On the night of March 29, the Belarusian authorities arrested Alexey Moskalev, the single father from Russia’s Tula region who fled house arrest the previous day, shortly before he was to face trial for allegedly “discrediting” the Russian army. At the hearing, the court found him guilty and sentenced him to two years in prison, while ordering his sixth-grade daughter to be placed in state custody. Moskalev’s arrest was first reported by Russian independent media and later confirmed by the Belarusian Interior Ministry. His current location remains unclear. Meduza spoke with lawyer Dmitry Zakhvatov, who was in contact with Moskalev during his escape, about how the Russian and Belarusian intelligence services managed to find and detain him.
Until recently, 54-year-old Alexey Moskalev was a bird breeder in the town of Yefremov, where he was raising his sixth-grade daughter, Masha, on his own. Masha’s mother moved to a different city when her daughter was three years old.
Moskalev first appeared on the Russian authorities’ radar in April 2022, when Masha drew an anti-war picture with the words “No to war” and “Glory to Ukraine” at school.
After FSB officers brought Masha in for an interrogation, they charged her father with a misdemeanor for allegedly “discrediting” the Russian army in posts and comments he had made on social media. Then, late last year, the authorities opened a felony case against him for repeatedly “discrediting” the army, citing other statements he had made online. Moskalev told journalists that during his initial interrogation regarding the new charges, FSB officers beat his “head against the wall and against the floor.”
In early March 2023, Alexey Moskalev was arrested and then put on house arrest. Masha was taken into state custody.
Soon after Moskalev’s arrest, a Change.org petition demanding Masha’s release from the shelter received 145,000 signatures.
On March 28, Moskalev was sentenced to two years in prison. Hours before the sentence was announced, however, he fled house arrest.
— Did Alexey Mosalev contact you himself? Why?
— I can’t share that information.
— You’ve written that he sent you a letter from his daughter, Masha.
— Yes, he sent me the letter. But I can’t talk about how he sent it.
— Was Alexey in contact with his daughter during this time?
— I don’t know.
— How did you react to the news about his escape? In your view, was it the right decision?
— The man was saving his freedom. It’s always better to be free than captive. The man was saving himself from the actions of a fascist law that’s not [a legitimate part of] the rule of law. It was his choice, and it should be respected.
— Can you say how exactly Alexey escaped from house arrest and got to Minsk?
— I don’t know all the details, and if I knew, I wouldn’t say.
— Could you explain why exactly you can’t talk about it?
— On February 24, 2022, we all woke up in [a country with] a fully-formed fascist dictatorship. In March 2022, a number of laws were added to the Criminal Code that are inherently fascist. They were passed specifically in order to punish people for having an absolutely reasonable, correct opinion.
Here’s what that means for residents of the Russian Federation: they can end up in a situation where they willingly or inadvertently face persecution from the state. A person might even say something not publicly but in a phone conversation, like what happened in the case of former police officer Sergey Vedel (Klokov). Or he might say something “anti-Soviet” in the kitchen while celebrating his birthday. Sometimes, in situations like that, the only way to save your freedom is to flee.
More people are going to face persecution from the authorities for expressing their opinions. And the more information we give about how to search for escapees, the lower their odds of success will be.
— Returning to the topic of Masha’s letter. You’ve written that Alexey asked you to publish it. Did you talk about when the best time to do this would be? [And] how it might be better to hold off until Alexey himself had reached safety? To avoid drawing more attention to the situation?
— Even without the letter, this case would have gotten a huge amount of attention. I’m not going to say why it was published at that precise moment. I can’t say to what degree it affected his arrest [in Minsk]. We’ll likely learn more about that later.
— [One person who] commented on Alexey Moskalev’s escape was former [Russian state news agency] Channel One employee Marina Ovsyannikova. In your view, should she have said anything?
— Marina Ovsyannikova didn’t say anything [new] at all. First of all, she said that she [herself] fled, which is common knowledge, since she’s not in prison but in Paris. Secondly, she said that some of the people who were involved in the Moskalev family’s situation also participated in her escape. Is it possible to glean anything useful from this information? I don’t think so.
— I don’t know; I’m not an FSB officer or a Belarusian KGB officer.
— Imagine you’re an officer, and you’re trying to get something useful from that information. And you’ll understand whether it’s possible to connect it in such a way as to lead to Moskalev’s capture.
— I would immediately connect it to you, since Ovsyannikova said that you’re one of the people who helped her escape. And [I would connect] you with Pussy Riot and the story of Maria Alyokhina’s escape. And that would give me an idea of where to search for Alexey Moskalev.
— I wasn’t with Alexey Moskalev. It [was] well-known that he fled. It’s also well-known that [Maria] Alyokhina is located outside of the Russian Federation along with [fellow Pussy Riot member] Lyusya Shtein. It’s well-known that Marina Ovsyannikova is also located outside of the Russian Federation. How are those things connected? Only in that they all fled politically motivated prosecution. Nothing more.
— Yes, but we know, for example, that Maria Alyokhina fled Russia through Belarus.
— Belarus is large. Try to find a person even in a big, long building, if you don’t know where exactly to look. The [authorities’] search is conducted exclusively through the use of cellular and geolocation data analysis, as well as traffic tracking systems. It’s most likely that this is exactly what happened in Alexey’s case, but we probably won’t learn the details until later.
— How did you learn that Moskalev had been arrested?
— I can’t reveal that information.
— Do you still not know Alexey’s [current] location?
— No, [I don’t].
— On your Telegram channel, you described several possibilities for how Alexey’s situation could proceed, from his sentence being reconsidered and his daughter being returned in exchange for a public “repentance,” to even more charges being “tacked on” to his case. Which of these possibilities seems most likely to you?
— It depends on the people who are commenting on this situation. If they can find the strength to stop blaming each other and take care of business. In other words, if they start [characterizing] the situation as a mess and an outrage on the parts of both the Belarusian authorities and the Russian ones. [And saying] that it violates not even just the law but the most basic norms of public decency, including the “family values” that the authorities themselves claim [to care about]. Then, perhaps, the outcome of the case will be a bit better than if this endless name-calling about who said what wrong continues.
— Have you gotten any accusations in that regard?
— Towards myself, no. I’ve seen accusations against Marina Ovsyannikova. She’s once again being accused of having links to [Russian] intelligence, which is nonsense. The woman was granted asylum on the territory of a European country, because [the authorities there] knew her story and the persecution her family was facing. But despite all that, people are making absolutely moronic accusations.
In the KGB propaganda playbook, this is called the “rotten herring method.” It’s when completely insane accusations are leveled against a person, and they’re so insane that the person soaks up the scent of the allegations. That’s the scent of the “”rotten herring.”
— What’s going to happen to Alexey Moskalev now? Will his escape have an impact on his position?
— From a legal standpoint, fleeing house arrest can lead to the tightening of pre-trial restrictions; in other words, incarceration.
— After Moskalev’s escape, there were quite a few statements from people who have fled Russian at various times in the past. What do you think about that?
— Here’s my opinion: disclosing details is really bad. Note how that very same Marina Ovsyannikova behaves when she talks about this story. She doesn’t reveal any information. She says: “I escaped through forests and fields.” She doesn’t say in what direction, on what road, in what clothes, in what wigs, what disguise her daughter wore, what means of communication they used, who transported them, what vehicles they used, or what country they went to. She’s silent on those issues, and rightly so. And the people who talk about those things are doing a disservice to civil society.
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— Is it still possible to help a person who’s being persecuted to flee Russia?
— I believe it’s possible.
— You helped Marina Ovsyannikova escape. Do you think it’s right for a lawyer to do that?
— Here’s the principle I’m guided by. Do you have the chance to save a person and his children from humiliation, from being separated from their family, from possible death in prison due to abusive treatment in case of obviously politically motivated prosecution, like what happened to Marina? Then just do it, no matter what, and may God help you. Come what may.
I’ll repeat once more: a fascist law is not [a legitimate part of] the rule of law. This law, which contains direct and blatant discrimination on the basis of a citizen’s attitude towards an aggressive, predatory, and illegal war, which has been designated as such by a U.N. resolution, is not legitimate. It’s legally void: its application, from a legal perspective, should not entail any legal consequences except for rehabilitation and damage compensation for the illegal criminal prosecution in the national jurisdiction.
In international jurisdictions, the application of this kind of law to a citizen by the Russian authorities gives him the right to apply for political asylum in another country in accordance with the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees. This is on the one hand.
On the other hand, if Russia’s “courts” and “investigative bodies” believe they can apply these kinds of laws in practice, they need to reread the Nuremberg Principles, especially Principle VI.
— Are you going to assist Alexey Moskalev now? Is there anything you can do?
— This is the most awful, most outrageous and despicable story in recent memory. It’s an unbelievable disgrace for all of the organizers and everyone involved in the persecution of Alexey and his daughter. I’ll be following Alexey’s fate very closely. Whether there’s anything I can do to help him will become clear in the process.
Translation by Sam Breazeale