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‘A covert smear campaign’ Vladimir Osechkin made his name exposing abuses in Russia’s penal system. A new report alleges he exploited those who sought his help.
Vladimir Osechkin is one of the most prominent Russian human rights advocates who have been active in wartime. When making him a subject of its recent exposé, the editors of the investigative outlet Proekt expected to raise some eyebrows. It is, after all, thanks to Osechkin, the publication acknowledges, that the world learned about the scale of rampant torture in Russian prisons: after Osechkin and his organization made public a trove of videos showing inmates being tortured and raped in a Saratov prison hospital in 2021, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin fired the head of Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN). Still, according to Proekt reporters Katya Arenina and Mikhail Rubin, Osechkin’s upright public persona conceals his ambiguous relationships with the FSB and with the people he purportedly advocated for. Here’s a condensed version of Proekt’s profile of Osechkin.
Crediting himself, discrediting others
Vladimir Osechkin started the human-rights advocacy project Gulagu.net (the URL translates from Russian as “No to Gulag”) in 2011. The website has since published evidence of torture in the Russian penal system, including videos and testimonies, supplied by former inmates and prison officials alike. In 2015, Osechkin emigrated to France, settling in Biarritz, a coastal city on the Bay of Biscay.
Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Osechkin has produced several interviews with Russian servicemen and Wagner mercenaries who witnessed Russia’s war crimes and refused to take part in further aggression against Ukraine. Osechkin’s public mentions of “evacuations” of such “refuseniks” implied that it was him who was helping them escape from Russia.
According to Proekt, these claims are not always true.
When describing the escape of Wagner commander Andrey Medvedev to Norway, for example, Osechkin wrote: “Yet another evacuation has been successfully completed.” This phrase, followed by a vivid description of the circumstances of Medvedev’s crossing of the Norwegian border (“accompanied by the barking of guard dogs, with shots being fired at his back by the FSB operatives”) led the media to believe that Osechkin was personally involved in getting Medvedev out of Russia. According to Proekt, though, the real people who assisted Medvedev in defecting to Norway must remain anonymous for safety reasons. Russia’s leading human rights lawyer Karinna Moskalenko, for instance, has confirmed the details of Medvedev’s evacuation, which, according to Proekt, had nothing to do with Osechkin.
When Medvedev was already in Norway, Osechkin got in touch with him, publicizing his case on YouTube and elsewhere. But it didn’t take long before the two men fell out, and then Osechkin accused the ex-mercenary of working for the FSB.
In another “evacuation” case, involving the Russian serviceman Nikita Chibrin (who served in a unit that took part in the occupation of Bucha), Osechkin explicitly took credit for getting him out of Russia. Chibrin himself, however, says that Osechkin’s evacuation plan simply didn’t work, and he fled the country on his own, ultimately seeking asylum in Spain instead of France, as Osechkin had suggested.
Proekt has calculated that Osechkin has named at least five other members of the Russian military and law enforcement as people who defected from the country with his help. When speaking with the media, though, the activist made ambiguously inflated claims, saying that he has helped “no fewer than 10 and no more than 100” people.
“At least three out of the five evacuated people were later accused by Osechkin of war crimes, or else collaborating with the FSB,” Proekt writes. “As for Chibrin,” the authors write, Osechkin simply told the journalists that “he’s completely lost it.”
The two journalists profiling Osechkin for Proekt were struck by the sensationalism of his occasional claims, like the one he made recently, citing a “source in the FSO” (Russia’s Federal Guard Service), to the effect that Yevgeny Prigozhin had allegedly prepared a dish with human brains for the Russian president.
In May, Osechkin hosted an emergency YouTube live stream, announcing that Russia was getting ready for a nuclear strike on Ukraine, and gesturing vaguely towards an unspecified informed insider. Afterwards, it turned out that the real source of Osechkin’s nuclear tip was the Russian militant-patriarchal movement Male State, whose members were sending him deliberately misleading tips. When asked about that particular live stream by Proekt, Osechkin said that he couldn’t verify the information in real time but thought it important enough to share during the live event.
In 2022, Osechkin announced that someone had attempted to assassinate him in Biarritz. The French authorities seem to think that someone had pranked the Russian activist, since they couldn’t find any “objective evidence” of attempted assassination — but Osechkin’s story is far more elaborate than that.
In February 2022, Gulagu.net announced that certain natives of the Northern Caucasus region were preparing an assassination attempt on Osechkin. The following September, the activist himself told the Russian journalist Yulia Latynina (also during a YouTube live stream) that he had just survived a murder attempt. Several days earlier, he told Latynina, he had noticed a “red dot” moving over the wall of his house in Biarritz, and then a number of shots were fired. Furthermore, he claimed that the murder had been commissioned by none other than Vladimir Putin, and openly compared himself with Russia’s assassinated politicians Boris Nemtsov and Galina Starovoytova.
Since then, a year has gone by without any additional details of the alleged assassination emerging anywhere.
When asked about the attack over the phone, Osechkin responded evasively, claiming that he had “secret documents” that he could only discuss in person. When Proekt’s reporters came to France and arrived at his home, they were searched at the entrance by four people in civilian clothes. According to Osechkin, they were members of the French Service de la Protection, but since they refused to show their documents or say who they were, the journalists remained in doubt as to who had hired them.
Osechkin then shared a document that, according to him, reflected French law enforcement’s view of the assassination. He also played back an audio recording of his conversation with his security guard, who happened to be on the scene. According to Proekt, when translating these sources from the French, Osechkin “either accidentally or deliberately concealed some important details” — for instance, that the security guard said he heard whistling and that the police later found some “small rubber bullets” in the area. He also skipped a paragraph that said that the French detectives were under the impression that someone had played a prank on him. That paragraph nevertheless came to the reporters’ attention when reading the text with an automatic translator on Osechkin’s smartphone. Osechkin wouldn’t forward the document or let the visitors use any other means or devices to translate it.
When asked about the French press release that “objective evidence” of the attack had been found, Osechkin replied that the release was calculated to hush up the assassination and “stop the media tide.” Although he said he had an audio recording to confirm this, and would share it later, he never did.
‘Turnkey’ asylum services
Proekt also spoke with some of Vladimir Osechkin’s former informants. One of them was a Russian entrepreneur named Andrey Ivanov, who asked the activist for help when his IT business came under pressure from Russian law enforcement. According to Ivanov, Osechkin promised him “turnkey” European asylum for 28,000 euros. Ivanov made a 5,000-euro deposit while still in Russia. When he arrived in France, Osechkin abruptly declared that he suspected Ivanov of cooperating with the FSB, and said he would only work with him if he paid him a cash lump sum without any written contracts. According to Ivanov, he paid Osechkin a total of 11,000 euros, but the latter never did prepare his asylum application.
A similar story happened to Pavel Shchetinin, a former Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) employee who started collaborating with Osechkin in 2016, after workplace pressure to get involved in a corruption scheme forced him to resign from FSIN. In exchange for an exposé, Osechkin promised to get him out of Russia and to ensure he got international protection.
When the Russian authorities went after Shchetinin, Osechkin invited him to France. To leave the country, however, Shchetinin had to get a fake passport with the help of former peers from the Russian police, escaping without any help from Osechkin. Once he was already in France, Osechkin informed him that he had lined up a legal team for Shchetinin and his family of five. Its services would cost them 40,000 euros. According to Shchetinin, he paid part of that sum up front and started getting ready to meet the lawyers. The meeting never materialized, however. Ultimately, Shchetinin realized that the estimate he got from Osechkin was probably inflated close to tenfold. (To prove this, he shared an audio recording with the reporters.)
When asked about Shchetinin and Ivanov, Osechkin denied having ever taken money from them, and accused both of them of cooperating with the FSB. This was purportedly his reason for refusing to continue working with Ivanov. As for Shchetinin, Osechkin said, he never promised him any help.
After he fell out with Osechkin, Shchetinin was arrested by Interpol on Russia’s request, but only briefly. According to Shchetinin, Osechkin had revealed his location to the FSB and the Russian authorities filed an extradition request. According to Proekt and its findings, Osechkin told the Gulagu.net coordinator Boris Ushakov to send a letter to the FSB head Alexander Bortnikov, informing him that Shchetinin was in France, coordinating a FSIN corruption scheme right from abroad. Ushakov confirmed writing to Bortnikov, and showed Proekt both the correspondence with Osechkin and a copy of his letter concerning Shchedrin.
In addition, Osechkin reported Shchetinin to the French immigration authorities, who then denied his asylum application. Later, the decision was reversed on appeal, when a French court dismissed Osechkin’s report as part of a personal conflict between two Russians in France.
Osechkin insists that Shchetinin “has been and remains in contact with the FSB.” Although he admits having complained about Shchetinin to Ushakov, he says he doesn’t remember asking him to report Shchetinin to Bortnikov.
According to Proekt, Osechkin’s conflicts often lead him to accuse his adversaries of cooperating with the FSB, FSIN, and other Russian federal agencies — or else, of taking part in Russia’s crimes of aggression in Ukraine. Proekt has calculated that Osechkin accused more than 20 different people and organizations in this way, without backing his claims with any evidence. After publishing the article about Osechkin, Proekt itself joined that list: the subject of the profile now accuses the authors of collaborating with the FSB.
These accusations are double-edged, however, since early in his career Osechkin himself was connected with powerful law enforcement figures, attended the meetings of the ruling United Russia party, and appeared on Russia’s federal TV channels. During one such appearance, he met Anton Tsvetkov, a member of the Officers of Russia organization, who would later become the head of the Moscow-based Civil Monitoring Committee (ONK, an organization for human rights monitoring in Russian prisons) with Osechkin’s help. When Osechkin himself needed help from high-ranking connections in the penal system, Tsvetkov returned the favor.
When answering questions about Osechkin for Proekt, Tsvetkov pointed to the authorities’ unusual reaction to Gulagu.net’s highest-profile investigation into the rampant torture and rape of inmates in a Saratov prison hospital. After the article’s publication, several high-ranking officials were immediately prosecuted. Not only did the top FSIN officials in the region lose their jobs, but even the federal head of the Federal Penitentiary Service was removed from his post. As for the inmate who delivered the leaked videos of the abuse to Gulagu.net (“as requested by FSIN employees and in exchange for financial reward,” as he wrote in one of his first messages to Osechkin), the authorities quietly let him out of the country.
According to Proekt, around the time of this publication, Osechkin received seven large cryptocurrency transfers totaling $709,000. This is more than three-quarters of all the donations sent to Gulagu.net’s accounts in 2021–2023. Osechkin chalks up were transfers to an anonymous “major sponsor,” coupled with his personal proceeds from selling his private land outside of Moscow.
Osechkin’s acquaintance Anton Tsvetkov has a different opinion about where that money came from: “FSIN always had different cliques and clans within it. They picked [Osechkin] to be their dumpster, since he never verified his information,” Tsvetkov told Proekt.
Osechkin denounces the profile
After Proekt released its profile of Osechkin, its subject decried the material as “scandalous.” “They published this so-called ‘portrait’ without asking me. They decided to sling some mud at me, not even to my face, when I sat down with them to talk, but surreptitiously, behind my back,” he said during a three-hour-long Gulagu.net YouTube livestream devoted to the publication.
In a separate Telegram post, Gulagu.net announced that Proekt’s investigation was nothing but a “pile-up of facts mixed with groundless lies.” The organization also criticized the journalists for revealing the security measures inside Osechkin’s home.
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