December 21, 2018

Hunting “Spies” in Russia: Reasons and Implications for the Political Regime

Inter RAO board member Karina Tsurkan accused of espionage on behalf of Romania, attends a hearing at the Moscow City Court as she appeals against the arrest.
Inter RAO board member Karina Tsurkan accused of espionage on behalf of Romania, attends a hearing at the Moscow City Court as she appeals against the arrest.

Introduction On 3 October 2018, Russian president Vladimir Putin submitted for consideration by the State Duma a package of amendments


On 3 October 2018, Russian president Vladimir Putin submitted for consideration by the State Duma a package of amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation and the Russian Federation Code on Administrative Offences, including, in particular, the partial decriminalisation of Article 282 of the Criminal Code, “Incitement of hatred or enmity, as well as abasement of human dignity”.1 The president proposed to remove criminal responsibility for acts committed only once and which do not pose a serious threat to the foundations of the constitutional system and national security.

It should be noted that, in recent years, administrative and criminal cases have been more frequently initiated due to likes, re-posts, comments or other material published on social networks. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in the first half of 2018, 762 cases involving extremism were initiated,2 compared to 1,521 in the whole of 2017.3 But, despite the president’s action, paragraph 2 of Article 282 is unchanged. According to this,

the same deeds committed

  1. a) with the use of violence or with the threat of its use;
  2. b) by a person though his official position;
  3. c) by an organized group

will continue to be punished. In September, the head of Russia’s Supreme Court, Vyacheslav Lebedev, stated that “mentions of extremism on social media in Russia are few in comparison with other categories: there are just over 500. However, the growth is evident over the past three years: there were more than a hundred two years ago. This worried us, [so] we carried out an analysis and adopted this resolution.”4 The situation is really worrying. And it is not only related to social media. In recent years Russian security organisations have declared a witch-hunt against “spies of hostile states”. This ranges from senior academics to members of anarchist youth organisations. Many of these sophisticated indictments and methods are not new. They are linked to the legacies of the Russian Empire and the Soviet era—of course, with additional new battlegrounds, such as social networks and the internet in general.

Cases from Anarchist “Extremists” to Science “Spies”

In 2017–18 several young activists in anarchist and antifascist groups were arrested by the Federal Security Service (FSB). Seven young people in Penza and St Petersburg admitted to organising a terrorist group,5 and then told their lawyers that they did so under torture. They have been charged under Articles 205.4, 278 and 279 of the Criminal Code for “organising and participating in a terrorist organisation” and “the intention to conduct a series of explosions before the World Cup, a coup d’état and create an ‘anarchist state’”.6 “This case shows that disappearances and fabrication of criminal cases by representatives of law-enforcement institutions under torture happen not only in the North Caucasus, but here in central Russia,” said Alexander Cherkasov, chairman of the “Memorial” Human Rights Centre.7

One of the recent cases is also linked to infiltration operations by security organisations. According to investigators, members of anarchist group “the New Greatness” wanted to seize power in Russia through a coup d’état. But details of the case are murky. According to The Independent, based on meetings in McDonald’s, the group is alleged to have decided on a revolution using social media and leafleting. Police arrested ten members of the group in March. The group is alleged to have undertaken weapons training ahead of a revolutionary campaign. But the main sources of the evidence are security officers who infiltrated their network. At least one played a significant role in directing the group’s activities. According to supporters and lawyers acting for the youngsters, the actions of the security services amounted to an illegal act of provocation. The security agents were instrumental in pushing the group to greater militancy, they said.8

The defence insists that the idea of ​​creating an organisation came from members of the police and the FSB. In fact, prior to the appearance of a person using the pseudonym “Ruslan D.”, there was no organisation, according to lawyers, only chat on the messenger service Telegram. Participants discussed politics and agreed on a joint campaign against actions by the authorities. Later, Russian media reported that secret service officer Alexander Konstantinov was hiding under the pseudonym Ruslan D. According to the defendants’ lawyers, Konstantinov was not the only provocateur from the siloviki (security services personnel). At one recent meeting of the New Greatness, the idea arose to dissolve the organisation, and some of those present stated that they were not ready to participate actively in its political life. As a result, two more law-enforcement officers joined the organisation: criminal investigation operative Maxim Rastorguev and an employee of the Russian Guard, Ruslan Kashapov. They also participated in New Greatness meetings and made audio and video recordings. The use of agents provocateurs to initiate criminal cases of extremism is a new practice for Russian security officials, said Russian human rights activist Lev Ponomarev, who is also involved in the New Greatness case, in an interview with Deutsche Welle. According to Ponomarev, earlier such provocations were the prerogative of the Soviet intelligence services, the Cheka and the NKVD, but representatives of the FSB have now decided to adopt their methods.9

Arrests in different regions are becoming more common in 2018. People are being taken to the Lefortovo prison in Moscow under FSB supervision. Detention in custody is sanctioned by the Lefortovo district court. The public and journalists often found out about new “traitors and spies” by chance from representatives of the Public Monitoring Commission, who also meet them accidentally while monitoring prisons. Each case is classified and a duty lawyer is appointed; lawyers hired by relatives of the suspects face difficulties in contacting defendants in prison. Investigations are undertaken in an atmosphere of great secrecy. Because lawsuits are classified, it is not possible to understand what the evidence for this or that case of “state treason” or “espionage” was.

In early June, 70-year-old Viktor Prozorov was detained on suspicion of treason. The details of the case were not disclosed, since it is marked as classified. Prozorov himself recently refused to communicate with those who visited him in prison.10 Several days later, Karina Tsurkan, a board member of energy group Inter RAO, was arrested at the request of FSB investigator Dmitry Krekov on suspicion of espionage. She is charged with working for the Romanian special services. She allegedly transmitted information about the supply of electricity to the Crimea and to the self-proclaimed republics of the Donbas. Tsurkan does not accept the charge and stated that she had not had access to secret documents. She claims the case against her could be connected with attempts to pressure her due to working with “extremely difficult partners” and “fulfilment of departmental assignments” (she did not clarify which particular duties or requests). “There was pressure on my work, there were threats and warnings,” she said.11 Interestingly, she was under surveillance for three years before her arrest.12

On 25 June, Andrei Zhukov, a captain in the reserve of the Russian army, was imprisoned on suspicion of treason. It is only known that in 2012 Zhukov was a witness in a case about the disclosure of state secrets at a forum on military history. FSB investigators opened a criminal case under Article 283 of the Criminal Code (Disclosure of a state secret) in relation to Sergei Cherepanov, an officer who posted on the website classified documents containing information about troop deployments. Zhukov also was an active participant in internet discussion groups and posted information about former and current military bases. According to other participants in the internet forum, the current case may also be related to his passion for military history.13

Another recent arrestee is Antonina Zimina. She was director of the Baltic Center for the Dialogue of Cultures in Kaliningrad until 2016. The centre mainly organises exhibitions and conferences. She was also an independent expert and a member of the “Club of Friends of the Gorchakov Public Diplomacy Support Fund”, which was created by order of Dmitry Medvedev in 2010.14 Among her professional interests are the Baltic countries’ policies on Russia.15 Ironically, she actively participated in propaganda-style projects supported by Moscow.16

In the same month the FSB arrested several individuals, it searched a research facility controlled by the country’s space agency, Roskosmos, over the suspected leak of secrets about new hypersonic weapons to Western states.17 As a result, 74-year-old scientist Viktor Kudryavtsev, an employee of the Central Scientific-Research Institute of Mechanical Engineering, was arrested on 22 July. According to the FSB, Kudryavtsev leaked classified technical information used in the design of hypersonic weapons (Avangard and Kinzhal) through the von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics to NATO countries, including the United States.18 It should be noted that several Russian and European scientific organisations conducted joint research within the framework of one of the European Union’s FP7 projects, which was supported by an EU grant and was confirmed by the Russian government, in 2011–13.19 The results of the research would be used in industry and aerospace missions. Viktor Kudryavtsev helped coordinate this research.

Maria Alekhina holds a placard saying “Happy birthday, butchers!” outside the building which used to house the KGB and is now home to the FSB agency in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017. AP/Scanpix

In 2016, Vladimir Lapygin, a 76-year-old researcher who was Kudryavtsev’s boss in the same institution, was jailed for seven years, also for treason. Kudryavtsev denied the accusations.20 According to the prosecution, Kudryavtsev sent classified information to Belgian institute researcher Patrick Rambo. According to RBC, Rambo is a representative of the materials institute that is the subject of the investigation, and which, according to the FSB, is a “NATO structure”. According to Ivan Pavlov, Kudryavtsev’s lawyer, the issue is not that intelligence agencies consider Rambo a spy, but that the FSB considers the von Karman Institute an enemy espionage organisation. At the same time, one piece of evidence of guilt is an e-mail found in the spam folder of Kudryavtsev’s email account that allegedly approved an American residence permit (green card) for him. In fact, says Pavlov, this was the usual email scam.21

Another recently arrested academic is 64-year-old Andrey Temirev. According to his lawyer, this scientist from Novocherkassk was charged with passing data about the equipment he created in the design office of IRIS (Intelligent Robust Integrated Systems) together with a graduate student from Vietnam. According to the intelligence services, Temirev sent secret information to that country. “But this is all in the public domain, in books that are in every library,” said the lawyer.22

It should be noted that there may be more current cases that are hidden from the public. Moreover, the classifying of information about such cases has now been developed. Following the arrests in July, Moscow court databases no longer display the names of those accused of treason and espionage in relation to the decision.23

Beyond these headline-grabbing arrests, some other investigations have reached the absurd. For example, a criminal case alleging extremism has been opened against humorous songs (chastushki) about judges24 published on the internet, and a person accused of “inciting hatred and insulting the feelings of believers” on social media has been sent for psychiatric examination by investigators and the courts.25

Reasons and Possible Implications

The one of reasons for what is happening could be sought not in the revitalisation of Russian foreign intelligence services, but in the amendments to Article 275 of the Criminal Code adopted in 2012. According to these, not only the disclosure of state secrets but also the provision of “consulting services to other states” are considered treason. Judging by the little that is known about the cases brought under Article 275, it is not necessary for a potential “criminal” to be a carrier of state secrets and to have secret information: it’s enough just to communicate with foreigners. There is one similar feature in cases of treason: in most cases the indictee or defendant cannot get access to full protection. Duty lawyers often work on these cases, and are usually on the side of the investigation and persuade the defendants to plead guilty. The lawyers and former defendants in Article 275 cases interviewed by Medusa believe that the level of espionage increases in “troubled times” of economic crisis and local conflicts. The first surge in criminal cases of treason in Russia began in the late 1990s.26

According to the secretary of the committee for the protection of scientists, Ernst Cherny, the current wave of persecution of “traitors” and “spies” is linked to tensions in relations between Russia and the West and the US. But security organisations have their own interests in this, too: “The motives of the FSB and the investigators are, as a rule, self-serving: for such cases they get new titles, awards … People try their best, understanding that no one from outside can monitor the case—all trials are classified.”27

Cherny stresses that previous waves of hounding followed in the same vein. There were, however, some breaks, but even during these several scientists were arrested, such as Afanasyev, Bobyshev and Lapygin. The last of these is from the same institution as Kudryavtsev. He was accused of talking about the algorithm for calculating indicators based on certain equations; but this is what the world had been using for many years and had appeared in scientific journals. “Last year, we saw a lull—according to statistics, there were few arrests and convictions on treason,” said the lawyer for “Team 29”, Ivan Pavlov. “It turns out it was a calm before the storm. Maybe new people came into place and thought ‘now we can reveal the traitors and spies’. And it has started.”28

Another problem is the strengthened role of security institutions in recent years. Since 1999 the involvement of security institution representatives in high-level political positions has increased. In addition, they brought with them their security thinking and threat perception behaviours that were formulated during their service in the Soviet Union’s security organisations. Since then such security thinking has dominated Russia’s political elite. Moreover, increased confrontation with the West and regime security has increased the role of the security services, in both external and internal policy. Russian academic Vladislav Inozemtsev has calculated that the number of siloviki has reached some three million.29 The regime’s security problems and the security organisation portfolios of many in the political elite has encouraged activities by security agencies in almost all parts of Russia. But the involvement of security institutions on such a scale in the country’s life could also affect the future of the political regime. Russia went through a similar situation during the Tsarist regime and the Soviet era. The Tsarists strengthened security organisations in the face of serf mutinies and economic and social shortcomings and later to fight the revolutionary movement with the aim of maintaining order. This approach was more acute at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. In such conditions, wrote Harvard scholar Richard Pipes, “[t]he underdevelopment of legal traditions and courts was, of course, greatly to the advantage of the bureaucracy”.30 Some conservative Russian jurists even argued strongly in favour of close links between the judiciary and the administration. One of these was professor N.M. Korkunov, who designed a theory of Russian jurisprudence according to which the main function of the law in Russia was not so much to enforce justice as to maintain order.31

According to Russian academic P.A. Zaionchkovsky,

the paradox was that the steady encroachment on the rights of individual subjects carried out in the name of state security did not enhance the power of the crown; it was not the crown that benefited but the bureaucracy and police[,] to whom ever greater latitude had to be given to cope with the revolutionary movement. … And the absurdity of the situation lay in the fact that the challenge was entirely out of proportion to the measures taken to deal with it.32

Bolsheviks who reconstructed the police state certainly regarded these as emergency and temporary measures, exactly as did the imperial government in its day. They inherited and developed the old regime’s regressive measures. Pipes writes that

… the same fate befell communist “temporary” repressive measures as their predecessors: regularly renewed, the indiscriminate application of their violence came to overshadow the order they were meant to protect. Had they read more history and fewer polemical tracts the Bolshevik leaders might have been able to foresee this outcome. For the very idea that politics can be isolated from the vicissitudes of life and monopolized by one group or one ideology is under conditions of modern life unenforceable. Any government that persists in this notion must give ever wider berth to its police apparatus and eventually fall victim to it.”33

Pipes’ thinking is relevant for Russia’s current political regime, too. It is not possible to argue that president Putin himself, who famously loves history books, does not understand the challenges of strengthening the role of security institutions in the life of state and society. Indeed, he maintains the equilibrium in the internal relations of the political elite and acts as arbitrator in conflicts between state institutions, include the security organisations. But the problem lies mainly in the fact that the involvement of the security services in Russian life and the regime’s security is (partly thanks to Putin himself) so huge that it is almost impossible to reduce it. If the political regime decided to do so, it would be like shooting itself in the foot. On the other hand, even sophisticated security services would not ensure the longevity of the political regime in an emergency situation if the majority of the population insisted otherwise, as Russia’s own recent history—the August 1991 putsch—proved. According to Nikolay Leonov, a retired KGB lieutenant general who in 1991 was in charge of that organisation’s analytical department, KGB officers did not defend the Soviet Union during the putsch because they knew that the population was against the regime. Despite the fact that the KGB had the capacity to act, it chose not to. There were 60,000 armed KGB personnel in Moscow alone, but they did not leave their barracks or offices on 21 August 1991.34

It could be concluded that such conditions not only affect Russia’s current political system, but might also exert influence on its future. The scale of infiltration by Russian security organisations exerts huge influence not only current politics, but might also affect the political elite of post-Putin Russia. As David Galula puts it:

In Czarist Russia, the Okhrana had succeeded in infiltrating the Bolshevik Party to such an extent and with such zeal that it was sometimes difficult to tell whether the agents were acting as Bolsheviks or as agents. A Grand Duke was assassinated in a provocation engineered by the Okhrana. When the triumphant Bolsheviks seized the Okhrana record[s], Lenin discovered that some of his most trusted companions had been in the pay of the Czar’s police.35


1 Законопроект, № 558345-7, О внесении изменения в статью 282 Уголовного кодекса Российской Федерации, 03.10.2018.

2 Краткая характеристика состояния преступности в Российской Федерации за январь – июнь 2018 года. Министерство Внутренних Дел Российской Федерации. 20 Июля 2018 . https://xn--b1aew.xn--p1ai/reports/item/13802869

3 Состояние преступности в Российской Федерации за январь – декабрь 2017 года. Министерство Внутренних Дел Российской Федерации. 19 Января 2018. https://xn--b1aew.xn--p1ai/reports/item/12167987

4 Глава ВС РФ: разъяснения пленума были даны из-за роста числа уголовных дел за репосты. 25.09.2018.

5 В Петербурге арестован анархист, которого ФСБ подозревает в терроризме,25 января 2018, ; Эдуард Бурмистров, ФСБ засекретило дело анархистов о госперевороте. Что об этом известно, 31 января 2018,

6 Republic узнал подробности дела петербургских антифашистов, 31 января,

7 Правозащитники рассказали о пытках ФСБ в “деле анархистов”, 15.02.2018.правозащитники-рассказали-о-пытках-фсб-в-деле-анархистов/a-42604199

8 Oliver Carroll. “March of Mothers: Protests against controversial prolonged detention of young anti-Putin ‘revolutionaries’”, The Independent, 15 August 2018.

9 Никита Баталов, “Новое величие”: как силовики используют провокаторов для возбуждения дел, 20.08.2018,новое-величие-как-силовики-используют-провокаторов-для-возбуждения-дел/a-45149341?maca=rus-facebook-dw

10 В Москве арестовали обвиняемого в госизмене.04.06.2018.

11 Георгий Тадтаев, Алина Фадеева.Обвиненная в шпионаже Цуркан заявила об отсутствии допуска к гостайне 13.08.2018.

12 Алина Фадеева. Три года в разработке: почему ФСБ так долго следила за Цуркан. 03.07.2018.

13 Дмитрий Серков. Жуков попал в военную историю. 06.07.2018.

14 Фонд поддержки публичной дипломатии им. А.М. Горчакова,

15 Татьяна Рязапова, Елена Черненко. Балтийский диалог спецслужб. 24.07.2018.

16 Жительницу Калининграда заподозрили в госизмене. Что о ней известно? 19 июля 2018.

17 ФСБ услышала утечку гиперзвука-Обыски по делу о госизмене проводятся в Королеве и Москве, 20.07.2018,

18 Юрий Сюн, Иван Синергиев. Ученый изменил с бельгийским институтом. 03.08.2018.

19 –CORDIS (Community Research and Development Information Service). EU-Russia Cooperation for Strengthening Space Foundations (SICA).

20 Маргарита Алехина, Юлия Лымарь. Грант стал госизменой: как ученого обвинили в передаче секретов Бельгии. 03.08.2018.

21 Маргарита Алехина, Инна Сидоркова, Евгений Пудовкин.Письма в НАТО: как ФСБ сочла институт в Бельгии «шпионской организацией». 17.09.2018.

22 Стали известны новые подробности ареста 64-летнего ученого из Новочеркасска Алексея Темирева, 30 июля 2018,

23 База судов Москвы перестанет отображать фамилии обвиняемых в госизмене и шпионаже.21.07. 2018.

24 Сергей Петунин, Жительницу Саратова заподозрили в экстремизме за частушки о судьях. 04.09.2018,

25 Суд отправил на психиатрическую экспертизу в стационар жителя Барнаула, обвиняемого в экстремизме за мем с патриархом. 1 сентября 2018.

26 Вера Челищева, Полезно для карьеры Почему в России все чаще преследуют за государственную измену, 4 февраля 2016,

27 Вера Челищева. «Люди стараются изо всех сил»-В России — очередная кампания по борьбе с изменниками и шпионами. 28 июля 2018.

28 Ibid.

29 Владислав Иноземцев. Современную Россию реформировать невозможно. 13 сентября 2018.

30 Richard Pipes. 1974. Russia under the old regime. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons: p. 290.

31 N.M. Korkunov. 1909. Russkoe gosudarstvennoe pravo. St. Peterburg, I, pp. 215–22. Cited in Pipes, op. cit., p.290.

32 Зайончковский П.А. Кризис самодержавия на рубеже 1870-1880-х годов. М.: Издательство Московского университета, 1964. с. 182. Cited in Pipes, op. cit., p. 307.

33 Pipes, op. cit., p. 318.

34 Игорь Латунский.Почему КГБ не спас СССР.

35 David Galula. 2006 [1964]. Counterinsurgency warfare: theory and practice. Westport, CT and London: Preager Security International. p. 46


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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