‘Urban Explorers’ and Accused Spies Chafe in Legal Limbo in Albania

Striking pictures of urban decay, including Soviet-era bomb shelters overgrown with weeds and the crumbling remains of factories across Eastern Europe, won a Russian photographer hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers eager to track her travels.

But these days, the photographer, Svetlana Timofeyeva, 34, cannot travel much to satisfy fans of her exploits. Her passport was confiscated by the authorities in Albania, where she spent much of the past year in a women’s jail detained on accusations that have gained her a different kind of fame: that she is a Russian spy.

She has denied those accusations, saying that geopolitical tensions stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have made her and her compatriots suspect in the eyes of many Europeans — even those who, like her, have opposed the war.

“People don’t think about Russians as victims of this government, but we are,” she said in a recent interview at a cafe in Tirana, the capital. “Everyone is watching you. Everyone looks at you suspiciously.”

Ms. Timofeyeva and two other fellow “urban explorers” — Mikhail Zorin, a Russian student, and Fedir Alpatov, a Ukrainian — were arrested last August on suspicion of espionage after being caught at a derelict weapons factory in a remote part of Albania.

They say that they were there to explore the plant and take pictures. They deny that they were spying.

But Mr. Zorin has also acknowledged that he pepper-sprayed the factory’s guards after they approached him, and he later said during questioning by the police that he was a Russian agent. That admission, Mr. Zorin said in an interview, was coerced.

The three urban explorers were held in jails for nine months until a court ordered their release on May 25, although Mr. Zorin was placed under house arrest. They are now barred from leaving Albania until an indictment is brought or the charges are dropped.

That has forced them into a strange life of limbo in Tirana, where they share a two-bedroom apartment to save money, reliant on the generosity of family and friends to stay afloat financially.

Without her equipment, which was confiscated by the authorities, Ms. Timofeyeva says she cannot earn money as she used to, making videos and photographs for weddings and corporate events.

So she spends her days traveling around Albania with Mr. Alpatov, who declined to be interviewed for this article, in his orange Chevy Camaro, which he brought with him from Italy, where he lives, according to Ms. Timofeyeva. They sometimes get visitors from abroad.

The situation is strangest for Mr. Zorin, 24, who had been studying in Prague before he set off on a planned cycling trip to Greece, with Albania intended as a pit stop to meet Ms. Timofeyeva and Mr. Alpatov. Confined to the apartment, he spends much of his time chatting with friends online.

“It’s quite similar to becoming a cat,” he said of his existence, wearing a cat T-shirt on a reporter’s recent visit to the apartment. “You depend on people bringing you food.”

Mr. Zorin’s dismantled bicycle is stowed away in the apartment, and Ms. Timofeyeva pointed to it wryly as evidence of his innocence. (“Even Russian intelligence has more money to provide a car,” she said.)

According to Mr. Zorin, the group had chosen the abandoned arms factory because it looked run down, unaware that it was a military facility.

Separated from the others after they entered the plant, Mr. Zorin said he was approached by two men and did not realize they were guards. When they grabbed him, he said, he panicked and used the pepper spray — which he had brought in case of emergencies on his solo cycling trip — against them.

During a police interrogation, which Mr. Zorin said lasted until the early hours of the following day, officers accused him of being a Russian spy and did not believe he was just an urban explorer. They threatened him and beat him, he said, applying pressure to “pain points.”

Fearing that something worse would happen to him, he invented a story: that the Russian intelligence agency had asked him to spy in Albania and had said his family in Russia would face consequences if he did not.

“I understand that this was very silly,” Mr. Zorin said.

But in that moment, isolated and unable to contact family or friends, he believed that declaring himself to be a spy was the best option, he said.

Those accusations were “completely untrue,” said Gentian Mullaj, a spokesman for the Albanian police, adding that the police had acted “in full compliance” according to standard work procedures and the “fundamental rights of citizens.”

The prosecutor, Kreshnik Ajazi, said when asked for comment by The New York Times that it was the first time he was hearing Mr. Zorin’s claims and that suggestions that anyone had been targeted for being Russian were “absurd.”

Mr. Ajazi said the three accused had been given their legal right to contact family members when they were arrested, something Ms. Timofeyeva disputes, and had a lawyer and translator present during questioning.

He said that the statement made by Mr. Zorin remained confidential, and that he had been present during questioning of the three detainees on Aug. 21, the day after their arrests. “I can assure you that was there was not any kind of torture or violence,” Mr. Ajazi said. He was not present when the police first questioned Mr. Zorin after he was arrested.

Mr. Ajazi said that the guards at the factory had been in uniform, and that it would have been “quite clear” to Mr. Zorin that they were public officials. He said, without providing details, that Mr. Zorin’s statement was not the only piece of evidence prosecutors had, and that the group had visited other military locations in Albania.

Ms. Timofeyeva said the group had visited other sites in Albania, among them a former military site, but they had never encountered problems.

The electronic devices confiscated from the group were still being examined, Mr. Ajazi said. He expected that the case would be “closed earlier” than August 2024, the deadline for him to file an indictment.

As she bides her time in Tirana, Ms. Timofeyeva is also mulling a request that Moscow has made for her extradition in relation to a case of illegal entry at a Russian underground military site in 2018. Both she and Mr. Zorin have been vocal about their opposition to President Vladimir V. Putin and his invasion of Ukraine, and she believes the extradition request might be an effort to punish her for her outspokenness.

So far, that prospect seems unlikely. An Albanian court has rejected Russia’s extradition request on human rights grounds.

Mr. Zorin, who is half Ukrainian, said the invasion of Ukraine was like “attacking our own brothers.” Russia has not requested his extradition from Albania, and Mr. Zorin said that even if he were freed by Albania, he would not go back home, fearing that he would be conscripted to fight in Ukraine.

Ms. Timofeyeva, who left Moscow for Georgia a month after the war began in February 2022, has shared posts with her nearly 250,000 followers on Instagram, where she goes by Lana Sator, calling Mr. Putin a “mad grandpa” and for an end to the conflict.

She said she had separated from her husband — who was working as a photographer for the Wagner group, the private army that had been fighting on behalf of Russia in Ukraine until it mutinied this month — because he supported the war.

While living in Moscow, Ms. Timofeyeva said, she worked with Russia’s Culture Ministry to bolster local tourism not with the country’s intelligence agency.

Now, she has applied for political asylum in Albania, and said she had no plans to go back in the near future. “Jail in Russia is worse than here in Albania,” she said.

She passed the months in detention, she said, reading, learning Albanian and drawing pictures of the mountains near the jail and other subjects. She said she hoped to explore Albania and see more of its attractions.

But, she asked, “Will it be espionage if we take a touristy boat to a touristy island?”

Fatjona Mejdini contributed reporting from Tirana.

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