After Mikael fled the guerrilla war in Chechnya to Norway, he was contacted and asked to come to the Russian embassy. One email reads: ‘Work with us and you and your family will be safe. If not, it will be cold and wet for you’.
Mikael sits on a sofa in a peaceful area, where families with children play in the gardens. Station wagons with child seats and ski boxes on the roofs drive slowly alongside the dirt road. Fearing reprisals, he doesn’t want his address or surname to be published.
‘I had never believed that this could happen to me here in Norway. That Russia’s agents would contact me, try to recruit me, harass my family and send agents here to my door’, says Mikael while pointing at the brown front door.
Several witnesses NRK talked to have overheard the phone calls Mikael received.
‘The FSB tried to recruit me’
One of them was Aage Borchgrevink, senior adviser in the human rights organisation the Norwegian Helsinki Committee:
‘Mikael was in my office and put the phone on speaker. A man called him from a Russian number. He introduced himself as Maksim and said he was a major in the FSB. In the conversation that followed, it seemed that it was a recruitment attempt. He wanted contact with Dokka Umarov, who at the time was the leader of the guerrilla movement in Chechnya and an important target for the FSB’, says Borchgrevink. He adds:
‘Then came the obvious threats to Michael and his family.’
When asked how he knew that it was the FSB who called, Borchgrevink responded that ‘It has been documented as well as it could, with text messages, chatlogs, emails, and I was there when he received the phone call. I can’t know for sure, but it looks like a genuine attempt to recruit him. This is my assessment based on what I know about how it works from other experiences. In addition, we have investigated Mikael’s case and have verified parts of his story. We’ve had other clients who have been stalked by Russian intelligence. One of them was shot dead in the street in Vienna in 2009’.
‘Not an exciting subject for us’
NRK contacted the Russian Embassy in Norway for an interview and to comment on the case. The first counsellor, Andrey Kolesnikov, wrote in his reply to NRK’s email:
‘From what we have seen, the “spy subject” appears every time negative talk about Russia dries up. We have already commented on similar cases before and it’s not exciting for us to return to this subject. Yet we will happily return to positive subjects if there is a possibility to explore such.’
Threatened the family
There is little reminiscent of war when Mikael sits on a couch with toys lying on the floor around him. Yet forests, mountains, and guerrilla warfare were Mikael’s everyday life for four years. He was a guerrilla fighter and fought for Chechnya’s independence from Russia. In 2009 he fled to Norway believing that the war was over for him, for good:
‘While I travelled to Norway, my mother, father, and little brother stayed in Chechnya. Suddenly I began to receive phone calls from the Russian intelligence, the FSB. My family was harassed and beaten up and they wanted to force me to become an agent. I received a code which I was supposed to take to the Russian embassy in Oslo. It was a very difficult situation for me. The FSB gave me the choice between working for them or having my family in Chechnya tortured and killed’, he claims.
HARASSED: Mikael says that some in his family were tortured and killed: ‘My cousin was killed, one close friend disappeared and was never found. I was myself arrested and beaten up by Russian soldiers. It was the brutal occupation which made me choose to join the resistance movement in 2005’, says Mikael. The picture was taken shortly after he joined the guerrilla group. Photo credit: Private
‘Your mother will be happy’
Mikael was contacted by phone from a Russian number, by email, and via Skype. Each time it was the same man, who introduced himself as Maksim Krotov and claimed to work for the FSB. Mikael recorded the conversations and has saved the emails and text messages. In an email which he received on 5 May 2010, he was warned that both Mikael and his mother had an interest in his cooperation with the FSB:
‘Mika, I think we have already gained a great respect for each other. If we work together, you will be able to live a normal life. You don’t need to hide from anyone. Everyone will be happy for it, especially your mother. There will be no criminal investigation. If you don’t want to cooperate, you can go back, just like I said during our meeting. However, afterwards I will go after you wherever you’ll be in the world. And you will be plagued by the thought that everything is so difficult at home. You will have to change documents all the time and it will be cold and wet around you. I don’t want that and it’s not something that you deserve.’
Mikael says that the man who introduced himself as Maksim Krotov met his family:
‘There are several things which make me think that it really was the FSB. I received pictures of myself in the forest from Maksim Krotov. These are pictures that only us in guerrilla movement or the FSB have. After my family was arrested, harassed, and threatened in Chechnya, a man visited them at the local police station. He told my family that his name was Maksim Krotov, was from Moscow, worked in the FSB, and was interested in receiving information about me’, says Mikael.
Borchgrevink states that he has seen the email with pictures which Mikael received from Maksim Krotov.
Attempt to meet in Norway
While Mikael was fighting in Chechnya’s forests, he came close to one of the leaders of the rebellion, Dokka Umarov. Umarov topped Russia’s list of wanted persons at the time.
‘Because I was good with photography, filming, and computers, it was my task to take pictures and record Umarov and to publish them online. The FSB’s agents were and are interested in me because they think I have much information about the rebel army’, says Mikael.
A recording from 2010 reveals that the man who called himself Maksim Krotov first tried to persuade Mikael to travel from Norway to Moscow. Mikael said that he couldn’t leave Norway due to a lack of documents. Then, Krotov said that he wished to come to Norway to meet him in Oslo. The purpose was to offer Mikael what Krotov referred to as ‘education’. NRK has gained access to recordings of this conversation; below is an excerpt:
Krotov: ‘Yes, you can receive education here with us. And I’ll visit you there [in Oslo]. So you can prepare yourself.’
Krotov: ‘So we can come there safely and peacefully. Meet there and relax a bit. Do some sightseeing. To ensure that nobody disturbs us. So you can show me around in Oslo.’
Promise of a job and big money
Mikael says that while Maksim Krotov was contacting him, his family in Chechnya was arrested several times. After being freed, they were constantly monitored by the Chechen police.
‘The FSB gave me, in reality, a choice between saving my family from torture and death and giving them information. If I cooperated with the FSB, it could lead to the deaths of my friends in the guerrilla group in the forest. Krotov tried to persuade me that I would receive eight million euros and, in addition, a good job’, says Mikael.
In an excerpt from a phone conversation, Krotov promises Mikael a job:
Krotov: ‘When you finish your education, so… People become rich. Get an occupation.’
Krotov: ‘Hey. Are you there?’
Krotov: ‘Are you thinking about work?’
Mikael: ‘Yes, after the graduate degree programme.’
Krotov: ‘Naturally. Whatever you wish. Maybe in another country if you want. If you educate yourself properly. And get an occupation. You can work in international companies. It’s not a problem at all. The most important thing is to study well.’
Mikael: ‘Gazprom — I’d like that. To be a director. No, I’m just joking.’
Krotov: ‘We have people there. In oil and gas. Ha, ha.’
‘Showed up with a hidden camera’
The war in Chechnya becomes more than a distant memory with Mikael sitting on his sofa listening to an audio recording of a conversation with the man who calls himself Krotov. His face turns serious and his jaw clenches when he’s listening to the sound of the man’s voice:
‘The war that is several thousand kilometres away has suddenly become much closer. One day it knocked on my door here’, says Mikael and points towards the front door. He says that he was shocked by the visit:
‘A Chechen man, whom I knew, but hadn’t been in contact with for several years, was standing outside the door. I know he had been taken by the FSB after he travelled out of Norway. Now he was standing in my doorway and wanted to renew our contact. He asked a lot about what I worked with, with whom I had contact with in Norway and Chechnya, and if I had plans to become politically active’, says Mikael.
A friend of Mikael who wishes to remain anonymous was there when the Chechen man came to the door:
‘Mikael didn’t notice it at first, but the man took out a small camera and filmed and took pictures of Mikael while he was speaking. He did it secretly. It wasn’t a typical camera one can buy in a shop, it was another kind which I had never seen before’, says the witness.
He wishes to remain anonymous, because he fears reprisals against his family in Chechnya.
Choice between family and friends
Mikael picks his phone up from the sofa. This time it’s not Krotov who’s ringing:
‘It was my little brother. He’s thirteen and should begin training to box soon’, says Mikael and smiles. In Mikael’s training bag, there are a couple of well‐used boxing gloves. The reason Mikael’s smiling is because he’s telling of how he avoided making the choice the FSB was trying to force him to make:
‘My family is alive and well. They are all fine and live here in Europe. I’ve given the FSB no more information than a comma. What I did was to keep in touch with the FSB without giving them anything more than a promise of cooperation. While I was doing this, I managed to smuggle my family out of Chechnya to safety’, says Mikael.
Deplores violence today
Dokka Umarov, the leader of the insurgents, claimed responsibility for, among other things, the suicide bombing of the Moscow metro in 2010. Thirty‐nine civilians died in the terrorist attack. Mikael says that he has always been opposed to attacks on civilians:
‘When I joined in 2005 there was no talk of any caliphate or emirate in the Caucasus, and me and the group always deplored violence against civilians. Dokka Umarov became more radicalised with time and after I quit. One of the reasons I left in 2009 was that Umarov signalled that he thought that attacks on civilians were legitimate. I could never live with that’, says Mikael. He stresses that he is against the use of violence and military force:
‘I have seen many of my close friends die and I know all too well the suffering war brings. I don’t believe in armed struggle as the right way towards a free, independent, and democratic Chechnya.’
After Mikael got calls and emails from Russia, he felt so unsafe that he contacted the Norwegian Police Security Service.
‘It is clear that I was afraid and that it made me feel extremely uncomfortable. They haven’t forgotten about me and I have been contacted again’, says Mikael and shows a chatlog from Skype.
Dated 24 October 2014, it contains a question in Russian about where he is now and who he keeps in touch with in Norway and Chechnya. The person writing to Mikael says that he lives abroad and is asking if Mikael would like to travel to Syria:
‘This guy also used to be in the forest, but I know that he was later taken by the FSB and he’s cooperating with them now. Everybody knows that it is completely unacceptable for me to travel to Syria. I fought for a democratic and independent Chechnya and I have clearly distanced myself from everything to do with a caliphate in Chechnya, Syria, or the rest of the world. This is something everybody knows. Them contacting me shows that they haven’t forgotten about me’, says Mikael and casts a glance towards the front door. It is locked, unlike many others in this neighbourhood where no one ever locks their door.
‘The reason I’m here telling my story is that I don’t want these authoritarian and dangerous forces to gain a foothold in Norwegian society. It is dangerous for me to come forward and express what I’ve experienced, but it’s important for me that people rise up against injustice and oppression. What is happening in Chechnya must not have the possibility of ever happening here in Norway. We live in silence and we live in fear.’