- Share to or
‘I don’t know how else to get through to our government’ A Russian arsonist explains his thinking
While the Russian domestic opposition’s response to Moscow's war against Ukraine has been widely characterized as lacking, there are at least a few dozen Russians who have taken virtually the most direct action possible to impede their country's war machine. According to estimates from the independent Russian outlet Mediazona, at least 52 government buildings and draft centers have been targeted by arson attacks since February 24. The perpetrators in many of these cases remain a mystery, but others, for better or worse, do not. Vladimir Zolotarev, a taxi driver from Russia's Far Eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, set fire to a Russian National Guard building in March. Though he’s currently in remand prison, he spoke to Mediazona through his lawyer. Meduza summarizes Mediazona's story in English.
Before February 2022, Vladimir Zolotarev was a 50-year-old divorcee who lived with his 72-year-old mother in an apartment in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. When he wasn’t driving his Toyota Prius as a taxi driver, he regularly attended anti-Putin protest rallies organized by Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny. “His ideas and his political positions really resonate with me," Zolotarev told Mediazona. "I think he’s one of the few people who see what’s happening with the Russian authorities."
When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Zolotarev immediately turned to alcohol. “I attribute my binge on February 24, 2022 to what’s going on in Ukraine, the fact that innocent people are dying. It's caused me to suffer emotionally,” he later told investigators. In addition, he told them, he has a son of conscription age and was worried he could be drafted.
On March 9, after a short hiatus, Zolotarev began drinking again. “I drank beer and vodka, and I drank it alone,” he recounted. After three days, he said, he decided to retreat into the woods for a week or so to take his mind off the news. Supposedly to prepare for his trip, he bought several canisters of gasoline, a crowbar, and more alcohol.
“At the gas station, I bought enough gasoline so that I could go into the forest for a long time and stay there until the gasoline ran out,” he explained later. “I needed the gasoline to fill up my car. I got the crowbar so I could cut branches from trees to make a fire, because there weren’t any axes in the store, plus I already had experience using a crowbar to cut branches from trees, and it’s very convenient.”
Soon after stocking up on supplies, Zolotarev was pulled over by police officers who noticed he was driving erratically. The men allegedly got into a brawl, and, according to the prosecution, Zolotarev used his head to hit an officer in the face. Zolotarev himself told Mediazona that the police twisted him while detaining him, causing him to “jerk back" from the pain and "accidentally hit the officer’s nose with his head." After that, he was charged with attacking an officer and put under house arrest.
Zolotarev said he might have mentioned arson during that first arrest. “I didn’t want to set fire to any buildings, especially government buildings, and I don’t want to now," he told investigators on March 23. "It’s possible that I said some things about [doing] that, but I said them because I was in a severely depressed emotional state caused by the political and economic situation in this country, I was worried about what was going to happen to me, and I had consumed a large amount of alcohol."
* * *
On the evening of June 3, Vladimir Zolotarev walked up to the Russian National Guard building in Komsomolsk-on-Amur with a 20-liter (16-gallon) canister of gasoline. He proceeded to pour the gasoline on the building’s front steps and light it on fire. Eyewitnesses took video of the flames and the plume of smoke they created.
After setting the fire, Zolotarev, still on house arrest, went home and slept for a bit; after that, he went to a nearby hotel, where, in his own words, he “got plastered.” The following day, he was arrested.
During his interrogation, investigators asked Zolotarev how he ended up outside of the Rosgvardia building with the canister of gasoline. “You probably all know about the war in Ukraine,” he responded. “I guess some people are taking it [harder] than others. For me, it’s just a disgrace. Putin is a fuckwit — he thrust us into this whole mess. I decided I just couldn’t stand it anymore.”
He said he saw arson as the only way to show his disagreement: “I don’t know how else to talk to you, to our beloved government. I could only find one solution.”
Zolotarev was charged with attempted terrorism and sent to a remand prison in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. The prosecution alleges that Zolotarev’s goal was to “destabilize the activities of the authorities” and that he believed government employees were in the building at the time, but that he didn’t achieve his goal because the fire was put out.
Sign up for The Beet
Underreported stories. Fresh perspectives. From Budapest to Bishkek.
During one interrogation, Zolotarev stressed that he didn’t want to harm anybody: “I poured the canister out in front of the building; I didn’t go inside, because it was closed, and if it had been open, I wouldn’t have gone beyond the [barrier]. I just wanted to show that I disagree — I didn’t want to kill anybody or anything. [...] For me, killing someone would have been a disaster.”
In a letter to Mediazona, Zolotarev reiterated that he “did everything possible to make sure nobody got hurt.” “I carried out my protest in the evening, after 7:00 pm, when the building was closed,” he said.
The charge against Zolotarev for attacking a police officer and the attempted terrorism charge were ultimately combined into a single case. Later, one investigator noticed Zolotarev’s mention of arson during his March testimony, and on June 29, prosecutors launched another criminal case — this one for preparation of a terrorism attack. According to the prosecution, when Zolotarev was pulled over by the police, he told them he planned to use his crowbar to open the windows of police and FSB buildings and set them on fire using gasoline.
Zolotarev told Mediazona that the accusation is “completely unthinkable, but absolutely in the spirit of our government.” He denies that he planned to use the gasoline and the crowbar to commit arson.
After Zolotarev’s arrest, a source from Russian law enforcement who spoke to RIA Novosti called him an “ardent non-systemic dissident.” Zolotarev himself said he’s inclined to agree with the description. “I mean, yes, that is what I am right now. In my view, it’s the only just position for any honest person in this country.”
Meduza's English-language version by Sam Breazeale
- Share to or