‘So what’d you write?’ Ivan Golunov tells ‘Meduza’ about life as an investigative journalist in Russia today and being framed for drug dealing
On June 11, Russia’s Interior Ministry closed the criminal case against investigative journalist and Meduza special correspondent Ivan Golunov, after police officers charged him with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. Golunov’s arrest triggered an unprecedented outpouring of public and professional solidarity, as well as a sustained protest outside Moscow’s police headquarters. After four days of support and demonstrations, the charges were dropped, and Ivan went free. Golunov spent the next few days with family and friends, and now he’s spoken to Meduza colleague Ilya Zhegulev about his remarkable experiences over the past week.
Any media outlet may reprint this text under the Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license, without requesting Meduza's permission. We have also opened access to all of Ivan Golunov's work, which you can find here.
Many who followed Ivan Golunov’s case probably wondered about the t-shirt he was wearing when he was arrested, which he also wore to his arraignment hearing. The shirt is manufactured by the state-run media network Russia Today (now RT), and reads, “The editors demand blood!” — a reference to a message BBC journalist Olga Ivshina reportedly sent to a France-based stringer in December 2018, when asking for evidence that Russia was somehow connected to last year’s Yellow Vest protests. RT makes the shirts as a joke, mocking the West’s suspicions about the network. Golunov bought the shirt to tease his friends at the BBC.
Golunov is uncomfortable with the publicity that has followed him out of house arrest. He told Meduza that he’s even taken to hiding under a hat and behind sunglasses, when venturing outside. When he was in jail and told that “Golunov” was getting more news coverage than “Putin,” he thought it was a prank.
Ivan says he wanted to join Wednesday’s march in Moscow, where police arrested hundreds of demonstrators, to show his thanks to the public and support for persecuted journalists, but he was ultimately persuaded that his attendance would be unsafe for him and everyone else. (Friends pointed out that the crowd would likely gather around him, creating a bottleneck and obstructing traffic, which could have prompted an additional police response.)
While Golunov was under arrest, his home address was leaked online, and he says he’ll likely have to move now, to reclaim his privacy.
With the exception of the police officers who beat him up, Golunov says he got along well with his captors. “They’d say, ‘So what’d you write that was so bad?’” he recalls. “I also didn’t understand what I’d written. It seemed like I hadn’t written anything that was so bad.”
Golunov says there were warning signs, before his arrest, that the police were closing in, but he missed them. For example, his neighbors received visits from local police detectives. He also got notifications from the mobile app GetContact warning him that several people were searching for his telephone number.
Last year, when researching corruption in Russia’s funeral business for an investigative report that was published in August 2018, Golunov says some sources urged him not to look too deeply at the industry in Moscow. Several people corresponded with him “normally,” at first, before they started making veiled threats, when Ivan persisted. “There’s still room [in the cemeteries],” sources told him, “half joking,” he remembers. People only hinted, and never said anything so blunt as, “Watch your back.”
Golunov is working on a follow-up to his August 2018 story, but he’s not prepared to think about the possibility that it might necessitate hiring bodyguards, which is what Forbes journalists Maria Abakumova and Mikhail Kozyrev had to do, after a December 2006 investigative report on the business empire of Elena Baturina, the wife of then Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
The funeral business, part two
This February, Golunov decided to return to corruption in Russia’s funeral business, eager to devote more coverage to the industry in Moscow. He says a lot from his first report ended up on the cutting room floor, and he was also ready to chase down new leads.
When he resumed his work on the funeral business, Golunov says he started getting threats from “the same group of people,” referring to individuals with connections to officials in Russia’s police and security agencies, and a stake in the municipal enterprise “Ritual.” Confirming earlier reports by the website Proekt and the muckraking anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, Golunov says this includes FSB Lieutenant General Alexey Dorofeev and his assistant, Lieutenant Colonel Marat Medoev. The threats don’t come from these men directly, however. That task falls to intermediaries chosen to deal with “stupid journalists,” Ivan says.
An investigative methodology
A dozen journalists are now pooling their resources to fact-check, edit, and fine-tune Golunov’s second report about the funeral industry. He says he hopes this crowdsourcing effort will corroborate the information he’s collected and turn up some facts he failed to discover on his own. “I think this large, collective work will reveal that I’m not the best, hardest-hitting journalist, and there were some things I missed,” he told Meduza.
Golunov is careful to distinguish his investigative work from journalism like the kind found in OCCRP’s “Panama Papers” and “Troika Laundromat” stories. His reporting is not based on leaked confidential documents, but publicly available records and corroborative interviews. “[In the official records] there might be some company that it seems doesn’t do anything, but meanwhile it’s leasing 20 very expensive, very large hearses that you don’t see anymore in Russia. But at the same time this company isn’t mentioned anywhere. So what is it? Where are these hearses? And so on,” he says.
The oddities Golunov discovers in official records fuel the questions he asks his sources. Through these conversations, he’s able to connect people to various networks, often relying on social media. For example, his December 2018 report about luxurious real estate owned by Moscow’s deputy mayor started out as mere rumors that directed Golunov’s requests for official records. The final article, “The Penthouse Family,” developed from here.
Golunov says he likes to work with documents and records, not anonymous sources. “I only have inner peace when I’ve got the [official] piece of paper in my hand,” he says, warning that journalists expose themselves to defamation lawsuits and manipulation by various figures, without hard evidence.
Russia’s public records are actually relatively transparent, Golunov says repeatedly in lectures around the country. The opportunities for good investigative reporting — especially when it comes to real estate — are immense. “In these lectures, I don’t say anything except how to use these systems in a few simple examples,” Ivan told Meduza. “There have been some pretty comical moments, too. For instance, in Samara I looked at the business center out the window, and suggested that we check to see how it’s registered with the state. It turned out that it was listed as a public restroom. It was only a four-story building with office spaces. What actually happened was that they commissioned an investor to build a public restroom, and he added four stories of office spaces to offset the costs. It was a great story. The building had been there for five or six years, and just nobody noticed.”
Ivan describes himself as a kind of information-evangelist. He says he often helps colleagues gain access to different public records, to encourage more document-driven journalism, and he recently offered to get State Registration Federal Agency records for the Telegram channel Antiglyanets (Anti-Glamor), after the editors foolishly paid an intermediary’s 800-percent markup. “I was so upset [...] that I wrote them and said, ‘Let me order [the documents] for you, and if you need something else just let me know. I’m all for information!” Golunov says.
The police officers who arrested Golunov apparently didn’t know that he is a journalist. When they found his press identification, they asked if it was his, and said it was probably fake, when he refused to answer without a lawyer present. In the first several hours of his arrest, officers repeatedly denied him access to a lawyer, insisting that he wasn’t technically a detainee (despite being handcuffed) because they were still carrying out a search operation.
When Golunov was being shuttled between police stations and medical examination clinics, he says he yelled at passersby for help. “I’ve been arrested illegally! They’re not telling my family anything! Please call my mother at…!” he recalls shouting at at least two random women. Whenever he was in public view, he tried to get people’s attention, hoping in vain that someone would recognize him and notify his friends and family. “I knew it was a pretty stupid idea,” Golunov says now in hindsight.
When he was seated in the back of the police car, he held his handcuffs at the window, in case they drove by anyone he knew. Parked outside his apartment, before officers searched his home, he tried again to get a passerby’s attention. The police waved it away, joking that he wouldn’t get any water to drink, if he continued to “misbehave.” But they still gave him water.
Searching his home
Golunov says he became convinced that the police were deliberately planting drugs when it came time to search his home. For some reason, the name of the senior officer who oversaw the search, Denis Konovalov, doesn’t appear in the report included in Golunov’s police file. Several other officers, Golunov says, are also missing from the official records.
When Golunov was brought to his apartment in a patrol car, his escorts were first told to repark the car farther from the building, out of sight from where he was seated. During the search, Konovalov disappeared from view, where none of the officers’ cameras could record him.
“When he went behind the dresser, I started yelling and drawing attention to this,” Golunov says. “The cameraman should have reacted to this somehow. He’d dropped out of our field of vision, and it seemed important to get this fact on the record. But then I saw in the report that there was no video recording, and I ended up in this idiotic situation, where I was counting on footage that would later serve as some kind of evidence. If this video had been good, they apparently would have kept it, but they delete it if it isn’t. The officers probably still had the footage on their mobile phones, and they probably deleted it, when they realized the situation was headed south.”
Afterwards, Konovalov told Golunov, “It’s best for you to cooperate with the investigation. To confess to everything, and give up your channels, or however they’re called. It’s best for you to turn it all over.” Enraged and “running on pure adrenaline,” Golunov says he told the officer that the truth was on his side, and that Konovalov would have to look his children in the eyes that night.
When he testified about being beaten by police officers, Golunov says it was in the presence of these same men. To make matters worse, he was returned to their custody, immediately afterwards. “It’s quite strange that you complain that these people beat you up, and they entrust you to their care. Some pretty odd procedures,” Ivan told Meduza.
The phone call
The police refused to grant Golunov a phone call before they completed their search of his home, explaining that anyone he might contact would only interfere in their collection of evidence. Ivan had his own reasons for waiting to make a phone call, however: he couldn’t remember the number of the person he wanted to contact, and he was afraid that unlocking his mobile phone to access his address book would mean handing the device over to the authorities.
Around dawn, roughly 12 hours after his arrest, Golunov finally decided to ask a police officer to help him make a phone call. He decided to call Svetlana Reiter, a reporter at the BBC, because he trusted her to answer her phone and to respond quickly and competently to his predicament. The police officer, Golunov says, “made a mistake”: he dialed Reiter’s number from his own personal cell phone, unintentionally giving her his private number, which she later called repeatedly for information, and also shared with other journalists. Before long, the officer’s phone was buzzing with a call from Russian television personality and journalist Ksenia Sobchak. Ninety minutes after the call to Reiter, a lawyer finally arrived to help Golunov.
“When I was in the courtroom and heard the cries from outside, I was caught off guard. I couldn’t even begin to imagine it. And then for whatever reason I started crying,” Golunov says. Hours earlier, he spoke to members of Moscow’s public monitoring commission, who came to review the conditions of his detention. At that time, he hadn’t slept for more than 30 hours.
In court, when hearing that he was being tried under Criminal Code Article 228 — felony drug possession charges notoriously common when the Russian police want to frame someone — Golunov says he felt as though the rug had been pulled from under his feet, and he lost his grasp on the proceedings. “You know, at some moment my pain threshold and perception threshold just shut off,” he recalls.
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Ivan told Meduza that he’s never even experimented with narcotics, saying that he’s not even fond of antidepressants. “I think it’s unnatural when I get better and feel happier thanks to some chemical,” he said, adding that the hardest drug he uses today is ibuprofen. Golunov says he’s struggled with mild alcohol addiction in the past, but he now rarely drinks at all.
More than a decade ago (during the 2008 global financial crisis, in fact), Ivan Golunov considered launching his own business in Siberia, where he would later work for Vedomosti and what is now Republic. He says he went to a bank in Novosibirsk to talk about a startup loan to form a company that would publish industry journals and newspapers. The staff liked the idea, and then they started negotiating the kickback they’d charge, to take his plan to their supervisor. “And I realized that I’m not really cut out for business, if I get depressed about things like that,” Golunov says.
In court after his arrest, Ivan was again fighting off depressing thoughts. “I knew I could be sentenced to 15 to 20 years, but I didn’t let the idea into my head, and I didn’t try to figure out how old I’d be in 20 years,” he says. “The answer, by the way, is 56. I doubt I’d continue with journalism at 56, after all that.”
Summary by Kevin Rothrock