Fire and metal. The ordeal of a Russian Black Metal musician under relentless FSB pressure in a draft office arson case
Fire and metal. The ordeal of a Russian Black Metal musician under relentless FSB pressure in a draft office arson case
8 November 2023, 22:25

Art: Kostya Volkov / Mediazona

People who have been approached by Russian security services, even if the attempts to recruit them were unsuccessful, usually keep quiet about these encounters. Nevertheless, there are exceptions. Anton K., a musician from the Saransk-based Black Metal band Potma, openly discussed his experience with Mediazona. He detailed how, over the summer, FSB operatives tried to coax him into gathering information on the arson at a military draft office in the village of Zubova Polyana.

The names of some individuals mentioned in this story have been changed.

Policeman Rashid and Very Harsh Music

Living in Saransk, the capital of Mordovia, I work for an IT company. A few years back, my work involved providing remote education to penal colonies in the Zubovo-Polyansky district. My business trips there left a lasting impact and inspired me to weave this experience into myth and music. It took me five to six years, but eventually, I gathered a group of musicians to form Potma, named after one of the Mordovian settlements that housed the camps.

Our music draws from the history of Dubravlag—Soviet-era camps for political prisoners—though our lyrics aren’t political per se. They’re more allegorical, an intuitive narrative crafted using the cut-up technique made famous by poet Brion Gysin. Throughout our musical journey, we’d never drawn the interest of the state.

That changed in May 2023 when I got a call from an unknown number. The caller claimed to be from the police criminal investigation department, inviting me to meet. They wanted to know if I managed the Potma community on VKontakte (VK social network). I confirmed it. Being out of town, I couldn’t meet immediately, but after consulting with friends, I saw no danger in it.

So, the next day, I went to the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ main office in the republic with nothing but my passport and phone. I didn’t have a lawyer. I was greeted by Rashid, the same cop who had called me. He probed further about the Potma VK community and our intentions behind it. I clarified it was for our band. Then he shifted focus to specific posts.

After the war started, in spring 2022, there was an arson attack on a military draft office in Zubovo-Polyansky district. I’d learned about this from a 7×7 news article and subsequently posted about our band’s merchandise, playfully suggesting that one of our postcards was found among the items at the office. It was both a promotional act for our merchandise and a nod to the real-life Potma, not just its mythical representation in our songs. It was all an interplay of meanings.

When Rashid asked how I came to know about the arson and the reasons behind my posting about it, I clarified that I learned from the news and that the content posted on VK was purely a product of the author’s imagination within the fictional universe of the band. The officer switched to the “bad cop” routine, demanding to see the contents of my iPhone, unlock Telegram and show him my private chats and channels. I asserted my right to refuse to comply, which angered him. He said, “Let’s check you for bugs.” He proceeded to search my pockets, clothing, and fanny pack, all the while cautioning me that a search warrant would be obtained to “find everything they need” regardless.

I had to explain several times what Potma is and its concept. He even listened to a few tracks but commented that the music was very harsh. He asked about another post from April 2022—a picture with the caption “No war.” He asked what war I was referring to and why I had posted it. I reiterated that it pertains exclusively to the fictional universe. I added that where there is no dualism, war cannot exist, and I base this on Eastern philosophy. He included all this in his report.

Rashid questioned how much money I make. I thought he was soliciting a bribe, but then he clarified, “Well, dude, if you said you were unemployed, I might have assumed that for 20-30 thousand, you would throw a Molotov cocktail into the draft office.” He repeated that the probability of an apartment search was high because he would pass this case “further up,” and it’s unlikely that the explanatory report would satisfy the higher-ups, and then he let me go.

I contemplated leaving the city, but I was held back by family, work, and three cats. I concluded that since I hadn’t committed any crime, there should be no punishment. I discussed this with those closest to me, and they confirmed my logic. Since then, I’ve become more cautious entering my building. A dose of healthy paranoia was present; I had to read many articles and press investigations on how our law enforcement works.

Art: Kostya Volkov / Mediazona

The US Flag Makes an Appearance

On July 13, someone knocked on my apartment door. Normally, no one visits me without notice. I peered through the peephole—there was a man outside. I asked, “Who is it?” He called me by my full name and said he was from the military draft office. I knew I had no issues with them and opened the door. The man immediately said, “Anton Alexandrovich, I deceived you. I’m from the FSB, here to search your place.” He showed me a court document with a stamp. He asked if he could come in.

I began to lose my composure, not understanding what was happening. I paced back and forth. I thought they were about to beat me with electric shockers, force me to confess to things I hadn’t done. I called my sweetheart and asked her to contact any lawyer because the FSB had come for me.

The man — his name was Boris — just said, “Calm down, everything is okay. We’ll just take a look at your apartment and leave.” I drank some water, caught my breath, calmed down, sat on a chair, and asked what was required of me. Boris warned me that if I had anything prohibited, it would be better to hand it over immediately—and it would all be resolved with an administrative fine. I said, “I don’t have anything prohibited, unless you plan to plant something on me.” He replied, “Anton Alexandrovich, come on, really...”

He was a very stereotypical character as if from an American movie about the FBI. He didn’t play good cop or bad cop, but it seemed like he was trying to catch me in a careless word. He asked the same questions as the policeman—about the posts, the arson at the military draft office. I told him I had already told everything to the police. Boris said it would be easier to recount everything anew.

We were waiting for his partner to arrive with the witnesses. Boris said, “If you have any laptops or other gadgets, your phoney thing—we’ll take it all from you.” I needed my phone and laptop for work, so I suggested they look through everything on the spot. Boris disagreed, but promised that if I gave him the passwords, everything would be returned quickly.

Then the witnesses arrived—by the way, one of them had the last name Wagner; let’s call the other one Second. The witnesses sat on the couch, started petting my cat. Second was very interested in the search, as if anticipating finding something prohibited. He checked the cases of each of my hundred audio cassettes.

Boris said, “You can tell by the apartment that an oppositionist lives here. If you were for Putin, you would be living in some shithole.” Everyone laughed. He saw a Buddha statue on my table and asked me to swear on it that I hadn’t committed arson. Again, he tried to link the activity of the band and this incident.

They checked the wardrobe, pockets in all the clothes, guitars, cases, boxes of junk, dishes. However, I wouldn’t call the search thorough. There was a thought that either they knew what they were looking for and would plant something, or it was purely a job for show.

From the study, they took two laptops (one for work and one for music projects), a hard drive, and a USB stick. They glanced at a box of junk and found an old American flag that a pen pal had given me when I was learning English. They clapped their hands: “Ah, gotcha!” But it was more of a joke: they asked where I got my funding from.

The lawyer arrived, filled out some papers with the FSB officers. They briefed her on the case, and they told me I was just wasting my money on her.

I asked for my work laptop and phone back the next day. They asked for the password to expedite the check. While I was removing FaceID from my phone, I blocked access to Telegram and deleted Instagram, which is banned in Russia.

When the officers left with the equipment, I told the lawyer my version of the events. She said that if they had permission to search, then the matter must be serious indeed. She asked me to tell her everything honestly because she was my defender. There was nothing to add. She advised me to breathe calmly and hope that my equipment would be returned. I paid her and started waiting for the next day. It turned out that the search was part of a pre-investigation check into allegations of calling for extremism and committing extremist actions.

Zubova hippies and Svetka the Snake

At 10 in the morning, Boris came to me and returned my work laptop and smartphone. He asked me to wait a few more weeks for the second laptop. He repeated several times that if I knew anything about the arson, it would be better to speak up because the truth would come out eventually. He urged me to give any detail or name, saying, “If you suddenly remember something, call me.” And he left.

The story of the search spread on Instagram; everyone wanted to know what was happening and asked questions. It turned out that even a certain group of young people from Zubova Polyana, with whom I was barely acquainted and who now live in Moscow, were also aware of this news. I learned this from their neighbor, who was friends with my sweetheart. She said that their friend from Zubovo Polyana, Sveta, came to Moscow and was telling everyone that her brother works for the FSB. It felt like I was at the center of some conspiracy.

A couple of weeks later, Boris brought the rest of my equipment. He said he expected “something more” from the investigation. I offered him coffee. Boris asked about my bicycles and the photos from my travels on the laptop. He shared that he is from Zubovo Polyana himself and rides a bike to work, and that in the village he has either a sister or a niece, seemingly not directly related. Then he took out his phone and showed photos of those Zubova guys, asking if I knew them and seeking a description. I said they seemed like hippies, I didn’t know them well and had only seen them at concerts and on social networks. He asked me directly if those guys could have set the military draft office on fire. I suggested that they probably could not.

We signed the documents for the return of my equipment. I asked Boris if he knew that his relative, possibly Sveta, went to Moscow to those guys from Zubova shown in the photos. The information about the sister seemed to hit him like a blow. He asked where I knew this from, and I shrugged and said that Saransk is a city of rumors. He got angry, put on his shoes quickly, thanked me for the coffee, said, “That Svetka is such a snake!” said goodbye, and left.

I thought that the Zubova people might have tipped them off about me. I also thought that they wanted to make me a scapegoat—using a post to fabricate a case. But subsequent events showed that in the eyes of the officials, I was clean.

Art: Kostya Volkov / Mediazona

When the FSB Suggests Having Some Fun

At the end of July, Boris called me again and said he had a “purely entertaining” proposition: to go to the “Teeth on the Meadow” festival in the village and “find something out.” I knew that the guys Boris was trying to learn about were playing there. I immediately realized that they were trying to recruit me. I refused, said that I was on vacation and had completely different plans, but promised to think about it.

Nothing happened for several days. It seemed like the matter was on hold, but they still didn’t make it clear whether they had backed off from me or not. I warned one of those guys that there was interest in them. He was aware.

In early August, Boris called me again: “Don’t you want to take a polygraph test so that we can finally be sure you’re not lying to us?” He promised they would leave me alone. I decided it was okay.

A week later, I came to the main FSB office in Mordovia. I was taken to an office where an expert, apparently from outside, was waiting. We were left alone. For a whole hour, he lectured me on esotericism, about how everything in the world is connected; about how a butterfly, flapping its wings in one part of the world, causes a global cataclysm in another; that any lie we produce into the world always becomes evident and can have the most severe consequences.

Then there were overtures around the war. The expert said that it never ends, that it is not just a war between Russia and Ukraine that’s going on, but something more global. He was telling some stories in the spirit of YouTube conspiracy theorists. He said that Russia had long been divided, that Siberia had long been under England, that nothing Russian remained with us. He loaded all this into my head, then said: “Well, okay, let’s proceed!”

The expert connected me to the sensors, calibrated the equipment, and asked simple questions about where I was born, my name, where I studied, where I live, and asked me to lie intentionally to adjust the machine. This went on for another hour. In the breaks, the expert talked about himself, about his daughter who had been abroad and saw where the real regime was: in France, in Switzerland there is total surveillance, while in Russia everything is free and democratic.

He then moved on to a series of questions along the lines of whether I had ever lied to Boris, if I had committed arson at the military draft office, whether I had received any assistance from foreign terrorist or religious organizations, whether I feared justice, or if I was afraid that my words would be misinterpreted. The phrasing kept changing slightly—perhaps to create a sense of unpredictability and provoke reactions.

The expert also shared that he was a psychiatrist but did not practice because it did not yield a substantial income, so he had turned to polygraph testing instead. He mentioned that maybe after the war ended, men with PTSD would seek his services, and he would have some work to do. He talked about working with Anatoly Moskvin and played some audio recordings with him.

This went on for four hours. After that, the expert told two FSB agents, whom I had not seen before, that he would write a report and that they would no longer need me. The officers were visibly frustrated that they could not crack the case. In the corridor, they started asking the same questions about the posts, trying to find inconsistencies in my words, and picking on dates that I hardly remembered.

Then they took me to an office to wait for Boris. The same questions were asked again. They spoke of some sponsorship from Ukraine to Russians, including pensioners, to conduct sabotage. After that, Boris arrived, very agitated. The two FSB agents started getting angry with him: “Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you for so long!” When we left, he began asking what I had discussed with these officers and what they were trying to find out. He said I could have left immediately and not waited for anyone. His agitation puzzled me; it seemed he feared I would say something unnecessary—but these are just my conjectures. I didn’t confirm them because I was tired of the whole situation. Then Boris said, “Well, this is our last meeting.”

I felt completely drained. I went outside and headed home to rest. After that, the security forces left me alone, and I hope this story is over. From this ordeal, I truly sensed that fear is directly proportional to the illusion of security. I realized that art inherently brings more light and warmth than the flames from a Molotov cocktail and that the Mordovian Black Metal ist Krieg.

Editor: Dmitry Tkachev

Support Mediazona now!

Your donations directly help us continue our work

Load more