‘There were hundreds of us’: Navalny ex-staffer tells of being FSB informer

Former anti-corruption activist who has fled to Netherlands tells how Russian state infiltrated opposition

When Mikhail Sokolov signed up to work for the FSB security services, he never imagined his journey would end here: in a crowded refugee camp on the outskirts of a sleepy town in the rural Netherlands.

“The last six years were a rollercoaster. I am happy I am no longer in the claws of the FSB,” the former FSB informant and staffer for the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption network said in an interview with the Guardian this week.

The 25-year-old is now living in a crowded dormitory, shunned by fellow activists, while being trolled online by his former FSB handlers.

“I bet you’re smoking weed over there,” one handler recently wrote.

Sokolov’s story shines a rare light on the inner workings of Moscow’s secretive security services and their attempts to infiltrate the Russian opposition at home and abroad.

He is part of what appears to be a trend of ex-FSB informers coming clean after Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine.

“I am convinced there were hundreds of us,” Sokolov said, sitting at a cafe near the refugee centre in the south of the Netherlands. “Nearly every organised opposition group had an informer at low or mid-level.”

Sokolov grew up in Votkinsk, an industrial city in the Udmurt Republic, 800 miles east of Moscow. There he made a name for himself as a young and ambitious anti-corruption activist, posting videos of his investigations into local officials on his personal YouTube channel.

His life changed, he said, one day in 2016 when he was summoned to a police station in Votkinsk, where an FSB agent told him he was facing prison for dodging compulsory military service.

“I was 19 and absolutely terrified of the security services. I wasn’t ready to spend time in prison,” he said.

So he took up the FSB’s offer to cooperate, avoiding a possible two-year sentence. “Maybe it was selfish, but at that time I was looking out for myself.”

From then on, he would meet his FSB handlers once or twice a month in desolate car parks, where he handed over information about forthcoming investigations and notified them of any planned anti-government protests in the city.

“They were always amicable, treating me like I was their friend, and I would smile back.

“But in my mind, I thought: ‘You guys are fucking bastards.’”

Despite working as an informant, Sokolov maintains that he always felt loyal to his fellow activists.

“From the day I signed the paper, my motto was to do as little harm to the opposition as possible and to help my friends when I could,” he said. “But of course, I did some shitty things, and many people will hate me now.”

According to him, the local FSB branches he worked for never intervened in his investigations, instead using him to gather information on corrupt officials for their own purposes.

“They always wanted compromising information about officials and businessmen to blackmail them, but were often too dumb to find it themselves,” he said.

He also insisted that he sometimes acted as a double agent, tipping off some activists to protect them against possible prosecution.

“I would warn friends that the security agencies have taken an interest in them, that it is better for them to be careful,” he said.

The Guardian has not been able to independently verify all the details of Sokolov’s story, but he showed what he said were conversations between him and his handlers. Two Navalny staffers also told the independent Russian outlet Verstka that Sokolov recently contacted them to confess about his work with the FSB.

He had volunteered for Navalny from 2017, and Sokolov’s handlers were delighted when he got a paid job as an investigator at the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation in early 2021.

“The FSB wanted to know where Navalny’s funds were coming from, who was paying for everything,” he said.

Alexei Navalny is escorted from a police station in Khimki in 2021.
Alexei Navalny is escorted from a police station in Khimki in 2021. Photograph: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

It remains hard to know what impact Sokolov’s FSB work had on the crackdown on Navalny’s movement.

“People might think that I was passing along highly incriminating information, but even if I wanted to, I simply did not have access to those documents. I didn’t even know how much my seniors were making,” he said.

“Not a single criminal case was started because of me,” he added.

A former colleague who worked closely with Sokolov corroborated that account, telling Verstka that he did not have access to internal documents from the headquarters of Navalny’s foundation.

“He could only have access to future investigation scripts on Google Docs. And there wasn’t anything top secret there. We always worked openly,” the former colleague said.

It is also difficult to verify Sokolov’s claims about the far-reaching extent to which the FSB infiltrated Navalny’s network. A number of former Navalny activists said the FSB approached them too.

“I don’t know how many informants there were, but it is something we were always aware of,” said Vladimir Nechaev, 19, a former Navalny staffer from St Petersburg, who said he was also pressured to work for the FSB after being arrested for attending an anti-government protest. Nechaev declined the proposition.

“It is obviously wrong to work for the FSB, but every circumstance is different. Being alone in a room with the FSB can be scary,” he added.

Several senior Navalny aides declined to be interviewed for this article.

Sokolov said the security service’s unchecked powers made it hard for many young activists to ignore its threats.

“The FSB goes for the young and vulnerable. They will always find something they can charge you with, whether it is attending a protest or drug possession, you name it.”

The FSB building, Lubyanka square, Moscow.
The FSB building, Lubyanka square, Moscow. Photograph: alex57111/Getty Images/iStockphoto

By the summer of 2021, there was not much for Sokolov to report in Russia.

Navalny had been jailed earlier in the year. Then, in June, a Russian court outlawed his organisation for being “extremist”, leading to a mass exodus of Navalny staffers to the Baltic states and the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

Seeing that he was no longer needed in Russia, the FSB proposed moving Sokolov to Tbilisi to monitor the newly exiled opposition.

“I knew I could not live like this forever,” he said. “This was my chance to finally escape.”

He claimed that a previous attempt to flee Russia in 2019 had failed when he was turned away at the Polish border.

Once in Georgia, he said, he quickly cut ties with the FSB and confessed to Anton Mikhalchuk of the Free Russia Foundation, which organises anti-war rallies in Tbilisi, that he had been tasked with informing on Free Russia’s activities.

In Tbilisi, he also met Vsevolod Osipov, 20, a libertarian activist who told the Russian independent news website Meduza last month that he had been recruited by the FSB under pressure and sent to Georgia to monitor the Russian opposition.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, Osipov said he quickly cut ties with his handlers.

“I thought I wasn’t a great person before, but after the war started I just felt like a scumbag,” Osipov, who now works as a sommelier in Tbilisi, said.

The invasion also had a profound impact on Sokolov.

Mikhail Sokolov (left) with Alexei Navalny.
Sokolov (left) with Navalny. Photograph: Sokolov archive

A video of an anti-war protest on 1 March in central Tbilisi shows an emotional Sokolov taking the stage. “I am a citizen of Russia, and I am against Putin,” he said, waving his Russian passport. “I want to volunteer, and I want to go to war to fight for Ukraine. I did not choose Putin.”

In an unlikely twist, Sokolov and Osipov, flew to Istanbul to try to join the international legion of Ukraine’s territorial defence force. However, they were turned down at the Ukrainian embassy, which was reluctant to send Russian nationals to the battlefield.

“I wanted to fight against Russia in this fucked-up war. Maybe I felt some guilt about working for the FSB, I don’t know,” Sokolov said, showing pictures of himself in Istanbul with Osipov.

“I think because of this awful war we will be hearing more stories like mine coming out soon.”

Eventually, having decided that Georgia, a country riddled with Russian agents, was no longer safe, he flew to the Netherlands and applied for political asylum.

However, he faces an uncertain future there as the country grapples with a major refugee crisis amid accusations of human rights abuses at its overfilled asylum centres.

Having lost most of his friends after his confession, Sokolov looks like a broken man, spending much of his weekly €40 (£34) allowance on cigarettes to calm his nerves.

His FSB handlers are some of the few people who have not forgotten about him, and have been messaging him since he went public.

“None of this will make a difference. You are only trying to justify yourself,” said a recent text message from one of his alleged FSB handlers seen by the Guardian.

Sokolov did not answer.


Pjotr Sauer in Zeeland

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