Young woman from Russia’s Yaroslavl detained in February for staging ‘attempted terror attack’

Her mother, who protested against the Ukraine war, was accused of ‘justifying terrorism’ a month later

Young woman from Russia’s Yaroslavl detained in February for staging ‘attempted terror attack’

Valeria Zotova. Screenshot

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in Yaroslavl has accused local woman Svetlana Zotova of justifying terrorism and making “calls for extremism” over two comments she made on Telegram. Svetlana’s older daughter Valeria has been in a pretrial jail since February on attempted terror attack charges. The FSB’s theory is that she allegedly tried to set an aid collection point for draftees on fire. Zotova is certain that her daughter is being framed by the FSB. Last year, Valeria got to know some “Andrey from the Ukraine’s military” who persistently suggested that she stage an arson or a railway sabotage.

The daughter’s arrest

Svetlana and her husband Igor have three children. Their eldest son moved out a long time ago, their middle daughter Valeria, 19, works at a store, and the youngest of the family is a 13-year-old schoolgirl. Valeria went out on the evening of 16 February and told her mother that she “won’t be long and will be right back”.

As Svetlana recalls, on that day, her daughter was very unsettled and did not take a bite of food. A normally talkative person who used to share everything with her mother, she was oddly silent. Zotova tried to talk with her daughter, but she explained nothing and credited her dismal mood to not feeling well. “She was in her bed and barely even left her room the entire day,” Svetlana recalls.

Her husband was on a business trip, and her youngest daughter was at a friend’s sleepover that day. Valeria did not return until late in the evening, and at around 1 AM, security men rushed into the apartment, having unlocked the front door using Valeria’s key.

This is how Svetlana learned that her daughter had been detained on criminal charges. The apartment was searched: three computers, cell phones, and a photo camera were confiscated.

Valeria was not present at the search, her mother says, adding that the security men were acting very audaciously, insulted her, and threatened to file criminal charges against her as well. “They told me I was a bad parent. Asked me what my opinion on the special military operation was. I told them right away that I was strongly against it, so we started an argument. And then these guys in masks started saying awful things as they saw a blue and a yellow ribbon in my room, and said the entire apartment was decorated in the colours of Ukraine’s flag,” she added. The investigative procedure ended at around 3 AM, and there was no interrogation. Svetlana had been trying to find out where her daughter was the entire night.

Only after a few days did the details on Valeria’s case appear in the media. Yaroslavl Glavny, a local Telegram channel that many link with security agencies, published the video of Valeria’s detention that happened on 20 February.

The footage showed security officers forcing Zotova out of a car, pressing her face against the snow, and handcuffing her. Further on, the video showed a five-litre plastic bottle full of transparent liquid, a rag, a lighter, and a plastic bag full of empty beer bottles.

Later in the video, Valeria, sitting in front of the camera, stutters that she was “taking pictures of the buildings where the draftees collection point is located, sharing the location info, and sending out the coordinates” for a reward of 7,000 rubles (€85).

“What have you been detained for?” the officers ask her.

“For communicating with a representative of Ukraine’s Security Service,” Valeria replies.

“What’s his name?”

“Andrey. He’s from Ukraine. I was detained for helping them in exchange for money. I just don’t know how to say it.”

“Well, say it.”

“Well, I was helping them for money. I was sharing information with them on what was going on in Russia...”

Pro-government media that published this video stressed the following: “Preliminary indications are that the detained woman was raised in a troubled family and was addicted to drugs”. As Svetlana spoke to Novaya-Europe, she couldn’t hold her emotions and was outraged that lies were being spread about her daughter. “I’m sure that the FSB was spreading all this dirt deliberately. It was a setup!” Svetlana believes.

Andrey from Ukraine’s military

Svetlana believes that her daughter fell victim to an FSB setup. She says that Valeria got to know Andrey, who introduced himself as a serviceman of the Ukrainian army, in a Ukrainian Telegram channel last autumn. Zotova knew about her daughter’s new acquaintance and saw their message history, so she asked Valeria to be cautious: “I know that there are FSB officers in those Ukrainian channels.”

Valeria told her mother that Andrey had been asking her to set a device used to control a railroad switch on fire, or to leave a bag unattended in a necessary location. Andrey promised to make this worth Valeria’s while. Svetlana was trying to convince her daughter to stop this communication. Her daughter promised to block Andrey, but never did this.

According to Svetlana, Andrey was texting her daughter in Ukrainian, said he was on the frontlines, and told her that if anything happened to him, his commander would let Valeria know. When she asked him for a photo, he told her that it was not allowed.

In late 2022, some other man indeed contacted Valeria via Andrey’s number, introduced himself as Andrey’s commander, and said that her “friend” got severely wounded.

Before the holidays, the “commander” started persistently calling Valeria, Svetlana says, and “tried to trick her into some nonsense, like setting up an explosion”. Valeria refused. Once her mother picked up the phone herself and said that her daughter would not go anywhere. “He started to suggest that I leave a bag in some location, and they would trigger the explosion themselves. They even offered to deliver the bag to our place!” Svetlana recalls.

Further on, the people on the other end suggested that Valeria’s friends complete the “task” if she was unwilling to. “I told him that all Valeria’s friends were Putin supporters and they would never agree to such a thing,” Zotova says jokingly. “My daughter is a sort of a wimp, to be fair. I was so shocked that she actually went there.” Andrey resumed his communication with Valeria in January. Her mother says he gave Valeria a call on 16 February, but she wouldn’t tell her mother anything and simply left home.

A few days later, the district court charged Valeria Zotova with attempted terror attack and sent her to a pretrial jail. The FSB theory is that Valeria was planning on setting fire to a building in Karabikha, 15 km from Yaroslavl, where locals would collect aid for Russian servicemen. Valeria’s arrest was a complete surprise for her family who are only now recovering from the shock. “I did not see it coming that day. If I knew, I would never have let her go out back then. I blame myself,” Svetlana says in a trembling voice.

Charges against the mother

Svetlana Zotova had no doubt that she was going to be the next in the line. During the search, the security officers were recalling her protest activity. Before the Ukraine war, she would set up single pickets in support of Alexey Navalny and the former governor of the Khabarovsk region Sergey Furgal.

Svetlana says she rarely discussed politics with her daughter, and the two would only occasionally share the latest news with each other. However, both women were against the war in Ukraine. Last October, Valeria’s mother sprayed a graffiti with red paint on a grocery kiosk, reading “Glory to Ukraine”, and left a bunch of yellow and blue chrysanthemums and a note reading “Forgive us, Ukraine”. The police detained Svetlana on her way back home. The district court fined her 30,000 rubles (€360) for “discrediting the Russian military”. She neither appealed the decision nor paid the fine.

The security officers seemed to have forgotten about the Zotovs for almost a month after the search at their home. Law enforcement visited them again on 15 March and took Svetlana to the local FSB department.

“There were two officers there, they offered me coffee and water, which I refused and told them I was afraid they would poison the drinks. They tried wheedling out information from me, and asked me if I contacted any journalists. Then some other officer in a uniform came around. He approached me, started yelling and swinging his hand as if he was going to strike me. He shouted: ‘Our guys are losing their lives out there, and you’re a fucking scumbag! We’ll fucking beat you up in here, and you’ll tell us everything!’ So, I pushed him away. He started asking me for my opinion on the special military operation. I said they might as well kill me, but my stance is negative,” Zotova recalls.

She was then taken to an interrogation with an investigator. Svetlana was provided an appointed lawyer, but she refused to answer any questions and managed to reschedule the interrogation to 16 March and to bring her own lawyer. Solidarity Zone, a human rights organisation, provided her with legal assistance.

The following day Svetlana was formally charged with making “calls for terrorism” and “calls for extremism online”. She refused to provide testimony again, using Article 51 of the Russian Constitution, and was released on pledge not to leave town.

The investigator’s theory is that Svetlana posted several comments in Telegram channels called The Anarchist Fighter and Ukraine 24/7. One of those comments from the Ukraine 24/7 channel was for a video of Ben Hodges, a former commanding general with the United States Army Europe, contemplating the possibility of Ukraine’s strikes against Crimea and the land corridor connecting the peninsula with Russia. The investigators did not provide the entire text of the comment during the interrogation, only mentioning how it started (“That’s right”) and ended (“lost”).

The FSB believes that this comment contains justification of terrorism and calls for it, and the comment that Zotova had allegedly posted was about the Crimea bridge explosion.

Two other comments were made under a post dated 23 September 2022 published by a user with a nickname 11927 in The Anarchist Fighter channel: “Peaceful rallies aren’t worth shit” and “Russians, you have a chance to make a great revolution in 2022. Depose this criminal government before it leads the world to a nuclear disaster”.

The FSB considers these two comments to be “incitement to terrorist activity, namely incitement to committing a crime based on political hatred or enmity”. Zotova does not admit that she was the one who posted the comments, and says that the investigator did not read out the contents of the comments during interrogation and did not let her read those in full.

Svetlana never saw her daughter after the arrest as the investigators do not allow the two to meet each other. Valeria sent her mother a large letter from the pretrial jail, though. “I was writing my reply to her and I cried. My daughter was asking me to forgive her. I wrote that there is nothing to forgive...” Svetlana says as she barely holds back tears. “Valeria is glad to be receiving letters. Someone wrote her from Germany, and she recently received a package from Moscow. She really needs support now”.

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