‘They’re still trying to shut me up’ Meduza talks to Sergey Savelyev, the former inmate who leaked an ‘archive’ of torture videos from inside Russia’s prison system
It's been nearly a month since the human rights project Gulagu.net published a series of explosive video clips showing inmate abuse and torture in Russian prisons. These videos are part of a massive “archive” leaked by whistleblower Sergey Savelyev — a former inmate who secretly collected the footage while serving a nine-year prison sentence for illegal narcotics trafficking. Fearing reprisals, Savelyev fled Russia in mid-October. He’s now in France, where he hopes to be granted political asylum. But on October 23, Russian police put Savelyev on a wanted list and arrested him in absentia. In an interview with Meduza conducted that same day, Sergey Savelyev talked about his time in prison in Russia, revealing himself as a whistleblower, and how the Russian authorities are still going after him.
‘Torture has been built into the system’
Belarusian national Sergey Savelyev, 31, recently came forward as the whistleblower behind a massive video leak evidencing rampant abuse and torture in Russian prisons. A handful of the leaked videos were released by the human rights project Gulagu.net (No to the Gulag) in early October. Savelyev revealed his identity a few weeks later. In his words, there was no point in remaining anonymous anymore.
“For the security services, my identity wasn’t a secret. It was only a secret to the public,” he tells Meduza. “The security services tracked me down quite some time ago […] It’s difficult to give an exact date, but I’m sure that for the last few months, they already knew who I was.”
Savelyev says he managed to smuggle out around two terabytes of data in total, including videos from camcorders and surveillance cameras, as well as various documents. Asked about the contents of the videos, Savelyev says they show “all kinds of torture. From commonplace beatings and humiliation, to specific perverted acts of sexual violence.”
According to the whistleblower, this abuse was often carried out by other prison inmates, but he’s convinced they acted on instructions from prison authorities and security officials. “I’m sure this goes much higher,” Savelyev maintains. “There were, I think, decisions at the local level too. But mostly this [torture] happened at the request of much higher leaders.”
Based on what he saw and experienced in prison, Savelyev says that that inmate abuse and torture serves a variety of ends in the Russian penitentiary system, ranging from punishment to extortion, blackmail, and revenge. “If all of this has been going on for years, has been built into the system, and is happening at a number of institutions, then obviously they [prison officials] are satisfied with the results,” he underscores.
‘All prisoners know about OTB-1’
Sergey Savelyev was born in Minsk, Belarus, and lived there most of his life. He came to Russia in 2013 and ended up in the southern Krasnodar Krai, where FSB officers arrested him on drug trafficking charges. “I first encountered violence from the security forces at the moment of my arrest,” he recalls. “Of course, this left its mark for life. These were the harshest, strongest, most severe [beatings]. They went on all day. I was beaten by a dozen people. They were all masked and armed.”
Savelyev was taken to a pre-trial detention center where he was beaten “about once a week for the first two months” to make sure he cooperated with investigators, he says. Once the investigation was completed, he was transferred to another detention center in the port city of Novorossiysk. He describes the conditions there as inhumane — it was the kind of unsanitary, overcrowded Russian jail that he had always heard about.
“There was complete indifference on the part of the administration,” Savelyev tells Meduza. “Sometimes 26 of us were placed in a cell for 12 people. Sometimes we slept not just in two, but in three shifts. The pipes were leaking, the concrete floor was cracked, plaster fell from the ceiling, and there were huge cockroaches.”
For nearly a year and half, Savelyev was shuttled to court hearings where the FSB’s case against him was read out “page by page.” In the end, he was sentenced to nine years behind bars and sent to a prison in the Saratov region. “The first evening there were severe beatings,” he recalls. “Moreover, we were beaten by other convicts — [so-called] ‘activists’ — as well as employees of the prison administration.”
After showing symptoms of possible tuberculosis, Savelyev was transferred to a specialized prison hospital in the region (OTB-1) to get a concrete diagnosis. As he recalls, this particular facility has a notorious reputation. “All prisoners know about OTB-1. They know that it’s a scary place and it’s better not to get sick,” Savelyev tells Meduza. “I heard about cases where people simply cut themselves in protest [to say], ‘I know what they will do to me in OTB, I will not go there’.”
Despite fearing the worst, Savelyev says he didn’t experience physical abuse upon arriving at the prisoners’ hospital. Instead, after his tests came back clean, he was offered a job in the security department, logging surveillance camera footage.
‘The FSIN is a machine that moves very slowly’
Savelyev says that initially — “for about the first two years,” — he didn’t have access to videos showing abuse and torture. The prison staff monitored him closely, he says, “to see whether I could keep secrets.”
“This footage didn’t appear by accident. Everything is planned in advance. [Torture] is a pre-planned event. [The videos] aren’t filmed by the staff themselves,” Savelyev explains to Meduza. According to the former inmate, he would receive instructions from the prison administration to provide a specific inmate with a video camera. “The inmate would come, I’d give him a camcorder. He’d leave to carry out this ‘special event’ [torture], come back, and give me the video camera. I’d dump [the files on the computer], check that all the files would open, and submit them to the leadership of the [prison] administration,” he recalls. “Then I’d receive instructions on what to do with [the video]. Either ‘drop it to me on a flash drive’ or ‘delete everything, so that nothing is left on the computer’.”
Savelyev underscores that none of these video files are supposed to be stored on the Federal Penitentiary Service’s (FSIN) computers: “What was transmitted ‘upstairs’ was saved on a flash drive and taken somewhere else — as confirmation that the ‘special event’ was carried out. As materials for subsequent blackmail. As a guarantee that a person will do what’s required of him.”
Savelyev copied files from FSIN computers over the course of several years. He also had access to the department’s internal network, which allowed him to download files from prisons in other parts of Russia. “I wouldn’t like to reveal all the technical details. After all, a huge number of people in prisons are doing the same thing I did,” he tells Meduza.
“If I tell you everything now, perhaps the security services or information security specialists will be able to block these pathways,” he continues. “The FSIN is a machine that moves very slowly. Especially when it comes to technical development. So it will take them some time to figure out how to stop it.”
‘They said they knew everything’
After his release from prison, Sergey Savelyev returned home to Belarus. He moved in with relatives and got a job. “I was living a normal life, except for the fact that I was working with Gulagu.net,” he says.
Savelyev says he reached out to rights group’s founder, Vladimir Osechkin, in February 2021. “At that time, I already knew that he is one of the leading human rights activists, who aren’t afraid to speak the truth and are independent from the security forces and politicians,” he explains. “He’s covered the issue of torture, abuse of office, and done so very openly and effectively.” According to Savelyev, Gulagu.net published its first report based on the files he leaked back in March.
Later, in September, Savelyev returned to Russia to visit friends. During a stopover at St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport, police and plain-clothes officers took him into an office and interrogated him for several hours. “They immediately said that they knew everything: that I passed materials to Gulagu.net. They said that this was, at the very least, disclosure of state secrets,” he says.
The interrogators told Savelyev he would be “hanged” in prison for “discrediting the FSIN.” At the same time, they gave him two options: “First, I cooperate, hand over the entire archive, start working with them against Osechkin, and go to prison for four years for disclosing state secrets. Or [...] get prison time for espionage — that’s between 10 and 20 years.”
“I had to come up with my own option,” Savelyev explains. “They drew up some kind of protocol, where I had to slander Osechkin. They really wanted to discredit him and his project [Gulagu.net], to cast doubt on all [his] activities. I had to sign it. I needed to convince the officers that I was prepared to cooperate.”
Savelyev was asked to hand over the archive right then there, but he didn’t have the files on hand. “They weren’t interested in what was in the archive, what horrible footage was [in] there, how many people were tortured, who’s behind it, who gave the orders, and who did the torturing. There were no such questions,” he remembers. “The only thing they want is to stop future leaks. And to shut me up.”
* * *
Today, Sergey Savelyev is in France, where he hopes to win political asylum. He says he decided to escape to France in particular because it’s the “birthplace of democracy [and] one of the leading rule-of-law states in Europe.”
The journey was difficult; it took him nearly three weeks. But when he finally got there he felt relieved, he says. “[After] arriving in France and appealing to law enforcement agencies, I was able to exhale and calm down, to recover a little,” Savelyev tells Meduza.
But on the day of this interview, October 23, Russian police put Sergey Savelyev on a wanted list — for violating parole. “I can’t say that this is unexpected,” the whistleblower admits. “Naturally, I was sure they wouldn’t stop, that they would try to get me. We knew this would happen, and the only question was when.”
“It was no great surprise, rather…It’s sad,” Savelyev continues. “It’s sad that instead of investigating gross human rights violations, bringing the perpetrators to justice, and spending their energy on analysis and investigations, they’re still trying to shut me up. But whatever they tie the accusations to, both the Russian people and the global community know what’s really going on.”
Please note. This interview has been summarized for length and clarity. You can read Meduza’s full Q&A with Sergey Savelyev in Russian here.
Summary by Eilish Hart