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‘I’ll go with my head held high’ A Russian mother whose daughter is behind bars for trying to burn down a government building talks about the case and her own ‘extremism’ charges

Source: Meduza

At the end of June, 20-year-old Valeria Zotova, accused of plotting to set fire to a collection point for the Russian military in Karabikha, was convicted of an attempted “terrorist attack” and sentenced to six years in prison. In early October, her mother, Svetlana Zotova, reported that Valeria had been sent to a “punishment cell,” a small, solitary confinement cell, following constant harassment and accusations from a prison guard. Svetlana herself is known for her activism and strong stance against the war in Ukraine. She now faces charges of “calls for terrorism and extremism” for her comments on posts in pro-Ukrainian Telegram channels. The independent outlet Bereg spoke with Svetlana ahead of her trial about both her daughter’s case and her own. With permission, Meduza is publishing the full interview, translated into English.

Svetlana Zotova’s remarks have been lightly edited for clarity.

What was Valeria Zotova accused of?

At the end of June 2023, then-19-year-old Valeria Zotova from Yaroslavl was sentenced to six years in a penal colony on charges of attempted terrorism. According to the investigation, Valeria, on the instructions of the Ukraine Secret Service, planned to set fire to an administrative building in Karabikha where supplies and packages were being collected for mobilized Russians. A few months before her arrest on March 16, 2023, Valeria communicated with someone who called himself “Andrey from the Ukrainian army.” According to the prosecution, he offered her money to set the administrative building on fire. VKontakte correspondence submitted as evidence in the case seems to show that Lera was planning to deceive Andrey and take the money without completing the task. Valeria’s mother, Svetlana Zotova, as well as Valeria’s lawyer, Ivan Tamarov, believe that “Andrey from the Ukrainian army” was a fake profile, created by FSB officers to entrap Valeria.

Shortly after Valeria was arrested, Svetlana Zotova was charged with calling for and justifying terrorism, and calling for extremism. According to the investigation, she wrote “extremist comments” in pro-Ukrainian Telegram channels.

Now Svetlana is under house arrest, and Valeria is in jail in the Yaroslavl region. The defense managed to appeal the verdict: on November 8, a hearing on the appeal will be held.

Arguably the biggest question in your daughter’s case is the identity of “Andrey from the Ukrainian army,” at whose request Lera allegedly tried to set the fire. You said that siloviki were behind him. How can you be sure?

Because I talked to them myself — to these FSB guys pretending to be SBU — when Lera was still at home. She came up to me and said, “Mom, they’re calling, I’m not answering anymore.” I picked up the phone myself — they suggested blowing something up. I said, “Lera’s not going anywhere, don’t even suggest it.” I started to doubt that it was a Ukrainian, and at the end I said, “Glory to Ukraine!” There was silence. I thought he’d gagged, choked, stopped breathing altogether. A minute passed, and then he answered — “Glory to the heroes.”

The day she was arrested, Lera didn’t go to work, she stayed home. She said, “Andrey’s writing that I need to take gasoline somewhere.” I told her, “Lera, don’t do anything, do you understand me?” She said she understood. I didn’t think for a moment that she might go out that night. If so, I’d have locked all the doors and hidden the keys.

She wasn’t even going to set anything on fire. At the trial, they showed all the correspondence. It turned out that Lera wrote Karina: “Let’s just put the [gas can] down and leave.” And this girl was FSB: she either works for them as an employee or she gets money for it from time to time, I don’t know.

I got the ruling from Lera’s lawyer, Ivan Tamarov, after the trial: it was written there that it was Lera who persuaded Karina to commit arson. They flipped everything.

Lera was given six years in prison. How did you and she react to this sentence?

When the prosecutor asked for eight years, Lera looked at me with such sad eyes, and I looked back at her the same way. My husband had tears in his eyes. I stood up defiantly and walked out of the courtroom, slamming the door. I wrote to Solidarity Zone that I wasn’t okay. They wrote back saying they wouldn’t abandon us.

When they took Lera away back to the jail, I started shouting, “Freedom to political prisoners!” right outside the court building. A bunch of policemen were standing nearby, and they turned around.

Later, I also went around the jail, shouting as loud as I could. We ordered a megaphone for Lera’s September 4 birthday, and I wanted to go there to sing songs to her, but it didn’t work out. My husband said, “You’ll end up at the police station again.”

It seems like the siloviki put on this whole “show” with “Andrey from the Ukrainian army” because of your activism. Do you agree with this?

I can’t answer that question. I have no idea how they got to Lera. Although I warned her that there were guys in trench coats [FSB officers] hanging out on Telegram. She told me, “Mom, a Ukrainian wrote me.” This “Andrey” wrote to her in Ukrainian. I told her, “Lera, you can correspond with him, but be careful.”

Before the prison officers started harassing Lera in early October, how was she doing in the pre-trial detention center?

At our October 3 visitation, when she saw me, she immediately burst out crying. I did too, of course. She said, “Mom, I can’t take it anymore.” I asked, “What happened?” She started telling me about this Natalia, a prison officer, that she was always picking on her. After my visit, her cell was searched, and they found something forbidden there. What exactly, we don’t know. I think they planted something.

The lawyer went to see her after she was sent to the punishment cell. He thought she’d be all sad there — no, she was cheerful. She said there wasn’t any violence, nothing happened. And she didn’t have any suicidal thoughts. She was already released from the punishment cell on Friday night, October 13, but they still don’t give her her letters. I support her in every letter. I write to make sure she’s emotionally prepared for everything. I have moments at home when I want to scream and yell at the top of my lungs. But I try to push it all down so that I don’t upset her or myself.

I took a delivery to her today, October 16. They didn’t allow the poppy seed rolls. In case she’ll smoke poppy seeds there! Fresh peppers weren’t accepted. There are seeds in them, she might choke on them. It’s a madhouse, to be honest.

What did Lera tell you about her cellmate who killed herself?

In a letter she wrote to me back in July, she said that a woman had been placed in their cell under Article 105. “She doesn’t talk to anyone, mom,” she said. “But I always call her over to eat, drink tea.” And Lera told me later at a visit that when they’d locked her cellmate in solitary confinement, she’d hanged herself there.

After this suicide, they were constantly after them. They did searches several times a day, turning everything upside down. Apparently, the prison officers got in trouble for it, and they started taking it out on the girls, including Lera. There was another suicide there before that, only in another cell, Lera told me.

Why do you think they harass Lera so much?

Oh, I don’t know. But Lera says they’re really pissed off that people who care about her send her packages and write letters. She told me there’s a broken toilet and bench in their cell, and she asked them many times to fix them, but they don’t care. And then Lera said she’d write to the prosecutor’s office. And they said, “Just try, we’ll get another charge added.”

So Lera won’t hold her tongue and she’ll speak up if something’s wrong?

If Lera doesn't like something, yes, she'll speak up. She’s like me. I won’t keep my mouth shut. But she’s very trusting. She’s young, very kind, but if she gets angry, it’s hard to calm her down.

Have you not been able to file a complaint against Natalia, the prison guard, yet?

I wrote a letter to Lera, before the suicide, to find out her last name, but they apprehended it. I think maybe my letter is the reason they started a beef with Lera.

At the end of September, Lera’s name was put on a list of terrorists and extremists. What do you think about that?

Well, they put my name on it earlier, in April. Lera’s just now, for some reason. On a visit, I said to her, “Daughter, congratulations!” And we started laughing.

You’re accused of leaving comments in pro-Ukrainian Telegram channels. Did you really write them or was this also fabricated?

To be honest, I don’t remember if I wrote these specific comments or not, it was in 2022. They’d still find comments I left five years ago.

But now I'm writing. Not “dickhead” and all that, but that they’re all bastards. I don’t understand at all how they live with it. I'm infuriated and sickened by all this injustice.

I’ve been like this since I was born, over anything. My mom and I had conflicts all the time. And the more she pushed me, the more I did to spite her. Then I went out with signs here in Yaroslavl for Navalny in 2020, after he was poisoned, for Khabarovsk in 2020, for Belarus in 2020. People were passing by, clapping their hands, coming up, looking at me. The cops came and took pictures, but they didn’t arrest me.

And now, how are you preparing for the trial? Do you know when it’s going to be?

In about two or three weeks, but the exact date is still unknown. When my lawyer and I went to see the investigator, I was always annoyed by his questions. “Hello, Mrs. Zotova! How are you doing? Is everything all right?” There can’t be anything between us. He said, “You don’t think of me as a human being?” I said, “No, I don’t.” How can you act towards them if they already want to put Navalny’s lawyers in jail? They’re bastards, complete bastards.

Every time I come there, there are new pictures in the office. Stalin is on the wall. Then — Che Guevara, with a red stripe through him. The next time — Dzerzhinsky.

I think Hollywood’s just resting. They wrote that I was leaving comments under posts in Telegram channels from an unknown device in the vicinity of my home address. They found a witness somewhere. They said that he went to this group, read the comments, and didn’t like them. They wrote that I told my daughter, “Yes, yes, we should help the SBU.” Although I did no such thing. Maybe Lera said something during the interrogation that they twisted this way. But you know how they are. The FSB officers called me a fucking bitch when they took me to the police station, and yelled, “Pick your legs up” [get up from the chair]. If they acted like that with me, I can imagine what they were doing to Lera.

Naturally, they realize they’re fabricating a case. The guy investigating me is young, a brat. Of course, he needs stars on his shoulder straps.

You have a husband and a 13-year-old daughter. What will happen to your family if you’re also convicted?

I don't know. I don't have an answer to that question.

My husband always told me, “Go, go and picket, they’ll lock you up, that’ll teach you.” But he understands me. And he loves Lera very much, he brings her packages.

He’s also against the war, he says, “I’d rather go to jail than go to kill someone.” He himself won’t go to the protests, and if he does, who will feed us?

My mother and my sister and her husband are fans of Putin, and we didn’t talk at all for six months after the war started. When Lera was taken away, my husband and I didn’t tell anyone at first. Lera’s grandmother always talked to her, and at some point, it was senseless to hide it, so I told her. She’s worried about Lera, but she still supports Putin.

When the war started, I said I was renouncing my Russian roots. By no means do I want to blame all Russians. I understand perfectly well that there are also normal people. And what do I feel for Russians who support the war? Nothing at all. When Putin is gone and the war is over, they’ll again say, “We had nothing to do with it.”

But you and other Russians who can’t stay silent are paying too high a price.



Because we should have thought about it earlier, when it was still possible to say things and go out and protest. I’ve always written in comments on Navalny’s social media that your protests are shit, they don’t work, that radical measures are needed. And Navalny’s supporters would jump on me there: “We’ll blacklist you, stop muddying the waters here.”

Even now, you can do all this, but everyone is sitting there scared. I’m not saying I’m better than everyone else, although I’m doing something. I’m not making excuses for myself; I even blame myself for some things. But I believe that we all haven’t done enough. We nurtured the criminal authorities ourselves. We allowed them to get away with a lot.

I feel sorry for everyone who ended up behind barbed wire for political reasons, not just my daughter. And most of all, I feel sorry for Navalny. To be honest, it’s fucked up — I can’t find another word for the way they’re abusing him.

Aren’t you afraid they’ll abuse Lera like that?

I am. But I won't think about it — we’ll deal with things as they come up.

Still, it sounds pretty awful.

Why? We laugh in our family. I say to my husband, “I don’t want you to be at my trial.” And he’s like, “Why? I want to see how much time they give you.”

What can you do? Sit around and whine? Worry? Sacrifice your health? I’m worried enough for Lera as it is. I can’t see out of my eye anymore. And when they locked her in a punishment cell, I was hysterical.

But I don’t cry or get upset for myself. I’m already slowly packing a bag just in case, so I don’t end up in the pre-trial detention center without underwear, towels, hygiene products. I’ll go to court with my head held high. Fuck them, honestly. I don’t want to answer their questions, I want to take Article 51, but if they put me in jail, I’ll say a couple nice words to them.

Political persecution

‘Thirty years down the line, we’re back in “1984”’ Civil liberties advocate Oleg Orlov addresses a Russian court at the conclusion of his trial

Political persecution

‘Thirty years down the line, we’re back in “1984”’ Civil liberties advocate Oleg Orlov addresses a Russian court at the conclusion of his trial

Interview by Polina Agarkova for Bereg

Translation by Emily ShawRuss

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