On April 6, the Russian Civic Chamber removed human rights activist Marina Litvinovich from Moscow’s Public Monitoring Commission (ONK), an organization tasked with overseeing the observance of prisoners’ rights. Allegedly, Litvinovich was suspended for “multiple ethical violations.” Meduza correspondents Maxim Solopov and Ivan Golunov dug into the Moscow ONK’s internal workings to find out who’s really in control, why so many members are from Moscow’s Mitino district, and how a union for security guards factors in.
On April 2, a special commission from Russia’s Civic Chamber reviewed the Chamber Council’s decision to exclude Marina Litvinovich from Moscow’s Public Monitoring Commission (ONK), a move that the majority of the council members (22 of 32) voted for on March 5. Moscow ONK deputy chairman Nikolai Zuyev submitted the issue to the commission, which upheld the recommendation that Litvinovich be excluded.
“It’s the first time in our commission’s history that a human rights defender has denounced another human rights defender,” Litvinovich told the news site Rosbalt. “If we were talking about actual human rights defenders, this situation would never happen.” Litvinovich is accused of having violated Russia’s ONK law when she allegedly divulged information from an investigation into opposition figure Lyubov Sobol, an associate of jailed opposition politician Alexey Navalny, in an interview with TV Rain.
But Litvinovich is confident she didn’t break the law, since she only spoke to reporters about the investigation itself, specifically about nighttime interrogations and the confiscation of Sobol’s shoes and mask. “I informed citizens about what was happening with Lyubov Sobol’s case — that’s my job as an ONK member,” she said.
This wasn’t the first time Litvinovich spoke to the media in her capacity as an ONK member. She previously spoke to reporters about the conditions of detention of former governor Sergey Furgal and journalist Ivan Safronov. She also spoke out about the problems facing detainees in the Sakharovo detention center, where many were held after being arrested at pro-Navalny rallies on January 31, 2021. Later, at the end of March, Litvinovich visited Boris Shpigel, head of the pharmaceutical company Biotech, who was arrested for allegedly taking bribes. She passed on journalists’ questions and reported back with Shpigel’s answers.
Meduza’s sources from the Moscow ONK leadership declined to comment on this story, citing the restrictions imposed by the ONK’s internal ethics code. They did, however, claim that Zuyev was simply “complying with regulations” — according to them, the commission has received multiple complaints about Litvinovich’s violations.
At the Civic Chamber special commission meeting, ONK chairman Georgy Volkov claimed that the ONK had “turned a blind eye” to complaints about Litvinovich for “quite some time,” but that the constant “politicization of the ONK” had forced commission members to submit a motion calling for her resignation to the Civic Chamber.
In an interview with Kommersant, Litvinovich said she received her first formal warning from the Moscow ONK leadership in January 2021, after she recommended a lawyer to the family of an elderly scientist accused of treason: “I got in touch with a lawyer from the human rights group Team 29 and gave his contact information to the scientist’s son.” A relative of the defendant, however, found other defense lawyers — and filed a complaint against Litvinovich, accusing her of forcing a specific lawyer on them.
After the second warning — for “disclosing investigation data” related to the Sobol case — the Moscow ONK had grounds to pursue Litvinovich’s removal.
The law under which the ONK operates was passed in 2008. Commissions were created to ensure “public control over ensuring human rights in places of forced detention” as well as “assistance to persons in places of forced detention.”
It was lawmakers’ intention that these commissions consist of candidates from human rights organizations. Valery Borshchev, a former Moscow ONK chairman, and well-known Soviet dissident and Russian human rights activist, is one of the law’s co-authors. According to him, the Civic Chamber’s council used to rely on the opinion of a special committee of experts to select candidates. Gradually, though, more and more people from law enforcement agencies began showing up on the commissions — former prison employees, investigators, and members of public security organizations.
In 2013, having served in the ONK since its founding, Borschev lost his post as chairman. He was replaced by Anton Tsvetkov, the former leader of the organization Officers of Russia. Tsvetkov’s supporters dominated the commission at the following two sessions, but since 2019, all of the key posts have been held by a little-known, tight-knit group of activists. These people know one another well from other projects, and they all have connections to Moscow’s Mitino district.
The ‘Good Technologies’ clan
Moscow ONK chairman Georgy Volkov is an avid social media user. The 38-year-old frequently shares pictures of himself with his motorcycle, Kalashnikov assault rifle, and sporting equipment.
Volkov was born in the town of Stepnogorsk in northern Kazakhstan, but he’s lived in Moscow’s Mitino district for most of his life. He told Meduza his business career began when he was 19 years old: first, he repaired and sold computers, then moved on to other IT work, in addition to investing in the securities market and trading. According to the business database Spark-Interfax, Volkov was also a small business owner beginning in 2002. He closed his last proprietorship in 2015.
In 2009, Volkov and his housemate, 28-year-old Dmitry Rekk, started a law firm called MDA Group; a year later, they started a private security company called Megapolis. By 2017, both companies had been liquidated for effectively ceasing operations. Volkov told Meduza that when MDA Group and Megapolis were created, he and his companions were developing a home security system business; they planned to use the same security license they had obtained for Megapolis.
In December 2015, Volkov registered another organization, this time from his apartment on the Pyatnitskoe highway. It was called Good Technologies, and he was the only founder, in addition to being the company’s president. The website listed the company’s main goals as the promotion of sports and healthy living, as well as the “prevention and treatment of gaming and computer addiction.”
Volkov told Meduza that in the mid-2000s, he was using his own money to support elderly people in need in Moscow’s North-Western Administrative District, including in Mitino. As he became more interested in public service, he decided to establish a foundation “to make it easier to cooperate” with local officials. “In the end, it didn’t really turn out to be necessary,” Volkov said.
At least three current ONK members have connections to his foundation, and several others have connections to the Mitino district, where Volkov grew up.
The commission includes former Good Technologies vice president Damir Yenayev, Mitino resident Vadim Voronin (whose brother Yevgeny — also a former Good Technologies employee — is a former Moscow ONK member). Moscow ONK deputy chairman Bogdan Ebert, a 29-year-old who ran in the municipal elections in Mitino in 2017, also worked for Good Technologies. Another one of Volkov’s deputies, 29-year-old Nikolay Zuyev, voted in that same election — it was Zuyev who initiated Marina Litvinovich’s expulsion from the ONK.
On a form for deputy candidates, Zuyev indicated that he works as a security guard for the security company Temiks, though he was nominated for the ONK by Shield, an organization that provides assistance to people with disabilities, according to Elena Masyuk, a reporter for Novaya Gazeta and a Moscow ONK member herself. Kirill Manoshin, another ONK deputy chairman who represents Shield, also has connections to Mitino. Along with Volkov, Manoshin is a member of the Western Administrative District Interior Ministry Public Council and oversees the Mitino district police department.
Moscow ONK executive secretary Alexey Melnikov has connections to Mitino, as well. A graduate of Mitino School No. 1943 and an activist during his student days at Moscow Aviation Institute, Melnikov eventually started creating and promoting websites. Among other things, he served as an admin for a social media group called “Overheard in Mitino.” (In the 2019 Moscow City Duma elections, Melnikov ran as an independent candidate with support from the Communist Party in the sixth single-mandate district; he was beaten by Yabloko party member Evgeny Bunimovich.)
Despite the obvious connections, Volkov insists he met most of these people in the Moscow ONK. “[For example,] I knew [Bogdan] Ebert through sports. He’s a great person, an athlete, and he helps disabled kids. Several of them recommended him themselves. I gave support to people who wanted to be involved in public service.”
Volkov recalled how, after he founded Good Technologies, an acquaintance requested his help in finding out the fate of someone being held in a pre-trial detention center. Volkov followed several community activists on social media, including fellow Mitino resident Pavel Pyatnitsky, a former LDPR employee and Moscow ONK member. That’s when Volkov first learned of the ONK’s existence; he reached out to Mikhail Senkevich, Pyatnitsky’s closest friend on the commission.
Senkevich is a parishioner of the Pentecostal Christian Church, whose members are known for preaching in prisons; Senkevich himself spent 17 years behind bars. Volkov asked him to help a detainee in a pre-trial detention center. “That’s how I started helping Senkevich as a volunteer: with transportation, as well as some other technical things,” Volkov told Meduza.
In 2016, Volkov applied to join the ONK’s next session. According to his acquaintances, he visited more detention facilities than any other commission member. His ONK colleagues noted that he frequently went to the pre-trial detention center with Pyatnitsky.
Pyatnitsky himself was at the center of several high-profile stories at the time. His ONK colleague, Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Masyuk, published a series of articles accusing Pyatnitsky of trying to take money from detainees’ relatives in exchange for improved living conditions in the detention center. Eventually, though, Pyatnitsky left the ONK — not because of Masyuk’s stories, but because he was detained for firing a non-lethal weapon into the air in downtown Moscow.
Today, Pyatnitsky is a popular blogger who uses social media to advertise his legal center. Pyatnitsky’s legal service cost about 150,000 rubles (about $2,000) per month. According to his website, Pyatnitsky “continues to maintain working relations with his former colleagues, both in the Moscow ONK and in other organizations.”
Volkov insists he has no connection to Pyatnitsky’s business activities and that he’s even left his own business largely to others in order to focus more on community work. He explained his interest in the ONK by saying that in addition to moral satisfaction, commission membership provides useful connections. For example, he now works closely with Entrepreneurs’ Rights Commissioner Tatyana Mineyeva — while ONK secretary Alexey Melnikov has announced plans to run for State Duma in a single-mandate district.
Volkov’s friends and colleagues from the ONK told Meduza that in contrast to “public-facing human rights defenders,” their work is “not always noticeable” simply because they try to avoid public announcements (supposedly at detainees’ request) and don’t devote extra attention to “famous and political detainees.” In fact, according to Volkov and his colleagues, they’re the ones who visit detention facilities most actively and file complaints to the Prosecutor’s Office and the Investigative Committee to try to improve conditions for detainees.
“Volkov really keeps the pressure on police officers and the FSIN [Federal Penitentiary Service] to respond to ONK complaints, but if you want to act from a position of strength, you have to obey the law ‘On Public Oversight’ [which regulates ONK activity],” said an ONK member close to Volkov. He denies that Volkov or anyone else on the commission is lobbying on behalf of security agencies, claiming that Volkov “is just trying to protect the ONK from security force attacks.”
Nonetheless, all the leaders of the Moscow ONK — Volkov, Zuyev, Ebert, Manoshin, Melnikov — were listed as members of the Non-State Security Sector Coordination Council (KS NSB), an informal association of public and private security service employees.
Moscow’s suburban ‘Elite’
Dmitry Galochkin, one of the leaders of the KS NSB, has long been associated with Russia’s public monitoring commissions, and is currently serving his third term as a member of Moscow’s ONK. The website for Guardians of Russia, a movement founded by Galochkin, contains pictures of ONK deputy chairman Nikolai Zuyev and ONK secretary Alexey Melnikov on its “Activists” page. Both are wearing Guardians of Russia badges.
The site’s “Ideology” page includes five quotes from Vladimir Putin — for example, “Russia will always be a country of opportunities.” One section is titled “Enemies of Putin are enemies of Russia.”
ONK Chairman Georgy Volkov has been working with the KS NSB for at least five years. At first, he represented the nonprofit organization of Mikhail Senkevich, the Pentecostal Christian, who led the KS NSB’s Council on Social Reintegration. Senkevich began his public monitoring work in 2010, when he and Galochkin both joined the Tula region’s ONK. In 2013, both joined the Moscow commission.
That same year, Dmitry Galochkin and then-head of the Moscow City Duma Security Commission Inna Svyatenko initiated the creation of the KS NSB. The association’s official goal was to coordinate among the numerous organizations in the security industry. The Council’s first chairman was former FSB director Nikolai Kovalyov.
Also included in KS NSB leadership were Federation Council Security Committee chairman Viktor Ozerov, senator Franz Klintsevich, and deputies Andrey Lugovoy and Dmitry Sablin. Galochkin has known Lugovoy and Sablin for many years, an acquaintance of his told Meduza.
Galochkin was an active participant in Sablin’s ultra-conservative “Anti-Maidan” movement, but it was when he used KS NSB resources to help mobilize dozens of volunteers to participate in the annexation of Crimea that he really found favor with security officials. (Galochkin was awarded the Defense Ministry medal “For the Return of Crimea”).
In the 1990s, Galochkin worked on the security team for Most, Vladimir Gusinsky’s joint-stock company, whose leadership included former KGB Fifth Directorate chief Filipp Bobkov. In the early 2000s, Galochkin helped found a security organization called Elite, which selected and trained bodyguards for businessmen and rapid response teams to protect commercial properties. According to someone who knows Galochkin, a number of wards of Russian Kickboxing Federation head Vadim Ukrainov served as security guards in Elite. Galochkin is mentioned on the organization’s website as a Board of Trustees member.
According to Galochkin, Elite arose as an “association of security workers.” In the early 2000s, after property distribution had been completed in Russia, many security agencies for oligarchs and large corporations were effectively disbanded, and their employees, including Galochkin, were forced to look for new jobs. Elite eventually grew into an entire union for the non-governmental security sector; it was even a member of the Russian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, led by Mikhail Shmakov.
All of the ONK members Meduza spoke to recalled the procedure by which the current ONK chairman was chosen: Galochkin demanded that honorary chairman, Andrey Babushkin, leave the premises, then proceeded to take over as chairman himself.
There were ultimately two main candidates for ONK chairman: Georgy Volkov and journalist Eva Merkacheva. Every commission member could vote for multiple candidates, and Volkov won the most votes. In an interview with Meduza, Galochkin insisted that he couldn’t have influenced the outcome of the vote, and “someone just needed to call everyone to order.”
Both Galochkin and members of Volkov’s team insist that first met as ONK members. “Galochkin has a habit of signing everyone he meets up for his team,” said a source who knows Volkov.
Galochkin himself referred to Volkov’s associates as people who don’t depend on him. “These guys are just active. I hope they don’t burn out too quickly. The problem is that here [in Russia] civil society activities are supported by grants from the West, which a number of human rights defenders are eager to get, preventing it from reaching those who need it. As a result, the real civil society is represented by industry and business associations.”
Under the control of Putin’s administration
One of Galochkin’s acquaintances suspects that he didn’t decide to join the ONK on his own initiative — he was drawn into it by Civic Chamber Deputy Secretary Vladislav Grib, one of the founders of the influential Russian Lawyers’ Association.
Galochkin and Grib have known each other at least since 2007, when Galochkin joined the editorial board of the magazine Man and Law, owned by Grib’s publishing company Yurist. In that same period, Galochkin’s partner in the security business, Victor Schendrik, was the head of a joint stock company called Open Construction Investment Market (ORSI); Grib became a shareholder through an LLC called “Man and Law” Magazine.
According to Kommersant, ORSI managed bankrupt builders’s assets and tried to set up an exchange to sell developers’ debts. The firm became widely known in February 2009, when it acquired RIGroup, a bankrupt development company that belonged to Janna Bullock, the wife of former Moscow finance minister Alexey Kuznetsov, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison for embezzlement and misappropriation of funds. SMP Bank cofounder Arkady Rotenberg and Rostech executive Mikhail Shelkov were also ORSI shareholders at various times.
In 2012, the presidential administration put Grib in control of the formation of supervisory commissions, according to a source who knows Galochkin. At that time, Internal Policy Department deputy head Radiy Khabirov was overseeing the Civic Chamber. According to Galochkin’s acquaintance, it was Grib who coordinated the ONK membership lists in the presidential administration, as he also headed a specially created ONK formation task force at that time. In 2013, Galochkin became part of the Moscow ONK, as well.
According to official protocol, ONK lists must be approved by the Civic Chamber Council. The council, however, previously relied on the task force’s recommendations, and later on the Permanent Commission on Cooperation with the ONK, to make its decision, according to commission members. Officially, both the council and special commission leaders must be confirmed by all members of the chamber; in practice, though, some chamber members are chosen by presidential decree, while others are nominated by regional Civic Chambers.
As a result, dedicated entities from the presidential administration are involved with the selection of all candidates, according to Meduza’s sources.
These same officials also coordinate the ONK member lists, taking into account both FSB and FSIN employees’ opinions, according to a source who previously participated in ONK formation negotiations.
Until 2015, the Civic Chamber fell under the purview of the Presidential Administration’s internal policy department, followed by the public projects department. Internal policy department officials focused on cooperation with the regional authorities, while public projects department officials focused on organizing official events and collaborating with the ruling party’s political coalition, the All-Russian People’s Front.
Working with human rights defenders usually holds little interest for presidential administration officials and generally concerns senior law enforcement officials instead.
According to Meduza’s source, Grib is good at finding common ground with law enforcement. He’s currently the vice president of the Federal Lawyers’ Chamber, in addition to serving on the public councils of a number of agencies interested in working with the ONK, including the FSB, the Justice Ministry, and the Presidential Affairs Department.
In 2017, Grib became the Civic Chamber deputy secretary, but the current Commission on Cooperation with the ONK in the Civic Chamber is led by Alexander Vorontsov — a former Tula regional prosecutor’s office employee and the leader of the local Russian Lawyers’ Association branch. Vorontsov also led the Tula ONK when Mikhail Senkevich and Dmitry Galochkin were members. Vorontsov’s senior deputy is Mikhail Anichkin — a former KGB employee, an expert on private military companies, and an executive member of the KS NSB.
Grib himself declined to comment on the ONK situation, claiming not to have had any connection to the commission formation process since 2014. In the law enforcement agencies’ public councils he serves on, he said, he simply represents the legal community’s interests.
A source from the Presidential Human Rights Council told Meduza that the decision to exclude Litvinovich from the ONK was made at the highest possible level: by the head of the presidential administration’s public projects department, Sergey Novikov. According to the source, who has taken part in the ONK candidate selection process, FSB and FSIN employees play a defining role in these kinds of decisions.
Under former FSIN director Gennady Kornienko, Kornienko’s colleague from the State Courier Service Valery Maksimenko was responsible for the department’s work with human rights defenders. Maksimenko, however, was arrested in a criminal case led by the FSB’s Department “M” (responsible for work related to the police, the Prison Service, prosecutors’ offices, and courts). The new FSIN director Alexander Kalashnikov once worked in that very department. Maksimenko’s responsibilities have now been delegated to former Voronezh FSIN Institute head Valery Balan, who began his career in the St. Petersburg prison system.
According to a source familiar with the presidential administration’s work with the Civic Chamber, however, coordination on the ONK lists in the presidential administration and security forces simply isn’t possible. “There are thousands of them,” he said. The law allows an ONK of up to 40 people to be formed in each of Russia’s 89 federal subjects. In most of them, however, much fewer than 40 people are willing to serve on the commissions.
For Russian speakers who want to learn more about this case, Meduza’s Vladislav Gorin spoke to Marina Litvinovich about her exclusion from the Moscow ONK on a recent podcast episode. You can listen to it below.
All episodesiTunesRSS-потокGoogle PodcastsSpotifyCastboxЯндекс.МузыкаBookmateYouTubeМарину Литвинович (как и ожидалось) выгнали из ОНК. Когда-то она работала на Путина, а теперь стала одной из самых известных правозащитниц в России00:0022:55
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale