MOSCOW—Few people are familiar with Novaya Zemlya, a very obscure archipelago above the Arctic Circle that is controlled by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the infamous Soviet spy agency, the KGB.
Even fewer people hope to travel to those thinly populated and thoroughly militarized islands, where the Russian army tests its Arctic missile systems, and where polar bears suffering the effects of climate change dig through garbage pits at impoverished settlements.
It sounds like hell frozen over, in fact—and it figures in what looks like a new tactic by President Vladimir Putin (a former KGB operative) to intimidate his most vocal critics. But Kira Yarmysh has a special reason to go there. She is desperate to see her partner, who became the first victim of such an operation last December.
“The FSB abducted my boyfriend, Ruslan Shaveddinov, and isolated him in Novaya Zemlya,” Yarmysh told The Daily Beast. “The most outrageous truth is that several divisions of the state system, including military authorities, aviation, and secret services, are helping to hide Ruslan from us.”
This was hardly a random act. Yarmysh is a news presenter and spokesperson for Russia’s top opposition leader, Aleksei Navalny, and his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK). Shaveddinov is one of the group’s star reporters and presenters as well.
Russia still has a military draft, and 12 months of service are mandatory for all male citizens age 18 to 33. Shaveddinov, known as “Shav,” has been famous for presenting vivid, well-documented corruption investigations on YouTube. But at 23 years old, he was vulnerable, and authorities claimed he was draft-dodging.
The news agency TASS quotes Moscow’s military commissar, Col. Maksim Loktev, claiming the conscription of Shaveddinov was perfectly ordinary: “He departed to the place of his military service on the draft.” But the young activist’s colleagues aren’t buying it. It’s not just the matter of conscription; it’s the deployment that’s suspicious.
“This is a unique example of how the FSB begins to use military service as a prison for politically active young men,” Navalny told The Daily Beast. “I think the order was to isolate Shav.”
Viewers all over Russia recognize Yarmysh and Shaveddinov from YouTube, which is the main outlet for Navalny’s reports. More than three million viewed their presentation last summer (while Navalny was in jail) about Moscow Deputy Mayor Natalia Sergunina. They reported she was making millions of dollars off property deals in the Russian capital for companies controlled by her relatives, an allegation that she has denied.
There are frequent police raids on FBK offices, along with confiscations of computers, cellphones, and video cameras. On July 27, members of an armed special unit raided Yarmysh’s home at dawn, woke the couple up, put Ruslan on the floor, and confiscated all of the digital equipment.
After a tough 2019, Kira and Ruslan looked forward to celebrating the New Year’s holiday together, without any people around. But on Dec. 23, Kira’s boyfriend vanished and his cellphone was not answered. His friends found the door to his apartment broken. Nearly 24 hours later, Yarmysh discovered that her partner was more than 3,000 kilometers (some 2,000 miles) away, in a unit of what’s called the 33rd Guards Rocket Army based in Rogachevo village on the Southern Island of Novaya Zemlya.
Yarmysh had never heard much about the rules of the archipelago and the news came as a shock: there was an old nuclear testing ground near Ruslan’s base; she could not visit his island without a special FSB permit. Then Ruslan called her, and what she heard broke her heart, she says.
“There were two army captains with him listening in our conversation, so every time I asked him how he was, he said, ‘Let’s talk about you,” Yarmysh remembered. “He told me he was banned from using his cellphone, which is a violation—every Russian soldier can call home once a week! So I decided to sue his commander.”
Yarmysh wanted to be present during the court hearing last week, and, of course, to see Ruslan. She requested an FSB permit earlier this month, but days passed and there was no word back.
The court hearing was scheduled for last Wednesday, but a Moscow judge on the case was not able to get to Novaya Zemlya, Yarmysh said—the flight got canceled due to harsh weather conditions. (This is not unusual given the brutal Arctic weather.)
“They regularly cancel flights during the winter, so I am surprised that the army managed to transport Ruslan there so easily in December,” Yarmysh said. “It is obvious that the weather is not an issue, if there is an order to bring the guy.”
Finally a hearing was held at the end of the week, and a lawyer from the Navalny team was able to make it there, but there was no satisfaction to be had and communications were spotty. At midday on Saturday, Yarmysh tweeted that she still had heard nothing about her boyfriend's fated. (A troll responded with pictures of polar bears eating a bloody corpse: "Found him. But no need to thank me.")
The lawyer finally got in touch late Saturday, but only briefly. He reported that, officially, the court said Shaveddinov had no unusual restrictions. But in practical terms that was no consolation, and Yarmysh said she couldn't be sure what happened until the attorney made it back to Moscow. As of Monday, however, he was till stuck above the Arctic Circle because of the weather.
"Prisoners have more rights than Ruslan," Yarmysh told The Daily Beast. "He doesn't have any right to call, or even to send letters."
Yarmysh grew up in Rostov-on-Don, a provincial southern town on the border with Ukraine’s Donbas region. Her single mother brought her up dreaming that one day Kira would win The Clever Heads, a televised competition for high-schoolers that awards the winners with a chance to enroll in Russia’s most prestigious university for future diplomats, the MGIMO, or Moscow State Institute of International Relations. And, yes, Yarmysh won.
While studying at MGIMO, she thought she would one day get a diplomat’s position in Africa, far from the Russian political scene. But anti-Putin street protests in 2011-2012 changed her life, and she wound up on the front line of the opposition’s constant fight with corrupt bureaucrats. Her mother has always been an Aleksey Navalny fan, Yarmysh said, so when she got her job at the FBK six years ago, her family supported her.
“Kira Yarmysh is one of the brightest stars in Navalny’s team. She is emerging to be even bigger but still stay in Navalny’s shadow,” Echo of Moscow Deputy Chief Editor Olga Bychkova told The Daily Beast.
Yarmysh says that if she has to she will wait for her boyfriend for 12 months, as do millions of other Russian girls all over the country. “I hope this is going to be just one year,” she says.
For two months, Yarmysh has been worried, feeling “hurt,” she says, wondering why out of all Russia’s vast military bases, her boyfriend was isolated in the Arctic.
“The authorities might think that Ruslan and I, if we come out to a street protest, might lead masses of people,” Yarmysh said, then added: “I personally have no fear. If they raid our homes, if they detain us, I tell myself, we must be doing everything right.” But for the moment that is, at best, cold comfort.