Since October 2017, nine people have arrested as part of “The Network” case, which has seen Russian anti-fascists and anarchists in St Petersburg and Penza detained on terrorism charges. According to Federal Security Service (FSB) investigators, all the arrested men were members of an organisation that planned to provoke the “popular masses for further destabilisation of the political climate in the country” during the Russian presidential elections and FIFA World Cup. Cells of the organisation were allegedly operating in Moscow, St Petersburg, Penza and Belarus.
But as has become clear, this case has a history that goes back to spring 2017. Sofiko Aridzhanova, a Moscow-based journalist and anarchist, recently revealed that FSB officers informally interrogated her in February last year. And on 23 May 2018, Viktoria Frolova, a friend of the suspects in Penza, was detained at the Russian-Ukrainian border. Frolova was forced to give a testimony against her acquaintances from Penza. Prior to that, Frolova’s boyfriend Alexey Poltavets told OVD-Info how he was arrested, beaten up and tortured by FSB officers in Penza. According to Poltavets, he is referred to as “Boris” in the FSB’s case files for the “Network” case.
Here, he tells how he was detained and tortured in March 2017.
My name is Alexey Poltavets, I was born in Omsk. In terms of my beliefs, I am an anarchist, anti-fascist and vegetarian; I am against the current government of the Russian Federation.
In Omsk, I took part in animal rights events — film screenings and rallies. In 2014, I was an active supporter of the Maidan protesters in Kyiv, I was speaking out against the annexation of Crimea and the incursions of the Russian army into Ukrainian territory. I attended rallies organised by the local authorities to “celebrate the return of Crimea” with a Ukrainian flag and yellow and blue balloons. This is how I tried to troll the participants of these events. As a result, I was threatened and on time policemen, including agents from Centre “E” [Centre for Countering Extremism], tried to detain me, but I managed to escape.
In 2016, after another quarrel with my parents caused by our political differences, I decided to leave and move to St Petersburg, to join my friend Viktor Filinkov. I met Filinkov through my brother (they were course mates at university) in Omsk in 2014. We became friends because of our shared beliefs. Together with Viktor, we attended many opposition events, including against the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine, as well as animal rights events. In 2016, Filinkov left for St Petersburg and got a job there, but we stayed in touch.
How it all began
On my way from Omsk to St Petersburg, I decided to stay with some friends in Penza — Filinkov had some temporary troubles with money and accommodation. I arrived in Penza in December 2016. I was 16 years old then. My friends helped me to find a job and a place to live. I was hanging out with local political activists, anti-fascists and anarchists. I knew Egor Zorin, Dmitry Pchelintsev [suspects in the “Network” case], Maxim Ivankin, Mikhail Kulkov and other local activists. We were playing Airsoft together and walking in the forest — collecting rubbish, sitting around the fire.
Around the end of February or the beginning of March 2017, Zorin was detained. An acquaintance invited him over, and then during that meeting he, according to Zorin, constantly left to make some calls. After one of the calls, a group of men stormed into the flat, they introduced themselves as FSB agents, a typical “maski-show” [a raid by masked security agents] followed. They found some weed in the flat and started putting pressure on Zorin, claiming that the drugs belonged to him. They told him that his acquaintances who were in the flat had already started giving evidence against him. Then they offered him a “solution”: to cooperate with the FSB and follow their orders, collect information for them and pass it on to them in a timely fashion. The agents were asking about Islamic terrorists, and were saying that there were recruiters at the university [Penza State University], where Zorin was studying. They explained that if he agreed to cooperate, they would close down their investigation into drugs in the flat, but if he refused — they would lock him up on a maximum sentence. Zorin agreed, signed necessary documents and then was released.
Next day, he met his friends and told them what happened. It was obvious from how he looked that he was scared and didn’t know what to do. A week later Zorin said that the FSB agents had another conversation with him: they met him next to his apartment block and put him in a car. An agent was asking questions about left-wing activism and also asked whether Zorin knew any activists. Three weeks later I was arrested.
At 10pm, 30 March 2017, I and two of my acquaintances — Mikhail Kulkov and Maxim Ivankin — were walking to my place after a gathering at Kulkov’s place. My comrades decided to walk me home, I’m from another city.
A grey VAZ-2115 police car approached us, five men jumped out of it — some in plain clothes, some in uniforms. I didn’t even have time to ask why I was being detained before my hands were behind my back in handcuffs. The men in police uniform were shouting “Give me your fucking hands, give me your hands, bitch” while a man in plain clothes was overseeing the whole process. The men in uniform put me facing the car and shouted “Give us your fucking full name, quickly”. Then one of them hit me on the head and I hit my face against the car. I gave them my name, patronymic and surname. One of the men in uniform started searching me, took my money and passport and put them on the top of the car. When he didn’t find anything else, he put the things back into my pocket. After that, the same man pressed my head against the car and didn’t allow me to turn it. Another man in uniform (a FSB agent named Ilya, as I learned later) was searching Kulkov’s and Ivankin’s backpacks just where we weren’t allowed to look. Whenever I tried to turn my head to see what the men in plain clothes were doing or asked “Why am I being detained”, I was hit with a fist in the kidneys area. A few minutes later Ilya (the FSB agent) shouted: “There are drugs here!”
At that point, a white Ford minibus with blue plates arrived, four men got out of it, they were dressed in tactical clothes, they were wearing caps and masks, and there was one more agent in plain clothes. The agent who was holding me turned me to face Ilya. The latter was sitting next to a pile of stuff he’d taken out of the backpacks, he was holding a transparent bag with some sort of roll of stuff inside it. The FSB agent Ilya figured out what was in the bag without opening it and said: “That’s it, guys, you’re done.” We instantly replied that the bag had been planted. In response, they started hitting us.
We were taken to the minibus, one of the agents set down next to me. He took me by my neck and pressed my head against the seat in front of us, and then hit me several times on the back of my head. I asked: “What did I do? Why have I been detained?”. But in response I only received more punches on my head and my face, after which the agent said: “I’m the one who asks questions here, do you understand?” Then he hit me on the face with his palm once again. I replied: “Understood.”
We drove to a police or FSB station. I didn’t have time to read what was written on the plaque at the entrance. While they were bringing us there, the agents threatened that we would now be beaten up, and we would say whatever they tell us to say.
I was brought into an office that had a door that led to another office. They put me into the “one and a half” position next to this door. This is when you have to stand with your legs half-bent, as if one is sitting but without a chair. It is very difficult to stand in this position for a long time. Apart from me, there were two agents in plain clothes in the room. They made sure that I could not stand in a normal position. This was around midnight. An agent called Mikhail entered the room. He approached me and, while turning me around, said “Well, hello!” and then punched me in the upper part of the stomach. I bent down, and was trying to restore my breathing, while he said: “Take it easy, I’m just warming up.”
Mikhail took me into the office behind the door. Ilya was already there. Mikhail took the passport and money from my pocket (later they returned my passport, but kept the money). Then he took off my handcuffs and told me to strip naked and do 20 squats. While I was doing the exercises, Mikhail checked my clothes. After that, I put my clothes back on and they again locked the handcuffs tightly behind my back. Agent Ilya said: “So, you do understand why you were arrested, don’t you?” I replied: “No.” The agents started laughing. And Ilya told me: “It is really funny how you always pretend that you have no fucking idea, but after we beat the shit out of you, you immediately begin to understand.” Mikhail punched me a few more times in the stomach and, holding me by the hair, said:
You understand that it is not by accident that we found drugs on you. Now you sign a testimony against your anarchist mates, then repeat it to an investigator, and we let you go, you will be a witness. If you don’t, you will get a maximum sentence, and I will make sure you have a good time in the detention centre, they love young boys like you there
I replied that I was not going to sign anything.
Mikhail was still holding me by the hair. Ilya stood up, approached me and punched me several times in the upper stomach. Mikhail let my hair go and pushed me, I felt on the ground. Ilya said: “Wrong answer, we are asking you nicely. Your friends are going to prison no matter what you say, the only question is whether you are going to join them.” I coughed and tried to stand up, the same agent put a chair next to me and said: “Sit down.” I sat down and replied: “I have already told you that I am not going to sign anything.” Mikhail kicked me in the chest with his leg (the kick was more like a push than a kick) and I fell backwards together with the chair. He said: “Ok, this means you will get a full term together with them, right now your friends are ratting you out next door, while you’re protecting them here. If you don’t want to lose your health in this room — you will have to answer our questions.” Then the agent picked up the chair and I sat down again.
Next, they threatened and pressured me a lot, they threatened to rape me with a broom. This went on the whole night. Sometimes an agent named Nikolay entered and also humiliated me. Nikolay would wring my arms behind my back, which was extremely painful, and it seemed as if he was going to break my arms, he was also pulling my hair, screwing my ear up in a ball. Whenever I fell and was lying on my back, he put his foot on my genitals and was pressing stronger and stronger. I felt unbearable pain, which lasted for a long time afterwards. Nikolay threatened to hang me up and to send me in to people who would rape me.
After threatening me, the agents began to ask when I came to Penza, why, what I was doing, how I met others who were arrested, and other things that concerned me. I replied to those questions. Sometimes the agents took breaks and ate and drank — during those intervals I was put back to the wall in the “one and a half” position. When I could not stand like that anymore and tried to stand normally, an agent would come and hit me with his palm in the stomach, and was threatening to hang me up. After that, I stood back in the “one and a half” position.
I held this position until evening. Then they brought me to the office and sat me down on a chair. There were three agents in the room: Mikhail, Ilya and Nikolay. They asked me: “So, have you changed your mind?” I replied: “No.” Ilya sat down in front of me and said: “Your friends have already testified against you. What happened to you earlier was the best thing that could have happened. I have broken many people like you with these very hands.” It was clear that he was proud of himself. Nikolay stood behind me, he placed the backrest of the chair between my back and my hands, so I couldn’t get up or move. Nikolay took an old thick plastic bag out of the cabinet, the sides of it were rolled down, he rolled them once more and placed it on my head, without tying it. They repeated all questions again, I didn’t answer.
At that point, I got really scared, I feared for my life and was afraid that I wouldn’t leave that room alive if I didn’t do what the agents wanted. Nikolay tied the bag from behind, and I began to suffocate and jerk. The chair began to tilt, but Ilya pressed it down, while Nikolay pressed me against the back of the chair. Nikolay took off the bag from my head, I started coughing, some saliva dropped on the floor, which made Ilya angry and he hit me, saying something about me making their floor dirty. Ilya repeated the questions, I repeated that I was not going to say or sign anything. After that, Nikolay put the bag back and tied it, but this time he hold it for longer than the first time.
Я испытывал непреодолимое чувство страха, задыхался и ничего не мог сделать. Хотелось сделать все, что они скажут, лишь бы получить глоток воздуха.
I was experiencing an overwhelming sense of fear, I was suffocating and could not do anything. I felt like doing anything they would tell [me to do] to get a gasp of air.
This time I was suffocating much more seriously: the first time I tried to hold my breath and keep calm before they tied the bag, as if I was diving, but I soon ran out of air and started panicking. When they took the bag off, I started coughing and said: “Stop it, stop torturing me.” In response, they put the bag back on, while I didn’t even have time to cough after the previous time. The third time, Nikolay held the bag on even longer. After he took the bag off, I was asked again whether I was going to sign a evidence statement and an agreement to cooperate. I replied: “Stop torturing me. You are twice as old as I am, I am in handcuffs, how can you do this?” They replied: “There is no other way with you” — and put the bag back on. I experienced an unbearable lack of oxygen, panic and fear.
They repeated these “procedures” five or seven times more, after that they took the bag off for a few seconds and put it on again, and hold it even longer, as a result I almost urinated on myself. Afterwards, Nikolay took off the bag, all agents were very angry, they repeated the question, I didn’t reply. After that, Mikhail who was sitting all the time and observing the torture said: “We’ll get the soldering iron and you will agree to everything” — and Ilya started looking for a soldering iron in the office. Mikhail opened the door to the office nearby and shouted: “Bring me the soldering iron”, and then left the room himself. At that point Nikolay said: “I will now take this broom and shove it in your asshole, and you will agree to everything, you won’t want to live after that. Do you want that?” I said: “No, I don’t.” At this moment, Mikhail returned, asked Nikolay to come with him, and they left the office and were discussing something, but I could not hear what exactly. Afterwards, Mikhail came in and said: “You have been lucky so far that your friends turned out to be more cooperative, but later you will pay for your behaviour here.”
Then they told me that they would let me go if I sign a pledge not to leave the city and that if I discussed what happened there — they would torture me again. The FSB agents promised to pick me up again on Monday. They brought me into the office where I was before and put me back into the “one and a half” position. It was late and the agents told me that they hadn’t slept for three days, and that they were going to bed now, and would continue to deal with us in the morning. The whole night I held the “one and a half” position next to the wall. During this time, two agents watched a film, eating and making sure that I couldn’t stand normally. But this time the agents were not so aggressive when I tried to stand in a normal pose. They allowed me to go to the toilet once, and there they were also with me.
In the morning, Nikolay, Mikhail and Ilya came back. They said that now I was going to answer the questions, some of which I had already answered. These were questions about me: what I was doing, why I came to the city, when, where I was going. But this time it was necessary to sign them with the investigator. They told me that I would be released together with Ivankin, since he testified against Kulkov, and Kulkov had taken the guilt on himself. They said that since I was from Omsk, I would live at Ivankin’s place. To avoid torture, I agreed. The agents wrote down my answers on a piece of paper. I asked: “What is going to happen to Kulkov?”They replied that they would put him under house arrest. Then they led me out of the building and put in a car, where there were three more agents, I didn’t know one of them, his name was Andrey.
On our way, we stopped next to a bridge, rail trucks and a forest. I was told that we had to make a photo where I point to a particular spot on the ground. I said that I was not going to get photographed and they started hitting me on the back of my head, back and the whole body, as well as threatening me. They told me that they would bring me back to the department, where I would be raped and tortured. Then I complied since I understood that the FSB agents could indeed do that. We left the car, another car stopped behind ours, and three girls came out of it. One of them, I thought, was a police officer, while two others were there just to stand next to me while they photographed us. They took off the handcuffs and told me to point first to one column of the bridge and then to another and then at an empty piece of land between the columns. I did that. Then they put the handcuffs back and drove me again.
When we arrived at another department, they unlocked the handcuffs and brought me to an office, a woman in police uniform was inside. She told me to sit down on a chair, I did that, and then she asked one agent to stay with me. Mikhail stayed. She offered me water. This was the first sip of water in one and a half days. Before that I was not allowed to sit (apart from the time when they were putting the bag on my head), to drink, not to mention, to eat. She offered me a chocolate bar. The door into the hall was open, and I saw how Kulkov and Ivankin were led by the office. I asked whether I could share the chocolate with my friends, and the officer (as I learned, her name was Ekaterina) said: “Eat.” I ate a half of it, and asked to give the second half to my friends, but nobody bothered to do that.
After that, she gave me a phone and told me to call my parents, which I did. Ekaterina told my mom that I was detained and that she would now allow us to talk. I asked my mom to find a lawyer for me, because I didn’t have one, and that I was not guilty. Ekaterina immediately demanded that we ended the conversation. Agent Mikhail said: “How is that we are not giving you a lawyer, you refused yourself.” I replied that I asked for a lawyer, but was refused. Mikhail gave Ekaterina the paper with my answers. She started typing what was written on it, sometimes asking questions about details. When she finished with my answers, she printed them out, and said that she was going to compare them with the answers of others. Then she returned and said that almost everything coincided. She gave me the papers with my answers and told me that if I sign them and then another paper (a pledge not to leave the city), I would be released.
Mikhail said: “Well do you want to drive again to us and then go to the SIZO, instead of home?” I said no and signed the papers. After that, they returned my passport and said: “Well done, now sit down and wait while Ivankin is interrogated and his testimony is printed, then we will take you home. You will sit at home, not a step outside, understood?” I said: “Understood.” Around two hours passed and then Nikolay entered the room and said that it was time to bring me and Ivankin home. Nikolay and Andrey led me and Ivankin out of the department and put us in the same car, in which I was driven there. They brought us to Ivankin’s place around 8pm, the agents explained to his parents that I was from Omsk and that I would be living with them for now. They promised to come for me on Monday [3 April 2017].
Later, Ivankin and I discussed what happened at the FSB. Ivankin told me that at the FSB, he and Kulkov had agreed that Ivankin would testify against Kulkov and Kulkov would confess — to stop the violence of the agents. They were not tortured with the bag, but were beaten up, threatened with a soldering iron, and made stand in the “one and a half” position. We decided that it was not safe to stay and that there was a direct threat to our lives from the FSB agents. We feared that the violence and torture would continue. We got in touch with Kulkov and told him that we were planning to escape, and he replied that he was going to run away too. Since we were not allowed to sit, drink, eat and sleep for almost two days, we went to bed. Next day, 2 April 2017, we left the house. Before leaving, I called my girlfriend Vika and told her what had happened. We decided that she would also leave Penza as soon as possible.
Since then I have not seen either Ivankin or Kulkov. I was afraid of getting in touch with human rights defenders since I thought that I would be placed in a detention centre where they would not be able to help me, and where I would be forced to testify against myself under torture. Later, it turned out that my fears were not groundless: exactly that — torture and detention — happened to my friends from Penza and Petersburg.
After we left the house where we were obliged to stay according to our pledges not to leave, I decided to go to the city N to my acquaintances. I hitchhiked there, told my friends what happened to me and they offered me to stay with them until the situation became clearer. Now I am incredibly grateful to these people and realise that they literally saved my life. Then I got in touch with my parents. According to my parents, FSB agents visited them and were asking whether they knew where I was and how to get in touch with me.
Understanding that the agents were looking for me, but also that I had to make a living somehow, I started looking for a job that would be possible without any papers. I found such job at a construction site, I just talked to the foreman of one the brigades. Then when they started to work on the external surface of a house, the site needed industrial climbers and people who would be able to work at heights, and since I used to do climbing and understood how everything worked, they took me on board. I lived like this for a few months, I would go home immediately after work, and tried to avoid public areas.
All that time, I was thinking how to leave Russia, understanding that “staying” was a direct threat to my life and health. I was considering any options of reaching a country where I could ask for an asylum, and Ukraine was my priority.
When I got an opportunity to move to Ukraine illegally, I used it and reached Kyiv. I was afraid to go to the migration service, since I heard that there were some cases when unknown people had abducted asylum seekers from the Russian Federation and bringing them back to Russia. In Kyiv, I found a job as an industrial climber and insulating houses, but there was no work in winter, and I worked as a delivery driver for a vegetarian cafe instead.
In autumn 2017, I learned that my friends had been arrested in Penza. A month earlier Victoria had got her foreign passport and joined me. Since then we have been living in Ukraine. Before her detention in May 2018, Viktoria already returned to Penza once. Then she did not have any problems at the border. This time she was brought for an interrogation to FSB, where an investigator, Tokarev, asked many questions about me and asked her to pass on his “greetings”. He threatened that they have “their own people” in Ukraine and that they would take me illegally to Russia and put in prison.
I also learned that FSB agents mentioned the nicknames of the arrested, including my nickname, “Boris”. In one article somebody made a mistake and wrote that Kulkov is “Boris”. I would like to correct this: “Boris” is me. I was nicknamed “Cat Boris” or simply “Boris” because I love cats very much, and I had a cat, and once while I was playing with it, there was an advertisement of cat food on TV that mentioned a cat called Boris, and a female friend called me “Cat Boris” as a joke, and then everyone started addressing me that way.
I read in the media that FSB agents have threatened to get to Aleksandra, Viktor Filinkov’s wife, who has very recently left Kyiv for Finland and applied for an asylum there. I also read that there were cases when some unknown people abducted asylum seekers from Russia and brought them back to the country. After that, I began to fear for my life and health, and I am afraid that I can be returned to Russia, where I will be tortured again and most probably put in prison. Therefore, I would like to get asylum in another safer counter. During this time, my health has significantly deteriorated, especially my moral and psychological state, I have developed a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which has been confirmed by a psychologist.
I realised that there was a danger of being extradited secretly here, but still made a decision to apply for an asylum in Ukraine. I am waiting for the authorities’ decision now. Currently, I am living in Ukraine legally.
This post is also available in: Русский (Russian)