Fire tracks. An updated survey of anti‑war railway sabotage in Russia
Дмитрий Швец
Fire tracks. An updated survey of anti‑war railway sabotage in Russia
6 October 2023, 10:34

Иллюстрация: Анастасия Крайнюк / Медиазона

As of October 2023, nearly 150 Russians are facing prosecution for anti-war railway sabotage. The majority are under 25, with a third being minors. They are facing severe sentences. Mediazona sums up all available information on these incidents.

Updated: October 5.

Since the start of the full-scale invasion, at least 137 people in Russia have been prosecuted for railroad sabotage, according to calculations by Mediazona. The total number of cases is lower, standing at 76, with many involving multiple defendants.

Recently, warnings started to appear on relay cabinets, frequent targets for sabotage, stating: “ARTICLE 281 OF THE RUSSIAN CRIMINAL CODE, ‘SABOTAGE,’ IS PUNISHABLE BY A PRISON TERM FROM 10 TO 20 YEARS, OR LIFE!!!”

Though prosecuted under varying articles of the Russian Criminal Code, charges can escalate during investigations

Saboteurs are being prosecuted under very varying articles of the Russian Criminal Code. It could be a relatively light offense like ‘destruction of property’ (Art. 167, 6 cases) or ‘putting tracks out of commission’ (Art. 267, 3 cases). But then again, charges can escalate during investigations. In 16 cases, the charges evolved to various forms of terrorism (Art. 205–205.5); in three cases, to treason (Art. 275) or its lesser charge, ‘confidential co-operation with a foreign state, international or foreign organisation’ (Art. 275.1). The majority, 38 cases, were charged under the dedicated article—‘sabotage’ (Art. 281).

At times, the final list of charges can seem extremely harsh. 19-year-old Ilya Podkamenny from Irkutsk is facing five distinct charges: commission and perpetration of a terrorist act, training for terrorism, aiding terrorist activities, and inciting extremism.

Currently, there is minimal information available regarding the Podkamenny case. According to pro-government Telegram channels, he allegedly “wrapped the rails with copper wire,” “attached pages from a school notebook bearing extremist content to the tracks,” and also collected 8,000 rubles for an arson attack on a draft office.

The details are scarce. The identities of the so-called “railroad saboteurs” are typically redacted in court records, their family members avoid interactions with the media, and their lawyers are often state-appointed or subjected to a court-issued gag order. Consequently, the data we have gathered is inherently incomplete; the actual number of such cases could indeed be higher.

The majority of the alleged saboteurs are very young. Out of the 124 individuals whose ages are known, 39 were under 18 years old at the time of their detention. A further 55 individuals were aged between 18 and 25, with only 17 being older than 35.

In these sabotage cases, only two women have been charged. One is 41-year-old T. Sidorkina, who received a 13-year prison sentence for charges of treason and attempted sabotage. Her ex-husband was sentenced to 17 years. The other is Daria Bychkova, a 17-year-old student from the vocational school at the Kaluga branch of the Ministry of Justice Academy. She was apprehended together with three 18-year-olds and is accused of arson of a relay cabinet.

Targets of railway saboteurs

Relay cabinet. A metal box housing various equipment such as signaling systems and interlocking mechanisms. Presumably, the destruction of a cabinet could disrupt the organization of train movement on a section of railroad tracks.

Traction substation. A more sophisticated piece of technology, an electrical substation that converts electric power to an appropriate voltage, current type and frequency to supply railways. Their destruction could severely affect railroad traffic.

Sectioning post. Similar in function to a traction substation, it’s a less crucial part of the infrastructure. A sectioning post is easier to replace.

Bridging. Connecting two parallel rails with a wire, triggering alarms and consequently slowing down traffic. In a conversation with Mediazona, an ex-railway operator said he doubts this method has any effect at all, but some partisans believe it to have an impact.

The highest numbers of individuals charged with various railway sabotage crimes hail from the Moscow region (14), followed by the Chelyabinsk region (13), and Bashkiria (10). Despite their proximity to the front lines, the Bryansk and Belgorod regions have only seen two publicly charged individuals each. Six people were charged in St. Petersburg and Crimea.

In official press releases, authorities occasionally disclose their interpretation of the saboteurs’ motives. Financial gain is cited in connection to 54 individuals, while ‘curators from Ukraine’ are mentioned 14 times. Other purported motives range from grievances against law enforcement to simple hooliganism. Three people were allegedly affiliated with the ‘Freedom of Russia’ legion, a Ukrainian-based paramilitary group composed of Russian citizens that opposes Vladimir Putin’s regime and the invasion of Ukraine. This group is designated as a terrorist organization in Russia. The authorities tend to downplay the anti-war sentiments of railway saboteurs.

Text and data: Dima Shvets

Infographics: Mediazona data team

Editor: Egor Skovoroda

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