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Russia’s Greatest National Security Threat: a 70-year-old Grandmother

Dec 24 2021

Who is Valentina Ivanovna Baranovskaya?

Valentina Ivanovna Baranovskaya is a 70-year-old retiree,and a devout Jehovah’s Witness from the Russian city of Abakan. In the Spring of 2019, Valentina and her son Roman Baranovsky were arrested and charged under the Article 282.2, part two of Criminal Code of the Russian Federation—participating in an outlawed organization. In reality, they are persecuted simply for being Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their trial began on April 10, 2019, and they have been incarcerated since February 24, 2021.

The arrest and trial of Baranovskaya are outrageous in cruelty and senselessness. In the face of the Kremlin’s hostility toward the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baranovskaya has courageously remained an active member in her community and had not denounced her believes. Baranovskaya has maintained her innocence, and articulately defended her stance in court.

Though the Kremlin purports to support freedom of religion and expression, the arrest of Baranovskaya and her son, and the general attack on Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses prove otherwise. In 2017, the Kremlin labeled the Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist, and banned them from organizing in the Russian Federation. Since then, hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been prosecuted and arrested for no other crime than professing their faith. Baranovskaya was 69 years-old at the time of her arrest, and was the first female Jehovah’s Witness to be arrested. 

Valentina Baranovskaya was born in 1951, and was raised alongside her brother and sister in the village of Vannovka. She would become a Jehovah’s Witness only later in life, and as a child was raised in a communist home. By 1973, she graduated from university, and a year later, had her son, Roman Baranovsky. Before her retirement in 2006, Baranovskaya worked as an accountant. 

Her religious transformation began in 1995, when she and her son started to read the Bible together. For her, the most important motif from her readings was the emphasis on eternal truth. These readings ultimately led the two to become Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Valentina Baranovskaya is known for her creativity, warmth, and hospitality, making her trial and verdict even more difficult for her friends and family to comprehend.

Case Background

On April 10, 2019, Investigator A. V.  Pachuev opened a criminal case against Baranovskaya and her son. Armed authorities barged into Baranovskaya’s home to arrest her for being a member of a banned religious group. They demanded to search her home for “extremist” content. She obliged. 

In February 2021, Judge Elena Scherbakova of the Abakan City Court, sentenced Baranovskaya to two years in prison for participating in religious activities as a Jehovah’s Witness, and sentenced her son, Roman, to six years in prison. He was charged for organizing group activities. Officially, she was found guilty of violating Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, which charges an individual for being part of a banned organization. According to a document published on February 24, 2019,  by the official Investigation Department of the Republic of Khakassia, Valentina Baranovskaya and Roman Baranovsky were later both found guilty under Part 1 and Part 2 of Article 282.2 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.

On February 20, 2020, Valentina Baranovskaya maintained her innocence, and refused to plead guilty to being a part of an extremist organization. Baranovskaya stated that she was simply practicing her religious beliefs without harming or imposing her beliefs on others, which is a protected right under the Russian Constitution. Moreover, she stated that the charges filed against her are themselves unlawful and invalid, as they deny the rights granted to her by the Russian Constitution.   

Baranovskaya then made a public statement arguing that despite the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Abakan being a banned group, every individual has the right to practice their religion freely, as stipulated by Article 28 of the Russian Constitution. She added that there was nothing “extremist” about singing religious music, reading the Bible, and believing in God. In February, there were some efforts by prosecutors to increase her and her son’s sentences, by increasing Baranovskaya’s sentence to 5 years, and her son’s sentence to 8 years. In later court appearances, both Valentina and Roman argue that despite searching their home, authorities were unable to provide any evidence of the two owning prohibited literature or fundraising for the organization. 

Valentina Baranovskaya and Roman Baranovsky tried to appeal their case. On May 24, 2021, the Supreme Court of Khakassia rejected their appeals, and maintained Baranovskaya’s two-year sentence, and Baranovsky’s six-year sentence. On September 9, 2021, Valentina’s lawyer visited her in prison. Despite her tragic situation, health problems, and fatigue, he noted her warm attitude and her attention to the other inmates. She helps them clean the facility and has a positive effect on the other inmates. He noted her intentions to apply for parole. Unfortunately, her application was denied this October.

The shock of the arrest and conditions of her incarceration have severely endangered  Valentina Baranovskaya’s health. On July 8, 2020, Baranovskaya fell ill, and was examined by a medical team. An ER doctor ordered an ambulance to take Baranovskaya to the hospital for emergency care and prescribed medication. A few days later, on July 20, 2020, she had an ischemic stroke

Baranovskaya often relies on her son Roman for help and emotional support, but the two have been separated and assigned to different prisons. She is currently located in colony no. 28 in Ust-Abakan, while her son is in colony no. 3 in Chita—1,500 miles away. Her appeal filed in October 2021, citing her medical problems, was rejected by courts who refused to relocate her or to shorten her sentence.  Separating Valentina Baranovskaya from her primary caretaker in her ill health is especially sadistic, and shows a complete disregard for compassion and human rights at the hands of the Russian authorities


Aside from Jehovah’s’ Witness news sources, alternative Russian media sources, and Memorial, little is said about the unjust arrest and detention of Valentina Baranovskaya. There have been, however, several western sources covering this case. In large part, this is because it would go against the Kremlin’s interests to publicize illegal arrests, and most news sources have little freedom in reporting about the Kremlin’s arrests.  Those who speak openly are often subject to heavy fines and harassment due to the Foreign Agents Law. This was a law passed in 2012, essentially created to limit dissent and civil society in Russia by labeling those who disagree with, and question, the current political status quo, as “foreign agents”—a known euphemism for calling someone a spy. 

Western news sources, however, do not face such limitations, and can, therefore, write about and criticize unjust arrests in the Russian Federation. The official Jehovah’s Witness website, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, The State Department, Reuters, Washington Post, and the United States Commission on International Freedom have all issued reports and statements surrounding the arrest. USCIF Commissioner, Gary Bauer, personally issued a statement on twitter, saying, “Today Valentina Baranovskaya, an elderly woman in poor health, became the first female #JehovahsWitness sentenced to prison in #Russia. This marks a new low in Russia’s brutal campaign against religious freedom.”  

Why the Memorial Human Rights Center Recognizes Baranovskaya as a Political Prisoner

  • Article 28 of the Russian Constitution claims to support the freedom of religion. Arresting Baranovskaya and her son simply for being Jehovah’s Witnesses, violates the Russian Constitution.
  • Article 282.2 bans citizens from being a part of, and taking part in activities led by banned, extremist organizations. Russian authorities often use this article as an excuse to arbitrarily arrest religious minorities, claiming that they are part of an extremist group, when in fact, they are not. 

Many political prisoners in Russia are arrested for their religious beliefs. Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the most persecuted religious minorities in the Russian Federation, jailed for their religious beliefs alone. They pose no security threat to the Russian Federation and are cruelly targeted simply for following a form of Christianity which differs from Kremlin-approved Eastern Orthodoxy.


Five Years in Prison for A 21-Year-Old Student: The Case of Sayd-Muhammad Dzhumaev

Dec 17 2021

Sayd-Muhammad Dzhumaev (aka Markhiev Mikail Mikhailovich) was born on January 15, 2000. On August 19, 2021 Sayd-Muhammad, a resident of Moscow and a student of Moscow State University, was sentenced to five years in prison for confronting riot police at a rally in support of opposition politician Alexey Navalny by the Tverskoi Court in Moscow.

Case Background

Russian politician Alexey Navalny has been in prison since January 2021. He was detained at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow after returning from Germany, where he had been treated after being poisoned with the Novichok chemical warfare agent. According to the verdict, the politician will remain incarcerated until mid-2024.

Nationwide protests in Russia broke out on January 23, 2021 in support of Navalny.  The protests were met with brutal police crackdowns, with thousands citizens detained. More than 100 criminal cases were opened against those who participated in protests under accusations of violence, blocking roads, involving minors in illegal activities, and violating sanitary and epidemiological rules.

On January 23, 2021, Sayd-Muhamad Jumayev joined a demonstration in Moscow as part of the all-Russian “Freedom to Navalny!” rally.

A short video from the rally, which captures the moment of Dzhumaev’s confrontation with riot police, has been widely circulated on the Internet. The footage shows Dzhumaev emerging from the crowd of protesters and walking quickly towards the riot police, who in full protective gear with batons at the ready are advancing on the crowd of protesters. Dzhumayev falls back under the blows of the police batons but hits the riot police with hands and feet. One of the OMON riot police fighters grabbed Jumayev by the arm, he breaks free, but falls on the asphalt. The protesters drag Dzhumaev back into the crowd, shielding him from police.

Following this incident, Dzhumaev was put on the federal wanted list on charges of committing a crime under Article 318 of the Russian Criminal Code (“Violence against a representative of authority, in connection with the performance of his duties”). On January 28, 2021 he was detained in the Pskov region, and on the same day Moscow Presnensky District Court put him in jail for two months for the period of preliminary investigation. His time in the pre-trial detention facility had then been extended until the final verdict.

According to the investigation, on January 23, the young man who participated in an unauthorized rally near Pushkin square “repeatedly attacked members of riot police and law enforcement with his hands and feet.”

During the investigation, Sayd-Muhammad Dzhumaev apologized to the officers. According to his lawyer, officers said that they had no personal claims. Initially the young man pleaded guilty, so his case was considered in a special order without the examination of evidence, but on the day of the announcement of the verdict, the court decided to reopen the investigation and consider the case in the general order.

On August 19, 2021 Sayd-Muhammad Dzhumaev was sentenced to five years in prison


The day after the rally, Adam Delimkhanov, a Russian State Duma deputy from the Chechen Republic, published a video in which he urged Dzhumaev to get in touch with him and then the regional authorities would help him.

The position of the Chechen authorities was first based on the fact that Dzhumayev did not support Navalny and, most likely, was at the rally by accident.

After the meeting with the young man’s relatives, the Chechen authorities announced that “the destruction of the institution of the family” was to blame for Dzhumayev’s actions. “If he had reached out to his father’s relatives, maintained kinship with everyone, he would have known how to behave,” Magomed Daudov, the speaker of the Chechen Parliament explained Dzhumayev’s behavior.

Arrest of this young student has caused a resonance with the Russian society.  Poems had been dedicated to him, thousands of people signed a petition in his support, created animated videos and merchandise with his image. Thousands of posts have been published on Instagram with the hashtag #свободуджумаеву (#freedzhumaev).

Why does the Memorial Center recognize Sayd-Muhammad Dzhumaev as a political prisoner?

Memorial, an international historical and civil rights society, does not believe Dzhumaev’s actions constitute a crime.

  • There was no damage or injury from the actions of Said-Muhammad Dzhumaev. The allegedly injured law enforcers wore full protective equipment with helmets and did not receive any injuries. Moreover, in court, they denied all claims of injury. The video recording from the protest shows that Dzhumaev’s actions had not caused any of them to fall, lose their balance or even stop hitting him with batons.
  • An unreasonably harsh sentence was imposed in Dzhumaev’s case: it clearly does not correspond to the practice of such charges. Even taking into account that the Russian courts apply Article 318 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation in “political” and other cases, Dzhumaev’s sentence stands out for its severity even against the background of other cases.
  • The law enforcement agencies’ assessment of the actions of the parties is asymmetrical. According to the “OVD-Info” media, on January 23, at least 64 protesters across Russia were injured by the actions of law enforcement officers. At the same time, not a single criminal case has been initiated against law enforcement officials. Only the demonstrators have been prosecuted.
  • Dzhumaev clashed with riot police during the illegal dispersal of a protest rally. The Russian authorities grossly violated the right of citizens to peaceful assembly, each of the protesters risked being illegally detained and beaten. The atmosphere of police violence during those hours suggests an element of necessary defense in Dzhumaev’s actions.

Based on the above, Memorial considers Sayd-Mukhamad Dzhumaev to be a political prisoner and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.

“Utterly Absurd”. Prison Sentence For Sharing Rammstein’s Video: The Case of Andrey Borovikov

Nov 11 2021

In April 2021, Andrey Borovikov, former leader of Aleksei Navalny’s regional office in the northwestern city of Arkhangelsk, Russia, was sentenced to 2.4 years in prison for “distribution of pornography”. In 2014, Borovikov reposted the “Pussy” music video by the German band Rammstein on Vkontakte social media, and in 2020 he deleted it from his page. But it didn’t help — the court declared the video “pornography not containing artistic value”. Rammstein band members, meanwhile, continue visit Russia unrestricted and even perform at government-funded concerts.

Who is Andrey Borovikov?

Andrey Borovikov was born on May 15, 1988 and resided in Arkhangelsk, in North-Western Russia. He is an eco-activist, a member of the movement “Pomorie Is Not a Dump”, worked as coordinator of a regional office of the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny. Borovikov has repeatedly participated in protest actions in his hometown and also took part in a large protest rally against a planned waste disposal project in the village of Shies in 2019. For his activism, Andrey Borovkov has become the target of government repressions.

Case Background

In 2014, Andrey shared music video “Pussy” by German band Rammstein on the Russian social network Vkontakte. The song itself had been released with a controversial and sexually explicit music video back in 2009. However, there is no official ban on this music video in Russia.

Five years later, in 2019, the video was noticed by Alexander Durynin, a former volunteer and social media manager of Navalny’s Arkhangelsk regional office, who later “became disillusioned with Navalny and left the office,” according to reports by Russian independent outlet Mediazona. In December 2019, he reported Borovikov’s post to the police and claimed that he was distributing pornography.

The initiation of a criminal case against Andrey was announced in September 2020. At around the same time he left his position as coordinator of Navalny’s regional office.

As part of the investigation, a sexological and cultural examination of music video took place. The court experts found the video to be of “pornographic nature” and “not containing artistic value.” At the same time, no other criminal cases have been opened in Russia because of the clip, despite the version marked 18+ having been shared by more than 200 users in social media Vkontakte alone and more than 20,000 users shared the version with explicit scenes blurred.

The activist has pleaded not guilty, stressing that this clip in the social media Vkontakte had been published by hundreds of other people.

According to prosecutors, Borovikov violated Article 242 of the Russian criminal code —distribution, public display or announcement of pornographic materials with use of mass media—when he shared the video in 2014.

On April 29, 2021, a court in Arkhangelsk found Borovikov guilty of “distributing pornography” by sharing the video. The prosecution requested a three-year sentence in a high security penal colony. Borovikov has been sentenced to two and half years in prison.

On July 15, 2021, the court reduced the sentence to two years and three months in a medium-security prison.


Immediately after the announcement of the verdict, Rammstein guitarist Richard Kruspe criticized the decision of the Russian court. “I very much regret that Borovikov has been sentenced to imprisonment for this. The harshness of this sentence is shocking. Rammstein has always stood up for freedom as a guaranteed basic right of all people,” Kruspe’s Instagram statement said.

Rammstein leader, singer Till Lindemann, who is very popular in Russia, has never publicly condemned the arrest of Borovikov, nor is he prosecuted for producing the video. Moreover, on September 4, 2021 he performed on Red Square in Moscow — he was a special guest at the “Spasskaya Tower” Military Music Festival funded by the government. Lindemann sang Mark Bernes’ song “Beloved City” in Russian. He was accompanied by three bands: the Military Band of the 154th Separate Commandant Preobrazhensky Regiment, the Demonstration Band of the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Russia and the Band of the Separate Division of the Operational Division of the National Guard.

Amnesty International said Borovikov was being “punished solely for his activism, not his musical taste.” “The case against Andrei Borovikov is utterly absurd,” said Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office Director.

In an address recorded few hours ahead of the arrest, Borovikov called on the residents of Arkhangelsk to keep up protests against the regime. “Dear brave people, real people, dear friends, we have long had to keep up with this regime, that has descended our country into Putin’s lawless abyss. We have been united by the spirit of protest, a spirit of protest for our home soil. And only during these protests it has become clear for us how hard it is for people to have one’s own opinion, to be proud, a proud citizen. Dear friends, whatever will happen to me, that must not affect your spirit of protest. Because loyalty and fear is exactly what Putin’s group of bandits desires. Don’t be afraid, and in all possible ways try to harm the regime of the dictator, even with the smallest of actions. Never, under no circumstances, vote for United Russia… We are risking our lives and freedom so that our motherland, our beloved Russia, can be free.”

Why does the Memorial Center recognize Andrey Borovikov as a political prisoner?

Memorial Center believes that criminal prosecution of Andrey Borovikov — a political, environmental and civic activist well-known in Arkhangelsk — has nothing to do with the declared aim of protecting public morals.

1. The investigation over many months of such a minor and even ridiculous criminal case seems absurd and can only be rationally explained by the political motives of the officers of the Russian Interior Ministry rather than any motivation related to the law.

2. Borovikov’s prosecution is clearly selective in nature.

3. It is difficult to classify the Rammstein music video for the song “Pussy” as purely pornographic in nature since this audiovisual work has artistic value and is a legitimate artefact of contemporary popular music culture. There are no grounds to suggest Borovikov perceived the video as some kind of prohibited ‘pornography’ or intended to distribute pornographic material. 4. Even if the investigative authority had concluded the video was pornographic, it should not have initiated criminal proceedings against Borovikov. Under Article 14, Part 2, of the Russian Criminal Code, “an act (or omission), even if it formally contains evidence of being an act that falls under this Code, does not constitute a crime if it presents a danger to the public of little significance.”


Prison Time for Two Tweets: The Case of Pavel Zelensky

Nov 09 2021

Who is Pavel Zelensky?

Pavel Zelensky was born on January 10, 1981. He was a camera operator for Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), which specializes in publishing high-impact investigations into what it says is official graft. Zelensky is married, with three minor children.

Case Background: Self-immolation of Journalist Irina Slavina’s

On October 2, 2020 “Koza.Press” editor-in-chief Irina Slavina self-immolated in front of the Interior Ministry’s regional offices in Nizhny Novgorod. Before she committed suicide, she posted on her Facebook page: “Please blame the Russian Federation for my death.” She was 47 years old.

The day before this tragedy, a law enforcement squad searched her home in connection with a criminal investigation into the activities of an “undesirable organization.” In 2019 and 2020, Slavina received several administrative sentences for her political position and journalistic activity.

Case Background: Pavel Zelensky

On the day of Slavina’s death, Pavel Zelensky, a cameraman who worked for the Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK, an organization the Russian authorities have unlawfully declared a foreign agent), published two posts on Twitter about the journalist’s self-immolation.

“Irina, forgive all of us, forgive that we have let this happen. It’s very hard for me to write this, it’s hard to think about it and feel, thank you for your life and deeds. With these words, I ask all of us to get up, wake up, stop tweeting and electronically worry. Let’s f*** with this unworthy government”.

These emotional tweets, expressing grief and rage toward Russian authorities (who he held responsible for the tragedy), were the reason for his criminal prosecution.

Zelensky was arrested on January 15, 2021. At the time of his arrest, he was beaten and forced to unlock his smartphone.

The state prosecution had reportedly requested a 2.5-year sentence for him.

Zelensky has pleaded guilty to the extremism charges in February 2021 and declined a lawyer offered by the human rights group Agora. FBK director Ivan Zhdanov suggested that Zelensky was subjected to intense pressure in pretrial detention. Zelensky’s wife has told the Russian outlet Mediazona that he had pleaded guilty in hopes of shortening his sentence after he learned his mother was sick with coronavirus.

On April 16, 2021 Moscow’s Tushinsky District Court found Zelensky guilty and sentenced him to two years in a penal colony. The activist was charged with the offence of inciting extremist activity (Article 280, Part 2, of the Russian Criminal Code).

On September 28, 2021, he was also accused under Part 2 of Article 282.1 of the Russian Criminal Code (“Participation in an extremist community”, up to 6 years in prison) in connection with participation in an allegedly extremist community created by Alexey Navalny.


The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) and the Russian Journalists and Media Worker’s Union (JMWU) have demanded Zelensky’s release.

“The Journalists’ Union is outraged by Zelenski’s arrest and by the allegations against him. We understand his shock, dismay, and indignation after the death of Irina Slavina. We are confident that there is no incitement to extremist actions in what Zelenski has written, but rather only emotion. No one should be put behind bars for their words.”

“Pavel Zelenski’s arrest is a totally disproportionate measure which is in fact intended to intimidate journalists covering Navalny’s news,” said EFJ General Secretary Ricardo Gutiérrez. “It is clearly an intimidation tactic.”

Why does the Memorial Center recognize Pavel Zelensky as a political prisoner?

Memorial, an international historical and civil rights society, does not believe Zelensky’s actions constitute a crime. Moreover, even if the content of his tweets would formally fall within the purview of the article of the Criminal Code concerning incitement of extremism, investigators should nonetheless not have initiated criminal proceedings given the evident lack of importance of his actions.

Zelensky’s expressive statements were a spontaneous reaction to the unlawful actions of the security forces that led to the death of Irina Slavina. They contain no calls for specific extremist actions and one of the two posts contains no call of any kind but is merely an emotional expression of an attitude towards individual public officials.

Zelensky is a supporter of the Russian democratic opposition and one of Aleksei Navalny’s associates who have consistently demonstrated their commitment to exclusively peaceful methods of protest.

The self-evidently unlawful imposition of pre-trial custody in relation to a charge for a minor offence on someone with no criminal record, who has several children and who did not seek to hide from the investigators and has a permanent job and place of residence should be noted. Remanding Zelensky in custody was disproportionate with regard to the actions with which he has been charged and the degree of danger to the public they represent.

It is clear to us that Pavel Zelensky has been subject to criminal prosecution solely on account of his political views and his work for the Anti-Corruption Foundation. His prosecution is part of an ongoing crackdown against Aleksei Navalny and his supporters. It is significant that the criminal case against Zelensky was opened on  January 12, 2021, the day the Federal Penitentiary Service threatened to replace Navalny’s suspended sentence in the trumped-up ‘Postal Case’ with a real term in prison. Zelensky was arrested on January 15, two days after Navalny announced his return to Moscow and two days before his arrival in Russia and wrongful arrest.

Running on empty: former energy executive remains in prison on scant evidence

Aug 04 2021

Karina Tsurkan, a former executive at an energy holding company, remains in prison on dubious charges of espionage. Originally from Moldova, Tsurkan began working in the Chisinau office of the state-owned company Inter RAO in 2005. She later moved to Moscow to work in the main office in 2007, and obtained Russian citizenship in 2016. In 2018, she was arrested under article 276 of the penal code of the Russian Federation. She was subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison. After being released for less than a month in 2020, she was forced to return to prison, and has remained there ever since. Tsurkan maintains her innocence. The human rights organization Memorial has recognized her as a political prisoner.

Personal and Professional Background

Karina Valierevna Tsurkan was born in Chisinau, Moldovan SSR, in 1974. Her mother, Irina Aganesova, an energy engineer, describes Tsurkan as a curious person who always enjoyed a challenge. She was keenly interested in energy, law, and foreign languages. As a child, she took an interest in her mother’s work and began learning about the energy sector. After high school, she enrolled in a degree program that was conducted primarily in Romanian, despite not being fluent in the language at that time. She graduated from the International University of Moldova with a law degree in 1995. She subsequently obtained an MBA from a university in Spain. Due to her diverse educational background, Tsurkan is fluent in Russian, Romanian, and Spanish.

After completing her education, Tsurkan founded a law firm with her then-husband, Alexander. The couple, who have one son, divorced in 2002. Around this time, Tsurkan changed careers and took a job at Gas Natural Fenosa, the largest energy company in Moldova. In 2005, she took a job at the Chisinau offices of Inter RAO, the Russian state-owned energy company and the country’s fourth-largest producer of power, which has offices in multiple countries throughout the former Soviet Union. In 2007, she was promoted and moved to Moscow to work in the main office. At Inter RAO, she was employed as the head of the company’s trading division. In that capacity, she oversaw electrical power trade between Ukraine, Romania, and Moldova. This included the breakaway regions of Transnistria, in Moldova, and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, in Ukraine.

In 2016, Tsurkan became a Russian citizen. She maintains that she renounced her Moldovan citizenship at that time and holds no other passport.

Current Case: 2018—Present

In 2018, Tsurkan was arrested on ambiguous charges. Although the precise essence of these charges varies from source to source, she stands accused of having shared classified information with an unidentified business contact. This individual is said to be of either Moldovan or Romanian nationality, and to have ties to the intelligence community in one or both of those countries. Tsurkan is accused to have shared the classified information with this individual in 2015. Because she still had Moldovan citizenship at that time, she was charged under article 276 (espionage) of the penal code, where a Russian national would have been charged under article 275 (treason). The prosecution sought to have Tsurkan imprisoned for eighteen years; she was sentenced to fifteen.

In connection with this case, the Russian Embassy in Romania has asserted that Tsurkan took Romanian citizenship in 2014, a charge which she denies. There have also been unsubstantiated rumors about Tsurkan’s personal relationships and the relevance they might bear to the charges.

Tsurkan maintains her innocence. In a 2018 interview with Meduza, she stated that she “would comment on the charges, if [she] understood them.” She willingly surrendered her computer, phone, and passwords to investigators, saying that she had nothing to hide. She stated that no law enforcement official had told her the name of the individual to whom she supposedly supplied classified information. She believes that she may have become a target because she “oversaw the implementation of corporate assignments in several complicated regions.”

Boris Kovalchuk, the son of Yuri Kovalchuk, a friend of Vladimir Putin, and the chairman of the board of Inter RAO, testified in Tsurkan’s favor at her trial. He said that he believed she had been framed by associates of Evgeny Shevchuk, the former self-proclaimed president of Transnistria (he now lives in Russia), who had objected to the presence of an Inter RAO power plant in the breakaway republic, and who is believed to have ties to intelligence agencies.

Tsurkan has said that conditions in the prison are poor and that the rights of prisoners are not respected. For example, while prisoners are legally entitled to unlimited contact with their lawyers, there is not sufficient space in the prison to facilitate these meetings. During her initial stay in prison, Tsurkan filled her time by studying Latin, German, and iconography. She told Meduza that she was worried about her mother and son, who were present in her apartment on the morning that she was arrested, and whom she had not been able to see since.

On January 16, 2020, Tsurkan was briefly released from prison. Twenty-three days later, she was forced to return. She has remained there ever since.

Political Prisoner Status

The human rights organization Memorial has recognized Tsurkan as a political prisoner on the grounds that she was denied her constitutional right to a fair trial, and was subsequently convicted on dubious evidence.

Tsurkan is not a typical political prisoner: she worked for a state-owned company and was not involved with any opposition movement. Her case demonstrates that it can happen to someone who does not fit the usual profile.