‘I was a celebrity in jail’ An interview with the Russian video game developer who bought F-16 manuals on eBay and went to jail in Utah for it
On June 19, 42-year-old flight simulation developer Oleg Tishchenko was sentenced in the United States. In 2011, he had purchased instruction manuals for the American F-16 fighter jet model on eBay. Five years later, the U.S. government brought criminal charges, and in early 2019, Tishchenko was extradited after he flew to Georgia for a dance festival. The game developer, who was tried in Utah, could have faced more than 10 years in prison for conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, violating the Arms Export Control Act, and smuggling. However, some of the charges against him were dropped, and the court counted the year he had spent in jail since his capture in Georgia toward his one-year sentence. Following Tishchenko’s immediate release, he was deported to Russia, where we asked him about the charges he faced and his life behind bars in the U.S. and Georgia.
On June 22, 2011, Oleg Tishchenko posted on a forum for flight simulator fans to ask for help purchasing a set of pilot instructions and user’s manuals for American F-16 Fighting Falcon jets. Tishchenko explained to the forum’s users that the seller could only ship the purchase within U.S. borders; he asked for someone who could send the instructions on to Russia and ultimately found a willing partner.
In 2016, criminal charges were brought against both of them. Tishchenko’s included conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, violating the Arms Export Control Act, and arms smuggling. Prosecutors argued that the documents he ordered were related to American defense readiness, making it illegal to export them to Russia, Belarus, North Korea, Iran, and any countries facing a U.S. arms embargo.
In the summer of 2018, Oleg Tishchenko was arrested in Georgia, where he had just arrived to spend some vacation time at a dance festival. In the spring of 2019, he was extradited to the U.S. and put on trial. His American helper, 60-year-old Texas resident Kenneth Edward Sullivan, was cleared of all charges after a court agreement.
Meduza: You started working at Eagle Dynamics back in 2004. If you could try and put it simply, what exactly did you do there?
Oleg Tishchenko: Avionics. That means cabin equipment, indicators, all kinds of displays and instruments. The main task was to make a picture that looks like what you’d see in real life. We’re not an engineering bureau, and our information about the planes is really mediocre, so we make the picture first, and then we come up with the logic behind it using a broader impression that we get from open sources, video clips, and so on.
Our ultimate goal in realistic simulators is to make everything closer to reality. In other words, if a certain device displays velocity in real life, it should display velocity in our games too.
What was your position?
Lead programmer. Lead avionics developer, to be precise.
Your colleagues said you often bought technical manuals for various planes for your work. Is that right?
I did buy a lot of manuals, but 95 percent of the ones I bought had absolutely no implications for my work. I bought manuals because I love aviation. My manual collection starts with World War II-era planes. It’s not an expensive hobby: on eBay, you can buy a manual for 20 or 30 dollars.
Did the manuals help you at work?
Very little. For example, about the F-16 — I didn’t even get around to using it. When I was arrested, we were still just starting to develop the simulator, and we hadn’t started working on the logic [behind the virtual equipment]. We only had a 3D model of the plane. I ran into similar situations with other documents.
But they [the manuals] really could be useful. Because the pilot instructions describe the logic behind the indicators, the reactions to pressing various buttons, and so on.
How many manuals did you have in total?
Maybe 200 if you include everything I’d downloaded from the Internet. I bought about 20 in all that time. Over time, I started collecting less, so I scanned 15 – 16 of them and sold them on eBay to get back at least some of the money I’d spent on them.
And you never had any problems with buying or selling?
Do you know where private citizens even got ahold of these manuals in such large quantities?
It’s a mystery to me, but in the U.S., private citizens really do have a lot of these manuals.
Is there any confidential information in them?
No. It’s impossible to find confidential documents. It’s taboo.
The manuals you can buy are documents that would interest a very limited number of people. A researcher who studies foreign technology for Russia’s Defense Ministry wouldn’t find anything useful in these documents. These are just pilot instructions, so you couldn’t use them to do anything like manufacturing an airplane. You also wouldn’t find any information about the planes’ vulnerabilities. All that information is confidential.
Did your company help you get these manuals?
No, and if such a thing could ever have happened, it probably would have been in 2008 or so. Afterward, I bought everything myself and on my own initiative.
You asked someone from the U.S. to send the F-16 manuals to you because the eBay seller wasn’t willing to send the documents directly to Russia. Had you done anything like that before?
No. That was such a blow — I was just in despair because I really liked those manuals. Just generally, I was interested in original documents, and I really like the F-16 — I see it as something like engineering incarnate. I hoped I would be able to use the manuals at work, but I didn’t in the end.
American [fan forum] users warned you that you could run into trouble if you bought those manuals and shipped them to Russia. Why didn’t you listen to them?
I thought they were being overly cautious, that it was some kind of super law-abiding American thing. I knew it wasn’t just eBay where these things were being sold. There are websites selling the same exact manuals that just keep on going without a problem. Of course, there was some nuance where the export limits were concerned. The documents weren’t supposed to be sold to citizens of other countries. But that’s naïve too: you can always buy them and give someone a copy. So I didn’t have any doubts.
Another reason for the charges against you was your correspondence with an undercover American intelligence agent in 2016. He approached you and offered to sell manuals for other planes. Didn’t you think that back-and-forth was a bit odd?
I had my doubts, but they came too late. At first, he just wrote me and said, “I can send you some documents. Which ones would you like?” I wasn’t surprised — those kinds of enthusiasts do exist. I was just delighted, and I sent him a list. I didn’t ask for manuals to the F-35 and F-22 at first because they’re relatively new models, and it might look suspicious from an American perspective if manuals for them showed up in Russia. But then he said that it would be pretty simple to send me manuals for those models too. And he offered to meet me somewhere abroad. Then I realized immediately that this was some kind of nonsense. Nobody would do something like that when you can just send a link to a copy of the document and be done with it.
But I kept writing back to him. If I’d stopped, he would have known that I’d figured out something was up. Once or twice a year, we would write back and forth, say happy birthday. He asked whether I’d thought of buying any of the documents anyway. That went on until the spring of 2018, which is when I told him I wasn’t going to buy anything because the purchase could cause trouble if somebody figured out I had those manuals. He agreed and said I should feel free to write again if anything changed.
When did you figure out for sure that you were being investigated in the U.S.?
In the fall of 2017, I applied for a German visa, and my application was denied. Now I know that Interpol had already sent out a warrant for my arrest by then. So [the Germans] couldn’t give me a visa — they returned my passport and invited me to meet them at the German consulate. When I got there, they told me that I shouldn’t try to get a visa from any of the Schengen Zone countries. They said traveling to a Western country could be dangerous for me. They didn’t go as far as saying it had something to do with Interpol, but they mentioned that my situation had to do with a law prohibiting arms exports. I immediately realized that all this was about what I’d done on eBay because I got a similarly worded message in 2016 saying that my account was blocked.
So why did you go to Georgia, where you were ultimately arrested, in the summer of 2018?
Because I was sure that if I ran into any trouble, I would just be questioned. At most, they would stop me at the border, take me to some room, ask me a ton of questions, and then let me go. Plus, Georgia isn’t part of the European Union, and I had already stopped buying manuals by that point because my account was blocked.
They let me through the border. I left for the dance festival in Batumi. I was arrested there on the very first day around 11:00 PM. The Georgian police came to our party. I didn’t get nervous at all when they came in, but they used a photograph to find me, grabbed my arm, ripped me away from the woman I was dancing with at the time, and brought me to their car very quickly. They did it on Interpol’s request.
Did they search or question you at all, or was extradition to the U.S. the first thing on their agenda?
They didn’t have any right to investigate me themselves, so there wasn’t anything like that. I spent three days in a holding cell, and then there was a bond hearing. Naturally, I was sent to jail to await trial, and they took me away to a penitentiary in Kutaisi. I spent a month there in an individual cell with security cameras. Then, they transferred me to Tbilisi — they send all the extradition cases there. I met a lot of people there who were being extradited — granted, to their countries of citizenship, not to the U.S.
How long were you in Tbilisi?
Eight months. I was in a normal cell by then, not an individual one. It was clear that I had no organized crime connections, it was a pretty typical cell with decent people. There was one particularly authoritative dude there — his name was Lasha. Everyone in our six-person cell was basically under his watch.
What were the conditions like?
Showers twice a week. You could call home internationally twice a week, but you had to pay for the calls.
All in all, everything was civilized. There was no violence. I definitely couldn’t have gotten to know anything about the criminal world. It was all okay — we read books, watched TV. Everyone understood that I’d landed in there by chance. Plus there were people who had served in the Soviet army and still had a very positive view of Russia. Better than their view of America. Everything was all right.
Why did the extradition process take so long?
I don’t know. Maybe Georgia was waiting for Russia’s reaction, and they didn’t feel like waiting any longer in the end. I had three extradition hearings. In the first one, the court found that my case materials were insufficient for extradition, and they put me in jail for three months. And then the next court found in favor of extradition. Then there were appeals, but that didn’t help. In the end, they just took me out of the cell, brought me to the airport, and handed me over to the American marshals who handle prisoner transport. Then I flew from Georgia to Riga, then Amsterdam, and from there to Salt Lake City. We flew on a typical plane with typical passengers.
Do you know whether the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry ever tried to help you while you were in Georgia?
I didn’t notice anything like that.
Did you pay for a lawyer yourself?
No, and a huge thanks to my employer for that. They paid for a lawyer and sent me money so I could buy food and cigarettes in the little shop there. They also helped my family — my brother and my father.
In the U.S., did they take you to jail right away?
Yes. Right from the airport. There were 800 prisoners in our jail, and I spent three months there. In the U.S., the conditions depend heavily on the crime the person’s been charged with. For example, there were four levels in our jail. The first one was the harshest, and it was for people accused of something really serious. They had two-person cells, there were no TVs, and they were only let out of the cells for an hour a day.
I was in the fourth level, which was the least harsh given my charges. We had a big common area and four rooms with bunk beds and transparent walls. They fit 12 people each. There were no cells. The rooms were locked every night and for an hour or so after lunch. We spent the rest of the time in the common area. There was a TV there and four phones to make calls — you could call whoever you wanted and talk for as long as you wanted. There was limited Internet access: you could send emails and read the news on Fox or CNN.
How did people treat you? There probably weren’t many Russians there.
Yeah, I only knew of one other [Russian]. He was in another county [in Utah] on some kind of serious embezzlement charge. There weren’t any other Russians there, so I was a bit exotic. And then we all read articles about my case in the newspapers. I was a celebrity in jail. Before then, I’d told people about my crime, but they’re simple guys out there. They asked me, “Is that spying?” I told them it wasn’t and explained what I’d done. Then they asked how much time I might have to do. I told them probably five years. They said, “Oh, well then, you’ve had some bad luck. Hang in there.” Everyone was really positive. I didn’t have any problems.
And while you were behind bars, how did you feel about the charges against you?
I understood that I had broken the law. But then again, if I’d broken the law, then everyone else who buys and sells these manuals is also breaking the law. What, should they all go to jail? My feeling inside was that everything they [the U.S. government] were doing was just too much. My lawyer also said he didn’t understand what I was doing in jail and that it was a very odd case. He even asked me if I was sure I wasn’t a spy.
Speaking of which, why did you get a state lawyer?
Because hiring a private lawyer costs something like $50,000 over there. And, unfortunately, they don’t always do a good job. I saw cases like that in our jail. They take their money and just behave awfully from then on out.
What was the hardest thing about being in jail?
It was hard and tedious to wait. Plus not having access to anything. And I was really worried about my family.
How did you get such a light sentence even though you could have gotten more than 10 years?
My lawyer petitioned the court to drop the charges that stemmed from my interactions with the undercover agent. He argued that I hadn’t taken any substantial steps toward buying the documents: I didn’t go abroad or even agree on a time and place to meet. On paper, the prosecution said they disagreed, but my lawyer told me they probably understood that they were in a weak position, and we might be able to make a deal. They offered to take off three of the five charges: apart from the conversations with the agent, that included conspiracy against national interests, which showed up in my case because I had contacted an American to send the F-16 manuals to Russia.
I pleaded guilty to two charges: illegal export and smuggling documents that weren’t supposed to leave the U.S. They counted time served toward my sentence and released me on the condition that I would be deported to Russia. Of course, things turned out that way in large part thanks to my lawyer, who did everything very quickly. He did a great job, but the steps he took to defend me were pretty obvious.
In the U.S., did your company keep helping you?
Yes. They sent me money and sometimes information.
What about Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry?
[After the news reports about the case], they asked whether I needed any help. By then, though, all of the everyday issues had already been figured out, and there was a general sense that the case was coming to a close.
When people started writing about you a lot in the press, Eagle Dynamics put out a statement saying that you had acted entirely on your own and they had nothing to do with it. Did you see that?
I saw it. I think they did everything right. They denied that they had anything to do with my actions. After all, this could have grown into charges against the company, and I like my job. I don’t want to lose it. And they don’t want to lose their company. [What they did] was right. I wasn’t offended — they were helping me, after all.
By the way, we already came to an agreement about bringing me back to work. I’m starting on Monday in the same exact job. They asked me themselves whether I wanted to come back.
What have you managed to do in Russia so far?
My brother, my friends, and a crowd of journalists met me at the airport. We answered a couple of questions and got out of there. We went to a bar together. There was a lot of joy.
Now, I’m trying to readapt to normal life — I did spend a year in a very different, very isolated environment. It was especially hard in Georgia, where everyone only watched TV in Georgian. But over time, when I’d spent long enough there, they started listening to me. They would turn on the news on [the Russian channel] NTV and wait for me to finish watching them.
So you know what’s been going on in Russia?
Yeah. For example, I know about Maria Butina. I heard about Ivan Golunov’s case. There was a lot of joy [when he was released].
What are your future plans?
I’m going back to work. We’ll probably start by spending a long time talking about what happened and laughing our heads off. And then I’ll get back to my life — dance and all the rest.
What do you think about what happened now that you’re free?
It’s all over now, and I only spent a year in jail, so now I just feel as though it was a new experience. I learned a lot throughout the process — I learned a ton of English words, and I started speaking a little bit of Georgian. Now, it all seems like something of an adventure. Yeah, I won’t be getting any American visas, but that won’t kill me. It all turned out not to be such a major trauma.
Translation by Hilah Kohen