Russia Update: Why Was LifeNews Searched and If Surkov is Involved, What’s the Motive?

March 25, 2015
Officer from the Interior Ministry's forensics center tapes a label to office equipment in a search March 24, 2015. Screengrab from LifeNews video.

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

The previous issue is here.

Why was LifeNews raided by police yesterday? Is it related to the Kremlin grey cardinal Vyacheslav Surkov?


Special features:

Alexey Navalny On the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
Theories about Possible Perpetrators of the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
Novaya Gazeta Releases Sensational Kremlin Memo: ‘It is Seen as Correct to Initiate Annexation of Eastern Regions of Ukraine to Russia’

See also our Russia This Week stories:

Can We Be Satisfied With the Theory That Kadyrov Killed Nemtsov?

All The Strange Things Happening in Moscow
Remembering Boris Nemtsov, Insider and Outsider (1959-2015)
Ultranationalists Angry over ‘Capitulation’ of Minsk Agreement

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs‏.

Putin Decrees Title of ‘Guards’ to 3 Army Units for ‘Bravery in Combat in Fatherland’s Interests’ – But Where?

President Putin has signed decrees awarding three army units the title of “Guards”: the 11th and 83rd separate assault brigades and the 38th separate communications regiments of the Airborne Troops (VDV), reported.

The decrees were published today on the Russian government’s website:


The text of the decree says (translation by The Interpreter):

“For massive heroism and bravery, determination and courage, displayed by the personnel of the brigades in combat actions in defense of the Fatherland and state interests under conditions of armed conflicts, and taking into account its merits in peace time.”

The units can now all add the word “Guard” to their titles as an honor.

As says, the date and place of these “combat actions” isn’t indicated in the decrees, however.

We took a look at the 83rd’s VKontakte club page with lots of pictures (they’re based in the Russian town of Ussuriysk) and nothing jumped out as saying these soldiers were in Ukraine or Rostov Region near the Ukrainian border — or anywhere outside Russia — but we’re still looking. added that these brigades were known to have fought in the two Chechen wars:

It is known that the personnel of the 83rd brigade took part in the first Chechen campaign from 1994-1995 as part of integrated divisions. The brigade itself was not re-based in the North Caucasus. The 38th separate communications regimentalso fulfilled combat missions in both Chechen campaigns

There are no reports about the participation of the soldiers of these three units in combat actions after the official end of the counter-terrorist operation in Chechnya.

No doubt lots of people will be combing over references to these units to see where they have been and we’ll update soon. We don’t see them in the list of Russian army units confirmed by and other journalists to have been deployed in Ukraine.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Deputy Chair of Public Observation Commission Calls for Expulsion of Novaya Gazeta Journalist Yelena Masyuk

Pavel Pyatnitsky, deputy chair of the Public Observation Commission, a group that monitors prison conditions, has called for expelling Novaya Gazeta journalist Yelena Masyuk for publishing an account of the POC’s visit to the Chechen suspects in the Nemtsov murder investigation, the newspaper reported.

Masyuk published an article on the POC’s interviews of Khamzat Bakhayev and Tamerlan Eskerkhanov, saying that the guard had put on handcuffs so tightly they had injured the suspects. Pyatnitsky says that Masyuk has violated the internal prison regulations for pre-trial detention with the publication.

Masyuk refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement at the time of the visit.

This is the third incident regarding efforts by civic groups to find out the conditions of the detainees.

When the POC first visited them and spoke to Zaur Dadayev and others, they learned of the suspects complaints that they were tortured into confessions, and of their withdrawal of their statements. This prompted a fight within the POC, which is now headed by Anton Tsvetkov, a conservative activist for the rights of military persons in detention, who reprimanded prison rights’ activists Andrei Babushkin. This led to a late-night visit from officers of the Investigative Committee to the homes of Babushkin and a Moskovsky Komsomolets writer Eva markacheva, and a warning of prosecution for disclosing information from the investigation.

Then Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Presidential Commission on Human Rights, was denied permission to visit the suspects.

Tsvetkov later disavowed the claims of the members of his own organization regarding torture of the suspects.

The struggles of the Public Observation Commission reveal the efforts of the last of the Yeltsin-era liberals who created the commission to address the Soviet legacy of abuse in the GULAG to challenge Putin-era conservatives who have basically turned the commission to another purpose, protecting members of the armed forces from prosecution. The investigation of the Nemtsov murder is said to have pitted the Federal Security Service (FSB) against Ramzan Kadyrov, in whose Interior Ministry troops the suspects served.

While evidence that the incriminating statements made by the suspects under torture might tend to exonerate Kadyrov and his men, prison authorities and the higher officials giving them instructions evidently believe that the less said about the detainees and their conditions the better.

Masyuk, a journalist for the old NTV, was kidnapped by Chechen rebels in 1997 and ultimately released two months later after public protests and a $2 million ransom. Earlier she had been threatened with prosecution for interviews with terrorist Shamil Basayev, and successfully fought a libel suit against Vladimir Zhirinovsky who claimed she was abetting terrorists.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Putin Signs Annual Order for Military Draft; 150,000 to Receive Notices

President Vladimir Putin has signed the order for the spring recruitment for military service, Novaya Gazeta reports, citing

More than 150,000 men will receive draft summons. The order also contains instructions to release from service all those personnel who served their terms already.

Yesterday, we reported that the Duma is considering a draft law to ban draft-dodgers from leaving Russia for five years. They are also intending to ban service in state agencies for the same period although the Constitutional Court has ruled against some aspects of this ban.

– Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Malofeyev Reported to Settle Debt to VTB for $100 Million in Recognition of His Services to ‘Novorossiya’

Businessman and Russian Orthodox philanthropist Konstantin Malofeyev,
an avid supporter of the Russian-backed separatists in southeast
Ukraine, is reported to have paid back a debt owed to VTB Bank for $100
million, a fraction of the original amount and minus any penalties or
interest, Kommersant reports.

One of the persistent templates for trying to understand events in
Moscow, notable particularly from ultranationalist and separatist
bloggers, is the concept that “liberals” in the Kremlin will “dump
Novorossiya” — that is President Vladimir Putin will be overcome by the
“party of peace” in reaching a ceasefire with Ukraine and get rid of
anyone related to the “party of war” supporting the separatists in the

That was how the dismissal of Aleksandr Dugin from Moscow State
University and the retirement of Col. Igor Strelkov were interpreted
last year. Periodically, rumors of impending assassinations or attempted
assassinations against Russian-backed warlords in Ukraine such as Givi
(Mikhail Tolstykh), Motorola (Arseny Pavlov) or Aleksandr Mozgovoy are
disseminated in this vein.

Since Malofeyev was reported to bankroll first the Crimean takeover then the “Donetsk People’s Republic” adventure, when he was reported to have his home and office searched
rumors of the “Novorossiya dump” occurred again. Then, when Malofeyev
was reported to have reached a settlement finally with Rostelekom after a
long court case, that was seen if not as a “dump” at least as a closing
of the “Novorossiya” chapter with a discounted fine instead of

Now Kommersant has further researched the matter and today March 25 reports further details
on how Marshall Capital Partners, Malofeyev’s company paid back an
original loan of $225 million, which had earned interest and penalties
and reached the amount of $596 million, settling it for just $100

Kommersant cites sources that claim the terms for
the settlement were already reached back on January 21 and the
documents signed February 18. VTB Kapital and Rusagropom agreed to
settle the loan given in 2007 for purchase of dairy plants to Alverdine
Investments, Ltd in the Virgin Islands for $100 million, and agreed to
refrain from further legal action. This also involved ceasing a lawsuit
in the UK that had frozen the shares of Marshall Capital Partners.
Malofeyev in turn dropped a lawsuit for $600 million against VTB for
damages resulting from the freeze on the shares. In exchange for this
deal, a criminal case against Malofeyev on charges of embezzlement of a
VTB loan was dropped in March.

According to Kommersant‘s source close to VTB (translation by The Interpreter):

“We reached a peaceful agreement with Konstantin
Malofeyev, the claims regarding the debt are settled, the bank has
received all the money. We are not commenting on the details.”

Malofeyev’s press service also confirmed that a settlement was
reached but said they didn’t know the sum of the deal reached by VTB and
Alverdine and claimed that Malofeyev had no connection to Alverdine.
Another source close to Malofeyev said he had settled the debt for $100
million and obtained this “discount” due to his “civic position.” This
was believed to be code words for his support for the Russian-backed
separatist war in the Donbass, and his humanitarian aid sent to

Kommersant consulted various excerpts who said
that an 85% or greater write-off of a bad loan or purchase for pennies
on the dollar by collectors’ agencies is common if a period of time has
lapsed, or there is no means of payment or collateral.

In February, Novaya Gazeta leaked a document
drafted by a group close to the Kremlin in which Malofeyev was said to
be involved, which indicated that the Kremlin had reviewed and endorsed a
scenario for taking over the Crimea and the Donbass even before former
president Viktor Yanukovych was toppled. Malofeyev denied involvement in
the study.

One theory about the leak of the document was that it was to put
pressure on Malofeyev to reach some agreement with the Kremlin, and yet
if Kommersant‘s sources are telling the truth, the terms for the debt discount and payment were already reached before the leak.

definitively determine whether Malofeyev has been “dumped” or just “got
off with a fine,” his further activities will have to be watched to see
if he continues to donate to ultrarightist causes. Last year he was
spotted meeting with Col. Strelkov at the church in Valaam, and then attended a conference titled “Moscow the Third Rome” where
he was on the same platform with Dugin, former intelligence officer
Leonid Reshetnikov of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies and
other hardliners. But he didn’t attend the conference of European and US
far-right and Nazi fringe parties with Russian ultranationalists in St.
Petersburg this past weekend.

VTB Bank formally denied the claims regarding the settlement of the debt, Novaya Gazeta reported.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Little Further Comes to Light Regarding Nemtsov Murder Investigation

After publishing or broadcasting a flurry of divergent theories for the murder of Boris Nemtsov, the Russian media has quieted down this week and little news has been available. Five Chechen suspects remain in custody. The media has squared the circle of first claiming they were contract murderers for hire, then claiming they were Islamists angered by the Charlie Hebdo cartoons by saying that the direct perpetrators were indeed Islamists who were used by contractors at another level for mercenary aims. Yet the only figure for a payment — 5 million rubles or $83,000 given to Dadayev  — does not seem a very high payment for such a contract.

Lots of attention has been paid to Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, since two of the suspects were in his Interior Ministry troops, and in the first days after the murder he called them “brave warriors”. There has been a great deal of speculation about whether the murder itself was caused by a struggle for power by various factions in the Kremlin, or whether the investigation has forced open existing rifts in the leadership.

Today Rosbalt reports that a source close to the investigation says Ruslan Geremeyev, an officer of the Sever [North] Batttalion is still located in Chechnya. He has been variously reported as being held under “heavy guard,” but as a witness, not a suspect. A law-enforcer told that Ruslan “maybe” be located in the Chechen village of Dzhalka. Eye-witnesses who have gone to the location say that all entrances to his home are guarded by armed men. Dzhalka is the home town of Adam Delimkhanov and his brother Alimbek Delimkhanov, commander of the Sever Batallion. Adam is a cousin of Kadyrov’s. Recently Adam’s wife gave birth to a son and Kadyrov ordered all the babies born in the republic that day — 34 — to receive cash in honor of his relative’s birth.

The key suspect, Zaur Dadayev, was said to come to Moscow with Ruslan Geremeyev and lived in the same apartment with him on Veyernaya Street where the other accomplices hid out with him after the murder. Dadayev was said to have been seen with Geremeyev in a bar and wsa believed to have spent some time with him.

All the suspects provided DNA samples to the investigation, which has said that these will link them to the crime.

Media Zone has a very thorough round-up of all the Russian media sources on the Nemtsov investigation.

Yesterday the independent web site reported that vandals had come to destroy the flowers and signs left in memory of Nemtsov on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge near the Kremlin.

Translation: Monsters from the SERB movement who are part of Antimaidan have desecrated the place where Nemtsov was murdered.

The SERB calls itself the National Liberation Movement. It is not know if this relates to another group headed by Yevgeny Fyodorov with the name “National Liberation Movement” (NOD).

They even allowed themselves to be photographed. noted that this same group came to heckle picketers on the 9th day after Nemtsov’s murder who had gathered according to Russian Orthodox tradition.

Last night, police patrolled the area. But the mayor’s office said the site had no official memorial status and could not be maintained.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Two Chechens Killed in Custody, Bodies Returned to Relatives; Others Missing After Dam Explosion

Yesterday we reported that Memorial Human Rights Center had issued a press release about Chechen men who had disappeared; one of them evidently died in custody and his body was returned to relatives. The web site of Memorial Society isn’t functioning, as either due to hacking or malfunctioning, all the links to it get re-routed to a data base of Stalin’s victims in Leningrad Region, part of the historical work the organization does.

In the mean time we had a copy of the article still in the browser, so here is a translation by The Interpreter:

Nothing is known about the fate of a minimum of at least five men detained.

Earlier we wrote that after the explosion at the dam in Grozny that occurred February 23, law-enforcers began mass detentions of residents in the village of Gvardeyskoye in the Nadterechny District.

The bodies of three men were found at the site of the explosion, two of whom lived in Gvardeyskoye. According to law-enforcers, they blew themselves up when they tried to place an explosive device. The relatives of the men killed were detained, were held for three days at the Nadterechny District Precinct of the Interior Ministry and then released.

From February 24 through March 3, no less than 100 people who were acquainted with the people killed were taken from the Nadterechny Precinct to Grozny. They were later released. The body of Kana Afanasyev, detained on February 26, was turned over to relatives the next day.

Then Gvardeyskoye residents told human rights activists about the murder of another resident of the village, Suleyman Tsakayev, age 29.

According to villagers, on March 2 or 3, an officer of the Nadterechny police demanded relatives of Suleyman to bring him to the precinct for interrogation about the case of the explosion at the dam. Tsakayev lives in Moscow, so his relatives called him and asked him to come to the village.

On March 5, Suleyman came to Gvardeyskoye and immediately went to the police station. According to local residents, that evening, law-enforcers drove him to Grozny, although they don’t know exactly. Tsakayev’s relatives are not prepared to talk to human rights activists.

On the night of March 6, Suleyman’s body was brought to the Nadterechny Precinct, and then handed over to relatives. On March 7, Tsakayev was buried. He has a wife and three minor children.

Local residents told human rights activists that from February 24 through March 3, at least five men were driven away. Nothing is known about their fate. All of them were acquaintances with the men who were killed at the dam in one way or another. The relatives of some of the detainees whose names we know are not prepared to provide information to human rights activists or file any complaints.

We do not know if Suleyman Tsakayev and Kana Afanasyev are guilty of anything or if the other detainees have committed any crimes. But regardless, torture and extrajudicial executions are forbidden by Russian law and international conventions. If a person is suspected of committing a crime, there must be an investigation, the relatives of the detainees must be notified where they are located and they must receive the assistance of a lawyer. The accused must appear in court and only a court can establish his guilt and determine his punishment.

The regional web site Caucasian Knot also covered the story, and said that according to villagers’ reports, the three men killed in the explosion were not militants. They gave the names somewhat differently, however:

The “Caucasian Knot” has
reported that at night on February 24, in the village of Chernorechie,
an explosion occurred on the dam of the Chernorechensk Reservoir, which
killed, according to locals, three persons.

“The three men, who were lost on the dam, were identified back on
February 24. Apparently, the explosion occurred when the fougasse [IED] was on
the ground, because the casualties’ lower body parts, starting from the
abdomen down, were actually torn into pieces. They were identified as
citizens of Chechnya named Zavaraev, Khalukaev and Parmazov. None of
them had been known as a member of illegal armed formations,” the above
law enforcement source told “Caucasian Knot” correspondent.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Why Was LifeNews Searched and If Surkov is Involved, What’s the Motive?

Yesterday March 24, were raided by police and representatives of the Investigative Committee who took servers and documents, as we reported.

The raid was ostensibly related to some stories the sensational news site and TV ran several weeks ago about the rape of a minor. A human rights organization called Soprotivleniye (Resistance), led by well-connected PR specialist Olga Kostina, filed the complaint against LifeNews regarding alleged violation of the rape victim’s privacy.

These stories concerned a teenage girl in Novosibirsk who was raped by a group of  boys aged 15-16 after becoming intoxicated at a party. Later, pictures of the crime were uploaded to the Internet, some pranksters called the girl’s mother about it, and then police were contacted. The story is similar to the rape of a girl in Steubenville, Ohio — but without any sports element. As often happens with such stories, LifeNews went from reporting the girl as a victim of a crime to casting her reputation in doubt, interviewing alleged past sexual partners who made claims of entrapment.

LifeNews, a site close to law-enforcement and intelligence is notorious for covering sensational stories and scandals and often intruding into its subjects’ privacy — some opposition members whose home searches were avidly covered by LifeNews couldn’t help noticing the tables were turned now.

But as can be seen from the stories about the rape, the teenagers’ names were not mentioned, and the faces were blurred out.

Could the parents of any of these children be important officials? The Investigative Committee handles high-profile official cases — but also cases that have a high public interest. Maybe the search is only limited to this case.

But some are wondering if this story is only a pretext to cast a wider net to find other materials for other cases.

Anatoly Suleymanov, editor-in-chief of LifeNews, told Interfax that the journalists’ investigation into the rape case was more than a year ago, and the warrant for the search said governments constituting a state secret could be included, which suggests the search could be about some other story, reported.

Brian Whitmore of RFE/RL’s Power Vertical has wondered whether the case could involve Vyacheslav Surkov, the “grey cardinal of the Kremlin.” While it seems as if Surkov’s name pops up with every mystery, in this case, there is a tie between him and Olga Kostina, the woman who filed the complaint to investigators about LifeNews‘ alleged violation of the girl’s privacy.

Kostina’s husband, Konstantin Kostin is described by Whitmore as a “political fixer” and Surkov’s “right-hand man.” Surkov, a Chechen whose real name is Aslanbek Dudayev, is close to Ramzan Kadyrov, the strong-man leader of Chechnya, who is getting a lot more scrutiny now since the arrest of 5 suspects in Nemtsov’s murder, all Chechens, two of whom served in Kadyrov’s Interior Ministry troops. The arrests seem to point to Kadyrov’s role in a contract murder via prominent Chechen political families related to the suspects.

Others have wondered if the raid could be related to some other aspect of the Nemtsov murder
investigation. Ilya Yashin noted that back in 2011, it was LifeNews that hacked and then
published Nemtsov’s cell phone conversations — and Nemtsov saw Surkov’s hand in this at the time. They had tried to get an investigation going then, but today’s raid seemed to be about another case, Yashin said.

After avid
coverage the first week or so, LifeNews slacked off from providing any new leads on the Nemtsov investigation. Their last stories were interviews with the driver of the street-cleaner and a witness named “Viktor” — and they did not appear to follow up once the five Chechens were named. Most of the new
developments in the case have been reported by Kommersant,, Rosbalt
and Novaya Gazeta. LifeNews was the first to air videos of the getaway
car. But it’s the weather video from TV Tsentr that provides a different
narrative than officials, and there haven’t been any raids of TV
Tsentr, which belongs to the Moscow city administration.

But perhaps among the videos and documents seized are materials that might exonerate the Chechens and point to other suspects?

Another aspect of Kostina’s past is her involvement in giving testimony against two figures related to the companies of Yukos owned by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Aleksei Pichugin and Leonid Nevzlin, in which they were accused as accomplices in murder or attempted murder. One case was in connection with a bomb set off near Kostina’s apartment, believed to be in relationship to her job at the mayor’s office at the time, where she was involved in regulation of the advertising market. But the charges in that case never stuck, and Kostina’s story changed a number of times.

(Note: The Interpreter is a project of the Institute for Modern Russia, which is funded by Pavel Khodorkovsky.)

Kostina was also once related to the consultative council of the Federal Security Service (FSB) when it was directed by Nikolai Patrushev.

Kostina herself points out in an interview with LifeNews that the search and confiscation of materials seem out of proportion to her complaint — she appears not to have expected this raid. Indeed, if LifeNews really does enjoy that famously close relationship with police and intelligence which everyone references, couldn’t investigators just ask?

If Surkov was really involved, we’d have to ask his motive for retaliating against LifeNews. If it isn’t about some convoluted struggle between the FSB and Kadyrov, what stories has LifeNews covered lately involving Surkov?

One is the reports on Surkov at the Minsk-2 talks, where he is seen getting out of a chauffeur-driven black limousine with Aleksandr Zakharchenko, head of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” and Leonid Plotnitsky, head of the “Lugansk People’s Republic.” Surkov reportedly tried to talk the pair into signing a prepared document that would have had the “Normandy format” leaders’ signatures, but he failed — and then he left.

It is not know what was in the document that the Russian-backed separatists didn’t like, but it might have concerned the issue of the line of demarcation established September 19 at the first talks, and the issue of getting the DNR/LNR separatists to accept that or something less than what they wanted to grab — which was Debaltsevo. But since the fighters were amply helped by Russian tanks and troops in person in Debaltsevo, it’s hard to believe that was something Moscow would have given up.

This story, merely describing Surkov involved in negotiations that he was already reported as having some relation to, doesn’t seem to be enough of a cause for his retaliation, either., the web site of the Investigative Committee, has not published anything yet on the LifeNews case.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick