MOSCOW — At 11 a.m. they knocked at her door. On Tuesday morning, a dozen officials from the Russian Investigative Committee arrived to search Zoya Svetova’s apartment. The 57-year-old human-rights defender and journalist is acknowledged internationally as a leading expert on the repressive methods of the state, prison institutions, and violations committed by Russian law-enforcement agencies. Now they were in her home in the heart of Moscow.
Eight hours into the search, Svetova, her 18-year-old daughter, her husband, and dog still could not leave the apartment. It took a long time for the officials to go through all the private belongings. There were too many books in Svetova’s library; there was too much art around her spacious apartment, too many notes between children, parents, and grandparents. The house could be a private history museum of Soviet and post-Soviet repressions.
News of the search was greeted with a dark sense of déja vu by everybody who knew Svetova and her family.
Once over tea in the kitchen of her home, Svetova told me about the arrests of both of her parents, Feliks Svetov and Zoya Krakhmalnikova, dissident writers in Soviet times. In 1982, just like this morning, the KGB came to search her mother’s books and notes.
The oldest of her four children, Filipp, was still a baby then. The officers looked everywhere, even between the sheets of Filipp’s little baby bed. “My children know what the KGB and the Gulag are like. They grew up hearing about repressions from my parents, from us,” Svetova said in the interview.
During the raid at Svetova’s house on Tuesday, her three sons—Filipp, Timofei, and Tikhon, all well-known journalists—tried to reach their parents on the phone but in vain.
“It was just the same back on January, 23, 1985, on the day of my birthday, when my mother tried to reach her home on the phone, to tell the happy news: They raided my grandfather Feliks Svetov’s home then,” Svetova’s son Timofei Dzyadko wrote on Facebook. Svetova’s parents were freed only in 1987, thanks to the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev.
For many years under Putin’s rule, Svetova has reported stories about Russian authorities violating human rights. As a member of a commission monitoring prisons, Svetova reported on the life of inmates from the inside of Russia’s jails. She reported her stories for independent outlets, including the OpenRussia.org website that is sponsored by Russia’s most famous ex-prisoner, President Vladimir Putin’s powerful critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
On the day Putin pardoned Khodorkovsky in December 2013, after 10 long years keeping him in prison, the former oil tycoon moved abroad. In an ideal world, Khodorkovsky could have developed into a global philanthropist, a Russian George Soros. But Khodorkovsky kept a narrower focuse. As with Soros’s Open Democracy organization, Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia aimed to bring about social change by supporting civil society. It is still very active. In an interview Tuesday, Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia team members told The Daily Beast about eight new projects, all recently launched.
From his home in London, Khodorkovsky spends his money and time supporting the Russian opposition, as well as sponsoring the future Russian intellectual and technocratic elites: scientists, economists, IT experts, and journalists.
Russian authorities have not welcomed Khodorkovsky and his money developing civil society Russia, and his team in Moscow has been under tremendous pressure ever since an international court of arbitration ruled in the summer of 2014 that Russia had to pay $50 billion for taking over Khodorkovsky’s company Yukos and expropriating its assets. In 2015, a Russian court even charged him in absentia with murder.
Beginning in December that year, investigators searched the homes of more than a dozen of Khodorkovsky’s employees, looking for any evidence related to the ongoing legal investigation against his Yukos oil company.
The official justification for the search of Svetova’s house was related to the investigation into “stolen assets” supposedly taken from Yukos by Khodorkovsky, since he has funded some of her reporting.
“This raid at Svetova’s house is a threatening gesture, meant to suppress and break her free independent spirit,” Stanislav Belkovsky, an independent analyst and Rain TV host told The Daily Beast.
According to Maria Baronova, Open Russia project coordinator, “For over a year the investigators of Yukos case have been interrogating and searching the homes of our employees, whose tax declarations they found during the previous raids.”
As an opposition activist, Baronova herself has experienced hours of intimidating interrogations. A few years ago state social workers threatened to take her little son away from her, she told The Daily Beast.
When, a year ago, officials raided the house of Khodorkovsky’s spokeswoman, Kulle Pispanen, they brought a saw with them. “At first I did not want to open the door until our lawyer arrived, but then I heard the sounds of them sawing my door and let them in before they terrified my 7-year-old daughter,” Pispanen told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. Officials searched Pispanen’s apartment for about 12 hours, seized computers, phones and even old discs with Pispanen’s Radio Free Europe shows. “We are all aware that we take risks working for Open Russia but that is the choice we make,” Pispanen told The Daily Beast.
All day Tuesday, Svetova’s friends and readers discussed the raid on social networks. A crowd of journalists and friends, including some prominent cultural figures, waited outside of her door, sitting on the staircase. Once, Svetova popped out of the door to thank everybody who came to support her and her family.
Her voice was soft but strong, and unbroken, as always.