The cruel irony of being arrested in Putin’s Russia

Much of what we know about Mikhail Kavun was provided by his 24-year-old son, Aleksei Kavun, who contacted POLITICO in hopes of raising awareness about his medical case. According to Aleksei, several aspects of his personal history seemingly contradict the Kremlin’s depiction of him as a nationalistic Ukrainian Nazi with a hatred for native Russian speakers.

Although Mikhail Kavun identifies as culturally Ukrainian – both his mother and Jewish father were born there – he was born in Soviet Kazakhstan and lived outside Moscow throughout his childhood. He attended Moscow State University, obtained his doctorate in geological and mineralogical sciences at the Russian Academy of Sciences, and has a Russian passport.

In 1987, Mikhail Kavun married a native Russian speaker from the western Vladimir Oblast – Aleksei’s mother – and his wife, daughter and granddaughter now share an apartment in Moscow. For most of the past 14 years, Mikhail Kavun has worked throughout Russia as a senior geologist at Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield services company. In two letters dated April 18, Schlumberger confirmed Mikhail Kavun’s employment, and his supervisor praised his work at the company.

In 2020, while working a brief stint in Kyiv for gas production company UNB, Mikhail Kavun was approved for temporary Ukrainian residency. UNB issued a letter, dated April 29 and signed by his supervisor, confirming Mikhail Kavun’s employment and attesting to his professional performance. According to his attorney, Mikhail Kavun also gave money to a friend in Ukraine on several occasions from 2017 to 2019 to use as donations for two reasons: St. Paraskeva Medical Center in Lviv and a children-focused charity group called Roads of Goodness.

According to his attorney and son, Russia’s scrutiny of Mikhail Kavun ratcheted up in the early 2010s, when he started visiting Ukraine more regularly in the summertime on cross-country motorcycle trips. Mikhail Kavun – a fan of the FX show “Sons of Anarchy” – continued his travels on his Honda Gold Wing even after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, all while publicly voicing opposition to Moscow’s move and showing support for Kremlin critics such as Alexei Navalny.

On one particularly memorable motorcycle trip, Mikhail Kavun was stopped at a Russia-Ukraine border checkpoint and asked a series of confusing questions by Russian officers, according to his son. It was then that he began suspecting he was being trailed by the Kremlin’s intelligence services.

Around that same time, unidentified men visited the motorcycle service center in Astrakhan that Mikhail Kavun frequented, asking the employees there whether they knew or had seen him, his son said. These men, who Mikhail Kavun believed to be Russian intelligence officers, also took several photos of his motorcycle on the streets of Astrakhan.

Before Mikhail Kavun’s arrest in April, Russian authorities arrested him three times in March and leveled three civil charges against him: two accusations of disobeying police officers in Moscow and one accusation of using obscene language in Zelenograd. Zakhvatov, Kavun’s attorney, denied all of the charges and said the successive arrests – which represent a common type of political repression in Russia – were likely made in preparation for the current criminal case against Mikhail Kavun.

Zakhvatov and Aleksei also deny Russia’s latest charges that Mikhail Kavun offered any sort of financial support to Right Sector – a ludicrous accusation, they argue, considering his Jewish heritage and the nationalist group’s ideology. Furthermore, they maintain that Mikhail Kavun was never a member of or had any contact with anyone from the organization. That includes Igor Nikolaevich Pirozhok, an alleged Ukrainian nationalist and neo-Nazi who Russia accused Mikhail Kavun of giving money to. “The problem is that Russian law enforcement is always in a political case[s] are working hand-in-hand with propaganda media, ”Zakhvatov said.

According to Zakhvatov, another step in Mikhail Kavun’s case is scheduled to take place in mid-June, when the state’s investigator will argue that the court extended his detention. But Zakhvatov has filed a complaint to transfer him from detention to house arrest, which the court is set to hear on May 16. “We always hope that maybe some conscience will appear to all these people,” Zakhvatov said of the hearing next week before Russian authorities.

Mikhail Kavun, who now faces up to eight years in prison, expressed regret to his family “that I exposed myself so naively, and that I exposed you to danger as well,” according to a letter dated April 24 that he wrote from detention. In that same message, he also shared a bleak but defiant prediction about his fate: “There are long years of jail ahead, and there is probably no way back to the normal life. … I’m not getting used to that thought yet. … Overall, I don’t regret anything. ”

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