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To be continued Meduza follows up on the best investigative reports of 2018

Meduza

All year long, there are stories about people and events, and then the public’s attention moves on, and neither readers nor journalists ever look back. But not here. Before the year is up, Meduza returns briefly to the biggest news of 2018, selected by our own correspondents, to find out what happened after reporters swooped in to cover these stories and then left.

The shopping mall fire in Kemerovo

Kemerovo residents at outside burned wreckage of the “Winter Cherry” shopping center, March 26, 2018
Alexander Kryazhev / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

What happened: On March 25, 2018, a fire at the “Winter Cherry” shopping center in Kemerovo killed 60 people — mostly children. For three days immediately following the tragedy, Meduza special correspondent Irina Kravtsova spent three days reporting from the city. Her first report was read more than 3 million times.

The story since: On April 1, Vladimir Putin dismissed Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleev, who promptly assumed leadership of the region’s Council of People’s Deputies. Law enforcement later charged the directors of the Kuzbass Emergency Management Agency (MChS) and Kemerovo MChS Compliance Department with felony negligence and embezzling roughly 2 million rubles ($28,775). In total, 15 local officials and firefighters were charged with various crimes in connection with the deadly fire. The investigation is still underway: in August, it was extended until March 25, 2019. The “Winter Cherry” itself was demolished before the end of the summer.

Most of the victims’ loved ones whom Meduza managed to contact now refuse to talk about the tragedy. “It’s still too hard,” one person said. Kemerovo local Dmitry Akimkin says people to this day bring flowers and children’s toys to the makeshift memorial erected not far from where the shopping center used to be. There are now benches at the mall’s former grounds, and relatives of the children who died in the fire often come here to sit and reflect. There was some debate among the relatives about what to do with the land: some wanted it left empty, but most supported a plan to build a memorial square. For a time, family members would meet up at the school gymnasium where they awaited news about their loved ones on the night of the fire.

In the spring, Igor Vostrikov, who lost his wife and three children on March 25, created the Vkontakte group “Voice of the People,” where he collected complaints about the work of public officials. In the summer, he won a United Russia primary race to run for a seat on Kemerovo’s Council of People’s Deputies, but he lost the general election in September. That summer, Vostrikov told Meduza that he and several other parents had considered moving away from Kemerovo, but he later realized that his “whole family was laid to rest in this city, and you can’t get away from yourself.”

The “League of Schools” versus Meduza

What happened: In January 2017, Meduza published an investigative report by special correspondent Daniil Turovsky about the “League of Schools” — a small institution in Moscow where several former students accused principal Sergey Bebchuk and vice principal Nikolai Izyumov of sexual abuse. Bebchuk allegedly propositioned students for sex, kissed students on the lips, ordered students to undress, and told students that he loved them.

The story since: In the spring of 2018, Bebchuk filed a 4.6-million-ruble ($66,190) defamation lawsuit against Turovsky, claiming that the investigative report caused him “deep emotional distress.”

All summer and fall, a court heard testimony from witnesses from both sides in the lawsuit. On November 30, 2018, Moscow’s Chertanovsky District Court dismissed Bebchuk’s claim. He subsequently filed an appeal.

Russia’s beauty-pageant industry

The “Miss Syktyvkar” contest, December 9, 2017

What happened: In early 2018, Meduza published a story by special correspondent Polina Eremenko about Russia’s beauty-pageant industry, with in-depth reporting from the “Miss Syktyvkar” pageant in December 2017. One of the story’s central figures is Marina Nozhenko, the now 32-year-old woman who won the “Miss Petrozavodsk 2002” beauty contest, before going to college and finding work as a guide at the Kizhi State Open-Air Museum of History, Architecture, and Ethnography.

The story since: In December, Meduza reconnected with Nozhenko. “After the article came out, I was reminded of my past successes, and I started to feel more confident. In September, I won the Russian Geographical Society’s ‘Best Guide of Russia’ contest,” she said. Afterwards, Nozhenko says she “was in the public eye more than once” on network television, she worked with an expert council in the “Great Names of Russia” project to rename dozens of airports, and in December she gave a speech at the Kremlin in front of President Putin at the Russian Geographical Society’s award ceremony. “Sometimes it’s useful to remember your victories. It’s inspiring,” Nozhenko told Meduza.

Teenagers come forward about abuse at an orphanage in Chelyabinsk

What happened: In February, Meduza published an investigative report by Evgeny Berg about the Lazurnensky Correctional Boarding School, located several miles outside Chelyabinsk. Seven former inhabitants at the facility — boys between the ages of nine and 14 — told their foster parents that the staff at the orphanage raped them and other children for several months, and also allowed a man who regularly visited the school to do the same. The man was arrested before Meduza published Berg’s report.

The story since: Shortly after Meduza’s story was published, the boarding school’s director stepped down. Remaining staff accused the children of slandering their colleagues under pressure from someone. In mid-April, regional social workers decided to close down the orphanage, telling the public that there was a critical water shortage in the district where the boarding school was located. Locals living in the area, however, reported no problems with their water supply.

A source familiar with the case told Meduza that the Social Affairs Ministry decided to use all available means to close the school and put pressure on the three foster families where the children who reported the sexual abuse now live. In the early spring, the families of Anastasia and Elena (the two foster mothers who spoke to Meduza for our initial investigative report) left the Chelyabinsk region, in order to protect their children.

Elena told Meduza that her family got out “just in time.” She says the Investigative Committee officer managing the sexual abuse case in Chelyabinsk even asked the authorities in the region where Elena now lives to “consider removing the children from their foster families, until the investigation is complete.” After moving, Elena says child services officials would come to her home every week to conduct evaluations. By December, the visits were happening less often, and the boys remain with their foster parents.

In the summer, two former staff at the boarding school accused of participating in the sexual abuse — husband and wife Nikolai Budkov and Anna Budkova — filed a defamation lawsuit against Anastasia and Elena, arguing that they made false allegations in their comments to Meduza. Officials opened a criminal investigation, both foster mothers were summoned once for questioning, and the case has stalled since then.

The “trash protests” and the Volokolamsk landfill

A protest outside Volokolamsk City Hall against a local landfill
Evgeny Feldman for Meduza

What happened: At the beginning of the year, suburbanites outside Moscow launched mass protests against local over-capacity landfills. On March 29, Meduza published a special report by Ilya Zhegulev from Volokolamsk, where fumes from the nearby Yadrovo landfill were making life in the city unbearable, and several children had even been hospitalized with suspected inhalation poisoning. Protesters called the situation in Volokolamsk a “public and civil disaster.”

The story since: Moscow regional officials fired Volokolamsk district head Evgeny Gavrilov, who quarreled openly with his constituents, but they also opened a secondary landfill station in April to disperse the garbage, despite continued protests. In June, a gas containment system at the landfill was finally brought to full capacity, processing up to 2.5 cubic meters (88 cubic feet) of landfill fumes per hour. Officials have apparently kept their promise to limit the number of dump-truck deliveries to fewer than 80 a day, and they say the whole landfill will be shut down by 2020.

In December, local activist Artem Lyubimov told Meduza that “the stench” had returned to the city in recent weeks. Volokolamsk residents suspect that the dump’s degassing system isn’t powerful enough to remove all the air pollution. In December, Moscow regional officials said they haven’t ruled out seizing the landfill from its owner, if he fails to address the health-code violations.

The authorities have also kept Volokolamsk’s activists in their crosshairs. In August, police charged Artem Lyubimov with failing to declare his supposed dual citizenship (the case was dropped in October for a lack of evidence). In September, police charged another local activist, Anatoly Chipsanov, with using violence against a state official for allegedly headbutting Evgeny Gavrilov. Chipsanov’s case is now before a court, but he told Meduza that he hopes for a settlement.

Hungary, the most authoritarian state in the European Union

What happened: In April 2018, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s political party won another round of parliamentary elections in Hungary. Meduza special correspondent Konstantin Benyumov followed the campaign, which was built on anti-immigrant sentiment and a personal vendetta against George Soros. In practice, this animosity has manifested in a battle against various organizations associated with Soros, ranging from NGOs providing migrants with assistance to educational institutions. One of the Hungarian authorities’ main targets became the Soros-founded Central European University. In March 2017, Hungary’s parliament passed a law effectively banning its operations, bringing thousands of protesters into the streets.

The story since: After Orbán’s parliamentary victory, the government passed new anti-immigrant legislation that became commonly known as the “Stop Soros” laws, allowing the authorities to ban the billionaire himself from entering Budapest, as well as anyone who works for NGOs that provided aid to refugees. State officials also continued their fight against Central European University, ultimately forcing the school to leave Budapest. By January 1, 2019, the university’s entire operations will have moved to Vienna, where it opened a reserve campus.

Orbán has also continued to tighten his control over other areas of public life in Hungary — from the closure and subjugation of the country’s independent media to the creation of “administrative courts” directly subordinate to the Justice Ministry (operating parallel to the existing independent judiciary).

In December 2018, the Hungarian Parliament provoked more mass protests by passing legislation that grants employers the right to force their staff to work overtime. Critics have dubbed it the “Slave Labor” law.

The boundary between Chechnya and Ingushetia

What happened: For several days in October, downtown Magas witnessed the largest mass demonstrations in the recent history of Russia’s North Caucasus. Ingush clan elders, clergy members, activists, and ordinary people assembled in opposition to an agreement formalizing the boundary that separates Ingushetia and Chechnya, signed on September 26 by Ingush leader Yunus-bek Yevkurov and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Meduza correspondent Sasha Sulim wrote about the protests and the reasons for the popular unrest in a special report.

The story since: On October 30, Ingushetia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the law adopted by the Ingush Parliament approving the boundary agreement was passed in violation of the republic’s Constitution. The deal nevertheless entered force, and the Chechen Republic swallowed roughly 10 percent of Ingushetia’s lands in the Sunzhensky District — as much as 30,000 hectares (74,130 acres). Protesters called this “the first step toward the loss of statehood,” and multiple deputies in Ingushetia’s People’s Assembly declared that their votes in favor of ratifying the boundary agreement with Chechnya had been falsified. Deputies were unable to conduct a second vote, however, and several of them resigned from the legislature in protest.

In early December, Russia’s federal Constitutional Court effectively overturned the Ingush court’s ruling, finding that the boundary agreement is completely legal and impossible to invalidate.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov called the Ingush demonstrators “a tiny cluster of protesters,” saying they should all be jailed. He also invited them to Chechnya, saying, “Come to my territory and stage just one rally. If you make it out alive, then I’m [the coward] you say I am.”

Yevkurov promised his constituents that Ingush residents would retain open access to the lands ceded to Chechnya, but in November armed Chechen officials forbid even a group of clan elder representatives from visiting ancient tower memorials in the Sunzhensky District. The Chechen authorities told the envoys that they “have orders to let no one through.”

Maria Motuznaya and felony charges for Internet reposts

Maria Motuznaya at a hearing in Barnaul, August 15, 2018
Alexander Kryazhev / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA

What happened: In June, Barnaul resident Maria Motuznaya revealed on Twitter that she was being prosecuted for offending religious sensitivities and faced felony extremism charges under Criminal Code Article 282 for content she reposted online. Motuznaya saved two pictures on Vkontakte that “showed linguistic signs of propagating the superiority of the European race over the Negroid [sic].” (There was one picture of black children with empty plates and the caption: “Black humor is like food: not everyone gets it,” as well as a photograph showing a black child failing a math problem in front of a classroom blackboard labeled “Black Bookkeeping.”) She also saved a meme showing Jesus Christ smoking a blunt and blowing a smoke ring through one of his crucifixion wounds.

The story since: Motuznaya’s hearing lasted from August to October, attracting prominent spectators like the rapper “Husky” (Dmitry Kuznetsov). In the end, the case was returned to prosecutors for further investigation. In an interview with Meduza on October 9, Motuznaya said she considered this outcome to be a “victory.”

On October 17, Motuznaya left Russia, tweeting a photograph from Kyiv and writing, “Thanks, everyone. Russia, goodbye.” A few weeks later, she asked her Twitter followers to “chip in” for a plane ticket to somewhere inside Europe’s Schengen Area, where she will seek political asylum. After raising the money she needed (about 34,000 rubles — nearly $500), she postponed the trip and stayed in Ukraine. On December 17, Motuznaya tweeted again that she is planning to leave Ukraine soon.

On October 3, Vladimir Putin suggested partially decriminalizing Criminal Code Article 282, so that felony penalties would only take effect for repeat violations within a 12-month period. Over the next month, the number of criminal prosecutions under Article 282 suddenly plummeted. In late December, the president signed legislation reducing first-time hate-speech violations to misdemeanors. Offenders now risk relatively small fines and two-week jail sentences, instead of felony charges and prison time. Repeated violations within a 12-month period, however, can still lead to a felony charge.

Pavel Grudinin, presidential candidate and businessman

What happened: In Russia’s 2018 presidential race, the Communist Party decided to nominate the 57-year-old general director of the Lenin State Farm in Moscow, Pavel Grudinin, even though he wasn’t technically a member of the party and his experience in politics did not extend beyond the Moscow region. Grudinin shined in Internet memes and television broadcasts, becoming the highlight of an otherwise lackluster presidential race. In a special report for Meduza, correspondent Ilya Zhegulev wrote in detail about how the Kremlin initially held up Grudinin and then had to hold him back.

The story since: In the March election, Grudinin performed worse than any Communist Party candidate in Russia’s modern history, winning just 11.82 percent of the votes. The politician even had to shave his iconic mustache, after promising to do so in an interview with Yuri Dud, if he didn’t win at least 15 percent.

As the year dragged on, Grudinin gradually disappeared from Russian politics. He went back to his day job, where he was busy with property disputes (both his own shareholders and even IKEA made claims on land controlled by his farm). The Swedes wanted to build a new store off Kashira Highway, but they had to abandon these plans when Grudinin’s “TT Development” company illegally sold the land. IKEA is now demanding that TT Development pay 80 million rubles ($1.2 million) for breach of contract.

From time to time, Grudinin still appears in the news media, for example, to claim that an elderly disabled woman who used to work for him is to blame for his miserable election results. Grudinin claims she discredited him during the race, and he plans to sue her for 200,000 rubles ($2,875) for “emotional distress.”

Cornering Russia’s funeral services market

What happened: On August 14, Meduza published an investigative report by Ivan Golunov about the architecture of Russia’s funeral-services industry. The story also addressed a draft law from the Construction Industry, Housing, and Utilities Sector Ministry. Andrey Loginov, a deputy chief of staff in Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s cabinet, was responsible for getting the legislation passed. Meduza learned that Loginov’s son, Denis, owns an organization called “Verum” that markets itself as a “burial rights” group. Verum lobbied for Loginov’s legislation, knowing it would help the organization corner Russia’s funeral services market. Denis Loginov, incidentally, is also the former Moscow branch head of a right-wing movement founded by the imprisoned Neo-Nazi Maxim Martsinkevich.

The story since: Following the publication of our story, sources told Meduza that Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko decided that the legislation needs further revisions. He also reportedly ordered an independent inquiry into the draft law, to check for any conflicts of interest.

In the Moscow regional government (which also features prominently in Golunov’s report), officials transferred supervision of the funeral services industry from the local Consumer Market Ministry to the Security and Anti-Corruption Regional Department.

Women of the maternity-ward mix-up

Zoya Tuganova with her husband Mikhail, daughter Katya (in her father’s arms), and her grandson. Photograph from the early 1980s
Alexander Medvedev for Meduza

What happened: More than 30 years ago, two baby girls named Lyutsiya and Katya were mixed up at a Chelyabinsk maternity ward. In the Bashkir village outside the city where light-haired Lyutsiya grew up, her father murdered a Russian neighbor in a fit of jealousy, and all his children (including Lyutsiya) were turned over to an orphanage. Katya grew up in Chelyabinsk, in Zoya Tuganova’s affluent household. Thirty years later, DNA testing revealed that Lyutsiya was actually Tuganova’s biological daughter.

The story since: Today, Zoya Tuganova has two daughters and many grandchildren. With her husband passed away and Lyutsiya’s “parents” no longer alive, Tuganova — now in her eighties — has had to mobilize once again, after learning that her daughter lives in poverty, without a formal education or a steady job. Tuganova plans to move Lyutsiya and her children from their run-down rural home to Chelyabinsk, where Lyutsiya can finish her education, find employment, and enroll the kids in a half-decent school. Tuganova has many plans for her long-lost daughter, and she guesses that her health should hold out for “another five years or so,” though one of her legs has started troubling her recently.

Through litigation, Tuganova managed to win 1 million rubles (about $14,400) in November for her family in compensation for the mistake at the maternity ward three decades ago.

A Moscow health clinic offers female circumcisions

What happened: In November 2018, Meduza published a special report by Daniil Turovsky about the “Best Clinic” medical center in Moscow, which offered female circumcisions to patients as young as five years old. The clinic’s website stated plainly, “There are no medical grounds for this operation, and the intervention is carried out for religious or ritual reasons.” According to the World Health Organization, the surgical methods described on Best Clinic’s website were “mutilating,” “painful,” and “traumatic.”

The story since: After Meduza visited Best Clinic and spoke to the center’s deputy general director, the page describing the clitorectomy services suddenly disappeared from the clinic’s website. The organization also claimed that it only offered the surgery to patients for medical reasons, contradicting what had been published on its website and direct statements by the general director.

Best Clinic later disseminated a cease-and-desist letter to several news outlets that cited Meduza’s story, demanding that they delete their reports about the medical center’s female-circumcision services. Russian human rights activists urged state prosecutors to investigate the clinic, and Diana Gurtskaya (the chair of the Public Chamber Committee on Supporting Families, Children, and Motherhood) called on the Attorney General’s Office to revoke Best Clinic’s medical license.

Anna Pavlikova and the “New Greatness” Case

Anna Pavlikova after being released from pretrial detention and put under house arrest, August 16, 2018
Maxim Grigoriev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

What happened: In March 2018, federal investigators charged 10 young people with creating the “Novaya Velichie” (“New Greatness”) extremist group. Case evidence later revealed that the group’s charter had been written by an undercover police officer, identified as “Ruslan D.” Six of the suspects were placed in pretrial detention, including 17-year-old Anna Pavlikova. Behind bars, Pavlikova’s health deteriorated rapidly, and her lawyers warned that her life was even in danger. On August 15, supporters of Pavlikova and other jailed suspect (19-year-old Maria Dubovnik) staged a “Mothers’ March” in Moscow. The next day, a district court transferred both young women to house arrest.

The story since: In October, Meduza special correspondent Evgeny Berg met with Anna’s father, Dmitry Pavlikov, who described the tortuous conditions his daughter endured in pretrial detention.

The “New Greatness” investigation is still ongoing. Olga Karlova, Pavlikova’s lawyer, told Meduza that the merits of the case will be reviewed “closer to the spring.” Karlova says Pavlikova’s mother has also formally complained about the lack of charges against “Ruslan D.” Moscow’s Dorogomilovsky District Court initially refused to pursue the matter, but the Moscow City Court overturned this ruling, and the future of Mrs. Pavlikova’s police report remains unclear.

According to Karlova, interventions by Presidential Human Rights Council Chairman Mikhail Fedotov and Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova managed to pressure Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service into allowing Pavlikova and Dubovnik to receive vital medical examinations. “We’re extremely grateful to them. If they hadn’t bombarded every office in the Health Ministry with complaints and appeals, things might not have moved at all,” Karlova told Meduza. On December 21, journalists learned that Pavlikova has been hospitalized.

Construction workers marooned at a military installation outside Kamchatka

What happened: On November 9, Meduza published an investigative report by Ilya Zhegulev about dozens of workers hired by the “Buildings and Structures Construction Management” company to build a military installation at a restricted-access city outside Kamchatka. The men were brought to the facility without the necessary paperwork, however, meaning they couldn’t leave — which is precisely what many workers wanted to do, when they realized that they weren’t being paid.

The story since: After the publication of Meduza’s story, the Military Prosecutor’s Office launched an inquiry into the reported wage arrears. Ruslan Shamsutdinov, one of the central figures in Zhegulev’s article, managed to leave the construction site with three other workers and reach Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, where unknown persons claiming to be from the Federal Security Service started calling him on the phone. Shamsutdinov says these men came to the apartment he and his companions had rented for a few days (while waiting for plane tickets to return home), and demanded that they open the door, but the workers refused.

Today, Shamsutdinov is back home in Tatarstan, but he still hasn’t received his wages for the work he did outside Kamchatka. “To this day, I still can’t get my earnings from them. I stay in touch with the others, and half of the workers were sent home without pay, and the others only got the official part of their salary — 5,000 rubles [$72] per month,” he told Meduza. On December 17, a small claims court fined Shamsutdinov 3,000 rubles ($43) for entering restricted-access territory without a permit.

Primorye's gubernatorial elections

Andrey Ishchenko meets with supporters a day after Primorye’s runoff gubernatorial election, September 17, 2018
Yuri Maltsev / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

What happened: In September, Primorsky Krai held a runoff gubernatorial election, and the results were later invalidated due to widespread voter fraud. Evidence suggests that Communist Party candidate Andrey Ishchenko should have won the race, but federal regulators decided instead to hold an entirely new election. Vladimir Putin quickly appointed a new acting governor: Oleg Kozhemyako, a former fishing tycoon who had already served as the head of the Koryak Autonomous District, the Amur region, and Sakhalin. In a special report, Meduza correspondent Taisiya Bekbulatova examined how Kozhemyako managed to become a four-time governor.

The story since: Kozhemyako claimed to be at home finally in Primorye, joking that his days of being an “outsider” governor were over. Nevertheless, he struggled on the campaign trail. Sources told Meduza that many voters disliked him, and it became necessary to bar the runoff election’s effective winner, Andrey Ishchenko, from the third round. Kozhemyako's campaign reportedly even considered removing LDPR candidate Andrey Andreichenko from the race, as well. A whole team of political strategists from Moscow and the Kremlin ran his campaign (Meduza special correspondent Ilya Zhegulev reported on this in detail). Even under these conditions, Kozhemyako apparently needed significant voter fraud to win the race. On December 16, he formally took office as Primorye’s elected governor. On December 21, news outlets learned that teams of state officials from various regional agencies have been ordered to report to the governor’s office for group physical exercises every Saturday morning at 8:50.

Reports by Taisiya Bekbulatkova, Konstantin Benyumov, Evgeny Berg, Ivan Golunov, Polina Eremenko, Ilya Zhegulev, Irina Kravtsova, Sasha Sulim, and Daniil Turovsky

Translation by Kevin Rothrock