In early December, Oksana Sevastidi‘s undeservingly forgotten story came to the Russian media’s attention. In March 2016, the simple saleswoman from Sochi received a seven-year sentence for treason because of an innocent SMS sent seven years ago. According to Oksana’s mother, her daughter was found guilty because of an ordinary answer to a question from a passing acquaintance, given back in 2008, even before the start of the Russian-Georgian conflict.
“Oksana, are there tanks on the platform where you are?” asked her Georgian acquaintance, Timur. “They were there before, I don’t know about now,” she replied, not even paying any attention to the question, and then quickly forgetting about it. Only seven years later, in January 2015, the FSB barged in, accusing her of being a spy and collaborating with the Georgian intelligence. After the guilty verdict from the court, Oksana’s grandmother, unable to deal with the terrible news, died of a stroke.
The case of Oksana Sevastidi is even more unbelievable than the story of a single mother Yekaterina Vologzheninova, who was found guilty of sharing a post on social media, because Katerina strongly opposed and condemned Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Oksana is, according to her mother, “very respectful of our president, in fact, she is a member of the party United Russia.”
Unlike the mother of several children Svetlana Davydova, who was frightened by the accidentally overheard information about a possible invasion of Ukraine by the new contingent of Russian tanks, Oksana Sevastidi never expressed fright or indignation about the tanks, nor did she initiate SMS-correspondence; moreover, she did not divulge any information about them, answering honestly, “I do not know.” And now a saleswoman from Sochi, a member of the United Russia is officially recognized by the court as a dangerous spy and traitor.
It seems like this is all you really need to know about Russia in general and the Russian secret service in particular.
In general, the work of Russian secret service in recent years is, to put it mildly, becoming more and more baffling. I remember when in the spring I came across an article on the biggest Ural portal “Ura.ru,” which was devoted to the fact that the above-mentioned Yekaterina Vologzheninova wrote a new post on her page, this time – in support of Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who was then on a hunger strike in a Russian prison.
“On March 5th, Yekaterina posted a photo of Nadiya Savchenko with a message inscribed on it from the Ukrainian pilot ‘I won’t break and I won’t surrender…’ The same picture was made into a cover photo of Vologzhenina’s page. Under the post is four comments, likes and anti-likes, the post was seen by 55 people, with 4 reposts,” reports the author.
Counting the likes and reposts under an innocent post on the page belonging to a housewife and blocking the child support payments that she is receiving for her young daughter on the pretext of preventing “financing of terrorism” – this is what the “struggle against terrorism and extremism” looks like in today’s Russia. And in line with this struggle, Valeriya Rytvina, a member of ONF, Putin’s pet NGO association servicing the ruling political party, wrote a public denunciation of Yekaterina’s friends who raised money to buy a computer for the young daughter of the convicted woman. At the same time, officially, ONF aims to embody the Russian civil society and to be an outpost of the fight against corruption (the same one that has long ago become a part of the state and its backbone, starting with the president himself, who serves, among other things, as the head of the ONF).
In short, at the very moment when it seemed to me that nothing can surpass Russia’s “counter-intelligence” and “fight against extremism” in the level of absurdity and farce, a character appeared who has become my absolute favorite in this genre. This lucky man became famous after he was imprisoned in Russia on the customary charge of treason by his own former colleagues. This is the case of the former employee of the Department of External Relations (DECR) of the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate, Yevgeny Petrin. In the summer, the failed spy was sentenced by the Moscow City Court to 12 years in a maximum-security colony.
At the same time, in his own words, Petrin is the captain of the FSB, who, after the formal dismissal from the agency, continued to work under the cover of the DECR. Petrin served in Kyiv, where he mingled with the Americans, as he claims – to gain their trust.
In his numerous letters from Lefortovo, the “Orthodox Chekist” bombarded his former colleagues in the FSB with the accusations, reproaching them for the fact that they did not “catch foreigners” (Americans or Canadians) on the territory of a sovereign state, Ukraine. Apparently, not being able to distinguish between the two countries (just like so many other “lost” Russian fighters, soldiers, and spies), Petrin stubbornly referred to his espionage activities as “counterintelligence” and urged fellow security officers to carry out kidnappings on the territory of another state.
In the same letter, the self-declared spy announced that he is “ready to help expose and neutralize threats to Orthodoxy in Ukraine and to identify the intentions of people and organizations already known to me who are hindering the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church in Kyiv,” that is, in plain text volunteered to again go and spy in a foreign country. At the same time, the idea that, due to the open nature of his letters, tens of thousands (at a minimum) Ukrainians could read about his enthusiasm for spying did not bother Petrin. The mission ended in a fiasco.
Then, to prove his innocence to the FSB, Petrin and his family spun tales in which he was painted as a heroic “secret agent” who gained the foreigners’ trust and “as a cover, was consulting them for pay” while providing, according to him, completely useless information, in fact doing what normally falls under the felony charge of “fraud.”
Petrin’s family also tried their best, and wrote him one recommendation letter after another, describing Yevgeny’s lifelong deep and faithful love for Vladimir Putin. In an interview with the suspect’s brother, he named another “spiritual mentor” of the failed chekist: “I once wrote to the Queen of England. And another time – to Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and asked him how best to serve my motherland, and he replied that I should go into law enforcement.”
With all this, nothing helped the faithful “servant to his homeland” according to the Zhirinovsky gospel, Yevgeny Petrin – not his love for Putin, nor quotes from the Scriptures and letters written in the old church Slavonic style, for example: “For this cause, which was regarded as external crime against the Motherland due to my job actions, I will not repent as I haven’t sinned“. Without going into theological subtleties of Petrin’s acts, the court found him guilty, and, in addition to prison, fined him in the amount of 200 thousand rubles. In a word, only Russian “counter-intelligence” is capable of overshadowing Russian “intelligence.”
After that, whenever I see another story about “Ukrainian saboteurs,” caught on a mission with a full package of ID’s and Yarosh business cards, I can’t help but think that Russian security services create an image of foreign spies and their professionalism based on their own spy Petrin.
After this story, only Russian sport could surpass Russian intelligence in my eyes – namely, the legendary special operation involving replacement of the tainted urine samples with clean ones through a hole in the wall.
In short, Russia could be a great comic state, providing comic relief to the rest of the world, if not for one important caveat – in the hands of this state at this moment is a very real force, facing both inside and outside the country. The absurd accusation of treason for SMS cost an innocent woman seven years’ imprisonment and the death of at least one person – her grandmother. Hundreds and thousands of people who believed all sorts of “Petrins” scurrying across Ukraine, eventually began killing its own citizens and supporting the occupiers. A country that was inspired by the victory in the Olympic Games (even if it was achieved by the substitution of urine) launched an aggressive war against its neighbor. In short, comedic antics of Russia end in the very real bloodshed.
At the same time, the worst thing is that the populism and farce are becoming popular not only in Russia but also abroad. Unfamiliar with the Russian experience, foreigners are not yet able to realize how seemingly comical parody can seriously destroy the foundations of the Western democracies. Though, I admit, a lot of fun capers may occur during this process of destruction – but that, believe me, doesn’t make it any easier.