On the chilly, clear afternoon of February 24, 2022—the day Vladimir Putin’s forces launched their full-scale invasion of Ukraine—a handful of Russian opposition politicians gathered in front of Saint Petersburg’s palatial Law, Order, and Security building. They had come to officially request permission to hold a rally opposing the war, which they knew would be denied. Among the group was Marina Matsapulina, the 30-year-old vice chair of Russia’s Libertarian Party. Matsapulina understood that the gathering was a symbolic gesture—and that it posed serious risks.
Nine days later, Matsapulina was awoken around 7 am by someone banging at her apartment door. She crept up to the entrance but was too frightened to look through the peephole, and she retreated back to her bedroom. The pounding continued for two hours, as Matsapulina kept seven friends from her party apprised in a private Telegram group chat. “They’re unlikely to bust it down,” she wrote, wishfully.
But at 9:22 am, she heard a much louder noise. She had just enough time to lock her phone before the door caved in. Eight people surrounded Matsapulina’s bed. They included, she recalls, two city police officers, a two-person SWAT team wielding guns and shining flashlights in her face, and two agents from either the Center for Combating Extremism or the Federal Security Service or the FSB—the successor to the KGB. The officers told her to lie on the floor facedown.
They told Matsapulina she was suspected of emailing a police station with a false bomb threat. But when she was taken into the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ investigation department, she says, a police officer asked whether she knew the real reason she’d been arrested. She guessed that it was for her “political activities.” He nodded and asked, “Do you know how we knew you were home?”
She says the officer told her that investigators had been following along with her private Telegram chats as she wrote them. “There you were, sitting there, writing to your friends in the chat room,” she recalls him saying. He proceeded to dispassionately quote word for word several Telegram messages she had written from her bed. “‘They’re unlikely to bust it down,’” he recited.
“And so,” he said, “we knew that you were there.”
Matsapulina was speechless. She tried to hide her shock, hoping to learn more about how they’d accessed her messages. But the officer didn’t elaborate.
When she was released two days later, Matsapulina learned from her lawyer that on the morning she was arrested, police had searched the houses of some 80 other people with opposition ties and had arrested 20, charging each with terrorism related to the alleged bomb threat. A few days later, Matsapulina gathered her belongings and boarded a flight to Istanbul.
In April, after having made it safely to Armenia, Matsapulina recounted the episode in a Twitter thread. She ruled out the chance that anyone in her close-knit group had been cooperating with security forces (they’d all also left Russia by then), which left two conceivable explanations for how the officers had read her private Telegram messages. One was that they had installed some kind of malware, like the NSO Group’s infamous Pegasus tool, on her phone. Based on what she’d gathered, the expensive software was reserved for high-level targets and was not likely to have been turned on a mid-level figure in an unregistered party with about 1,000 members nationwide.
The other “unpleasant” explanation, she wrote, “is, I think, obvious to everyone.” Russians needed to consider the possibility that Telegram, the supposedly antiauthoritarian app cofounded by the mercurial Saint Petersburg native Pavel Durov, was now complying with the Kremlin’s legal requests.