World

Putin foe describes 'crazy' investigation into his Canadian citizenship after police search

As an activist with an intense dislike for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pyotr Verzilov says having his Moscow apartment searched and his life turned upside down by police is something he's grown used to. But now he's accused of an unexpected crime.

Activist Pyotr Verzilov tells CBC News why Russian authorities are prosecuting him

Pyotr Verzilov, who has dual Russian-Canadian citizenship, is surrounded by boxes and files — and a stuffed beaver toy — after police searched his Moscow apartment three weeks ago. (Alexei Sergeev/CBC)

As an activist with an intense dislike for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pyotr Verzilov says having his Moscow apartment searched and his life turned upside down by police is something he's grown used to.

But three weeks ago when the latest knock came at his door, Verzilov was caught off-guard after being accused of an unexpected crime: failing to officially declare himself a Canadian.

"I got a special notice saying that a criminal case has been opened up 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 bills itself as a watchdog on Russian police and law enforcement.

Verzilov gives an interview to CBC News in his Moscow apartment. (Alexei Sergeev/CBC)

Police search for Canadian 'evidence'

When CBC News visited, his natural-brick walled apartment in a fashionable Moscow neighbourhood was still strewn with belongings that investigators had pulled out of his drawers and cupboards.

And the federal police sent in one of their crack teams to do the search — members of the anti-extremism unit, who are usually reserved for only the most serious crimes, such as terrorism.

"It seems quite crazy — and funny," Verzilov said, noting that even the police doing the search appeared embarrassed that he was being harassed for what amounts to a minor paperwork technicality.

"The investigators were joking about these things — about [finding] hockey sticks and that maybe you have a beaver living in a compartment somewhere."

The only beaver they found was a stuffed toy that's now on his couch.

Members of Russia's anti-extremism police stand outside Verzilov's Moscow apartment building during a recent search. He's accused of failing to officially declare himself a Canadian. (Courtesy of Pyotr Verzilov)

Verzilov said he's never tried to hide "evidence" of his Canadian-ness.    

He's been arrested more than 50 times in Russia, and most of the accompanying news articles on the internet refer to his dual citizenship.

Still, he said investigators appeared to be looking for "proof."

"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 that."

Security services cracking down on opposition

But coming under the scrutiny of the country's security services for being part of Russia's liberal, Western-leaning opposition has never been something to laugh at, especially now.

The days since the Kremlin stage-managed a resounding victory for the "yes" side in a July 1 referendum to reform the constitution have been punctuated by the arrest of government opponents and journalists.

The vote, which had been moved back by several months because of the coronavirus pandemic, was the mechanism used by Putin to ensure he can remain as Russia's president for essentially as long as he wants.

Last week, prominent defence journalist Ivan Safronov, who had just recently taken up a new position with Russia's space agency, was arrested and charged with treason in a move journalists' organizations claim is meant to deter critics from publishing negative stories about the government.

Police officers in Moscow detain a man with a press badge during a protest against amendments to Russia's constitution and the results of a nationwide vote on constitutional reforms, on July 15. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)

Nineteen other journalists who protested Safronov's arrest outside of Russia's Federal Police building were also taken into custody.

Then, a few days later, another Putin foe — Sergei Furgal, the right-leaning governor of Khabarovsk in Russia's Far East — was hauled into court and charged with more serious crimes: murder and attempted murder in cases going back to 2003.

All week long in the city, thousands of supporters have taken to the streets shouting "Putin is a thief" and calling for Furgal to be released.

Verzilov had just finished serving a 15-day jail term on what he claims was another trumped-up charge of "hooliganism"  after a man confronted him outside his home and the pair engaged in a yelling match.     

He said he believes both incidents are the security service's way of sending him a warning.

"Russian authorities are very scared that something new will happen, and they will basically have to answer for that ... to their superiors and to Putin directly."

Verzilov is detained by police after storming into a courtroom in Moscow on July 12, 2010, and letting out dozens of cockroaches from a bag as the court prepared to hear the verdict in the case of two Russian curators for their 2007 Forbidden Art exhibit, which mixed religious icons with sexual and pop-culture images. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)

Activist formed punk group Pussy Riot

As a child and teenager, Verzilov said, he moved around with his father — who was a "distinguished nuclear scientist" and held many overseas positions, including a four-year stint in Toronto. When his father, who still lives in Canada, became a Canadian citizen, he did as well.

It was after university in Moscow that Verzilov started getting noticed for his political activism — including the time in 2008 when he engaged in public sex acts with with his then-wife Nadezhda Tolokonnikova at a Moscow museum as part of an anti-government protest.

Yekaterina Samutsevich, left, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, three members of the Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot, sit behind bars in a Moscow courtroom on July 20, 2012. The women were arrested after an anti-Putin performance at Moscow's main Orthodox cathedral in February 2012. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

He went on to form the punk group Pussy Riot, which became synonymous with political protest in Russia after it staged an obscenity-laced anti-Putin performance in Moscow's main Orthodox cathedral in February 2012.

Putin himself has never directly mentioned either Pussy Riot or Verzilov by name, though his criticisms of their actions have been widely reported.

"We have red lines beyond which starts the destruction of the moral foundations of our society," Putin said in 2012, Reuters reported. "If people cross this line, they should be made responsible in line with the law." 

A poll taken by the independent Levada Center in the aftermath of the cathedral incident also showed wide popular support for the two-year sentence in a penal colony that was handed down to the three band members, including Tolokonnikova. 

Verzilov gestures during a court hearing in Moscow on July 16, 2018, after he was arrested with other Pussy Riot members for storming the pitch during a World Cup soccer match in Moscow between Croatia and France as Russian President Vladimir Putin watched from the stands. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

In 2018, Verzilov and other Pussy Riot members were arrested after storming the pitch during a World Cup soccer match in Moscow between Croatia and France as Putin watched from the stands. That stunt landed him 15 days in jail and earned him the wrath of many players and fans.

"Obviously, the protest culture gradually rises and falls — and we believe that there will definitely be a tipping point when that will hit the "enough is enough" point that will force the regime to adopt the political freedoms we are fighting for," Verzilov told CBC News.

Canadian Embassy has been 'helpful'

Global Affairs in Ottawa said it could not comment on Verzilov's passport case out of privacy considerations. 

While the Canadian Embassy in Moscow has been "helpful," Verzilov said he doesn't expect the issue of his Canadian citizenship to be resolved until later this summer after a trial and a guilty conviction.

He said he expects that as punishment, he'll have to perform many hours of community service.

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a national reporter for CBC News on radio, TV and online, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

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