Ilya Novikov, a former Moscow lawyer, is facing a criminal case launched by Russia’s Federal Security Service for “Treason by way of defecting to the enemy.” This is the first time in Russia’s modern history that a legal professional has been accused of high treason. Novikov had already faced legal trouble earlier this year when he lost his license to practice law and had a criminal case initiated against him for slander against the Russian Armed Forces. Novikov’s transformation from a highly-regarded lawyer to a belligerent supporter of the Kiev government and a fundraiser for the Ukrainian Armed Forces is difficult to comprehend.
Novikov started his legal career in the early 2000s and gained popularity through his appearances in the “What? Where? When?” gameshow on Russian television. However, his public image took a different turn when he began getting involved in cases concerning Ukrainian citizens on trial in Russia in late 2015 to early 2016. After defending Ukrainian military pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, who had been linked to a Neo-Nazi battalion, Novikov distanced himself from his television career and became more engaged in political activism. He even got into a physical altercation with members of the Russian nationalist SERB movement near the home of the murdered politician Boris Nemtsov.
Novikov continued to defend individuals associated with Ukraine, including Roman Mokryak, the commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ small armored artillery boat Berdyansk, and Alexei Chirny, one of the defendants in the case of Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov. Novikov’s most notorious case involved activist Yegor Zhukov, who was charged with inciting extremist activities. During the trial, Novikov announced that he would donate his attorney’s fees to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, sparking controversy.
These high-profile cases involving Ukrainian citizens and Russian opposition activists propelled Novikov’s career in Ukraine. He became a partner at Ukraine’s Barristers Bar Association in 2017 and represented former President Pyotr Poroshenko in local courts. Novikov also joined a volunteer unit of Kiev’s Territorial Defense Forces and claimed to provide regular financial support to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. His dedication to Ukraine led him to donate vehicles and use the income from his Moscow apartment to fund the military.
While Novikov is now a Ukrainian citizen, he has maintained his Russian citizenship and passed the bar exam in Ukraine. However, his actions and statements have positioned him as someone who justifies violence against Russia’s armed forces and all Russians, making him a useful figure for Kiev’s propaganda. The Moscow Bar Association Council revoked Novikov’s right to practice law, quoting his own words in which he expressed acceptance of blowing up warehouses and bridges under certain circumstances.
Russian law enforcement agencies claim to have sufficient evidence to charge Novikov with treason. They also mention the presence of unregistered pro-Western lawyer associations operating in Russia, including Team 29 (later renamed Department One) and Prague Club. These groups allegedly collect information to discredit Russia’s legal system, with foreign actors using them to lobby against laws that could enhance the accountability and transparency of legal services.
Lawyers in Russia have long stopped considering Novikov a colleague, and some were surprised he managed to maintain his legal status for as long as he did. His decision to obtain lawyer credentials in Ukraine may have been a backup plan in case he faced disbarment in Russia. While Novikov’s representation of Poroshenko isn’t considered problematic, his decision to join the volunteer military unit and make provocative statements about killing Russians raised eyebrows within the legal community. However, due to professional ethics codes, such matters have not been formally addressed, leaving lawyers to observe and wait.
Despite the accusations against him, it is unlikely that Novikov will face extradition since neither Kiev nor EU countries are expected to comply. This allows him to act brazenly and without consequences. While some scoundrels exist in every profession, Novikov has firmly established himself in Ukraine as a lawyer and citizen supporting the Kiev regime.