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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Update: May 3, 2016

Publication: Russia Update
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
US State Department Highlights Case of Imprisoned Russian Journalist Sergei Reznik for World Press Freedom Day

The US State Department made a statement urging the release of Russian journalist Sergei Reznik yesterday, May 2, timed for World Press Freedom Day, today, May 3.

John Kirby said at the State Department's noon briefing:

We finish our Free the Press Campaign today, and for that campaign, in honor of World Press Freedom Day, which is, as you know, tomorrow, we’re going to highlight today a man named Sergei Reznik, a journalist and blogger from the city of Rostov-on-Don who was – who has been, I’m sorry, imprisoned since November of 2013.

Before his imprisonment, Reznik’s writing routinely criticized municipal and regional authorities in Russia and uncovered local corruption and abuses. The series of unrelated charges pursued against him include insulting a public official, bribery, and deliberately misleading authorities. A month before his conviction, Reznik was also physically attacked, when two unidentified men beat him with baseball bats and shot at him. Although he was not hit by bullets, Mr. Reznik suffered head and neck injuries from the beating.
While he sits in jail, authorities have made no progress in investigating the attack against him, consistent with a broader pattern of impunity in Russia for those who attack journalists. So again, we call on the Russian Government to release Sergei Reznik immediately.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists wrote about Reznik's case last year when he was handed an additional sentence of three years:

Before he was jailed in November 2013, Reznik contributed reports to several regional news websites, including Yuzhnyi Federalnyi, and posted articles to his blog on popular platform LiveJournal, according to news reports. His articles criticized municipal and regional authorities and alleged corruption and abuses, reports said. The original charges against Reznik included allegations that he had lied about threats against him. In October 2012, eight months after he reported the threats, he was physically attacked outside his apartment, according to CPJ research.

A statement about the latest verdict, released by the Prosecutor General's Office,said that in May 2013, while the earlier case was being investigated, Reznik made a statement that contained deliberately false information about a police agent who had testified against him. Prosecutors also said that from March 2012 to October 2013 Reznik "repeatedly published on the Internet articles of insulting character against the law enforcement agents of Rostov region, thus depicting his discontent with their fulfillment of duties."

The statement indicated an increasing willingness of the Obama Administration to speak out about human rights problems in Russia; recently the State Department condemned the outlawing of the Crimean Tatars' Mejlis or popular assembly by the Russian occupation authorities in Crimea. While usually officials tend to make their remarks only in conjunction with the release of various reports required by Congress (such as on the Magnitsky Rule of Law Act), in recent months the State Department has issued statements on the anniversary of Boris Nemtsov's murder; two statements on Russia's unjust prosecution of Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko; and on the designation of the US-funded National Democratic Institute as an "undesirable agent."

The State Department made a number of statements last year, mainly in connection with Russia's war against Ukraine and with shelling of civilians in Syria, as can be seen from the official State Department page

Assistant Secretary  of State for Human Rights Tom Malinowski gave an interview in March to Moskovsky Komsomolets answering a number of hostile questions about US motives for raising human rights issues in Russia. Malinowski said the US raised human rights problems on the basis of international standards by which all countries, including the US are bound. He also contrasted the US review of its surveillance practices with Russia's ongoing violation of privacy.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Estonia Denies Entry to Russian State Journalists
Estonian authorities barred Russian state journalist Yekaterina Fisenko and her crew from entering the country, reported, citing the pro-Kremlin which noted a press release from the All-Russian State TV and Radio Company (VGTRK).

Firsenko said Estonian border officials at the crossing in Narva took their passports away for an hour, and returned them with the Shengen visas annulled. She and a cameraman and video engineer were traveling from St. Petersburg, en route to the Estonian town of Vyzu.

Estonia said that the journalists cannot work in Estonia with just a Shengen tourist visa obtained in Finland; they must get a press visa.

The canceled visa has a notation that it was "refused due to inaccurate information about the purposes of the visit."

The crew was planning to film a show related to the May 9 Victory Day celebration, about ships involved in World War II, in particular a submarine that sunk in the Bay of Finland in 1943.

On April 23, Ukraine barred another correspondent from VGTRK, Darya Grigorova, from entering Ukraine. She spent the night at Borispol Airport and then was deported.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Spanish Judge Issues Warrants for Russian Mafia Close to Putin; Was Judo Instructor Involved?
The Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported today, May 3, that a Spanish judge has issued an order for the arrest of high-ranking Russian officials said to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and involved in organized crime.

While the full list has not yet been published, Nikolai Aulov, deputy director of the Federal Narcotics Control Agency (FSKN), and Vladislav Reznik, a United Russia deputy in the State Duma, are among them.

Prosecutors Juan Carrau and Jose Grinda had delivered a petition to the Central Court on May 29, 2015 and it seems it has taken a year to respond with international arrest warrants.

The warrants do not necessarily mean a trial can be expected soon because Spain does not try people in absentia and it will be hard to arrest the defendants. To be sure, at one point Reznik, who has denied the charges said he would be happy to clear his name by coming to Spain to take part in the trial.

This indictment follows past arrests from two Spanish police operations, code-named Avispa (2005-07) and Troika (2008-09), in which four Russian mafia lords said to be related to the Tambov organized crime gang were arrested: Gennady Petrov, Alexander Malyshev (Petrov's deputy), Vitaly Izguilov (a key lieutenant of the mafia group) and Zakhar Kalashov, said to be the most senior mafia figure to be jailed outside of Russia, the Guardian said in 2010.

Petrov was released and able to flee Spain, and now lives again in Russia where he continues his business activities.  Petrov was co-owner of Bank Rossiya from 1998-199 along with Nikolai Shamalov, Viktor Myachin and Yury Kovalchuk, who is currently on Western sanctions list as "Putin's banker" in connection with the annexation of Crimea. All three of Petrov's business partners along with Putin were founding members of the Ozero Collective, a dacha ownership company. 

In June 2015, based on a copy of the prosecutors' May 29 petition to the court, Bloomberg reported on the connections alleged between the Tambov crime syndicate in St. Petersburg and Reznik, who is also deputy head of the parliament's finance committee. They said the Tambov members moved to Spain in 1996, when Putin was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, to continue criminal activities:

The 488-page complaint, the product of a decade of investigations into the spread of Russian organized crime during the Putin era, portrays links between the criminal enterprise and top law-enforcement officials and policy makers in Moscow. The petition, based on thousands of wiretaps, bank transfers and property transactions, is a formal request to charge 27 people with money laundering, fraud and other crimes. Approval by a judge would clear the way for a trial, but Spain doesn’t try people in absentia.

The only Russian official facing possible charges is Vladislav Reznik, a member of Putin’s ruling United Russia party and the deputy head of the finance committee in the lower house of parliament. The complaint, earlier reported by Spain’s El Mundo and ABC newspapers, says Reznik helped the alleged leader of the enterprise, Gennady Petrov, get his associates appointed to key posts in Russia in exchange for assets in Spain. Prosecutors are seeking to confiscate a property they say Reznik owns on the resort island of Majorca.

Assistance to Spanish prosecutors in such mafia prosecutions was a possible motive for the murder of former intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko, which was "probably" ordered by Putin himself, according to the British High Court.

The mafia ring's activities from the time Putin was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg under Mayor Anatoly Sobchak seemed to be beyond the reach of the Spanish prosecutors.

But today's announcement shows the prosecutors have gathered enough evidence to issue other arrest warrants, following their "Operation Troika" in which 20 were arrested in 2008. Judge Jose de la Mata, who investigates organized crime groups, says there are "very serious facts" against them.

According to El Mundo, Reznik was said to perform "all necessary activities, legal or illegal (trafficking in influence, privileged information, etc.) involving the highest levels of the Russian government in favor of Petrov." 

"The relationship between Petrov and Reznik is also economic in nature, both in Spain and Russia," said the judge. A warrant has also been issued for Reznik's wife, Diana Gindin.

The prosecutors said Aulov, the Russian narcotics agency official, "uses his power" to "carry out acts of intimidation or threats to certain people who try to harm Petrov." From wiretaps, the prosecutors learned that Aulov obtained "secret information relation to the investigation" itself which he informed his boss. Another warrant was issued for Leonid Khristoforov, who acted as a liaison for Aulov. 

Yet another is Igor Sobolevsky, deputy prime minister for "maintaining communication and exchange of favors with Petrov."

The prosecutors said they had obtained 78 telephone conversations between Aulov, a former KGB colleague of Putin's in St. Petersburg, with the gang leader Petrov. 

The Spanish prosecutors have made the claim that Petrov has helped put people into high-ranking positions.

The prosecutors say their case, which has been under investigation for 8 years, will be completed soon and will ultimately involve 27 high-ranking Russian officials, and "all ties lead directly to Putin," although it is not known if Putin himself will be named. 

Could Putin know more than he lets on from the gangsters' leaks from the investigation or his own espionage?

Last weekend, Putin undertook a massive reorganization of law-enforcement which included among other changes, subordinating the Federal Narcotics Control Service, which had been a separate agency, under the National Guard. Over the weekend, Putin fired a number of high-ranking officials including Sergei Dmitriyev, public prosecutor, Igor Klimenov, head of the Federal Penitentiary Service in Moscow, and Dmitry Neklyudov, deputy interior ministry for occupied Crimea. He also dismissed Yury Nyrkov and Vasily Piskarev, two deputies of the Investigative Committee, and promoted Lev Gura, a special cases investigator to senior investigator.

Maj.Gen. Igor Krasnov, who has prosecuted violent Russian ultranationalists, was the first prosecutor put on the case of the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, has now been appointed deputy to Aleksandr Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee. Spanish prosecutors have referenced Bastrykin's name in the past but it is not clear whether he will be indicted. 

No reason was given for these dismissals or appointments and those directly related to the Spanish prosecution don't appear to be involved, but could Putin be taking precautions? The Kremlin position on the Spanish claims, however, has always been that the allegations are "utter nonsense."

The issue of the Tambov Gang fixing official seats for various people becomes relevant when Putin's own early biography is probed -- and an implication made that Putin himself owed his own university placement and hence his subsequent career to this mafia. 

Alexei Sobchenko, writing recently for, describes an unsigned piece at the popular blog   (see under "Soratniki po bor'be") that makes the connection between the Tambov gang and Putin via his old judo instructor Leonid Usvyatsov, who twice served 10-year stretches in labor camp, the first on charges of group rape and the second on charges of illegal foreign currency dealings.  The blogger says Usvyatsov was "a prominent member of the so-called Tambov Gang." In between his terms in labor camp (1968-1982), in the 1960s, Usvyatsov became Putin's trainer in the art of sambo, a martial art developed by the Soviet Army.

Putin mentions Leonid Ionovich, but only by his first name and uncommon patronymic, in his book First Person. The blogger describes this as a "fond" memory. Here is the passage, in which Putin explains why he was in the Trud [Labor] judo club, but not in the karate class, because those lessons cost money and he was too poor.

Once we went to the gym with Leonid Ionovich, the senior coach from Trud. The karate students were working out on the mat, though it was our turn. Leonid went up to their trainer and told them it was time for our class. The karate trainer didn't even look his way - as if to say, get lost. Then Leonid, without saying a word, flipped him, squeezed him lightly and dragged him off the mat. He had lost consciousness. Then Leonid turned to us and said, "Go in and take your places." This was our attitude toward karate.

The young Putin then emulates this behavior as he describes later, judo-flipping a guy at a bus stop who asked him for a cigarette. As an athlete, he didn't smoke.

This blogger claims it was Usvyatsov who got Putin into law school in 1970 under the athletic quota, although we note that in his book, Putin himself claims it was due to his diligent studies, even though he was not a member of the Komsomol (Young Communist League). 

If anything, Putin takes pains in his book to claim that another coach wanted to get him into the Academy of Civil Aviation as an athlete, but Putin didn't want to go into aviation. By that time, he had already decided in the 9th grade that he wanted to be a spy, and a recruiter had told him he would need a higher degree for this purpose, and suggested law school. This set Putin on the path to a legal degree.

Later in his book, Putin portrays Leonid Ionovich as angry at that career choice -- given the role that lawyers played in Soviet society, which was essentially as accomplices to prosecutors, not defenders (Ionovich was an ex-con). In fact, most people with "law degrees" served not in the bar, but in the police or prosecutors' offices.

Putin writes:

Then another coach of mine from the Trud Club, Leonid Ionovich, came to visit. He was a clever guy. "Well," he said to me. "Where are you going?" Of course he already knew. He was just acting sly. I said, "To university." "Oh, that's great, good for you," he said, "in what department"? "The law school," I answered. Then he roared: "What?! To catch people? What are you doing? You'll be a cop. Do you understand?!" I was insulted. "I'm not going to be a cop!" I yelled back.

"For a year, they put pressure on me every day. That only increased my desire to go to law school," says Putin, adding that both his coaches and parents threatened that he would end up in the army if he didn't chose the aviation school -- but he said that he in fact the army "suited me just fine."

Interestingly, contrary to what the blogger claims, Putin then goes even further to tell a story that would supposedly prove that he wasn't placed by Ionovich or anyone else at all. It is so elaborate, that the reader -- once familiar with the context of the Tambov Gang provided by the blogger and the Spanish prosecutors  -- begins to wonder if it was deliberately fabricated to cover up the truth.

In a book otherwise fairly sparse on biographical detail, Putin takes great pains to explain that when he came to the law faculty of Leningrad State University, he ostensibly discovered that another athletic club, Burevestnik [Storm Petrel], was demanding that he join them because they had supposedly helped him to get a place in the law school.

Putin says that he was indignant at such supposed "fixing," and went to the dean and told him he was being "forced" to transfer into Burevestnik and that he didn't think he should. The kindly dean asked why, and Putin replied, "Because they supposedly helped me, as an athlete, to get into the university, and now I must pay them back by joining Burevestnik."

The dean checks his list of those who were to be placed in the university on the strength of their athletic ability and tells Putin that he isn't on the list. "So you can safely tell everybody to get lost," he concluded. "Which I did," Putin recounted.

Putin illustrates his loyalty to this sports club later explaining why he wouldn't accept the proposals of other clubs:

I told them a hundred times I would not leave Trud--all my friends were there, and my first coach. I said I would never join another club. I would play for the one I wanted. 

Interestingly, the same unknown blogger digs up a section in the biography of another figure from those years Nikolai Vashchilin, a prominent Soviet stuntman and wrestler who know Putin, Usvyatsov, and Rotenberg in the 1960s as he was in the same athletic organizations. He writes that Rotenberg worked as an assistant to Usvyatsov at Trud for a time and later was almost blown away himself during a gunfight at a mafia funeral. The bloggers summarizes what Vashchilin writes:

Vova [Vladimir] Putin was placed by L.I. Usvyatsov  himself at LGU [Leningrad State University] through the athletic selection and personally through V.E. Solovyov (a sambo trainer) and M.M. Bobrov (deputy director of the physical education department)... By the way, L.I. Usvyatsov landed himself a second round [of imprisonment] in 1982, but now under Art. 88 [of the criminal code] and languished until 1992. When he got out, Leonid Ionovich Usvyatsov organized athletes into a unit of bodyguards (with the permission of Smolny [the St. Petersburg government]) and was murdered by competitors in 1994, and his place in the organization was taken by Vladimir Kumarin.

But if we go back to the source of Vashchilin himself, we find some intriguing detail where the [...] indicated text that was cut (see emphasis in quoted text):

Vashchilin first says "I know Vova Putin not by hearsay and for rather a long time" as they were in sambo together at Trud on No. 21 Decembrists' street. He describes other trainers that Putin also had, but notes in particular Usvyatsov, under whom Putin and the Rotenberg brothers trained,  "who greatly helped place them in jobs and institutes." Then he writes:

Yes, Vova Putin, too was placed  at LGU through the sports selection and personally V.E. Solovyov (sambo trainer) and M.M. Bobrov (deputy of the physical education department), and then refused to transfer him into Burevestnik, blackmailing the dean with the fact that he would expose their machinations with the athletic selection of students at LGU.

Thus according to this other memoirist, there is an alternative narrative than the one Putin tells in his book: it wasn't that Putin was mysteriously being pressured to join Burevestnik although he "wasn't on the list"; in fact, the officials at the university with whom his trainer Usvyatsov was able to place him insisted on putting Putin in Burevestnik (perhaps because it was not associated with an ex-con) -- and then Usvyatsov, furious, threatened blackmail to keep his prized pupil out of Burevestnik. Putin remained loyal to Trud. 

Usvyatsov was jailed again in 1982 when Putin was still a junior KGB officer in charge of monitoring foreigners and consular officials and likely could not at his level have found a way to intervene to save his coach from jail.

But ultimately, his fellow judo students in the Trud club were to become part of Putin's inner circle -- Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, oligarchs who have a vast business empire now who received contracts in the Sochi Olympics, and Vasily Shestakov, a State Duma legislator. An old picture shows them together -- and from that time, it seems Putin never did join another "club" and "played for the one he wanted."

Set as default press image
(L-R) Arkady Rotenberg, Vladimir Putin and Vasily Shestakov in a judo match together in an undated photo.
2016-05-03 18:07:40
As the blogger relates, and another source also mentions, Rotenberg had also worked with Usvyatsov as a stuntman in Lenfilm movies, as judo wrestlers were in demand; Usvyatsov was said to use his connections to get himself and his students into the films. Some photos of them together have survived. 
Set as default press image
Stuntmen in a Soviet WWII movie: Leonid Usvyatov (3rd from L) and Arkady Rotenberg (3rd from R)
2016-05-03 21:23:22

By the time Usvyatsov was released after his second labor camp term in  1992, Putin was now in the St. Petersburg mayor's office. The blogger says Usvyatsov was "a prominent member of the so-called Tambov Gang" but it is not known if there is evidence of contact between Usvyatsov and Putin in any capacity after he got out of prison. Ultimately, Usvyatsov was killed in gang warfare in 1994.

In 2008, Spanish authorities also arrested Aleksandr Malyshev, said to be another mafia leader who competed with Tambov but then joined them who had moved to Spain to flee gangland assassination attempts and continue his money-laundering activities. Both Petrov and Malyshev had "a great level of influence and control," say the prosecutors with "contacts among ministers, judges and high-ranking military, and many of them relations of intense friendship." The prosecutors claim that this network was involved in commissioned threats and beatings, murder, arms traffiking, extortion, fraud, forgery, influence-peddling, bribery, smuggling, drug-trafficking, crimes against the state treasury, fraudulent capitalization of companies.

The prosecutors say the most important names that surfaced was that of Anatoly Serdyukov, minister of defense from 2007-2012, who was also a graduate of the St. Petersburg University Law School, and Viktor Zubkov, a financial crimes investigator and former prime minister from 2007-2009, who then served as Putin's first deputy prime minister when Putin himself was prime minister during Dmitry Medvedev's presidency.

Serdyukov was prosecuted in Russia for "negligence" for using the army to build a road to his private country residence, and served some time in prison but was then amnestied in 2014; his mistress, who was implicated in various corrupt housing schemes at the Defense Ministry was also prosecuted and served a light sentence and was released "for good behavior." Serdyukov now serves as a director of the state Rostec company which builds helicopters and airplane engines.

Other names indicated by El Mundo are Dmitry Kozak, head of the ministry of regional development, who  joined Putin's administration in 1999-2000, RFE/RL reports, and Leonid Reiman, former minister of information technology and communications, who is a partner of Petrov's in a company.

Where will all this go? Likely the Spanish prosecutors will never get to the people they've indicted who are all safe in Russia and won't travel abroad to risk arrest. As RFE/RL reported:

"Today the main figures in the Spanish [prosecutor's] report are living in Russia without any problems, and they are doing fine," Andrei Zykov, a retired senior investigator who specialized in corruption and serious economic crimes in areas including St. Petersburg.

Will Putin himself remove or even prosecute some of the obvious corrupt individuals to avoid any further risk to himself? That remains to be seen, and the Serdyukov case indicates that whatever punishment may be in store could be light.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick