Political prisoner at 15. Arseny Turbin’s journey from pro‑Ukraine student to imprisoned “terrorist”
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Political prisoner at 15. Arseny Turbin’s journey from pro‑Ukraine student to imprisoned “terrorist”
27 June 2024, 22:38

Photo courtesy of Irina Turbina

Last Friday, the 2nd Western District Military Court in Moscow sentenced 15-year-old Arseny Turbin to five years in prison. The ninth-grader from the Oryol region was convicted of participating in a terrorist organisation—the charge stemming from his correspondence with a recruiter from the “Freedom of Russia” Legion composed of Russians fighting for Ukraine. Mediazona examines how the investigation built its case against Arseny.

The Bullying

“He’s a smart boy. He took part in academic Olympiads and intellectual marathons. He dreamed of studying political science at MGIMO,” says Arseny’s mother, Irina Turbina.

Irina, 41, works as a senior contract manager at the Livny Construction College. Arseny was born in Dubai to a UAE citizen father. Irina soon separated, returned to Russia, and raised her son alone. The boy attended the Livny Lyceum—one of the top schools in the Oryol region.

In year six, Arseny began to face bullying due to his skin colour.

“His father cut off contact with us in 2013; he’s starting a family there, following his traditions. We were simply cut off, as if we never existed. The kids at school found out about this. The bullying began: ‘Your father doesn’t want you, you negro, African American, go back to where you came from.’ Arseny would say: ‘I’m a Russian citizen, why are you treating me like this?’ ” Turbina recalls.

According to her, the lyceum “never wanted to address the situation honestly,” and after another incident, the headteacher “accused Arseny of lying” and said that “he was mad and it was all in his head.”

Neither the lyceum director nor the form tutor responded to Mediazona’s calls.

In February 2021, Irina Turbina continues, classmates beat her son.

“They dragged him into the shop class in the basement and started kicking him. It was –19°C. They threw him outside through the emergency door and bolted it. He fell ill and was sick for a month with ear inflammation and everything,” says Irina. She managed to transfer him to another class, but the bullying continued. Eventually, he changed classes again.

Despite this, Irina says some teachers continued to “unfairly evaluate” her son and nitpick him.

“He won the city geography Olympiad that year, took prizes in the intellectual marathon in Russian and English, but was ultimately not put on the honour roll. Even some classmates started to ask, ‘Why not?’ ” says Irina.

Arseny began to think about social injustice and “got deeply into Navalny and other movements,” his mother says.

On April 25, 2023, he called the TV Rain channel and said that while he had previously believed propaganda, he was now disappointed in Putin, and the anti-American video that was shown in his class during the “Important Conversations” lesson was “utter nonsense.” The son posted the recording of the broadcast on his YouTube channel, says Irina, and she was called to the lyceum because of it. The video had to be deleted.

“He finished the school year in May. He was emotional about the injustice and disagreed with some of his grades. I explained to him: ‘Don’t worry about it, you’ll pass the Unified State Exam and get into university. Your skills will shine through.’ But he told me: ‘No, this shouldn’t happen. This is all wrong.’ Well, he was only 14,” says Irina.

On June 1, 2023, Arseny emailed the “Freedom of Russia” Legion in Ukraine.

Summer Break

In the emails, Arseny stated he was “ready to post leaflets and fight Putin’s propaganda” and “had an idea how to liberate Russia from Putin.” The recruiter asked him to fill out a questionnaire and send his messaging app contacts. Arseny sent his WhatsApp and Telegram details.

“He just saved the form to his laptop desktop and filled in a few fields. There was a requirement that all fields had to be completed, and it had to be sent with photos of documents. And he says: ‘Mum, I got scared, there’s so much personal information—and I’d be sending it to who knows where, and who knows where it might end up.’ And he says he just left it and abandoned it. He didn’t send anything anywhere,” Irina Turbina insists.

Regardless, from early June, Arseny was actively managing his VK page—commenting on all major events, including the marathon in support of political prisoners, Prigozhin’s mutiny, and the drone attack on Moscow. In late July, he changed his profile picture to a crossed-out face of Vladimir Putin, and during the holidays, he distributed anti-Putin leaflets he’d found online and printed in May to neighbours’ letterboxes—he wanted to “inform people as elections were approaching,” Irina recalls.

In July 2023, Turbin started his own Free Russia Telegram channel, where he posted opposition videos. Only five people subscribed to it, and the channel has now been deleted.

Several times, Arseny posted his own photos and videos there: he asked a friend to film him distributing leaflets in staircases and posing with a white-blue-white poster. Later, during questioning, he emphasized it was not only the symbol of the “Freedom of Russia” Legion but also “in general, an anti-war flag,” as well as “the flag of the rural settlement of Sosnovo-Ozerskoye in Buryatia."

At the end of July, Irina recounts, she and her son went on vacation to Anapa on the Black Sea coast. In the Rostov region, their train passed by a military convoy, and Arseny, like other passengers, took a photo of the convoy with armored vehicles as a keepsake.

On August 29, 2023, at six in the morning, FSB agents came to the Turbins’ residence.

The Case

Investigators said they would search the premises and took all the equipment. Irina Turbina recounts they were forced to unlock their phones, and the only laptop she and her son shared was not password-protected.

They found nothing in the apartment, only a keyring with the inscription “I love Alexei,” she adds. The security officers asked if it referred to Alexei Navalny, and Arseny confirmed it did.

The next day, the Turbins were summoned to the Livny FSB office. Captain Droganov questioned the schoolboy in his mother’s presence. Arseny explained that since 2023, he had “begun to take an interest in liberalism” and realised that there was “no freedom of speech or independent media” in the country, so he didn’t approve of “the governing policy of our President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.” According to the protocol, Droganov asked whom the teenager watched on YouTube (he listed Alexei Navalny, as well as political bloggers Maxim Katz and Mikhail Khodorkovsky) and what he knew about Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, the “Freedom of Russia” Legion, and the “Russian Volunteer Corps,” another paramilitary unit of Russian citizens fighting on the Ukrainian side, composed of émigré far-right activists.

After the questioning, Irina and her son were released.

“On September 5, he goes to school—I always see him off from the balcony, he waves to me—I look, a car stops, people get out and approach him. I immediately understood: one, I see, is an FSB officer, the other person has a folder. They bring him back home. They immediately enter with these credentials: ‘A criminal case has been opened against your son under such-and-such article.’ I was stressed, hysterical,” Irina recalls.

They were taken to the Investigative Committee in Oryol for questioning, and later that day Arseny was placed in a temporary detention facility.

The senior investigator of the first department for especially important cases, Major of Justice Trunov, opened a case on participation in a terrorist organisation on September 5 at six in the morning.

The investigator wrote that Arseny Turbin had “corresponded” with representatives of the Freedom of Russia Legion, “expressed and confirmed intentions to participate” in its activities, “joined the said military association,” and “fulfilled their assignment to produce and distribute documentary materials aimed at illegally changing the established public order.”

The next day, September 6, Trunov demanded Arseny be sent to a remand centre, but the Zavodskoy District Court of Oryol placed him under house arrest with permission to attend the lyceum.

Irina Turbina notes that due to house arrest, her son couldn’t study with tutors or prepare for the Unified State Exam. Later, he was given two hours for walks, and shortly before the trial, he was released with restrictions on certain activities.

The Questionnaire

Irina Turbina believes the FSB fabricated her son’s interrogation protocol from August 30.

In the document compiled by Captain Droganov at that time, Arseny is quoted as saying: “I planned to join the mentioned Legion and sent them a completed questionnaire.” These statements were signed by both him and his mother.

She insists that during the interrogation she sat next to her son, and Arseny didn’t say this. Turbina recalls how FSB officers retyped the protocol three times due to inaccuracies, such as errors in the surname, and admits they could have subtly altered the text.

“If I’d known earlier what these people were like, we’d never encountered this before, I would have reread it,” she says, shrugging her shoulders.

Later, at his first interrogation as a suspect, Arseny said that he filled out the questionnaire but then “got scared” (“too much of my personal data”) and only sent his messaging apps contacts to the recruiters. No one replied to him, and the correspondence with the legion ended there. Turbin maintained this version in court.

However, the case files mention an audio recording of the questioning, according to which on August 30, the teenager “confirmed the fact of applying to join the banned ‘Freedom of Russia’ Legion association” and carrying out assignments for them.

The exact same wording is repeated in the interrogation protocol of FSB officer Vladislav Afanasyev from the Oryol region. He gave testimony to investigator Trunov immediately after the criminal case was initiated and said that he was present at Arseny's questioning in August and heard him “confirm the fact of applying,” etc.

The legion’s “assignments” that Turbin allegedly carried out, according to the investigation, concerned “the production and distribution of documentary materials”—another phrase that frequently appears in the case files.

The security forces first used it on August 31, when the acting head of the regional FSB, Anatoly Chernykhovsky, sent the results of operational activities regarding Turbin to the Investigative Committee. Chernykhovsky wrote that the schoolboy had joined the Legion and “fulfilled their assignment to produce and distribute documentary materials,” which could be qualified as participation in a terrorist organisation’s activities.

The “materials” in question were leaflets showing Vladimir Putin behind bars, which Arseny had put in letterboxes. “The FSB also tried to convince me that this leaflet with Putin was given to him by the Legion. Arseny says it’s a leaflet from Google. They tell me, no, it’s not on Google. But then I found it, it was the first thing that came up on Google,” Irina remembers.

A template for such a leaflet has been circulating on Russian opposition pages since at least 2020.

The leaflet mentioned in the case files. Photo: Mediazona

Additionally, the security forces were interested in “photographic materials of military train movements”; as Irina says, her son took these shots from the train window when they were travelling together.

“We gave explanations, and I attached the tickets I’d bought on the Russian Railways website, showing that we were travelling. I said: ‘What are you on about? I don’t see a whole carriage of people on trial here.’ Half the carriage was taking pictures, I said,” she recalls.

The Trial

In early October 2023, the investigator sent Arseny to an outpatient psychiatric examination at a clinic in Oryol. “They kept him there for about four hours. He came out in shock, sat there, didn’t say anything. The next day he says: ‘You know what this psychologist told me?’—‘People like you need to be shot if martial law is introduced. You’re an outcast, you have no right to study at school, let alone university,’ ” recounts Irina Turbina her son’s words.

She adds that her son had been deeply affected by the criminal case from the very beginning: “The kid was in shock. The Constitution of the Russian Federation always lays on his table. He says: ‘Mom, what about Article 29 [protecting the freedom of speech]?’ Because I haven’t done anything wrong, there’s only my opinion and my position. I haven’t sent any questionnaire anywhere, no one has given me any instructions. He says: ‘Why are they treating me like this?’ ”

Turbina believes, that in February, Investigator Trunov leaned towards closing the case. However, according to her information, the head of the investigative department of the regional Investigative Committee, Petr Yudin, was against it—he transferred the case and tasked another investigator with proceeding.

According to Irina Turbina, new investigator, Simonova, tried to prove that Arseny adhered to neo-Nazi views—she was immediately interested in the “Occupy Shlukhofilyay” Telegram channel. However, the investigator did not start looking for a “Maxim,” and instead, in April 2024, questioned four of Arseny’s classmates. Turbina says her son played football with these boys. All four of them testified against him.

All four mentioned that Turbin often initiated political conversations at the lyceum, during social studies classes “actively expressed his opinion,” “said Putin is a thief,” and didn’t support the invasion of Ukraine. All four mentioned an incident that allegedly occurred in year eight during a music lesson: when the teacher left the class, Arseny played a song that “criticised the President and the country’s policies,” and started dancing, but “no one in the class supported Turbin.”

He also, according to the classmates’ testimony, called them rusnya and suggested shooting them or sending them to Siberia; one of the witnesses didn’t know what rusnya meant but guessed it was related to “being Russian.”

Two classmates in their testimony claimed that Arseny “adhered to neo-Nazi ideology,” and his “idol was the so-called Tesak.”

Irina Turbina believes the testimonies were fabricated. She showed Mediazona screenshots of her son’s chat where Arseny called Tesak a “moron” and emphasised he was a “liberal, not a neo-Nazi.”

One of the witness classmates, in discussing Turbin’s “neo-Nazism,” for some reason said that he advocated for the “extermination of Ukrainians”; others, without seeing any contradiction, added that Arseny called himself a supporter of Navalny. Two teenagers also claimed Turbin had joked about making a bomb, but this wasn’t included in the indictment.

Irina believes the testimonies were given in exchange for good grades. After the case began, bullying at school intensified, with peers calling Arseny a “criminal” and telling him to “choose a cell.” In December 2023, Irina moved him to homeschooling.

In late May, state exams began. On the first day, Arseny was thoroughly searched, and on the second, a police officer explained the “rules of behavior during summer vacation,” recounts Turbina.

The trial by the Second Western District Military Court took four sessions. During the hearings, on his lawyer’s advice, he emphasized that he had “voluntarily ceased” opposition activities long before the security forces’ visit: he last distributed leaflets in July, and hadn’t posted on the Free Russia channel since mid-August.

On May 31, he was released from house arrest with restrictions and allowed to use the phone. After this, posts about Russia’s military successes appeared on his VK page, and his status reads “nationalist, conservative, and patriot.”

“He intentionally changed all these pictures on VK to prove... Maybe someone will check there, he thought,” says Irina Turbina. “We thought it would have some positive impact, but it didn’t. I visited Arseny in pre-trial detention on Friday. I say, ‘Arseny, changing all this was pointless, but let it be, there’s no use in changing it back.’ ”

On June 18, he visited Alexei Navalny’s grave with his mother.

Turbin did not admit guilt in court. The prosecutor requested eight years in prison. On June 20, Judge Oleg Shishov sentenced him to five years.

According to Irina Turbina, the verdict shocked her son. “He cried a lot. Did not expect it. He used to hold on and did not get upset. And then, he really cried, hugged me, and said: ‘Mom, forgive me. Forgive me for letting you down. But I really didn’t know I was violating anything,’ ” says Turbina.

She recalls how even before the arrest, she warned her son that public political statements in Russia could lead to trouble, but he didn’t believe it. “He said: ‘Mom, they won’t come.’ I say: ‘They’re going to come, Arseny, they come to everyone. And we won't be an exception,’ ” she recounts their conversation.

The Memorial human rights group declared Arseny Turbin a political prisoner.

Editor: Dmitry Tkachev

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