Art by Nika Kuznetsova / Mediazona
The Zotovs, a family of four, are facing three criminal charges: 19-year-old Lera is accused by the FSB of attempted terrorist acts due to the failed arson of a rural rallying point for mobilised soldiers while her mother Svetlana is sued of calling for terrorism and extremism based on her three comments on Telegram. Mediazona tells the story of the anti-war family and how Yaroslavl law enforcers turned their life into hell in just one month.
On the evening of February 16, 19-year-old Lera Zotova from Yaroslavl told her mother that she was going for a walk. The woman decided not wait for her daughter's return and went straight to bed. But in the middle of the night ten law enforcers burst into the flat—Svetlana thinks they opened the door with Lera's key. Her husband Igor was on a business trip at the time, so the woman had to meet the uninvited guests together with her 13-year-old daughter.
At first, Svetlana did not understand what's happening: according to her, law enforcers said that the flat was going to be searched. They also repeated in a reproachful tone things like: “This is how you brought up your children...”
The men were interested in the Zotovs' computers. “They brought some kind of box, plugged it in, and immediately went to my Telegram account. They did not need anything: no password, nothing like that,” Svetlana recalls.
Three computers, phones, and a camera were taken from the flat. It soon turned out that Lera had been detained on suspicion of attempted terrorism—according to the investigation, she was going to set fire to the administration of the village of Karabikha, 10 miles from Yaroslavl.
“From a strategic point of view, I don't really understand what kind of a remarkable site it is—a one-storey small building in the village. The village is only famous for being the manor of writer Nekrasov”, says Stanislav Spivak, Lera Zotova's lawyer. He said that during interrogation she pleaded guilty and a bottle with combustible mixture, a lighter, and rags were found with her.
On 20 February 2023, law enforcers released a video of the arrest: it shows Lera being dragged out of the passenger seat of the car and roughly dumped on the snow. Later, sitting in front of the camera, the girl admits that she ‘took photos of the buildings where the mobilisation point was located, gave information about the location and coordinates,’ and received 7 thousand rubles for it.
When asked about the reasons for her detention, she hesitates and, as if trying to remember something, answers uncertainty: “For um... communicating... with a Ukrainian... A representative of the se-be-u... With Andrey. He's from Ukraine.”
“We were detained for wanting to set fire to a building in Karabikha,” continues Lera. “They collect parcels for mobilised people there and send them to Donbas”.
The pro-government media that published the video of Lera's detainment stressed: “According to preliminary data, the detainee was brought up in a dysfunctional family and used drugs.”
The Yaroslavl district court sent Lera Zotova to a pre-trial detention centre as early as February 18, but the press service only officially announced the arrest four days later.
“She said she was going out for a walk. I asked: ‘Will you be long?’ And she said that she'd be back soon. If I had known, I would not have let her go,” Svetlana says of her eldest daughter.
She herself was fined 30 thousand rubles back in November last year for “discrediting” the armed forces: Zotova wrote “Glory to Ukraine” on the wall of small trading stall and placed next to it a bouquet of yellow and blue chrysanths with the words “Forgive us, Ukraine” on the wrapper.
Svetlana recalls spending two days in police custody at the time; she did not hide her opposition to the war, but the law enforcers still treated her “normally.”
She and her eldest daughter did not talk about politics often: Lera worked as a foreman at a Magnit distribution centre, leaving early in the morning and coming back in the evening dreadfully tired. But they did agree on most things, says Svetlana: they were both against the war.
After the search, the law enforcers seemed to have forgotten about the Zotovs for almost a month. Svetlana asked her lawyer whether she would be summoned to the investigator, who said: not yet. But the day after that conversation, on 14 March, policemen came to her home and took her to the FSB office.
“There were two officers there, and then a third one in a blue shirt came in, he had handcuffs. He came up to me and started shouting: ‘Our guys are dying there, and you... You fucking bitch! We're going to fuck you up and you're going to tell us everything!’ I don't know what he asked me to tell him—he took a picture on his phone and asked me to tell him my name, year of birth and how I felt about the SMO. I said that my attitude is negative,” recalls Svetlana.
Then the shouting man in the blue shirt left the room, and those who remained asked in a calm tone how the parents had found a lawyer for Lera. “I told them: I can imagine what you were doing to my daughter! I warned them that I would not keep quiet,” says Svetlana. Then they put her back in the car and took her somewhere, as it turned out on the spot—to the investigator. Andrei Perevozchikov, an appointed lawyer, was also brought there, Zotova saw him for the first time in her life. He asked: “Are you the accused?”
“My eyes were popping out of my head, nobody told me anything,” says Svetlana. Then the investigator came in. He read the ruling, which the woman did not remember well, and started asking questions, such as her attitude to the bombing of the Crimean bridge.
Svetlana refused to answer and agreed with the investigator that she would come for questioning on March 16, with a lawyer of her own choosing. On that day, she was charged with calling for terrorism and extremism on the Internet. According to the summons, Svetlana was charged with three comments on posts in two Telegram channels. However, the document does not provide the full text of the comments—only the dates, with first and last words.
One of these comments appeared on Ukraine 24/7 channel on January 19, under a video post in which Ben Hodges, former commanding general of the United States Army Europe, talked about the military strikes on Crimea and the land corridor linking the peninsula to Russia. The full commentary reads as follows: “He is so right! Well done for blowing up the Kerch bridge, we need to blow it up again so that dickhead loses!!!”
Two more comments, dated September 23, were found by the security forces in the anonymous Telegram channel Anarchist Fighter, which writes about sabotage and direct anti-war action in Russia. The post talked about the appropriateness of non-violent protest in times of war, and the comments were: “Peaceful rallies are fucked up” and “Russians you have a chance to make the great revolution of 2022. Overthrow this criminal government before it leads the world to nuclear catastrophe.”
All three comments, it follows from the ruling, were written by a user with the nickname @valeriaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. The ruling lists the phone number to which the account is linked—Svetlana says it is her old phone, which was seized during a search in February. She does not acknowledge authorship of the comments and adds that during the interrogation the investigator did not read them out or let her read them in their entirety.
“This comment is presented as a quote in the ruling, but they write the first word and the last word. During the interrogation, they even put the question in this way: how can you comment on such expressions, with inverted commas. They do not want to advertise what kind of comments we are talking about, so that a person would not know,” argues Svetlana's lawyer Egor Antonov. “Comment on that I know not what.”
Svetlana has been given a precautionary pledge not to leave the city. She faces between five and seven years in prison or a fine of up to 1 million rubles under the “terrorism” article, and up to five years in prison under the “extremism” article. Lera faces up to 11 years and three months on her charges.
“My goal is to get her out of this with as little loss as possible,” says Stanislav Spivak, lawyer of Lera Zotova. “Every year or two is a young girl's life. In a similar case in Uglich, a young man was convicted in March. He tried to set fire to the military recruitment office, though he still had Article 280. They gave him eight years.”
Editor: Dmitry Tkachev
Translator: Daria Fomina
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