The reluctant official Meduza profiles Russia’s late emergencies minister Evgeny Zinichev, who did his utmost to avoid publicity but was thrust into spotlight
On Wednesday, September 8, Russia’s Emergency Situations Minister Evgeny Zinichev died on Lake Lama, 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of the Arctic city of Norilsk. The Emergency Situations Ministry (EMERCOM) said that the incident took place “during drills” in the region — allegedly, Zinichev died while attempting to save documentary filmmaker Alexander Melkin, who was standing next to the minister “on the edge of a cliff” when he slipped and fell into the water below. Melkin died, as well. This same version of events was recounted by RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan on Telegram (though she didn’t reveal her source). The Kremlin dismissed other accounts of the circumstances surrounding Zinichev’s death as “blasphemous, untrue fabrications.” Meduza profiles the late Evgeny Zinichev — “Putin’s former bodyguard” who, much to his dismay, found himself in the political spotlight.
Like many people in his line of work, Evgeny Zinichev has a tellingly short official biography. He was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1966, did a short stint in the Northern Fleet and immediately afterward, in 1987, began working for the Soviet KGB. After the disintegration of the USSR, he made a smooth transition to working for Russia’s state security agencies, including the country’s Secret Service — the Federal Protective Service or FSO (formed in 1996).
In 2012–2013, Zinichev was enrolled in a retraining program at the Russian Armed Forces’ senior staff college. In 2014, he was appointed deputy head of the Russian Federal Security Service’s counter-terrorism department and in 2015, he was made chief of the FSB’s Kaliningrad bureau.
Zinichev’s name became known to the public in the summer of 2016, when Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly appointed him acting governor of the Kaliningrad region. Back then, Zinichev was such an unknown figure that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had to officially confirm that he actually served in Putin’s personal security detail. At the time, a source close to the Kremlin told RBC that Zinichev was one of Putin’s aides-de-camp.
Evgeny Zinichev is one of four former FSO officers, whom Putin has appointed to act as governor in various Russian regions. But he didn’t remain in this post for long. Indeed, Zinichev stepped down as the Kaliningrad region’s acting governor after just two months. He was remembered for giving a very short first press conference (speaking to journalists for all of 49 seconds), which turned out to be his last. In October 2016, Putin dismissed Zinichev from his post for “family reasons.”
While serving as acting governor, Zinichev quickly realized that holding civil public office wasn’t for him, a source who worked in Putin’s administration at that time told Meduza. “Honestly, he told the president about this, asking for familiar employment. Putin appreciated the honesty,” the source said.
Sources close to the Kremlin and the FSB’s leadership also told RBC in 2016 that Zinichev “couldn’t connect with gubernatorial work.” “Zinichev had tremendous problems with publicity, he avoided it,” one source explained.
Among the few decisions that Zinichev managed to make while in office was to appoint Anton Alikhanov as the deputy premiere of the regional government — this post had been empty since its inception six years beforehand. Alikhanov stepped in to lead the Kaliningrad region immediately after Zinichev’s dismissal, becoming the youngest acting governor in Russia. At the time, he had just turned 30 years old — the minimum age requirement for a person occupying this post, according to the law. “There were rumors that Zinichev was ‘keeping the seat warm’ for Alikhanov until he was old enough. But this isn’t the case, initially he tried to fit in, it was clear that he was going to work, but it was [also] clear how difficult it was for him to be in the public eye,” said a Meduza source in the regional deputy corps.
“Zinichev is one of the people closest to Vladimir Putin. He has confidence in him and believes that he is able to grow. And the fact that Zinichev acted like a man, [when] faced with publicity unfamiliar to him, and didn’t try to hold onto the post of governor by any means, but asked to be released, was also a plus for him,” Andrey Kolyadin, Putin’s former deputy plenipotentiary envoy to the Ural Federal District, told the Russian BBC. “There’s no need for PR here, you need to carry out orders. Zinichev is hard-working, loyal, and discreet, he suits the tasks at hand,” he added.
Almost immediately after his resignation, Zinichev was awarded the rank of Lieutenant General and appointed as deputy director of the FSB. He served in this post for about 18 months and in May 2018, he joined the Russian Cabinet: Putin made Zinichev minister of emergency situations. That same month, he became a member of Russia’s Security Council by presidential decree.
A source told Vedomosti that Zinichev’s specific tasks within the FSB were largely unknown: he organized his one small office that had a “life of its own.” In addition, political scientist Evgeny Minchenko said that Zinichev was considered a possible candidate for the post of FSB director, so his appointment to the Emergency Situations Ministry (EMERCOM) wasn’t important “in itself” — the main thing is that he didn’t become FSB chief, Minchenko said, describing the intrigues within the security service.
Immediately after taking up his new role, Zinichev tasked EMERCOM’s employees with “working out the department’s optimal structure, so that the organization of the Emergency Situations Ministry’s regional headquarters is in accordance with the structure of the central office.”
Heading a federal ministry makes it impossible to keep silent and stay in the shadows, but Zinichev tried to keep his public speaking to a minimum and increasingly fell back on boilerplate official phrases. “It’s extremely important to increase public trust in the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry’s people and continue the traditions established in the ministry over the many years of its existence,” Zinichev once said during an EMERCOM conference call.
But within a week, the new minister began to disrupt some of these “established traditions,” canceling several orders and instructions handed down by his predecessor, Vladimir Puchkov. For example, Zinichev revoked the ban on transferring staff between divisions; instead of orange berets (another one of Puchkov’s innovations), he brought back the old service caps.
“For us, the berets were like a red flag to a bull. They were perceived as a complete reversal — the victory of the military personnel that flooded the Emergencies Ministry’s leadership over the fire brigade,” a firefighter, who asked to remain anonymous, told Kommersant. “The officers didn’t wear the berets, receiving penalties for this from their superiors. So their removal has a symbolic meaning: it’s a signal that policy is changing completely.”
Zinichev then proceeded to carry out a full audit of the ministry, which revealed systemic shortcomings in its work. In particular, according to RBC, the audit uncovered that the fire brigade was short 23,000 personnel, and the duty guards — 11,000. “For example the number of combat crew in a fire engine is two or three people instead of six,” explained Viktor Yatsutsenko, the head of EMERCOM’s National Crisis Management Center. According to him, there are currently approximately 1,000 facilities per inspector.
Yatsutsenko said that the managerial decisions Puchkov had made also led to the “destruction of logistical infrastructure,” as well as the “destruction of the Emergency Situations Ministry’s rear chain of command.”
EMERCOM’s new head actively recruited officials from the “power bloc” to work in his department. Thus, in early June 2018, the Russian Attorney General’s former senior assistant on special instructions, Alexey Serko, became the deputy head of the emergencies ministry.
That same month, EMERCOM unveiled its new Internal Security Department, with a staff of 40 people, which replaced a very small department that handled these issues. In addition to dealing with security, this new department was supposed to fight corruption and monitor the Emergency Situations Ministry’s other branches.
In 2019, Zinichev announced the start of another structural reform of the ministry. Though the previous restructuring effort ended the year before, it was followed by constant discussion about new reforms of the ministry.
One of Zinichev’s most recent initiatives was a proposal to return control over the protection of forests to the federal level. “To return to the federal level control and oversight functions for the protection, defense, and reproduction of forests. At present, all of this has been transferred to the [regions],” the EMERCOM head said during a meeting with Putin in August.
In his last interview before his death, Zinichev talked about the Arctic as “one of the most important priorities for both the socio-economic development of Russia and its national security.” The drills in Norilsk — during which, according to official reports, Zinichev died — were part of the program for the development of a security system in Russia’s Arctic region.
Update. On Thursday, September 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree that conferred the title of “Hero of Russia” on the late Evgeny Zinichev. The decree states that the title was awarded “for heroism, courage, and bravery in the line of duty.”
Translation by Eilish Hart