Interview by Kristina Safonova. English-language version by Sam Breazeale.
On September 5, Russian ex-journalist Ivan Safronov was sentenced to 22 years in prison on treason charges. Prosecutors claim he passed secret information to German and Czech intelligence services. But in the two years that have passed since Safronov was first arrested, no incriminating evidence has come to light; on the contrary, it’s become undeniable that Safronov is being targeted for his past work as a journalist. Safronov’s fiancée, journalist Ksenia Mironova, spoke to Meduza after her husband’s sentence was announced.
Though she’s only 24, Ksenia Mironova had plenty of experience talking to the loved ones of political prisoners even before she found herself in the same boat. She’d covered politically motivated arrests as a journalist, and she thought she had a good understanding of the difficulties prisoners’ family members face. But in 2020, when Russian authorities arrested her fiancé, ex-journalist Ivan Safronov, Mironova found she was unprepared.
“I had a clear idea of how to protect my rights,” she told Meduza. “[...] I was ready for the interrogations. But I had no idea — and few people talk about this — the level of judgment and pressure I'd face.”
Indeed, persecution of political dissidents is such a prominent part of Russia’s history that many people have a distinct idea of how political prisoners’ romantic partners ought to behave. Even Mironova’s friends were sympathetic to an Internet user who chastised her for wearing a red fur coat because it “didn’t look sad enough.”
But when she did show her sadness, she said, the people around her had little patience for it. They told her everything would be fine, that she was being pessimistic, and that it was becoming hard to talk to her.
Eventually, though, former political prisoner Alexey Polikhovich, who spent more than three years in prison for protesting on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square in 2012, introduced Mironova to his ex-wife, Tatyana. “Meeting her was the first time I realized there are others who have been through this before. And that I’m not crazy. [...] I’m just being gaslit by other people,” she told Meduza.
Tatyana added Mironova to a group chat for the partners of political prisoners. Her new friends made her feel seen.
“If you want to wear a fur coat, do it — red, pink, or leopard print," Tatyana told her. "That has nothing to do with your situation or your right to worry."
‘If there’s a nuclear explosion, we won’t get to say goodbye’
Ivan Safronov, Ksenia Mironova’s fiancé, was arrested on treason charges in July 2020. The Russian FSB claims Safronov passed state secrets to foreign intelligence agencies on multiple occasions while working as a journalist. An analysis of the indictment against Safronov by the investigative outlet Proekt, however, found that all of the “classified” information that Safronov allegedly disclosed is publicly available online.
In addition, the indictment shows that early in Safronov’s case, the prosecution offered him a plea bargain in exchange for naming his journalistic sources, removing any doubt about the case’s political nature. Safronov rejected the offer, and on August 30, prosecutors requested he be sentenced to 24 years in prison.
When Mironova learned that Safronov’s sentencing hearing was scheduled for November 5, she immediately bought tickets to Moscow from Riga, where she currently lives. “I was on my way to the bus when I heard about the 24-year [requested sentence]. I didn’t have time to wrap my head around it. And then, on the bus, it hit me: that's as many years as I’ve been alive,” she said.
Safronov’s sentencing hearing was the first time Mironova had been back to Russia since she moved to Riga in March. She never planned on emigrating, even after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, but after the Russian authorities blocked her employer, the independent television channel Dozhd (TV Rain), she had little choice.
“We were discussing it in our office when the security guard came in and told us [there were] riot police officers on the way. We all went outside, dispersed, and then went to some friends' house. That’s when I had my second meltdown,” she said. Eventually, a colleague asked for her passport, went online, and bought her a plane ticket to Latvia. She left the next morning.
“After that, I purposefully didn’t come back [to Russia], so that I’d be able to return for the sentencing. Because I wasn't censoring anything. I was writing articles under my own name and doing livestreams,” she said.
Though she was glad to be able to keep working as a journalist, Mironova said it was difficult to suddenly be even further away from her partner.
“If there’s a nuclear explosion, some people will get to tell each other goodbye, but not us. I made a terrible joke in the group chat for political prisoners’ wives: at least now they wouldn’t send Ivan to war,” she said. “But then the Prigozhin stuff started happening, and the joke got even darker.”
Mironova and Safronov now stay in touch via letters — something they weren’t able to do for months after investigators temporarily stripped Safronov of his right to send and receive correspondence in October 2021. But Mironova said snail mail isn’t very conducive to discussing the details of his case. “How could we?” she told Meduza. “It takes two weeks to get there, then two weeks for his response to come back.”
For most of the two years since Ivan Safronov was arrested, Mironova assumed her fiancé was just the unlucky victim of a show trial. “It all fit nicely: he was a journalist, it involved the defense industry, and now everyone would know not to mess with the military industrial complex anymore,” she said.
Russia's February invasion of Ukraine seemed to reinforce the theory: the Safronov case might just be another effort to prime the Russian public for war.
“[Maybe the case was supposed to show that] we’re surrounded by spies and traitors and NATO countries who want, I don’t know, to destroy us and enslave us,” said Mironova. “You got the feeling it was just a convenient confluence of factors.”
But she started to see things differently after the prosecution requested such a lengthy sentence. “24 years doesn’t look like something intended ‘just to scare journalists’ or ‘just to show the public something,’ to be honest. 24 years seems more like someone’s personal grudge,” she said.
On the other hand, it could just be a case of pointless cruelty.
"I wouldn't put it past them to do this just for kicks," said Mironova. "I mean, why not? They have the means. Why are they able to kill people in a neighboring country? Why can [Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman] Maria Zakharova and [RT head] Margarita Simonyan spew absolute nonsense and face no consequences? I don’t know."
‘Everyone else went back to their lives’
At Safronov’s early hearings, in 2020 and 2021, Mironova was allowed to go up to his courtroom cage and hold his hand as rulings were announced. But at his recent sentencing hearing, she wasn’t even allowed to get close. She watched him from afar as the judge announced that he was being sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Safronov’s only message to Mironova that day came through his lawyer: ‘I love you.’ Later, after shouting back that she loved him too, Mironova addressed the prosecution: “You’ll all burn in hell!”
“I just wanted to give them a moment of discomfort,” she told Meduza.
Mironova said that while it’s impossible to get used to seeing her fiancé in handcuffs, she has learned to adapt and compartmentalize her feelings. But it’s been a slow process.
“Relatively speaking, things were really awful for me two years ago,” she said. “I got angry when I realize an entire month had already passed [since Ivan's arrest] and everyone, including his family, was just going about their business. [...] Everyone had gone back to their lives, and I was stuck without mine.”
She’s since gotten used to her relative powerlessness — and adjusted her expectations of the people around her.
“[The lack of public outrage] matters to me, but I’m not angry. Because, look: a whole lot of people haven’t noticed that people are being murdered in the country that neighbors ours, either. A country where many of them have relatives,” said Mironova. “So what do you expect?”
Several of Mironova’s own relatives have died this year, though not in Ukraine. Just two months ago, her grandmother died by suicide. Because Mironova now lives outside of the country, she’s been unable to provide much support to her remaining family members. But while so much loss might have destroyed her in the past, she said, the last two years have, at the very least, taught her how to cope.
“Now, when something terrible happens, I just think, ‘Okay, we’ve been through this shit before. Let’s think rationally: what can I do about this?’” she said. “If the answer is nothing, I just move on.”
That, she told Meduza, is her only option.
“I don’t have real estate, I don’t have a car, and I come from a very simple family — I was born in Uralmash in Yekaterinburg in 1998. [...] If I don’t help myself out, it’s not like a wizard is going to helicopter in and save me. No oligarch is going to come and court me. I’ve even joked that if Safronov really were a spy, at least we might have some money.”
'What country do you people think you live in?’
If Ivan Safronov serves his entire 22-year sentence, he’ll be 54 years old when he’s released. Mironova will be 46. If their relationship doesn't survive, it won't be the first time a jail term has caused a breakup. But despite the fact that staying with Ivan means not having a family anytime soon, Mironova said she can’t imagine not being with him.
“There’s a big misconception that at some point, you’ll just be sitting there and decide, ‘Alright, I want a family, so I’m ending my relationship. [...] Time to download Tinder,’” she said. “That just doesn’t happen. No matter what, he and I are connected for the rest of our lives.”
Right now, what that means in practice is throwing herself into her work. In addition to serving as an alternative to the domestic life the Russian authorities have taken from her, she said, work gives her a sense of purpose. After moving to Latvia, Mironova began working at Help Desk, a media organization that seeks to help political prisoners directly in addition to publishing factual information about Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Mironova said outright that she doesn't have any hope for the future. “I just look for ways to be useful,” she said. “If I can help political prisoners, I’ll do it. As far as imagining a future with a house, a dog, children, and us, I don’t do that at all. Because why would I imagine it if it’s not likely to happen?”
In a sense, it was hopelessness that finally gave Mironova consolation after the initial suffering she went through following Safronov’s arrest.
“After the first year, I realized it wasn’t that I was being pessimistic — it was that everyone around me was living in a ‘country of denial.’ And that brought some relief,” she said. “[...] People said, ‘It’s not in [the government’s] interest to incarcerate him!’ But I would say back, ‘Come on — our government does a lot of things that aren’t in their best interest. What country do you people think you live in?’”
Mironova said her fiancé once received a letter from a man who spent time in an East German prison. He eventually lived to see the fall of the Berlin Wall, he told Safronov, but when he was staring at the walls of his cell, he thought he would be there forever.
“In other words, it was forever until it wasn’t. And in that sense, it's not that I have hope; I just know that that happens sometimes,” said Mironova. “Maybe it will happen for us, too, and maybe it won’t.”