Russia hunts for spies and traitors — at home


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If there were a silver lining in her son being convicted of high treason, it was that Yelena Gordon would have a rare chance to see him. 

But when she tried to enter the courtroom, she was told it was already full. But those packed in weren’t press or his supporters, since the hearing was closed.

“I recognized just one face there, the rest were all strangers,” she later recounted, exasperated, outside the Moscow City Court. “I felt like I had woken up in a Kafka novel.”

Eventually, after copious cajoling, Gordon was able to stand beside Vladimir Kara-Murza, a glass wall between her and her son, as the sentence was delivered. 

Kara-Murza was handed 25 years in prison, a sky-high figure previously reserved for major homicide cases, and the highest sentence for an opposition politician to date.

The bulk — 18 years — was given on account of treason, for speeches he gave last year in the United States, Finland and Portugal.

For a man who had lobbied the West for anti-Russia sanctions such as on the Magnitsky Act against human rights abusers — long before Russia invaded Ukraine — those speeches were wholly unremarkable.

But the prosecution cast Kara-Murza’s words as an existential threat to Russia’s safety. 

“This is the enemy and he should be punished,” prosecutor Boris Loktionov stated during the trial, according to Kara-Murza’s lawyer.

The judge, whose own name features on the Magnitsky list as a human rights abuser, agreed. And so did Russia’s Foreign Ministry, saying: “Traitors and betrayers, hailed by the West, will get what they deserve.”

Redefining the enemy

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, hundreds of Russians have received fines or jail sentences of several years under new military censorship laws.

But never before has the nuclear charge of treason been used to convict someone for public statements containing publicly available information. 

Vladimir Kara Murza
A screen set up in a hall at Moscow City Court shows the verdict in the case against Vladimir Kara-Murza | Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

The verdict came a day after an appeal hearing at the same court for Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich who, in a move unseen since the end of the Cold War, is being charged with spying “for the American side.”

Taken together, the two cases set a historic precedent for modern Russia, broadening and formalizing its hunt for internal enemies.

“The state, the [Kremlin], has decided to sharply expand the ‘list of targets’ for charges of treason and espionage,” Andrei Soldatov, an expert in Russia’s security services, told POLITICO. 

Up until now, the worst the foreign press corps feared was having their accreditation revoked by Russia’s Foreign Ministry. This is now changing.

For Kremlin critics, the gloves have of course been off for far longer — before his jailing, Kara-Murza survived two poisonings. He had been a close ally of Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered in 2015 within sight of the Kremlin. 

But such reprisals were reserved for only a handful of prominent dissidents, and enacted by anonymous hitmen and undercover agents.

After Putin last week signed into law extending the punishment for treason from 20 years to life, anyone could be eliminated from public life with the stamp of legitimacy from a judge in robes.

“Broach the topic of political repression over a coffee with a foreigner, and that could already be considered treason,” Oleg Orlov, chair of the disbanded rights group Memorial, said outside the courthouse. 

Like many, he saw a parallel with Soviet times, when tens of thousands of “enemies of the state” were accused of spying for foreign governments and sent to far-flung labor camps or simply executed, and foreigners were by definition suspect.

Treason as catch-all

Instead of the usual Investigative Committee, treason cases fall under the remit of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, making them uniquely secretive.

In court, hearings are held behind closed doors — sheltered from the public and press — and defense lawyers are all but gagged.

But they used to be relatively rare: Between 2009 and 2013, a total of 25 people were tried for espionage or treason, according to Russian court statistics. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, that number fluctuated from a handful to a maximum of 17. 

Ivan Safronov
Former defense journalist Ivan Safronov in court, April 2022 | Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

Involving academics, Crimean Tatars and military accused of passing on sensitive information to foreign parties, they generally drew little attention.

The jailing of Ivan Safronov — a former defense journalist accused of sharing state secrets with a Czech acquaintance — formed an important exception in 2020. It triggered a massive outcry among his peers and cast a spotlight on the treason law. Apparently, even sharing information gleaned from public sources could result in a conviction.

Combined with an amendment introduced after anti-Kremlin protests in 2012 that labeled any help to a “foreign organization which aimed to undermine Russian security” as treason, it turned the law into a powder keg. 

In February 2022, that was set alight. 

Angered by the war but too afraid to protest publicly, some Russians sought to support Ukraine in less visible ways such as through donations to aid organizations. 

The response was swift: Only three days after Putin announced his special military operation, Russia’s General Prosecutor’s Office warned it would check “every case of financial or other help” for signs of treason. 

Thousands of Russians were plunged into a legal abyss. “I transferred 100 rubles to a Ukrainian NGO. Is this the end?” read a Q&A card shared on social media by the legal aid group Pervy Otdel. 

“The current situation is such that this [treason] article will likely be applied more broadly,” warned Senator Andrei Klimov, head of the defense committee of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament.

Inventing traitors

Last summer, the law was revised once more to define defectors as traitors as well. 

Ivan Pavlov, who oversees Pervy Otdel from exile after being forced to flee Russia for defending Safronov, estimates some 70 treason cases have already been launched since the start of the war — twice the maximum in pre-war years. And the tempo seems to be picking up.

Regional media headlines reporting arrests for treason are becoming almost commonplace. Sometimes they include high-octane video footage of FSB teams storming people’s homes and securing supposed confessions on camera. 

Yet from what can be gleaned about the cases from media leaks, their evidence is shaky.

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Instead of the usual Investigative Committee, treason cases fall under the remit of Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, making them uniquely secretive | Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

In December last year, 21-year-old Savely Frolov became the first to be charged with conspiring to defect. Among the reported incriminating evidence is that he attempted to cross into neighboring Georgia with a pair of camouflage trousers in the trunk of his car. 

In early April this year, a married couple was arrested in the industrial city of Nizhny Tagil for supposedly collaborating with Ukrainian intelligence. The two worked at a nearby defense plant, but acquaintances cited by independent Russian media Holod deny they had access to secret information. 

“It is a reaction to the war: There’s a demand from up top for traitors. And if they can’t find real ones, they’ll make them up, invent them,” said Pavlov. 

Although official statistics are only published with a two-year lag time, he has little doubt a flood of guilty verdicts is coming.

“The first and last time a treason suspect was acquitted in Russia was in 1999.”

No sign of slowing

If precedent is anything to go by, Gershkovich will likely eventually be subject to a prisoner swap. 

That is what happened with Brittney Griner, a U.S. basketball star jailed for drug smuggling when she entered Russia carrying hashish vape cartridges.

And it is also what happened with the last foreign journalist detained, in 1986 when the American Nicholas Daniloff was supposedly caught “red-handed” spying, like Gershkovich.

Back then, several others were released with him — among them Yury Orlov, a human rights activist sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp for “anti-Soviet activity.” 

Some now harbor hope that a deal involving Gershkovich could also help Kara-Murza, who is well-known in Washington circles and suffers from severe health problems.

For ordinary Russians, any glimmers of hope that the traitor push will slow down are even less tangible.

Those POLITICO spoke to say a Soviet-era mass campaign against traitors is unlikely, if only because the Kremlin has a fine line to walk: arrest too many traitors and it risks shattering the image that Russians unanimously support the war. 

Some harbor hope that a deal involving Gershkovich could also help Kara-Murza, who is well-known in Washington circles | Maxim Shipenkov/EPA-EFE

And in the era of modern technology, there are easier ways to convey a message to a large audience. “If Stalin had had a television channel, there would’ve likely not been a need for mass repression,” reflected Pavlov. 

Yet the repressive state apparatus does seem to have a momentum of its own, as those involved in investigating and prosecuting treason and espionage cases are rewarded with bonuses and promotions. 

In a first, the treason case against Kara-Murza was led by the Investigative Committee, opening the door for the FSB to massively increase its work capacity by offloading work on others, says Soldatov.

“If the FSB can’t handle it, the Investigative Committee will jump in.”

In the public sphere, patriotic officials at all levels are clamoring for an even harder line, going so far as to volunteer the names of apparently unpatriotic political rivals and celebrities to be investigated.

There have been calls for “traitors” to be stripped of their citizenship and to reintroduce the death penalty.

And in a telling sign, Kara-Murza’s veteran lawyer Vadim Prokhorov has fled Russia, fearing he might be targeted next. 

Аs Orlov, the dissident who was part of the 1986 swap and who went on to become an early critic of Putin, wrote in the early days of Putin’s reign in 2004: “Russia is flying back in time.” 

Nearly two decades on, the question in Moscow nowadays is a simple one: how far back? 

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