Zoya Svetova on the day of the search. Photo: Pavel Golovkin
After the arrest of the Crimean Tatar lawyer Emil Kurbedinov and growing pressure on his Russian colleague Nikolai Polozov, after the capture of people who merely came to support the activist Marlen Mustafaev (himself suffering for helping political prisoners) in occupied Crimea, now came the turn of demonstrative intimidation of the most respected human rights advocates in Moscow.
In the morning of February 28, the officers of the Russian Investigative Committee and Federal Security Service (FSB) suddenly came to search the apartment of the well-known journalist and rights activist Zoya Svetova. The search lasted for eleven hours, until the evening.
Svetova defends Ukrainian hostages of the Kremlin
In Russia, every person who is engaged in journalism or human rights activities, is doomed: sooner or later one will have a search or will be arrested.
Earlier she had visited Lefortovo many times to see other Ukrainian political prisoners, Oleg Sentsov, Yuriy Soloshenko, and Oleksiy Chyrniy, talked to them and told the world about their affliction. She published the testimonies of terrible torture Russian investigators used against the Ukrainians Hennadiy Afanasyev, Yuriy Yatsenko, Mykola Karpiuk, and Stanislav Klykh. In the summer of 2015, it was also she who found Klykh in a jail in Russia’s North Caucasus, after the ten-month distressful uncertainty about his fate.
Back in September 2014, Svetova joined the appeal of the Russian intelligentsia against the Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine. Its signers argued that a dictatorship of fascist type, similar to the regimes of Mussolini in Italy and Franco in Spain, was emerging in Russia. They demanded the Kremlin withdraw the Russian army from Ukraine, stop supporting the separatists and end the propaganda hysteria in Russian media. The statement stressed the need to cease the persecution of those not agreeing to the invasion of Crimea and Donbas and investigate the war crimes committed by the Russian leadership in the international court. Along with well-known artists, academics, writers, journalists and human rights activists, the statement was signed by the Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, murdered several months later.
The search of Svetova’s apartment on Monday, 28 February 2017, wasn’t the only one in Moscow: the ‘law enforcers’ came also to Yelena Abdullaeva, the coordinator of the network Gulagu.net. Her project, whose name calls to prevent the second edition of the Stalinist repressive machine, investigates rights violations and torture against prisoners and seeks to dismiss and punish the implicated jailers. More than 14,000 human rights activists and volunteers across Russia are involved in this network.
What unites Svetova and Abdullaeva is their former membership of the Moscow Public Monitoring Commission (known after the Russian acronym ONK), which watches over the rights situation in the penal facilities of Moscow. Furthermore, on the day their flats were searched, Russian investigative authorities summoned the founder of Gulagu.net Vladimir Osechkin for questioning. A summons was sent to him by email: Osechkin had left Russia in 2015 and is not going to return.
In October 2016, shortly after the Ukrainian prisoners Sushchenko, Panov, and Zakhtey were found in the Lefortovo jail, Zoya Svetova and Yelena Abdullaeva were not assigned to the Moscow Public Monitoring Commission for a new term. Many other reputable human rights advocates were also cleansed from ONKs in Russian regions. They were replaced with notorious figures such as Dmitry Komnov, who had been in charge of the Moscow Butyrka jail when the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky had been held there in appalling conditions and denied medical aid (later Magnitsky died and Komnov was included in the U.S. sanctions Magnitsky list).
According to the information Svetova received, her nomination for the ONK was rejected at the FSB insistence precisely because she had visited those accused of “state crimes” in Lefortovo.
She believes that the Monday intrusion into her home has the same nature:
“In Russia, every person who is engaged in journalism or human rights activities, is doomed: sooner or later one will have a search or will be arrested.”
During the search on February 28, the unwanted guests tried not to let Zoya’s lawyer in the apartment and were rude towards her daughter. The reporter of Dozhd TV channel who arrived on the scene was threatened with “tough guys,” as the detective put it.
“When he said that, I recalled all the stories people told on being detained by FSB operatives and tortured. Remember Oleg Sentsov and Hennadiy Afanasyev?”: Svetova refers to the Ukrainians who were tortured to extract the needed false confessions. Russian “tough guys,” she adds expertly, can do anything to you.
Svetova warned the arrogant security officers:
“You are completely devoid of imagination and thus you cannot imagine that the same once happens to you.”
The men, however, seemed to believe that their backs would be well-protected in the future.
In Zoya’s family archive, an FSB operative found the minutes of the search conducted in her parents’ flat thirty-five years ago, in 1982. Strikingly, he recognized the familiar names of the colleagues in the historical document. Zoya was almost sure that those people had passed away or at least been long forgotten. But she was wrong: the KGB veterans outlived her late parents, Soviet dissidents Feliks Svetov and Zoya Krakhmalnikova.
The Russian Investigative Committee has officially stated that the operation at Svetova’s home is related to the financial affairs of the Russian political emigre Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The respective case was instituted as long as fourteen years ago, in 2003. Through this case, Putin destroyed Khodorkovsky’s business empire and sent him to jail. Khodorkovsky served ten years behind bars, was pardoned and released in 2013, and founded the opposition movement Open Russia abroad. The movement’s coordinator Vladimir Kara-Murza was poisoned by unknown substances in May 2015 and again in February 2017 but survived both times.
Zoya Svetova is a journalist who writes for Open Russia’s media platform. She says she never talked to Khodorkovsky in her life and saw him only on his own trial.
In fact, the security officers did not ask Svetova about Khodorkovsky’s money: instead they wanted to know who were the prisoners she had attended as an ONK member. In addition, they asked personal questions, which led her to the conclusion that her phone was tapped. She believes that the visit of ‘law enforcers’ is an act of revenge and intimidation of her as human rights defender and journalist, or maybe of journalists who have their own opinion in general. This view is shared by Amnesty International.
A dissident family
It is worth noting that Svetova’s three sons, Filipp, Timofey, and Tikhon Dzyadko, are also well-known journalists whose professional paths are linked to the non-governmental media: Dozhd and RTVi channels, Ekho Moskvy radio, Forbes magazine and RBC media holding. The eldest son Filipp experienced the first search in his life in 1982 when he was four months old (minutes of this very search the FSB would find in 2017). KGB operatives rummaged little Fillipp’s cot looking for banned books by the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His grandmother, Zoya Krakhmalnikova, was arrested then and got a year in jail and five years of exile in Siberia. Grandpa Feliks was arrested on 23 January 1985, the day when Zoya Svetova gave birth to her middle son, Timofey. Feliks Svetov was imputed the “slander” of the Soviet regime via his human rights texts, where he wrote that “innocent people are being thrown in prisons.”
The Moscow City Court, presided by the judge Vyacheslav Lebedev, sentenced Feliks to five years of exile. Lebedev is currently the Chief Justice of the Russian Supreme Court.
In this exceptional family, where the past and present are so much intertwined, generation after generation grows under the status of children and grandchildren of state’s enemies.
In 1937, when Feliks himself was nine, his father Grigory Fridlyand, a prominent Soviet historian, the first head of the History Department of the Moscow University, was executed as an alleged “member of the counter-revolutionary terrorist organization.”
“Maybe this is how our country lives and develops: the swing carries us all the time either to the right or to the left up to the stop. This is an extreme country. Perhaps this dreadful swing is starting a new sweep. For me this search is, of course, a terrible sign,”
the Russian writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya comments on the raid at Zoya Svetova’s in 2017.
The latest news look like the “sign of a new time” also for Svetova’s friend Liya Akhedzhakova, the renowned film and stage actress and ardent critic of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. She notes that in Russia now everyone should seriously study “What to Do in Case of a Search” manual and write down the phone numbers of lawyers—on the off-chance.
“The most flagrant thing is that they [detectives and FSB] came today to the person of absolute moral purity,”
says the writer Lev Rubinstein, who, along with Ulitskaya and other friends and colleagues, came to support Zoya Svetova on February 28.
The next day, more than fifty reputed human rights activists, journalists, and artists issued a statement in defense of Svetova and Yelena Abdullaeva. Svetova was struck by these spontaneous manifestations of solidarity. Meanwhile, her lawyers plan to appeal against the violations committed during the search both in Russian courts and the European Court of Human Rights.
Zoya’s youngest son, journalist Tikhon Dzyadko goes further with mother’s prediction—that once the officers who searched her may become victims of the persecution system they serve now. Then, they will be the first to ask her for help, he writes. “And she will definitely help.”Here are some articles wouldn’t have appeared without Zoya Svetova:
- Lawyer: Karpiuk was tortured the most. They needed a case against a real banderite
- Tortured, threatened with death, but unbroken: Kremlin hostage Vyhivskyi | #LetMyPeopleGo
- The case of Soloshenko: how Russia accused a 74-year old Ukrainian pensioner of spying
- Afanasyev and Soloshenko: How the FSB breaks prisoners
- Moscow’s mistreatment of Ukrainians in Russian prisons prompting Kyiv to act
- Russian soldiers’ mothers group helping 7,000 soldiers and family members every year