At a 2018 rally in Sacramento, hundreds of Californians called for a national divorce, citing “irreparable and irreconcilable differences.”
“In the end, the best people to rule California are we Californians,” Luis Marinelli, founder of the Yes California separatist group, told The Script.
Marinelli, a right-wing activist who previously campaigned against LGBT rights, framed California nationalism in terms of competing values—and at the time, said he changed his mind on issues like gay rights (his Twitter timeline, today, to largely conservative reasons) . In a country led by President Donald Trump, he said, this liberal stronghold should not be subject to the reactionaries in Washington, D.C.
He was a cause he cared so much about that he left his home in Yekaterinburg, about 1,000 miles outside of Moscow, to fight for it.
“I enjoyed my life in Russia, but one thing I care deeply about is the independence of California,” Marinelli told The Sacramento Bee.
According to a federal indictment unsealed Friday, Russian intelligence officers are also keenly interested in a West Coast secession — as part of an effort to destabilize the United States.
Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen said in a statement that the indictment centers on Moscow-based Alexander Viktorovich Ionov and head of the “anti-globalization movement in Russia.” Prosecutors alleged that he worked with at least three Russian officials in a “shameless campaign of influence, to turn American political groups and American citizens into tools of the Russian government,” Olsen wrote.
This effort included hosting government-funded conferences in Russia, inviting separatists from around the world, as well as providing “financial support, advice, instructions, and promotion in the Russian media” to separatist movements in the United States.
The indictment did not specify who specifically participated in this influence campaign. It is reported that at least one US citizen was aware that Ionov’s group was linked to the Russian government. No American has been charged with a crime related to the case.
But the indictment provided strong evidence. It identified the secessionist movement leader as “UIC-6” — that is, an unconvicted partner — who “resided in Russia and California,” and described the organization they founded as “US Political Group 3,” which focused on California’s secession, according to the indictment.
That person, the statement said, had been in touch with Ionoff about the 2018 gathering “at the California State Capitol in Sacramento, California,” and mentioned in their correspondence “the possibility of providing funding for this event.”
According to prosecutors, Ionov reviewed the poster designs and encouraged the group’s leader to adopt protest tactics that could lead to violence.
In an email sent in Russian, Ionov urged the group’s leader to “physically enter the governor’s office,” which was occupied in 2018 by Democrat Jerry Brown.
He then sent the person $500 to pay for the stickers, and was also later captured in an FSB officer, according to the indictment.
The group did not end up storming the governor’s office, Ionov later lamented. In a letter to its leader, the Russian citizen complained that the event did not amount to a “historic gathering” “in the parliament building”. But he asked for photos of the event, which he passed to an officer of the FSB, writing that the latter had asked for “upheavals” and “here you are.”
Marinelli, now based in Arkansas, has denied wrongdoing and said he is no longer associated with the California separatist movement.
In his speech, he indicated that his name was not mentioned in the indictment.
“However, surely, if I was who they were referring to, I would first point out that their press release states at the bottom that these are all unsubstantiated allegations,” Marinelli said. He denied that Ionov “exercised direction and control” over YS California, also asserting that the group “has not benefited from any concrete support.”
“I also object to the claim that Ionov provided funds for this event,” he said, refusing to address the specific fees that the Russian citizen paid for the event posters. He went on to say that he did not attempt to enter the governor’s office, at Ionov’s suggestion—instead, he had just taken his picture with the statue of the bear outside.
“I went to the Capitol and put his picture there like all other Capitol visitors do,” he said. “All Californians know that the office of the de facto governor is guarded by state police and no one will attempt to ‘physical entry’ without permission.”
But while Marinelli denies receiving any money for his actions in the US, he has already accepted Ionov’s support before – at least while he was still abroad. The New York Times reported in 2017 that a Russian group known as the Anti-Globalization Movement “offered him an office in Moscow to open a California ’embassy’ in Russia, and Mr. Marinelli accepted.”
According to the indictment, the identity of “UIC-6” is known to a federal grand jury. But Marinelli said he has not been contacted by law enforcement authorities.
“I would be happy to provide some additional context and information regarding Alexander Yunov’s affairs and would be ready to do so if the federal government contacted me,” he said. But until this moment I have not been contacted.”
Meanwhile, the US Justice Department said Ionov – the only person charged with a crime – faces up to five years in prison on suspicion of conspiracy to make US citizens “act as illegal agents of the Russian government”.