Drugs, guns and bribery Russian crime rate on the rise as volunteer fighters return from eastern Ukraine
Last year in November, three senior lieutenants from Russia’s traffic police were killed near a town called Perepechino just outside of Moscow. They had stopped an SUV, and the people in the car had opened fire. The killers took the police car’s video camera and fled the scene. A search was announced. It turned out that all of them had participated in fighting alongside the separatists in eastern Ukraine, and none of them have been apprehended. This is the most famous case of war returnees finding themselves on the wrong side of the law, and there are other cases like it. Meduza asked Ilya Rozhdestvensky to sift through the Interior Ministry’s statistics and dozens of court cases from the last year and a half and explain how former fighters for the Ukrainian separatists have been keeping themselves busy since they came home to Russia.
Since April 2015, the number of recorded crimes in Russia has grown by 2.5 percent. Russia’s Southern Federal District holds the dubious honor of the biggest increases. In Rostov Region, the number of recorded crimes increased by 23.4 percent, in Adygea by 19.2 percent. Kalmykia and Volgograd Regions have seen increases of 7.8 percent, and Krasnodar has seen crime increase by 10.4 percent. Crime has fallen only in Astrakhan region (by 8 percent). In 2014, all crime figures were far more modest, with only Krasnodar seeing an increase by 7.5 percent that year. The other regions with the biggest crime increases this year weren’t even among the top 15 most criminal regions in 2014.
Judging by these statistics, the Southern Federal District’s proximity to Donbas, the war-torn breakaway region of Ukraine, may be taking its toll. Fighting has gradually subsided following the battle for Debaltseve in January and February of 2015, and Russian supporters of the Ukrainian self-proclaimed republics are trickling home, taking their weapons with them. This is obvious from the sheer number of weapons caches found in Rostov region in Russia. Grenades and other weapons are now being used by criminals as a form of currency.
The most popular crime committed by returning volunteers is the illegal weapons trade. For example, in mid-February 2015, a local court in Rostov Region sentenced a Russian citizen, listed in the documents as G.I. Appelgants, to three years behind bars. A few months earlier, Appelganets was found to be in possession of an impressive arsenal: two AK-74 assault rifles, a Dragunov sniper rifle, a single-shot GP-25 underbarrel grenade launcher, and about 1,000 rounds of 5.45mm ammunition. Appelgants pled guilty, but asked for leniency, as he had brought humanitarian aid to the people of Donbas, and had taken part as a volunteer in military operations on the territory of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. The judge, Levon Melkonyan, did not consider this a mitigating factor. A man named S.S. Zakayev, who had fought in the ranks of the Donetsk People’s Republic, was slightly less well-equipped: a search revealed he had an AKS-74 with an underbarrel grenade launcher and about 250 rounds of ammunition. The judge at Matveyevo-Kurgan Court, Nadezhda Gritsenko, sentenced Zakayev to three years and one month behind bars.
The most common weapon found in possession of separatist fighters returning to the motherland is the Makarov pistol. This was the case with a man named A.O. Bokovoi, who was stopped at a traffic checkpoint. When he was searched, police found he had not only a pistol and ammunition, but also detonators and 11 grenades. Bokovoi himself said that he planned to go to St Petersburg to buy uniforms for his comrades. In court, the accused stated that if he had known he had grenades in his bag, he would not have brought them with him across the border; instead, he would have turned back and given them to the separatists. Bokovoi was sentenced to three years in jail. As he read the sentence, Judge Leonid Stepanenko did not fail to mention the motivation of the accused: “He joined the ranks of the militia to fight fascism, as he didn’t want fascists to reach the territory of Belarus and Russia.”
In May 2015, this same judge was handed the case of K.K. Pilipenko. The accused maintained that he was bringing humanitarian aid to the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic, however, when his car was searched, a box of detonators was found. Pilipenko got an 18 month suspended sentence and was later amnestied. At the hearing, a witness testified that Pilipenko was helping a Lugansk People’s Republic battalion, which was allegedly stationed on Russian territory at the time.
A man named Muravyov was also caught trafficking a Makarov pistol. Standing before Sergei Kopylov, a judge at a local Rostov court, he never actually denied the charges. He said that he was a member of the separatist militia and his duties included bringing in cargo and medical supplies. While military operations were underway in Donetsk, he was given a weapon and body armor. He crossed the Russian border on more than one occasion to bring insulin to back to the city. In order to bring in humanitarian aid, he always got permission from an FSB lieutenant colonel fist. The judge took the fact that Muravyov was in the Donetsk People’s Republic militia into account, and thus reduced his charges, sentencing him to four months in a medium security prison.
Service in the ranks of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic is one of the main mitigating factors pleaded by former separatists who claimed they were innocent. For example, S.E. Vakulenko, who practically started a full-blown brawl on the streets of the city of Taganrog, declared in court that he wouldn’t admit his guilt as he had “accidentally crossed the Russian border, hadn’t used bad language and was a militia member in the Donetsk People’s Republic.” It’s hard to say why he decided these factors would affect his sentence positively, but Judge Mikhail Dzyuba wasn’t convinced, and jailed Vakulenko for seven days. A certain A.L. (mentioned in the records only by initials) also didn’t manage to convince a judge in Kusyovshaya Court. He was accused of possession of nine grams of cannabis. He maintained that he should be released for a number of reasons, including the fact that he had taken part in the fighting on the territory of the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic and was wounded in the right forearm and left testicle.
Some former separatists have had more luck beyond Rostov Region. E.V. Venediktov managed to convince a Novgorod court that he had actively helped the people of eastern Ukraine and brought them humanitarian aid. Venediktov still plead guilty to possession of cannabis and got a three-year suspended sentence. A.P. Volkov told a judge that he had exceeded the speed limit by 80 kilometers per hour as he was rushing to bring medicine to eastern Ukraine. Ultimately, he had to pay a fine of 5,000 rubles ($95), but was allowed to keep his license.
Another incident on the roads ended much more spectacularly. In mid-February 2015, a Kamaz truck drove straight through a barrier at a checkpoint on the Ukraine-Russia border into Russia. Russian OMON riot police and Rostov’s FSB secret services chased the truck. They opened fire on the tires, but managed to stop the truck only in a place where the road had been blocked off by another large vehicle (or, according to some reports, an armored personnel carrier). The three people arrested turned out to be under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. They stated that they were militia members though one later claimed he had been their captive, which surprised the law enforcement agents as they had never seen a captive so thoroughly armed to the teeth before. The fate of the three men is unknown.
A Ukrainian citizen, A.M. Badei, also had a run-in with law enforcement. In early May of 2015, he tried to cross the River Kamenka in his car to enter Russian territory. He failed to do this, however, as he was spotted by FSB border guards. They blocked the path of his vehicle and opened fire. After warning shots failed to stop the car, which nearly drove into the guards, they shot out its tires. As a result, Badei put the car in reverse and returned to Ukrainian territory. Later, the Lugansk People’s Republic police recommended he go to a border crossing to try and smooth out the situation. Upon arrival, Badei was arrested and brought before a magistrate, where he was sentenced to 10 days in jail.
Drug-related crime is also “popular” among former separatists. Aside from the cases of E.V. Venediktov and A.L. mentioned above, our investigation covered several other interesting cases. For example, in January, a Donetsk People’s Republic fighter known as E.V. Kulikov, finding himself in the town of Matveyev-Kurgan in Rostov Region, went into a cafe, bought juice, and consumed desomorphine, a cocktail of cannabis and amphetamines known by the street name “Krokodil.” This led to Kulikov spending five days in jail.
Things ended on a far more negative note for S.N. Pivnev, who was found in possession of 1.79 grams of N-Methylphenylamine, а designer drug with effects similar to amphetamine. He told detectives that he had bought drugs for the first time in his life. He had come back from the Lugansk People’s Republic where he had been fighting; he had seen his friend die right before his eyes and had watched a car full of people explode. “He experienced massive psychological trauma. He was unable to find peace, and, at the advice of acquaintances, he acquired the substance for his own personal use,” reads the final statement of the Kirov Court in Omsk. Pivnev received 18 months in prison.
A.K. Przhivalsky was most likely also trying to relieve his psychological problems. He was stopped in the city Rostov-on-Don by a police patrol headed by Officer Galushkin. The officers asked if the fighter had any illicit substances on his person, and Przhivalsky immediately ran off. When the police caught him, he was discovered to be in possession of a knife and two packages of drugs. While Galushkin was processing the arrest, he was approached by a man who introduced himself as a squadron commander in the Donetsk People’s Republic and offered to bail out Przhivalsky for 35,000 rubles ($650), but they failed to reach a deal. Later, Officer Galushkin was fired for extortion.
There are also more serious crimes listed in the Interior Ministry’s reports. A Russian citizen known as A.A. Kalachyov went to the police and told them that in October 2014, he was kidnapped from Russian territory by supporters of the Donetsk People’s Republic. He was held in a pit and his captors demanded a ransom of half a million rubles ($9,200). His relatives took five days to come up with the money and get it to his kidnappers, after which Kalachyov returned home to Russia. According to the man, border guards were in on the scheme, and let the criminals pass into the Donetsk People’s Republic. When Kalachyov was freed and handed over to border guards, he was recorded as having illegally crossed the border. However, they were unable to file criminal charges against him for this.
In March 2015, the Volga Court in Volgograd Region changed A.N. Shendobylo’s sentence from suspended to full. Two years earlier, Shendobylo had received a three-year suspended sentence for robbery with violence. He was required to check with his parole officer twice a month and not change his address without informing law enforcement. However, he failed to comply with the terms of his sentence. As he told the court, in November 2014, he went to eastern Ukraine, and until February 2015, he “was on the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic and took part in military operations as part of a tank battalion as a gunner on medium tanks and because of this did not check in with his parole officer.” Neither the city court, nor the regional court found this to be a convincing excuse and Shendobylo was sent to prison.
Many instances of immigration law violations were found in the court records Meduza examined. Notably, many judges refused to deport Ukrainians who crossed the border, instead opting to fine them. For example, Judge Marina Feoktistova in Slantsy City Court in Leningrad Region concluded her statement on the case of Ukrainian citizen Dmitry Tkach by emphasizing that he “was a Russian-speaking citizen of Ukraine, his mother tongue is Russian, he went to a Russian-language school and a Russian-language kindergarten, spoke Russian at home, and because of this, feared repression from the Ukrainian authorities if he returned… he could be subjected not only to torture, but to treatment or punishment which is inhuman or degrading to human dignity.”
K.G. Chubarevoi, another Ukrainian citizen, was granted permission to stay in Russia by the Zheleznodorozhny Court, since “the new authorities have pursued a course of Ukrainization of the population and repression along national, linguistic and political principles. The right of citizens to converse in the Russian language has in fact been limited. Dissenters are persecuted and ethnic Russians have lost their rights. Because the Donbas region is overwhelmingly inhabited by ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking citizens, armed resistance to the authorities of Ukraine has has started there.”
N.N. Peleshok was granted permission to stay by a local court in the city of Ufa, because in Ukraine “she would be persecuted because she is an ethnic Russian, speaks Russian and doesn’t know the Ukrainian language, and goes to a Moscow Patriarchate church. Now the [Orthodox] Church in Ukraine is divided into Ukrainian and Moscow branches, and people are forbidden under threat to health or life to go to Churches of the Moscow Patriarchate. She also supports the Donetsk People’s Republic, is the widow of a Red Army veteran. Because of this, she has received threats to her life and health and has been persecuted.”
Finally, in a litany of criminal sagas, we find a rare family drama. N.N. Andriyanov turned to a local court in Russia’s Tver Region and asked them to take his daughter’s name off the legal rights to their apartment, as she had left her own three-year-old son with him and his wife, and “drank spirits, changed lovers, and was destroying her own life.” She then went off to serve in the army on an army contract. Eleven months later, she took leave and went to Ukraine, where she joined the Donetsk People’s Republic forces. Having found out that her father planned to take her off the apartment registration, she wrote a short post on her social network VKontakte profile: “Gee, thanks.” She ultimately decided not to return to Russia, as she was not able to pay back her numerous loans. The judge ruled in favor of her father’s lawsuit.