July 27, 2015 | JOSHUA YAFFA | The New Yorker
The line for lawyers and family members to get into Lefortovo prison starts to form around five in the morning. The building, on a quiet street just east of Moscow’s Third Ring Road, now officially belongs to the Ministry of Justice, but it’s still informally known as the prison of the F.S.B., a successor agency to the K.G.B. Early on June 16, 2014, one of the prisoners awaiting visitors was Boris Kolesnikov, a general who had been the deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s anticorruption department. Along with nearly a dozen other officers from his unit, he had been charged with entrapment and abuse of authority, running an “organized criminal organization” that illegally ensnared state bureaucrats in artificially provoked corruption schemes.
Kolesnikov’s lawyer, Sergei Chizhikov, arrived around dawn and stood in line for several hours. At 9 A.M., guards began letting in a few people at a time. By eleven, Chizhikov was still waiting. Eventually, a guard told him that his client had been taken to another site, the headquarters of the Investigative Committee—the Russian equivalent of the F.B.I.—for questioning. “Look for him there,” the guard said.
When Chizhikov finally made it to an interrogation room on the Investigative Committee’s sixth floor, he found Kolesnikov seated at a table with an investigator and two guards. Kolesnikov, who was thirty-six, was clean-shaven and dressed in a blue tracksuit. He had the muscular frame of a cop, but a smooth, youthful face and puffy cheeks.
Six weeks earlier, on May 4th, Kolesnikov had suffered a dual fracture to his skull. Prison officials claimed that he had fallen off a stool while trying to wash the small window of his cell; his family and their lawyers feared that he had been beaten. Kolesnikov hadn’t said much about his injury—he told Chizhikov and his other lawyers that he didn’t remember what happened to him, and seemed wary of going into more detail. “He chose his words very carefully, answered questions slowly, always afraid he was being watched or recorded,” Chizhikov recalled. “He wasn’t very open in conversation. He thought whatever he might say would only bring him harm.” After his head trauma, Kolesnikov became depressed and passive. At pretrial hearings in court, he was “inactive,” Chizhikov said. “They brought him in, told him to sit there, and so he sat there. He wasn’t trying to assert his rights. It was like he was indifferent to it all—O.K., something is happening, let it happen.” Kolesnikov spent two weeks in various hospitals before being sent back to his cell, but he still experienced frequent bouts of debilitating nausea and had trouble standing, even for short periods.
When Chizhikov found him in the interrogation room, Kolesnikov seemed more invigorated than he had in recent weeks, but once they started talking he said he felt sick and asked to be taken back to Lefortovo—he didn’t want to answer any questions from investigators. As they waited for a van from the prison service to return him to his cell, the chief investigator for Kolesnikov’s case, a man named Sergei Novikov, entered the room. He asked if Kolesnikov would like to talk in private. This was unusual, and against protocol; Chizhikov said that he didn’t recommend it but wouldn’t stop his client if he wanted to. Novikov and Kolesnikov stepped into the corridor. “As far as I could understand, they had some kind of agreement that Novikov was supposed to show up so the two of them could talk,” Chizhikov recalled.
A few minutes later, Novikov rushed back into the room. His face betrayed a sense of shock. “He jumped!” he said. Chizhikov didn’t understand what he meant. Novikov made a diving motion with his hand and said that Kolesnikov had hurled himself from a sixth-floor balcony and lay dead on the concrete below. He rushed off to report to his superiors.
Chizhikov, left alone, tried to collect his thoughts for what would surely be a forthcoming investigation. “I can guess they brought him to the Investigative Committee on this day so that this conversation could happen,” he told me later. “But why did it end in tragedy?” Outside, cameramen from Russia’s tabloid news outlets were photographing Kolesnikov’s body.
He was buried three days later, at Moscow’s Vostryakovsky cemetery. The Interior Ministry denied him the usual honors paid to police generals—there was no farewell salute and no military escort for the casket—but friends and colleagues pooled together money to hire a small orchestra. A number of officers from Kolesnikov’s unit told me later that they had been warned by their superiors not to show up, but some three hundred came anyway. As Kolesnikov was being lowered into his grave, they gave him the traditional officer’s sendoff: a triple shout of “Ura!” Kolesnikov’s wife, Viktoria, didn’t say much, except to offer her own view of her husband’s death to the few journalists present. “They killed him,” she said.
Boris Kolesnikov’s rise in the Interior Ministry was unusually rapid. The ministry is a sprawling federal agency with more than a million employees, whose responsibilities range from overseeing local policing to mounting high-level nationwide prosecutions. His stepfather, Ivan, who raised him from the time he was eight years old, was an officer in the Soviet-era police force and teaches criminology at Russia’s main police academy. Boris and his two brothers joined the force in the nineteen-nineties. His stepfather recalls telling them, “If I were an artist, then you would all be artists. But, seeing as I am a police officer, therefore you will all be police officers, so as to carry on the dynasty.”
On Kolesnikov’s first assignment as a detective, at a precinct in Moscow’s northern district, he was paired with another novice, Denis Sugrobov, who became his partner and friend. According to several of Sugrobov’s colleagues, it was clear from the outset that, given his talents for police work, he was destined for a stellar career in the Interior Ministry. He had a disarming smile, and was known for both his formidable investigative skills and his obsessive care in tending to the boring minutiae of drug busts and antifraud stings. “He had no equal in his thoughtfulness, his knowledge of the law, his ability to carefully and precisely document everything,” a former police investigator who worked on several organized-crime cases with Sugrobov said. Sugrobov’s wife, Maria, with whom he has five children, told me, “Youth gives a certain fervor, a sense of daring toward everything, an understanding that a person can move mountains.”
Kolesnikov and Sugrobov grew to trust each other as they handled narcotics cases in the violent gangland of late-nineties Moscow. A former police captain who supervised them during this period said, “Denis was a leader; Boris was a follower. Boris wasn’t an intellectual, and was not all that great at writing reports—but he certainly wasn’t a coward, either.” Once, during a sting operation, Kolesnikov was found out while playing the role of a drug dealer in an apartment with four suspects. They tried to attack him with knives, but he ran out onto a balcony and held them off until police officers came to his assistance.
Other than the occasional hunting trip or birthday, Sugrobov and Kolesnikov didn’t socialize much. But they were close, bound by the triumphs and anxieties of their work. Kolesnikov confided to Viktoria, “This is my second hand, my shoulder, this is a person whom I trust fully. God forbid, if something were to happen to me, this person won’t abandon you or the children.”
The former police investigator told me, “If Sugrobov was working on a case, he didn’t think about anything else.” He added, “He was careerist, in the good sense of the word.” Sugrobov was said to have a benefactor and protector in Yevgeny Shkolov, who is reputed to have served in the K.G.B. with Vladimir Putin in Dresden in the nineteen-eighties, and came to work in the Presidential administration as a powerful adviser in charge of monitoring the real-estate and business dealings of state officials. As Sugrobov took on new assignments and earned awards and promotions, so, too, did Kolesnikov. “Denis was the motor, the ideologue, the one in charge of things,” a former Interior Ministry employee told me. As for Kolesnikov, “he didn’t have Sugrobov’s connections or access—he was just his friend.”
In June, 2011, by the order of President Dmitry Medvedev, Sugrobov was named the head of the Interior Ministry’s economic-crime and anticorruption department, known by its clunky acronym, GUEBiPK. Kolesnikov was appointed his deputy. The department had six hundred officers and its own multistory headquarters, near Moscow’s Kazan train station. It was a sizable promotion for both men and came with great responsibility. It also involved no shortage of hidden internecine dangers, given that, in Russia’s Putin-era autocracy, as Nikolay Petrov, the head of the Center for Political Geographic Research, put it to me, “the fight against corruption is less a technical question than a political one.”
In the Soviet era, corruption was often a matter of privilege: access to nice food when none was on the shelves, the right to be treated at a special clinic when the wait to see a doctor would otherwise be several weeks. After 1991, the transition from an authoritarian state with a centralized economy to a nominally capitalistic, democratic one allowed for a flourishing trade of official position and access to power for material gain. By the end of Boris Yeltsin’s time in office, in 1999, Russia’s oligarchs essentially ran the country, leaving the state itself weak and feeble.
In Putin’s first term as President, which began in 2000, he consolidated his rule on the basis of a public campaign to wrest back control for the Russian state, a goal he achieved by bringing the nineties-era oligarchs to heel and centralizing power under his personal authority. But he pursued this course—one generally popular with the Russian public—with the effect of further embedding the culture of corruption in civic life. The oligarchic class was subsumed by the bureaucratic and political élite, who, in effect, renationalized corruption.
State procurement and big-ticket infrastructure projects are the areas most susceptible to graft. Boris Nemtsov, a former first deputy prime minister and a high-profile opposition politician, who was gunned down in Moscow in February, 2015, released a report in 2013 alleging that as much as thirty billion dollars of the fifty-billion-dollar budget for the 2014 Winter Olympics, in Sochi, had effectively been stolen. According to Moscow’s chief of police, the average cost of a bribe in the city last year was the equivalent of around five thousand dollars. Public surveys consistently rank corruption as an important concern. As a way of keeping the most egregious, undisciplined offenders in check, Putin has launched sporadic anticorruption campaigns. But a genuine fight against corruption would mean targeting those whom he depends on in order to stay in power. Aside from a few high-profile arrests, those who are tried and punished for graft and accepting bribes are lower-level bureaucrats on the take.
Elena Panfilova, the chair of Transparency International’s Russian chapter, explained that the fight against corruption in Russia takes three forms: the passage of legislation and regulations that often exist only on paper and are scarcely ever implemented; individual law-enforcement investigations that from time to time produce big scandals and are often initiated not out of a desire to punish criminals but to achieve some political goal inside the ruling élite; and authentic civil-society activism, which puts pressure on the ruling system to make everything from health care to education more transparent and less vulnerable to graft. The attitude of Russia’s top officials, Panfilova told me, is that “they don’t really love the first, think that the second should be enough, and must outlaw the third.” Sugrobov and Kolesnikov’s activities fit into the second category. She was impressed by their energy at first. “The idea was to outwit the system that allows corrupt officials to escape criminal responsibility,” she said. But she came to think of them as “cowboys.” They wanted results, big ones, and fast—and so they began to cut corners, pushed by a combination of youth and ambition.
Before Sugrobov was named head of GUEBiPK, according to Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and an expert on Russian intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, the department had a “notoriously terrible reputation.” Officers ran the place like an entrepreneurial empire. “If you wanted a job there, you had to pay for your position, and that was considered a good business investment,” Galeotti said. Sugrobov and Kolesnikov felt that they had Kremlin approval to transform the department. Viktoria said that, for the first time, the department sensed it had a “green light” to go after big targets and, in Sugrobov and Kolesnikov, “the guys who were capable of carrying out such orders.” As several former officers in the department told me, after Sugrobov’s arrival the department concentrated less on doctors who took small bribes from patients or traffic police who shook down motorists, and began targeting people closer to the real levers of power in the Putin system.
Yet Sugrobov and Kolesnikov were loyal officers of the state, not oppositionists, and they did not dare touch the highest caste of officials and associates close to Putin. Their cases were piecemeal—a big arrest here, a high-profile firing there—and didn’t represent any kind of systemic reform. Alexei Kondaurov, a former K.G.B. counterintelligence officer who is now critical of Putin’s rule, told me that for a while they were allowed to simulate a genuine war on corruption. “They played this game successfully and enthusiastically,” he said. “But they were a component part of this system, its flesh and blood.”
Sugrobov and Kolesnikov did, however, bring a new style of investigation to the fight against corruption: the “operational experiment,” a sting in which, acting on the instructions of GUEBiPK, a businessman or a state official working undercover tries to pass a bribe to a higher-level bureaucrat. It was standard practice from their days on the narcotics beat. Detectives would make a bust, then pressure a low-level suspect to coöperate as a “torpedo” to incriminate higher-ups while police recorded the deals. Torpedoes had never been used on such a scale to investigate economic crime before. This was the kind of police work that could veer toward entrapment—what’s known as a “provocation” in Russian law. A police officer should not be the instigator of a crime.
Sugrobov and Kolesnikov believed that Russia’s legal system wouldn’t allow them to go after large-scale cases. To pursue investigations in strict accordance with the criminal code would allow those suspected of corruption to learn of investigations against them. Better to skip a few steps and send in their torpedoes to gather evidence. But that approach had its own dangers, Panfilova said. “I understand—sometimes I also want to jump over someone’s head and get a big result and somewhere along the way break the law just a little bit,” she said. “But you can’t break the law a little bit, even in the service of a good cause, because from one violation you get a whole tree of future violations.”
In one of their first big cases, officers from the department issued an indictment against more than a hundred suspects, who were accused of embezzling five billion rubles in the purchase of costly tomography equipment by state hospitals. More high-profile arrests followed. In June, 2012, Kolesnikov oversaw an investigation into regional officials and ministers in Kabardino-Balkaria, a Russian republic in the North Caucasus. They were accused of fraud and corruption in a deal that would have transferred ownership of the building housing the republic’s philharmonic orchestra. Kolesnikov organized an operation to apprehend the officials in Nalchik, the regional capital. He put more than a hundred agents from Moscow on a plane, without telling anyone where they were going or why. When bad weather kept them from flying home that evening, Kolesnikov slept in a bus at a military airfield with the rest of the officers. “He carried himself like an ordinary detective, just like the rest of us,” one of the participants in the operation said.
The agents worked fast, moving up the chain of suspected corruption and making multiple arrests in the span of a day or two. In the fall of 2013, a man named Sergei Zakusilo, a former adviser to the country’s Accounts Chamber, a state budgetary watchdog, was going around town advertising his services as a bureaucratic problem solver for hire. According to the investigation built up by officers from Sugrobov and Kolesnikov’s department, Zakusilo offered to help Laardi, a construction and engineering firm that had missed out on potentially lucrative preparations for the 2018 World Cup, to be held in Russia. For twelve and a half million rubles—around four hundred thousand dollars at the time—Zakusilo would arrange for the company’s rival, a firm named Sport-Engineering, to face a series of unannounced and onerous inspections. Five million of those rubles would allegedly go to Alexander Korovnikov, a senator in Russia’s upper house of parliament. But managers at Laardi reconsidered and went to the police. Approached by agents from GUEBiPK, Zakusilo agreed to act as a torpedo.
The anticorruption officers sent Zakusilo, wearing a hidden camera, to Korovnikov’s downtown Moscow office to discuss the particulars of the deal. A recording captured the exchange. “Tell me what’s needed,” Korovnikov said. Zakusilo told him that the managers of Laardi had already given him “five”—five million rubles—and would pay “ten” more later. They discussed the inspection they would arrange for Sport-Engineering. “We’ll try to make it as fucked up as possible!” Korovnikov exclaimed. The two men headed to the toilet, and the camera followed the conversation. Korovnikov seemed excited by their collaboration. “Let’s get more deals like this one!” Back in Korovnikov’s office, Zakusilo took out stacks of five-thousand-ruble notes and began placing them in Korovnikov’s briefcase. Korovnikov counted out the amount in million-ruble increments: “One, two, three, four, five.” The police had their evidence.
A few minutes later, officers from GUEBiPK burst into Korovnikov’s office. “Guys, I am a member of the Federation Council!” Korovnikov protested. That gave him parliamentary immunity. The officers explained that they had evidence of a serious crime and offered him a choice: they could open a formal investigation, confiscating the money in his briefcase and beginning the process of stripping him of immunity, or he could play the role of middleman, passing the cash to its ultimate recipient. Korovnikov replied, “I am always ready for constructive and real coöperation.” He agreed to assist the operatives in gathering evidence against Alexander Mikhailik, a department head at the Accounts Chamber, who, according to police, was meant to arrange the inspections of Sport-Engineering.
The two met that evening, with Korovnikov wearing a wire. Korovnikov told Mikhailik that he had five million rubles—three for Mikhailik and two for himself. Mikhailik said that he would pass along a portion to his bosses. Officers arrested Mikhailik as he headed home to his apartment in downtown Moscow.
Sugrobov and Kolesnikov—and the hundreds of officers under them—saw their work as a chance to take on the sort of cases that so many in the police and security services chose to avoid. Rare for an Interior Ministry official, Sugrobov gave frequent interviews to journalists and would often appear on television after a big arrest. Kolesnikov and Sugrobov were very successful at a relatively young age—they were in their mid-thirties—especially considering the bureaucratic torpor of the Russian state. Their quick rise blinded them to the limits and inflexibility of the system and to the danger that their brash approach to police work put them in.
“The higher up you go, the fewer people there are who can give you orders, who can prevent you from making mistakes,” the former police captain who had supervised them early in their careers said. He told me that Kolesnikov’s personality changed as he advanced in command at the Interior Ministry. Over time, he became “arrogant and contemptuous, he could act boorishly and unprincipled,” the former captain said. A former police officer who knew Kolesnikov for years told me that he watched him become dismissive of other people’s opinions and too sure of his own. As for Sugrobov, he felt protected by the President. The former supervisor remembers him boasting that he had a direct line to Medvedev on his cell phone. “He was certain that no one would give him up, that no one could touch him.”
In 2013, when Kolesnikov was thirty-six and Sugrobov thirty-seven, they were made generals—the youngest in the history of the post-Soviet ministry. Some began to speak of Sugrobov becoming minister one day. Mark Galeotti said that Sugrobov and Kolesnikov came to “relish the myth they were developing around themselves—and success fuelled that myth, which in turn fuelled their egos and the need to work at an ever faster tempo, to come back with bigger and bigger scalps.”
I sat with Kolesnikov’s widow, Viktoria, one evening, sipping black tea in her in-laws’ kitchen. She told me that her husband used to leave at seven in the morning and come home late at night. Plenty of people inside the state machine wanted to see GUEBiPK fail, out of either bureaucratic rivalry or corrupt self-interest. He spent many evenings tossing sleeplessly. “I have so much to think about,” he told her. “Can you imagine?” she remembers him telling her once. “Two months we spent developing a case. My guys didn’t sleep at night. They were really toiling. We got a result, and then a phone call from on high: that’s it, it’s over.”
The case that seems to have most angered the department’s foes inside the security services was an investigation into obnal, or dark money. Essentially, obnal is a way for a business to take a portion of cash off the books. The shadow economy’s demand for obnal is likely tens of billions of dollars a year—driven by the incentive to avoid high taxes on business operations and profits, and the need to pay bribes and kickbacks. Maxim Osadchiy, the head of the analytical department at Moscow’s C.F.B. bank, explained the underlying logic of obnal: “Normally, money laundering is about making dirty money clean. But this market, you could say, takes clean money and makes it dirty.” The basic idea is that a firm, operating officially and legally, purchases some service—it could be consulting advice, or roof cleaning—from a company that exists only on paper and doesn’t, in fact, deliver anything. The firm transfers money to a bank, ostensibly to process the transaction for this service, and the money returns as obnal, minus a fee.
Russian banks providing obnal can’t operate without the protection of at least certain elements within the security services. “It’s easy to catch, hard to hide, and generates huge profits,” Osadchiy said. Although the scale and the reach of the market are no secret in Moscow financial circles, the finer points of obnal operations are left unspoken. “It feels dangerous to talk about,” a longtime Russian banker told me. “Even with people you know well, you choose your words cautiously.” The 2006 murder of Andrei Kozlov, a first deputy chair of Russia’s central bank, is believed to be linked to his efforts to rein in the obnal market. Over time, an anarchic and criminal marketplace came to be dominated by a single higher power: among those in Moscow’s financial sector, the banker told me, it is “common knowledge” that the upper reaches of the obnal trade are controlled by the F.S.B. Boris Grozovsky, a financial journalist, explained the interest of F.S.B. officials in establishing the agency as the arbiter of obnal schemes: “Not only do they earn money for themselves but they also get to see who is doing what in this business, which, as we say in Russian, allows them to grab anybody by the balls at any time.”
For many years, one of the biggest players in the obnal market was Master Bank, a midsize institution with assets of about two and a half billion dollars and branches around Moscow. Russia’s central bank later claimed that Master Bank would not have been profitable if not for its shadow trade—its retail services operated at a loss in order to provide cover for its much more lucrative obnal business. It was an open secret that the company issued bank cards with no daily limit and kept a network of A.T.M.s at Moscow’s Domodedevo airport filled with five-hundred-euro notes—convenient for obtaining large amounts of untraceable cash. In July, 2012, agents from GUEBiPK raided Master Bank’s offices and opened criminal cases against several of its executives. More searches followed throughout the next year. Police in black masks and with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders stormed through Master Bank’s headquarters, emerging with piles of documents and bundles of cash.
As a result of the GUEBiPK investigation, the central bank announced, in November, 2013, that it was revoking Master Bank’s license. Several of its top managers were charged with carrying out illegal financial operations. Its chairman fled the country. In an article on the case for the New Times, a leading liberal magazine, Grozovsky wrote of Master Bank’s involvement in the obnal trade: “All players in the market and regulators knew about this, and the only thing that kept them from being stopped earlier was someone’s protection.” A longtime Moscow financier told me that practically every bank in Russia has some outside force backing it up, and in the case of Master Bank “it was always known that this role was played by some people from the security services.”
Sugrobov and Kolesnikov also went after Sergei Magin, who was nominally the head of a small firm that provided communal services to Moscow apartment buildings but was believed to be one of the biggest players in the illegal-cash trade. Sugrobov lured him to a meeting at a Moscow restaurant by claiming that he wanted to discuss some kind of illegal coöperation. (Magin had been asking for a meeting for some time, apparently fearful that Sugrobov and his team were investigating him.) Sugrobov put the handcuffs on Magin himself.
During the next two days, agents from GUEBiPK and special forces from the Interior Ministry searched more than forty other locations: banks, offices, and Magin’s apartment and those of six suspected chief accomplices. When officers used sledgehammers to break down the reinforced metal door at one Moscow office, they found employees manically destroying hard drives and throwing stacks of papers into an industrial shredder. The Interior Ministry said that, over the past five years, a network of banks operating under Magin’s control had generated thirty-six billion rubles—more than a billion dollars—in obnal and, with commissions of around two per cent, earned some eighteen million dollars in profit. Magin was charged with sitting atop an “organized criminal group” of subordinates who answered for different parts of the obnal chain and reported to him personally.
It’s highly unlikely that Sugrobov and Kolesnikov would have acted against Master Bank and Magin without the approval of—or even instructions from—the country’s top political leadership: if not Putin, then at least those close to him. In fact, both operations were carried out as part of an interagency task force on financial crime and money laundering, chaired by Yevgeny Shkolov, Putin’s old K.G.B. colleague, who was said to be Sugrobov’s patron in the Kremlin. The ability to go after banks involved in money-laundering operations was said to be a condition of Elvira Nabiullina, a longtime Putin adviser, in agreeing to head the central bank, in June, 2013. Whatever the authorization, the arrests were not met with euphoria. Those who had long profited from the trade stood to lose billions of dollars.
Some months after Magin’s arrest, an Interior Ministry investigator assigned to the case was visited by an agent from the F.S.B.’s internal-security department. The agent came bearing an official letter from the prosecutor’s office requesting that the F.S.B. be given an opportunity to question Magin, and that he be moved from Moscow’s Butyrka jail to Lefortovo, the facility under the F.S.B.’s control. The letter also asked that the “criminal group” allegation be removed from his indictment. Without that charge, the court would have to release Magin on bail pending trial. A person with knowledge of the case was skeptical. “More likely, they wanted to free Magin from criminal responsibility,” that person told me. The F.S.B. request was denied. Eventually, an Interior Ministry investigator spoke to the F.S.B. officer by phone. “I would say that he was in shock that a simple investigator from the Interior Ministry had the courage to refuse the F.S.B.,” the person familiar with the case said.
The Master Bank investigation also attracted the interest of the F.S.B. In the fall of 2013, Evgeny Rogachev, a vice-president at the bank, who was among those charged with fraud and money laundering, was called to a meeting at a Moscow café. According to several people with knowledge of this meeting, the men who invited him were from another division of the Interior Ministry but let it be known that they represented the interests of the F.S.B. They made Rogachev an offer: his fate in criminal proceedings would be improved if he testified that in the months before the raids against Master Bank Sugrobov had come to the bank’s leadership with an offer to take the bank under his protection. No one told Sugrobov and Kolesnikov’s department or the investigators assigned to the case about this unofficial meeting with Rogachev, but, after a few weeks, word leaked out. If Rogachev went for it, it was obvious that Sugrobov would be in legal jeopardy, and the whole case would be in danger. “Let me put it this way,” an Interior Ministry investigator who worked on the case said. “When I heard about this meeting, I knew that we were fucked.”
In a system like Russia’s, in which the institutions of the state function less according to immutable bureaucratic rules and more in response to instruction from above, “the most important thing is control,” the investigator explained. Because the Master Bank case was sealed, a rival agency like the F.S.B. had no way of knowing how high up the trail of evidence might go. “If you get rid of the boss, his subordinates, and a whole team of investigators—if you get rid of them all, you end up with control of the investigation.” Rogachev ultimately declined to make the statements requested of him, and officers continued to gather evidence and file charges against new suspects. (He is currently under house arrest, awaiting trial.) But that didn’t mean that Sugrobov and Kolesnikov and those working with them were in the clear. The people who felt threatened by the Master Bank case, the investigator knew, “wouldn’t stop at this.”
Toward the end of 2013, just weeks after Master Bank lost its license, an informer came to Kolesnikov and Sugrobov’s department with tantalizing news: an agent in the F.S.B.’s internal-security department was running a protection racket, offering his services for a sizable fee to Moscow businessmen. The internal-security department was the same one whose officers had poked around the various obnal investigations, and within the F.S.B. it was known as the most cloistered and powerful organ, the watcher of the watchers. Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, investigative journalists who cover the Russian security and intelligence services, explained the department’s role to me. “Let’s say an F.S.B. officer commits a murder somewhere,” Soldatov said. “The police on the scene are required to call the F.S.B.’s internal-security department, which will dispatch its own officer to the scene—not to investigate the crime or take the guy into custody but to show up with a resignation letter that’s backdated by a day, and force the suspect to sign, so that as of the time he allegedly committed a crime he’s no longer an F.S.B. officer.”
The informer was Pavel Globa, who had once been an F.S.B. agent. He alleged that the bribe-taking F.S.B. officer, Igor Dyomin, was “ready for dialogue”—interested in whatever financial proposals might come his way. With Kolesnikov’s supervision, officers in the department—who were surely intrigued, if not giddy, at the thought of getting themselves involved in a case against their rivals at the F.S.B.—began to pursue an investigation. They recruited a former court bailiff, Ruslan Chukhlib, to act as a torpedo, and arranged for him to meet with Dyomin. To help sell his undercover identity as a successful businessman, they bought him new clothes and leased a Lexus ES250 in his name.
A recording made on January 22, 2014, at GUEBiPK’s headquarters captured a conversation between Globa and Alexey Bodnar, a department head who reported to Kolesnikov. They discussed the operation and its likely fallout. Bodnar suggested that once they had the necessary evidence in hand the “head of state”—perhaps even Putin—would be informed. A case file would go to Shkolov, Bodnar said. “A phone call here, a phone call there. And you want audio? Please, here you go.” He went on, “We’re not provoking anyone, are we? If the guy takes it, he takes it; if he doesn’t, then he doesn’t.” Globa said, “This is going to be a bomb,” and that he expected a “reply” from the kontora, or bureau, the nickname within the security services for the F.S.B.
At the first meeting between Chukhlib, the torpedo, and Dyomin, the target, the two toasted each other with shots of Baron Otard cognac. Chukhlib explained that his company had the chance to sign a contract with the Russian postal service, but that it doubted it would be awarded the job without some help from above. “Your organization is very serious,” he told Dyomin. “I’m not here just to talk and joke and drink cognac.” Dyomin answered by telling him that, yes, the “three letters” of the F.S.B. did have “a certain ring.” Chukhlib suggested that “joint work” could be beneficial for them both. Later, when they met again, he tried to push the conversation toward a particular sum. “What kind of conditions should there be from our side?” he asked Dyomin. Chukhlib said, “We’d like to know that you are with us, and if something happens we can turn to you.” The conversation continued euphemistically, and then Chukhlib announced, “I have a proposal of the following nature.” He said that he could offer Dyomin a monthly payment of ten thousand dollars.
In hindsight, former colleagues of Sugrobov and Kolesnikov and their lawyers suspect that Globa was himself a torpedo, sent by the F.S.B. to entrap the officers of GUEBiPK in an operation that could be used against them. While they were watching an agent from the kontora, the kontora was watching them.
“They thought they would be supported in everything, that it would all work out for them,” the former Interior Ministry employee told me. “And it did—until they raised their hand at the F.S.B. That’s a border that can’t be crossed.” Since tsarist times, the informal rules that pertain to Russia’s governing élite have dictated that, if police come across evidence of wrongdoing by members of the secret services, they cannot investigate it themselves. Instead, they should deliver their material to a higher arbiter in the political system. Soldatov said he could imagine the argument that F.S.B. officials would make to the Kremlin: “Look, these generals from the Interior Ministry are out of control, they are behaving like rogues.” He added, “I don’t think there would be any questions after that.”
Chukhlib and Dyomin’s next meeting, on February 14, 2014, took place at Sisters, a café not far from F.S.B. headquarters. Officers from GUEBiPK were recording the conversation, but F.S.B. agents were monitoring it, too. A little after one in the afternoon, Chukhlib and Dyomin sat down during the lunch rush. Chukhlib proposed that they drink fifty grams of whiskey. Dyomin said that he was in a hurry. Toward the end of the conversation, Chukhlib told Dyomin that he was putting something in the basket on the table.
“What’s there?” Dyomin asked.
“Ten,” Chukhlib said.
“Ah, I get it,” Dyomin answered.
Chukhlib told him that he would pick up the check—“For me, it’s simply an honor to have lunch with you.” A few moments passed, as the two debated whether they should converse using the informal “ty” or the more formal “vy,” and Dyomin answered a phone call. With that, F.S.B. agents swept into the restaurant and arrested Chukhlib. By the end of the day, Bodnar and half a dozen other officers from GUEBiPK were in custody. All were charged with abuse of office and entrapment for trying to lure Dyomin into accepting a bribe. The story was everywhere in Russian news reports the next day, and the ripples of the operation were felt almost immediately: on February 21st, Putin dismissed Sugrobov from his position as the head of GUEBiPK.
Kolesnikov was on assignment outside Moscow the day of the arrests. When he got back, his parents, who had seen the news on television, told him they were worried. “Borya,” his mother said, “look what’s going on!” He told her not to worry, that his subordinates wouldn’t be in jail for long, that he could fix it all in no time. “Mom, just wait, I’m going to go there now and rescue my guys,” he said. He told Viktoria that the whole affair was just a “misunderstanding.” He was “absolutely certain,” she remembers.
Kolesnikov gave testimony to investigators working on the case, and on February 25th he was called to the Investigative Committee for questioning as a witness. He went, without a lawyer, still sure that he had little to fear. While he was there, investigators told him that they were changing his status: he was now a suspect and under arrest. He called Viktoria. “Don’t worry, everything will be O.K.,” he told her. “I’m sure that by tomorrow I’ll already be out of here.” The next day, he requested that she bring him some clothes, but also not to get too upset. “They’ll sort it out—everything will fall into place,” he said.
At Kolesnikov’s first court appearance, he addressed the police colleagues who had come to support him and the journalists who had gathered for the hearing. “The case against me is related to the existence of a huge number of ‘well-wishers,’ who want to settle scores with me and my subordinates,” he said. “I can imagine the happiness of corrupt officials, who get in the way of the development of our state, seeing as how a whole series of criminal cases will now be sent to the trash can.” The judge ordered that he be held in jail while awaiting trial, and he was sent to Lefortovo. He couldn’t see his wife or his parents, but he could write them, and his early letters were hopeful. Life was good in his “hotel room,” as Kolesnikov jokingly called his cell: he was sleeping well, doing a hundred pushups a day, studying English, and feasting on the sausages that Viktoria supplied to him through the prison commissary. “You know my spirit,” he wrote to her. He said that when he got out he would take her to Paris. And don’t forget, he wrote, we still want another child.
As the weeks went on, however, his mood became less optimistic, even as he tried to keep up his fighting spirit. “The situation I’ve ended up in is not a good one,” he wrote Viktoria. “I’m very sorry that things have ended up the way they are now.” He told her that she would have to be strong and look after their children. In a letter to his mother, he wrote, “I don’t have much good news,” and went on to say that he wished he had quit the police force earlier. In another letter, he wrote that he should have listened to all the warnings he’d heard about how he and others in the department “crossed a line for too many people.” In the end, he wrote, “it’s no surprise that we have far more enemies than friends.”
Officers in the department understood that the real target was Sugrobov. Once he was in prison, the unit of anticorruption fighters would be decapitated, and everyone in the security services would recognize the dangers of challenging the F.S.B. But to make that case investigators needed Kolesnikov. The mid-ranking officers under arrest had rarely seen or directly spoken with Sugrobov. As one of Kolesnikov’s lawyers, Anna Stavitskaya, explained to me, “They could only offer some kind of speculation, but not real testimony.” Investigators pressured Kolesnikov to admit his guilt and coöperate with the prosecution. “During all these months, they repeated one thing: ‘Confess everything, give up everybody else, and we’ll give you happiness,’ ” Pavel Lapshov, another lawyer, said. “They wanted him to say, ‘He gave me an order, he made me, he was aware of everything.’ ”
In April, investigators added a new charge: membership in an “organized criminal group,” the same charge once faced by many of those whom Kolesnikov and his colleagues had investigated, including Magin. It carried a potential sentence of twenty years. The news further deflated Kolesnikov. “He understood the punishment would be stiff, and no court would ever try and get to the bottom of it,” Chizhikov told me.
In early May, Sugrobov was arrested as he was driving back to Moscow from a fishing trip on the Volga delta with his wife and twelve-year-old son. His charges mirrored those filed against Kolesnikov—he was accused of provoking officials into taking bribes and of leading a criminal group within the Interior Ministry. Like Kolesnikov, he was interrogated by Sergei Novikov, the case’s chief investigator. A recording of one of their meetings suggests that there was a higher, unseen power behind the case. “Decisions are taken not only by us, not only by me personally,” Novikov told Sugrobov. “If tomorrow I write a report saying, ‘Excuse me, I don’t see evidence of a crime,’ I’m telling you, in exactly one hour I would get a ruling saying the case was being taken from me and moved to someone else.”
With time, those who wanted to break Kolesnikov found another way to pressure him. For the first several weeks that Kolesnikov was held in Lefortovo, he walked around in his one pair of shoes, without laces—prison rules forbid laces, and they were confiscated as soon as he arrived. The shoes flopped around loose on his feet. The first two pairs of Velcro sneakers that Viktoria tried to get to her husband never made it past Lefortovo security inspections. Some weeks later, during a break in a scheduled interrogation, Novikov said to Chizhikov, joking, “What kind of general walks around with his shoes untied?” He told Chizhikov that he would allow Kolesnikov to receive new shoes. So Viktoria bought a third pair, and a few days later, during a break in a court hearing, she gave them to him. But those didn’t last long, either. Lefortovo guards took them from Kolesnikov as soon as he returned from court that day, and sent them off to be inspected. Almost a month later, prison authorities alleged that a drug-sniffing dog had found a secret hiding place in the sneakers, and that they were being sent for chemical analysis. Officials in the prison service said that they suspected traces of narcotics. Kolesnikov and his defense team immediately understood that Viktoria, who had passed him the sneakers, was now under threat of serious legal prosecution. “It was an obvious psychological game, with a person who knows what kind of results there can be—he worked in the system, he understood the system,” Chizhikov told me. “He wouldn’t give the testimony they wanted from him, and so they put him in front of a kind of choice.” The dilemma was obvious, and pushed Kolesnikov deeper into a spiral of anxiety: give evidence against Sugrobov or risk seeing his wife sent to prison. “He fell into a trap,” Pavel Lapshov said. “These shoes became his biggest source of stress.”
On May 4th, Kolesnikov was found in his cell, with his head covered in blood. His skull had been fractured in two places. Chizhikov saw him at a Moscow hospital the next day. Kolesnikov looked terrible; he would try to sit up in bed, and quickly collapse again. The doctor told Chizhikov that it wasn’t possible to get such a head injury from a fall. Later, Kolesnikov’s legal team received an independent medical analysis from a doctor affiliated with the Defense Ministry. He concluded that Kolesnikov’s injuries were consistent with a blow from a “dull hard object.” Georgy Antonov, a former police investigator who worked on Kolesnikov’s defense team, was allowed to visit him at the hospital on May 13th. “I saw before me a cowardly, demoralized person,” he said. He told Kolesnikov that journalists were waiting outside and wanted to know about his injury. Whatever you do, Kolesnikov said, don’t say anything to anybody.
Another visitor, Zoia Svetova, a liberal journalist who is a member of a public council that monitors prisons, told me, “He couldn’t say much, just that he felt bad and wasn’t safe.” She remembered Kolesnikov as looking “totally wrecked, with an unkempt beard and wild eyes.” At her third visit, Kolesnikov told her and her colleagues not to come again, that their visits only made things worse for him. On June 3rd, during an interrogation, Kolesnikov vomited. “Even the investigator was in shock,” Anna Stavitskaya said.
As the weeks went on, and Kolesnikov’s trauma went essentially untreated, an impossible and macabre choice bore down on him: testify against your friend and colleague of fifteen years, likely sending him to prison for more than a decade, or refuse, and see your wife prosecuted on a fabricated charge and sent to prison. Viktoria described the implicit threat: “We’ll put your wife in the cell next to you and send your kids to an orphanage.”
On June 16th, his lawyers and former colleagues now believe, Kolesnikov chose a third option. As seems likely, Kolesnikov and Novikov were on the sixth-floor balcony, speaking in private, for just a few minutes, and he jumped. “He tried to protect his family and those with whom he served with his own life,” an officer who worked under Kolesnikov told me. What Kolesnikov and Novikov spoke about, or if they spoke at all, remains unknown: perhaps Novikov tried again to persuade Kolesnikov to turn against Sugrobov, or he raised the spectre of the shoes with drugs supposedly hidden in them. Or maybe Kolesnikov had already made up his mind. (The Investigative Committee’s report had a different account. It claimed that Kolesnikov did not leave the interrogation room to speak with Novikov; rather, he asked to use the toilet, then rushed past the guards and jumped to his death.) Lapshov told me that on the morning of June 16th, when Kolesnikov was taken to the Investigative Committee, he bumped into a former colleague and co-defendant from their department, Ivan Kosourov, who was also in the building for questioning. According to Kosourov, Kolesnikov told him, “Ivan, say farewell.” They had only a few moments to speak. Before they parted, Kolesnikov added one more thing: “They wanted to get me—well, they got me.”
With Kolesnikov dead, the case against Sugrobov grew more difficult for investigators, who now had to assemble evidence piece by piece, instead of having their case handed to them by one person’s testimony. “Kolesnikov, with his act, complicated the goal of the prosecution,” Lapshov said. “He broke the chain that existed between himself, Sugrobov, and their subordinates. Sugrobov doesn’t even know what these guys sitting in jail physically look like.”
In the seventeen months since launching the case, investigators have added dozens of new charges. They allege not only that Sugrobov, Kolesnikov, and their subordinates exceeded their authority and tried to illegally provoke Dyomin into accepting a bribe but that a number of their earlier cases—including the construction-bribery investigation against Korovnikov and Mikhailik—were fabrications and provocations, with the original suspects now assuming the role of victim. Twenty-one of the department’s investigations currently form the basis of the state’s criminal complaint.
One of the victims named is Anatoly Brontvein, a former chief doctor at the Kremlin’s hospital, whom officers from GUEBiPK arrested in 2013 for soliciting a ten-million-ruble bribe (around three hundred thousand dollars). His lawyer, Andrey Bakradze, said that he believes his client had been entrapped. “An operative taking part in a sting shouldn’t form the intent of committing a crime,” Bakradze told me. He insisted that Brontvein didn’t even have a chance to react when a torpedo showed up at his office uninvited and handed him money; agents burst in to arrest him that very moment. (Brontvein has since been exonerated and has received compensation.) But Bakradze added that his client did not harbor any ill will toward Kolesnikov and Sugrobov, and thought that they were simply doing their jobs. “To separate a true fight against corruption as part of your service to the state as opposed to a desire to move up the career ladder is very hard,” he said.
Whatever the official indictment says, Sugrobov and his men are in jail not for the tactics they used in their police work but for losing a power struggle. The Interior Ministry and the intelligence services, first the K.G.B. and now the F.S.B., have been rivals for decades. It doesn’t help that Sugrobov was seen to be close to Medvedev, whose influence—such as it was—has dwindled since he returned the Presidency to Putin, in 2012. The contest for attention, resources, and access to the Kremlin has become especially acute under Putin’s regime, a political epoch that has seen many of the institutions of governance, while remaining as formal bodies, replaced by a patchwork of informal understandings and relationships. In the fifteen years that Putin has been in power, clan politics and the intrigues that fuel them have become Russia’s deep state—out of sight but far more decisive than what sits on the surface. “Formally, Russia is a federation,” Nikolay Petrov said. “But for a long time it has not been a federation of regions but one of corporations, in which each corporation has a certain measure of independence and sovereignty and, within this framework, is effectively out of the state’s control.” These could be literal corporations, such as the state oil giant Rosneft, or bureaucratic ones, such as the Interior Ministry or the F.S.B. Now, as Russia’s economy—pushed downward by Western sanctions and falling global oil prices—enters a period of long-term recession, with the G.D.P. expected to fall as much as four per cent this year, competition among these corporations has grown. “The over-all number of people in control should shrink in accordance with the falling profits of those whom they are controlling,” Petrov said. Otherwise, the profits of the controlling class will also decline.
The trial of Sugrobov, who has maintained his innocence, will begin sometime in the coming months. No one is likely to emerge from court proceedings looking especially heroic, let alone saintly. “I’m critical of them, but I’m also sorry for them—one killed himself, the others are behind bars,” Alexei Kondaurov, the former K.G.B. agent turned Putin critic, told me. “In a moral system, they could have become good officers, but in our system, well, they became the guys they became. It’s a shame the system breaks people like this.” I heard one of Sugrobov and Kolesnikov’s fellow-officers, a man named Salavat Mullayarov, testify in court earlier this spring. “At the time, we thought we were doing everything in accordance with the law,” he said. “But it’s a subtle game.”
One morning in late April, I went with Viktoria to visit her husband’s grave. It was cloudy and windy, but a few streaks of yellow sunlight poked through the sky as we walked through the iron gates of Vostryakovsky cemetery. Kolesnikov is buried in a narrow alley of grave sites toward the back, past the tombstones of famed Soviet pilots and actresses and engineers.
In accordance with a common Russian Orthodox tradition, the family was waiting until the one-year anniversary of death to place the final headstone on the grave, and so Kolesnikov’s grave was marked by a mound of dirt and a simple wooden cross. Viktoria brought some small cakes that their thirteen-year-old daughter had baked the day before and placed them on top of the soil. She doesn’t bring the children here often; let them grow a little older and decide for themselves, she said.
We stood a moment and talked about her husband. “He was for me, in my eyes, a man, a general,” she said. “He was so patriotic, he so hated those guys with fattened bellies. He believed in the purity of people’s intentions. A fool, a little fool.”