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Documentary filmmaker casts lens on Russian teen allegedly framed by Putin’s regime

After fleeing to safety in Israel, director Anna Shishova completes ‘The New Greatness Case,’ portraying Russian use of cyber-entrapment against youth calling for more freedom

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Anna (Anya) Pavlikova on trial in Moscow, Russia. She was found guilty of being a member of the so-called New Greatness movement and planning to violently overthrow President Vladimir Putin's government.
    Anna (Anya) Pavlikova on trial in Moscow, Russia. She was found guilty of being a member of the so-called New Greatness movement and planning to violently overthrow President Vladimir Putin's government.
  • Image from hidden video camera footage used by an FSB agent 'Ruslan D' to entrap Anna (Anya) Pavlikova. (IV Films/The New Greatness Case
    Image from hidden video camera footage used by an FSB agent 'Ruslan D' to entrap Anna (Anya) Pavlikova. (IV Films/The New Greatness Case
  • Anna (Anya) Pavlikova wears a wedding dress as she gets permission to leave house arrest to wed imprisoned human rights activist Kostya Kotov. (IV Films/The New Greatness Case
    Anna (Anya) Pavlikova wears a wedding dress as she gets permission to leave house arrest to wed imprisoned human rights activist Kostya Kotov. (IV Films/The New Greatness Case
  • Anna (Anya) Pavlikova's mother Julia protests, calling for the freedom of her daughter, who is being held as a political prisoner. (IV Films/The New Greatness Case
    Anna (Anya) Pavlikova's mother Julia protests, calling for the freedom of her daughter, who is being held as a political prisoner. (IV Films/The New Greatness Case

At 17, Anna (Anya) Pavlikova was an introverted, bookish teenager who loved animals and ecology and was concerned about climate change. She was a good student and planned to pursue her academic interests after high school.

Then one day in March 2018, her life suddenly changed. She was arrested in Moscow and charged with being a member of an extremist group planning to violently overthrow the government of the Russian Federation.

A new documentary film illustrates how the group was allegedly fabricated by the FSB, Russia’s internal and counterintelligence service. According to the film, Pavlikova and her friends were entrapped, the charges a sham. Unwitting pawns, they were set up as part of a scheme to intimidate anyone who dared to question President Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Pavlikova was jailed, along with nine other members of the so-called “New Greatness” movement. As the high-profile case dragged on, Pavlikova was alternately kept in jail and under house arrest. Her physical and mental health rapidly declined.

All 10 members of the group were found guilty. In August 2020, most of them were sentenced to six or seven years in prison. Others, including Pavlikova, received four- to six-year suspended sentences. Two members pleaded guilty and cut deals, and one member escaped to Ukraine in October 2019, where he sought political asylum. (In January 2021, the sentences of two of the group members were slightly reduced.)

According to the terms of her suspended sentence, Pavlikova is serving out her four years under house arrest. By the time she is done, she will have lost her freedom for a total of nearly seven years.

Anna Shishova’s documentary film, “The New Greatness Case,” zooms in on Pavlikova and her family, portraying their ordeal as Kafkaesque. She highlights the previously untapped strength they draw upon to cope.

The film premiered at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York in May, and is currently playing in Finland. It will be screened on June 25 and 27 as part of Sheffield DocFest in the UK.

“The New Greatness Case” also presents disturbing steps Putin has reportedly taken— and continues to take — to put down free speech and political opposition.

It’s not just prominent opposition politicians such as Alexei Navalny and Boris Nemtsov that Putin has gone after. According to Shishova, in recent years he has also cracked down on the young people who started taking to the streets and the internet to peacefully protest and call for a freer Russia.

To finish her film, and for safety reasons, Shishova, 36, fled Moscow for Israel with her husband, filmmaker Dmitry Bogolyubov, and their young daughter in early March. Having focused on making films critical of Putin’s regime since 2014, Shishova and Bogolyubov believed they were living on borrowed time in their native Moscow. As soon as Russian forces crossed the border with Ukraine late this past winter, the family packed a few suitcases and got on a plane.

Filmmaker Anna Shishova (Dmitry Bogolyubov)

While the family remained in Russia until this year, the couple said that the situation for independent filmmakers changed dramatically in 2014 when they perceived that Putin’s propaganda machine began to work at full power.

“As a documentary filmmaker I realized there was no option to work for state TV channels or take money from them. It was a harsh reality for me to face as a fresh graduate from film school,” Shishova said in conversation with The Times of Israel from her new home in Rehovot, south of Tel Aviv

Shishova and Bogolyubov secured foreign funding and worked together to make “The New Greatness Case” and Bogolyubov’s “Town of Glory.” After having made two films, “Katya” and “On The Edge,” which were more personal and intimate in tone, Shishova knew the time had come for her to make a more stark, political work.

“We had to give people the truth, which no one wanted us to do. We couldn’t act or pretend like nothing is happening. Repression, violence and totalitarianism was growing each year and we had to do something, despite not knowing what risks we would be taking,” Shishova said.

Veteran Russian filmmaker and ArtDocFest director Vitaly Mansky lauded Shishova not only for the quality of her new film but also her courage.

Mansky spoke to The Times of Israel from Riga, Latvia, where he has lived since leaving Russia in 2014 to be “clean” of any association with the Russian regime’s actions.

“Anna’s bravery inspires me to think that there will be some changes among Russian filmmakers. So many of them are afraid to cover these kinds of subjects,” Mansky said.

Anna (Anya) Pavlikova on trial in Moscow, Russia. She was found guilty of being a member of the so-called New Greatness movement and planning to violently overthrow President Vladimir Putin’s government.

“Topics such as political oppression, the destruction of democracy, increased totalitarianism and the diminishment of civil society are not as popular among Russian filmmakers as they should be. It’s good that ‘The New Greatness’ case is the exception,” he said.

Shishova first heard about political prisoner Pavlikova and her situation when she was invited in 2018 to a press conference about Pavlikova’s case held by the OVD-Info human rights group, which provides legal and other support to people arrested for speaking out against Russia’s regime. (OVD-Info was declared a “foreign agent” and its website blocked by the Russian state in late 2021.)

“Hearing Anya’s father speak through tears of the terrifyingly violent arrest at the family’s apartment was the turning point for me. It changed me. It broke me. It proved that the system is insane and I have to make a film about this,” Shishova said.

Image from hidden video camera footage used by an FSB agent ‘Ruslan D’ to entrap Anna (Anya) Pavlikova. (IV Films/The New Greatness Case

Pavlikova got involved with the New Greatness group through playing online games and chatting on social media with like-minded young people. Pavlikova was interested in the political discussions, but she was especially interested in talking about climate change. She was unaware that the group was cyber-surveilled by the FSB.

“It was very popular for young people to have online groups against Putin. Anya wasn’t doing anything really unusual,” Shishova explained.

But as young people started to speak up more, the government began to take harsher actions against activists — or even those who were unwittingly sharing thoughts on social media or reposting photos deemed unacceptable on private blogs. The regime developed means of cyber-entrapment, which spilled offline.

“This somewhat older girl named Masha brought Anya into the group. Masha was pushy and acted like she was Anya’s best friend. Anya was receptive because she wasn’t popular and didn’t have any real friends. She was glad for the attention,” explained Shishova. The filmmaker said she has suspicions that Masha was an informant or agent of some sort.

FSB agent ‘Ruslan D’ as he appeared on hidden video camera footage used to entrap members of the so-called ‘New Greatness’ movement. (IV Films/The New Greatness Case

At the urging of group member Ruslan D., the group started to meet in person at McDonald’s, and later at an office space. Pavlikova was the youngest among them.

An independent investigator interviewed on camera by Shishova reveals that Ruslan D., noticeably older than the others, paid for the premises (equipped with secret cameras) using forged documents. It was also Ruslan D. who came up with the odd “New Greatness” name and convinced the others to turn the group into a 10-member anti-Putin political organization with a charter (all prerequisites for legally charging a group’s members with sedition). He taught the others to make Molotov cocktails and filmed them practicing throwing them in an abandoned building.

It seemed to have never occurred to any of the members that there was something weird or extreme about Ruslan D., and certainly not that he could be an FSB agent.

The film shows how at 17, Pavlikova was clearly naïve. Her parents were, too. They knew about Pavlikova’s membership in the group and met some of the others when they came to visit Pavlikova at home. Her mother, Julia, and father, Dima, were just glad she had friends, according to Shishova.

Anna (Anya) Pavlikova wears a wedding dress as she gets permission to leave house arrest to wed imprisoned human rights activist Kostya Kotov. (IV Films/The New Greatness Case

According to Shishova, “Ruslan Kostylenkov, who was the leader of the group, became Ruslan D.’s main victim. Kostylenkov was an orphan, and Ruslan D. manipulated him emotionally so he would look up to him like a father figure.”

Kostylenkov is seen in the film giving what his lawyer said was a false confession after being tortured. His eyes are swollen and his face bruised. His lawyer claimed he was raped by police with a kitchen meat mallet while in custody.

Shishova used hidden video camera footage from inside the group’s meeting place and the abandoned building where the Molotov cocktails were thrown. She said these were entered into evidence for the trial, and she was able to obtain them from the defense counsel.

“We told them we needed the footage, but we wanted to do it legally. They gave it to us on the condition that we air it only after the verdict was rendered, making it part of the public record by then,” the filmmaker said.

Shishova said it was heartbreaking for her to watch Pavlikova and her mother Julia’s deterioration over the years of filming. But at the same time, watching Julia turn — out of necessity — from a non-political housewife to a fierce, public advocate for her daughter and other political prisoners was inspiring. At one point Julia went on a prolonged hunger strike, despite her fragile health from multiple sclerosis. (From the film’s postscript, we learn that the depleted Julia was also diagnosed with cancer after her daughter’s sentencing.)

Anna (Anya) Pavlikova’s mother Julia protests, calling for the freedom of her daughter, who is being held as a political prisoner. (IV Films/The New Greatness Case

Shishova said she knew she was being watched by the government while she shot footage for “The New Greatness Case.”

“There was a constant feeling of fear and tension. It can make you paranoid. We were definitely followed several times. I also noticed that when I was photographing Julia standing with a placard near the Kremlin wall, there was a plainclothes agent photographing me,” Shishova said.

“When we recently escaped from Russia, I was afraid the Russian border authorities would identify me from a special list or by facial recognition, but fortunately that didn’t happen,” she said.

ArtDocFest director Mansky not only praised Shishova for her film, but also supported her decision to leave Russia and move to Israel.

“Today, leaving Russia is the way for a documentary filmmaker interested in telling the truth to continue doing their work,” he said

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