St. Petersburg activist investigated for trying to kill ‘Putin's chef’ is now under arrest for trafficking bombs
Roughly a year ago, police detained nearly a dozen people in Moscow on charges of belonging to an illegal extremist movement called “New Greatness” that was supposedly plotting a coup, relying on the diabolical tools of leaflets and online chat. The suspects and many of their parents, however, say they’re being framed for crimes they never committed by at least one undercover police source who tried to goad them into illegality. According to a new report by Novaya Gazeta journalist Denis Korotkov, a version of this same story is now unfolding in St. Petersburg, where suspicious characters linked to catering magnate Evgeny Prigozhin are apparently involved in a police operation against an activist named Vladimir Ivanyutenko, who’s accused of planning a bomb attack against Prigozhin. Meduza summarizes Korotkov’s article below.
Until he was arrested on February 21, 2019, Vladimir Ivanyutenko was a frequent sight at opposition demonstrations in St. Petersburg. A large man who sometimes wore a rubber Putin mask, he was hard to miss. In December 2017, somebody brutally attacked him, tasering him and stabbing him twice in the chest. Ivanyutenko survived, and the following November he recognized one of his attackers in a Novaya Gazeta article about Valery Amelchenko, a 61-year-old self-described thug who once worked for Evgeny Prigozhin, supposedly beating up opposition activists and bloggers who crossed the catering tycoon.
Ivanyutenko is currently under arrest on general charges of arms and explosives trafficking, but materials reviewed by Novaya Gazeta indicate that St. Petersburg’s anti-extremism police unit has built a far more extensive case against the opposition activist. Most of the evidence was collected by a “secret witness” given the pseudonym “Grigory Ivanov,” who claims that Ivanyutenko approached him in December 2018 about killing Prigozhin (whom he supposedly blamed for being stabbed a year earlier), saying that he’d obtained the components for a bomb, but needed help assembling it.
According to the authorities, Ivanyutenko agreed to hand over two electric detonators and some igniter cord, leaving the items in a locker at a local “Pyaterochka” grocery store. Nevskie Novosti (a news outlet that reportedly belongs to Prigozhin’s media empire) later published surveillance footage showing Ivanyutenko at the store. (Ivanyutenko says he was only storing a package with putty he bought at the neighboring hardware store.)
Speaking through his lawyer, Ksenia Mihaylova (who’s under a court gag order), Ivanyutenko has named the likely witness against him: Georgy Levin, an individual who first started appearing in St. Petersburg’s opposition movement in early 2017. By the end of the year, Levin was offering, though not actually delivering, his legal services to Alexey Navalny’s presidential campaign. Afterwards, Levin started spending time with other protest groups that have encountered problems with the law: Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s “Open Russia,” Vyacheslav Maltsev’s “Artpodgotovka,” and the local “Antiwar Committee,” which opposes the deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine. The core founders of all these organizations now live in exile, fearing political persecution in Russia.
Denis Uvarov, one of the Antiwar Committee’s creators who emigrated to the U.S., says he recalls Levin repeatedly trying to interest him in illegal weapons. Two activists connected to Artpodgotovka, also say Levin frequently urged them to consider armed resistance instead of civil disobedience.
According to the case materials, Ivanyutenko and “Ivanov”/Levin discussed using a homemade bomb to kill Prigozhin in February 2019, though it was a “rudimentary” conversation that included oddball ideas like using a bomb strapped to a radio-controlled toy car steered under the oligarch’s limo. Whatever the witness told the police, the authorities didn’t stop Ivanyutenko from placing his package inside a locker at a grocery store crowded with potential victims. Officers only came to his home the next morning, and even then the raid was connected to a months-old arson case. Police questioned Ivanyutenko for a bit, and then things got weird: one of the interrogators took Ivanyutenko out for drinks after he was released, but the police were waiting for him outside the bar, afterward. They then detained him again for public intoxication, starting him on a whirlwind tour of the city’s police stations before charging him with the bomb-related crimes.
Ivanyutenko told his lawyer that he suspected Levin’s “provocateur” intentions last fall and hoped to “expose” him. The activist says his misgivings began when Levin tried to talk him out of taking legal action against Amelchenko; Levin instead urged him to cut straight to a violent reprisal against Prigozhin himself. (Police eventually did question Amelchenko about the December 2017 attack on Ivanyutenko, but he was released without charges.)
According to police procedure, a third-party witness had to be present while “Grigory Ivanov” was being wired with a recording device before his conversations with Ivanyutenko. Case records identify this third-party witness as Sergey Gubanov, another alleged member of Evgeny Prigozhin’s private security service who reportedly helped Amelchenko conduct illegal medical testing in Syria.
When Levin ignored phone calls and online messages, Novaya Gazeta correspondent Denis Korotkov ambushed him outside his home, managing to pry brief statements that he’d never traded any explosives with Vladimir Ivanyutenko and that he’d been set up.
Korotkov says he doesn’t know whether it was St. Petersburg’s anti-extremism police or Evgeny Prigozhin’s thugs who initiated the case against Ivanyutenko, but the collaboration at least is clear now. What remains unclear, the journalists says, is where the story goes from here: will Ivanyutenko be an anticlimactic isolated case, or will the authorities charge more “accomplices” in a trial to rival the “New Greatness” prosecution?
Whatever happens, Vladimir Ivanyutenko has resorted to the only means of resistance available in Russian prisons: a hunger strike.
Summary by Kevin Rothrock