No soldiers but ready for battle For years, lawyers at Team 29 have taken on some of Russia’s most hopeless human rights cases. Now federal charges against the group’s leader are testing the team’s resolve.
The legal professionals at “Team 29” specialize in Russia’s most hopeless political prosecutions — the treason case against journalist Ivan Safronov, the extremism charges against Alexey Navalny’s anti-corruption movement, and dozens more cases like these that are all but doomed to convictions. As a result, the Russian authorities have effectively declared Team 29 to be enemies of the state. In late April, police charged the organization’s head, Ivan Pavlov, with disclosing pretrial investigation secrets. Ever since, he’s been barred from using the Internet or telephone. Meduza special correspondent Alexandra Sivtsova looks at how Team 29 manages to operate under these conditions and asks why it still does.
Since 2001, ever since he represented a journalist in Vladivostok against treason charges, Ivan Pavlov has closed the curtains whenever he’s home, guarding his last scraps of privacy after two decades of high-stakes human rights work. Pavlov heads “Team 29,” an informal association of lawyers, attorneys, and journalists. The legal experts handle cases related to the freedom of information and state security (Article 29 of Russia’s Constitution and Article 29 of Russia’s Criminal Code, hence the group’s name), while the team’s journalists produce podcasts, articles, videos, and special projects about those cases. The organization relies on donations to operate, and its lawyers also collect fees from their commercial clients.
Pavlov created Team 29 in the ruins of another project that didn’t survive the end of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency: the Institute for the Development of the Freedom of Information (IRSI). “There was a demand for openness back then,” Pavlov told Meduza, recalling how he founded IRSI in 2004 in order to pressure Russian state agencies to become more transparent, particularly regarding resources available online. In 2014, the authorities slammed the door on further cooperation when the Justice Ministry designated IRSI as a “foreign agent,” arguing that Pavlov’s meeting with Barack Obama in 2013 at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg constituted “political activity” by his organization.
In response, Pavlov shuttered the institute and created Team 29, bringing along several lawyers, including Evgeny Smirnov, who told Meduza that he’s witnessed the Russian judicial system’s degeneration over the past decade: “The whole thing is built just so the verdicts are drawn up correctly, the deadlines are met, and the documents are signed. […] Lawyers are the only ones still crying out in all this mess to draw attention somehow to what’s happening.”
Secret revolutionaries in white collars
Five years ago, a local television station in St. Petersburg aired a report that depicted Team 29 as a collection of “secret revolutionaries in white collars.” The segment, which included footage recorded outside the group’s office building, temporarily upset some of the business center’s other residents, but there were no lasting consequences.
Team 29’s office returned to news footage on April 30, 2021, when the police raided the premises and seized what they could of Pavlov’s documents. The authorities had to leave behind many of the stacked files, however, because they belong to the organization’s other lawyers and bear the mark of attorney-client privilege. Perhaps out of frustration that so much paperwork remained out of reach, the officers confiscated a bag of planting soil, on their way out.
Despite the job’s dangers, many of Pavlov’s colleagues have stuck by him for years. Daria Sukhikh joined the Institute for the Development of the Freedom of Information back in 2009. She told Meduza that she didn’t realize at first how momentous the position would become in her life: “But I understood quickly that I’d scored big time. A lawyer just starting out stands to gain not only colossal practical experience from [Pavlov] but also certain values that are crucial if you want to defend the law as a fundamental principle.”
Shaming a great power and winning small
In the late 1990s, the lawyer Yuri Schmidt noticed Pavlov’s interest in information freedoms and invited him to join the legal defense team for Alexander Nikitin, an environmentalist and former Defense Ministry nuclear safety inspection team leader charged with treason. The FSB’s allegations concerned a research paper Nikitin wrote about the risks of radioactive pollution associated with Russia’s Northern Fleet. In December 1999, a court fully acquitted him.
Years later, Pavlov worked with lawyers Evgeny Smirnov and Sergey Badamshin to secure the release of Svetlana Davydova, the woman charged with treason because she telephoned Ukraine’s embassy in Moscow to warn diplomats that she’d overheard Russian soldiers discussing a deployment to eastern Ukraine.
Pavlov and his team also represented Oksana Sevastidi, who was prosecuted in 2014 for treason because she informed a friend in Abkhazia about incoming Russian troops in 2008. Sevastidi was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison but went free early thanks to a presidential amnesty that Team 29 helped advocate. According to Pavlov, his key strategy in these cases was to demonstrate how embarrassing they were for Russia.
“When presenting everything, we painted the picture of a nuclear power’s state secrets threatened by a text message from a woman who sells bread at the market. And she honestly knows all our state secrets? All it took was one look at a train? This sort of thing is sad, but it’s also funny,” Pavlov told Meduza.
Team 29 also takes cases involving the freedom of information. In 2014, the group’s lawyers worked with the human rights organization Memorial to defend historian Nikita Petrov’s right to access archival records from political repressions carried out between 1945 and 1953. According to a law adopted in 1993, any government documents should be declassified after 30 years, but Russia’s Federal Security Service argued that Soviet records are exempt. The Constitutional Court ultimately ruled against the FSB, but the victory for transparency was short-lived: Russia’s Interdepartmental Commission for the Protection of State Secrets promptly revisited the documents in question and reclassified them until 2044.
But some of Team 29’s small victories have actually saved lives. For example, attorney Maxim Olenichev managed in 2018 to change regulations on access to adoption records. Doctors diagnosed Olenichev’s client, a woman in Chelyabinsk named Olga Ledeshkova, with a genetic disease and needed her biological parents’ health information to treat her properly. With Ledeshkova’s life at stake, Olenichev convinced Russia’s Supreme Court that the extraordinary conditions justified releasing the health records.
Come what may
“Nobody here understands what an unwinnable case is,” Maxim Zagovora, the head of Team 29’s media department, told Meduza. That devotion to human rights is what drew Zagovora to the group last November, convincing him to step down as editor-in-chief of Kino TV after five years. “On the one hand, it was a dream job: You travel to Cannes and Venice and talk to directors and artists,” says Zagovora. “But in recent years, you see how they’re arresting one person after another [in Russia], and all you can do in this situation is recommend a good movie.”
Team 29’s media department started out as a simple press service, but it’s recently developed into a full-fledged, albeit small, media outlet that produces content like the podcast “Precedent of Russia,” which addresses new laws and convictions, explaining how they affect ordinary citizens.
“An important principle here is that we’re not warriors against the regime and we’re not out to overthrow anyone,” Zagovora told Meduza. “We’re just talking about facets of social and legal life. As someone without any legal education, I look at each case like it’s a Netflix documentary series.”
People at Team 29 say they were prepared for the case against Pavlov. “We expected it, but we didn’t know when it would happen,” explains Maxim Olenichev. The organization’s founder is charged with disclosing pretrial investigation secrets in the treason case against journalist Ivan Safronov. If convicted, Pavlov could face up to three months in jail and disbarment. In the meantime, he can’t use the Internet or the telephone. To speak to him, you have to do it in person.
As a rule, Team 29’s members refuse to sign nondisclosure agreements on the grounds that they fundamentally contradict their role as defense attorneys by making it harder to generate publicity for clients. Daria Sukhikh insists that lawyers aren’t legally obligated to sign these agreements, but Russia’s Justice Ministry has twice demanded that the St. Petersburg Bar Association punish Pavlov for refusing to sign. On both occasions, however, the bar association has rejected the ministry’s request.
Pavlov’s colleagues say they’re ready if the police come for them next. “If it happened to him, it could happen to anyone. We’re on alert. All this has forced us to wake up,” Sukhikh told Meduza, describing fears that she might be separated from her three-year-old daughter in a crackdown by law enforcement. “Living in this country, there are no assurances. Experience shows that you risk no less working as a saleswoman in Sochi than you do working on a human rights team. If you think about it all the time, you might lose your mind.”
Abridged translation by Kevin Rothrock