Cabinet on fire. Over 65 arrested, a third of them underage, amid crackdown on anti‑war railway sabotage in Russia
Дмитрий Швец
Cabinet on fire. Over 65 arrested, a third of them underage, amid crackdown on anti‑war railway sabotage in Russia
2 May 2023, 11:23

Art by Anastasia Krainiuk / Mediazona

Reports of railway sabotage potentially hindering the movement of Russian weapons convoys have surfaced almost since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Numerous Telegram channels emerged, publishing guerrilla warfare instructions and claiming responsibility for acts of sabotage, but law enforcement only began to report on the arrests of saboteurs in the fall. Particular increase happened following the introduction of new articles against sabotage in the Russian Criminal Code in January, with arrests occurring almost weekly.

Mediazona has examined all available reports on these criminal cases and discovered a recurring pattern: a group of young men is apprehended for setting fire to a relay cabinet, purportedly prompted by an unidentified individual in a Telegram message who enticed them with money to execute the act.

In early March, a Moscow court extended the pretrial detention of 20-year-old student Evgeny Elizarov, who is accused of committing acts of sabotage. According to the investigation, the student set fire to relay cabinets at Moscow-Sortirovochnaya and Solnechnaya stations on December 8 and 10. Such cabinets typically contain signal system equipment to manage train movement.

As the trial began (it was delayed by three hours), Elizarov’s fiancée, mother, and brothers, who had traveled from Samara, his hometown in Southern Russia, waited in the hallway. They declined to speak with Mediazona, fearing that it could negatively impact the investigation. The mother was surprised that anyone would be interested in the case of a young man who set fire to a metal cabinet after “someone wrote to him.”

While the judge prepared the verdict, the escort allowed Elizarov, with the investigator’s permission, to speak with his fiancée, and he recited a March 8 poem to her. “A wolf in love, a predator no more,” joked defense attorney Rustam Temirsultanov. Judge Evgenia Gorokhova extended Elizarov’s detention by three months.

From the materials presented in court, it became clear that Elizarov had pleaded guilty, and for the investigation to continue, he was to be transferred to a pretrial detention center in Krasnoyarsk, halfway across the country. Another criminal case involving the arson of railway cabinets is being investigated there, with five young men (aged 17 to 21) arrested in connection to it. Elizarov’s lawyer declined to comment on whether the arrested individuals were linked to the student’s case.

Over the past few months, Russian security forces have become increasingly active in arresting individuals and pursuing criminal cases related to railway sabotage. Mediazona examined all available reports. Typically, the saboteurs are said to target relay cabinets and are under 20 years of age, often not even 18. The FSB is involved in the investigation, and charges are typically filed under articles pertaining to sabotage or terrorism.

At least 66 suspects in two dozen regions, 2/3 of them under 21

In late January, the FSB announced the arrest of three eighth-graders in the Moscow suburb of Chekhov, accusing them of damaging railway tracks, though no further details were provided. The following day, Moskovsky Komsomolets, a newspaper, reported that authorities in Chekhov were once again searching for a saboteur: “The train driver noticed a suspicious person meddling with a relay cabinet near Stolbovaya station.”

Three weeks later, media outlets in Kaliningrad, in the westernmost part of Russia, reported on eight students who set fire to a relay cabinet after a 15-year-old “student from one of Kaliningrad’s schools received instructions and was promised monetary compensation for the completed job.”

Since the beginning of fall, security forces, journalists, and pro-government Telegram channels have published dozens of reports on the arrests and even killings of individuals suspected of committing sabotage on railways across Russia. Mediazona has examined these reports and identified 66 people who have become suspects in cases related to acts of railway sabotage since last fall. At least 27 cases are under investigation, with multiple defendants in some instances.

The approximate ages of 58 of the 66 detainees are known: a third of them are minors (20), while the rest are also quite young (25 individuals aged between 18 and 21), with only eight people over the age of 30.

Often, the cases involve groups of people: we know of 13 individuals and 14 groups ranging in size from two to eight members. Arrests for railway sabotage have been reported in 21 regions across Russia, from the Kaliningrad Region and the Stavropol Krai to Buryatia and the Krasnoyarsk Krai.

Initially, cases are typically opened for intentional property damage (Article 167 of the Criminal Code), which are then usually reclassified under the terrorism (Article 205) or sabotage (Article 281) articles.

The range of punishments for sabotage was significantly expanded at the end of last year. Analogous to terrorism, new articles were introduced to punish training and assistance in sabotage, as well as participation in a “sabotage organization.” Almost all the new articles provide for penalties up to life imprisonment.

Putin signed the bill into law on December 29, 2022. Following this, arrests for railway equipment arson have become more frequent: 51 of the 66 known suspects were detained since the beginning of January 2023.

Targets. Relay cabinets are at the top of the list

Arson of relay cabinets is mentioned in 19 of the 27 known criminal cases

The most common target of railway sabotage, as reported by security forces, is the relay cabinet. Arson of cabinets with railway equipment has been reported in 19 cases (out of the 27 known criminal cases reviewed by Mediazona).

One of the public groups claiming responsibility for railway sabotage is the “Combat Organization of Anarcho-Communists.” Its members explained to Mediazona their choice of such targets for attacks: “Signal equipment for trains is located in the cabinets. Destroying them allows for the slowing down of cargo transportation on regular (non-military) lines without creating risks for civilian trains, as trains must stop or travel more slowly in the absence of signaling. Similarly, the rails can be short-circuited using wire.” At the same time, the anarchists claim they have no connection to any of the arrested individuals.

Authors of “Rospartizan,” a Telegram channel allegedly linked to former Russian MP Ilya Ponomarev, describe damaging relay cabinets as a “medium-difficulty task for a partisan.” They specify that to accomplish this, one needs to figure out how to open the cabinet and ensure the equipment inside will burn.

Former train driver Evgeny (name changed) explains to Mediazona that the electronics located, for example, in SCB cabinets (Signaling, Centralization, and Blocking) are responsible for communication between locomotives, traffic lights, and dispatchers’ control panels. This allows multiple trains to travel in the same direction on a single stretch without the risk of collision.

“Disabling such a cabinet can slow down movement for a day. Most likely, the blocking system will not work, and while it is being restored, trains will travel one by one,” the former driver believes.

He clarifies that there can be other equipment in cabinets like these, but all of it is important: some is responsible for power supply, while other is for various sensors. When any blocking system is disabled, railway workers “switch to a primitive system that allows trains to pass through the emergency site, but it takes much longer.”

Bridging the wires. “Not sabotage at all, but stupidity”

Bridging the rails, on the other hand, is a relatively rare target of sabotage, mentioned in only a few known cases. For example, 18-year-old Ilya Podkamenny from Irkutsk, according to Shot Telegram channel, was arrested after he “wrapped the rails with copper wire” and “attached sheets from a school notebook with a message of extremist content to the tracks.” He is charged under four articles.

Former train driver Evgeny tells Mediazona that it’s “hard to comment on this case due to the unclear description: what does ‘wrapped the rails’ mean, and how was it in reality?”

A 29-year-old resident of the Sverdlovsk Region, Vladlen Menshikov, according to the investigation, first left inscriptions “Azov,” “UAF,” “No to War” on the entrance stele in the city of Rezh, and then stretched a wire between two rails.

Security forces released a video of Menshikov’s interrogation through the pro-government channel Mash. The video is edited from several clips, initially the detainee says that he “has a negative attitude towards the special military operation,” and then claims that he had thoughts about “seizing power by military means,” “overthrowing the government,” and “eliminating the president.”

Security forces believe that Menshikov created an email on the secure Protonmail service, contacted the “Free Russia” legion in Ukraine, and “agreed to participate” in the activities of this organization.

The young man was arrested on September 27 at a St. Petersburg airport before flying to Belarus; his lawyer, Valentina Svintsitskaya, says he was on vacation and was going to visit friends. He was immediately charged under three articles: attempted sabotage, justification of terrorism, and confidential cooperation with a foreign organization.

According to Svintsitskaya, her client told her that he was forced to say the necessary words on camera, he does not admit guilt and insists that he has no connection to the email account that allegedly wrote to the “Free Russia” legion.

“So far, the prosecution has not presented us with a single piece of evidence of specific involvement in sabotage,” says the defense lawyer. “The charge is based on that ‘interrogation protocol’ obtained by the investigation by exerting pressure on the detainee and without a lawyer — they wanted him to admit guilt in sabotage and ties to the ‘Free Russia’ legion. In the pre-trial detention center, during walks, people approached Vladlen and confidentially advised him to admit that he wanted to commit hooliganism. But Vladlen can’t even understand where exactly this place on the railway is, it’s somewhere in the forest, he saw this place for the first time when FSB officers showed him a photo.”

Regarding the tracks bridging, whoever is responsible for it, it is unlikely to cause disruptions in train movement, according to former machinist Evgeny: “A rather foolish act that does not lead to the shutdown of infrastructure.”

“It is, of course, not sabotage at all, but stupidity,” he insists. “The person took an aluminum wire and connected two parallel rails with it. This causes the occupation of a section or part of the route. That is, a red signal lights up in front of the train, indicating that there is a train ahead. The machinist stops the train, and if he does not know what is ahead, he continues at a speed of 20 kilometers per hour. At such a speed, he will detect the wire, call the repairman, and everything will be fixed. This will take some time, but not too long.”

A more significant target is the traction substation. It will take a couple of days to restore

Four young men from the Penza region (aged 16 to 24), as the security forces believe, set fire not only to the relay cabinet but also to the electrical substation. The arson, as usual, was committed “according to the instructions of an unknown person in Telegram, who promised them a cash reward,” as cited by the Ostorozhno, novosti channel.

Evgeny calls the traction substation, if it is the one in question, “a very important thing that maintains the required voltage and current in the network for 20–25 kilometers.” In his opinion, its damage will completely stop the movement for some time, and the repairs will take one to three days.

24-year-old Ruziboy Polvonov, 19-year-old Igor Moiseev, and 18-year-old Nikolay Porvatkin were sent to pre-trial detention at the end of December, while 16-year-old Danil Nikitin, as reported by Ostorozhno, novosti, was “under supervision.” However, a staffer at Zheleznodorozhny Court of Penza told Mediazona that the young men were arrested for two months, but their detention period was not extended.

In early January, Interfax news agency quoted an “informed source” that a court in Chelyabinsk had arrested three young men (two aged 18, one 19) suspected of attempted sabotage. The Chelyabinsk residents were reportedly detained “while attempting to disable a traction substation at one of the railway stations of the South Ural Railway.” According to the source, “a gasoline canister, a household gas cylinder, a burner, and other items were seized at the scene.”

In November, 18-year-olds Farrukhjon Zokirov, Mustafa Shahbazov, and Emin Sadygov were arrested in Bashkortostan along with Sadygov’s 17-year-old brother Amin. All were accused of committing a terrorist act by an organized group.

“On the stretch 'Chernikovka–Shaksha' (1634 km) of the Demskaya power supply distance, they set fire to a sectioning post, and on the stretch ‘Dema–Blockpost’ (1606 km) — a contact network disconnection control point and four relay cabinets,” RBC-Ufa reported, citing a source in law enforcement agencies.

A sectioning post, as explained by driver Evgeny, is similar to a substation but smaller and can be replaced faster. “They are mainly installed in blocks, so they can remove the old one and bring in a new one. But it takes time: the blocks are not lying on the road, they need to be transported from somewhere. And until they are replaced, there will be limited movement of locomotives,” he adds.

Telegram handlers and arson bounties

According to the FSB, relay cabinets on railroads are of such critical importance that the Ukrainian special services resort to blackmail and threats to coerce saboteurs into entering Russian territory disguised as refugees, in order to set them on fire. On February 15, the FSB announced the arrest of a Ukrainian citizen, Sergei Karmazin, aged 45. They released a video in which Karmazin claimed that after leaving Ukraine for Poland, he was recruited by the SBU. He complied with all their demands because his daughter in Vinnytsia had been taken hostage.

Karmazin stated that he traveled to Latvia, where local law enforcement tested him with a lie detector before sending him to the Moscow region under the pretense of being a refugee. Once there, he set fire to two relay cabinets.

Karmazin’s case is unique among the series of other defendants accused of arson against relay cabinets. Typically, Russians are detained, but Karmazin is a citizen of Ukraine. While criminal cases are generally not publicized, the FSB made a point to release a detailed video in this instance. Notably, Karmazin is 45 years old, whereas the vast majority of other defendants are significantly younger, often being minors.

Art by Anastasia Krainiuk / Mediazona

The motive attributed to Karmazin by the FSB also stands out from the rest, as it involves blackmail by the Security Service of Ukraine. Typically, arsonists are driven by financial gain: messages from law enforcement agencies almost always mention a “handler” who contacts the person, offering them money (usually small sums) for setting fire to a cabinet and requiring them to film the crime as proof.

For example, schoolchildren detained in the Moscow region’s Chekhov were reportedly paid 10,000 rubles for the arson. In the Penza region, young people committed arsons following instructions from an unknown person on Telegram who promised them financial rewards. A 16-year-old teenager in Kemerovo allegedly received 5,000 rubles for an arson, which he spent on clothing: “I ordered a nice jacket for myself, because the other one was dirty, and I ordered a belt for myself.” A resident of Saratov, in a video recorded by law enforcement officers, says he was looking for a job when someone offered him one: “There’s work—damaging property,” and sent him photos of cabinets near the railway.

According to the investigation, a certain “handler” also transferred money to Artem Begoyan from Cheboksary, who was 18 years old at the time of his arrest in mid-December. Begoyan is charged with two offenses: destruction of property and a terrorist act committed by a group of individuals. The investigation alleges that Begoyan and four accomplices set fire to a relay cabinet on the Alatyr–Svetotechnika section.

Attorney Adel Khaidarshin says that his client is an agricultural college student who has already admitted guilt after being subjected to moral and physical pressure. “The officers have a Telegram chat where the handler gave specific instructions, paid for it, and it was explained why it was all done,” says the defender. “It was all aimed against the war, the acts were in support of Ukraine and against Russia.”

According to the defender, Begoyan is an “ordinary guy” who does not belong to any subcultures, and the money received from the “handler” merely covered the costs of the arson. Recently, Begoyan refused the services of a lawyer, likely under pressure.

Another motive occasionally mentioned by law enforcement officers to explain the reasons for the sabotage is that detainees “share the ideas of Ukrainian Nazism.” This was the case, for example, with two residents of Belgorod.

Sometimes anti-war motives of “protest against special military operations” can also be discerned. For instance, 19-year-old Leon Darsht from Kuban, according to law enforcement officers, committed arson on a sectioning post to “stop the supply of military equipment and express protest against Russia’s military aggression on Ukrainian territory.” A 22-year-old Alik Bagautdinov from Bashkortostan set fire to a relay cabinet “with the aim of stopping Russia’s special operation in Ukraine.” And four young men aged 17-18 carried out a series of sabotage acts in Bashkortostan because they “disagreed with Russia’s policy on conducting special operations in Ukraine.”

Sabotage cases have not yet reached the courts

Before the war, very few cases were tried under the sabotage article in Russia, with only a couple of sentences per year (a total of eight convicts from 2011 to 2021). The new wave of accused has not yet reached the courts: regular detentions began only in the fall, with a significant number of them occurring in January and February.

In the year since the invasion began, we were able to find only a few convictions. For example, a recent verdict was handed down in the Belgorod region to two young men, who received 3.5 years of imprisonment each. Both were detained back in March. The FSB announced that the young men intended to commit acts of sabotage, including on the railway.

On two occasions, law enforcement reported the killing of alleged saboteurs during arrests; both cases occurred in the North Caucasus. In Kabardino-Balkaria in October, two people were shot who, according to law enforcement officers, intended to plant explosives under the railway bridge’s track. At the time, the detention of a third suspect, their alleged accomplice, was reported.

In Stavropol krai, as the FSB claimed, four people planned a terrorist attack at a railway station; they were surrounded in a house, and when they were asked to surrender, the saboteurs responded with gunfire and were killed.

No other details about the deceased could be found.

Lives of partisans, on Telegram and in reality

In Russia, several clandestine groups are active, issuing not only reports on sabotage activities but also providing instructions. However, these groups’ reports on Telegram seldom correspond with security forces’ statements on detained saboteurs.

These associations began claiming sabotage operations in the spring, with a wave of arrests commencing in the fall and intensifying after the New Year. Among the anonymous groups are “Stop the Wagons,” “Anarcho-Communist Combat Organization” (ACCO), “Anarchist Fighter,” “Rospartisan,” and others.

ACCO anarchists even claimed responsibility for destroying a bridge leading to a Ministry of Defense site. However, they chose not to disclose the location, rendering it impossible to confirm their claim. The organization did concede that the sabotage was “not 100% effective.”

The rise in arrests is attributed to an increase in overall actions and the involvement of individuals who inadequately planned railway sabotage operations, as well as heightened infrastructure control. ACCO reported having “several dozen cells or participants” with whom they have coordinated for rail sabotage activities.

ACCO emphasizes that their actions are focused on railway lines leading to military units, where partisans are not concerned about endangering civilians. Both the “Stop the Wagons” group and ACCO insist their activities pose no threat to civilians. For instance, they highlighted an incident in the Amur region, where 14 freight cars derailed but caused no casualties or eco damage.

Russian security services, eager to arrest teenagers for burning relay cabinets, appear to be closing in on these guerilla channels. Moscow anarchists Ivan Ivko and Svetlana Orlova, 35 and 32 years old, left the country in July after discovering they were being followed. Soon after, Ivan’s brother Petr, a programmer uninvolved in activism, was arrested under the pretext of using profanity in public.

Art by Anastasia Krainiuk / Mediazona

After a trial and arrest on administrative charges, a standard practice among security forces, Petr was coerced into calling Ivan and urging him to return to Moscow, claiming it would be “better for me, for dad, for mom, for you, and for your wife.” Ivan simply hung up, and Petr was released shortly thereafter.

As reported by the BBC Russian service, following this incident, security forces conducted five searches targeting the relatives of the Ivko and Orlova families, including a 78-year-old grandmother. A criminal case was initiated due to a post on the ACCO channel, where anarchists claimed responsibility for dismantling rails on a line leading to the arsenal of the Missile and Artillery Directorate of the Ministry of Defense near Kirzhach in the Vladimir region.

Data and reporting: Dima Shvets, with Alla Konstantinova

Infographics: Mediazona Data Department

Editor: Egor Skovoroda

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