Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Spymania returns to Russia

Spy cartoon - Shutterstock - Tomacco_0.jpgUnder the ‘new and improved’ law against spying, anyone can be suspected of espionage or treason in Russia. And that's the point. на русском языке

Spymania has seized post-Soviet Russia like never before. Articles 275 (‘Treason’) and 276 (‘Espionage’) of the Russian Federation Criminal Code are traditionally considered exotic offences in Russian legal practice. But they are back in the news, and regularly – five cases in the last two weeks.

The former investigative prison of the KGB, Lefortovo prison in Moscow, is again the centre of attention. Just like 50 years ago, suspected spies are being locked away in Lefortovo – now under the jurisdiction of the FSB. The nearby district court is also proving popular with the media: it’s this court that issues arrest warrants for Russian citizens suspected of espionage. But as the charge sheet for one Muscovite reads (‘Accused of transferring secret information to a Western country’), espionage can mean anything nowadays.

‘New and improved’

On the initiative of Vladimir Putin, the Russian parliament expanded the legal definitions of ‘State Treason’ and ‘Espionage’ in 2012. In the ‘new and improved’ definition, ‘international organisations’ were added to the list of contacts harmful to the state, and the epithet ‘external’ was removed from the definition of national security, which is now potentially threatened by a Russian citizen who associates with foreigners.

When these revisions were under consideration, opposition politicians and rights activists warned that these broader definitions could lead to criminal proceedings against any Russian citizen who makes contact with any foreigner. Now, it seems, these predictions are starting to come true.

Take Vladimir Golubev, for instance. A former researcher at the Russian Nuclear Centre in Sarov, Golubev was arrested in February on suspicion of exposing state secrets. Golubev’s only crime was to publish an article on explosive substances in a Czech scientific journal. Likewise, sailor Sergei Minakov – working aboard the tanker Koida (part of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea) – was arrested for espionage at the start of February. Though the official press release does not provide details, we can assume from the location that ‘Ukraine’ figures prominently in Minakov’s case.

An American spy has even been discovered inside the Orthodox Church – Evgeny Petrin. Petrin previously worked in the External Communications Office of the Moscow Patriarchate in Kyiv. He is also, it turns out, an officer in the FSB.

This isn’t a film: it’s a musical.

Petrin’s relatives have declared that he is innocent. But their comments are, unfortunately, mere set design for the farcical, practically parodic, spy drama of 2015 – an officer of the Russian security services who is working under Patriarch Kirill is now accused of working for foreign intelligence. This isn’t a film: it’s a musical.

Coming soon to a screen near you

The hero of this winter’s spy thriller is mother-of-seven Svetlana Davydova, who hails from Vyazma, a small town not far from Smolensk. Davydova was arrested on 22 January after she reported certain ‘information’ to the Ukrainian embassy in Moscow. Davydova overheard a telephone conversation of an army officer on the bus, in which the officer in question discussed an upcoming business trip. Davydova took this trip to mean a trip to fight in the Donbas.

The hero of this winter’s spy thriller is mother-of-seven Svetlana Davydova

While the embassy likely ignored this information, the FSB took an interest in Davydova, and the Lefortovo court issued a warrant for her arrest. Meanwhile, Russian media uncovered the details of the case and exposed just how absurd the situation can get: a woman declared an enemy of the state turns out to be not only a mother of seven children, but a known political activist who supports Just Russia, a pro-Kremlin party. Davydova complained to the Ukrainian embassy about the actions of the Russian military, and her husband wrote to the director of the FSB, with regard to Dmitry Kiselyov, the scandalous TV host and head of RT (Russia Today), complaining about the way in which his wife had been portrayed.

Moreover, it later turned out that Davydova’s sizeable family lives in a less than ‘traditional’ manner – seven kids, one father and two mothers, Davydova and her sister, who had given birth to four and three children respectively, and who live together in the same apartment.

If the Russian security services wished to expose the real enemy of the state, then Davydova was, it appears, the worst candidate for the role. Report after report about Davydova appeared in the Russian press, and 25,000 signatures were collected in support of her release. Eventually, the Children’s Ombudsman Pavel Astakhov intervened in her case along with Ella Pamfilova, the Human Rights Ombudsman. Despite the arrest order being made out for two months detention, Davydova was quickly released and sent home.

The espionage case isn’t closed: Davydova will be put on trial. But in the eyes of the Russian public, she will hardly become an enemy of the state. Far from it. Instead, she’s been assigned the role of a ‘chance victim’.

Davydova has been assigned the role of a ‘chance victim.’

Modern-day spymania

And here is where we should try and find the reasons behind the Russian authorities’ unexpected anti-espionage campaign. Russians remember the ‘classic’ spymania that flourished in the Soviet Union – the days when propaganda told us that we were surrounded by dangerous agents of foreign intelligence who were ready at any moment to steal a secret blueprint, poison the water supply and burn down the local factory. In this environment, every citizen had to be vigilant and write reports on the activities of their neighbours.

Today’s spymania is quite different. Neither Svetlana Davydova, nor the spy from the church bureaucracy, nor the sailor from the Crimean tanker present any kind of threat to their fellow citizens. People know this, and this is why the current spymania doesn’t frighten the man on the street.

Svetlana Davydova with her 7 children and husband. Image via Dovydova family (c).

Some people are having the frighteners put on them, but, while very disturbing, that is not what is most frightening. No, what is most frightening about this February’s espionage fever is the Russian security services themselves. They arrest anyone and everyone who crosses their path, and this seems to be the message to Russian society: anyone can be accused of state treason. No matter how absurd it may seem, no one is insured against the possibility of winding up in Lefortovo prison or the nearby court.

The message is clear: no contacts with foreigners, no political activism.

The message is clear: no contacts with foreigners, no political activism. The only insurance against falling foul of the system is to keep your head down, and keep it loyal. Cases such as Davydova’s are not part of protecting national security. These investigations clearly set the bar in terms of what you can and cannot do – the minimum you have to do to stay out of prison.

Playing by the rules, taking logical, consistent steps – this is not what the Russian state requires. Fear is not born of logic, and it is precisely these absurd and illogical actions, which demoralise and, in the long run, really do frighten Russian society. These are the real aims of the authorities when it comes to their relations with Russian citizens.

Standfirst image: A spy cartoon. Image by Tomacco via Shutterstock. (c)

About the author

Oleg Kashin is a prominent Russian journalist. His work has appeared in Kommersant, Lenta, Colta and numerous other publications. He tweets @KSHN. 


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.