Putin foe describes ‘crazy’ inquiry into his Canadian citizenship after police raid
As an activist with an intense dislike of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pyotr Verzilov says having his Moscow apartment raided and his life turned upside down by police is something he has grown accustomed to.
But three weeks ago, when the last knock knocked on his door, Verzilov was caught off guard after being charged with an unexpected crime: failing to officially declare himself Canadian.
“I received a special notice that a criminal case has been opened against me for not declaring my Canadian passport,” he told CBC News in an interview at his home.
Verzilov, 33, is the publisher of an opposition website called Mediazona that presents itself as a watchdog for Russian police and law enforcement.
Police are looking for Canadian ‘evidence’
When CBC News visited, her natural brick-walled apartment in a fashionable Moscow neighborhood was still littered with personal belongings that investigators had pulled from her drawers and closets.
And the Federal Police sent one of its elite teams to do the search – members of the Anti-Extremism Unit, which are usually reserved for only the most serious crimes, such as terrorism.
“It sounds pretty crazy — and funny,” Verzilov said, noting that even the police conducting the search seemed embarrassed that he was being harassed for what amounts to a minor paperwork technicality.
“Investigators were joking about these things – about [finding] hockey sticks and maybe you have a beaver that lives in a compartment somewhere.”
The only beaver they found was a stuffed toy that is now on his couch.
Verzilov said he never tried to hide “evidence” of his Canadianness.
He has been arrested more than 50 times in Russia, and most of the accompanying news articles on the Internet refer to his dual nationality.
Still, he said investigators appeared to be looking for “evidence”.
“They seized several photocopies of letters sent by the Ontario government that were documents related to OHIP,” the province’s public health plan, Verzilov said.
“They seemed very interested in it.”
Security services crack down on opposition
But being under the scrutiny of the country’s security services for being part of Russia’s western-leaning liberal opposition has never been a laugh, especially now.
The days since the Kremlin staged a resounding victory for the ‘yes’ side in a July 1 referendum on constitutional reform have been punctuated by the arrest of government opponents and journalists .
The vote, which had been pushed back months due to the coronavirus pandemic, was Putin’s mechanism to ensure he can remain as Russia’s president for as long as he wants.
Last week, prominent defense journalist Ivan Safronov, who had just taken up a new post with the Russian space agency, was arrested and charged with treason in an action which, according to journalists’ organizations, aims to deter critics from publishing negative stories about the government.
Nineteen other journalists who protested Safronov’s arrest outside the Russian Federal Police building were also arrested.
Then, a few days later, another enemy of Putin – Sergei Furgal, the right-wing governor of Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East – was brought to trial and charged with more serious crimes: murder and attempted murder in cases dating back to 2003.
All week in the city, thousands of supporters took to the streets shouting “Putin is a thief” and calling for Furgal’s release.
Verzilov had just finished serving a 15-day prison sentence on what he claims was another false charge of ‘hooliganism’ after a man confronted him outside his home and the couple engaged in a howling match.
He said he thought the two incidents were a way for the security department to send him a warning.
“The Russian authorities are very scared that something new is happening, and they will basically have to answer for that…to their superiors and to Putin directly.”
An activist formed the punk band Pussy Riot
As a child and teenager, Verzilov said, he moved in with his father – who was a “distinguished nuclear scientist” and held numerous posts abroad, including a four-year stint in Toronto. When his father, who still lives in Canada, became a Canadian citizen, he did too.
It was after college in Moscow that Verzilov first came to prominence for his political activism – including the time in 2008 when he engaged in public sex acts with his wife Nadezhda Tolokonnikova at a Moscow museum in as part of an anti-government demonstration.
He went on to form the punk band Pussy Riot, which became synonymous with political protest in Russia after staging a lewd anti-Putin performance at Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral in February 2012.
Putin himself never directly mentioned either Pussy Riot or Verzilov by name, although his criticisms of their actions were widely reported.
“We have red lines beyond which the destruction of the moral foundations of our society begins,” Putin said in 2012, Reuters reported. “If people cross that line, they should be held accountable according to law.”
A poll by the independent Levada Center following the cathedral incident also showed broad popular support for the two-year sentence in a penal colony that was handed down against the three members of the group, including Tolokonnikova.
In 2018, Verzilov and other members of Pussy Riot were arrested after storming the pitch during a World Cup soccer match in Moscow between Croatia and France as Putin watched from the bleachers. This stunt earned him 15 days in prison and earned him the ire of many players and fans.
“Obviously, the culture of protest is gradually going up and down – and we think there will definitely be a tipping point when it reaches the ‘enough’ point that will force the regime to embrace the political freedoms we’re fighting for. let’s fight,” Verzilov told CBC News.
The Canadian Embassy was “helpful”
Global Affairs in Ottawa said it could not comment on Verzilov’s passport case for confidentiality reasons.
While the Canadian embassy in Moscow has been ‘helpful’, Verzilov said he doesn’t expect his Canadian citizenship issue to be resolved until late summer after a trial and sentencing .
He said he expects his punishment will be many hours of community service.