‘I got used to the thought that I was going to prison’ How a Kaliningrad journalist was charged with extorting a top prosecutor and then suddenly let go
On June 17, the Moscow District Court in St. Petersburg set Igor Rudnikov free. Rudnikov, the editor-in-chief of the Kaliningrad-based newspaper Novye Kolesa, had spent more than a year and a half in a pretrial detention center on accusations of extorting a $50,000 bribe from Investigative Committee General Viktor Ledenev. Rudnikov argues that the case against him was fabricated, but the court didn’t go so far as to recognize that claim. Instead, it reclassified the charges against Rudnikov from extortion to vigilantism and counted the time he had already spent in jail toward the fulfillment of his shortened sentence. We asked Novy Kaliningrad journalist Oleg Zurman to tell the story of the most widely discussed case in Kaliningrad today and explain why the court system ultimately let Igor Rudnikov go.
In early August of 2017, two generals met on a yacht owned by a prominent Kaliningrad businessman. One of them was Viktor Ledenev, the top official at Kaliningrad Region’s division of Russia’s Investigative Committee. The other was Yevgeny Martynov, the former head of Kaliningrad’s police department, who would later describe the meeting in his court testimony. As the yacht took off on a short riverside cruise, the conversation between the two law enforcement bosses turned to a topic that had long preoccupied Ledenev: the reporting of Novye Kolesa, whose publisher and editor-in-chief was Kaliningrad Regional Duma Deputy Igor Rudnikov.
Ledenev often found himself becoming a central figure in Novye Kolesa’s publications. In one article called “The heavenly life of General Ledenev,” the newspaper reported on a mansion in a wealthy Kaliningrad neighborhood that is said to belong to the chief investigator. The lakeside house has an estimated value of 80 million rubles ($1.25 million), while the Ledenevs’ total income stands at only two or three million rubles ($31,200 – $46,800). Other articles expressed frustration at what Novye Kolesa’s journalists saw as a subpar investigation into a March 2016 attempt to assassinate Igor Rudnikov himself.
Three and a half months after the two generals met on that yacht, Igor Rudnikov was arrested by a group of FSB agents. The Novye Kolesa editor-in-chief was then charged with extorting $50,000 from Investigative Committee General Viktor Ledenev. Rudnikov insisted that the case against him was fabricated. Human rights advocates recognized the journalist as a political prisoner and began demanding his release.
The general’s house
The first meeting between Viktor Ledenev and Alexander Datsyshin took place in the latter’s downtown Kaliningrad office on August 17, 2017. As Datsyshin would later testify in court, the general asked him to “use peaceful means to settle the conflict” between himself and Igor Rudnikov. The entrepreneur, who agreed to serve as an informal arbitrator between the general and the journalist, later testified that Novye Kolesa’s active interest in the general was putting major obstacles in his way at work. “Ledenev told me he also had a serious personal interest in making sure Rudnikov left him alone because, thanks to [Rudnikov], he couldn’t live in peace in his house on Upper Pond,” Datsyshin added.
Ledenev really did live in the mansion in question. Nonetheless, the general categorically denied that the property belonged to him. Its official owner turned out to be a little-known Moscow businessman named Sergey Zelenin. During Zelenin’s court testimony, he said Viktor Ledenev was a “close friend.” Several years before the case against Rudnikov began, he had asked Ledenev to look for a plot of land in Kaliningrad and help him build a house there. The general’s role in the mansion’s construction, however, ended up being well beyond “help.” Zelenin said Ledenev ordered blueprints of the structure, selected furniture, and gave instructions to the foreman working on the project. At the same time, the financial relationship between the entrepreneur and the security officer rested entirely on informal, mouth-to-mouth agreements. Zelenin said he gave Ledenev more than 10 million rubles ($156,100) in cash during the course of the project.
The phone calls
On March 17, 2016, two strangers attacked Igor Rudnikov in central Kaliningrad. The journalist was stabbed several times, but he survived. The only defendant in the criminal case that followed was a security guard from St. Petersburg named Alexey Kashirin. Kashirin was initially charged with attempted murder, but when a court found a lack of evidence for that crime, the charges against him were shifted to “intentionally causing mid-level harm to the health of another individual.” Like Rudnikov, prosecutors weren’t happy with Kashirin’s light sentence, and they submitted an appeal. An appellate court struck down the sentence and sent the case back to the lower court for reconsideration. In a second trial, a different judge accepted the prosecution’s arguments and gave Kashirin nine years in a high-security prison colony.
For Rudnikov, however, that wasn’t enough either. He was certain that Kashirin had not acted alone and was in fact acting on orders from Svetlogorsky Municipal District head Alexander Kovalsky (in October of 2017, Kovalsky was forced to resign after lied about an assassination attempt against himself that never actually occurred). Rudnikov believed that Kovalsky may have attempted to seek revenge against him for a Novye Kolesa article about a new hotel construction project at a popular Kaliningrad Region vacation spot. The journalist said once again that he was dissatisfied with the state investigation into the case, and he asked for new charges: because Rudnikov was a regional legislator at the time of the attack, he asked for the case to be treated as an assassination attempt against a state official. Datsyshin said the journalist’s informal condition for any reconciliation with Ledenev was to be the reclassification of the case under that new charge.
Datsyshin also testified that Rudnikov wanted $50,000 in “compensation” for “his own investigation” into the assassination attempt, which included research costs, attorney fees, travel tickets, hotel rooms, and other expenses. When he recalled that conversation with Rudnikov in court, the Datsyshin noted that the journalist treated that “compensation” as an issue secondary in importance to the criminal case itself and mentioned the money only once.
Audio recordings of telephone conversations between Datsyshin and Ledenev were later entered as evidence in the case against Rudnikov. In one of them, Ledenev says he was reluctant to give Rudnikov the “compensation” he requested for fear that the journalist would simply ask for more money. Datsyshin can be heard attempting to calm the Investigative Committee general’s fears, saying “He always kept his word. If we decide [unintelligible], if we strike an agreement, you’ll either see nothing or something good in that respect.” The journalist himself has said multiple times that he never asked Ledenev for money at all.
In his phone calls with Datsyshin, the Investigative Committee general also said he had met with his boss, federal Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin, to discuss his conflict with Rudnikov. In the recordings, Ledenev summarized their conversation: “He said, ‘What do you mean — can’t you deal with some regional legislator yourself on the spot? What is this?’ And I told him, ‘Well, the thing is, what’s there to deal with, how can you deal with him, if he’s just walking the line, right? He hasn’t crossed that line. The way he writes, it’s tightrope walking.’ ‘And if he doesn’t cross the line, then come on, what are you worried about? Just solve the problem yourself, all in all…’ ‘I’m willing to meet with him and figure it out.’ If the boss told me, ‘Deal with it yourself — what do you mean you can’t deal with some regional legislator?’ I understand that to be a direct test for me: shut down this problem.”
The calendar trick
In September 2017, Viktor Ledenev came back to work early from a summer vacation after he received a phone call from regional FSB boss Leonid Mikhailyuk. When the two security officials met in person, Mikhailyuk said he knew about the negotiations Ledenev was conducting with Rudnikov through Datsyshin thanks to a tip from yet another powerful political figure: Mikhail Vedernikov was the deputy presidential plenipotentiary for the Northwestern Federal District at the time and now serves as the governor of Pskov Region. Vedernikov had got word of the talks from Datsyshin himself. Datsyshin, who had once occupied the same post as Vedernikov, said he had wanted to “consult” his successor as he decided how to handle the situation. “As he said, ‘We’ll deal with it later,’” Datsyshin later testified when asked to recount the conversation.
In court, the entrepreneur said that as soon as the FSB’s Mikhailyuk heard about Rudnikov’s $50,000 request, there was no way out for Ledenev but to admit to being an extortion victim even though he had in fact been planning to pay off Rudnikov. Ledenev’s subsequent meetings with Mikhailyuk and everyone else who knew about the case were no longer part of any “negotiations”; they were the early stages of a budding criminal investigation.
One of those meetings took place in Ledenev’s Investigative Committee office on September 18, 2017. He had invited Rudnikov to what he said was a private consultation, but there were hidden FSB video cameras on his tie and in a vase on his desk. The meeting lasted about two hours. As the major Russian newspaper Kommersant subsequently reported, the general agreed to send prosecutors a letter asking for the assassination attempt against Rudnikov to be reclassified as he had requested. The newspaper editor responded by promising not to submit a complaint about Ledenev to federal prosecutors or to Ledenev’s boss, Alexander Bastrykin.
However, in the video recordings that were later displayed in court, the general can be seen writing the number “50,000” on a page of his calendar. Another camera angle shows him dropping a piece of paper into a shredder while saying to Rudnikov that it was Alexander Datsyshin who had “outlined” what he wrote on it. Rudnikov can be heard responding, “Yes, yes, yes,” before turning the conversation back to the assassination attempt. Then, Ledenev lifts up another piece of paper to reveal an envelope containing $30,000 in cash. Rudnikov refuses to take the money and repeats Datsyshin’s name. The editor does not give in even when Ledenev assures him that he can “relax” while in the privacy of the office.
One of Rudnikov’s attorneys, Tumas Misakyan, later argued that the video of that particular conversation between Rudnikov and Ledenev is unusually low-quality. Anna Panicheva, another of the editor’s lawyers, said the “calendar trick” could not be admissible as evidence because it was an attempt on Ledenev’s part to provoke her client into taking the money. Nonetheless, on November 1, almost a month and a half after that meeting, Igor Rudnikov was arrested.
In late October of 2018, Martynov himself was named a suspect in an unrelated criminal case on the illegal collection of personal information. The investigation in that case was conducted by the Kaliningrad Region branch of the Investigative Committee, whose leader is none other than Viktor Ledenev.
A newsroom under search
Rudnikov’s arrest was accompanied by searches of Novye Kolesa’s newsroom that went on for hours. It was late at night by the time the editor and legislator was finally carried out of the building and straight to an ambulance. When local FSB operatives finally brought him to investigators, Rudnikov was, inexplicably, no longer wearing pants.
A few hours before the search, FSB agents had arrested Novye Kolesa co-founder Svetlana Berezovskaya, who had met one-on-one with Viktor Ledenev that same day in a café near the paper’s newsroom. During the meeting, the general gave Berezovskaya a folder that contained a pile of papers with $50,000 in marked bills hidden inside. When Igor Rudnikov heard about his colleague’s arrest, he called Ledenev immediately. The general lied, saying he, too, had been arrested. When the editor asked what for, the general said he had put $50,000 dollars in the packet of documents. “I never asked you for any money,” Rudnikov allegedly responded.
The journalist was charged with felony extortion under a statute whose maximum sentence is 15 years in prison. Investigators asserted that Rudnikov had demanded money for the purpose of personal enrichment in exchange for a promise not to print any more “negative” or “compromising” articles about Ledenev. Rudnikov’s request to reclassify the case surrounding the assassination attempt against him also figured into the allegations. According to Yury Grozmani, the editor’s deputy at Novye Kolesa, “General Ledenev promised Mr. Rudnikov yesterday that he would transfer all of the case materials related to those who ordered the criminal attempt on his life and the materials on those who obstructed the investigation. Instead, we got the riot police.” He added, “As far as I know, the envelope with the cash inside was in the folder that was supposed to contain the case Ledenev had promised to transfer, the materials that were supposed to lift the veil on what stood behind the assassination attempt on Mr. Rudnikov.” Alexander Datsyshin was also arrested as an alleged accomplice in the case. Investigators claimed that the businessman had relayed Rudnikov’s conditions to Ledenev.
Rudnikov arrived in court with his arm in a cast. His colleagues said he had been beaten during his arrest. The editor himself argued that he was innocent, Ledenev had attempted to provoke him, and the case against him had been fabricated. Nonetheless, Rudnikov was sent to jail to await trial, and he remained in a pretrial detention center for more than a year and a half. Datsyshin, meanwhile, was placed under house arrest thanks in part to a partial guilty plea in the early stages of the investigation. Now, the former presidential emissary claims total innocence and says he was framed.
The decision to jail Rudnikov drew sympathy from his fellow deputies in the regional Duma, and his fellow Kaliningrad journalists called the situation “unbelievably alarming.”
The investigation into Igor Rudnikov’s case lasted almost a year. In that time, he was stripped of his regional deputy status because he was found to have a U.S. residency permit, and Novye Kolesa stopped publishing after a more than 20-year print run. Ilya Shumanov, the deputy CEO of the anti-corruption nonprofit Transparency International — Russia, summed up his views on the case as follows: “There’s a wide range of opinions in play, but to an outside observer who has no ties to Kaliningrad Region, [the situation surrounding Novye Kolesa] naturally gives rise to a persistent sense of cleaning out the free press and of political persecution directed at Igor Rudnikov.” Shumanov added that locals in Kaliningrad region may tend to see things differently because Novye Kolesa has what he understatedly calls “an image that isn’t entirely positive in terms of its reputation.” He concluded, “In my view, the real truth is somewhere in the middle. As far as I understand it, and I’ve looked into the case a good bit, there were probably some grounds for bringing forward criminal charges. This situation didn’t come out of nowhere.”
In December of 2017, a month and a half after Igor Rudnikov’s arrest, his supporters came together with Novye Kolesa’s readers to conduct a protest that received a rare permit from the local authorities, protecting its participants from arrest. Several hundred people joined the demonstration outside Kaliningrad’s House of Art. After that first protest, the number of demonstrators advocating for Rudnikov steadily declined, but a new wave of pickets emerged the day before Rudnikov was set to receive his sentence. In February of 2018, the Memorial human rights center listed Novye Kolesa’s editor-in-chief as a political prisoner.
Rudnikov’s trial was initially set to take place in Kaliningrad, but Russia’s Supreme Court ultimately moved the case to St. Petersburg. A request for the move was first submitted by the Kaliningrad District Court, which was concerned that local judges might be unable to consider the case impartially. The Moscow District Court of St. Petersburg took almost four months to consider the case. In the court’s very first hearing on February 14, 2019, the presiding judge accepted a petition by Viktor Ledenev to make the case closed to the public and the press. The general argued that making the circumstances of the case public could damage his professional reputation. After Ledenev was questioned, the case was reopened.
Ledenev began walking back his own words even before the court investigation phase of the case had ended. He said the Moscow investigator and the FSB operative who were leading the case “wrote whatever they wanted in the protocol” against Rudnikov and that everything they recorded was “their own invention.” Misakyan then argued that even those who had initiated the case against Rudnikov and Datsyshin had realized it was obvious that Ledenev’s initial testimony “made the extortion story untenable.” Attorneys also noted another oddity in the case: Ledenev wrote a complaint about the extortion to which he was allegedly subjected only a month after he said it happened — that is, only after the regional FSB chief found out about his negotiations with Datsyshin.
On top of that, Justice Ministry experts invited by the defense to evaluate the prosecution’s evidence report argued that the report could only add confusion to the case. Judge Valeria Kovalyova denied a request for a new evidence report. Nonetheless, defense attorneys said, Kovalyova was fairly impartial and provided an adequate environment for the case to proceed. “We were heard, and we were given a chance to defend ourselves, which is really unusual. I was able to ask General Ledenev questions, and the judge insisted that he respond. The judge behaved in a fundamentally neutral way. She gave each side a chance to make its demands clear and exercise its rights,” Igor Rudnikov told Meduza.
During oral arguments on June 6, prosecutors asked for a 10-year prison sentence for Rudnikov and an eight-year sentence for Datsyshin. In his closing statement, the editor objected in strong terms: “People have tried to kill me multiple times. There have been two attempts on my life. The criminal case that was fabricated against me in 2017 by an Investigative Committee general along with the FSB — the arrest, jail, violence, torture — this is also demonstrative public punishment. This is also an attempt to kill journalists. And this is also an act of intimidation against all Russian journalists to get them to shut their mouths, so that nobody will dare to expose corrupt generals in our law enforcement system.”
For his part, General Ledenev, who had never before complained about Novye Kolesa’s publications in court, sued Rudnikov for three million rubles ($47,000) in moral damages shortly before oral arguments in the editor’s case began.
The “Ivan Golunov effect”
Judge Kovalyova took 11 days to prepare her verdict. Ultimately, on June 17, the court ruled that Igor Rudnikov had not committed extortion. It convicted him only of illegal vigilantism. The journalist was sentenced to 550 hours of mandatory labor, but the judge took time served into account and immediately freed him from custody. Datsyshin was found guilty of attempted vigilantism and sentenced to 330 hours of mandatory labor, but he was also released immediately because of the time he had spent under house arrest.
The judge noted that extortion must be accompanied by realistic threats of spreading “defamatory information” and that no such threats were present in the case because the articles that featured Ledenev had already been published. “The court found that Ledenev changed his testimony multiple times and recognized that he was prepared to think about Rudnikov’s proposal to receive payment. He did not categorically refuse that offer,” defense attorney Sergey Baranov told Meduza. The judge rejected Ledenev’s lawsuit requesting compensation for moral damages.
Some local commentators tied that result to what Kaliningrad politician Solomon Ginzburg called an “Ivan Golunov effect.” As Ginzburg explained it, this effect “forces people to at least create an appearance of justice even though that justice doesn’t actually exist in Russia. That’s because none of the courts are independent, I think, from the president’s administration. I felt that myself during my own case, which lasted more than a year. It was a purely political environment,” Ginzburg explained. He was referring to his attempt to challenge a 2016 election loss by demanding a fraud investigation. His complaint was rejected a year later.
Kaliningrad-based political scientist Vladimir Abramov added that the case against Rudnikov case was “slippery from the beginning.” He explained, “The defense rationally pointed out problems in the investigation’s materials. Now, I think Mr. Rudnikov will just sue for unjust detention over the course of this year and a half. The enthusiasm [of our law enforcement] has to be matched up somehow to the facts of these cases. There’s enough enthusiasm for however many New Greatness cases, but I think that in light of recent events, the courts have nonetheless started treating cases more carefully. Because if someone appeals to the European Court of Human Rights, it would be embarrassing.”
Ilya Shumanov of Transparency International — Russia believes two conditions made the outcome of Rudnikov’s case possible. “First of all, we’re talking about Datsyshin’s business ties with the former presidential plenipotentiary to the district and with Ilya Klebanov, the head of the board of directors for a really large state maritime company, Sovkomflot. Igor Rudnikov can also be said to be on the same team as Alexander Yaroshuk, the former mayor of Kaliningrad, who still has a lot of connections in the prosecutorial world,” Shumanov said. The anti-corruption advocate believes political capital, not the court decision itself, may have played a deciding role in the case.
A couple of hours after his release, Igor Rudnikov told Meduza he felt “a sense of unreality.” “When you’re behind bars for 19 months, they make you feel like you’re nothing, a non-human, every single day. You don’t know what’s going to happen in the next hour or two, and there’s no point in planning anything. And all of your expectations carry this sense of ‘anything you do will only be for the worse.’ So when the prosecutor asked for 10 years in a high-security [prison colony], I got used to the thought that I was going to prison,” the journalist said. Rudnikov added that his immediate plans include reuniting with his loved ones and “figuring out where I’ve ended up, what kind of country I’ve returned to.”
Translation by Hilah Kohen