On June 4 2012, Russian reporter Sergei Sokolov was part of a press delegation accompanying the three-year-old Investigative Committee, often described as Russia’s FBI, on a trip to Kabardino-Balkaria, a republic in the Caucasus. Sokolov’s publication, Novaya Gazeta, is one of the few independent newspapers left in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a fact ominously borne out by the five journalists who have been removed from its masthead by being murdered — among them, Anna Politkovskaya. So the 59-year-old head of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, might have expected a less-than-friendly audience in Sokolov, who had indeed already filed a blistering dispatch about the Committee’s bungled investigation into the murder of 12 people, including four children, in Kushchevskaya, a village in the Krasnodar region, which took place in 2010. Krasnodar is notorious for its gang violence and Sokolov was particularly incensed about what had happened to Sergei Tsepovyaz, a local state official who’d destroyed evidence in the case and whose brother was a known member of the gang that perpetrated the killings: the brother got off with a $5,000 fine. Sokolov not unreasonably alleged a state coverup and named Bastrykin and Putin as “servants” of Krasnodar gangsters. After being cornered by his quarry in Kabardino-Balkaria, however, the journalist apologized for some of his prior coverage, but Russia’s top cop was neither appeased nor amused. “I consider myself insulted,” Bastrykin replied, “and not just personally. In czarist times they would have called people out to duel over this.”
A duel wasn’t quite what happened next. The delegation, including Sokolov, returned safely to Moscow. Nine days later, on June 13, Dmitry Muratov, the editor of Novaya Gazeta, published an open letter addressed to Bastrykin, in which he claimed that Bastrykin had threatened to behead and dismember Sokolov:
“Sokolov was placed in a car by your bodyguards. He was taken without any explanation to a forest near Moscow. There, you asked the bodyguards to leave you and remained face to face with Sokolov… The hard truth is that, in your emotional state, you rudely threatened the life of my journalist. And you joked that you would investigate the murder case personally.”
Bastrykin’s initial reaction, in an interview with pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia, was to say that he hadn’t even been in a forest “in years.” All the allegations made in Muratov’s letter, he said, were “outright lies.” However, his denial couldn’t stop an undeniably scandalous story — what Muratov later described as “bad Hollywood” — from gripping the nation’s attention. Five journalists were arrested for picketing outside the Committee’s headquarters in Moscow the day the letter was published. What then followed was unprecedented. Rather than retrench and perhaps lock up Muratov, Bastrykin invited the Novaya Gazeta editors to a meeting hosted by Interfax, another media outlet, whereupon the Committee chief issued a formal apology to Sokolov, who was by now well out of Russia, fearing for his life. (Sokolov returned a few days later.)
If Robert Mueller had been accused by Jill Abramson of taking a New York Times correspondent out into the woods of Long Island and threatening the journalist with decapitation, we can be reasonably sure that Robert Mueller would no longer be director of the FBI. But in Russia, no such presumption of accountability exists. Putinists rarely explain, and they never apologize. This is why Bastrykin’s climb-down was met with widespread bemusement among Kremlinologists. One journalist at The New Times, another independent Russian journal, noted that his apology, surreal as it was to behold, also negated his rapid-fired demurral to Izvestia. Alexey Navalny, now Russia’s most recognizable opposition figure, said that the apology was pointless anyway since Bastrykin had clearly committed a crime and deserved to be fired and arrested. About a month or so later, Navalny would offer evidence of yet another of Bastrykin’s violations — his ownership of an apartment, a business, and a long-term residence status in Eastern Europe, all undeclared. When the journal Argumenty i fakty first exposed the assets in 2008, Bastrykin had said: “Neither I nor any member of my family has ever engaged in commercial activity either in Russia or abroad.” But that was, as Bastrykin himself might have phrased it, an outright lie.
Navalny produced documents showing that in 2000 Bastrykin had founded Law Bohemia, a real estate trading firm, in the Czech Republic. Bastrykin apparently sold his share in the joint stock company in July 2008 (when he was in his current post as head of the Investigative Committee), although, as Navalny noted, there was no notarized bill of sale available in the Czech corporate registry. Bastrykin’s wife, Olga Aleksandrova, sold her ownership stake in May 2009, or rather transferred it to her predecessor, Bastrykin’s first wife, Natalia Bastrykina. And even though Bastrykin had registered an apartment in Prague belonging to Olga Aleksandrova in his 2008 financial filing, he conspicuously left that property out of his 2009 filing and every one thereafter. (In reality, according to a reliable source, the Bastrykins own two apartments in the city.)
These disclosures about the assets coincided not only with the state’s crackdown on the Bolotnaya protest movement which struck Moscow and other cities following the country’s 2011 election, but also with new restrictions on public servants’ ownership of assets abroad. This gave Navalny just the angle he needed to vilify the “foreign agent” Bastrykin. “What do you think,” the anti-corruption blogger wrote on his LiveJournal page, “the special services of NATO countries would not be aware that the deputy prosecutor general of Russia, a man with access to state secrets, applied to the Czech police for a residence permit?”
No doubt it was that acid insinuation which prompted Bastrykin to take the decision to destroy Navalny by any means necessary. As I’ve written before, the so-called “embezzlement” case that has just resulted in a five-year sentence against the opposition leader is not only a soup-to-nuts fabrication, it was once investigated and dismissed by the country’s Investigative Committee, which found no evidence that $500,000 worth of timber from the state-owned forestry company Kirovles went missing or that either of the eventual defendants in the case — Navalny and Petr Ofitzerov — ever enriched themselves to such an extent. Bastrykin demanded nonetheless that a theft be found or invented. “You had a criminal case against this man, and you’ve quietly stopped,” he thundered to his subordinates in St. Petersburg. “For such things, there will be no mercy.”
Nor was there. But since Bastrykin’s mea culpa to Novaya Gazeta, there has been another bizarre and much guessed-at about-face in Russian injustice: the release of Navalny from prison a day after his sentencing on July 18 and the eruption of thousands-strong demonstrations in central Moscow as a result of his conviction. Bastrykin, acting as an agent or vessel of Putin himself, was the one who put Navalny away; but the man who let him out, if only to continue his bid to become the next mayor of Moscow, was Bastrykin’s former boss, Russia’s General Prosecutor Yury Chaika. So shocked was Navalny at this unexpected turn of events that he wondered aloud in court, as he was told of the decision, if the real Chaika hadn’t been body-snatched. In fact, Navalny was only the latest victim-pawn in a game that’s been played for several years and which Bastrykin, a cross between Al Capone and J. Edgar Hoover, has been steadily losing.
During the Soviet era, ruling power blocs were determined by who got sent to the gulag or wound up with a bullet in the back of his head. Now, the factions or “clans” of the ruling elite are only ever dimly outlined, although every so often the lights flicker on a little brighter than usual. To understand the Bastrykin-Chaika feud, you need to understand how Bastrykin got his job in the first place.
A former student of Leningrad State University, Bastrykin has been both an apparatchik and a professional dissident-hunter since he first entered public life. In 1980, the year he published his PhD dissertation on “problems in the investigation of criminal cases with participation of foreign citizens,” he also became secretary of the Leningrad State’s Komsomol, or Communist youth league, and earned special distinction for being the young true believer to get Boris Grebenschchikov, a musician in the rock band Akvarium, expelled. Like many aspiring or active state functionaries who lived through the post-Soviet transition period, Bastrykin wended his way through the low- and mid-levels of the Russian law enforcement bureaucracies in the 1990s and early 2000s, eventually going to work for the Justice Ministry, then headed by Chaika. Bastrykin’s top job in the ministry was a head of the department for the Northwest Federal District, where the two men feuded, which may have been the reason that Bastrykin was later transferred to head Interior Ministry’s department for the Central Federal District in 2006. That same year, a major corruption scandal rocked Bastrykin’s department, as well as the Prosecutor General’s Office, which was then headed by Vladimir Ustinov, a protege of Igor Sechin, a close Putin ally and leader of the siloviki, Russian officials who are tied to the country’s security services. Known as Tri Kita (“Three Whales”), the case involved (of all things) contraband furniture, and the man tasked with investigating malfeasant state officials was Victor Cherkesov, the head of the Drug Control Service.
Followed from the Tri Kita fallout, Ustinov and Chaika swapped portfolios (an early instance of the Putin-Medvedev “castling” for the premiership and presidency), and Chaika thus became Prosecutor General. Chaika also decided to enhance the way his office conducted primary investigations, and then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, more of a technocrat than a silovik, agreed on the need for something resembling a credible and independent internal affairs bureau. The problem was, as is now plain to everyone, Medvedev was powerless as presiden, and his initiative was swiftly hijacked by then Prime Minister Putin and uber-silovik Sechin. The creation of a new agency, the Investigative Committee, was therefore not designed to halt rampant clan warfare within and between other state ministries — it was designed to determine the winners and losers of such warfare. In this respect, it can be seen as a new oprichnina, or political police. And Bastrykin, as a Sechin loyalist, was immediately tapped to be oprichnik-in-chief.
The Committee immediately assumed command of some 18,000 employees formerly answerable to the Office and, far more important, Chaika lost the ability to launch criminal investigations. From now on, only Bastrykin had such authority, which theoretically enabled him to open cases against Chaika and other Prosecutor General officers himself. (Imagine for a moment if Robert Mueller wrested such control away from Eric Holder.) Here was “Who watches the watchmen?” answered in shrugging, anything-goes Russian fashion.
There were further oddities attending the Committee’s inception. For one, Bastrykin refused to incorporate into his new agency some of the most senior investigators charged with the highest-profile cases in Russia, such as the murders of Anna Politkovskaya and former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko — this, despite the fact that these cases still fell within the Investigative Committee’s jurisdiction.
A Sechin-instigated housecleaning proceeded apace. In the fall of 2007, Alexander Bulbov, Cherkesov’s number two in the Drug Control Service and therefore a lead sleuth in the “Three Whales” scandal, was arrested for complicity in the very crime he was meant to be investigating. He was accused of money laundering, accepting bribes, and ordering illegal wiretaps of senators, businessmen, and journalists. The presiding judge in the case, Valery Novikov, ordered Bulbov to remain in prison despite the demand of Chaika’s Prosecutor General’s Office, which asked the court to release him due to lack of evidence of his guilt. Bulbov spent two years in Lefortovo prison until the Russian Supreme Court ruled in favor of his release in 2009. Not that his life had really passed him by in the clink: Bulbov was never fired from his job at the Drug Control Service and proudly announced, upon his emergence from jail, “On Monday, I will go to work.” The Investigative Committee’s case against him, meanwhile, is still pending.
Bulbov wasn’t the only casualty of Sechin’s retribution for Tri Kita. In November 2007, Sergey Storchak, Russia’s deputy finance minister, was arrested, accused of stealing $43.4 million in the dodgy settlement of Algeria’s debt to Russia. A secondary case involving Kuwaiti debt was also opened, though the General Prosecutor’s Office judged this one to be illegal, which in turn led the Investigative Committee to suggest that the General Prosecutor’s Office was falsifying documents. Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Kudrin, who was at the time also Finance Minister, demanded Storchak’s release from prison as a “matter of principle.” He was let go, then formally charged with fraud in 2009.
But then a funny thing happened. The man heading up this investigation, Dmitry Dovgy, was accused of corruption and abuse of powers by two inspectors of the Investigative Committee seen as more loyal to the General Prosecutor’s Office than to Bastrykin, of whom Dovgy was a confidant. Dovgy was then arrested on suspicion of taking a $1 million bribe from Russian businessman Ruslan Valitov as payment for halting an investigation into Valitov’s alleged embezzlement of over a million tons of oil. Dovgy claimed that the real reasons behind his arrest was that he hadn’t wanted to prosecute Storchak and he had sought the release of Vasily Aleksanyan, one of the casualties of Putin’s destruction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Yukos oil empire who would eventually die of AIDS in prison in 2011. The entire case against the deputy finance minister, Dovgy said, was cooked up by Bastrykin. Dovgy was convicted and sentenced to nine years, although the day this happened, one of the jurors in his trial was stopped by Moscow traffic police on her way to the courthouse. Despite proffering the required “immunity” documents allowing her to proceed unobstructed, the traffic cop held her and she had to be replaced with an alternate juror.
Legal campaigns against Bastrykin and his team either coincided with or were preceded by a no less strenuous media campaign against them, one led by Alexander Hinstein, a deputy of the State Duma who is seen to be close to both Cherkesov and Chaika. It was Hinstein who first floated the accusation that Bastrykin owned property and a business in the Czech Republic and that this made the latter vulnerable to recruitment by foreign spy services. Hinstein also alleged in the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets that the Investigative Committee had engaged in no-bid purchasing schemes, and that many of its personnel were uneducated and thus not qualified for work in the agency. In 2009, when Bastrykin’s deputy Igor Sobolevsky was dismissed from his post by then-President Dmitry Medvedev, Hinstein rushed into the fray to suggest that Sobolevsky was close to the Tambov Gang, a mafia syndicate that first came into existence in Leningrad during the glasnost era and now runs an extensive, transnational racketeering and money-laundering operation with established reaches into Spain and Bulgaria. (According to his widow Marina, Alexander Litvinenko was not only working for British intelligence at the time of his assassination in a London hotel in 2006, he was also working for Spanish intelligence because of his knowledge of the Tambov Gang’s ties to the Russian government in Spain.)
As if to return the favor to meddling Russian parliamentarians, Bastrykin caused another sensation in November 2009 when he sent a letter to the chairman of the State Duma alleging that individual legislators were trying to sway the outcomes of pending criminal investigations of state personnel, many of them friends or relations. Bastrykin named names and reaffirmed his sole authority as the man in charge — an act that no doubt made him even more enemies within the Russian government than he’d already amassed. He may have even converted one United Russia deputy to his side: Yevgeny Fyodorov who, in a tour de force of paranoid conspiracism, not only claimed in a recent interview that Navalny was released from jail on Barack Obama’s personal instruction but that Chaika’s office is controlled by the U.S. State Department.
Perhaps sensing that greater independence was exactly what Bastrykin needed, in September 2010, Medvedev effectively made the Investigative Committee its own body, directly answerable to the office of the president — and more or less in time for Putin’s return to that position.
Since the Bolotnaya protests erupted, Bastrykin had been Putin’s axe-man for the Russian opposition. Before Navalny and Kirovles, there was the house arrest of Sergei Udaltov, leader of the Left Front movement, on risible charges of being a hireling of Georgian parliamentary Givi Targamadze. (Udaltsov’s house arrested was quietly re-upped the same week as Navalny’s sentence.) There was also the more daring kidnapping of another Left Front activist, Leonid Razvozzhayev, in broad daylight from the streets of Ukraine. Razvozzhayev was smuggled back into Russia where he says he was tortured into signing a confession for a “crime” he’d been cleared of years earlier. Razvozzhayev is now in a Siberian gulag. All of the above is the handiwork of the Investigative Committee and therefore of Bastrykin himself.
As Yuri Skuratov, the Prosecutor General during the late Yeltsin period, told the Associated Press last year: “They don’t even need to put these people in jail. They just need the charges to hang over them like the Sword of Damocles so that they behave properly — and if you start acting too radically, the investigators will come and get you.”
The only problem is, there is now a Sword of Damocles hanging over Bastrykin’s head, too, as he’s cultivated nemesis within and without the Kremlin. That makes him an easy man to repudiate if and when the mercurial Putin determines that either contingent needs a scapegoat. Indeed, for all his thunderous rhetoric about the U.S. Magnitsky Act, one rather Kremlin-friendly feature built right into it is that any Russian officials who are barred from entering the United States instantly become international pariahs, making it easy for Putin to cannibalize them when he ultimately decides that their time is up. The Russian opposition understands this dialectic perfectly well, and I bet you’ll never guess whose name now sits atop the prospective list for next year’s round of Magnitsky sanctions.
No one knows or understands Bastrykin better than Mark Galeotti, a scholar of Russia’s security services and Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. “Bastrykin does not have much of a power base of his own,” Galeotti emailed me recently. He also lacks the three most important attributes of an indestructible silovik. The first is a personal relationship with Putin. According to Galeotti, “I have seen no evidence that [their simultaneous attendance of law school together] ever led to any deep friendship.” The second is a network of close allies and patrons, which Bastrykin may have once had but, as I’ve shown above, clearly forfeited in his various power struggles with high-ranking officials. Galeotti has spoken with people in the Investigative Committee who attest to Bastrykin’s unpopularity. He is an “exacting bully, unpredictable, irascible.” In addition to Chaika, both Nikolai Patrushev and Alexander Bortnikov, the past and present director of the FSB, hate him for encroaching upon their territory. Even his sort-of career booster, Igor Sechin, now the executive director of Rosneft, the largest oil company on the planet, doesn’t seem particularly keen on Bastrykin. Finally, apart from two residences in Prague, he’s not fabulously or even moderately wealthy by the standards of Russian officialdom. That means he can’t buy his way out of trouble, if the need arises. Here is Galeotti:
“Instead, Bastrykin’s present power is the power of the courtier, effectively unlimited until it isn’t anymore, lasting insofar and only so long as he has the ear of the czar. Putin has, I believe, a good sense of Bastrykin and knows how far his mini-me is wholly dependent on him, which makes him useful today and eminently disposable as soon as he fails or becomes inconvenient or unnecessary.”
Russia has a long, storied history of bringing the very apparatus of state terror down on the head of the one who most ardently put it to use. In this respect, it pays to see Bastrykin as Putin’s Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the NKVD (later the KGB, today the FSB) during the height of the Great Purge in the late 1930s, a period referred to by Sovietologists under the grim heading “Yezhovschchina.” In the end, Yezhov would first be dismissed from his role as secret police chief, then arrested, then killed in 1940 after he, too, was brought to confess to crimes against the people. But for Stalin, Yezhov had always served a useful purpose for the maintenance of dictatorship. As Robert Conquest put it in his seminal work, The Great Terror, by allowing one group to assume the responsibility for berserk excesses in liquidating Party officials and the upper echelons of the Soviet military,
The central leadership could, or might think it could, avoid some of the unpopularity arising from its own actions. But we might perhaps go further and see in this a sign that Stalin, right from the start, had determined to put the odium on his instruments and to destroy them when their task was completed. If so, he was to some degree successful. The “Yezhovshchina” remained the popular name for the Reign of Terror, and with the disappearance of Yezhov himself, some of the curse was taken off the surviving leadership.
As Galeotti and others have observed, “Batrykinshchina” is likely headed in the same direction.