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‘I said sorry before I fired’ Alexey Poltavets confesses to a murder he says was orchestrated by suspects in Russia’s most controversial terrorism case

Source: Meduza

We are publishing the following monologue by Alexey Poltavets, who confessed to Meduza that he is responsible for the murder of Artyom Dorofeyev and says he knows who killed Dorofeyev’s girlfriend, Ekaterina Levchenko (whose body still hasn’t been recovered). Poltavets describes in great detail not only the alleged killings but also the circumstances that supposedly led to the crimes. He is currently living outside Russia. Meduza spoke to him over an online messenger, using video chat to identify him from photographs in case records. Meduza also verified Poltavets’s identity through an individual who met him in person and checked his identification documents. Alexey Poltavets is a suspect in the Penza Network case. Other defendants already sentenced in the case do not deny knowing him.

Update: On March 4, officials in the Ryazan region discovered human remains that were later identified as Ekaterina Levchenko.

Alexey Poltavets’s version of events does not contradict most of the data Meduza has managed to collect about this case. In an interview in 2018 with the website OVD-Info, however, he described some of the events differently and didn’t mention anything about homicide.

“I stayed silent about everything while [Penza Network case suspects Dmitry] Pchelintsev and [Maxim] Ivankin were still free because the consequences for me and everyone were unclear. Then I shared this with a handful of people, albeit without any details. That’s why what I’ve said [previously] has been interpreted differently. Now I’ve told my story in detail. There is never a convenient time to publish something like this,” Poltavets told Meduza.

Penza

I’ve always been opposed to the authorities, but I initially didn’t consider myself on the left or the right. Subsequently, though, my views were more leftist than right-wing. In 2014, when I was 14 years old and in high school in Omsk, I got to know activists who were studying in college. They were older. I hadn’t formed any convictions yet — I supported everything good and was against anything bad. We got to know each other on that basis. I organized different events, like protesting troop deployments and staging anti-events, like on the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. My sense of justice and my roots also played a role. Maybe you saw my name?

In Omsk, roughly speaking, there was just a handful [of like-minded people] who were doing something useful. Some of them moved to Petersburg. They should have taken me with them. There was a lot going on there. I’d already packed. I’d packed my stuff and gotten my documents from college… But the guys I was supposed to move in with had some financial problems. They didn’t really end up settling anywhere and they told me I should go to Penza, instead. “There are some guys there. We don’t know them super well, but it seems like they’re alright. We can’t vouch for them, but give it a shot,” they said.

“In late 2016, ahead of New Year’s, I went to Penza, but it was only temporary — just to crash on somebody’s couch before moving on to Petersburg. I was 16 years old. I worked it out with my mom. My father and I weren’t very close. My brother liked the idea of moving to Petersburg.

The first person I met [in Penza] was [Dmitry] Pchelintsev. The guys had put us in contact. He said, “Yeah no problem. Go ahead and come. There’s a place for you and it’ll be cool,” and he gave me his grandmother’s address. [When I got there], Pchelintstev met me outside and we went in together. For a while, I stayed there alone with his grandma. Later on, he brought me to “the Garden.” Inside, there was camo netting stretched across the walls, political literature and other stuff lying around, there was a weapon there (it was legally registered), and some body armor on the floor. The HQ-apartment, as it were, belongs to Pchelintsev’s cousin Anna [Shalunkina]. They said they’d only just moved in. 

Several sources besides Alexey Poltavets told Meduza that an apartment belonging to Dmitry Pchelintsev’s cousin, Anna Shalunkina, was known as “the Garden.” Meduza reviewed records from the Federal Service of State Registration, Land Register, and Mapping, which say the apartment is municipal property. 

Based on correspondence between the Penza Network case suspects, we know that the apartment’s owner owed 80,000 rubles ($1,220) in public utility bills. Meduza also obtained court records showing a debt-collection order on March 14, 2017, against Shalunkina for unpaid bills. The enforcement action was terminated on January 31, 2019, after bailiffs failed to locate the debtor. Online records from the Penza district court that issued the order indicate that the case concerned unpaid housing, utility, heat, and power bills in a lawsuit brought by the local municipal unitary enterprise against Yu. Shalunkin, A. Shalunkina, and E. Shalukina.

Correspondence between Andrey Chernov and Maxim Ivankin suggests that the Garden wasn’t set up to accommodate tenants. “We planned to use the Garden for all kinds of sketchy shit that it would be dumb to mess around with at home,” wrote Chernov.

Anna Shalunkina did not respond to Meduza’s inquiries.

Pchelintsev talked about himself like an anarchist, but in reality he proved to be more like an authoritarian leader. He was like: you’re all smart people, but I’m smarter. He tried to act as if he’d been through three wars or something, like half the country was with him, and stuff like that. At the same time, he never said anything substantive. It was all: “Don’t sweat the details.” He and his crew — they really did call themselves “11/5” — were really good at making themselves out to be people who were up to something really serious. They were constantly beating their chests about some conspiracy theory and discussing different actions that had never actually happened. Simply put, there was an element of bullshitting. They were boys in camo playacting with guns like they were serious. The guns, by the way, were mainly for airsoft, and there was a legally acquired hunting shotgun. 

I first met [Maxim] Ivankin at the Garden. Nobody introduced themselves to me by their real names. At first, they called him “Pasha,” then “Gleb,” and before that it was something like “Artyom.” In the beginning, nobody called him “Red Head” when I was around, but I heard it, later on. They changed their names regularly to cover their tracks. For example, something would happen and everyone would have to think up new names. They said, okay, now you’ll be “Artyom.” Okay cool, now you’re “Artyom.” 

On the one hand, Ivankin was a simple guy, a fighter, but on the other hand he was actually pretty thoughtful. They were all closest with Pchelintsev. With me… in person, they’d say, “Oh, hi! You’re one of us,” but later they’d talk behind your back about how to handle you, if they had to. Pchelinstev was more the leader and Ivankin was his right hand. They were inseparable. 

I lived alone at the Garden. There were two rooms there and I took one. Others would come and stay for a few nights and leave. Ivankin and Pchelintsev periodically lived there with me. At first, they hung out with me constantly. I was this guy who showed up in town and they needed to control me somehow. I didn’t know anyone else in Penza. Pchelintsev set me up with a part-time job at a cafe. 

When it came to their grand struggle, [group 11/5] didn’t really do much of anything. I can’t remember them doing anything. At the same time, there was constantly talk that someone somewhere had spotted a suspicious car [following them]. “We’ve got to be ready for the fact that they might close in on us. If that happens, we have to fight to our last bullet,” they’d say. That’s a direct quote. I also remember an exegesis about how to fire at two targets when you’re down to your last round. I don’t even want to talk about it now. This sort of thing wasn’t once or twice — it was happening constantly.

They trained periodically. Sometimes it was twice a month and other times it was a few times in a week. I was there for most of them. I liked that I had access to a weapon and could practice. When training, [the 11/5 members] naturally tried to come off as serious, but they didn’t observe even basic safety precautions. I understand this only now, of course. Back then, it all seemed really cool.

Drugs

In our Siberian city [back in Omsk], no one among the activists smoked or drank alcohol. Drinking, smoking, and using were all considered sketchy. I’m not saying everyone was straightedge, but that’s what they called it. After all, if we want to get in people’s faces [about how to live], then we need to be an example.

The dudes in Penza knew my position on this. They saw my immediate negative reaction whenever someone started smoking. Despite the difference in age, I told them how I felt. Of course, they — several of them at once — fired back with their opinion. At first, maybe they were scared that others, like maybe people from Siberia, would find out from me that they’re using. That’s why they didn’t do it openly, in the beginning. It was only after a few weeks that I found out they smoke weed. Naturally, I objected, asking them not to smoke in our apartment. The response was: “Weed isn’t a narcotic.” There were long debates. And then — poof — one day they’ve started smoking hashish. Gradually, I learned to ignore it. After all, I thought, they say it’s normal. 

I didn’t see how [the 11/5 members] earned a living. They’d tell me, “We're on the job.” Well, if they were working, then they must be getting paid money for it. I also witnessed conversations about stuff like how someone they knew wanted to buy some weed. So I gradually found out that they were all dealingPchelintsev, Ivankin, and Shakursky. [Note to readers: Pchelintsev and Shursky have not been charged with any drug-related offenses.]

The only one of them who didn’t use was Chernov because he was a straight-edger. But later, after I left the country, he also started dealing and making money. 

Generally, they explained the dealing as something they needed to do to raise money “for the revolution.” But in reality it was split 50/50: half went to gear and camouflage and they other half they pissed away. They called it “work.” That’s actually how [Mikhail] Kulkov, [Artyom] Dorofeyev, and [Ekaterina] Levchenko defended it. Ivankin stayed in touch with them. Kulkov and Dorofeyev were his friends. They studied together in [culinary] school, but only Ivankin was in the [activist] movement. They decided together to raise [money by selling drugs] and split it in half. [Kulkov and Dorofeyev] wanted it to open a shawarma place or something, and Ivankin and Pchelintsev wanted it for their revolution. Although, naturally, they divided up among themselves the 50 percent that was supposedly for the revolution.

In addition to the fact that the Penza Network case effectively started with the arrest of future suspects on drug charges, the defendants’ correspondence (which later became case evidence) also indicates trafficking and dealing.

In particular, Chernov, like Poltavets, “always opposed this [drug dealing], but when he suggested trying something legal, he couldn’t think of anything.” Pchelintsev supposedly said it would take too long and be “too fucking complicated,” so Chernov allegedly agreed to start selling drugs, too. 

In their messages, Chernov and Ivankin mention that “Antokha [Pchelintsev] started “growing grass.” “Lately, no matter how hard I try to discuss future plans with him, all I hear from him is more ideas about how to grow more grass,” complains Chernov, describing how Pchelintsev used illegal substances. In the same exchange, there’s talk about how Pchelintsev also supposedly “was cultivating mushrooms.”

A file found on Chernov’s mobile phone contained the addresses of hundreds of dealers. In his correspondence, Chernov also complained that he was exhausted and overworked, writing, “[...] After a couple of months at the factory [as an assembly fitter] almost without sleep or weekends, and then also doing these fucking [drug] deliveries, now I can’t even force myself to do anything after I get home from work.” 

Chernov described the departure of Dorofeyev, Levchenko, Ivankin, Kulkov, and Poltavets from Penza in the following terms: “Once everybody wanted by the pigs got out of the city, all we did was try to pull together the money to get them out of the country.” This effort collapsed with the group’s base of operations, however, when the authorities suddenly raided their “safehouse” (the Garden). “I fucking lost it because it was only afterward that D [Pchelintsev] said the pad’s overdue utility bills, it turned out, were already 80,000 [...],” Chernov wrote.

When he was arrested in March 2017, Maxim Ivankin maintained his own innocence and testified that Mikhail Kulkov worked as a drug dealer. 

In a letter to human rights activist and MBK Media journalist Zoya Svetova, Dmitry Pchelintsev categorically denied all allegations of drug use and drug dealing. “It’s just absurd,” he wrote, “if only because I worked at a shooting range and owned sporting weapons, which requires me to undergo regular psychiatrist-narcologist analysis and turn over samples for chemical-toxicological study. And they’ve yet to invent a drug stronger than Alpha-PVP. You can't hide that kind of drug use. And the story about marijuana and mushrooms is insanity. This was all invented behind closed doors at the Federal Security Service, like the rest of the ‘messages.’” Though Pchelintsev was never charged with drug trafficking, he and his lawyer say the files recovered from Chernov’s phone are fake.

In fact, Pchelintstev was rarely subjected to drug testing at work. “People are screened before they’re hired. We watch them. We take their criminal records. That’s first. Then they go before a commission for urine and other testing,” says Vyacheslav Aksyonov, the founder of the shooting range where Pchelintsev worked as an instructor. “Urine, [so we can find out] if they’re addicts. Then they’re brought before a commission that includes a psychiatrist, otherwise the permit system doesn’t let them through. After three years, their certificate and clearance expire and they’ve got to do the whole process all over again. [During these three years there is] no [further screening] if you’re doing your job and not coming to work drunk and stuff like that.”

In the Penza Network case, only Maxim Ivankin, Mikhail Kulkov, and Andrey Chernov were charged with attempted large-scale drug trafficking. 

The first time I met Katya and Artyom was also at the Garden. It was sometime in January [2017], when they were brought there for the first time. They were asked to turn off their phones, take out the SIM cards, and empty everything out onto the counter. Nobody warned me that they were coming over. It was just a crowd of strangers bursting in. It wasn’t my apartment, but I was still living there. So I take aside either Ivankin or Pchelintsev and I say, “Guys, it's all cool, of course, but you brought this gang in here and didn’t tell me what’s up? Who are they?” They answered, “Don’t worry about it. It’s fine. They’re cool.” I asked them what movement they were from, and the guys said, “They’re just civilians, but we work with them, and we’re trying to get them to join the movement, so we brought them here to show them everything.” I called it a shitshow and told them they were fucking up. Then I said hi to Katya and Artyom and went into another room to do my own thing.

Dorofeyev, Levchenko, and Kulkov were all considered the same. They were also known as “above board,” and it was like they were preparing them to be the open, legitimate team, while still fitting into the partisan movement. 

The arrests

In March [2017], Shakursky brought us together and said that [his friend Egor] Zorin was hanging out with some dude he didn’t know that well, and the guy was acting weird and constantly stepping away to take calls. The last time the guy leaves the room, a bunch of masked cops burst into the place and grab everybody, taking them into separate rooms, where they find drugs. Shakursky says they told Zorin: “Either you work for us now or we’ll put you away for drugs.” Zorin agreed to a gag order and said he’d work for them. Then they gave him a code name.

But Zorin ended up telling Shakursky everything. They turned off the phone the feds already knew about, and Zorin moved in with either his girlfriend or his grandmother. Basically, it would have been easy to find him there, too. Zorin later told Shakursky that a car [from the FSB] drove up to him. [The officers] talked to him and asked, “Any anarchists there?” He said he didn’t know anything and they let him go. This is all according to Shakursky. 

Based on a text file police say they found on his computer when they searched his home, Shakursky began suspecting sometime in the spring that the FSB was trying to recruit Zorin (pseudonym “Grisha”): “So far, he’s evaded conversations with the FSB. [...] The agent was probably just looking to find himself an informant to do his job for him. He asked about the migrant workers living in the area who might be involved with ISIS. He also wanted to know if [Zorin] was a nationalist. His whole job was to look for information about people of interest to the feds. We decided that Grisha was in the process of being recruited.”

Zorin’s next arrest was on October 17, 2017, in Penza. Investigators caught him with drugs they suspect he brought from St. Petersburg back in February.

The next day, Zorin’s blood work showed traces of methadone, diphenhydramine, opiates, amphetamines, and synthetic cannabinoids. During his medical exam, Zorin denied using any drugs.

After a week or two [on March 30, 2017], they asked me and the others to clear out of the apartment. Some guy and his girlfriend were supposed to stay there [alone]. Ivankin, Kulkov, and I left to go hang out. It was the first time I’d ever been outside with the two of them. Occasionally, they’d take out their phones and call someone. We don’t like asking for somebody’s ID or looking at their phone screens to see what they’re texting or what their password is. If you’re caught looking, let’s just say there will be some questions. [Ivankin and Kulkov] were actually recording drop-off addresses as voice memos and pretending that they were making phone calls. It was a disguise. 

It was only when we were arrested that I found out they were also selling hard drugs. Everything was found next to Kulkov. I found out later that Dorofeyev, Ivankin, and Kulkov would go around [delivering drugs] in groups of two or three, sometimes swapping. I got the impression that maybe Levchenko was helping them at home but not on the streets, like by packaging [the drugs for them].

[Kulkov and Ivankin eventually] agreed that Kulkov would take the blame. I was never charged for the drugs. I told them: take my blood, take swabs, take everything — I’ve never used in my whole life and I’ve got nothing to do with any of this. The agents themselves told me: “We know you’re not part of this.” And to this day I can’t understand why they treated me like they did [torturing him and threatening him] but not them. [Note to readers: After Ivankin and Kulkov testified, officers supposedly stopped torturing Poltavets. The reasons for the authorities’ behavior here remain unclear to both Meduza and Poltavets himself.]

In an interview with OVD-Info, Alexey Poltavets said the police officers bullied him, forcing him to stand against a wall and squat naked. They beat him, dragged him by the hair, twisted his ear, threatened him with a soldering iron, threatened to rape him with a mop, and said they would “string him up.” “[Police officer] Nikolai grabbed a thick, worn-out plastic bag from the closet. He rolled in the edges and threw it over my head without tightening it,” says Poltavets. “I was honestly terrified at this point. I started fearing for my life, thinking I wouldn’t leave here alive if I didn’t do what the officers wanted. Nikolai pulled the bag from behind, which made me gasp and thrash.” Poltavets says he was subjected to these “procedures” another seven or even nine times.

The FSB agent [in plain clothes who was present at both the arrest and in the police station] acted weird. It seemed like he knew something but wasn’t letting on. He asked questions about the drugs, but at the same time he’d refer to everything else [the group’s political activism].

On the second day, when they were going to let me out, they let me call my mom [note to readers: because Poltavets was still a minor]. During the call, the officers stayed nearby and kept their eyes on me, so I didn’t say too much. I told my mom that I was at a police station but I hadn’t done anything, and [the officers] immediately looked at me like “enough chit chat, get to it.” So I asked her to come [to Penza]. The trip was about 2,000 kilometers [1,242 miles], and she couldn’t make it that same day. I think my mom lost it when she showed up [at the address I’d given her over the phone] and didn’t find me. I caught hell for that, later on. Not long thereafter, I got in touch with her and said that everything was okay. We really got into it then. It had all been so the FSB agents didn’t suspect anything. If I’d called her and said, “Don’t come,” they would have expected us to make a run for it. I’m ashamed that I had to put one over on my mom, but that was the cost of freedom.

On the run

That evening, they brought Ivankin and me home to his parents in Bessonovka. [The officers] told us to wait for them, saying we shouldn’t even step outside. We ate, showered, and went to bed. Sometime around five or six in the morning, we packed up. Ivankin lied to his mother that we needed money for a cell phone to be in touch [with our case officer]. We said we’d be back, but we weren’t coming back, of course. The evening before, we’d noticed that the car that brought us [to Ivankin’s parents] never left. We scouted again in the morning and it was still there. So we decided [to go out the back] through the gardens. There are private [stand-alone] houses there, with adjoining gardens, and we got out this way. Ivankin had already given me half the money. Then we split up. When I got to the Garden, Ivankin was already there. [Note to readers: Ivankin’s parents, Tatyana and Sergey, later told police that their son asked for 2,000 rubles (about $30) on April 2 to buy a mobile phone, saying he needed it to remain in contact with his case officer, before leaving home with Alexey Poltavets.]

Pchelintsev, Dorofeyev, and Levchenko were already there, too. Everyone was scared and in shock. They realized, of course, that we’d been busted. They thought [the police had] held soldering irons to us and we’d given up everything. That’s why they all immediately ditched their apartments and ran to the Garden and were hanging out there for a few days. 

At the time, I didn’t realize I was only a witness, since I’d gotten the worst of it [from the interrogators]. I thought I needed to get out of there because I wasn’t guilty of anything. I decided to leave for Ukraine because I’d been its supporter and that’s where my roots go back. The others [Ivankin and Kulkov, who at the time was still home under house arrest] also wanted to go to Ukraine, but they later changed their minds. Pchelintsev, Chernov, and Shakursky (he’d come to the Garden a bit later) didn’t want to go anywhere. [It was like] since we hadn’t rolled over on them, they would keep going about their business. Later, after the first arrests in Penza [now as part of the Network case], they acted the same way, like “they’ve got nothing on me” or “chill out, we won’t rat out anyone.” This worried me.

Katya and Artyom were pretty freaked out. They just sat there, wide-eyed, like: “What do we do? They’ll catch us now.” At the time, in those first few days, there was no talk in the Garden about doing anything with them. They were planning to go somewhere together with Ivankin and Kulkov. [Note to readers: Mikhail Kulkov fled house arrest on April 25, 2017, and police then issued an arrest warrant for him and Ivankin.]

Ryazan

After a few days, we decided to leave at least for Ryazan — it was the nearest place we could hide out. It was also closer to Moscow and that’s where I was headed. Shakursky and [Victoria] Frolova [a friend of the Penza Network suspects] drove Ivankin and me. [Note to readers: Frolova told Meduza that she did not drive Ivankin and Poltavets to Ryazan.] I don’t know why they decided to do it like this. We’d go around the traffic-police posts on foot. They’d let us out beforehand and then they’d pick us up afterward. It took one day. On the city’s outskirts, we caught a bus and rode it into the center, where we met someone who helped us find a place to crash. When we had to leave the apartment for a few days, we’d sleep in the woods, taking a mess tin with us.

After a few days (I don’t remember exactly how many, but it was no more than a week), Dorofeyev and Levchenko arrived [in Ryazan]. Nobody told me how they got there. I think they were probably convinced to leave and sent from Penza, though they were scared themselves. As I understand it, they’d just stayed with Pchelintsev at the Garden. They didn’t really have any other options.

In Ryazan, Katya and Artyom crashed with us at the apartment and sometimes stayed with us in the woods. If anything, they were hanging out with Ivankin. I’d often leave the apartment — my interests were elsewhere, so to speak. Initially, they had their own plans to go somewhere and maybe leave the country, but I didn’t pry. They didn’t know the specifics of my plans, either, in case any of us were caught. 

But then Katya and Artyom suddenly backed out. I don’t know why — maybe they got scared or it just turns out they weren’t ready for this. They decided that it would be better to turn themselves in. Naturally, they would have talked. By the end, Katya and Artyom weren’t just part of the drugs — they’d also started falling in with the movement, coming on hikes and training exercises. They’d been brought to the apartment and let in on what was happening. For starters, they themselves might have misunderstood what they’d seen. There’d been a weapon, but it was registered. Second, they could have [simply] been told that there was a whole armory in the apartment but “we’re not going to show you because we don’t talk about business.” That was the approach: “We’re the old pros. We’ve got stuff going on.”

On April 25, 2017, Katya’s mother, Tatyana Levchenko, found a typed letter in her mailbox from someone claiming to be her daughter. The person asked her to install a secure messenger app and then burn the letter. 

Later that day, Tatyana managed to speak with Katya. (She says she’s sure it was her daughter because the person correctly identified Katya’s favorite food.) Tatyana says her daughter was scared of the police and was planning to go somewhere. She apparently promised her mother that she would remain in touch through the messenger, but she never logged online again.

Things started getting tense then. I was talking to people on two different fronts. Ivankin was constantly messaging with Pchelintsev and telling me that the others in Penza wanted Dorofeyev and Levchenko eliminated. I’d say, “Are you shitting me? We shouldn’t do that because it would be a fucking disaster.” I suggested other solutions, like maybe the guys in Penza should leave — Dorofeyev and Levchenko would definitely have given them enough time to get out. But they didn’t want that. They said, “[Katya and Artyom] have been saying they’ll sort it out, but they’re not sorting it out, and that’s on them.”

I convinced Levchenko and Dorofeyev not to turn themselves in and told them to flee abroad to some European country. Or don’t turn yourselves in, but if you do, then don’t sell everyone out. We tried to come up with backstories [for the authorities]. I came up with some options for them — plausible, insane, not insane, good, bad — anything to avoid how the others wanted to resolve it.

I was constantly asking [the guys back in Penza] to give me time, and then a bit more time and a bit more. Any way I could, I tried to convince them that [not killing Dorofeyev and Levchenko] would be better for everyone. 

They told me, “That’s it, dude. Enough fucking around. Now comes the final decision.” They started laying into me, saying I was making them suspicious because I was backing out and it wasn’t clear whose side I was on. And I started getting hints like, hey, nobody knows where you are or anybody you’re with, and stuff like that. I don’t know if they’d really have done it, but I still remember perfectly when Pchelintsev said, “You’re either with us or you’re beneath us. Figure out what you want. Either way, you know the deal.” At one time, though, I’d been what you’d call their friend. I knew them. 

About three weeks later, in late April, [Ivankin] communicated with Pchelintsev [through an online messenger]. [Pchelintsev] was writing on behalf of everyone still in Penza. It’s possible that he made the decision for everyone. Zorin, Sagynbaev, and especially Kuksov had no part in it. I spoke out against it. Chernov later said that he was also against it. Shakursky confirmed that he was for it. If you ask any of them now: “Were you part of the decision?” they’ll all say, “I had nothing to do with it.” But that’s not how it went down.

While the decision was being made, Dorofeyev and Levchenko were in the next room [in the apartment in Ryazan].

Andrey Chernov’s attorney, Stanislav Fomenko, told Meduza that he won’t comment on Poltavets’s story.

“This is the first time I’m hearing that [Ilya Shakursky participated in the “collective decision” regarding the fate of Artyom Dorofeyev and Ekaterina Levchenko]. He doesn’t know a thing about this story — 100 percent. Because I talked to him and he was extremely surprised,” Shakursky’s lawyer, Sergey Morgunov, told Meduza. “[And claims that Shakursky was dealing drugs] are absurd! He’s a staunch opponent of all drugs and anything like that.”

Igor Kabanov, who represents Mikhail Kulkov, said that “all answers to the questions regarding ‘Poltavets’s story’ should now be addressed to the authorities based on the results of an investigation.” “I don’t think it’s possible to give you any comments at the moment… Thanks for reaching out, but you’re obviously late with this,” Kabanov told Meduza.

Except for Kabanov, attorneys representing all the Penza Network prisoners agreed to pass along Meduza’s questions to their clients. “I don’t think your questions would interest him at all now,” Kabanov said of Kulkov.

The woods

After three weeks of trying to claw my way out of all this, I realized that the decision was serious. And it was literally within a day or two that it was carried out. But I think that’s counting from when they arrived, when I was trying to sort everything out with them and the others. I could be wrong.

Meanwhile, Ivankin and Pchelintsev were deciding what would happen and how. Pchelintsev gave his advice and Ivankin filled me in. It was like this: make up some reason we need to leave the apartment and don't have a backup, so we have to camp out in the woods. We’d already done this before. We’d taken Artyom and Katya on all kinds of trips like this, so it didn’t raise too many questions. Ivankin picked a spot on the map — maybe where the forest was dense or [just] somewhere far away. He later showed me and said, “Right around there? This place should work.” We’d never been there before. Who was doing what was clear in advance. I tried to shut it all out. But later, when it came down to it, I said, “I dunno. You guys can go ahead and kill me, but I’m not gonna do the girl.” Ivankin, Dorofeyev, and Levchenko were all pretty close. It wasn’t like Ivankin was calm about the whole thing, but he was ready to do it [commit murder] without a problem.

In the evening (I don’t remember if it was the day of the meeting or the day after), Ivankin told Artyom and Katya that we were facing a force majeure: we needed to collect our things and leave the apartment in the morning. Without another place to crash, we’d need to stay in the woods. We took a bunch of buses and trolleybuses (I don’t remember) to the north exit road from Ryazan. Then we walked a few kilometers. There was a traffic-police post at the exit road from the city, or there were just some squad cars there, I don’t remember. There’s a fire station on the west side of the road. We passed it. We passed a river there, too, over some smallish but pretty serious bridge, where he hitched a ride and drove along the highway to somewhere as north as the village [Lopukhi]. I don’t remember the car or the driver. Just that it wasn’t an SUV.

Katya and Artyom had small backpacks — literally just 20 liters [1,220 cubic inches]. Ours were twice that size. Ivankin kept the sawed-off shotguns in his backpack. [Note to readers: the Network case indictment states that Ivankin legally purchased a “Saiga-12” and “Saiga-410K” in 2016.] He’d already had them with him because it basically made sense [in the woods]. The 410 was always sawed-off, but the 12 had been long-barreled. I think Pchelintsev had sawed it off when we were waiting to leave for Ryazan.

We chose a spot in the woods to sleep for the night. It was the middle of nowhere. By the time we got there, it was already the afternoon and it got dark soon. We made a campfire. There was a giant spruce tree growing nearby and we chopped off and broke up some branches. We took a few small logs and branches and put twigs on top, creating a kind of mattress. We didn’t have a tent, naturally. You can wrap yourself in canvas — a sleeping bag, so you don’t freeze. I didn’t have one. You wrap yourself in all your stuff and wear all your thermals. We spent the night, but I barely slept.

Ivankin assumed it would all go down at night, quietly and without a shot. We’d cut their throats while they slept. But they were so wrapped up underneath it all that you’d wake them if you came up and tried anything. There was a scarf, jackets, and a sleeping bag. It all needed to be removed, of course. I couldn’t do it, not emotionally or physically. It was the same with Ivankin. I talked him out of it, anyway. I bought some time. In the end, it didn’t happen until the morning.

At dawn, Ivankin started saying that there was no more time to wait, that we needed to act. The sun was just rising. He told [Katya]: let’s go get some firewood, or something. I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was about wood or kindling. It was about getting the campfire going. Because [killing them together] — I wouldn’t have been able to manage it. As he walked away, Ivankin gestured [at them] like he was going to do it now. I was supposed to do Artyom myself. 

I couldn’t see what was happening [where Ivankin took Levchenko]. It was somewhere out of sight. But I realized that everything would start now. Just in case, I moved the “Saiga” a little farther from Artyom and stayed near the Saiga-12. I had a round in the chamber and the safety was on. It was always like that, in case somebody attacked and we needed to respond fast.

After a while, Levchenko screamed. It was a small scream. Next, I heard “help!” and then it was like she’d been gagged. Artyom and I jumped up immediately, standing there, looking at each other, not understanding what was happening. Literally 20 seconds later, Ivankin comes running. He’d put away the knife, but when he ran nearer, you could see the blood on his hands.

That’s when I took the safety off. When I realized that there’d already been one [murder], there wasn’t much choice. There was nowhere to go. Maybe I should have [refused] earlier, but I don’t know how that would have ended. I aimed the barrel at him [Artyom] and managed to say “I’m sorry” before I fired. I don’t know if you’ll believe me that I apologized. It doesn’t change anything and it doesn’t make me a good person. It just sounds stupid and terrible.

They were high-brass “magnum” shells. They had a kind of red color. I don’t remember the manufacturer, but that’s what they were called. They’re powerful because with a sawed-off barrel the buckshot expansion is really big and the next round is [already] chambered. [Artyom] fell to his knees and started moaning, his eyes fading as he looked out into space. I was in complete shock that he was [alive and] suffering. I immediately cut his throat and he died. I didn’t cut his throat because I wanted to hurt him somehow, but because he was in agony. It was all over in seconds, but I didn’t want him to suffer.

The report by state investigators about the body discovered outside Ryazan (later identified as Artyom Dorofeyev) describes a “multifragmentary splinter fracture of the bones of the facial skeleton,” as well as wounds to the left parietal region and the neck’s anterior surface. A forensic expert outside Moscow (who asked to remain anonymous) told Meduza that the cause of injuries in cases when it’s impossible to be specific is recorded as “trauma by a blunt object.”

“If an investigator asks, based on the circumstances, if this or that is possible, a doctor will study the damage and answer. If the shot was from a smoothbore weapon, there should be [buckshot] left in the skull,” says Meduza’s source. “But it’s also possible that you wouldn't find it. It could have been only soft-tissue damage with a skull fracture that didn’t lead to death because there was no penetration to the brain — especially if the throat was cut. If the body had skeletonized, then you might not find the buckshot.”

A source in Ryazan’s forensic medical examination bureau told Meduza that findings from the study of Dorofeyev’s remains have been archived. “Records for 2017 contain a file stating that a body was discovered in the forest. The circumstances of death are listed as unclear and the cause of death is unknown due to decomposition,” says Meduza’s source. The records also identify the specialist who examined Dorofeyev’s body. Meduza has filed an official request to interview this expert.

Twelve-gauge buckshot cartridges (marked “M92S Magnum GP 8.5 12/76”), like those described by Poltavets, are mentioned in the indictment in the Penza Network case among the things seized from Pchelintsev. 

I was in complete shock, but that’s how the shot happened. Right away, [Ivankin] was like: “We gotta get out of here fast. Let’s dig some holes quick and bounce.” I started digging right there and then [where they later found Artyom]. At first, Ivankin was helping me because I said, “Don’t go anywhere, dude.” I was scared. But then he was like: “Fuck it. We gotta get out of here.” So I ended up burying him alone. Not very deep. The shovel was more of a garden spade, like a trowel. It was really small.

Ivankin was digging over there [near Levchenko’s body]. I’d say his pit was about the same as mine. Thinking about it now, you know, she wasn’t any deeper. That’s for sure. He had a small shovel, too, same as mine. We piled some more dirt on top and all around, to make it even. That’s what I did, at least. I think he did the same thing. We needed to make it look like there was nothing there — just dig and make sure everything looked the same on the surface.

Ivankin washed himself in alcohol. He washed off the knife and himself. I don’t know what happened to Ivankin’s knife, whether he took it with him or did something with it. I’m afraid to guess because he had a couple of knives on him before that. It might have been a “Smerch” [note to reader: Poltavets likely confuses this with the “Smersh 5” hunting knife]. It was like a knife they give you in the service. It had a black rectangular handle with plastic sides. I had a regular kitchen knife. Back in the city, I put it in a garbage bag and threw it out in a dumpster. One of us also picked up the shell casing. Maybe it was me, but later [Ivankin] had it. I think Ivankin burned it and tossed the remnants at some station outside Moscow, or maybe he threw out the whole thing. 

We burned their backpacks and all the ID completely. [Note to readers: Katya’s mother, Tatyana Levchenko, says her daughter’s passport is still at home. Artyom, on the other hand, was carrying his passport, military ID, and birth certificate, according to his mother.] We also burned the bottle of alcohol and some white plastic canisters. Everything went into the fire.

When we were about to leave, Ivankin was like: “Shit. I gave her some money and it’s still in her pocket. We’ve gotta get it.” I told him not to touch anything. He wanted to get the money because we honestly didn’t have any, and there were one or two thousand rubles lying there, but I talked him out of it. We got to Lopukhi and used a bucket to drink from a water well. [Note to readers: A hunter named Alexey from a neighboring village and Ryazanskie Vedomosti journalist Olga Dragan confirmed to Meduza that there is a well on the main street in Lopukhi.] Then Ivankin asked somebody about a taxi and we ordered a car. We had a disassembled smartphone with us. We got to where we were crashing [in Ryazan] towards the evening. Then Ivankin sent an update to Pchelintsev, who was like: good. 

Ivankin and I didn’t really speak. I kept saying, “Shit. This is fucked up.” And he’d say, “Enough already. Calm down.” It wasn’t to reassure me, but to keep me from losing my shit. Ivankin said [Katya] screamed because her scarf got in his way. I think the scarf’s with her. He came back without a scarf. [Note to readers: Ekaterina Levchenko did in fact have a scarf with her, her mother confirmed to Meduza, but it wasn’t mentioned in public announcements about her disappearance.]

I know that nothing I say can return your children to you [note to readers: Poltavets here is addressing the parents of Katya and Artyom], but I hope my confession will at least help you understand what really happened, and help solve this terrible and senseless crime. All these years, I blame myself for being seduced and taking part in this, instead of stopping it. The need to right this wrong even a little is what drove me to tell what happened. I fully acknowledge my guilt in what took place and I am sorry.

* * *

After a day or two, we left for Moscow on the train. I don’t remember if it was at night or closer to the morning. I think it was nearly morning. Kulkov got to Ryazan after we’d already left and he followed us to Moscow. A few days after arriving [in the capital], I left the country. The shotguns stayed with Ivankin. I heard that he buried them somewhere or something like that. It was after I left. They didn’t vanish into thin air.

I hated them after that. The first chance I got, I split. The people from Petersburg are now really sorry that they sent me to these guys. What I care about is that you’re after the truth, and not out to defend these so-called “heroes.” I believe that they were tortured and now they’re being tried for terrorism that never happened. They tortured me, too. Russia’s police, the Investigative Committee, the Federal Security Service — I don’t trust any of them. But I don’t want to hide the truth.

Of everybody, Kuksov didn’t take part in anything. The whole time I was on the move, I saw him only once. I think they made it clear to Kulkov: “Dude, don’t ask questions. You can no longer ask about them.” He hung out with [the “11/5” crew] just as much as Dorofeyev and Levchenko. Then, when he was already on the run [from house arrest], they loaded him up with literature and Kulkov was like: “Now I’m an anarchist.”

Maxim Ivankin’s attorney, Konstantin Kartashov, declined to speak to Meduza, explaining that “the absence of any comments is our position.” Kartashov also promised to share Meduza’s questions with his client.

Dmitry Pcehlintsev’s lawyer, Oksana Markeeva, told Meduza that she’s already expressed her position “regarding this issue”: “They are set forth in Novaya Gazeta. Please turn your attention there,” said Markeeva (referring to an article where lawyers for Ivankin and Pchelintsev argue that investigators both altered and falsified the correspondence treated as evidence in the Penza Network case). Markeeva could not explain why Pchelintsev didn’t mention Maxim Ivankin in his letter to human rights activist and MBK Media journalist Zoya Svetova. “He answered the questions that were put before him. That’s that,” she said. Markeeva promised to share Meduza’s questions with Pchelintsev, but she says he will not answer them.

“The defense believes that Dmitry Pchelinstev was not involved in the murder of Artyom Dorofeyev or the disappearance of Ekaterina Levchenko. Investigative agencies should review the data in these cases. Dmitry and I, as his attorney, hope for an impartial and objective investigation,” Oksana Markeeva told the news agency Interfax.

P.S. Why does Meduza keep citing the correspondence from evidence in the Network case?

After Meduza published its first report about this story, attorneys for Pchelintsev and Ivankin said the correspondence found in case evidence, which Meduza cites, was either falsified or altered after it was recovered. Nevertheless, we continue to use these records as circumstantial evidence supporting the testimony offered by Poltavets. Below, you’ll find our very detailed (and unfortunately rather technical) response to the lawyers.

According to lawyers for the defendants in the Penza Network case, the messages found on one of Andrey Chernov’s mobile phones are fabricated. They argue:

  • All recovered correspondence isn’t actually correspondence. It’s saved in separate text files and conversations with different people at different times might be recorded in the same file.
  • The text files were edited retroactively. For example, “‘correspondence’ from October 13, 2017, was crammed into a file created on October 11, 2017.”

To understand if this is evidence that the messages were falsified, we need to look at two things found on Chernov’s phone: the Keepass2Android app and the KDBX file, where the actual conversation records were stored.

Keepass2Android is an offline password manager that stores sensitive information in a special database as a KDBX file. Besides passwords, the database can store any kind of confidential information: credit card data, identity records, contacts, and notes — all secured from prying eyes. The “text files” found on Chernov’s phone are these notes. In these records, you can find a wide variety of information, including:

  • Useful programs and commands for a Debian-based Linux distribution terminal
  • Contact information for human rights organizations (OVD-Info, Agora, Memorial, and others)
  • Draft messages about the arrests of Ilya Shakursky and Dmitry Pchelintsev. One of these notes, for example, is called “Ovd,” which is short for Otdel Vnutrennikh Del, or Internal Affairs Department (in other words, the police).
  • Email addresses and XMPP accounts for contacts and their public OpenPGP-keys for encrypted messaging
  • Individual pieces of the correspondence itself on XMPP-messengers

The correspondence in the notes was used for accurate citations. In some cases, a user with the nickname “waifuclub” (presumably Chernov) copy-pasted old messages from one conversation into correspondence with others. In other words, the notes apparently contained important conversation fragments. It can be quite dangerous to keep your entire message history in a messenger. Modern XMPP-messengers can reliably encrypt your correspondence, protecting it from being decrypted if intercepted, but the messages are usually stored on the device itself in an open, unencrypted format. In 2010, this is how WikiLeaks informant Chelsea Manning was caught.

There are no inconsistencies with the creation dates of the “text files.” Each object inside a KDBX-file database can be created and also edited. Federal Security Service agents copied to their inspection records only the exact creation time for each note, but not its last modification time. Judging by the timestamps, notes were often created after the end of the first block of messages from which the notes began. It’s unclear why the FSB didn’t indicate the notes’ last modification time. This is possibly due to a generally low level of computer literacy. In the inspection records of items seized from Chernov, for example, the FSB investigator and technician refer to CD-R, CD-RW, and DVD-R drives as “magnetic disks.”

At the same time, it remains unclear why (1) the name of the KBDX file on Chernov’s phone differs from the file name listed in the case records; (2) the creation time and last modification time of the file on the phone is dated November 13, 2017, though Chernov was arrested four days earlier; and (3) why Chernov used the password “1” for a file with secure notes.

Story by Maxim Solopov and Kristina Safonova, with assistance from Denis Dmitriev and translation by Kevin Rothrock

Photos from Ekaterina Malysheva, Ekaterina Gerasimova, and Evgeny Malyshev / 7x7