Terrorists, Incendiaries, and Saboteurs: How Law Enforcement Is Normalising the Logic of State Terror

Re: Russia
While ‘discrediting the army’ and ‘spreading knowingly false information’ remain the most common charges used to prosecute anti-war views and speech, the more serious charges of ‘terrorism’ and ‘sabotage’ have become increasingly common as repressive practices since the end of 2022. Typically, these cases involve arson at military recruitment centres or the symbolic ‘sabotage’ of railways. Although, earlier in the year, these acts were typically classified as minor offences (property damage, vandalism, and hooliganism), by the end of 2022/early 2023, they were beginning to be reclassified as significant offences. This strategy aims to give these acts the appearance of being truly dangerous to society, thus laying the groundwork for the application of the harshest sentences possible. As a result, this normalises state terror practices within the public consciousness, where a climate of normalised fear of the state’s repressive apparatus is shaped by demonstrable cruelty and disproportionate punishment.

Back in 2022, the new administrative and criminal offences for discrediting the army and spreading false information were the main tools for the prosecution of anti-war activities. The use of these offences as a means of repression was steadily increasing. According to Mediazona, Russian courts have heard approximately 6,000 administrative charges (20.3.3 of the Administrative Code), while OVD-Info reports that 528 people have been criminally prosecuted for their anti-war stance. More than 40% of cases were initiated under Articles 207.3 (158 defendants) and 280.3 (71 defendants) of the Criminal Code. Another 71 people were prosecuted under an article of the Criminal Code concerning ‘vandalism’ (Article 214), which was used against those who had written anti-war inscriptions in public places and those who had defaced objects bearing pro-war Z-symbols.

Simultaneously, since the end of last year, there has been an increase in the number of cases filed under more serious articles — terrorism and sabotage — against those who expressed anti-war sentiments. Analysis of this practice suggests that prosecution of these cases was made possible by the expansion of the definitions of the terms used in the corresponding articles, as well as the activities of law enforcement agencies who reclassify less strict crimes as more serious ones. This implies that there is likely a quota for the number of terrorist and sabotage cases that should be initiated. As a result, law enforcement reports suggest Russia is teeming with subversives, terrorists, and saboteurs. This appears to be on a scale not seen since the early 1930s when the GPU-NKVD agencies were given a political mandate to expose subversives and saboteurs. The practices they devised in response laid the groundwork for the subsequent Great Terror.

Who are these ‘terrorists’?

The rise in terrorism-related convictions in the absence of actual terrorist acts was a key trend in Russian law enforcement throughout the 2010s. According to the Judicial Department, the number of people convicted of terrorism increased from 10 in 2010 to 103 in 2019, then to 199 in 2021 and 274 in 2022. In just 12 years, the number of people convicted of terrorism has thus increased 27-fold. However, the majority of those subject to retaliation under terrorist articles were members and activists of Muslim and Crimean Tatar organisations. The use of terrorist articles against those who oppose the war in Ukraine began to increase at the end of last year and, in particular, at the start of this year: in August 2022, OVD-Info was aware of 12 such cases, in December there were 24, and there are currently 46 such cases in their database.

The defendants in these cases are a diverse group of people with a variety of backgrounds and professions. Some of their names are well-known, such as Leonid Volkov, Ruslan Shaveddinov, Anna Biryukova, and Ivan Zhdanov, all of whom work for the Anti-Corruption Foundation and are close associates of Alexey Navalny. Others are known only to human rights activists and the small circle of people who closely monitor the dynamics of repressive law enforcement. For example, Irina Bystrova, the head of an art studio in Petrozavodsk, who called for an end to the unjust war against Ukraine and for people to take up arms ‘against the gang in the Kremlin’ on social media. Or, Ivan Legotkin, an 18-year-old Perm resident, who wished that ‘the Russian people would rise up against the authorities’ in an online comment. However, they all bear little resemblance to ‘terrorists,’ and the charges levelled against them appear to be an obvious and deliberate manipulation of the terminology.

According to analysis of the profiles of the people involved in the cases prosecuted under 205.2 part 2 of the Criminal Code, the defendants often come to the attention of law enforcement agencies for lighter offences, usually just administrative ones, but law enforcement officials then expand their charges during the course of the investigation. That is what happened to Andrey Boyarshinov, a former employee of Kazan Federal University who was arrested on charges of incitement to mass disorder and later released, only to be arrested again, this time on charges of the public justification of terrorism in Kazan chat rooms. Aleksandr Snezhkov, 19, and Lyubov Lizunova, 16, also became victims of this slow-cooked injustice: they were initially noticed because of their 'Death to the regime' graffiti, but two additional criminal cases were filed against them for incitement to extremism (Article 280 of the Criminal Code) and justification of terrorism.

During the investigation process, an increasing number of law enforcement agencies are attaching hard charges to lighter ones, which may indicate the existence of a quota or some sort of top-down order for the prosecution of terrorism-related cases, with law enforcement agencies preying on people who are already on their radar and under investigation.

Arsonists: the flames of protest

According to lawyer Pavel Chikov, cases of arson at military registration and enlistment offices began to be classified as terrorism cases in the early autumn of 2022; these were previously typically classified as property damage. Now, the new cases are almost always brought as acts of terrorism. Kirill Butylin, 22, was sentenced to 13 years in a maximum-security penal colony a month ago for throwing Molotov cocktails into a military registration and enlistment office in February 2022 (the damage was estimated to be worth 12,000 rubles). Butylin was initially charged with vandalism (Article 214 of the Criminal Code) before being charged with arson property damage (Part 2, Article 167), which was then later reclassified as an act of terrorism. The manifesto he posted on the day of the arson attack became the basis for the charges of public justification of terrorism brought against him (Part 2, Article 205.2 of the Criminal Code).

Since the beginning of the war, analysts from OVD-Info have documented over 50 cases of arson and attempted arson at military enlistment offices and other security agencies. However, in 2022 alone, Central District Military Court Judge Artem Makarov referred to 77 cases of arson. According to a review of the arsonists' cases published by the ‘Caucasus.Realii’ project, these cases sometimes have commercial motives, i.e. the arson attacks were carried out for a fee. However, the majority of these attacks were acts of defiance against the war. However, as noted in a review of arson cases published by Novaya Gazeta, representatives of radical far-right and far-left groups were involved in some cases (for example, representatives of the banned Russian extremist organisation NS/WP have claimed responsibility for five such attacks).

However, most attacks carried out at military registration and enlistment offices did not cause significant damage. According to Dmitry Zakhvatov, a lawyer with the Avtozak Live human rights project, the majority involved damage to window frames, entrance doors, or fires in one or two rooms of the building. Most of these cases, he believes, should not be classified as terrorist attacks because ‘terrorist attacks target the life, health, and personal inviolability of citizens and are committed with the intent of destabilising the work of government agencies.’ He defined arson as ‘a special kind of expression through the defacement of state property.’

Initially, law enforcement prosecuted ‘arsonists’ under part 2 of Article 167 (destruction of or damage to someone else's property by arson), part 2 of Article 213 (damage or destruction of property), and part 2 of article 213 (hooliganism) of the Criminal Code. However, in the autumn, there was a sharp shift in the interpretation of arson, with such cases classified as acts of terrorism and sabotage. Moreover, during the investigation process, the charges were frequently revised to be more punitive, even if the Molotov cocktail did not even reach its intended target, as in the case of Oleg Vazhdaev. Despite this, he was initially charged with intentional property destruction (Article 167 of the Criminal Code), and the charges were later reclassified as a terrorist attack (in late January, the first conviction under Article 205 for arson at a military recruitment centre was handed down; the defendant was sentenced to 12 years in a maximum-security penal colony).

Railway ‘saboteurs’

Security forces, journalists, and pro-government Telegram channels have published dozens of reports on the detention and even murder of suspected railway saboteurs across Russia since early autumn, according to a special review of these cases by Mediazona titled ‘Boxes on Fire.’ The analysts at Mediazona counted 66 detainees in such cases, almost all of whom were under the age of 25, with 20 of them being minors.

The majority of these cases were initially brought under Article 167 of the Criminal Code (deliberate property damage) but were later reclassified under the more severe Articles 205 (terrorist attack) or 281 (sabotage). Late last year, the Criminal Code was significantly expanded to include articles on aiding sabotage (281.1 of the Criminal Code), training (281.2 of the Criminal Code), and organising a sabotage ring (281.3 of the Criminal Code). This was similar to the expansion of terrorism legislation. Almost all of the new articles carry penalties of up to life in prison. The adoption of these new articles was followed by a wave of arson arrests, with over 50 arrests for arson offences made by January 2023, shortly after the law was amended.

More often than not, these ‘saboteurs’ targeted a relay box used to regulate train traffic; this strategy was mentioned in 19 out of 27 criminal cases known to Mediazona. A broken box slows train traffic on a section of track until it can be repaired. Offers of arson with the promise of a reward appear on social media. In February, for example, Kaliningrad media reported that eight schoolchildren set fire to a relay box after a 15-year-old ‘received instructions’ with a promise of a cash reward for the work. A 16-year-old from Kemerovo allegedly received 5,000 roubles for setting a fire.

Moreover, there is another type of ‘sabotage’ which causes even less damage as it does not necessitate equipment replacement. Ilya Podkamenny, 18, was arrested in Irkutsk for rail shorting. According to investigators, he ‘wrapped copper wire around the rails’ and ‘attached sheets from a school notebook on which a message of extremist content was written’ to the tracks. In the event of a shorted track, the traffic light would perceive the track as congested; traffic would not be stopped, but trains would travel at a slow speed on that section. The young man has been charged with four counts, including extremism (for the notebook page), for training and for the preparation or a terrorist attack (he allegedly planned to set fire to a military enlistment office). Vladlen Menshikov, 29, from the Sverdlovsk region, left the inscriptions ‘Azov’, ‘AFU’, and ‘No to War’ on an entrance pedestal in Rezh and then stretched a wire between two rails. When questioned, he stated that he had a ‘negative attitude towards the special military operation’ and that he had considered ‘seizing power through military means’, ‘overthrowing the government’, and ‘eliminating the president’. He was charged with attempted sabotage, justification of terrorism, and confidential collaboration with a foreign organisation.

There are a number of public anonymous organisations in Russia which publish sabotage reports. But, according to Mediazona’s analysts, there is little overlap between these reports and the information published by the security forces about those detained for sabotage. Because most of the cases are from January to March 2023, no sentences have yet been handed down. For now, we know of only one conviction in Belgorod Oblast (two defendants received 3.5 years in prison) and one in Crimea (10 years in a penal colony). Another case was dropped because the defendant died.

As these examples show, over the course of the past year, law enforcement has gradually reinterpreted the same type of acts, which do not involve significant actual harm but carry a high emotional and symbolic weight, with the goal of making these acts appear to be truly dangerous to society. The aim of this is to provide the foundation for issuing the harshest sentences possible. This strategy is intended to instil fear in society, leading citizens to believe that there are ‘terrorists’, ‘saboteurs’, and ‘enemies’ everywhere. Moreover, the cruelty of the clearly disproportionate punishment is used to instil ‘normative’ fear of the state apparatus.