Now he says he is seeking asylum in the Netherlands, as he walks warily around the canals of Amsterdam, telling CNN about his recruitment as an informant, his betrayal of the opposition groups he joined, and why he got out.
“If we believe their words, they really think that the CIA is trying to facilitate a revolution in Russia and that Navalny is an agent from the CIA,” Sokolov said of the FSB, the service that replaced the KGB when the Soviet Union fell. “They deploy huge amounts of resources and effort not to let the revolution happen in Russia. They are looking for a foreign enemy.”
CNN contacted the FSB and the CIA for comment on this story. The FSB did not respond and the CIA declined to comment. CNN has seen no credible evidence or claim of US government involvement in Russia’s opposition movement.
From student to spy
Sokolov told CNN he was a “regular 19-year-old student” back in 2016 when he first got involved in political activism, joining the Russian Communist Party, essentially a Kremlin-sanctioned opposition group in modern-day Russia, and campaigning against such issues as rising fares for public transport.
But he also launched his own independent anti-corruption investigations into local officials, which may have attracted some official attention.
“Russia now and Russia in 2016 are two different countries,” he said. “Back then you were able to be an activist and be safe. I am not blind, I see what problems my country has, my people have. I see how Europe lives. I was motivated to make my country better.”
But while he was engaged in activism, he also dodged his compulsory military service and Sokolov says that’s how the FSB targeted him.
“I was called in for a meeting with the head of the military enlistment office where I was met by an FSB officer. The officer said they had been following me for some time and gave me a choice: agree to cooperate or go to prison for two years.”
Sokolov said he was scared of prison, where allegations of abuse are rife, and decided taking the deal was his only way out.
Keeping tabs on Navalny money
Sometimes the FSB’s interests seemed to align with his.
“On a regional level they are indeed interested in corrupt officials,” Sokolov said. “On a nationwide level they are interested in who is financing Navalny’s campaign. They had a theory that we are financed by the CIA.” Sokolov told CNN he saw no evidence of CIA funding during his time working with the Navalny campaign, and Navalny himself has always categorically denied any links to US intelligence.
As the Kremlin stepped up its crackdown on dissidents at home, Sokolov says he was sent by his FSB handlers to the former Soviet republic of Georgia to infiltrate the growing expatriate community of Russians escaping the repressions. Again, Sokolov said, the FSB seemed extremely concerned the CIA was recruiting Russians.
“They thought that Georgian security services are recruiting opposition members under the guidance of the American CIA,” Sokolov said, although he again saw no evidence of this happening.
Sokolov said he never believed what the FSB was doing was right and his work for them was a “massive burden.” But still he undertook their missions for more than five years.
War changed mission and minds
Another young activist told CNN a similar story of coerced recruitment and then demands from the FSB.
Vsevolod Osipov was a member of the fringe Libertarian Party of Russia when he was approached, even though he told CNN he thought the organization was too small and insignificant to merit attention from the security service.
“I had various tasks,” he said. “I had to meet particular people, get acquainted with them. For example, the leader of the Libertarian Party of Russia, Yaroslav Conway, or the head coordinator of the Free Russia Foundation in Georgia, Anton Mikhalchuk.”
Again, there was a huge interest on what outside involvement, if any, there might be from Western intelligence organizations.
“There were other more complex tasks — to find out whether there is any cooperation with the West or find out what was happening behind the scenes in a particular organization, if the opposition is working for American or other foreign special services,” he said.
Osipov said he too was sent to Georgia where he was told to monitor the views of the Russian community, especially about the war in Ukraine and how other countries and non-governmental organizations were helping Ukrainian refugees.
“As soon as the war started, my handler asked me to find out how the community generally feels about the invasion of Ukraine,” he said. “The FSB was also interested in any cooperation with Western security services or if anyone is receiving finances from abroad.”
The fear was always what danger there could be to the Kremlin and Putin, he said.
“Russian security services are very well aware of the history of our country,” Osipov said. “When a huge immigrant community emerges abroad, where people speak freely to each other, work on projects together, help Ukrainian refugees, basically create a mini-Russia abroad, which is not under the control of FSB — they are afraid that history will repeat itself as it was in 1917 when Lenin came to Moscow and started a revolution,” he added.
“They are afraid that their regime will be impacted now during this war.”
He says he is speaking now to try to right some of his wrongs and perhaps offer some protection for his mother who is still in Russia.
“I really want to get back home,” he said. “I do not hate the country, I hate our government,” Osipov added.
Back in Amsterdam, Mikhail Sokolov said it was the shock of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 that overwhelmed his fears of repercussions and forced him to turn his back on the FSB.
“I hate the way Russia is now. I hate everything connected to Russia now, the fact that they began war against our brotherly nation, my brotherly nation,” he said.
CNN’s Matthew Chance and Katharina Krebs reported this story from Amsterdam and London, and Rachel Clarke wrote in Atlanta.