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Safronov Ivan and the Gray Wolves

A horror tale about how the security forces are ready to do anything to make the former “Kommersant” journalist confess to "treason". And he doesn’t

Vera Chelitsheva, exclusively for “Novaya Gazeta. Europe”
Vera Chelitsheva, exclusively for “Novaya Gazeta. Europe”

The trial on the case of Russian journalist Ivan Safronov went unexpectedly quickly for prosecution. It took the prosecution only two months to provide the court with evidence of his guilt (he’s charged against handing of classified secret information of Russia to Africa and the Middle East arms shipments over to the Czech intelligence agencies). That’s not an expedite investigation under special procedure; Safronov didn’t plead guilty. That was a full trial. Two months seem to be surprising given the gravity of offence — article 275 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation: treason, public and media attention (he was detained after having taken the position of the Adviser to the Head of Roscosmos — Federal Space agency of the Russian Federation) and period of investigation of 1,5 year conducted by the Federal Security Service case officer Aleksandr Chaban. And there were only six witnesses for the prosecution interrogated in court — a minority of those initially declared by the prosecutor's office. To sum up: something went wrong. Moreover, everything got the wrong turn precisely after the interrogation of these six witnesses for the prosecution. If the defense of the accused is to be believed (media is not allowed to the trial due to the closed hearing like it would be in any other treason felon), all the six witnesses told the trial that Safronov is known to them as a professional journalist who always worked with open information sources. Nothing was told about his relationship and cooperation with Czech intelligence.

Anyway, after the interrogations, the prosecutor's office asked the court to take a two-week break, upon which it announced that it was done with evidence.

Journalist Vera Chelitsheva, exclusively for “Novaya Gazeta. Europe” recollected the details of how this messed up case started, why Ivan Safronov went on journalism and what prison he is in. 

Ivan Safronov at the trial. Photo: social networks

The Father

Ivan Safronov is the youngest prisoner in the Lefortovo Russian pre-trial detention center. He is 32 and the last two years he spent within the verge of the oldest and most closed prison in Russia; the one for those criminal cases which were of particular national importance.

Ivan Safronov Sr. Photo: Wikimedia

Perhaps if he had not gone on military journalism and journalism in general, Lefortovo would not have happened in Safronov's life. He was born in 1990 in Moscow. He took interest in ballroom dancing and even became the champion of the capital. But his destiny was decided even before he finished school. His father, Ivan Safronov Sr., a former rocket engineer and a military journalist for “Kommersant”, died March, 2, in 2007 in legally unclear circumstances. Before his death, he was preparing data on secret deliveries of Russian aircrafts and air defense systems to Syria and Iran via Belarus. The day before, he told his colleagues that he would dictate the text by phone in the near future, but he never got in touch. Soon he was found dead — Safronov Sr. fell out of the window in the entranceway of his block of flats in Nizhegorodskaya Street. The prosecutor's office of the Tagansky district of Moscow took on an investigation of incitement to suicide, which was then dropped without charge.

After his father’s death Ivan Safronov Jr. decided to enter Higher School of Economics, business and political journalism, and graduated in 2011. Simultaneously with his studies, he began to work for “Kommersant” —the same place where his father had recently worked. In nine years, he has worked his way up from an ordinary correspondent to a special correspondent, which was part of the Kremlin press pool, which is important:

over all these years, including those that he is accused of collaborating with Czech intelligence agencies, Safronov, as a journalist of the Kremlin pool, successfully passed regular mandatory checks by the Federal Security Service.

By the time he was arrested he was one of the most quoted military and space journalists in Russia. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed his talent and popularity after the detention.

From “Kommersant” to Roscosmos

Despite being a part of the Kremlin pool, Safronov was never an example of a cooperative state journalist, who would avoid uncomfortable political topics and focus only on military issues: spring, 2019; together with other “Kommersant” journalists, he published an article about the possible resignation of the Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko. It caused a controversy and led to a conflict within the editorial office of “Kommersant” between the leadership of the newspaper and the journalistic team. A number of media, referring to sources within the Federation Council and the presidential administration, wrote that Matviyenko called the owner of “Kommersant”, Alisher Usmanov, and demanded action to be taken. Bottom line: a month later, almost all the employees of the political department, including Safronov himself, left the newspaper.

He took the job at “Vedomosti”, where he also mainly dealt with military and military-industrial issues. However, less than a year later, Safronov had to leave “Vedomosti” as well. The media changed its owners and the editor, who began to interfere in editorial policy. On April 23, 2020, the editorial staff published a statement on the newspaper’s website, in which, as an example of interference, they cited an order to replace the headline of the publication about Rosneft (the head of which is oligarch Igor Sechin close to Putin) with the one opposite in meaning; deleting a column by economist Konstantin Sonin about Rosneft and the ban on mentioning the data of the «Levada Center» (which is later recognized as a «foreign agent»). Safronov did not wait any longer and left “Vedomosti” immediately after the first meeting between the editorial board and the future editor-in-chief Andrei Shmarov.

For the first time in his life, he was to work not in the media. In May 2020, on the eve of his 30th birthday, Safronov received the position of adviser to the head of the state corporation Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin. According to TASS agency at the time, in this position Safronov was supposed to be engaged in forming up an information policy at Roscosmos and at the enterprises that are part of the state corporation, as well as supervise a «number of special programs.»

Less than two months later, however, another unexpected event occurred. Since that moment the life of Ivan Safronov can be measured “before” and “after”. He was detained.

Photo: social networks

Charge of “treason” and investigation officer Chaban

It all happened near the same house in Nizhegorodskaya Street in Moscow, where 13 years ago Safronov Sr. had been found to have fallen out of a window. Safronov Jr. was detained at the exit of the house on the morning of July 7, 2020, when he was heading to work at a state corporation. Operatives in dark masks, twisting his hands and handcuffing them, Safronov facing the police car, being searched… This picture shocked everyone who knew Safronov Jr. The accusations followed were also shocking. The press service of the Federal Security Service reported that day that Safronov, «carrying out the tasks of one of the NATO special services, collected and transmitted to its representative information on military-technical cooperation, defense and security of the Russian Federation, which is a state secret». A criminal investigation was initiated against him under article 275 of the Russian Criminal Code (“Crime of high treason”).

At first his colleagues suggested that the reason for initiating a criminal case could be his article in “Kommersant” about a contract for the supply of the latest Russian Su-35 fighters to Egypt, which he published in 2019. After the release of the article, the ex- US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Egypt of possible US sanctions in case it recieves Russian aircrafts. At the request of the Russian special services, Safronov's article was deleted from the newspaper's website. The publication was involved in administrative proceedings for disclosing information which is a “state secret”. However, the court returned the case to Federal Service for Supervision in the Sphere of Telecom, Information Technologies and Mass Communications without considering the merits, since the department's claims were formulated vaguely.

In a short while, the defendant's lawyers clarified: Safronov was suspected of being recruited by the Czech special services in 2012, and receiving a mission from them in 2017.

Supposedly, he transmitted information via the Internet about the supply of Russian weapons to the Middle East and Africa.

From the very first day during interrogations at the Federal Security Service, Safronov refused to plead guilty. His case was investigated by quite a well-known officer of the Investigation Department, Lieutenant Colonel Aleksandr Chaban. He professionalizes in treason and espionage cases. Ivan Safronov became the first journalist in Chaban's career; before that he mainly dealt with the fate of scientists, who were also accused of «treason». For some of them, e.g., the physicist Viktor Kudryavtsev and his colleague Roman Kovalev (main specialists of the Central Research Institute of Mechanical Engineering), accusations of treason became literally fatal. Both died suddenly of cancer. Roman Kovalev had the grace to be set free two weeks before his death.

Aleksandr Chaban. Photo: Moscow City Court

Federal Security Service against Journalists — 1:0

The degree of solidarity and support of Ivan Safronov by his colleagues was not inferior to the support of the journalist Ivan Golunov. Golunov was planted drugs a year earlier, in June 2019 by the police, who also invented a fake drug lab supposedly in the journalist’s apartment. Golunov's colleagues from almost all Russian media have been protesting around Petrovka, 38, the building of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, for two days. The situation sparked a massive public outcry. The case fell apart in three days: investigative journalists were able to prove a classic drug planting, Golunov was released. To date, law enforcement officers involved in his detention and framing-up the case, have been sentenced to real jail time.

Ivan Golunov in the hall of the Nikulinsky District Court of Moscow. Photo: Vasily Maksimov

In the case of Safronov, his colleagues, Ivan Golunov among them, also were protesting. This time, around the Federal Security Service building in Lubyanka, the Lefortovo pre-trial detention center, the Lefortovo court, which decided on Safronov's arrest… Human rights activists demanded openness of the investigation of the criminal case and public trial. The Union of Journalists of Russia requested the director of the Federal Security Service, Alexander Bortnikov to provide information about the connection between Safronov's case and his journalistic activities. The immediate release of Safronov was also demanded by the international non-governmental human rights organization of Committee to Protect Journalists.

Everything was in vain: requests were ignored, while solo-protesting journalists were taken away to the police stations in paddy wagons. 

This time cutting out Federal Security Service out with the colleague turned out to be above journalists’ strength. FSB won.

Refusal of a deal with the investigation

During the investigation of the case, Ivan Safronov's lawyers claimed that his e-mails sent with his private computer have been secretly controlled by the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation for a long time. According to lawyer Ivan Pavlov, the investigation believed that Safronov transmitted secret information over the Internet using encryption methods. According to the FSB investigation, Safronov used VeraCrypt encryption software when collecting and transmitting information to counterparties, and fragments from the book “Journey Through the Yeltsin Era” by historian Roy-Medvedev in English were used as passwords. However, VeraCrypt is a common user product used by journalists, lawyers and human rights activists for confidential communication. Therefore, as the lawyers noted, the use of an encryption tool without examining the content of the texts does not prove that Safronov committed a crime.

As for the examinations, conclusions differ. Thus, the defense claimed that specialists from the Federal Security Service Criminalistics Institute did not find information containing state secrets in the journalist's publications. But experts from the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation and the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, on the contrary, confirmed the secrecy of information about the supply of weapons and the actions of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in Africa and the Middle East, which Safronov supposedly passed on to Czech intelligence.

Ivan Safronov at the trial. Photo: press service of the Moscow City Court

What Safronov's colleagues managed to find out for sure is that he was friends and repeatedly met with Martin Larisch, who worked in Moscow as a correspondent for the Czech newspaper “Lidové noviny” in 2010-2012, and then became a co-founder and head of the Center for Security Analysis and Prevention in the Czech Republic, which specialized in preparation of reports on security in Eastern Europe and Africa (the second co-founder of the Center, executive director and partner of Larish is a former high-ranking official of the Czech Ministry of Defense Tomasz Kolomaznik, who previously worked in the Ministry of Defense and was responsible for communication with NATO and the European Union). Later, Martin Larisch himself confirmed to the BBC Russian Service his acquaintance with Safronov, but declared that he was not involved in Czech intelligence.

For the first time the investigation officer suggested Safronov a deal in a few days after detention.

Safronov would refuse. There would be more such proposals. Safronov would refuse again and again.

Witness Rogozin

Despite the detention and a serious charge, Safronov wasn’t fired from Roscosmos. Though his case had nothing to do with short period of work for Roscomos as an Adviser to the Head of Roscomos, Dmitry Rogozin was testimonially interrogated in summer, 2021. Rogozin told reporters: “Mr. Safronov continues to be our employee until there is a change in his fate. He is under investigation. Any of my statements, especially public ones, can cause harm… We must be as careful as possible. The defense is responsible for collecting the necessary materials. Let's hope this situation gets resolved."

The detention of lawyer Pavlov

In 2021 Ivan Safronov was short his lawyer Ivan Pavlov, a well-known lawyer professionalizing in defending those accused of «treason» and «espionage». Pavlov was detained, a criminal case against him on the disclosure of data from the preliminary investigation was initiated. He was accused of handing over to journalists a copy of the decision to implicate Safronov as a defendant and informing them about a secret witness in the case. The lawyer was set free immediately after the charges were filed. A few months later, Pavlov was forced to leave the country «due to the inability to work efficiently.» He was also recognized as a «foreign agent.»

Lawyer Ivan Pavlov. Photo: Taisiya Suvorova

The rest of the journalist's lawyers are also bound by the pledge of secrecy and can only comment on the case in the most general terms.

On November 1, 2021, the Federal Secirity Service completed the investigation of Safronov’s case. The case file consisted of 20 volumes. At the same time, it became known that Safronov was also accused of transferring information to German intelligence. The criminal case mentions that Safronov sold information about the activities of the Russian Armed Forces in Syria to political scientist Demuri Voronin (later arrested on suspicion of treason), which he redirected to representatives of the University of Zurich in Switzerland and the German Federal Intelligence Service for $ 248. According to the FSB, the information transferred from Safronov to the West could be used to analyze the actions of Russian troops in Syria.

Trial

On March 5, 2022, Safronov's criminal case was transferred for hearing to the Moscow City Court. Safronov’s lawyer Dmitry Katchev told “Novaya Gazeta. Europe” that on May 18, 2022, the prosecutor’s office refused to further interrogate most of its witnesses during the process. This happened after the first witnesses for the prosecution gave evidence that disproved the version of the FSB, including testimony given by the person involved in another similar case, who had previously set up a deal with the investigation.

Dmitry Katchev to “Novaya Gazeta. Europe”:

“The prosecution was providing evidence from mid-March to mid-May. Meetings were held 2-3 times a week. First, as usual, the written part, then — the witnesses. But in the end, only six people of all the witnesses declared by the prosecutor's office, were questioned in court. Among them were individuals with access to state secrets. The rest of the people are non-public, largely unknown, but everyone got in touch with Ivan. No one confirmed the version of the prosecution. Everyone confirmed that they knew Ivan as a professional journalist who worked with open sources. People said what they knew about him. No more, no less.

I don't think the prosecution expected this. The prosecutors took a break for two weeks, and then reported that they had finished providing their evidence.”

Now it’s time for the defense and Safronov to provide evidence. However, after an unexpected turn of the prosecutors, the Moscow City Court announced another break in the process — for almost a month.

- Ivan is glad that the witnesses who spoke did not slander him and honestly told what they knew. He is glad that there were no set-ups, — adds the lawyer Katchev. — Now Ivan is still stuck in Lefortovo. He celebrated his 32nd birthday in there on May, 18.

Prison: from NKVD to FSB

The building of the pre-trial detention center "Lefortovo". Photo: A. Savin

Lefortovo is the most specific pre-trial detention center in Russia. Everybody in the world happened to be within the verge: the repressed Soviet nomenklatura of the 1930-1940s, «spies», «enemies of the people», their executioners… Dissidents in the 70s, putschists and revolutionary Limonov in the 90s. Today, these are big businessmen from the Medvedev era who fell out of favor, elderly scientists and their students, Putin’s delinquent governors, senators and officials, people accused of terrorism, and, more recently, journalists, bloggers who shoot reports from industrial facilities and transport infrastructure, and co-owners of cybercrime prevention and investigation companies…

Those who once visited Lefortovo say that the spirit of past decades is still hovering here. During the Great Terror, the prison was subordinate to the Main Directorate for State Security NKVD and was widely used as a place of torture during interrogations. From 1950 to 1990, there was a pre-trial detention center of the KGB in the USSR. Until 2005, Lefortovo was subordinate to the FSB. And despite the fact that later it was transferred under the control of the Ministry of Justice and, by virtue of the new law, FSB was forbidden to have pre-trial detention centers, today Lefortovo informally remains the patrimony of Chekists.

Any lawyer or relative of Lefortovo prisoners would confirm that Federal Security Service officers act here as if they own the place.

Ivan Safronov was never in two years allowed a visit with his mother, sister and girlfriend. Even through the glass partition. Actually, visits at Lefortovo are not allowed to all prisoners. That is, a person can stay at Lefortovo for four years before being sentenced, but will not be allowed a meeting with relatives. This is against the law. But that's the way it works in here. A rule no one can break. Prisoners are extremely rarely allowed to make calls; it depends on the investigator. Investigator Chaban does not allow calls to Ivan Safronov. His only sustainable connection with the outside world is via letters. Friends, colleagues and even those who did not know him personally write to him. Sometimes the letters come every day. But even this option with letters fails at the whim of the investigator Chaban.

Autumn 2021, Safronov stopped receiving correspondence. The administration of the detention center admitted to the lawyers that this happened at the request of the investigator, who sent a letter to the pre-trial detention center about the need to seize Safronov's incoming and outgoing correspondence. Exactly at that moment, by coincidence, Safronov refused yet another deal with the investigation offered to him by Chaban….

The verdict against Ivan Safronov Jr. is expected to be handed down this year. He faces up to 20 years in prison.

Editor in chief — Kirill Martynov. Terms of use. Privacy policy.
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