity with her son. “One could even say I’m proud that my boy grew up to be like this. That he always cares about what goes on in our country. I’ve explained why he did what he did to all my friends, and they understand,” she said.
Chistov himself is keeping up hope that he will live to see a democratic Russia.
Why do you still believe change is possible? You tried to change things and only got 13 years in a high-security prison colony out of it.
I did everything I could. At least I tried. Maybe my way wasn’t the best. People here are very tolerant: they blow hot air around the kitchen table, amongst themselves, maybe go to a protest and yell at most, but they’re afraid to act.
Why do you think most Russians want action? Do you think most Russians want a revolution?
I think so. That’s my personal opinion. You can see yourself what’s going on in this country. They’re just afraid.
When you started working for the CIA, did you have a specific plan?
My plan was to do anything I could any way I could to spur regime change. But I think that it’s a long-term process. It’s hard to say how long it will take. Only God knows.
Don’t you think Putin will leave the presidency first, and there won’t be anyone left to overthrow?
It’s not about Putin — it’s about the system. Putin is just a brand, a label for the system. Putin will sit there until he’s done his time, and then the system will grow another Putin. A successor who will really be the same old Putin in practice, just under another name.
Isn’t it Putin who makes the key decisions in that system?
Yeah, it’s Putin. But the system will create another person who will let it be just as much of a parasite feeding on the neck of the Russian people. I personally believe that we will live to see happier times, though.
Translation by Hilah Kohen