‘Our family has died’: How a Russian teen evolved from a war supporter to an accused ‘terrorist’

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Late in the evening on February 28, Tatyana Balazeikina received a phone call from the police informing her that her 16-year-old son, Yegor, had been arrested. She was told he had confessed to throwing a bottle full of liquid at a military recruiting station in his hometown of Kirovsk, some 30 kilometers east of St. Petersburg. The liquid in the bottle did not ignite, and no significant damage was done.

“The same day I got a message from Tanya,” close family friend Natalya, whose name has been changed at her request for fear of reprisals for speaking out, said of Tatyana. “It began with the words, ‘Our family has died.’”

A court has ordered Yegor Balazeikin’s arrest until April 27 on suspicion of terrorism and attempted destruction of property. He is being held in St. Petersburg’s CIZO-5 jail.

“I often ask myself — aren’t you afraid?” Balazeikin wrote in an open letter from jail that was posted on Telegram on March 24. “You know, I always answer, ‘No.’ I was afraid before. Afraid to wake up in the morning. Afraid to read the news, which was always the same just with different place names and different numbers of victims…. Now I am no longer afraid.”

He is being held in strict isolation, and relatives and lawyers have been enjoined from discussing the case publicly.

“That’s the way the authorities frighten suspects in such cases,” St. Petersburg human rights lawyer Leonid Krikun said, “to get them to admit their guilt, to repent, to appear before society not as an oppositionist, but as a lost sheep who acknowledges the errors of his ways.”

Initially, investigators booked Balazeikin for damaging public property. But within days, they had upgraded the probe to suspected terrorism. If he is charged with terrorism, the 16-year-old would face 10 to 15 years in prison.

Krikun voiced concern that the authorities, who have handed out long prison terms merely for social-media posts critical of Moscow’s massive invasion of Ukraine, would make an example of Balazeikin.

“For daring to attack a ‘holy’ place,” Krikun said, “they will punish him to full extent of the law.”

‘A Good, Well-Mannered Person’

As a child, Yegor Balazeikin spent months in hospitals seeking a diagnosis for an illness that was destroying his liver. Eventually, it was determined he had autoimmune hepatitis, a condition that can be fatal if not constantly managed.

As part of his recovery, he took up — and excelled at — kyokushin karate. His home filled up with his trophies, and he won several regional competitions. In recent years, he served as a referee at children’s tournaments.

His condition is now considered to be in remission, but he must consult with specialists every three months and take medications.

Balazeikin turned 16 in August. An avid student of Russian history and social studies, he dreamed of going to law school or to college in economics. To help him, his parents — his mother is a teacher who mostly earns money by tutoring and his father is an electrician — transferred him to school No. 166, one of the most prestigious humanities secondary schools in St. Petersburg.

“Yegor always studied well,” Natalya said. “He passed his state exam with very high marks. He applied to several secondary schools, including No. 166. His parents were worried that he’d have a very long commute from their home…. But in the end, the director of No. 166, a historian himself, was so impressed with Yegor that he immediately accepted him to the 10th grade.”

One fellow student told RFE/RL that Yegor “always conveyed the impression of a good, well-mannered person.”

“My son speaks very highly of Yegor,” the parent of another classmate said. “He is a very good boy and it would be awful to ruin his life.”

But the increased academic workload and the long commute were hard on Balazeikin and his family. “Sometimes he’d arrive at home and fall asleep by the door without getting his coat off,” Natalya said.

His parents rented him a room near the school, although the expense was a hardship for him. He generally slept there during the week, travelling home for the weekends. After his arrest, state media falsely wrote that his family had abandoned him and he was living alone.

“That was a lie,” Natalya said. “He was getting along very well in his new school. Despite the hardships, he got excellent marks. For a long time, he wanted to become a diplomat and was seriously studying English. But later he became more interested in history, economics, and law.”

A Death In The Family

Balazeikin’s love of Russian history was fostered and encouraged by his father, Daniel, and his father’s older brother, Dmitry, a career military man and veteran.

“[Yegor] was insatiable,” Natalya recalled. “If he became interested in something, he studied it to the end. He knew all the locations associated with World War II. He visited all the historical sites around St. Petersburg, and often went to the military museums.”

When Russia launched its massive invasion of neighboring Ukraine in February 2022, Balazeikin and his family wholeheartedly supported the war and President Vladimir Putin.

“Yegor had the same views as everyone in his family — his mother, father, grandmother, and especially his uncle, a career military man,” Natalya said. “But Uncle Dima was killed at the very beginning of the ‘special military operation.’ And after his uncle’s death, Yegor’s views began to change.”

Although Dmitry Balazeikin was far beyond the age of military service, he signed up for a regional volunteer battalion.

“He didn’t tell anyone,” Natalya recalled. “Just left for the front. And he was killed almost immediately outside Izyum, where there was heavy fighting last March and April and serious losses. He died bravely, as Tanya told me, defending his men.”

When Dmitry Balazeikin was laid to rest, it was the first funeral Yegor had ever attended.

“The funeral of his slain uncle had an emotional effect,” Natalya said. “At first, the emotions were very raw. It was very hard for him — his uncle had died, but the reports on the Internet were all the same. And on television. At school, they were studying World War I. It was a lot of stress for a 16-year-old.”

Over time, Balazeikin’s views on the war changed radically, and he loathed the casualties on both sides. “Almost every conversation boiled down to one thing — that Russia was in the wrong,” Natalya said. “I think everything just came together in the most awful way — this war and his internal tribulations.”

‘A Symbolic Act’

Tatyana Balazeikina was able to briefly visit her son in custody shortly after his arrest. In an interview with Dozhd TV given before the gag order was imposed, she said her son was arrested at the scene of the incident and had admitted he threw the object. He said, however, there was nothing flammable in the bottle and that he had no intention of starting a fire, calling the gesture a “symbolic act.”

She said neither she nor her husband knew of his intentions in advance.

She quoted her son as telling her, “If I hadn’t done this, then most likely I would have hanged myself because I couldn’t live with the burden of all these people dying.”

She was able to give her son his medications, his schoolbooks, and some warm clothes, but she worries that the poor conditions and lack of medical oversight could be fatal for someone with autoimmune hepatitis.

“Such tragedies either destroy a family or bring it together,” said Natalya, who stated that Balazeikin’s parents both support him despite their pro-war stance. “In this case, it was the latter. I think Yegor’s father blames himself for what happened, as does his mother. She told me: ‘Did we raise him wrong? But how? I just wanted him to be a good person.’”

“Well, I can tell you,” she concluded, “he is a good person.”

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