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True detectives The precarious, not altogether lucrative, and often illegal life of Russia’s private investigators

Source: Meduza
Anna Shnygina for Meduza

Today in Russia, there are more than 900 detective agencies, as well as an enormous number of self-described private investigators who gather financial, economic, and legal intelligence without ever notifying the authorities. In fact, many detectives constantly break the law, violating criminal statutes that technically prohibit activities that are essential to their investigative work. Meduza special correspondent Sasha Sulim spoke to several detectives about their lives and the intricacies of their craft, including one man who’s played a private eye on television and done the job for real on the streets of Moscow.

Police Inspector Nasonov and his friends

I met Alexey Nasonov at a cafe in downtown Moscow, around the corner from where he used to run a detective agency. The ex-cop, former private eye isn’t so private anymore: for the past 14 years, he’s starred on the television show “Detectives,” where he plays a fictional version of himself. In the winter of 2018, federal agents raided his office as part of a criminal investigation into privacy breaches. Nasonov was suspected of circulating restricted information: intercepted phone calls. 

The TV star’s arrest was big news in Russia. The bust faded from the headlines after a few weeks, but Nasonov’s reputation as a detective — perhaps the most important thing in this profession — was trashed. He had to close shop.

Alexey Nasonov was born in Moscow in 1967. After school, he enrolled at an aviation institute, but quickly flunked out and joined the army. In the end, he got his diploma at an art school, where he studied advertising in architectural and spatial environments. After graduation, his parents found him a job as an artist at the same hosiery factory where they worked. In 1995, when the company stopped paying salaries, Nasonov quit.

Some friends then invited him to join the newly formed municipal police force. He agreed and easily passed all the psychological and physical tests. “This police force was equipped better than anyone,” Nasonov recalls fondly, describing his first job in law enforcement. “We had some pretty slick cars, including Land Rovers, the pay was 150-percent higher, and the uniform was sweet. Everything was elite.”

Patrol officers carried pistols and even automatic weapons, which Nasonov says he once had to use: “We stopped a suspicious vehicle; the driver was drunk and was obviously on some kind of drugs. It took a real battle to get him under arrest. We only later realized that not only had he been armed, but he was professionally trained in wrestling. Generally speaking, police officers (including municipal branches) often used their weapons back then — for example, we’d shoot out the tires, when drivers refused to obey orders to stop. 

After three years, Nasonov left the municipal police force for a position at the precinct in Moscow’s Babushkinsky District. One of his most vivid memories from this job involves a local troublemaker named Edik. Edik had done multiple stints in prison and wielded a certain degree of clout in his neighborhood. Edik abused this reputation and — according to complaints from local residents — would sit in the public courtyard drinking booze under a special canopy. 

At first, Nasonov arrested Edik and jailed him for a week, but the two men later connected and remained in touch until Edik’s untimely death, when Edik’s head was suddenly introduced to the business end of a friend’s fist, after Edik was caught in bed with the friend’s girlfriend. Edik fell into a coma and died at the hospital a few days later. “In the course of personal investigative activities, I found a witness who saw Edik being dragged out into the street and thrown into the bushes under the cover of night, so everyone would think he fell and sustained a head injury,” explains Nasonov. The murder, he says, became one of the most serious crimes he’s ever exposed. 

In the mid-2000s, Nasonov regularly started helping out a filmmaker who lived in the neighborhood he policed. “A bunch of junkies” lived on the next floor and they often hosted loud parties late into the night. Nasonov says he devised various tricks, each time, to quiet them down. “Once, I unscrewed the peephole on their metal door and said I’d start pumping bullets or tear gas through the hole,” he recalls excitedly. “That was usually enough to bring them to their senses.”

These tactics left such an impression on the director that he thought of Nasonov the instant a producer asked him to cast “somebody real” for a new television series called “Detectives.” “Being on TV was the last thing I thought I’d ever do in life — second only to ballet,” says Nasonov. “I remember my wife encouraged me to go, to change things up.”

To Nasonov’s surprise, the new television show’s creators wanted to depict former police officers in a positive light, showing private detectives as people anyone can turn to for help. The showrunners questioned him about his subordinates and asked him to demonstrate how he issued orders. “Then they asked me to ‘take down’ one of the directors on camera. I grabbed him so hard that his arm hurt for three weeks. I hadn’t yet learned about faking it,” Nasonov laughs. 

A few weeks later, after Nasonov had already forgotten about the casting audition, he got an unexpected call from his police captain, who informed him that he was being let go. He soon discovered that one of the show’s main producers had used his connections and asked to have Nasonov fired from the police force, leaving him with just the television series offer. Admittedly, it was a good offer: the ex-cop earned twice the salary, though he had to suffer through learning his lines. “You had to remember them and that was the hardest thing,” he says. “But gradually I managed to get the hang of it.”

A true detective

Nasonov says the first 20 episodes of “Detectives” literally ended up in the garbage. “The producers’ goal was to film the show for a dime and sell it to the networks for a dollar. That’s why they hired cops, not actors, who were used to working long hours without complaining. To cut production costs, we filmed whole 20-minute episodes in a single day. This unavoidably affected the show’s quality,” he says. Over time, the film crew acclimated to the tight schedule and started recording five new episodes every week. 

Anna Shnygina for Meduza

“To win over viewers, you don’t need to be an actor with super good looks — it’s enough to be the guy from nextdoor,” says Nasonov. “We were credible. Many thought it was real people and real cases. Apparently, our clumsy filming added realism to the show.”

In 2006, “Detectives” started airing during New Year’s celebrations and it was broadcast until September 2011. Nasonov says the show’s audience was mostly housewives, teenagers, and security guards. Advertisers later lost interest in these demographics and “Detectives” was canceled. 

Before the show ended, Nasonov decided to go into business for himself as a private eye for real. “I figured: if I’m getting all this publicity on TV, I should open my own detective agency,” he recalls. “I was often getting letters asking for help, sent to Pervyi Kanal, addressed to me and my costar Igor Lukin. People came to us not so much about detective stuff as they were looking for justice and protection.” 

Nasonov opened an office in downtown Moscow, launched a website, and started getting business. Most clients came to him about finding missing people. Another time, a major businessman turned to his agency and asked him to collect evidence about the illegal use of his trademark. Nasonov flew to Sakhalin and staked out employees at the local branch of a Moscow company who were ripping off the business. As a result of this work, his client won his lawsuit.

Suspicious spouses turned to Nasonov less often, but even when this happened he was very careful about accepting such cases. “After learning the truth about her husband, one woman nearly killed herself,” Nasonov recalls. “On the other hand, when I saw that a woman wanted to understand the extent of the problem in order to build a system of behavior and keep her family intact, I didn’t refuse to help her.”

It wasn’t long before Nasonov realized that detective work in reality is far more tedious than it appears on TV. “On the show, we were constantly installing cameras and dashcams and planting bugs, and always doing it in the blink of an eye. In the real world, this looks a lot different. Once, at a client’s request, we set up video surveillance in his apartment. At first, my partner and I brought the equipment there: a hard drive, an uninterruptible power supply (in case the electricity went out), the system itself, and a battery. And then it took three hours to install.”

Due to his busy set schedule on the show, Nasonov was often unable to handle these cases himself, so he often relied on “officemates” who were also detectives. “I realized immediately that it wasn’t worth devoting myself completely to this work,” he says. “From the very beginning, I had a lot of questions. Almost all the information clients could want is protected by laws on personal data and privacy. You can get up to two years in prison for this stuff.”

At the same time, he says detective work is impossible without breaking the law in some ways: “Suppose a client comes to me and asks me to tail his wife. The law says I need her written consent for this. So the whole thing becomes pointless, of course. On the other hand, the same person might come to me and say, ‘My wife has gone missing. Here’s her photograph. She went missing somewhere around Sretenka Street [in Moscow]. Could you go up and down this street and look for her?’ And then I can tell him: ‘I walked up and down this street and saw your wife sitting in a cafe with such and such person.’ To offer ourselves some protection, detectives have to use secure communication channels and we don’t hand over — we only show — the information that clients want.” 

In the winter of 2018, federal agents arrested Nasonov. To this day, he won’t say why. “I was questioned twice as a witness in two criminal cases, one of which was tied to illegal detective work, but it became clear literally on day one that I had nothing to do with this. The second case concerned personal data, but I was never charged with anything here, either. Apparently, my surname leaked to the media in some report and journalists jumped all over the story.”

Sources tell Meduza that the authorities tried to charge Nasonov with organizing a criminal network. State investigators opened the case on the basis of the technically misleading language on his agency’s website, where he described his activities as detective work, even though he operated as a self-employed entrepreneur. His colleagues renting the same office had the same status. A source told Meduza that officers questioned Nasonov as a witness to past breaches of privacy and personal correspondence where the statute of limitations had already expired. 

“After this incident, however, there was no point in doing detective work,” says Nasonov. “My reputation was ruined.”

For nearly two years, Alexey Nasonov struggled to find another job. It was only recently that he was invited “to take on museum activities.” He’ll be working at the Federal Protective Service’s Special Operations Garage Museum that’s now under construction at Moscow’s All-Russian Exhibition Center (VDNKh), where he will look after the cars that have ferried Russia’s heads of state, from Nikolai II to today’s leaders.

Mr. Pytov and company

Meduza reached out to several active private detectives, most of whom refused to discuss their profession even anonymously.

A small minority of people in this field, however, not only agreed to speak on the record but explicitly asked Meduza to repeat the names of their detective agencies. Private eye Oleg Pytov’s website features an extensive autobiography with dozens of hyperlinks to articles and even TV and radio reports where his name pops up. In the mid-1980s, Pytov worked as a police officer and criminal investigator in Moscow, before leaving the force in 1993 and going into business for himself as a detective. Now 54 years old, Pytov has more than 25 years on the job. He was one of post-Soviet Russia’s first licensed private detectives. Back in those days, he says, what you needed was police experience and a clean criminal record. 

The first advertisement Oleg Pytov’s detective agency ever placed was in the Iz Ruk v Ruki newspaper, where he offered services in collecting information, tracking down debtors and fraudsters, and assisting with various investigations and inquiries. Pytov says there was virtually no competition at first, but the market for private eyes has grown rapidly in recent years. Rising demand has attracted amateurs, however. “Many call themselves detectives, but instead of investigating they just resell private information,” says Pytov.

Until 2018, the Interior Ministry was responsible for licensing private detectives in Russia. Today, this authority belongs to the National Guard, which created licensing and permitting divisions that oversee the country’s registered detectives. To get a license now, you need to be older than 21 and have a law degree or experience in law enforcement. Any criminal record (even misdemeanors), history of mental disorders, alcohol or drug addictions, or dishonorable dismissal from public service is immediately disqualifying. Licenses are good for five years. 

A Moscow private eye told Meduza that he’s never once used his detective certificate in 10 years on the job and considers it to be “a useless scrap of paper.” He spoke to us on condition of anonymity, so we’ll call him Dmitry. Dmitry says it’s impossible to conduct detective work in Russia today without breaking the law. “If you go to the website of any detective agency and look at the list of services they offer, you’ll find that most of them involve the disclosure of personal data, which is a criminal offense in this country,” Dmitry explains.

What does Russia’s law on private detective work actually say?

Private detective work in Russia is regulated according to a law adopted in 1992 that prohibits a number of investigative activities without which detective work is meaningless, including collecting personal data or any information about political or religious beliefs, recording video or audio, photographing anyone indoors without their written consent, obtaining access to information in special databases (like police records), and engaging in investigative activities that violate the secrecy of written correspondence or telephone conversations.

Like Oleg Pytov, Dmitry came to detective work after a career in law enforcement. Unlike his colleagues, however, he doesn’t advertise his services. He employs nearly a dozen other people at his agency and prefers to work with businesses (not individual clients) and only by recommendation or mutual connections. “Mostly, we’re asked to find out something about competitors, debtors, or staff who’ve stolen money,” says Dmitry. “For example, we find out about the competition’s suppliers and buyers, figure out where they owe money, and that kind of thing. It’s something like business intelligence. We rise and fall with the situation nationally; the worse things get, the more debtors and scammers there are, which means more work for us.”

Ninety percent of the business he gets from individuals, Dmitry says, is also tied to money. “Women want to know if their spouses are hiding extra income. There are days when we’ll hear from a guy who just fought with his girlfriend and now he wants something done so she’ll think about him constantly. Or it’s a man who thinks his wife is acting strangely. Or parents who want to know about their kid’s friends and whether or not they’ve fallen in with a bad crowd.”

Oleg Pytov calls himself “omnivorous” and says he takes all kinds of cases, whether it’s family issues or gathering evidence about a business partner. “I have this one lovely client — I can even say she’s my friend because I’ve known her for 18 years.” Pytov says. “For 18 years, I’ve helped her in business and in personal matters. Almost like the family doctor, I know everything about her children, her husband, and where they usually vacation.” 

Anna Shnygina for Meduza

Pytov says this client first turned to him to investigate a manager at her own company. A couple of years later, after learning that her husband was having an affair, she asked Pytov to collect damaging information about the other woman. In the end, her husband received evidence that his mistress had cheated on him. In fact, it was Pytov who orchestrated the other woman’s infidelity. 

But most of Pytov’s clients aren’t returning customers, and they’re mostly interested in tracking down specific individuals. “Sometimes people share a train, get acquainted, get to talking, and then they go their separate ways without ever thinking to exchange phone numbers. And then they can’t get the other person out of their heads. They ask me to find them. Twice in my practice, after these reunions, couples have nearly marched straight off to City Hall to get married.”

Services like these run about 13,000 rubles ($185), though most of that money is needed “to obtain the necessary information,” Pytov says. When asked exactly who sells such data, he answers in euphemisms: “The Internet is a giant cesspool. I log in, post a request, they quote a price, I pay it, and I get the information. It’s not my problem where it comes from. Maybe it’s from God Himself or maybe it’s from Hell below.” 

Pytov says anyone can request the data he gets from his sources. “[An affluent person], a manager, or a CEO can definitely pay money and get the necessary information from a database without turning to a private eye, but nobody writes anything about this. Although as soon as detectives do this, everyone starts writing about it and accusing them of illegal behavior,” he complains. 

When asked about his sources, Detective Dmitry was more candid: “It’s the Federal Service of State Registration, Land Register, and Mapping, the traffic police records, and the Pension Fund, tax databases, banks… I get access through friends in these agencies, or through people like me. Suppose I have access to tax records but not to police records, but it’s the reverse with someone else, so we’ll work together here. He’ll buy this information from me and I’ll buy that from him.”

Dmitry says he never gets mixed up in telephone records, which in theory can be obtained through employees at telecoms. This is one of the most expensive services on the black market. Due to the risk involved, individual records can cost up to 60,000 rubles ($870). “Many colleagues have already paid for selling this kind of information and landed in prison for trafficking private personal data,” says Dmitry. “And it’s very easy to get caught. One controlled purchase and they’ve got you.”

In other cases not connected to telephone records, Dmitry says private detectives aren’t often punished for digging up personal information. “Ninety percent of private eyes are former officers, so nobody comes for them. The main thing is not to start investigating high-ranking officials with countersurveillance or active law-enforcement staff. If you’re just tailing somebody’s wife, nobody cares.”

One of the biggest paradoxes of detective work in Russia is that private eyes cannot follow people without first notifying them about it and obtaining their written consent. As a result, explains Oleg Pytov, Russian detectives must resort to certain tricks in their interpretations of the law: “Every law has a loophole. If I’m driving in my car behind some other vehicle and I’ve got a video recorder running, who’s to say I’m tailing a particular person? Maybe that’s just the route I’m going.”

And there are things Russia’s laws don’t prevent detectives from doing, like analyzing open data available online. Pytov says it’s often enough for him and his colleagues to study a mark’s social media in an investigation, though he says “you’ve got to use your head to see things an ordinary observer or police officer wouldn’t see.”

Women detectives

Thirty-two-year-old Olesya Pukhova and 30-year-old Yuliya Trufanova have been in the detective business since the early 2010s. Both women opened their own agencies after several years with Oleg Pytov’s firm. Pukhova joined the field after studying information security in law school and working as one of Pytov’s analysts. Trufanova also studied law. Before joining Pytov’s team, she spent a year working as an assistant state investigator, when she learned about “this very famous” detective and decided to try pivoting to this new sphere. 

“In the interview, I had to pass a test,” says Trufanova, recalling her first meeting with Pytov. “They gave me the name of a client’s husband’s mistress and I needed to find out as much information about her as possible. I had to demonstrate my thought process: What sources would I start with? Where would I focus? During this discussion, it becomes clear if someone is predisposed to detective work.”

Initially, Olesya Pukhova’s detective agency was intended exclusively for women, but three years of requests from male clients forced her to retool. “In my work, I focus on personal issues, and we all know that not every male detective will want to delve into women’s problems,” explains Pukhova, adding, “Our psychology is different.” Like her mentor, Oleg Pytov, Pukhova says most of her work in the past five years has involved finding people, whether it’s debtors, fraudsters, or missed connections. She also evaluates partners and staff, essentially acting as a security service for small- and medium-sized businesses. 

Tracking children and adulterous spouses, says Pukhova, has gradually taken a back seat at her agency. “In 2011, most of my clients were men and women between the ages of 35 and 55, coming in with personal issues, but now it’s mostly men with business problems,” she admits. “I think it’s because of the [economic] crisis. People have started thinking less about personal stuff and more about how to repay debts and hold onto what they’ve got.” 

Yuliya Trufanova’s agency caters especially to women clients. “To a certain extent, a detective is a psychologist, and the women who turn to me often first need to unload, shed some tears, and complain,” she says. Most often, these women want assurances that their child hasn’t fallen in with a bad crowd or that their spouse remains faithful.

Anna Shnygina for Meduza

“I have this one client who’s crazy jealous,” says Trufanova. “Her husband actually agreed to an investigation to show her that he’s faithful. But that likely wouldn’t turn up anything, so I started looking at his social media. In the end, I found out that he was seeing some younger woman. There was one day when he told his wife that he was stuck at work, but in fact he was with his mistress — she tagged him in a photo on Instagram and he didn’t notice.”

Sometimes, Trufanova’s work doesn’t end at scouring social media. She was once approached by a young woman who’d discovered her own boyfriend’s account on a dating service. She and the detective decided to test him: posing as the daughter of an oligarch, Trufanova wrote to him. He “took the bait” and the two went on a date. When the boyfriend later essentially confessed to being in love with his new acquaintance, Trufanova’s client revealed the deceit and confronted him. “I probably would have refused if I’d needed to have played a schizophrenic or something,” says Trufanova. “But just going on a date? Why not. All you have to do is behave naturally, like an ordinary girl. There wasn’t much pretending necessary.” 

Olesya Pukhova once posed as a fortune-teller to get information she needed for an investigation. “I was still working with Oleg Pytov back then,” she recalls. “The case involved some fringe religious groups, and I needed to talk to this one woman who believed in everything that had to do with the occult. So I ended up introducing myself to her as a clairvoyant.”

Most of the time, however, Pukhova introduces herself as a detective, like when a private firm hired her to speak to a new employee’s former colleagues. “If an employer has information that a staff member was doing something illegal, the only way to find out is from their former colleagues,” explained Pukhova. “That kind of thing isn’t mentioned in performance reviews.” She said this procedure is possible only with the consent of the individual being investigated, and former colleagues may well refuse to talk to a detective. Pukhova acknowledged that she relies on more than interviews and open sources for information, but she wouldn’t clarify: “No self-respecting detective will reveal their sources to you. It’s a trade secret. Each detective has their own methods of obtaining the information needed to solve a client’s problem.” 

Yuliya Trufanova also evaded questions about her other sources, explaining that information available online needs to be verified carefully. “To confirm its authenticity, first I’ll order a credit history. If it checks out, I’ll know I can trust my sources.” 

Both Trufanova and Pukhova stress that detective work has none of the romance many attribute to the profession. For example, Pukhova compares the job to working as a lawyer and says her daily routine is nothing like what people have come to expect from watching films and TV. In fact, says Trufanova, these misrepresentations of their work can make it harder for them to do their jobs: “People think detectives can just push a button and everything you could ever want to know about somebody materializes instantly. People often come to us with outrageous ideas. They say they want wiretaps and bugs and they want to read someone’s emails, and we tell them: ‘Where did you get the idea that anyone does stuff like that?’ And they say they saw it in a movie.”

Friends of the police

Last fall, representatives of Russia’s detective community got an early look at draft legislation to overhaul how their profession is regulated. Written by United Russia deputy Anatoly Vyborny, the bill would separate the guidelines for detective and security-guard work (currently based on a law adopted in 1992) and endow private investigators “with not only responsibilities but also clearly defined rights.”

Vyborny told Meduza that reforming these regulations is long overdue and said he plans to introduce his draft legislation in the State Duma soon. “There are roughly a thousand detectives registered in Russia today — 995 to be precise,” he explained. “But we know that there are actually far more people working in this field. Every year, more and more individuals and businesses turn to the services of private detectives.”

One clause of the draft legislation lays out the concept of “detective secrets,” which Vyborny defines as information related to private investigative services rendered to a client that the detective cannot disclose without the client’s consent, including when the detective collaborates with law enforcement. The bill would also permit detectives registered in Russia to perform their services abroad and not just on home soil.

Vyborny says his reforms would grant detectives several other needed rights, as well, allowing them to join formal organizations and stop working “in singles” (where each private eye acts as a self-employed entrepreneur); to meet with suspects and defendants to collect case information (with permission from state investigators or the courts and an agreement with the individual being questioned); to collect information for the purposes of filing a lawsuit or police report; and to search for missing persons, debtors and their property, and children (with the appropriate enforcement paperwork). 

The detectives who spoke to Meduza agreed that major regulatory reforms are needed, but most expressed skepticism about Vyborny’s initiative, saying it doesn’t go far enough and won’t change much in the industry.

“The new legislation could bring us closer to the civilized countries that have private investigators,” says Olesya Pukhova. “For example, we’d be able to submit formal requests, which should reduce the effort needed to get information. For example, women have come to us time and again, wanting to check their domestic partners for criminal records. We’ve had to devise some pretty roundabout ways to do this, since we don’t currently have the right to file such requests. Meanwhile, it’s often turned out that the police have been looking for the husband for a long time, frequently on major felony charges.”

Russia’s private detectives would also welcome additional powers when it comes to searching for missing persons. “We sometimes hear from friends and relatives before the police open a case,” explains Yulia Trufanova. “If we had access to certain databases and we could work jointly with the police, we could locate people much faster.” Today, because private investigators aren’t considered subjects of criminal intelligence and surveillance operations, they’re granted zero formal police access and any information they collect independently is inadmissible as evidence in court.

Anna Shnygina for Meduza

Nevertheless, despite all these challenges, the market for detectives in Russia has become quite competitive, say Pukhova and Trufanova. There are more and more retired cops and the media’s growing interest in private investigators has created more and more clients. But this boom time for the industry does not translate into steady earnings, say both women. A private detective’s monthly income can fluctuate from nothing to 200,000–300,000 rubles (about $3,570). “If a grandmother comes to me looking for her granddaughter,” says Trufanova, “I can’t really take a kopeck from her. I’m not going to leave her without the last of her pension.” 

Detective Dmitry (the private eye who spoke to Meduza on condition of anonymity) says most of his colleagues wouldn’t be able to do their jobs without good friends in the police. The most common requests private investigators take unofficially to law enforcement are for information about people’s criminal records and the procedural status of any charges (whether the individual is wanted for any crimes or able to travel abroad). Dmitry says the police might even turn to private detectives for help in emergencies, “for example, if they need someone’s tax records in a pinch but there’s no time to submit an official request.” 

A former state criminal investigator we’ll call Leonid (who also spoke to Meduza on condition of anonymity) denies that police officers use private detectives like this. He says it’s quite simple for criminal investigators to file records requests and takes no more than a few minutes of paperwork: “You print it out, get your supervisor’s signature, and send it off! I don’t understand why you’d involve a third party in this process who has no right to request such information.”

At the same time, Leonid says he encountered private detectives more than once during his 20 years as a cop. For example, when a woman’s body turned up in his jurisdiction in 2002, Leonid’s police chief ordered him to “get to the bottom of it.” “They’d already decided not to open an investigation,” he recalls. “Meaning that the examiners ruled it an accident. But my supervisor told me the forensic analysis was low quality and that he suspected murder.” That same day, Leonid met two private detectives. The police chief wanted them to help him with the investigation.

The detectives drove Leonid to meet with the dead woman’s friends and relatives. He asked them questions compiled by the private investigators, recorded their personal information as witnesses, and briefed his supervisor every evening. The former police officer says the detectives were also interested in records from federal databases on taxes and more; they wanted to know what firms were registered in the names of the woman’s relatives, how much they earned, and how much they paid in taxes. Leonid had no trouble obtaining this information.

Leonid was pulled from the case after a month, and another six months later he learned the true motives of both the private detectives and his own supervisor: the dead woman owned a fairly large business that was supposed to pass to her husband after her death. To deprive him of this inheritance, one of the woman’s relatives decided to collect evidence that her death had been no accident. The relative then planned to blame the widower for his own wife’s murder. “It turns out that the detectives and I were gathering circumstantial evidence they wanted to use to put pressure on him,” says Leonid. “They threatened him, saying they’d move forward with the evidence, if he didn’t renounce his part of the inheritance.”

The detective agency with which Leonid was ordered to work belonged to relatives of his police chief, who had a financial interest in seeing through this collaboration. “A relative paid him, of course, to dig up some kind of ‘dirt’ on the husband and it looks like they just used me because none of the witnesses would talk to the detectives, let alone about family secrets, conflicts, and ‘dirty laundry,’” says Leonid.

In 2004, he had another run-in with private detectives. First, he got a visit from the parents of a missing child. Leonid and his colleagues were busy questioning potential witnesses and looking through phone and billing records, “but apparently the parents weren’t satisfied,” he says, “and they decided that cops are all good-for-nothings and ‘bribe-takers,’ so they hired some private detectives, paid them a hefty sum, and promised to double the fee if they found their kid. And they paid for every new piece of information. But where were these detectives supposed to get this information? So they came to me and asked me to sell them whatever information I had.” 

Leonid says he could have earned half his monthly salary, if he’d agreed to sell them a report containing telephone records: “The parents spared no expense, but the child was never found. They had savings and they were ready to start selling their belongings if necessary, just to find their kid. And here were people who’d decided to cash in on their grief.”

Leonid quit the police force in 2019. Near the end of his conversation with Meduza, he admitted that he’s recently given some thought to trying his hand at private detective work, though he says it’s sporting, not commercial, interest that drives him. Would he be able to do the job without access to databases or breaking the law? “There are some small things the police will never bother with,” says Leonid. “Misdemeanors, not felonies. I dunno, somebody’s car gets messed up a bit or there’s a small fight. Something not all that criminal. It would be good to hand those cases over to detective agencies. For that, though, the state needs to give them the chance to work.”

Story by Sasha Sulim, edited by Alexey Yablokov

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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