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Dying to get home Lada Malova became a teenage Internet celebrity by broadcasting her drug use, but Russia’s prison system may be what kills her in the end

Source: Meduza
Malova family photo

Lada Malova has spent the first four years of her 20s behind bars, and she’s only halfway through her eight-year sentence. Before prison, when she was still a teenager, Malova became an online celebrity in the “Dvach” community by broadcasting her life as a user. Since being locked up for supposed drug possession and attempted dealing, she’s developed multiple serious illnesses. Malova’s mother and lawyers now say the young woman could die in prison, but the authorities have refused, so far, to consider her release. Meduza takes a closer look at her story.

“I have a scar. There’s going to be another one from a lung biopsy. After that, it’s likely, maybe, that they’ll start to treat the sarcoidosis,” Lada Malova said in a letter to her friend Nikita. (An excerpt was made available to Meduza.) In the note, she drew a sketch of her chest with a depiction of two scars — “5 cm” is written above one of the images.

Malova penned the letter on December 10. Nearly four months have passed since then, but she’s received no additional medical treatment. In one of her most recent phone conversations with her mother, Malova said it was difficult for her even to make her bed. The slightest physical activity leaves her short of breath.

“Telephone terror” and a prison-system proxy

Police arrested Malova on June 18, 2015, when she was just 19. According to the case file, the Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) had information that Malova and her boyfriend were selling homemade amphetamines “in large quantities.” 

Initially, an acquaintance named Yura approached Malova and asked to buy a batch of drugs, complaining that his supply had dried up after his dealer’s arrest. Yura introduced Malova to another man, undercover agent Edward Korobeynik, who was posing as a buyer named Edik. Yura and Edik bombarded Malova with calls, telephoning more than 70 times a day, asking her to sell them 200 to 300 grams of amphetamine. This went on for about two months.

“Without mentioning any names, Lada said something about it — she said some guy was imposing himself on her, asking her to sell a large batch,” one of her friends told Meduza

An agent from the FSKN posing as a drug buyer even went to Malova’s house. But she always found excuses: She claimed she didn’t have money to buy the ingredients, or that there wasn’t enough time to manufacture the drugs. Eventually, however, she gave in, saying that she needed time to get the necessary ingredients, according to Edward Korobeynik’s courtroom testimony.

Malova’s acquaintance Yura was never questioned during the trial (Korobeynik called him his former “proxy”). Malova demanded the right to face Yura in court, but the judge denied the request on the grounds that it had “no relevance to the case.” 

“I demanded that they find this Yura,” Malova’s mother, Lyudmila Malova, explained to Meduza. “I was told, ‘There’s no such person.’ I said, ‘How can that be? I personally saw him in the FSKN building several times.’”

When it came time to bust Malova, Korobeynik was on vacation and a colleague named Vasilenko (whom he’d previously introduced as his girlfriend) went to make the “controlled purchase.”

In exchange for a bag of amphetamines from Malova, Vasilenko handed over an advance payment that contained 35,000 bills — only two of which were real. When the deal was done, officers swooped in and immediately arrested Malova. A search of her apartment turned up 19 grams of marijuana and 0.9 grams of amphetamine (“cleaned off a spoon”). Lyudmila Malova believes that agents planted the marijuana in her home to bolster their case.

But Lada Malova was no stranger to drugs and she made no secret of her habit. Malova began using at the age of 15. By 17, she was an online celebrity at the Internet forum Dvach, where she shared videos and other content cataloging her experiences with different illegal substances. On his YouTube channel, a friend named Alexander also documented the misadventures of Malova and her entourage over the years. Alexander reportedly died in 2016 due to a methadone overdose.

Malova’s close friend Nikita told Meduza that the erstwhile Internet star “did a lot of things and caused trouble,” but he insists that she never manufactured drugs. “Where would she have done it? She was constantly jumping from one place to the next, either in Petersburg or Moscow.” 

When she was arrested, however, Malova herself admitted that she’d agreed to sell amphetamines that she’d produced to Korobeynik. A day after this confession, on June 19, 2015, police formally charged the 19-year-old woman with illegal drug possession and attempted dealing.

Malova would later retract this testimony and claim to be the victim of police entrapment. She’d only agreed to sell the drugs to end harassment by FSKN agents, she explained, telling the court:

“I was subjected to daily telephone terror from FSKN officers — I mean, I will concede to the public prosecutor — by a person connected to the FSKIN [Yura]. I’m someone who’s been working since she was eight and I was looking at a lot of money here. They just shoved it in front of me and said, ‘You’re in — here’s an advance.’ I decided to roll the dice, figuring I’d cook up God-knows-what instead of the drugs.

Mom’s makeup

During the trial, Malova said she’d hatched a plan to fool Yura and Edik by selling them some of her mother’s cosmetics instead of drugs, “mixing them with harmless components.” “Shortly before her arrest, Ladka came to me in Moscow and took all my BioBiti cosmetic powder,” Lyudmila Malova told Meduza. “I was working at that company at the time.”

When the police examined the chemical compounds in the package Malova gave to Vasilenko, however, they say they found amphetamines.

At the same time, Malova’s mother has a document (which she made available to Meduza) that supports her daughter’s claim that she faked the drugs with cosmetics: It states that arresting police officers seized an insulin syringe, two needles, and a beige substance wrapped in a bag inside in her underwear, which proved not to be drugs, according to forensic analysis.

“Lada told me that she took part of the batch given to the agents and hid it in her underwear, so she could explain herself, just in case,” Lyudmila Malova says. “And I said to her, ‘You idiot!’”

But there was a problem with the apparently exonerating evidence: the last part of the document suggests that Malova was charged with fraud, not drug-related crimes. On the grounds of this “clerical error,” the judge threw out the document altogether.

In her final statement to the court, Malova didn’t just talk about swapping makeup for drugs. She also said the court should be aware that the FSKN operatives had used “mental coercion” to persuade her to sell drugs. She also reminded the judge about her illnesses (Malova has been diagnosed with epilepsy and a schizotypal personality disorder).

Unmoved, the judge sentenced her to eight years in a pentitenary, which was later reduced by two months on appeal. Malova was sent to serve her sentence in a women’s prison outside St. Petersburg.

Sarcoidosis and a lost chance for parole

By all accounts, Malova was a model prisoner. For example, she had a job as a plastics grinder, participated in a songwriting group, and made toys in a workshop. In November 2019, she and her toys were featured in a televised report about the Tosnensky Women’s Prison on the Len TV 24 network. In the broadcast, Malova recited her own poetry and showed off several handcrafted toy owls. A photograph of one of these owls, brown and wearing a leather hat, is now the homescreen on her mother’s smartphone.

“I arrived here and it all just came over me — all this grass, all this sky after days spent in detention,” Lada recalled. “And then it was like I got hit with a dusty old sack.”

In May 2020, Lada began to complain in telephone calls to her mother that she was experiencing knee problems and labored breathing. In early July, a routine examination revealed a widening of the root of her left lung, which occurs in various diseases such as sarcoidosis. She’d already contracted COVID-19 while in prison.

Malova family photo

Malova was transferred to the federal prison service’s tuberculosis hospital in Gorlovo, where doctors found no tuberculosis but confirmed late-stage sarcoidosis of the intrathoracic lymph nodes. Lyudmila Malova demanded immediate treatment for her daughter, but Lada was returned to her old prison and denied further medical attention.

A personal conflict with a prison official now exacerbated Malova’s situation, landing her in punitive confinement, where she was subjected to persistent cold (the temperature didn’t rise above 60 degrees Fahrenheit). Guards didn’t react when Malova vomited in her cell, and some reprimanded her for wearing a blanket during morning exercises. Any hope of early parole was now gone, as well.

When Malova’s time in punitive confinement was done, her condition got even worse, and she was transferred again, this time to the region’s Gaaz Federal Prison Hospital. Her mother says doctors diagnosed her with the progressive third-stage sarcoidosis with pulmonary fibrosis. They found evidence of tuberculosis, too, she told Meduza.

But officials sent Malova back to Gorlovo.

The system will resist

Alexey Pryanashnikov, a lawyer with the human rights group “Pravozashchity Otkrytki,” is now trying to help the Malova family, after Dvach administrator Nariman Namazov connected them. Pryanashnikov told Meduza that sarcoidosis is not included on Russia’s list of diseases that prevent a patient’s incarceration, though Malova also suffers from cyphoscoliosis (a serious curvature of the spine), which does qualify as a medical exemption from prison.

Nevertheless, Lyudmila Malova has little hope of winning her daughter’s release on medical grounds. “Usually, they only let them go when a person has just three to four weeks left,” she says, referring to another young woman with tuberculosis who was hospitalized with Lada. That inmate was finally released but died three weeks later.

Lyudmila Malova is now trying to get her daughter treated and document her medical history, in order to prove that she hasn’t received adequate medical care for the past several years. So far, however, every government agency, from the prison itself to the Attorney General’s Office, has refused to cooperate.

Dr. Vasily Mostnitsky, a pulmonologist at a private clinic in Moscow, told Meduza that the progression of sarcoidosis and shortness of breath Malova exhibits indicate the need for long-term hormone therapy — a procedure that takes at least nine months. In Malova’s case, the situation is even more complicated, the doctor says. “Treatment of sarcoidosis with hormones will automatically trigger tuberculosis activation.” Therefore it’s necessary to bring in high-quality specialists; otherwise, if her condition deteriorates further, the patient could die.

Vadim Klyuvgant, the vice president of the Moscow Bar Association, told Meduza that it’s difficult to get sick prisoners released in Russia — even when an inmate suffers from a disease that qualifies as an official medical exemption — because federal criminal statutes do not actually require courts release these patients. In each case, the decision is left to the judge, who may be influenced by a variety of factors, ranging from the prisoner’s identity and the nature of the offense to the presence of relatives willing to care for the patient.

“Even if the person is already in palliative care [for a terminal illness], the inmate won’t always be released,” says Leonid Agafonov, a human rights activist and former prison watchdog observer. “In large part, this boils down to a judge’s personal convictions. Most of my inmate [cases] who are cancer patients have died at the Gaaza Hospital.” 

Not only is it extremely difficult to get out of prison in Russia due to a serious illness, but sick prisoners also face a series of hurdles when seeking adequate medical care. What is available is often insufficient. The quality of the equipment and the qualifications of the personnel at the hospitals run by the Federal Penal Correction Service (FSIN) are generally poor, especially for the diagnosis and treatment of complex diseases.

“If the FSIN medical service were to confirm in writing that it’s necessary to employ civilian specialists, they’d have to start thinking about how to manage it. That solves one problem with another problem, which goes against the attitude here: if it’s possible not to solve it, it’s better not to solve it,” Vadim Klyuvgant told Meduza, stressing that the FSIN system “will resist” in most such cases.

In Lada Malova’s case, this is exactly what’s happened.

Transfer to Mordovia

Alexey Pryanashnikov, the human rights attorney working on Malova’s case, says Malova was supposed to get a hearing in October 2020 to review her application for release. “But the FSIN didn’t provide any medical documents that the judge could have used to review the case, and then she was transferred from one hospital to another,” the lawyer told Meduza. “The FSIN has taken the position that they do not surrender anyone.”

A new hearing was scheduled for March 11, 2021, but it had to be rescheduled once again: Lada Malova was being moved.

“You need to tell my mother that I left for Karelia on March 8. I don’t know if my letter will get through. I only found out I was leaving on March 7, late in the morning. Why and where exactly, I don’t know,” Malova told one of her friends in a letter, the night before she was transferred. 

For the next several days, Lyudmila Malova had no idea where her daughter had been moved. On March 14, she learned that Lada was being transferred almost 800 miles away to a penitentiary in Mordovia (not in Karelia, as she wrote in her note). Along the way, Malova was denied not only necessary medication but also warm clothes. When Meduza originally published this story (on March 23, 2021), Malova had reportedly only reached Yaroslavl and was still en route to Mordovia. Spokespeople for the FSIN declined to tell Meduza why Malova was moved.

Lyudmila Malova is still trying to get her daughter out of prison. Today, she places her hopes in Russia’s Supreme Court, where she plans to turn next. “When Lada is released, she’s going to create a business to sell exclusive souvenir toys,” her mother says. “And she wants to create a songwriters’ group — she writes poetry and plays the guitar.”

Story by Victoria Arakelyan

Translation by Carol Matlack

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