He took a device out of his small rucksack. A second later, an explosion ripped through the entranceway. The young man was left dead. Three security officers, who had arrived for the start of the working day, were seriously injured by shrapnel.
The young man was later identified from his student ID as 17-year-old Mikhail Zhlobitsky.
Approximately seven minutes before the blast, a user writing on an anarchist Telegram chatroom warned of the impending attack. Identifying as a “communist anarchist”, the user said he had a “quite obvious” motive: the “fabrications and torture” supposedly committed by the FSB against his anarchists.
The attack was a first. It was the first suicide attack committed by a non-Islamist group in Russia. It was also the most serious attack by an anarchist in Russia since the bombing of the headquarters of the Moscow Committee of the Communist Party in 1919.
Contemporary anarchist groups took root during the Perestroika years. Almost from those days, Russia’s security services have attempted to control them, primarily by infiltration.
For a long period, they were unsuccessful. Extremist fringes remained active, and there were several attacks on police stations with explosive devices throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. But, starting from around the end of the 2000s, Russian security agencies ratcheted up the pressure.
Two developments had forced them to take note, says Alexander Verkhovsky, an expert on radicalism in Russia, and director of the Moscow-based Sova Centre for Information and Analysis.
First were the tensions between neo-Nazi and anti-fascist groups that often spilled over onto the street; perhaps two dozen people were killed in those clashes. Second was the extent to which leftist anarchist groups began to take a more prominent part in protest movements.
They were especially active in the protests against the building of a highway through a forest in Khimki, on the outskirts of Moscow. Those protests ended in an attack on the Khimki local government building. Government responded with a new clampdown, jailing dozens of activists. While some in the movement tried to fight, many fled.
Things got worse for those anarchists who remained. Many were among the 30 arrested during protests on Bolotnaya Square in May 2012. Like the others, they faced largely arbitrary charges, demonstrative justice and lengthy jail sentences.
But it was a controversial 2017 case known as “The Network” that has most obviously irked Russian anarchist groups, and was the obvious reference in the Telegram message.
Overall, nine people were arrested in raids in Penza and St Petersburg as police claimed to uncover a “plot to destabilise Russia.” According to investigators, the arrested had planned attacks during the 2018 presidential elections and World Cup. All complained they had been tortured in custody – including the use of electric shock torture – and forced to confess to terrorism charges.
The Network case represented “a new level of pressing”, says Alexander Verkhovsky. “We have seen radicals beaten up before, but not torture to this extent.”
The attack in Archangelsk should be understood in this context, says the prominent leftist commentator Ilya Budraiskas: “It was a gesture of desperation amid continued unjustified repressions against anarchists.”
It is unlikely Russia’s security services will respond to this criticism by reducing the pressure on anarchist groups. Past history indicates, on the contrary, surveillance and control will increase.
“Security services have two choices: to declare the attack an exception, or to make another convoluted ‘affair’ out of it,” says Mr Budraikskas. “They will likely choose the second option given the conspiralogical [sic] thinking, the demand for enemies, and the fear that resonates whenever faced with youth activism.”
The most likely targets for a clampdown are lesser-known, inexperienced anarchist groups – and the internet in general. There are likely to be renewed attacks on encrypted messenger systems. The Telegram network, which hosted the anarchist forum, is officially blocked in Russia but often accessible even without VPN workarounds. Today’s events have already led to calls for a full, more effective blocking of the service.
“For the security agencies, it would be a sin not to make use of such an opportunity,” says Mr Verkhovsky.