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‘They bought it’ When the FSB asked Vsevolod Osipov to become a spy, he saw little choice but to say yes. Then he became a double agent.
On May 27, 2021, the Moscow authorities showed up at the apartment where 19-year-old Libertarian Party member Vsevolod Osipov lived with his mother. After searching the premises, they arrested Osipov for “blocking the roads” at a January 31 rally in support of opposition politician Alexey Navalny. At the police station, one officer looked familiar to Osipov. He soon realized the man had infiltrated the Libertarian Party and protested alongside him in January as an undercover agent — and that the man now wanted him to do the same thing.
In 2019, when law student Ivan Chinarov invited his classmate Vsevolod Osipov to join Russia’s Libertarian Party (LPR), Osipov was thrilled. He’d been a fan of the party since his school days.
By his own admission, Osipov didn’t manage to do much with the party when he first got involved. “I just waited to get my membership and went to meetings,” he said. But a rally in support of jailed opposition politician Alexey Navalny on January 31, 2021, was supposed to change things. He was even given a job to do: “We [the LPR members] divided into groups, and I was put in charge of several people to keep track of, to make sure nobody wandered off.”
He noticed one of his group members, a man named Roman Korkh, was strangely quiet. “He just stood there and looked around,” Osipov told Meduza. Soon, Korkh was arrested and taken away.
After the rally, LPR chairman Yaroslav Konvey and his fellow party leaders ran Korkh’s number through a Telegram bot called Eye of God, which can check a person’s contact information against information from a number of large data leaks. “Roman Korkh” turned out to be Roman Podboronov, an agent from Russia’s Center for Combating Extremism (Center E).
“[He made] the same rookie mistakes officers always make: he was saved in people’s phones as ‘Roman CPE,’ ‘Roman Center E,’ and so on,” said Konvey. Podboronov was promptly kicked out of the party.
Several months later, the authorities showed up at the homes of Libertarian Party members in cities throughout Russia.
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“I woke up at six in the morning,” said Vsevolod Osipov, recounting the events of May 27. “Mom opened the door, and a horde of police officers came in. They gave me the [search] order, sat me down in the kitchen, and told me to read it.”
The police took his phone and his hard drive. After searching the apartment, they brought him to the Moscow Police's Main Investigation Department.
The investigators wanted to know when and why Osipov had joined the LPR and what he had done in the party. When Roman Podboronov appeared in the office, though, the questions became more specific and more aggressive: “Did I block the roads? Did I run into riot police? Did I call for illegal activity?”
Then the officers played a short video clip that showed Osipov and other LPR members dividing into groups about an hour before the January 31 protest rally. Osipov is certain that Roman Podboronov used a hidden camera to take the footage.
When Osipov left the investigator’s office to smoke a cigarette, Podboronov followed him. “You’re a decent guy. Let’s meet up and talk in a few days,” he told Osipov. “[That’s when] I realized I was being recruited,” Osipov told Meduza.
In the days that followed, a terrified Osipov debated telling his fellow party members about the “offer.” Meanwhile, Ivan Chinarov told Meduza, the other libertarians noticed he was acting suspicious. “[Roman Podboronov] told [one of the other libertarians interrogated by police] that Osipov had already told them everything. And there was one point where one of our guys saw Osipov unlock his phone and show it to the police [at the station],” said Chinarov.
Chinarov also recalled asking Osipov whether he had pleaded the 51st article of the Russian Constitution, the right to remain silent. “‘I didn’t say anything about myself,’” Osipov told him. “That wording was extremely strange,” Chinarov said.
Because of his odd behavior, when a number of LPR members decided to leave Russia, Osipov wasn’t invited.
On June 8, 2021, Osipov met with Roman Podboronov for the first time since his arrest. They met at a coffee shop, and Podboronov brought company: an FSB colonel named Andrey.
“[The officers] told me they also opposed the regime, but that they just wanted to eliminate the ‘extremist elements,’” Osipov said. “[They said] there were decent guys who were joining United Russia and who were changing the system from within. They said it would be a collaboration.”
Osipov claims he didn’t believe them, but he did ask for three days to think about the offer. He wanted to talk to his fellow party members about what had happened — but he was afraid to get in touch with them by phone.
On June 11, Osipov met with Podboronov and Andrey from the FSB once again. “I said, ‘No, guys, I won’t do it. Just put me in jail.' But they started going through all of the downsides of my decision. They started talking about how they’d find someone from emigration who would definitely agree to cooperate. And that convinced me. I thought, it’s better for all of the libertarians to know that I’m an agent than for a [real] agent to infiltrate them,” said Osipov.
“I decided make the sacrifice,” said Osipov. “[I wanted] to save my own skin, avoid setting anybody up, and, at the same time, beat the police at their own game.”
Osipov signed an agreement to cooperate with the FSB right there in the coffee shop.
Osipov's first job was to collect information on Roman Yuneman, the 27-year-old founder of a political movement called Society.Future. Podbornov wanted Osipov to “get a look at the inner workings” of Yuneman’s State Duma campaign and figure out whether he was a “radical” politician or not, Osipov told Meduza.
Though Osipov was supported Yuneman’s movement privately, he knew that lying to protect the campaign would have dire consequences when he inevitably got caught. “It was me or him,” he told Meduza.
Signing up to volunteer was a breeze, and he soon began working. “I gathered signatures, among other things,” Osipov told Meduza. He said he planned to chat with Yuneman under the guise of an interview, but it didn’t work out.
In late June, Podboronov sent Osipov the floor plan of the building where Yuneman’s team was based, asking him to mark the “most interesting areas.” According to Osipov, the Center E employees wanted to install listening devices. Osipov suggested the conference room and the administration area (“The areas where Roman Yuneman himself didn’t hang out,” he said). He doesn’t know whether the officers ended up installing the bugs.
According to Osipov, he worked “on Yuneman” for about a month and a half. “I realized it was a test of my loyalty to them. It’s a classic move in spy games: the first task is easy, doesn’t particularly affect the officers’ work, and is something they could do themselves.”
By early August, they had a new job for him. This one would be in Georgia, where most of the other LPR members had gone.
Osipov wasn’t given specific instructions until a week before his flight out of Russia. “Don’t ask questions — just figure things out through conversations. And try to cozy up to LPR chairman [Yaroslav] Konvey and [Free Russia foundation project manager Anton] Mikhalchuk,” he said, summarizing his mission.
That’s when he decided to go for it. He bought a burner SIM card at a metro station, created a new Telegram account, and asked Ivan Chinarov to get in touch with him through a mutual acquaintance.
When Chinarov learned that Osipov was working for Center E, he wasn’t surprised. “Actually, I felt better, because it meant he wasn’t [just a rat who wasn’t going to confess],” said Chinarov.
He suggested Osipov come to Armenia, where he was living, before going to Georgia. To justify the odd flight path to the authorities, Osipov told them that he had joined a secret Telegram chat with Libertarian Party leader Yaroslav Konvey, and that Konvey had told him to take that route. “That was probably the scariest part of the whole recruitment,” Osipov told Meduza.
But the authorities bought it. They gave him 214,000 rubles ($3,430) for expenses (he later asked for more and was given 300,000 rubles ($4,809)) and instructed him to return six weeks later, when they would give him a “bigger task.”
On October 27, Osipov flew to Yerevan. Several days later, he flew to Tbilisi. He stayed in touch with the authorities, telling them how he was becoming friendly with the people that interested them and gaining their trust.
“He kept us apprised of all of the FSB and Center E conversations, and it was a useful partnership,” said Ivan Chinarov. “For example, it allowed us to warn the [other] guys [in Russia] about raids on their homes, not so they could leave their homes but so they could hide all of their equipment.”
Unlike Chinarov, Libertarian Party leader Yaroslav Konvey was skeptical of Osipov, even after Osipov explained himself. “How would an agent act if he thought he had been compromised? He would say, ‘They recruited me, but now I want to redeem myself,’ but he would continue to leak information,” said Konvey.
* * *
Osipov stopped responding to Podboronov and Andrey after Russia launched its full-scale war against Ukraine on February 24. “If I thought I wasn’t a great person before, now I just feel like a scumbag,” he told Meduza. In early March, he said, he tried to join the international legion of Ukraine’s territorial defense force, but was rejected because of his Russian citizenship.
He told Meduza that he hid the phone he was using to communicate with Center E in a crowded public place and has begun using a new one. A month ago, when he last checked the old phone, Roman Podboronov was still trying to get in touch with him.
Osipov’s mother is still in Russia. “Every day, I wake up with the thought that they’ve come to search Mom’s house,” he admitted. “I’ve told her, Mom, don’t you think you should come to Georgia? ‘No,” [she says.] I’ve explained to her what the future might hold. But she said, ‘I can’t. If that’s what happens, that’s what happens.”
Meduza reached out to the Russian Interior Ministry and the FSB for comment, but at the time of publication, neither had responded. Roman Podboronov told Meduza’s correspondent in a message that he’s familiar with Vsevolod Osipov, but that he hasn’t worked with him in any capacity related to Center E.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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