stories

From ‘Putin's chef’ to ‘Putin's hitman’? After confessing to attacking and poisoning people on behalf of Evgeny Prigozhin, a newspaper source suddenly disappears

Evgeny Prigozhin
Evgeny Prigozhin
Stringer / Anadolu Agency / Vida Press
Note to readers: Days before the article described below was published, someone left a severed goat’s head in a gift basket outside Novaya Gazeta’s newsroom in Moscow. Not long beforehand, the newspaper also received a funeral wreath addressed to Denis Korotkov, the author of this investigative report.

On October 22, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a new investigative report claiming that people associated with the Putin-connected catering industry oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin are responsible for attacking opposition activists and bloggers, as well as carrying out several murders and poisonings in different countries, including in Syria. The newspaper says it got this information from a 61-year-old man named Valery Amelchenko, who allegedly participated in some of these operations, beginning in 2012. All that’s known about him is that he was arrested in St. Petersburg in 1999 for robbery and sentenced to prison for seven years. He was released early on parole in 2004, but it remains unclear what exactly he did for Prigozhin’s people afterwards. Amelchenko described several of his secret missions to Novaya Gazeta, and then disappeared on October 2. Russian police have added him to a national wanted list, and federal investigators have opened a preliminary case against him. Novaya Gazeta’s Denis Korotkov speculates that Amelchenko was either abducted, killed, or he might have even staged his own disappearance.

Amelchenko says he found work with Prigozhin’s crew through a mutual acquaintance named Andrey Mikhailov, who allegedly helped Prigozhin create the the media holding company that owns St. Petersburg’s infamous “troll factory” and “media factory.” Mikhailov confirmed to Novaya Gazeta that he recruited Amelchenko, saying that he personally worked in Prigozhin’s business empire between 2012 and 2014, reporting to Evgeny Gulyaev, the oligarch’s head of security.

Novaya Gazeta stumbled onto Amelchenko when investigating the November 2016 attack on sociologist and Death Studies Journal publisher Sergey Mokhov (the husband of Lyubov Sobol, who acts as legal counsel for the Anti-Corruption Foundation). The attacker injected a psychotropic drug into Mokhov’s thigh, causing him to lose consciousness. A surveillance camera filmed the incident, and an anonymous source told Novaya Gazeta that the perpetrator was a man named Oleg Simonov, who died under unclear circumstances in May 2017. Simonov’s widow says she recognizes her late husband from the camera footage, and showed Novaya Gazeta a photograph from his funeral, revealing that Amelchenko attended the ceremony.

Amelchenko agreed to speak to Novaya Gazeta, worried that Prigozhin’s henchmen might have been involved in Simonov’s death. He reportedly promised to share details about several secret operations, once he felt safe. In the event of force majeure, Amelchenko also agreed to let the newspaper use the information he’d already supplied, after October 20.

Amelchenko’s story

Allegedly acting on Maikhilov’s orders, Amelchenko says he put together a team that included two men named Vladimir Gladienko and Sergey Kuznetsov. While reporting to Mikhailov, the group apparently focused on surveillance work, and even spied on Novaya Gazeta.

Amelchenko also recalled an attack against “huipster,” a Sochi-based video blogger who “wrote bad things about Putin.” Mikhailov says the blogger changed jobs and went offline after the beating. Another time, Amelchenko says he helped stage a car collision targeting Elena Cherevko, the owner of the DLclinic dental clinic (who at the time was in a property dispute with Prigozhin). Mikhailov confirmed Amelchenko’s role in the affair, and also provided Novaya Gazeta with video footage from the collision, showing that Amelchenko was present.

In late 2013, when Amelchenko was in Kyiv during the EuroMaidan protests, he learned that Mikhailov had been fired. (It’s unclear what Amelchenko was doing in Ukraine.) After a few months, Amelchenko says he was visited by someone he knew from his previous work. (Mikhailov guesses that this was Evgeny Gulyaev, Prigozhin’s head of security.) Before long, Amelchenko heard from Andrey Pichushkin, another Prigozhin security guard.

After these meetings, Amelchenko’s group operated mainly in Ukraine (in the war-torn Donbass and in the Kyiv area). Amelchenko told Novaya Gazeta almost nothing about what the team did, but he did recall the murder of former Luhansk separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky’s “right-hand man,” without ever naming him. Novaya Gazeta guesses this was former adviser Dmitry Kargaev, who was murdered in March 2016.

Amelchenko says the poisonings started after he met Oleg Simonov (the man who allegedly attacked Lyubov Sobol’s husband). Amelchenko says he played no role in that incident, but he did admit to helping Simonov beat up a blogger in Pskov who died after an injection. Novaya Gazeta believes this was Sergey Tikhonov (known online as “skobars”), whose relatives say he died from a heart attack in July 2016.

In February 2017, Amelchenko’s group was sent to Syria, supposedly in order to test new psychotropic substances on captured terrorists. At the time, the team was apparently under the command of Sergey Gubanov, another member of Evgeny Prigozhin’s private security service. When the group arrived in Syria, however, the men discovered that there were no prisoners, so they decided to carry out the tests on the so-called “ISIS hunters” being trained by instructors from the “Wagner” private military company (another Prigozhin-owned outfit). Subjects were given bottles of juice containing a delayed-action dose of the drug, and then released.

After some time, police arrested Amelchenko, Simonov, and Gubanov on charges of poisoning members of Syria’s military intelligence, but they were all released after several hours of interrogation, and then they immediately returned to St. Petersburg. Amelchenko says another seven people (including himself) were also exposed to the poison, but everyone recovered. A source familiar with the Wagner group in Syria later confirmed Amelchenko’s story to Novaya Gazeta.

Novaya Gazeta says Amelchenko also claimed to have had a role in other supposed missions in Europe, but the newspaper was unable to verify the details of his account with other sources. (For example, he described a mission in the Canary Islands.)

Many of the people identified by Novaya Gazeta as members of Amelchenko’s group refused to comment on the story. Vladimir Gladienko, meanwhile, confirmed some of the story’s travel and personnel details, but denied any illegal activity. Evgeny Prigozhin’s security service didn’t answer Novaya Gazeta’s phone calls, and Prigozhin himself has ignored all media inquiries.

Summary by Alexander Baklanov, translation by Kevin Rothrock