Russia This Week: All the Strange Things Going on in Moscow

March 14, 2015
A scene from the premier of "Hamlet" in Moscow at the Bolshoi Ballet as staged by Radu Politaru. Photo by Konstantin Remchukov

In Russia This Week, you will find links to the stories of Russia Update in the last week and to special features, plus an article following up on the news and trending topics below.

Last issue: Remembering Boris Nemtsov, Insider and Outsider (1959-2015)

This Week’s Top Stories:

Kremlin Publishes New Picture of Putin Amid Concerns About Absence
Questions About Putin’s Health After Canceled Meetings & Vague Answers
Chechen Suspects in Nemtsov Murder Withdraw Confessions, Say Were Tortured
Getaway Car Suspected in Nemtsov’s Death Also Found Near His Home in October
Chechen Suspect Reportedly Offended at ‘Negative Comments’ by Nemtsov on Islam
5 Chechen Suspects Brought to Court in Murder of Boris Nemtsov
Suspects Detained in Murder of Boris Nemtsov from North Caucasus

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At week’s end, we still do not know more about the whereabouts of President Vladimir Putin than we did at the start of the week, when it first began to be noticed that he had not been seen in public since March 5.

The last two weeks since the murder of opposition Boris Nemtsov on February 27 have brought not only widely disparate theories of the case, rapid arrest of the suspects, and reversals in their testimony under claims of torture, confirmed by some human rights activists although disputed by others close to the government. There have also been other upheavals in Russia that indicate Nemtsov’s murder may have touched off or even come about as a clash of different forces within Putin’s regime. Putin has not been reliably verified as having been seen in public since March 5 when he was visited by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and some Russian mothers who taped a special program with him for International Women’s day aired later March 8. The stills and videos shown by this week of meetings with governors may have been taken last week, according to various sources. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan spoke to Putin on the phone, which has been confirmed, and supposedly Putin had a meeting at his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo today with the Supreme Court chairman, but this could not be confirmed.

While Russia analysts such as Robert Coalson (“Three Scenarios for a Succession“), Tom Nichols (“If Putin Dies”), Paul Goble (“Interregnum“) and Anders Aslund have theorized that some kind of change of government could be coming with Putin ill or sidelined, they say no one has any proof and can only go by their instincts as old Kremlinologists and wait for the story to unfold. Whether the ruler who comes after Putin would be from “the party of war” or the “party of peace” or neither, definitively, there is not likely to be any immediate relief from the war in Ukraine, as fighting continues with serious encroachment on the area north of the sea port of Mariupol, as our Ukraine Live blog has reported.

Here’s a list of all the developments we think are significant — or just odd — some of them unverified reports — to see if the pieces can be fit together:

A List of Disturbing Developments in Russia

Nemtsov Murder and Investigation

– On February 27, Boris Nemtsov was murdered two days before he was to lead a big opposition march against the war in Ukraine and Putin’s anti-crisis program.

-Putin assigned heads of law-enforcement to take
personal control; he did not take personal control, a misunderstanding
cleared up February 28 by spokesman Dmitry Peskov

– On March 1, the
originally-scheduled anti-war march was converted into a memorial
march; many participants came who said they wouldn’t have taken part in
the original event but felt that “a line should be drawn” against
political murders.

-A wide variety of
theories were put out by authorities but the first and lasting one was a claim that the
murderers were Islamists angered by the cartoons of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, whose
journalists were killed in a terrorist attack in January.

Nemtsov’s Ukrainian companion Anna Duritskaya said she did not see the
murderers; she was kept under house arrest and interrogated for several
days. She returned to Kiev where she received death threats.

– A snowplow driver was first suspected, although Duritskaya said she went to him for help; he turned out to have large debts.

A Caucasian man named Aslan Alkhanov was claimed to be found to have committed
suicide in the suburb of Klyonskoye in New Moscow; he was tied to the
Nemtsov murder by one conspiracy site
, which claimed Ukrainian Right
Sector leader Dmitro Yarosh commissioned the hit through him, abetted by CANVAS, an anti-Milosevich non-violent resistance NGO. No evidence that Alkhanov even existed has been found.

– Investigators said a
single mother of three — also coincidentally in Klyonskoye — turned
out to be the original owner of the car purchased by the Chechen suspects who
never re-registered it.

– On the basis of the discovery of this car,
said to be the getaway car identified through on-site video and traffic patrol
surveillance, within 7 days, on March 7 and 8, 6 suspects were seized, all Chechens from Ingushetia, and all relatives: Zaur Dadayev, Anzor Gubashev, Shagid Gubashev, Tamerlan Eskerkhanov, Khamzat Bakhayev, and Beslan Shavanov. All were originally from the town of Voznesensky, Malgobeksiy District in Ingushetia and moved to Chechnya or Moscow later.

– Zaur Dadayev, former deputy commander of the Sever Battalion in the Chechen Interior Ministry troops emerged as the main suspect on March 7 although by March 8 authorities sounded less sure. Beslan Shavanov also served in the Sever Battalion. The Gubashev brothers, his relatives, worked in a private security firm in Moscow.

Vesti aired a program with an interview of the neighbor of the house where the Chechens were living outside Moscow; he said they had frequent fights and he had complained to police. Shortly before the murder, they went to visit relatives in Ingushetia.

These Chechens had previously racked up numerous parking and speeding tickets; the car
was also seen on surveillance cameras on Malaya Ordnyka, the street
where Nemtsov lived.

– One suspect, Beslan Shavanov, was blown up by a grenade when the police came to his door March 7 (police say he blew himself up; his family say he threw a grenade and missed.)

– Dadayev
reportedly went on leave for 30 days January 27, simultaneously submitting his resignation,
which went into effect the day before the murder. He was said to be the
main suspect in the case.

–  The Sever [North] Battalion and also the Yug [South] Battalion were created in 2006 under the patronage of Ramzan Kadyrov himself. They consist of former officers of the so-called Anti-Terrorist Center of Chechnya and the presidential security service. Formally, these units are subordinate to the command of the North Caucasus District troops of the Interior Ministry of Russia.

– Officials said there were “no
contractors” and Dadayev, the triggerman, was both the organizer and
perpetrator, proven by “forensic evidence,” although investigators said
initially theyhad to find the gun and tie it to Dadayev.

– Although on March 1,
Ramzan Kadyrov blamed Western intelligence agencies, the next week on March 8 he
said the suspects were heroes and devout Muslims.

– The clash between
the FSB’s characterization of Dadayev as “an accused murderer” and
Kadyrov’s characterization of him as “a brave warrior” meant that
something had to give.

– Independent media and bloggers speculated
that there was a war between the FSB and Kadyrov; Novaya Gazeta published an investigative piece that pointed toward the Delimkhanov family; Adam Delimkhanov, a senator in the Federation Council who is on the US sanctions list and is suspected of masterminding the murder of former Chechen warlord and Russian commander Sulim Yamadayev, had a cousin

– Members of the Public
Monitoring Commission visited the defendants in detention in the FSB’s
Lefortovo Prison; they found signs of bruises and scratches and Dadayev
told them he was beaten, a sack was put over his head and he was brought
this way to Moscow.

– On the night of March, the human rights
monitors got visits to their home from investigators who threatened them
with prosecution; the next day the Investigative Committee published a
notice threatening them with prosecution for “obstruction of justice.”

– That day, the head of the Public Monitoring Mission  also refuted the claims of torture, as did Dadayev’s lawyer.

The family of Shavanov was discovered to have received a compensation
from the Russian government after a successful lawsuit at the European
Court of Human Rights for human rights violation during the first
Chechen war.

– Komsomolskaya Pravda published an interview
March 13 with an anonymous FSB official
who says Adam Osmayev, a
pro-Kiev and anti-Moscow Chechen, is behind the murder of Nemtsov, and that Dadayev was working for him. Nemtsov’s friend an co-chairman of his party RPR-Parnas discounted any “Ukrainian footprint” in the case and told that the investigation’s fingering of “Islamists” and “Ukrainians” meant they were covering up the murder rather than investigating it.

– Kavkaz Center, the web site of the Caucasian Emirate terrorist group, has published claims about upheavals in the administration of Kadyrov.  Magomed Daudov, Kadyrov’s chief of staff,  whose call sign is “Lord,” has “fallen ill” and gone to his native village of Geldygen. Lord forced the sister of Nemtsov’s killer Dadayev to give testimony against  Alibek Delimkhanov, brother of Federation Council Sen. Adam Delimkhanov, head of the Sever unit where Dadayev served as deputy commander. The sister claims Alibek was directly involved in Nemtsov’s murder. (Summary in Russian by Oleg Kashin here.)


– Putin reportedly held a meeting on March 13 with Supreme Court chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev at his residence in Novo-Ogoryova; as with previous meetings this weeks there are concerns that a video  of the meeting could have been taped in advance.

– If Putin were contemplating discussing any issues about his succession it would not likely be with the Supreme Court chairman but the Constitutional Court chairman.

–  Swiss tabloids reported that a baby was born to Alina Kabayeva, said to be Putin’s mistress. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denies a baby was born to Putin.

Red Square

– On March 11, a tow-truck reportedly drove on to Red Square.

– On March 13, many buses and other vehicles were driven on to the square.

– Pictures were also disseminated of construction work on Red Square — possibly bleachers for a celebration of the annexation of Crimea March 16.

– Photos of tanks purporting to be deployed on Red Square were debunked as fakes.

Investigative Committee

– Maj. Gen. Igor Krasnov, special cases investigator known for
solving crimes involving Russian ultranationalists, was put in charge of
the case but is not making statements to the press.

– Investigative
Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin has made several statements on the Nemtsov case but is not
the only one in charge, and has not made any announcements this week.

-Bastrykin reprinted Kommersant and Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports on the web site, thereby indicating the newspaper accounts of the murder he had approved.

-The Investigative Committee opened a case for “incitement of war” against retired US general Robert Scales who suggested more Russians should be killed to stop the war in Ukraine, on a Fox News talk show.

– On March 12, Aleksandr Khoroshavin, governor of Sakhalin Region was charged with receiving more than $5.6 million in bribes through Andrei Ikramov in the form of kickbacks of 6% of contracts for the Sakhalin company Energostroi.

Federal Security Service (FSB)

– Aleksandr Bortnikov,
head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) made a trip to Washington, DC February 19-20
to attend a conference
“Countering Violent Extremism” and gave a presentation claiming 1,700 people
from Russia have left to fight in Syria and Iraq; this number is not
seen to have a basis.

– FSB agents and Interior Ministry Main Criminal Investigation Department made the arrests of the suspects in Ingushetia. FSB chief Bortnikov made the announcement of the arrest of the suspects and a number of subsequent statements about the Nemtsov investigation which indicate that the FSB is taking the lead in the case.

– Bortnikov traveled to Crimea March 10 for a meeting of the National Anti-Terrorist Committee.

Interior Ministry (MVD)

– Putin said at the
annual meeting of the Interior Ministry
on March 4 that there should be
“no more political murders” — but many missed the rest of his speech in
which he called for a crackdown on “street crime” and ordered enhanced
volunteer police auxiliaries called druzhinniki to be established as in the Soviet era.

Sources say
Vladimir Kolokoltsev announced his resignation at the Interior Ministry
annual meeting, to take effect in late March.

– Persistent rumors spread by bots on Twitter that Gen. Viktor Zolotov, commander-in-chief of the Interior Ministry’s forces, has been murdered. A search of his name on Twitter reveals that there are hundreds of identical tweets from new or little-used or strange accounts. This technique has often been used this year to intimidate people.

Translation: they’re writing that Gen. Zolotov, who had Putin’s entire personal guard under his subordination, has been murdered.

Defense Ministry

– Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu traveled to Crimea on March 10 to review the troops.

– Shoigu traveled to Rostov, which has been a staging area for war in Ukraine.

– Where is Shoigu now? There are no reports of his whereabouts in the last two days.

– The Defense Ministry denied that Cossacks would hunt down men of draft age who shirked their military duty. Earlier Sergei Shishkin, head of the Southeast Cossack’s Association said 1,400 men were available to hunt draft dodgers.

– A Ukrainian POW captured at the battle in Krasny Partizan released by fighters from the “Donetsk People’s Republic” said that he was visited by a Russian soldier while in captivity.

 Ramzan Kadyrov

– How Kadyrov spent his week – attending, Security Council meeting in Pyatigorsk, swearing loyalty to Putin, publishing picture of himself arm-in-arm with Putin – and practicing at a firing range.

– Kadyrov wrote on Instagram on March 8 in defense of Zaur Dadayev then fell silent, then spoke up again March 13, defending Dadayev as a “real warrior and a patriot,” and indicated his “undying loyalty” to Putin. He conceded that if found guilty of murder, Dadayev should be “tried under the laws of Russia” and “punished to the fullest extent of the law.” He said he would remain loyal to Putin “regardless of what post he is in” and chalked up the rumors and accusations as the intrigues of Western enemies of Russia.

– Kadyrov convened MVD leaders March 13 and  urged everyone to rally around Putin against the intrigues and assaults of the West.

– The Kavkaz Center, a site associated with terrorist group Caucasus Emirate, reports Kadyrov to be in a panic because he can’t reach Putin and has been told Putin is sick. See summary in Russian by Oleg Kashin.

– Kadyrov’s chief of staff, whose call-sign is “Lord,” Magomet Daudad, has “fallen ill” and gone to his native village of Geldygen. Lord forced the sister of Zaur Dadayev, suspected to be Nemtsov’s killer to give testimony against  Alibek Delimkhanov, brother of Federation Council Sen. Adam Delimkhanov, head of the Sever unit where Dadayev served as deputy commander. The sister claims Alibek was directly involved in Nemtsov’s murder.


— A woman came forward who had not spoken at the time saying she saw the rocket fired at MH17. Andrei Purgin said the Russian-backed militants “did not have” such an anti-aircraft weapon, forgetting that Russian state media and pro-government news site reported the rebels’ possession of the Buks on July 13 as well as July 17, and their initial bragging about the downing thinking it was a Ukrainian cargo plane.


– State TV stopped using the term “Novorossiya” and now says “Donbass and Lugansk Regions”; as recently as March 9, premier propagandist Dmitry Kiselyev used the term “Novorossiya” in his weekly show Vesti.

– Tent kiosks collecting money “for Donbass people” near metro stops and other public places were  ordered closed.

An assassination attempt was made March 7 on Aleksei Mozgovoy head of the Prizrak (Ghost) Battalion.  Mozgovoy has said in the past he didn’t wish to consolidate his battalion within with one Novorossiya army.

Col. Igor Strelkov has not had any new interviews in weeks since one with Nikolai Starikov, but has just turned up in the city of Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains to give a speech at a meeting and form a local branch of the “Novorossiya” movement. 

–  TV Rain reported on a send-off of fresh volunteers from Yekaterinburg to Donbass  with prayers and Cossack rituals.

– Denis
Pushilin threatened to declare the Minsk 2 agreement broken if Kiev didn’t pass the law on “certain districts” in the Donbass to have “local self government”; the law was submitted March 15 to the Verkhovna Rada. Igor Bezler has long since disappeared from the scene as has Aleksandr Borodai;
Andrei Purgin was quoted this week, denying that Russian-backed militants could reach MH17 with their weapons.

– In a document leaked by Novaya Gazeta,  oligarch and Russian Orthodox philanthropist Konstantin Malofeyev was identified in a group close to the Kremlin that drafted a scenario to take over Crimea and the Donbass.

– Malofeyev had no comment about the leaked document other than to threaten to sue Novaya Gazeta.

– Konstantin Malofeyev is first rumored to have a search of his home and office in connection with the Rostelekom case, then denied it.

– His business partner said he has no comment about reports that he, too, was searched because he is under a non-disclosure agreement.

– Malofeyev then reportedly paid off the disputed $225 million evidently to close the case of the companies related to Rostelekom.

– Russian recruits that appeared bound for Ukraine spotted in Rostov, although there is a Donetsk, Russia and this could be a Russia-only bus.

Russian Media

As RFE/RL describes, State TV tried to square the circle of how Boris Nemtsov was supposed to be an insignificant figure or a has-been from the 1990s, yet justify saturation coverage of his death and the search for the murderer.

TV1 broadcast Putin’s reported meeting March 13 with Supreme Court chair Vyacheslav Lebedev and news of Public Opinion Research Center poll that Putin’s approval rating had increased to 88%.

LifeNews had absolutely nothing to say about Putin’s whereabouts.

Novaya Gazeta published an interview by Elena Kostyuchenko with a Buryat man, Dorzhi Batomunkuyev, 19, a tank driver who  suffered burns of his face and body and other injuries in the battle of Debaltsevo. He was first recruited into the regular army then signed a contract and was sent to Ukraine.  The dramatic photo and picture is a kind of Russian Johnny Got His Gun, drawing over 1.6 million views.

Novaya Gazeta‘s editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov announced that the newspaper edition will be suspended in May and hints the online version is also in trouble, with one shareholder “trying to put us out of business.”

Moscow Times publishes the longest piece in its history about the media’s abdication of its responsibility to inform the public, going back to the Yeltsin era, but particularly in the recent years of the Putin reign.

– Leonid Bershidsky, writer for Bloomberg, who has left Russia to live in the West, called Putin “a dictator.”

– Oleg Buzin, Ukrainian journalist, resigned from Segodnya complaining of Ukrainian censorship and commissioned propaganda articles.

-Bastrykin reprinted Kommersant and Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports on the web site; other news sites’ articles, both state and independent, are not printed.

– Russkiy Monitor, a news site that has published various theories about Putin’s illnesses suffered a DDoS attack

Russian Social Media

A tweet by Konstantin Remchukov, editor-in-chief of Nezavisimaya Gazeta was heard around the world.

Translation: At the Bolshoi Theater at the premier of the ballet HAMLET, I was taken aside (and today is a full house) and told that supposedly tomorrow they will dismiss Sechin.

Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft, a hard-liner on Western sanction lists over the war in Ukraine, has reportedly been criticized lately.

Few noticed Zemchukov’s previous tweet, which was how the new Hamlet in Moscow, staged by a Moldovan, had “little green men” marching on stage with Kalashnikovs, invoking “Novorossiya.”

Translation: Ballet Hamlet finished with police little green men coming out on stage with Kalashnikovs.

The most promise pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts were fairly subdued about Putin’s absence.

– Konstantin Rykov (@rykov) has had nothing to say about Putin’s disappearance

– Anton Korobkov-Zemlyansky (@korobkov) has only retweeted one joke about it.

– @SurkovRussia which the real Vladislav Surkov has claimed is not his (but which sounds like him) has just had a few tweets on Putin’s absence and is  focused on ridiculing those asking about him.

– Natalya Poklonskaya (npoklonskaya), a fan account for the Crimean prosecutor, has mocked Ukrainians and Russian opposition who say they want to get rid of Putin but are now looking for him.

– The Kremlin troll farm employees in St. Petersburg were instructed to move from the Ukrainian themes they have been flogging for a year to the topic of Boris Nemtsov’s murder, and spinning it as a false-flag operation of Western intelligence agencies, etc.

–  Ya Russkiy Okkupant (I’m a Russian Occupant), a viral video
with now over 5 million views was uploaded to YouTube February 27. It
justifies Russian occupation of neighboring countries which were the
non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union, for example implying that
where once the Soviet occupation brought Estonia the radio electronics industry,
now Estonians are cleaning toilets in the EU; where once Soviet
occupation brought Central Asia the oil and gas and space industries,
now Kazakhs have to work construction for their occupier, etc.

– The trailer for a new movie timed for the anniversary of the forced annexation of the Crimea, Homeward Bound: Road to the Motherland was released March 9, in which Putin said the Kremlin tracked former president Viktor Yanukovych as he fled Ukraine and helped him “by land, sea, and air” to escape.

– An amateur video of a helicopter landing at the new Defense Ministry
communications center and other reports of increased helicopter activity
brought fear of a coup.

– No one has confirmed the rumors about sudden staff departures back to Russia.

– Meanwhile, for some reason, the Russian Embassy in London received Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, president of the republic of Kalmykia.

– Aleksandr Zakharchenko says “God loves a trinity” and there should be
three “kettles” — first there was the Ilovaisk kettle from
August-September 2014; then there was the Debaltsevo Kettle from
mid-January to February 18, when Ukrainian forces were forced to
withdrawal; next will be the Mariupol Kettle.

Opposition and NGOs

 – Federal Corrections Service asked to put Alexey Navalny in jail to serve his suspended sentence as he has violated terms of patrol with repeat offenses, i.e. unauthorized pickets and leafletting.

– The murderer of journalist Igor Domnikov was found.

–  Charges were dismissed against Svetlana Davydova, mother of 7 charged with “treason” for reporting troops movements to the Ukrainain Embassy in Moscow.

– Memorial Society Human Rights Center lost its appeal of “foreign agent” status.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick