Teen’s Detention in Russia Prompts Public Outcry
The young woman belonged to a political group whose members may have been entrapped by a police informant.
MOSCOW—Anna Pavlikova had a been a fairly typical Russian teen until she was arrested in Moscow five months ago. She lived with her parents, worked at a veterinary clinic, and collected stuffed animals.
But in March of this year, she was imprisoned along with nine other young Russians—all members of a political discussion group—and accused of plotting to overthrow the government of President Vladimir Putin.
Since then, Pavlikova’s ordeal has drawn attention across Russia. Supporters have written letters and staged protests. A photo of the young woman holding a stuffed unicorn circulated widely on the internet.
The case itself raises broad concerns for human rights advocates in Russia, who believe Pavlikova and the others were entrapped by a police informant—a provocateur planted in their ranks to steer the group toward extremist positions.
If true, it wouldn’t be the first time Russian law enforcement agencies targeted young people interested in politics.
But what stands out about Pavlikova’s ordeal is the public response—and the nerve it seems to have touched among Russian authorities. After protesters marched in support of the group last week, a judge released Pavlikova and another woman, Maria Dubovik, to house arrest.
“This time, public outrage coincided with some of the elites’ discontent with how powerful law enforcement is getting these days,” said Alexey Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank.
The discussions among the young people—most in their late teens or early twenties—began on the messaging app Telegram and centered on things young people frequently talk about in Russia: life, politics, and the Putin regime, according to Alla Frolova, a member of the rights group OVD-Info who worked with defense attorneys on coordinating the public campaign for the suspects.
The online chats turned into meetings at a McDonald’s, where a newcomer who introduced himself as Ruslan D. persuaded the young people to form a proper opposition group. They chose the name “New Greatness.”
In their statements to police, members of the group said that Ruslan wrote a manifesto, rented office space, and paid for it out of his own pocket. He also subdivided the group into departments, one of the criteria in Russian law for designating a group as an extremist organization.
Police arrested 10 members of New Greatness in March, placing four under house arrest and six—including 17-year-old Anna Pavlikova and 19-year-old Maria Dubovik—in police custody. Only Ruslan D. remained free.
Questioned as a witness, he told police that he had stumbled on the group in a Telegram chatroom and suspected its members were doing something illegal. He decided to record their meetings and activities.
But when defense attorneys for the group read a transcript of Ruslan’s testimony, they began to suspect that he was a police informant. For one thing, the witness report contained none of the identifying details that are standard for such a document, except for his real name—Alexander Konstantinov.
“I’ve seen a lot of these transcripts in my life, and they usually have information such as date of birth, address, job, phone number. There was nothing there,” said Maxim Pashkov, a lawyer defending Dubovik.
Konstantinov’s statement had been written in the “language of a [professional] police report,” he said.
Both Pashkov and Frolova said Konstantinov goaded members of the group during the McDonald’s meetings to form an organization with an extremist agenda.
“It was a provocation on the authorities’ part,” Frolova said. “He knew what he was doing, studied their psychological profiles, and, when they wanted to leave [the group], made them stay.”
Foreign Policy contacted a Ruslan D. through the New Greatness channel still accessible on Telegram. He confirmed that he was a witness in the case but denied any ties to law enforcement agencies.
Neither Russia’s security agency, the FSB, nor police investigators responded to requests for comments about the case.
But a document drawn up by investigators that lays out the case against the group tells a different story.
It says the young people formed New Greatness specifically to overthrow Putin’s regime, and it describes their manifesto and a document outlining their political program as “promoting an ideology of violence.”
The document, obtained by FP, also says the members taught each other “to conduct rallies and pickets, with the use of firearms and explosives … against supporters of the existing government.”
The New Greatness pages on the social media site Vkontakte and the Telegram channel include photos of riots from around at the world, flyers with anti-Putin slogans, and calls to participate in anti-government rallies in Moscow.
The manifesto and the political program, excerpts of which appeared in the Russian media, do advocate regime change and a new constitution but don’t appear to call for violence. One of the group’s documents quoted in the press said that in the case of clashes between protesters and the government, “the organization reserves the right to use any effective methods to defend the citizens.”
The story the police tell also appears to be supported by a confession from one of the New Greatness members, 25-year-old Ruslan Kostylenkov, who said the group was training in firearms in order to use them against the regime.
But human rights advocates who visited Kostylenkov in detention say the confession, a video of which has been posted on the internet, was likely coerced.
The rights advocates describe the evidence against the group as thin and point out that New Greatness members carried out no acts of violence.
“Usually, criminal cases are launched when it comes to groups that already committed violent acts—for instance, killed someone, or used weapons illegally. … But to track down and jail people who didn’t do anything—it’s a first,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of Moscow’s SOVA Center, which monitors abuses of anti-extremism legislation.
Ultimately, what seems to have galvanized public opinion in favor of the group was the ongoing detention of the two young women, Pavlikova and Dubovik.
Dozens of people showed up at hearings on extending detention for the two. Updates on their situation made headlines in Russian media almost daily. Celebrities and prominent human rights advocates spoke out in their support.
“We call on mothers who care about the future of their children to join us,” read a statement signed by several prominent Russian actresses, literary critics, and writers.
Earlier this month, hundreds of people marched to the Supreme Court to demand justice in the case, despite heavy rain and warnings from authorities that protesters might be arrested.
The very next day, a judge released Pavlikova and Dubovik to house arrest.
Some analysts believe a decline in public support for Putin since he announced widely unpopular pension reforms earlier this year contributed to the decision by authorities to release the young women.
“The authorities’ position in the society has weakened significantly because of the pension reform,” said Abbas Gallyamov, an independent political analyst and former Kremlin speech writer. “Approval ratings going down makes them less confident that they can continue to ignore what the public thinks about them.”
Still, the ordeal is ongoing. When a Russian lawmaker asked the Moscow prosecutor’s office this week to investigate whether the case had been mishandled, the response disappointed supporters of the group.
Prosecutors said in a statement that they didn’t find any wrongdoing and believed there’s enough evidence to go forward with the case.