A few years ago, the Network case shocked Russian society with an unprecedented use of torture against suspects. In 2020, through confessions obtained by beatings and stun guns, the court sentenced ten young men from Penza and St. Petersburg to terms from 3.5 to 18 years in prison. A year after the war began, security officials decided to add another chapter to the case of the “terrorist organization.” In February, raids were reported at the houses of “the Moscow cell members,” and Azat Miftakhov, a graduate student of Moscow State University, may become a new suspect accused in the case. Nothing associates Azat with the other case defendants, except for their anarchist and anti-Fascist views, understood in the broadest sense. Azat is already serving a six-year sentence in a fabricated case of a “broken window in a United Russia office” and is due to be released in September this year. Memorial recognized Azat Miftakhov as a political prisoner, and a petition in his support was signed by more than 95 thousand people, including anthropologist David Graeber and linguist Noam Chomsky. The Posle editorial deems it necessary to insist on Azat’s innocence and demand his release. To follow the campaign in his support, please subscribe to the Free Azat! channel.
— On February 27, 2023, several anarchists’ houses in Moscow were raided in connection with the notorious Network case. In mid-February, the Telegram channel Free Azat! said that mathematician Azat Miftakhov could be charged with involvement in the “Moscow cell” of the Network. Will this notorious case develop further? Is there any new information?
Ivan: We know almost nothing about the “Moscow cell” of the Network. We only have messages from the FSB information service, but they can be misleading. As for Azat, he has not yet been interrogated or charged. The only thing we know for sure is that Dmitry Pchelintsev, who is involved in the Network case, is in the Lefortovo prison, but the charges he is accused of and his status are unknown. This may be due to the fact that Azat is nearing the end of his term. The security officials do not want him released, so they are looking for ways to prevent this. I believe they are attempting to intimidate the anarchist community, as well as Azat himself. They are trying to put pressure on Azat, claiming that Dmitry Pchelintsev confessed about the Network’s “Moscow cell.” The only thing they failed to consider is that Azat’s position is a principled one, and such intimidation won’t work on him.
As for the raids, the only surname mentioned in the news was Miftakhov. However, a “cell” should include several people, not one. Suspects and accused individuals should be identified and arrested. Security officials are trying to use the evidence they have for the Network’s “Moscow cell” to force Azat to write a confession. It’s hard to comment here, since the people searched don’t go public, and we do not know their names.
Victor: We have to talk about this, it might develop just like the Network case. We do not know how many people they can involve and in what roles. Even the Network case is still unclear. Was there such an organization at all, what did it do, and why? Did the members know each other? We cannot answer any of these questions. We can guess, make assumptions, but we don’t have any hard evidence about the Network case, although people have already been convicted. If the case of Network’s “Moscow cell” develops the same way, we will again know nothing about the people and about the “cell” itself. There was no normal investigation in the Network case which we could disagree with. Such cases are frightening because no one knows or understands how they are built and what is behind them. Most likely, they will say that the “Moscow cell” existed from the very beginning, but we cannot know this with any certainty either.
— How should one start a conversation about the Network case with people who have heard something, believe it’s shady, and whose opinions, for one reason or another, are of value?
Victor: The main thing about the Network case is how the security officials got the defendants’ confessions and testimony. Torture of the defendants in the Network case is a monstrous turning point in our understanding of torture. Torture was common in the prison colonies in Russia, but it was nothing like this. All the defendants in the Network case were tortured throughout the investigation. In my opinion, this is the key thing to know about it.
Ivan: The Network case is first and foremost about torture. If someone is ready to justify torture, I probably have nothing further to discuss with them. Secondly, why is it shady? The case was fabricated under the article in the criminal code about the organization of a “terrorist community,” with not a single piece of evidence proving a terrorist attack was committed or being planned. You don’t have to be a lawyer to understand that the case cobbled together out of nothing with testimony extracted under torture.
— What role did the murders of Levchenko and Dorofeev play in the case?
Ivan: Maxim Ivankin, who is implicated in the Network case, is now under trial in Ryazan for these murders. Regardless of whether we consider the Network defendants to be involved in these murders or not, the case of the Network “terrorist community” was fabricated, and the defendants were subjected to severe torture. In fact, only two people from the Network are implicated in the murder case: Maxim Ivankin and Dmitry Pchelintsev. The rest of the defendants do not have anything to do with it.
— Why do special services target anarchists and anti-fascists? Why do these communities stand out? What other communities are at risk?
Victor: Previously, Russian nationalists were targeted. Their cases followed a similar principle: they included people who committed terrible crimes, together with people who were involved by accident. Religious groups, journalists, election observers are often targeted. It is the foundation of the Russian system of repression: a group (for example, PMC Redan) is recognized as dangerous, which leads to raids, arrests, and criminal cases.
But do not forget that anti-fascists and anarchists are considered enemies by any state. It makes sense. Anarchism is against the state, and the state fights it. However, in Russia there is always a question: was the act for which a person is imprisoned actually committed? What we see are repressions against anarchists with a key factor missing: we do not know how exactly they fought the state. We often see that repressions are aimed against innocent people who simply used anarchist symbols. This is a distinctive feature of the Russian repressive system: not to investigate the case in any detail; people are sentenced because they belong to a group. I think that security officials act this way because it simplifies their work a lot. Another thing that matters is that the ideology and practice of anti-fascism is not popular in Russia, and, consequently, there will be no broad public support for anti-fascists, whom the state is persecuting. A liberal journalist will always get more support than anti-fascists or anarchists.
“You don’t have to be a lawyer to understand that the case cobbled together out of nothing with testimony extracted under torture”
Ivan: Anarchists and anti-fascists are believed to be a threat to security forces. Of course, this is not the only community that the security forces systematically intimidate. Before the war, the anarchist community was crushed, not least because of the Network case and other cases against anarchists. They were of no particular interest to security forces back then. After the outbreak of the war, most anarchists took an anti-war stance. Some anarchist groups take anti-war actions, including damaging railroads.
Since I am a member of Solidarity Zone, I sometimes study the criminal cases of radical anti-war actions (arson of military enlistment offices, sabotage on railways). In two cases I came across the wording “supporters of radical anarchism.” It was used in the case against Roman Nasryev and Alexey Nureyev, who have nothing to do with anarchism. For the security officials, the wording “supporters of radical anarchism” came closer to approximating the meaning of “supporters of Ukrainian Nazism.” In this case, anarchists have become another group of the government’s enemies.
— How would you describe the strategy of the investigation? Will it change against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and new repressive legislation?
Victor: The principles of investigation never change, only the waves of repressions do. In 1987, all political prisoners in the USSR were released, and then, in the 1990s, repressions began anew. Anarchists will say that they have always been persecuted and imprisoned. What remains unchanged is imprisoning people because they belong to a group, without any concern for what a person has done or not done. This is apparent in the legal statistics of politically-motivated cases. Now we see that the more unstable the political situation is, the more politically-motivated criminal cases appear. We can assume that mass repressions may begin, first against those who fought with the state, and then against all other dissenters, when the system plunges into a phase of deep instability.
Ivan: As for the Network case, I do not have a full understanding of how and why the investigation chose those implicated, since I was serving time when it happened. Raids are periodically carried out at different people’s homes (so-called “inspections of the dwelling”) related to the case of the Combat Organization of Anarcho-Communists (BOAK), who took responsibility for dismantling rails in the Vladimir region leading to a military facility. Security officials usually find nothing, interrogate people, and then let them go. There is a hypothesis that all these people were subscribed to the same Telegram channel and did not hide the phone numbers registered in their name. Since law enforcement agencies need to work, and they cannot find real BOAK members, they scour Telegram channels, check subscribers and comments. If the account is registered with a phone number, they can easily find the person and conduct an “inspection of the dwelling.” They have a formal excuse: somebody was subscribed to a Telegram channel which posted information about a protest campaign.
“This is a distinctive feature of the Russian repressive system: not to investigate the case in any detail; people are sentenced because they belong to a group”
— Have there been any changes, especially in the cases of anarchists and anti-fascists?
Ivan: In general, these criminal cases continue a long-standing line: looking for anarchist communities and initiating criminal proceedings against them related to terrorism. For example, the Tyumen case, launched in August 2022, is very similar to the Network case. People are also persecuted for comments in Vkontakte about Mikhail Zhlobitsky’s suicide-bombing carried out in the Arkhangelsk FSB directorate in 2018. It continues to be fertile ground for criminal cases. In 2022, a case was opened against Denis Kozak, who left Russia but was arrested in Kazakhstan. As for anti-fascists, the old line continues too. Conflicts and minor offences are trumped up into criminal cases as, for example, in the case of Krasnoyarsk antifascists.
All these trends persist. The case of Savely Frolov, who was detained at the Russian-Georgian border, stands out. A case of “treason” in the form of defecting to the enemy was fabricated against him: allegedly, he was going to fight for the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Frolov’s clothes had anti-war symbols, so he attracted attention. The border guards asked him to unlock his phone, threatening him, as far as I remember. Apparently, from what they found in his phone, they decided that they could work with it. Three times Frolov was charged with 15 days of arrest for hooliganism while they dug and collected evidence and testimonies: his contacts were searched and interrogated in Moscow and St. Petersburg. I think his anti-fascist views did not matter. The reason was Frolov’s anti-war stance.
As for the so-called “radical anarchists,” I remember only the criminal case of Roman Shvedov. We have only recently found out that he is an anarchist. He set fire to the administration in the Zimovniki village in the Rostov region. Of course, as I understand it, anarchist views, among other things, pushed him to this act. But again, we know that military enlistment offices are set on fire by people of completely different political views, including liberal ones: several supporters of Navalny set fire to military enlistment offices and are now imprisoned for it. Neo-Nazi groups do that too, for example NSWP. So, in this case too we’re not talking about repressions specifically against anarchists. The repressions are against a wide range of people who disagree with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and are fighting with radical methods. Of course, this is not terrorism at all. Even if we consult the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, this is damage to property or hooliganism, but not terrorism. These actions lack a qualifying characteristic: intimidation of the population. They are classifying arson as terrorism not because Shvedov is an anarchist, but because this is now the party line.
“In two cases I came across the wording ‘supporters of radical anarchism.’”
— A big public campaign was conducted in protest against the Network case, celebrities and scientists spoke out in support of the accused, and Putin was even personally informed about it. Has such broad publicity and public involvement helped to achieve anything?
Ivan: The public campaign influenced the case’s results. We see terrible sentences, but they are the minimums for the charges. For example, in a few months Yuliy Boyarshinov will be released after a term of 5.5 years, while the minimum term for his article is 5 years. Ilya Shakursky is sentenced to 16 years in prison, but terms for starting a terrorist community start at 15 years. In addition to minimum sentences, it is important that the convicts were not sent to Siberia or the Far North. This is the first precedent when terrorist cases are given minimum sentences and the accused are not sent to remote prison colonies. In our case [the case of the Autonomous Combat Terrorist Organization], everything was different. We were sent to Siberia and the Far East because that’s what they do with those convicted of terrorism. The camps where the defendants in the Network case are being held do not have the worst conditions, it’s not torture. Maxim Ivankin, who is accused of “murder,” was tortured. He was taken to Vladimir and tortured there. But this is another story, I’m talking about the conditions of sentences served in the camps.
Victor: As for the Network case, the core of the campaign was spreading information about the torture, since little was known about how people are tortured. This campaign had enormous public significance.
“The more unstable the political situation is, the more politically-motivated criminal cases appear”
As for the current conditions, the more political prisoners there are, the more difficult it is to launch campaigns in their defence. Too much information about everyone is accumulating, and information about specific people is lost. In this situation, there is a shortage of activists supporting political prisoners, and some of them are now behind bars. Secondly, public campaigns are not always useful. Some things are better done in silence. And this is not a propagandistic cliché. Thirdly, we do not know what impact a public campaign has on the sentence a person will receive. Will it be longer or shorter?
The campaign against the Network case was important because otherwise no one would have learned about its falsity, about the people, about torture and how this case was constructed. Are such campaigns possible now, in the current conditions? I would like to believe so, yet I remain sceptical. A public campaign against a new case may get lost in the daily terrible information about the war in Ukraine. The war now gets more attention than political prisoners. We have to reckon with this fact. I believe we need to conduct campaigns in support of specific people, because we can always explain who these people are. Personal stories resonate with people. Today, personal solidarity is more efficient than talking about groups, because it resonates more with people (for example, it’s easier to sympathise with their anti-war actions or statements).
— Do you have an understanding as to why Azat Miftakhov, who has already served one unjust sentence, is becoming a potential defendant in a new case? Is it influenced by the fact that Azat has denied his guilt from the very beginning of the case and does so in a very consistent manner?
Victor: No one understands why they chose Azat again. There has always been a lot of uncertainty about his case. They constantly changed articles of the criminal code, changed the accusation, etc. The fact that Azat does not admit his guilt does not play a big role here, because there are always people who do not admit their guilt, and for example, the case of Vlad Sinitsa, who called for violence against the children of the security officials, has not ended. Vlad Sinitsa was accused of a new case while in the prison colony. What is happening is beyond comprehension, and our conversation can only be based on conjecture. Unfortunately, we cannot make any political forecasts, or get into the heads of investigators to understand why this is happening. In the cases of “fakes” and “discrediting the Russian army,” everything is much simpler and clearer because we understand that a person is being judged for specific acts or words. In cases such as the Network or the New Greatness, their causes are obscure. The defendants say different things with their interests in mind, and the investigator’s information is unreliable.
“The public campaign influenced the case’s results. We see terrible sentences, but they are the minimums for the charges”
— Is it possible to start a campaign supporting Azat to prove his innocence in relation to security officials’ growing interest in Azat Miftakhov and the new case of the “Moscow cell”? How can such a campaign be conducted, considering that Azat is due to be released in September?
Ivan: We should support Azat, there is no doubt about it. The increased attention of society and the media helps, in part, to protect a convict against illegal actions. Without such campaigns, security forces can torture Azat to make him confess to participating in the “Moscow cell.”
I think we should emphasize that Azat should be released, because his term is over. The sentence is absolutely unjustified and politically motivated, but even his official sentence is ending. What the hell?! In general, adding time to those already imprisoned is a dangerous tendency.