‘It’s enough for the courts’ This 22-year-old has become Russia’s go-to expert witness in court cases launched over prohibited symbols — like Team Navalny’s logo
In June 2021, the Moscow City Court declared Alexey Navalny’s political movement and anti-corruption nonprofits “extremist organizations.” Since then, the Russian authorities have been busy launching administrative cases against the Kremlin critic’s supporters for “displaying banned symbols” — including, but not limited to, logos associated with Team Navalny. Because Russia doesn’t maintain a list of extremist symbols, these proceedings rely on assessments from expert witnesses. According to lawyers and human rights activists, Russian courts have recently been turning to one witness in particular — 22-year-old Danila Mikheev, a purported forensic expert who has been denouncing opposition activists since his university days.
On February 9, feminist activist Daria Serenko was jailed for 15 days over an Instagram post that contained the logo for “Smart Vote” — a strategic voting initiative run by Alexey Navalny’s associates. Though the “Smart Vote” logo isn’t officially a banned symbol, a police expert deemed it “extremist,” presumably due to its resemblance to the Team Navalny logo.
Earlier, in January, police in Pskov launched administrative proceedings against municipal deputy Nikolai Kuzmin over two social media posts from 2017. The posts included the “Navalny 20!8” logo from the opposition politician’s presidential campaign. Similarly, in September 2021, the former head of Navalny’s Krasnoyarsk headquarters, Natalya Peterimova, was written up over an old Instagram post with the Team Navalny logo (a court acquitted her in November).
As lawyer Stanislav Seleznev from the Net Freedoms Project told Mediazona, in cases like these, Russian courts rely on the help of expert witnesses — as Russia doesn’t have an official registry of extremist symbols. Moreover, the lawyer said, there’s one person in particular who has become the go-to “expert” in cases concerning banned symbols: 22-year-old Danila Mikheev.
“In all of the cases in recent months related to banned symbols, he has appeared as an expert. His research, of course, is striking in its depth and quantity of assumptions, which contradicts the legislation on expert [assessments], but it’s proving to be enough for the courts,” Seleznev said. Speaking to The Insider, lawyers from the rights group Apologia Protesta agreed that Mikheev is now the go-to expert in Russia for such cases.
Agora human rights group head Pavel Chikov listed several recent cases where Mikheev acted as an expert witness on banned symbols. For example, following his assessments, a Moscow court jailed Pussy Riot activist Maria Alyokhina for 15 days on February 8, over an Instagram post from 2015; and activist Alexander Rybkin (from the unregistered political party The Other Russia of E.V. Limonov) was also jailed for 15 days, over a tattoo of a symbol used by the band Death in June.
In September 2020, Danila Mikheev registered the “Independent Expert” Center for Promoting the Development of Humanitarian Expertise, an autonomous nonprofit organization that conducts assessments for the courts in cases concerning prohibited symbols. “Independent Expert” isn’t included in Russia’s national registry of forensic organizations. Danila Mikheev, however, was added to Russia’s registry of forensic experts in September 2021 (he’s listed as a specialist in linguistic and psychological assessments).
Mikheev has been cooperating with law enforcement agencies for more than two years now. He even wrote complaints to the Interior Ministry during his time as a student at Russian State Social University. In October 2019, Mikheev filed a complaint against a student named Vladimir Utenkov after he shared a five-minute video on social media made up of documentary footage from World War II — the complaint led to the initiation of an administrative case for displaying Nazi paraphenalia, the student journal Doxa reported. “I’ve assisted the capture of real terrorists, extremists, and those who have not yet reached their ranks,” Mikheev told Doxa in February 2020. “This is in many ways a help to them, no matter how they feel about it. A person needs to be pulled out in time.”
Mikheev has also written statements against political scientist Fyodor Krashenninikov, Karelian activists Alexey Chesnokov and Ekaterina Muranova, and Team Navalny activist Oleg Vasiliev. In February 2020, Yury Shadrin, a resident of the Volgograd region, was fined after Mikheev reported one of his VKontakte posts to the authorities. In addition, Mikheev has served as a witness in administrative and criminal proceedings launched on the basis of his complaints.
In June 2021, Danila Mikheev told Mediazona that he doesn’t consider himself a “professional” witness, but he believes he’s working for the good of his homeland. “This is nonsense written by the enemies of our country — you are enemies of our country, too. Why should I answer to enemies? I say what I need to in my own way. We’re the ones who will grant or restrict your rights as needed. We are the people of Russia, the citizens of Russia, who defend this country, who live in this country!” Mikheev asserted. Mikheev also insisted that his “every action leads to peace in the country,” adding that he wants “for people to live normally.”
Translation by Eilish Hart