‘Twelve thousand were detained, including 761 minors’ Internal FSB report sheds new light on the number of protesters and detentions at January’s pro-Navalny demonstrations
There were far fewer people who went to the protests than people who voted for Putin in the elections — this was the Kremlin’s assessment of the pro-Navalny demonstrations that took place across Russia on January 23 and 31. Police officials also supported this statement, reporting less than 10,000 people on the streets of Moscow during the rallies. However, Meduza has uncovered that all this time, the FSB had been collecting its own statistics on the protests — and its findings are at odds with official statements. As evidenced by an internal report, the number of people detained amid the protests was even higher than estimates from human rights groups. And according to the FSB, a total of 90,000 people took part in the countrywide demonstrations. Now, the security service is seriously studying the protest potential of Russian citizens. Meduza special correspondent Liliya Yapparova breaks down the conclusions the FSB has reached so far.
‘How many of these people are there?’
In early February 2021, agents from the FSB’s highly secretive Department of Military Counterintelligence (the DVKR) were tasked with “revealing the real picture of support” for jailed opposition politician Alexey Navalny. An operative from this branch of the security service passed a copy of the resulting internal report to Meduza’s correspondent and agreed to answer some questions about this assignment.
The DVKR oversees the Russian Defense Ministry and the National Guard; its operatives are attached to individual military units, fight foreign intelligence services, monitor for potential sabotage, and suppress illegal arms trafficking and other crimes.
But last month, this complex department was charged with establishing whether or not Russians support the recent opposition protests “at the grass-roots level,” a military counterintelligence officer explained to Meduza. In his words, they were told “To study both military personnel and civilians who work on the ground in [this or that part of the country or military town] — from clerks to cooks, and all residents of this or that closed city.”
According to Meduza’s source, this is the first time the DVKR has been given such a task. A year ago, the FSB was most interested in those who follow Navalny on social media, because “they could still go down the path of passing information [abroad],” the officer recalls. But there was little interest in examining the degree of support for Navalny or his views; “Now the situation has moved to a different status: let’s finally understand how many of these people are there? And what are the social reasons for supporting Navalny?”
At the end of February, a report on the protesters who joined the pro-Navalny rallies, which included calculations from the DVKR, was circulated among the branches of the Russian FSB. Usually, these mail outs focus on the security service’s achievements in the fight against terrorism or extremism, but this new document was dedicated solely to the events of those two days in January, when demonstrations in support of Navalny took place across the country.
A Meduza source close to the FSB called the information included in the report “very similar” to the real thing. “The numbers are correct,” another source close to the security service said. Some of the numbers were also confirmed by a Meduza source from another law enforcement agency that kept its own count of the protesters. And yet another FSB operative that Meduza spoke to confirmed that the agency was collecting these statistics, but declined to comment on the data itself.
The report refers to employees of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (the FBK, which the Russian authorities have labeled a “foreign agent”) as “functionaries” and describes the events of January 23 and 31 matter-of-factly. “Protest actions under the slogan ‘Freedom for Navalny!’ were held in 143 cities of the Russian Federation [without coordinating] with the local executive authorities,” the brief says.
“This mail out went through 100 percent of all these directorates and departments, and made it to the sticks. This fact itself says a lot,” said the DVKR operative who spoke with Meduza. “Before, even after large protests, there were no such ‘thematic’ mail outs dedicated to the FBK — the foundation was simply mentioned among ‘other organizations aimed at undermining statehood’.”
‘More than 90,000 people’
The FSB’s brief gives an estimate of how many Russians took to the streets on January 23 and 31. “More than 90,000 people took part in the events,” the document says.
This is less than the estimates made by both Navalny’s associates and the media, who reported that about 100,000 people joined the countrywide protests on January 31 alone. But it offers a striking contrast to previous official statements from the Russian authorities, who generally avoided discussing the number protesters all together. Police officials in Moscow reported statistics ten times lower than independent estimates. And in response to questions from journalists, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted that “few people came out.”
The report also includes new data on the number of detentions amid the demonstrations, revealing that “around 12,000 individuals were detained, including 761 minors,” during the rallies on January 23 and 31. “Youngsters were locked up,” confirmed a source from another law enforcement agency that kept its own statistics.
The FSB’s numbers are significantly higher than any previously available estimates. For example, the independent monitor OVD-Info reported that at least 9,500 protesters were detained across Russia during the two days of demonstrations. Meanwhile, Children’s Rights Commissioner Anna Kuznetsova reported that there were only 380 minors among the detainees.
Navalny’s supporters are counting on “transitioning [to] protests on a regular basis in the long term, according to Belarusian scenario,” the report also says. Meduza’s source from the DVKR explained that comparisons to the opposition protests in Belarus have been appearing in internal documents with increasing frequency. “In the spirit of ‘this is what will happen if we don’t do that’,” the operative said.
‘Discrediting the Armed Forces of Russia’
Another section of the report is devoted to assessing the number of military personnel from the Defense Ministry and the Russian National Guard who supported the opposition protests. Special agents from the Defense Ministry also looked for military personnel who directly took part in the demonstrations in January.
According to the report, their efforts uncovered “evidence of the participation of five military servicemen in the protest actions” — some of whom, according to the mail out, attended the demonstrations in uniform. “Some people used the situation to resolve issues [concerning] their early discharge from the ranks of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, arriving at the protests in uniform and discrediting the Armed Forces of Russia,” it says.
Two of Meduza’s sources from the security forces explained that taking part in the protests was indeed a “creative solution” for those seeking to leave military service. (As reported by Novaya Gazeta and Dozhd, these contracts are near impossible to break and attempts to do so often lead to servicemen being threatened with criminal prosecution or even being detained in their garrisons).
“I don’t exclude the possibility that they went out to the streets in uniform. They might not support the ideology itself, but in order to create discrediting grounds for themselves and [have themselves] dismissed, they go out,” says Meduza’s source from the FSB.
Counterintelligence also identified some military personnel as sympathetic to Navalny. “We have obtained data regarding ten servicemen who expressed support for the protests and preparedness to take part in the rallies,” the report says (with an added note that these officers are being looked into).
Earlier, several police officials declared their support for the opposition protests on social media. But any military serviceman could have ended up in the counterintelligence report for far less. “A person could simply express their opinion in the presence of two other people that ‘yes, Navalny says the right things’,” explained Meduza’s source from the FSB’s military counterintelligence department.
The FSB also found Navalny sympathizers in the ranks of the National Guard. “Former servicemen from Russia’s VNG [National Guard Troops] aided activists from Navalny’s headquarters in St. Petersburg by providing information on the number of military detachments and their equipment,” the report claims.
A source close to the FSB confirmed that the DVKR had worked to identify National Guard officers who sympathized with the opposition protests. However, the coordinator of Navalny’s St. Petersburg office, Irina Fatyanova, denied the allegations of assistance from former national guardsmen. “There was nothing of the kind, neither on the 23rd, nor the 31st [of January],” she told Meduza.
The FSB’s military counterintelligence department was also keeping an eye on the relatives of servicemen in the armed forces and the National Guard. “Attempts by family members of military servicemen to disseminate calls to participate in unauthorized protest actions on social media were suppressed,” the brief says. “And [it] identifies these unfortunate FSB schoolkids. So many had their asses kicked,” adds Meduza’s source from another law enforcement agent under the supervision of the FSB.
“What’s happening with children [across the country], is happening here [in our homes] too,” Meduza’s source from the FSB said. “Our children are also watching this [FBK video] and then coming and asking ‘Dad, it is true?’ But how do you explain it? The state doesn’t offer them any alternatives.”
Russia’s FSB, Defense Ministry, and National Guard didn’t respond to Meduza’s request for comment.
Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart