‘I’ll survive some community service’ Proekt’s journalists talk to Meduza after facing police raids and interrogations
On the morning of June 29, Moscow police raided the homes of three journalists from the investigative outlet Proekt: editor-in-chief Roman Badanin, his first deputy Mikhail Rubin, and correspondent Maria Zholobova. After seizing their laptops, cell phones, flash drives, and SIM cards, the police took the journalists in for questioning. They were later released after being declared witnesses in a criminal libel case initiated in late 2017 at the request of businessman Ilya Traber — an alleged mobster from St. Petersburg, who’s also a long-time acquaintance of Vladimir Putin. After leaving the interrogation, Roman Badnin told the press that the reason for the raids wasn’t the Traber case, but rather an investigation that Proekt published that same day: a deep dive into the alleged family wealth of Russia’s top police official, Vladimir Kolokoltsev (You can read Meduza’s summary here). Meduza special correspondent Anastasia Yakoreva spoke with the three journalists about what the police were looking for, the questions they asked, and what Proekt plans to do next.
Roman Badanin, Proekt founder and editor-in-chief
Proekt editor-in-chief Roman Badanin says that the police raids targeting him and his colleagues came as a complete surprise, as per usual. “In the morning I opened the door to the investigators while my daughter was in my arms,” he tells Meduza. However, he also adds that there were “definite signs” that the protagonist of their new investigation — Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev — was getting worried.
“We sent all the inquiries [to the Interior Ministry] more than two weeks ago, so of course they were in the know,” Badanin explains, recalling that Proekt announced the release of its latest report the night before. “We heard from sources that there [was] some kind of stir.”
Badanin says Proekt decided to dig into the personal history and family wealth of Russia’s top cop because Kolokoltsev is an important figure whose story “hasn’t been fully told.” The editor-in-chief also recalls that the interior minister has been in power for nearly a decade — and his apparent wealth doesn’t match his reported income.
Asked whether the police raids will prompt any changes for Proekt’s newsroom, Badnin assures Meduza that “we aren’t going to shut down.” “[As for] how we will change our work technically, I’m not yet prepared to say. We’ll talk about this alot, both with our lawyers and among ourselves,” he says.
Mikhail Rubin, first deputy editor-in-chief
On the morning of June 29, Proekt’s deputy chief editor Mikhail Rubin got a message from his colleague Maria Zholobova saying that the police were knocking on her door. He took a taxi there immediately, only to be roughly detained the second he arrived. “I didn’t have a chance to get out [of the taxi], I had a backpack in my hands, which went flying — they grabbed me, started to shout something at me, poked me, and twisted my arms,” he recalls, adding that the officers who detained him weren’t in uniform.
For a long time, the police officers didn’t tell Rubin he was a witness in the case connected to the raid. As they conducted a search of his parents’ home, they kept hinting that the the situation was “bad.” “When the lawyer arrived, they started behaving better,” Rubin tells Meduza. “At the same time, my registered address was specified on the warrant, but they immediately told me that ‘you didn’t spend the night there today.’ So it seemed to me [that] clearly they were tailing [me].”
Rubin says that during the raid, the police were only interested in seizing his devices and “all documents related to Proekt.” He also underscores that they were looking for recent documents and didn’t seem interested in the 2017 documentary about Ilya Traber, which, incidentally, Rubin didn’t work on. “That’s the funniest thing. I didn’t have anything to do with the film about Traber and this didn’t worry them at all,” Rubin tells Meduza. “They explained to me privately — well did you work at Dozhd at the time? You might have a connection.”
“During the interrogation I was asked a few questions about Traber for the sake of decency,” Rubin continues. “[The investigator] even looked at the film’s credits again — I wasn’t there. And from then on he [spent] the entire time trying to find out something about Proekt.” In his words, the investigator was “exclusively” interested in Proekt and its financing, as well as Rubin’s own sources of income and his connections to Roman Badanin.
Asked if the investigators brought up Kolokoltsev during the interrogation, Rubin says the interior minister’s name came up during the raid. “We discussed today’s article with them [the police], and then they said among themselves that they had already read it, that it had been published. They told me rather triumphantly: ‘We didn’t interfere in its publication. It came out’,” the journalist recalls. “That’s to say that I discussed the article with all the officers I dealt with.”
Maria Zholobova, correspondent
“At 7 o’clock in the morning I was woken up by hellish knocking and ringing at the door, they hammered [on it] with force, and they rang [the doorbell] without letting go of the buzzer,” says Proekt correspondent Maria Zholobova in conversation with Meduza. When she didn’t buzz them into the building, the police started ringing Zholobova’s neighbors, who let them into the common area outside of her apartment. “They came to my door and started hammering on it, saying: ‘Maria Viktoronva, we will open the door for you, open up’.”
Zholobova waited for her lawyer to arrive before she opened the door. The police came in and handed her a search warrant connected to the 2017 libel case over the documentary about Ilya Tarber that she worked on at Dozhd. “The statute of limitations in this case has already expired,” Zholobova underscores, adding that the search warrant appeared to have been signed at the St. Petersburg Interior Ministry branch at 12 o’clock at night. “As far as I know, they got into their cars at night and drove to Moscow in a large group,” she says, recalling how many security officers were involved in the raid.
Regarding the search conducted at her home, Zholobova says the police seized her devices right off the bat, confiscating her cell phone, laptop, flash drives, and all other electronics. After that, they rifled through her apartment “carefully,” seizing nothing except for her notes. “They photographed all of my notepads, all of my notebooks, every page. And then they took them with them,” the journalist recalls.
When the police tried to question her inside her apartment, Zholobova refused to give a statement, citing Article 51 of the Russian Constitution, which states that you aren’t obliged to testify against yourself. She was then handed a summons for interrogation at the local Interior Ministry office.
Zholobova says she was questioned by law enforcement officers from St. Petersburg. “I don’t think they have any idea who [Ilya] Traber is and what this film is about,” she tells Meduza. “It was really because of Kolokoltsev.” The officers claimed to have watched the investigation about the interior minister, but they seemed to know little else about Zholobova and her work. “They didn’t know where I work, they didn’t know about Proekt, they didn’t know anything at all,” she recalls.
The interrogation lasted about an hour; Zholobova was released after she refused to answer questions about her sources. “I think the main goal was to seize all of the devices and, perhaps, to frighten. But this obviously has nothing to do with Traber,” the journalist emphasizes.
Asked how the day’s events have affected her, Zholobova says she’s mostly angry that she can’t access her devices. “In fact, this scared my mom more. Though I haven’t actually had time to comprehend it all myself,” she tells Meduza. “I’ve been a witness [in this case] for four years already. Now I don’t know what I’m being threatened with, but if it isn’t prison time, then okay, I’ll survive some community service.”
Summary by Eilish Hart