The train has stopped. How Ilya Podkamenny from Irkutsk got 12 years in jail for several leaflets and putting wire on the rails
Ольга Ромашова
The train has stopped. How Ilya Podkamenny from Irkutsk got 12 years in jail for several leaflets and putting wire on the rails
13 June 2024, 18:52

Илья Подкаменный в СИЗО. Фото из семейного архива

How does one express their rejection of war? Writes leaflets on torn-out notebook pages. But what if no one notices them? One needs to scatter the leaflets on the rails and stop the train — then they will definitely be noticed! For 19-year-old Ilya Podkamenny, this naive reasoning cost him 12 years of imprisonment, three of which he must spend in a regular prison, and the remaining in a strict-regime colony. After studying the case materials, Mediazona tells the story of a young man from the Irkutsk region, convicted under six articles of the Russian Criminal Code following an incident on the East Siberian Railway, where no one was injured.

Between the Stations of Goncharovo and Bolshoy Lug in the Shelekhov District of the Irkutsk Region, even at night, trains run with intervals of no more than ten minutes. Summer houses stretch along the railway, surrounded by wooded hills.

On May 10, 2022, around two o’clock in the morning, a young man wearing a blue raincoat and respirator appeared near the tracks in the area of the “Nerudnik” allotment village. He waited for a train to pass, climbed onto the embankment, and scattered notebook sheets with slogans: “Death to Kacaps, freedom to Siberia,” “Glory to the Republic of Siberia,” “Whether you like it or not, the Empire will fall apart,” “We’ll hang Putinists on trees instead of leaves, death to fascist Putin.” Then the young man wrapped copper wire around the rails, descended from the embankment, and disappeared into the dark.

What happens if you wrap the rails with wire, and how is it related to the war in Ukraine

With the start of the war, the railway sabotage increased in Belarus. In March 2022, law enforcement reported almost daily about the arrests of "rail partisans" who tried to disrupt the transfer of Russian military equipment to Ukraine.

The example of Belarusian activists was soon followed by opponents of the war in Russia itself. Reports of derailed wagons and relay cabinet arson started coming in from all over the country. "Partisan" telegram channels described a safer way to slow down train traffic: if you short-circuit the rails with wire or a piece of rebar, the automation sends a false signal that the section is occupied, and the signal light turns red. Until railway workers remove the foreign object from the tracks, movement will be stopped.

By the fall of 2023, Mediazona had counted 137 known defendants in railway sabotage cases, a third of whom were minors.

At 2:27, a freight train stopped due to a red signal on the Big Lug — Goncharovo section. The driver, Igor Mankevich, contacted the dispatcher and, ensuring there were no other trains ahead, cautiously continued the movement. After two kilometers, Mankevich and his assistant Viktor Pukalo noticed a sparkle on the tracks. The wire was clearly visible in the headlights. The train made an emergency stop and, after passing over the wire, halted. The driver and his assistant exited the cabin and noticed leaflets on the tracks. As the investigator later wrote, Mankevich “became very wary and returned to the driver’s cabin for a hammer to protect himself and his assistant in case of an attack” — there was no one around, and they “didn’t know what to expect.”

Pukalo recorded the wire and leaflets on video, which appeared on the Baza Telegram channel. The driver took his findings with him and later handed them over to the police.

“We’ll hang Putinists on trees instead of leaves, death to fascist Putin.” Photo of a leaflet from the case files

Seven months of searching and five refusals to open the case

It’s unclear from the case documents how the enforcement officials identified Ilya Podkamenny and linked him to his Telegram account.

For months, the authorities were unsuccessfully searching for the saboteur. Initially, the investigation was handled by the linear department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs at the Irkutsk-Passenger station. On the morning of May 10, the police arrived at the place where Mankevich and Pukalo stopped the train, but they found neither shoe prints nor fingerprints, and the service dog named Iris “lay down during the inspection, thereby indicating that the trail was lost.”

The police then began questioning summer residents from nearby settlements: had they heard anyone expressing extremist ideas? “I have not heard any dissatisfaction with the government or Russia from those living in this area or those I work with,” they wrote down the watchman’s of SNT “Dachnaya,” Sergey Kuznetsov’s statement. Other respondents gave similar answers.

A linguistic examination ordered by the Ministry of Internal Affairs identified calls for Siberia’s separation from Russia in the leaflets. The department concluded that this could be qualified as calls for extremism, and on May 23, transferred the investigation materials to the FSB department of the Irkutsk region.

The FSB officers also faced difficulties during the investigation. They found that there were no cameras on the section where the leaflets were found.

On July 2, investigator Domnin refused to open a criminal case, noting that although genetic material was found on the notebook sheets and wire, it was insufficient for testing. “There is no information about the person(s) who could have committed the crime, and there is no objective evidence that the [leaflets] were placed by any person,” wrote Domnin in the refusal decision.

But on the same day, the head of the investigative department of the FSB, Zakhvatkin, overturned this decision as “premature” and demanded further verification.

On August 1, investigator Domnin again attempted to refuse to open a case, but Zakhvatkin again overturned his decision, and the investigation materials were transferred to another investigator named Golitsa.

On August 22, Golitsa came to the same conclusions as Domnin and refused to open a case. But the top management insisted.

Then investigator Golitsa instructed operatives to search the internet for the slogans from the leaflets. In the telegram, law enforcement found the channel “Siberian Liberation Movement — Republic of Siberia.” One of its authors wrote under the nickname “Death to Kacaps — Freedom to Siberia!” The same words were printed on the notebook sheets left on the railway tracks four months ago. Despite the obvious coincidence, the investigator seemed in no hurry to pull this thread and twice more refused to open a case; both refusal decisions were predictably overturned.

Finally, on November 10, Golitsa asked the head of the Center for Counteracting Extremism of the Main Directorate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the Irkutsk Region, Silin, to find the admins of the “Siberian Liberation Movement”: “to establish the person involved in the crime provided for in part 1 of article 280 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, as well as persons informed about the commission of the above crime with subsequent interrogation.”

Just five days later, the law enforcement officers detained the 20-year-old Danil Tomshin and the 18-year-old Ilya Podkamenny from Irkutsk, together with the 17-year-old Oleg Berezin from Krasnokamensk.

How exactly the investigators identified the young people and linked them to the telegram accounts is unclear. Ilya Podkamenny’s account was registered to an Estonian phone number. In letters from the pre-trial detention centre, Podkamenny told Mediazona's correspondent that he was found because of the Telegram channel.

His court-appointed lawyer, Gennady Sukhaev, told Mediazona that the investigation did not include the details of the operational search activities in the case materials because Ilya confessed to everything himself, and his testimony was confirmed by the inspection of the devices. “If he had argued and denied his guilt, the investigation would have had to publish the materials of the operational search activities during which they discovered the connection between Ilya and Rebellion Cat,” added the lawyer.

The Siberian partisan

What the testimonies of Ilya Podkamenny and his accomplices say.

Under the nickname Rebellion Cat, as it appears from Ilya’s explanations to FSB investigator Danilov, he administered the telegram channel “Siberian Liberation Movement,” wrote about sabotage and arson, posted recipes for Molotov cocktails and ways to make bombs, and also called for Siberia’s separation from Russia because as an independent state, it “could develop better.”

The creator of the channel was not Podkamenny but Oleg Berezin. They met on Telegram in April 2022. Ilya knew Oleg under the nicknames “Death to Kacaps — Freedom to Siberia,” “Death to Muscovites — Freedom to Siberia,” and “Anon.” The young men never met in person.

Podkamenny and Berezin discussed ways of anti-war agitation and promoting the channel. If leaflets are left at the site of an emergency train stop, the driver and police will find them. They might photograph the find and post pictures on the internet, Ilya reasoned, and so many more people would see the leaflets. On the evening of May 9, he was at the family summer house in the “Nerudnik” allotment village and decided to stop the train to “convey his views to society and promote” the channel.

Портрет Подкаменного, нарисованный его сокамерником

​​The young man took the remaining copper wire from house renovations, which he had hidden under his bed, made the leaflets, and around two in the morning sneaked out of the house — so late so that his mother and stepfather wouldn’t notice, he explained to the investigator. Podkamenny quietly passed the guard booth of the village and reached the railway. There he scattered the leaflets, wrapped the rails with wire, and quietly returned to the summer house.

Ilya Podkamenny gave this testimony on November 15, 2023 — immediately after his arrest.

On the same day, the FSB investigator opened a criminal case against him for calls to extremism.

Danil Tomshin, whom police extremism unit operative Moskvitin interrogated on November 15, confirmed Podkamenny’s testimony. Tomshin said he subscribed to the telegram channel “Siberian Liberation Movement” in April 2022 because he was curious “what would happen if Siberia left Russia.” In the channel chat, he discussed with Rebellion Cat and other users how to disrupt train movements so that “Siberia’s resources wouldn’t go to support Russia’s military actions.”

In May 2022, according to Tomshin, Rebellion Cat DMed him the method of stopping trains using wire. He suggested meeting in person to discuss this method, but Tomshin refused, considering it “very risky.” A few days later, Rebellion Cat sent a video showing a train driver swearing because of the wire and leaflets on the tracks — likely the same video from the Baza channel — and wrote: “The job is done!” Then Rebellion Cat reported the action in the channel chat, “described the method used,” and specified that it happened near the town of Shelekhov.

Rebellion Cat asked Tomshin to spread the video “for the sake of our ideas and future.” He agreed and sent the video and photo to the “Anti-war Irkutsk” group, captioning those with the words: “Our heroes!”

​​“I couldn’t spread the discussed data to other telegram channels because it was prohibited by the administrators. After posting these materials, I stopped talking to Rebellion Cat because I was afraid that law enforcement officers would find us,” Tomshin’s words are recorded in the protocol.

The creator of the telegram channel that intrigued the security forces so much, Oleg Berezin, said that in late March — early April, he noticed comments by Rebellion Cat in the telegram channel of “Meduza”: the latter suggested that residents of the Urals, Siberia, and the Far East secede from Russia to “not bear responsibility for the ongoing SMO [Special Military Operation].”

​​Oleg liked this idea, and he sent a personal message to the commentator. Rebellion Cat replied, saying he lived in Irkutsk, but Berezin knew little more about him and called his new acquaintance “Irkutyanin” [Irkutskian].

During the interrogation, Ilya Podkamenny presented a different version: he said he saw Berezin’s comments about Siberia’s independence in the chat of the Ukrainian telegram channel “Minecraft Player in the Trenches,” got interested, and was the first one to message Oleg privately. Berezin then suggested he join the “Siberian Liberation Movement.”

​​“Well, maybe I was trying to pin something on him a little bit. But he did the same. We were both very scared at the time, we had just been detained. I thought he was a student when I was free. I don’t know much about him. I’m afraid people don’t know about him, unlike me, as he’s not on the list of political prisoners,” Podkamenny wrote to Mediazona from the pre-trial detention centre.

Either way, on April 18, Oleg Berezin created the telegram channel “Republic of Siberia,” later renamed “Siberian Liberation Movement.” Initially, Berezin was the only administrator, but three months later, he gave admin rights to Rebellion Cat, who meanwhile was working on the Constitution of the Republic of Siberia. Oleg and Ilya found a white-green Siberian flag and a snowflake-shaped coat of arms on the internet, which they “decided to adopt as the symbols of the Republic of Siberia.” By October 2022, the channel had about a thousand subscribers.

On November 16, the Kirovsky District Court of Irkutsk placed Podkamenny under house arrest. In the investigator’s petition, it was noted that “additional episodes of criminal activity” of the young man were still being established. In December, he was transferred to a pre-trial detention centre. Based on Ilya’s detailed confessions, he was charged with five more articles of the Criminal Code.

In December, while Ilya was still under house arrest, he had a nervous breakdown. “I heard rumours from my mother that I might soon be sent to a pre-trial detention centre,” he recalled in a letter. “And I knew that 205 would be charged. I was very nervous and depressed”. In his own words, Podkamenny then “directed the pain and impotent anger” at himself — he damaged his right shin so that now “there is a huge scar there.”

In the letter he specified that this happened shortly before the tightening of the preventive measure. Based on Ilya’s detailed confession, he was charged with five more articles of the Criminal Code. The court decided to take him into custody, but the prison doctor at the pre-trial detention centre insisted that Podkamenny be transferred to a civil hospital, where he underwent surgery. And only then returned to the detention centre.

How Despair and Activism Are Connected

At the beginning of the war, Ilya Podkamenny  was feeling “the abbys growimg” and contemplated suicide, but by the time of his arrest, he had fallen in love and abandoned the Telegram channel.

In the last months before his arrest, Ilya Podkamenny worked at a Subway restaurant. In 2021, he dropped out of school after the ninth grade because he failed to pass exams in mathematics and chemistry. The young man lived with his mother and stepfather and studied 3D modelling in his free time. In February 2022, he started reading the news and concluded that “Russia is the aggressor and started war against Ukraine,” as stated in his testimony.

Yelizaveta Podkamennaya told the investigator that she divorced Ilya’s father in 2014. She then married an American scientist, Jason Cronbach van Boom. The couple teaches foreign languages at the Faculty of Business Communications and Informatics at Irkutsk State University. Cronbach is also working on his doctoral dissertation at Tartu University in Estonia, Ilya said.

Yelizaveta Podkamennaya. Photo from the case files

According to Yelizaveta, her son had some communication problems; peers “always considered him strange due to his antisocial behaviour,” and there were fights occasionally. However, teachers described Ilya as “an intelligent, clever, well-read guy.” He mainly received B grades. “My son’s intellectual abilities always manifested themselves,” emphasised Yelizaveta. “For example, in 2015, when he was 11, he became interested in engineering sciences, electronics, computers, and wired the gazebo at the summer house himself.”

As recorded in the protocol, according to Ilya’s mom, “my son never lacked anything, the living conditions and his maintenance were always positive.” Ilya often stayed home alone because his mother and her husband flew to the US to visit his relatives. In February 2022, he was also alone: Podkamennaya and Cronbach went to a semiotics conference in Estonia.

On February 28, Yelizaveta discovered that someone was sending “pro-Ukrainian news” to her students from her VKontakte page. She began deleting the messages, but they reappeared. Podkamennaya guessed that her son might be behind the anti-war “newsletter”. She wrote to Ilya and asked why he was doing this; he replied that he “decided to cut off your and your husband’s way back to Russia” because of the war.

The couple returned home on March 3 and had a “disciplinary conversation” with the young man, after which he “started having suicidal thoughts, which he expresses to this day.”

​​Podkamennaya told the investigator that she “repeatedly tried to reason with” her son, but he still supported “the Kyiv regime and its anti-Russian policy.” Both she and her husband support the “special military operation” and have a “positive attitude towards the current government,” emphasised Yelizaveta.

“My activism wasn’t particularly sensible,” Podkamenny admitted one of his letters to Mediazona’s correspondent from the Irkutsk pre-trial detention centre. “I was then in despair from the void gathering around me, from the constant attacks of my mother, from the feeling of my own worthlessness and insignificance, from the horrific madness that began on 24.02.2022, of course, too. I wanted to do something against this horror, something good, at least, to not be useless and worthless. To cling to life, to step back from the terrible brink of suicide, which I was close to. Well, I didn’t realise it all then, I just acted.”

But by the fall of 2022, everything changed. According to Ilya, he fell in love with a girl and “had already given up on the channel and activism.” “I was more interested in how to win her over,” he said.

On the morning of November 15, when he left home and headed to work at Subway, he was detained by special forces from the Rosgvardia “Grom” (“Thunder”) unit.

Mother versus son​​

Setting relay cabinets or a military enlistment office on fire was not allowed by Ilya Podkamenny’s mother — she found and confiscated Molotov cocktails. He considers the FSB officers his saviours: unlike the CPE operatives, they behaved “correctly.”

Ilya and Yelizaveta Podkamenny cooperated with the investigation. “I confessed and repented because from the very beginning, under my mother’s influence, I gave testimony against myself. She just believes it’s better to tell everything honestly and right away,” he wrote in a letter to Mediazona. The young man recalled that his devout mother “raised [him] in the ‘fear of God’ from an early age,” but by adolescence, he got tired of it and became an atheist.

Ilya explained that he did not refuse to plead guilty“so as not to go against those who saved me from that hell.”

“Until the pre-trial detention center, I was jointly handled by the FSB and CPE, then only the FSB. They behaved correctly, and the CPE…” he wrote. Lawyer Sukhaev did not mention violence from law enforcement officers; Podkamenny himself clarified in another letter: “I can’t say more.”

During the investigation, Ilya said that in early September 2022, he made an acquaintance in the channel chat with someone he believed to be a Ukrainian soldier. The latter suggested setting fire to a military enlistment office and sent a link to the book “Russian Cuisine. The ABCs of ‘Homemade Terrorism’.” After studying the manual, the young man considered setting relay cabinets on fire on the railway. On September 15, he filled two plastic bottles with a mixture of acetone, turpentine, ammonium nitrate, and potassium nitrate; these components were bought with money his mother gave him to buy lunch.

She was the one who thwarted her son’s plans.

On September 20, Yelizaveta entered his room to clean it up. “I saw two plastic bottles in which something was mixed. I told him to throw them away. My son listened to me but took the bottles carelessly, after which I told him to be careful as this mixture could explode. My son replied that this mixture couldn’t explode, it needed contact with fire to ignite, but he fulfilled my request and threw the bottles away,” said Ilya’s mother. The investigation did not separately charge him for this episode. Lawyer Gennady Sukhaev told Mediazona that “he doesn’t remember exactly why.”

Meanwhile, Ilya considered setting a military enlistment office on fire. On September 22, he posted “The ABCs of ‘Homemade Terrorism’” in the Telegram channel, and two days later, published cryptocurrency details and asked subscribers to send money for “full-fledged radical actions.” “We decided to create a cryptocurrency fund to start fighting the Moscow regime not only with words but also with deeds. As our first action, we plan to set a military enlistment office on fire in one of the cities in Siberia (for obvious reasons, we won’t say which one),” he wrote.

On September 25, an unknown person transferred him about three thousand rubles, and he received another five thousand from the admins of the “RPD Cherny Most” (Russian Partisan Movement “Black Bridge”) channel.

“I had no money for incendiary mixture, so I asked them for it,” Ilya said. He converted the cryptocurrency into rubles, transferred it to his Tinkoff card, and withdrew it from an ATM in the Karamel shopping centre on Partizanskaya Street in Irkutsk. With this money, the young man bought a ten-litre canister of gasoline, five litres of acetone, and three bottles of kerosene and took it all home.

Podkamenny planned to set the military enlistment office in the settlement of Dzerzhinsk in the Irkutsk region on fire — the building is near a forest, he explained, so after the action, “it would be easy to escape.”

However, his mother intervened in his plans again. Yelizaveta smelled gasoline coming from Ilya’s room and decided to check what was going on when he left for work.

“I thought my son might set something on fire because earlier he had enthusiastically told how military enlistment offices were set on fire in different cities. I took the canisters and bottles and took them to my mother’s house. When my son returned from work, he asked me where the gasoline, acetone, and kerosene were. I told him I took them away and he would never see them again,” Yelizaveta said during interrogation. According to her, Ilya was a bit “nervous” but there was “no conflict,” he was just “unhappy about it.”

Later, Ilya confessed to his mother that the money “for kerosene, gasoline, and acetone was transferred to him via cryptocurrency by some foreign agent,” and Yelizaveta “forbade him to communicate with that person and also told him to visit the internet and read opposition related stuff less.” The young man explained that he wanted to set the military enlistment office on fire in protest against mobilisation. His mother warned that Ilya would be imprisoned, but “my son didn’t believe me, claiming that no one works in our country.”

To the second administrator of the channel, Oleg Berezin, according to his testimony, Ilya said something different — that he tried but failed to set the enlistment office on fire: allegedly, the Molotov cocktail he threw didn’t break the window, the incendiary mixture spilled on the ground, and the firefighters extinguished it.

During these same days, Podkamenny actively reposted publications from the “RPD Cherny Most” channel to his channel, calling for the arson of enlistment offices. On September 16, he forwarded a post with the words: “Autumn — the charm of eyes, a wonderful time to burn enlistment offices,” on September 21 — “Today burning enlistment offices is not a form of protest but necessary self-defence against the criminal regime,” on September 23 — “It is advisable to conduct additional reconnaissance of the situation before the attack” and “Another very ironic target for a partisan who changed his mind about burning a guarded enlistment office — paddy wagons at rallies.”

​​The FSB investigation lasted for seven months. During this time, Ilya Podkamenny was charged with six articles of the Criminal Code.

Three of those were related to plans to set the enlistment office on fire: preparation for a terrorist act, undergoing training to carry out terrorist activities (for reading “The ABCs of ‘Homemade Terrorism’”), and aiding terrorist activities (for collecting money to buy fuel).

Three more articles were charged solely for his words: calls for extremism (for the leaflets scattered on the tracks), calls for extremism on the internet, and justifying terrorism (for reposting “Cherny Most”).

For the article on “undergoing training,” Ilya faced life imprisonment, but he entered into a pre-trial agreement with the investigation.

The sentence

Ilya Podkamenny was not happy with the media, which wrote that his mother “reported” him. The 20-year-old Danil Tomshin did not live to see the trial — he gave testimony and then hanged himself. The 17-year-old Oleg Berezin was sent to compulsory treatment in a psychiatric hospital.

On 16 October 2023, a panel of judges of the 1st Eastern District Military Court — presiding judge Viktor Biryukov, judges Valery Andrusov and Roman Toropov — began hearing Ilya Podkamenny’s case.

The prosecutor demanded the cancellation of the pre-trial agreement because one of the “crimes” — the leaflets on the railway tracks — was committed when Ilya was still under eighteen. The court agreed with this argument and considered the case in the general order.

Yelizaveta Podkamennaya testified as a witness for the prosecution; no witnesses were declared from the defence.

During the first hearing, the prosecutor read out the testimony of the channel’s subscriber, Danil Tomshin. During the investigation, he said that Rebellion Cat boasted about the sabotage on the railway. Tomshin could not testify in court because, as announced, he had committed suicide, a person present at the hearing told Mediazona.

“I saw him only once, at the face-to-face interrogation,” Ilya wrote from the pre-trial detention centre. “Not long after, he hanged himself on the radiator (I found out from an FSB officer), I feel sorry for him. Honestly, I felt a bit guilty when I heard the news. If it weren’t for my case, he wouldn’t have had this stress, and maybe he would’ve been alive now.” According to Podkamenny, Tomshin was under a travel ban; which articles he was charged with is unknown.

The judges reviewed Podkamenny’s case in five sessions. The sentence: 12 years of imprisonment, the first three years in prison, and the rest in a strict-regime colony.

“I quite expected such a sentence, I was not surprised nor upset,” Ilya wrote.

The appellate court left the sentence unchanged.

Oleg Berezin’s case was investigated separately. He was charged with calls for terrorism and extremism on the internet. On February 6, the 2nd Eastern District Military Court sentenced him to compulsory medical treatment.

“I’m very worried and anxious about Berezin,” Podkamenny wrote. “I heard that the psychiatric hospitals in the Far East are especially bad. They’ve really ruined a kid’s life; I hope everything ends well eventually.”

Ilya loves anime and dreams of creating his own animated series, “dark techno-fantasy of the digital age” about anthropomorphic jaguar-like cats. He has already “thought through” the script for several dozen pages, but to continue, “one must learn screenwriting and drama.”

“I’ve changed a lot over these one and a half years. And I understand that I couldn’t change anything with my activism. Oleg and I, two naive teenagers, thought we could change the world, change the regime,” he writes.

The young man continues to talk to his mother: “We were able to talk, she realised her mistakes. We have a normal relationship, although the wounds of the past haven’t gone anywhere.”

While her son was in the Irkutsk pre-trial detention centre, Yelizaveta Podkamennaya visited him twice a month, bringing medicine. In one of his letters, Ilya criticised the SVTV publication for the headline “In Irkutsk, a mother turned her 19-year-old son in for a sabotage case on the railway.”

“My mom didn’t turn me in; she didn’t call the FSB when I was free and say, ‘My son is a terrorist,’” he wrote. “She only told everything during interrogations.”

Ilya Podkamenny believes that he will not have to serve his entire sentence: “I think by the end of 2025, this madness will end, and I’ll be free, that’s for sure.”

Editor: Dmitry Tkachev

Translator: Anna-Maria Tesfaye

Support Mediazona now!

Your donations directly help us continue our work

Load more