Art: Maria Tolstova / Mediazona
Since the beginning of the war, Russia has experienced at least 113 attacks on military recruitment offices, administrative buildings, and law enforcement centres. These incidents, predominantly arson, are publicly labelled as “terrorist acts” by authorities. However, this label does not always translate into the official charge. Dozens have been arrested for arson, with many already sentenced. Upon examining all known cases and court decisions, Mediazona has found no consistent practice among law enforcement: the same act can be prosecuted as terrorism or under lighter charges, with sentences ranging from suspended sentence of one and a half years to 19 years in prison.
All data is accurate as of July 26.
Since the beginning of the Ukraine invasion, a total of 113 arsons had been recorded across 48 regions of Russia as of early July 2023. These attacks targeted military recruitment offices, police departments, and administrative buildings. At least 102 individuals were implicated, with some cases involving a group of people for a single arson incident, and others seeing one individual accused of multiple attacks. The perpetrators remain at large in 23 cases.
Among the dozens of arrested arsonists, one individual, anarchist Alexey Rozhkov, has drawn particular attention due to his daring escape. Early in the Ukraine invasion, Rozhkov threw a Molotov cocktail at a military recruitment office in the Sverdlovsk region. Upon his release with a travel ban, Rozhkov didn’t wait for terrorism charges to be brought against him and fled to Kyrgyzstan.
Rozhkov spent six months in Bishkek, but two months ago, he was effectively abducted by local national security service (GKNB) agents. They stormed his rented apartment, detained him, and without a court order, extradited him back to Russia, handing him over to the FSB. Rozhkov described the encounter as “bag over the head, stun gun, business as usual.” He is now back in custody.
Rozhkov’s case was initially investigated as attempted destruction of property. However, human rights defenders are now concerned that his charges will be reclassified as terrorism, just like it has happened to many other arsonists.
As of today, verdicts have been issued in 31 cases related to wartime arson, with 41 individuals receiving sentences. Mediazona’s examination of these verdicts reveals a lack of uniformity among law enforcement across different regions, but an increasing trend of individuals being labelled as terrorists, which invariably results in harsher sentences.
Military recruitment offices in Russia have been targeted by arson from the early days of the Ukraine invasion, and following the announcement of mobilisation on September 21, these attacks saw a significant increase. At that time, the General Staff warned that arson would be treated as an act of terrorism. However, the FSB had already begun to classify it as such, despite these actions typically causing only insignificant damage.
Despite this, law enforcement has yet to develop a consistent approach: of the 82 known arson attacks, half were investigated as terrorism (41 cases), while the remaining cases fell under different classifications.
Some arson attacks are immediately labelled as terrorist acts, such as the case of taxi driver Vladimir Zolotarev from Komsomolsk-on-Amur, who set fire to the entrance porch of a Rosgvardia (National Guard) branch office and is awaiting a verdict. Others, like Kirill Butylin, who threw Molotov cocktails at a military recruitment office in Lukhovitsy near Moscow on the third day of the war and received a 13-year sentence, are initially investigated as property damage and later reclassified as terrorism. Some cases even reach the court with lighter charges, such as construction worker Denis Serdyuk, who was sentenced to 4 years in prison for an attack on a military recruitment office in Volgograd, charged with arson and hooliganism.
However, following the start of mobilisation, the frequency of terrorism charges has increased, as evidenced by our findings.
Of the 35 known arson cases before mobilisation, 16 eventually included terrorism charges. After September 21, 2022, 25 out of the 49 known arson attacks were considered terrorist acts.
The fate of an apprehended arsonist primarily hinges on whether local law enforcement deems their action a terrorist act—even within the same region, identical actions can be interpreted differently.
Charging someone under the terrorism statute invariably results in a prison sentence. However, if the case goes to court with arson charges, there is a possibility of staying free.
Of the 31 known verdicts, two-thirds resulted in actual prison sentences, totalling 22 cases (12 of which were on terrorism charges). Only seven individuals received suspended sentences, and one was sentenced to community service.
Law enforcement agencies across different regions exhibit inconsistent practices, says Ivan Astashin from “Zone of Solidarity”, a human rights project that aids those persecuted for radical anti-war actions.
“From the top, the directive is simple: punish everyone, the harsher, the better. But on the ground, it’s up to each agency,” he explains.
Astashin thinks that the severity of the charges and the subsequent punishment largely depend on which agency is leading the investigation: “If the FSB gets involved, it’s almost invariably terrorism or sabotage, generally the most severe charges. If it’s, say, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) or the Investigative Committee (SK), the charges might be hooliganism, property damage, and so forth, softer articles. But it varies. Sometimes, the MVD investigates to the end, and sometimes they transfer the case to the FSB, leading to a reclassification.”
According to him, the FSB stands to gain from classifying all arsons as terrorism: “The more terrorism cases they solve, the more awards, promotions, and so on they receive. Regular police officers on the ground might not find it as intriguing. They don’t need to ‘tick the box’ of terrorism.” He questions whether the police are eager to hand their cases over to the FSB, as it negatively affects the solved cases statistics at the MVD. But they are bound to comply.
Lawyer Evgeny Smirnov from “Perviy Otdel” human rights outfit echoes this sentiment: “If it falls under the police, there’s a good chance it will be limited to Article 167 (property damage). If it is handed over to the FSB, they will undoubtedly try to initiate the case that is more beneficial to them.”
Smirnov suggests that some arsons may be provoked by FSB employees to ensure a terrorism charge: “It’s entirely possible that the correspondence or the public group the person was subscribed to was managed by one of the provocateurs. To classify it under a serious terrorism charge, certain expressions are used in conversations. They will read the messages, know when the person plans to do something, and then arrest them.”
Sometimes, a person might just have bad luck: “If it’s arson of a military recruitment office or some other defence ministry establishment, the military police might arrest [the arsonist] and take them not to a regular police department but to the FSB. They will consider that they have detected the crime and stopped it.”
According to the lawyer, finding a logical pattern in the qualification of arsons is quite challenging. “Partly, it happens randomly; partly, it’s the investigators’ desire to rank up through the case,” he says.
“The sentence primarily depends on the qualification. The qualification, in all honesty, depends on luck,” Astashin concurs.
Regional peculiarities can influence the charges, according to Astashin. For instance, in southern Russia, where the FSB traditionally holds more sway, cases tend to fall under their jurisdiction. In the Krasnodar region, where we know of three arsons, all accused individuals face terrorism charges. Similarly, in the Rostov region, two out of three known arson cases are being investigated under the terrorism statute.
However, discerning a trend is challenging due to the limited number of regions where we have details on at least three arsons. In the Moscow region, where arsons occurred most frequently (eight cases), we lack information on the charges in half of the cases. In St. Petersburg, of the six known arsons, three are classified as “terrorist” and two under other articles.
In contrast, in Tatarstan, known cases so far only involve accusations of property damage. These are levelled against a 60-year-old activist, a student, and an eleventh-grader. The activist allegedly threw a Molotov cocktail at a military recruitment office, but nothing caught fire. The student attempted to set fire to a “non-functioning cable on the ground,” while the schoolgirl made several Molotov cocktails but only managed to set fire to the grass near the recruitment office (she received a two-year suspended sentence).
In the Chelyabinsk region, arsonists are exclusively charged with acts of terrorism. This region also saw anti-war activists receiving the harshest sentence, 19 years. The Chelyabinsk FSB, known for its persecution of dissenters and use of torture, has been notorious even before the war began. These officers were involved in a case against anarchists who protested against the torture of their peers by displaying a banner that read “FSB is the main terrorist.” Those arrested in this case were subjected to torture via electric shock.
Astashin previously believed that the classification of a case was tied to the initial testimonies of the detained individuals. For instance, if someone admitted to setting fire to a military recruitment office, the FSB would interrogate them to extract statements that fit the narrative of a “terrorist act.” However, he has noticed a shift in this pattern. For example, Mikhail Lazakovich, who set fire to a military recruitment office in the Tver region in May, was charged with terrorism despite his cautious testimonies.
Astashin observes “an increasing disregard for legal norms,” with a growing element of arbitrariness. This unpredictability, he believes, adds an extra layer of intimidation, as individuals can’t anticipate what to expect. “The same act could result in a one-and-a-half-year suspended sentence or a 19-year prison term,” he says. He thinks that while there may not be a clear strategy, this lack of system and predictability ultimately works to the advantage of the authorities.
Seven arsonists managed to remain free after their sentences, having been charged with comparatively lighter crimes such as “arson” proper or “hooliganism.” Among these fortunate individuals were three minors—two friends from Cherepovets and an eleventh-grade student from Kazan. However, leniency towards underage arsonists isn’t a given, as demonstrated by the case of a 16-year-old student from St. Petersburg charged with attempted terrorism for throwing a Molotov cocktail at a military recruitment office.
One individual who received a suspended sentence even attacked the FSB office in Nizhny Novgorod. Sergey Lozin, a former car factory worker, was dissatisfied with the state’s policies and wanted to “strike a blow not against people, but against ‘Putin’s hubris’.” Despite his unsuccessful attempt, Lozin was given a two-year suspended sentence for hooliganism. In contrast, a labourer from Krasnodar received an 8.5-year sentence for a similar act—he threw a Molotov cocktail at the entrance of an FSB building, igniting only the doormat. He was tortured during his arrest and charged with terrorism.
In at least one known case, the prosecution was outraged by the “excessive leniency of the punishment” and demanded a retrial. Alexei Bogdanov, a pest controller, attempted to set fire to the “Krasnaya Zvezda” (“Red Star”) newspaper office in Priozersk after the start of mobilisation. He confessed during the interrogation, expressed remorse, and received a one-year suspended sentence for attempted arson. Following the prosecution’s complaint, the court added another year to Bogdanov’s suspended sentence but refrained from sending him to prison.
The harshest punishment was meted out to a Ministry of Emergency Situations employee and a Rosgvardia driver, whom the investigation considered anarchists. The arson of the administration of the small town of Bakal in the Chelyabinsk region was similar to many others. However, the two childhood friends, Alexey Nuriev and Roman Nasryev, were charged with terrorism and each received 19 years imprisonment—the longest sentence for anti-war arsons.
The authorities labelled the young men, both exempted from mobilisation by their employers, as “supporters of radical anarchist ideas,” but they themselves did not openly declare their left-wing views. In addition to the terrorism charge, they were also charged with undergoing terrorism training, a more severe charge that carries a sentence of up to life imprisonment. This “training” referred to the fact that Nuriev and Nasryev had saved several posts from Telegram as well as YouTube videos about setting fire to military recruitment offices and making Molotov cocktails, and had practiced throwing them.
Ivan Astashin doubts that the label of “radical anarchists” worsened the arsonists’ situation. He believes that the fact that both worked for state agencies played a more significant role: “As they say, beat your own so that others are afraid. They are traitors to the system. I think this could have played a role.”
In the end, anti-war activists received a longer sentence than a young man from Izhevsk, who decided to “free himself from state power,” attacked a police department in Izhevsk with Molotov cocktails, and stabbed two patrol officers.
While law enforcement often tries to portray the arsonists of military recruitment offices as terrorists who want to kill and intimidate society, the number of arsons has already exceeded a hundred, and only one message about a victim has made it to the press: in Orel, according to the Investigative Committee, a security guard suffered leg burns after a bottle with an incendiary mixture was thrown into the administration building.
No military recruitment office has completely burned down, and the damage is usually limited to minor injuries. Many of the arrested openly stated that they aimed to express their disagreement with the war and mobilisation, but certainly did not want to harm anyone. Only one exception is known—and it stands out significantly from the other anti-war arsons.
In September 2022, 25-year-old Rustam Mamedov attacked a police station in Izhevsk, Russia, with Molotov cocktails and assaulted patrolling officers. The police report was brief, stating that an unknown man threw two bottles of flammable liquid at the police department around 2 am. The suspect actively resisted arrest, injuring two police officers with a knife. The attacker was wounded after warning shots were fired.
The court verdict describes the events more dramatically. Mamedov, armed with three knives and 13 bottles of kerosene, attempted to lure the police out of the station by throwing Molotov cocktails. When two patrol officers, a sergeant and a senior lieutenant, arrived to assist, the lieutenant rushed out of the car and charged at Mamedov, who stabbed him several times. His partner began to strike Mamedov on the head with a baton, but this did not stop Mamedov. The wounded lieutenant then shouted, “He’s got a knife, shoot!” By this time, Mamedov stabbed the sergeant in the lung. In a state of “frenzy,” as described in the verdict, the officer didn’t notice his wound, drew his pistol, and shot Mamedov eight times before he fell. The bullets hit Mamedov in the cheek, jaw, neck, forearm, and thighs. However, Mamedov did not lose consciousness and tried to kill himself by slashing his throat. The sergeant prevented him by kicking the knife out of his hand and handcuffing him. At this time, the lieutenant was “kneeling with a knife sticking out of his back.”
Mamedov, an orphan raised by his grandmother, explained his motives in court. He had read the Bible, the Quran, and the Torah extensively, but did not consider himself a religious extremist. His rejection of the state was based on the “Exodus,” with the state symbolizing the biblical slave-owning Egypt. He wanted to demonstrate his disobedience to the state and believed he should free himself from state power, even at the cost of his life. He attacked the police as a form of protest, hoping they would kill him.
Mamedov was declared sane during a psychiatric examination. Unlike ideologically motivated arsonists, he was not charged with terrorism, but with an attempt on the lives of law enforcement. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
Political motives don’t directly influence the case qualification and subsequent punishment. Anti-war activists, regardless of their openly expressed views, receive both suspended and prison sentences, primarily determined by the case qualification—whether it’s terrorism or not.
Kirill Butylin, 22, set fire to a military office in Lukhovitsy, Moscow region, on the third day of the war, writing on the gate, “I’m not killing brothers.” He filmed the arson and published his anti-war manifesto: “Let these bastards know that their own people hate them and will extinguish them. Soon the ground will start burning under their feet, hell awaits at home.” Butylin explained that he wanted to destroy the archive with the conscripts’ files. He was eventually arrested at the border of Lithuania and Belarus, tried to escape but failed; he was initially charged with vandalism, but later requalified to terrorism by the FSB. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Sometimes, detainees claim they risked for easy money. Regardless of the truth behind these confessions, security forces show no leniency. Even if the defense argues that the person supports Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, if charged with terrorism, the sentence will be severe.
Arsons are also committed under the influence of fraudsters. They usually call elderly people, extract money from them, and then convince them to set fire to a facility, like a military office or a bank, in exchange for a refund. The victims often believe they are participating in a sting operation of sorts and act in the interests of Russian security forces.
Law enforcement agencies do not differentiate between successful or unsuccessful arson attempts. Even if the arson attempt was unsuccessful or minimal damage was caused, the sentences can be severe. For example, Roman Nasryev and Alexey Nuriev, mentioned above, received 19 years for burning 1 square meter (about 10 square feet) of linoleum, while others who caused more significant damage received three to four years.
Ilya Farber, a former village teacher, was sentenced to 3 years and 2 months in prison for setting fire to a military recruitment office and a conscription point in the Udmurt village of Igra, causing several rooms to burn.
Vladislav Matveenko from the Rostov region received four years in prison merely for observing the arson of a military recruitment office. Matveenko, a 19-year-old from the Rostov region, was allegedly offered 3,000 rubles to film the arson of a military recruitment office in his hometown of Gukovo. He agreed, but the arson was not filmed due to phone issues. Despite the lack of video evidence, Matveenko was sentenced to four years in prison based on his confession and surveillance footage.
There was no report about the arrest a man who threw the Molotov cocktail.
The “Solidarity Zone” faces a serious problem of a lack of defense lawyers. In some regions, it’s hard to find trustworthy lawyers willing to work on such cases, as many have left Russia. The fact that these cases are led by the FSB makes lawyers fearful, and often they are made to sign non-disclosure forms, making it difficult for human rights defenders to learn about the case and the accused.
For example, an attempt was made to hack the phone of lawyer Vyacheslav Savin, which he had handed over to a special locker in the FSB building in the Stavropol region to meet with the investigator and the defendant. In St. Petersburg, operatives took away the notes that the accused had given to lawyer Yana Nepovinnova.
In Russia, only four courts hear terrorism cases: in Moscow, Yekaterinburg (Urals), Krasnodar (South), and Khabarovsk (Far East). Defendants from other regions are usually either brought to one of these four cities or tried at offsite hearings. To assist those transported, lawyers and relatives must travel long distances, making assistance more difficult and costly.
The Moscow military court has even introduced a new practice of trying people via video link. Ivan Kudryashov was tried in two days via video link, with his lawyer in Moscow and Kudryashov in Tver. This made it difficult for him to have a proper conversation with his lawyer.
According to Astashin, the military court in Moscow “speeds up cases to an impossible extent,” likely due to the heavy workload. The Supreme Court recently proposed expanding the list of courts that hear terrorism charges, as the number of such cases is constantly growing, and judges have to constantly travel on business trips.
The frequency of arson attacks on military recruitment offices, police departments, or administrative buildings has been gradually declining in recent months. While there were 46 such incidents last fall, the number dropped to 16 in winter, nine in spring, and only five in the first half of the summer.
Starting from January, there has been an increasing number of reports about arson attacks targeting railway equipment, such as relay cabinets. Typically, these cases involve the FSB, and the detainees, many of whom are juveniles are charged with sabotage.
However, the trials of those apprehended for arson attacks on military recruitment offices are ongoing. So far, about thirty verdicts have been issued, and dozens more cases are either still under investigation or awaiting a court decision.
Alexei Rozhkov, who was extradited to Russia by Kyrgyz security forces, is likely to have his charges upgraded to an act of terrorism soon. The court has returned the case for further investigation after the prosecutor’s office identified signs of a more serious crime in the arson of the military recruitment office.
Text and data collection: Olya Romashova
Infographics: Mediazona Data Department
Editor: Egor Skovoroda
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