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‘If you die, I’ll die, too’ A suspect from the high-profile Network terrorism case was recently charged with murdering 19-year-old Katya Levchenko in 2017. Meduza correspondent Kristina Safonova spoke with Katya’s mother.

Source: Meduza

Nineteen-year-old Katya Levchenko disappeared in the spring of 2017, but it wasn’t until February 2020 that her mother, Tatyana, learned that Katya had died. That’s when Meduza released an investigation that outlined several Penza Network case suspects’ possible involvement in the murder of Katya Levchenko and her boyfriend Artyom Dorofeyev, who disappeared along with her. In early October 2021, Maxim, who had already been sentenced to 13 years in prison for allegedly plotting terrorist activity (the Russian authorities consider the Network a terrorist organization) and attempting to sell illegal drugs, was charged with Levchenko’s and Ivankin’s murders. Soon after, another Network case suspect, Alexey Poltavets, who first told Meduza about the murders and confessed to one of them himself, was put on the wanted list. Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova spoke with Tatyana Levchenko about her daughter’s life and death, her attitude towards Ivankin, last year’s investigation, and a future without Katya.

The Network case is one of Russia’s highest-profile political court cases in recent years. In 2017, 11 people from Penza and St. Petersburg, most of whom were leftists, Antifa activists, and anarchists, were detained in connection with the case. Investigators claimed they had created a “terrorist organization” with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the current Russian government. The prosecution’s case was largely founded on the suspects’ own confessions. While they later claimed the confessions had been extracted through torture, these allegations were never investigated. Human rights advocates have repeatedly pointed out that the Penza Network terrorist organization doesn’t exist and never has; they consider the entire case fabricated. Despite widespread public demonstrations, the suspects in the Network case in Penza were issued sentences from six to 18 years in prison, while the suspects from St. Petersburg were given from three and a half to seven years.

The police gave some of Katya Levchenko’s remains to her mother, Tatyana, in paper bags. Each bag was labeled with the bone or fragment it contained. The rest of her remains, which had been kept in a medical examiner’s office, were wrapped up in an extra bag, plastic and opaque, when Tatyana went to pick them up. “‘To make it easier, so you don’t have to see anything,’” Tatyana recalled the staff member saying. “They were very light — just weightless.”

The last time Tatyana spoke to her daughter was on April 1, 2017, when Katya called from an unknown number and told Tatyana she wouldn’t be coming home that night. Katya’s voice sounded anxious, Tatyana recalled, but she assured her everything was fine and told her not to worry. Katya often stayed the night with her boyfriend, 21-year-old Artyom Dorofeyev, who was renting an apartment in Penza with a college classmate named Mikhail Kulkov. Their friend Maxim Ivankin, who’d graduated from the same college, spent a lot of time at the apartment, too.

Tatyana was happy with the setup. According to her, Katya hadn’t previously had many close friends, but now she’d befriended some “decent guys” who were a “good influence on her.” In a February 2020 interview with Meduza, Tatyana recalled Katya raving over her new friends. She frequently mentioned Maxim, with whom she liked discussing philosophy and literature: “She admired how he would walk around in the woods, how he had special clothing, and how he knew his way around the forest and would invite them on camping trips.”

What Tatyana didn’t know when she received that last call was that on March 31, Ivankin and Kulkov had been detained on suspicion of attempted large-scale drug trafficking. Also detained was their acquaintance, 16-year-old Alexey Poltavets, who had recently moved to Penza from Omsk. Of the three, only Kulkov confessed to the drug trafficking charges, and he was put on house arrest. Ivankin was released on his own recognizance, and Poltavets, who appeared in the case only as a witness, went home to his parents.

Katya Levchenko and Artyom Dorofeyev disappeared on April 2. The following day, Ivankin and Poltavets left the house as well. On April 25, after Mikhail Kulkov fled house arrest, he and Ivankin were put on the wanted list. That same day, Tatyana Levchenko found a computer-printed note in her mailbox that read, “Mom, everything’s fine with me, don’t worry. I’ll try to come back soon, but in the meantime, we can only communicate over Jabber.” Then there were instructions for downloading the Jabber messenger app and a request to burn the note.

Katya Levchenko
Tatyana Levchenko’s personal archive

“The first thing she said [on Jabber] was, ‘Mom, I haven’t done anything wrong. We’re going to leave, don’t worry, everything’s fine,’” said Tatyana. She tried to convince Katya to come home, but Katya only promised to be in touch from time to time. That was the last time Tatyana heard from her.

For a while, Katya and Artyom’s parents told themselves the only reason they weren’t hearing from their children was because the two were afraid of getting arrested. After all, their friends — Ivankin and Kulkov — were charged not only with attempted drug trafficking but (in March 2018) also for involvement with the Network, which has been declared a terrorist organization by the Russian authorities. At that time, Tatyana said, she spent a lot of time reading about the Network case and sharing posts on social media in support of the suspects.

The case surrounding the Network — a “terrorist group” that, according to investigators, was created “with the intention of forcibly changing the constitutional order of the Russian Federation and using weapons to carry out terrorist activities” — appeared in the fall of 2017. The suspects were 11 people from Penza and St. Petersburg. The majority of them were leftists, Antifa activists, and anarchists.

Seven of the suspects — Egor Zorin, Ilya Shakursky, Dmitry Pchelintsev, Maxim Ivankin, Mikhail Kulkov, Andrey Chernov, Vasily Kuksov, and Armon Saginbayev — were handled by the FSB’s Penza office. Three more — Igor Shishkin, Viktor Filinkov, and Yuli Boyarshinov — were charged by the agency’s St. Petersburg office.

The formal grounds for initiating the case were testimony given by Egor Zorin, who was detained in Penza on October 17, 2017, for drug possession. It was Zorin’s detainment that year: sometime around the beginning of March, FSB officers had apprehended him for smoking marijuana, but soon released him. The case materials include a letter written by Ilya Shakursky, a classmate of Zorin’s, titled “About Grisha from Voskhod” (“Grisha” was Zorin’s nickname in the Penza Antifa community). In it, Shakursky concludes that the FSB officers “were just looking for an informant.” After his detainment in October 2017, Zorin continued testifying against his friends, and he ultimately became a witness in the Network case.

The prosecution relied heavily on confessions given by the suspects themselves. Many of them later said, however, that they confessed as a result of torture or threats of it, and that in reality, this wasn’t a “terrorist group” but a group of friends who got together to play with airsoft guns. A large-scale campaign was launched in support of the defendants.

The three judges of the Volga District Military Court called the suspects’ torture claims “far-fetched and given to support the defendants’ chosen position.” “The Court regards them as a case of deliberately misleading the public, an attempt to discredit their own initial testimonies and give the case significant public resonance,” the sentence reads.

In February 2020, the court sentenced the seven Penza Network case suspects to terms from six to 18 years in prison. Ilya Shakursky was found guilty of both organizing and participating in a “terrorist group” and illegally possessing explosives and weapons. Dmitry Pchelintsev and Vasily Kuksov were also found guilty of illegally possessing weapons. Three other defendants — Maxim Ivankin, Mikhail Kulkov, and Andrey Chernov — were also given sentences for attempted large-scale drug trafficking.

The suspects from St. Petersburg also made claims about torture. The court rejected the claims and sentenced Yuli Boyarshinkov and Viktor Filinkov to five and a half years and seven years in prison, respectively.

Igor Shishkin, who pleaded guilty and made a deal with investigators, was sentenced to three years in prison. In late July, 2021, he was released from prison and left Russia for Europe, where he requested political asylum.

The Network case includes two more suspects who go by the pseudonyms Boris and Timofey. Officially, their identities haven’t been established, so their cases are being conducted through a separate process. However, Meduza has determined that investigators have known at least since the spring of 2018 that Boris is Alexey Poltavets. His case, according to a source from the Investigative Committee’s Penza department, was transferred from the FSB to the Investigative Committee because Poltavets was a minor when he participated in the Network’s activities. According to Poltavets, Timofey was the Penza Antifa community’s nickname for Artyom Dorofeyev. You can read more about him here

The Network case materials include documents compiled by government officials who were searching for Ivankin and Kulkov. According to those documents, the two men were hiding out with their “friends,” Levchenko, Dorofeyev, and Poltavets.

On July 4, 2018, Maxim Ivankin and Mikhail Kulkov were detained in Moscow, while Alexey Poltavets had already fled the country. Katya and Artyom’s whereabouts were still unknown.

Ivankin and Kulkov were taken to Penza, where they were interrogated by Yevgeny Kiryukhin, one of the officers searching for Katya and Artyom. They told Kiryukhin they had last seen the two near the Ryazan regional border, where the group split up: Maxim and Mikhail went to Moscow, while Katya and Artyom headed towards Krasnoyarsk Krai. Kulkov then provided a DNA sample, while Ivankin refused. Later, in February 2020, Ivankin’s lawyer, Konstantin Kartashov told Novaya Gazeta that this was because Ivankin didn’t trust the investigators. Kartashov also gave a different version of events: he claimed that Ivankin and Kulkov had last seen Levchenko and Dorofeyeva on March 30, 2017 — before their disappearance.

But on November 27, 2017, a man’s body was discovered in a forest near Ryazan. According to an Investigative Committee report, it was “partially buried, with fractured facial bones and damage to the left parietal lobe and the front of the neck.” In February 2019, DNA tests confirmed that the body was Artyom Dorofeyev.

Investigators continued to search the area for Katya’s body, but with no success. Tatyana Levchenko recalled how, until Artyom’s body was identified, she “hadn’t even considered the thought that something bad might have happened.” When she learned of Artyom’s death, she spent some time in a rehab center; then she began consulting priests, who assured her Katya was alive. One religious official advised her to look for Katya in the village of Kadom, near Ryazan. “How was I supposed to look for her? You can’t just go to every single house. So I just rode around Kadom in my car, which she knew well. My car is brightly colored, red orange, like a carrot. I think she’d see it right away. I mean, it’s a village, there’s nobody there,” Tatyana told Meduza, a year and a half ago.

Now she says, “I was still hoping, thinking something that bad couldn’t have happened to her, it just couldn’t have. How could it be possible? My daughter doesn’t exist anymore. No — she’s alive, she must be alive, there’s no other way.”

Meduza first learned about Katya’s death in February 2020, when Alexey Poltavets claimed that he himself had killed Artyom Doroseyeva, and that Maxim Ivankin had killed Katya Levchenko. According to Poltavets, the decision to commit the murder was made collectively before being announced to the perpetrators by Dmitry Pchelintsev, another person involved in the Network case. Pchelintsev and his companions were afraid Katya and Artyom would testify against them.

A Ryazan woman who briefly housed the suspects (along with Katya and Artyom) later confirmed Poltavets’s version of events.

There was also evidence supporting this version in the Network case materials. For example, an October 2017 correspondence between Poltavets and Andrey Chernov, another person convicted in the Network case, shows Poltavets complaining that he warned everyone “not to interact with ‘civilians’” (referring to Levchenko and Dorofeyeva). “They completely ignored me,” he wrote. “Just ask G [Ivankin] and D [Pchelintev], I was always against them [Levchenko and Dorofeyeva] and told them [Ivankin and Pchelintsev] that, and they said, ‘whatever, it’s fine.’ And then, I’m the one who ends up dealing with the issue to make sure they [Levchenko and Dorofeyeva] don’t turn anyone in.”

On February 27, 2020, after Meduza published its investigation, the Investigative Committee opened a criminal case for Katya Levchenko’s murder; it was later combined with Artyom Doroseyev’s case. On March 4, Katya’s remains were found in the forest near Ryazan, not far from where Artyom’s body had been discovered three years earlier. Meduza informed the police of the body’s location after learning it from Alexey Poltavets.

“Before the investigation came out, I called you to tell you what we’d learned. And you told me that of course you couldn’t believe Katya had died. At what moment did you start to believe it?” Meduza asked Tatyana Levchenko.

“When they found her remains. At that point, my entire world turned upside down for the second time. The first was when Poltavets said everything he said,” she explained.

“I wasn’t myself that day. It was like I had a giant black hole inside me that hurt really badly, and a terrible emptiness. At work, I just sat there and answered journalists’ questions. I didn’t do anything else,” said Tatyana. “In the evening, I went with [my ex-husband, Katya’s father] Sergey to a restaurant. I had no desire to go home. I just wanted — poof! — to disappear. You can’t get away from this kind of pain. Me and Sergey met to discuss the situation. But we sat there in silence for probably an hour, not discussing anything.”

Katya and Tatyana Levchenko
Tatyana Levchenko’s personal archive

“Here we are, Katya, riding the subway”

In March 2020, law enforcement agencies managed to find only part of Katya’s remains. In April of that year, they found another part. But they found the largest portion — “seven bones” — in September, according to Tatyana Levchenko. Presumably, animals took the rest of the remains.

Throughout this period, Tatyana constantly asked Investigative Committee members when they would allow her to bury her daughter. They finally gave her permission in late April 2021.

Katya’s parents picked up her remains in Ryazan; some were kept at the medical examiner’s office and other pieces were held by the police. Tatyana Levchenko recalled worrying that some of her daughter’s bones would get lost. She was also unsure how to confirm that she’d received all the remains. “I was so worried, I thought, ‘I just can’t do all this… How do I do it?’”

But the medical examiner’s office compiled a special chart that listed the recovered remains. In March, investigators found a skull without a lower jaw, a rib, and some vertebrae. In April, they found Katya’s left pelvic bone. In September, a few more fragments, including her right pelvic bone, right shoulder bone and collarbone, her lower jaw, left fibula, and femur.

Forensics experts confirmed the remains as belonging to Katya Levchenko in March 2020. After that, other experts examined the remains, according to Tatyana. But she decided to go to one more expert — one independent from the investigation — from another medical examiner’s office in the suburbs of Moscow. The results of that analysis also confirmed the Investigative Committee’s earlier conclusion (Meduza has a copy of the forensics report).

“Did you have any doubts?”

“No, I didn’t. But you know, there were a lot of people saying it wasn’t Artyom, it wasn’t Katya. And I thought, ‘you know, who knows what will come out. Anything can happen.’ And that would have been comforting for me.”

The main conclusions

In his interview with Meduza, Alexey Poltavets said that Maxim Ivankin killed Katya with a knife. Poltavets himself shot Artyom Dorofeyev, and when Dorofeyev didn’t die immediately, Poltavets cut his artery because he “didn’t want him to spend any time suffering.”

Katya Levchenko’s death certificate and Artyom Dorofeyev’s forensic examination form (Meduza has copies of both documents) were signed by the same person: Ryazan forensic examiner Sergey Mordasov.

Katya Levchenko’s cause of death, according to the forensic examiner’s report, could not be established “due to the skeletonization of the corpse and the loss of a significant portion of the bone formations.” Artyom’s cause of death also couldn’t be indicated for similar reasons.

In the conclusion, Mordasov lists the various injuries on Dorofeyev’s body. They include a multifragmentary-splintered bone fracture on the facial skeleton and a wound in the skull’s left parietal region. He also wrote that “the front surface of the neck contains a linear horizontal wound with rough edges and rounded ends, penetrating through to the spinal column, the length of the wound is about 19 cm. At the bottom of the wound, there is damage to the anterior ligaments between 4-5 of the cervical vertebrae.”

The damage to Dorofeyev’s facial skeleton, figured Mordasov, was due to “the effect of a blunt object or objects.” It wasn’t possible to determine whether Dorofeyev got these injuries before or after his death. The same went for the wounds on his neck.

According to a specialist from the Moscow regional Bureau of Forensic Medical Examination to whom Meduza showed the report, it’s “very low-quality.” “It’s a meager description of the damage to the facial skeleton, the size of the damaged area isn’t specific, there’s no medical-forensic research data included, the presence or absence of a case shot isn’t indicated (it would be strange for an analysis to skip that), and no tooth damage is mentioned. That’s why his conclusion includes the standard “the effect of a blunt object or objects.”

Russian Academy of Sciences member correspondent and former Russian Center for Forensic Medical Examination director Yury Pigolkin also took notice of the especially vague description of the damage to Dorofeyev.

Sergey Mordasov declined to comment without his superiors’ approval. In response to a request from Meduza, the Ryazan Bureau of Forensic Medical Examination said they could not disclose any information about this case in accordance with the Criminal Procedure Code.

After Meduza’s investigation was published, a new theory appeared; it held that the remains being studied in the Ryazan Bureau of Forensic Medical Examination did not belong to Artyom Dorofeyev. This idea was based on the idea that the body found in the forest, judging by security agents’ official statements, did not look like Dorofeyev. For example, both a message from the Investigative Committee and Mordasov’s report put the body’s height at 180 cm (about five feet and 11 inches). Meanwhile, Artyom was about 10 centimeters taller.

However, DNA samples of the man found in the forest showed matches with samples taken from Artyom Dorofeyev’s parents. This was confirmed by an independent examination organized by Artyom’s Mother, Nadezhda Dorofeyeva.

“I rushed there [to the medical examiner’s office] in the morning and picked up her remains. The next train wasn’t leaving until the evening, it was 30 degrees Celsius [86 degrees Fahrenheit], and there wasn’t anywhere to go within walking distance,” Tatyana recalled. “It was during a coronavirus wave and all the shopping centers were closed. So, I went to IKEA. It was open, and at the very least, it was a place to cool off. I spent half a day in there with Katya’s remains. I said, ‘Well, Katya, you and I are going shopping together. My God.”

Tatyana arrived at the train station early, so she got on the subway to escape the heat. “I got on one of the loops, the air was so cool, it felt so good just to live. We rode the loop, five or six times, until it was time to board the train. I sat there thinking, ‘Here we are, Katya, riding the subway. My God.”

“That’s when I realized my life was over”

“At some point, Katya said, ‘Mom, if I die, bury me next to Grandpa in the cemetery in the village,” said Tatyana. “‘Are you crazy?’ I told her. ‘Bury you? If you die, I’ll die too.’ Thinking about it now, that’s practically what happened. It’s as if my life got cut short, that’s how it feels.”

“Katya really liked that cemetery — it was quiet, old, on the outskirts of the village. Afterwards, I consulted a priest about what to do — it’s a long way away. And he told me that when a person dies, they don’t care where you bury them anymore. You should bury them wherever is most comfortable for you so you can visit their grave and care for it,” said Tatyana.

On July 10, 2021, Katya Levchenko was buried in a cemetery in Zarechny, a closed city near Penza. Tatyana Levchenko has lived there almost her whole life, and she and Katya were both registered there. A year before Katya’s burial, Katya’s grandmother, Tatyana’s mother, was buried in the same cemetery.

“When I buried my mom, I reached out to a funeral agency. One woman who worked there turned out to be someone I used to play outside with as a child. I would never have recognized her, but she recognized me,” said Tatyana. “I explained the situation, that I needed a double plot, that I’d soon be burying my daughter there, too. Later, when I came in, she said, ‘you’ve been gone for so long, it’s been almost a year.’ I brought the remains. I asked what I should do with them, if someone could bury them, because I couldn’t do it myself. She was surprised they were so small, but she agreed to help.”

Some of Katya’s favorite objects were buried along with her remains: a dress, some toys, some paintbrushes and paint. A funeral was held earlier, without the body, after they found Katya’s remains in the forest near Ryazan. The funeral was attended by Katya’s relatives and some of her classmates, a total of 30 people. “That’s when I realized my life was over,” said Tatyana. “I’m looking at Katya’s classmates: are these really those same little girls and boys? And then they started talking about themselves: one of them works at the bank, one girl’s a journalist for Perviy Kanal [Russian state television network First Channel], one of them even works for the Investigative Committee, and some of them have kids of their own. I was just in shock: in my mind, they were all those little kids I knew, like Katya when she was 17, 18, 19. Real life had already gone so far away!”

Pages from Katya’s childhood diaries
Provided by Tatyana Levchenko

“Katya wanted to become either a journalist or an artist,” said Tatyana. “She was really good at writing essays. Without a second thought, she’d just sit down and write. Oh, how her teacher would praise her! She really loved to express her thoughts. On one hand, that’s a good thing, while on the other, it can be bad, because there are all kinds of thoughts. But journalism didn’t work out — the training is so expensive, and we didn’t have the budget here in Penza. I thought, thank God, because with a personality like hers, she would have been all over the place. And it worked out for her to go to art school. She really liked to draw. She probably started drawing when she was just four years old. She drew everywhere, all the time. All of her notebooks were covered. When she got into art school, she said, ‘Mom, I’m so happy I get to do what I love!’”

Nadezhda Dorofeyeva, Artyom’s mother, came to say goodbye to Katya as well. She and Tatyana Levchenko didn’t meet until after their kids had disappeared. “She’s trying in different ways [to deal with the loss], too. I’m looking over at her, and everything seems fine, but as soon as something sparks a memory, she just falls apart. It’s very difficult for her, because she’s completely alone. She doesn’t have anybody left,” said Tatyana. “She came to see Katya, but I didn’t go see Artyom the entire summer, not once.”

“A lot of people feel for Ivankin. So, where’s my Katya then?”

“I had absolutely no relationship with Ekaterina Levchenko or Artyom Dorofeyev. I’m not even sure I know who we’re talking about, since I haven’t seen their photographs,” wrote Network case suspect Dmitry Pchelintsev in February 2020, in response to questions from journalist Zoya Svetovaya about Meduza’s investigation. “I don’t have any information about their disappearance other than the rumor’s I’ve heard.”

In the same letter, which Ekho Moskvy published in its entirety, Pchelintsev also suggested that Meduza’s investigation was published “to knock down our [the Network case suspects’] support, demoralize civil society, leave us alone with our appeal, and keep the Chekists out of jail.”

Less than a month later, on March 17, Pchelintsev and four other Penza Network case suspects — Maxim Ivankin, Ilya Shakursky, Andrey Chernov, and Mikhail Kulkov — reached out to Investigative Committee chairman Alexander Bastrykin and Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov with a request concerning their interrogation.

By that time, Bastrykin had already commissioned an investigation of Ekaterina Levchenko’s and Artyom Dorofeyev’s murders from an investigative team that, due to the case’s “particular complexity,” contained Investigative Committee employees from Penza, Ryazan, and Moscow. Sergey Solonkin, the Committee’s senior investigator for special cases.

But the Penza Network case suspects didn’t get any answers — nor did they even receive an official response. Instead, multiple unknown officers and prison employees just started pressuring Ivankin, Chernov, and Kulkov even more, according to their lawyers.

For the next year and a half, almost no information about the investigation’s progress was released to the public. But on September 5, 2021, Maxim Ivankin was transferred out of Chuvash Correctional Facility 9, where he had been serving his sentence for the Network case. Neither his relatives nor his lawyers knew where he was taken.

A month later, it came out that Ivankin was acting as a witness in Artyom Dorofeyev and Ekaterina Levchenko’s murder case. Ivankin himself told his lawyers, and then Novaya Gazeta, that he had pleaded guilty from a prison hospital in the Vladimir region. There, he said, other detainees had tortured him, and FSB and Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) employees had threatened him into signing a confession.

“You think it’s bad here? You want us to send you to the black zone? Then the victims’ parents will pay gang members to deal with you. They’ll fuck you up until you’re dead. You think they won’t? Oh, they’ll do it,” Ivankin recalled an FSB officer saying. “That’s not the first time I’ve been threatened on behalf of the victims’ parents,” he said. “But it’s someone even more terrible when it’s coming from law enforcement.”

After that, Maxim Ivankin refused to give a confession. He continues to maintain his innocence.

On October 24, 2021, it came out that the Interior Ministry had put Alexey Poltavets on the wanted list. No official reason has been given; the announcement only says “according to the Criminal Code.” But the contact number provided is from Ryazan.

* * *

Meduza: Why did you decide to talk to me? As far as I know, the media attention is difficult for you.

Tatyana Levchenko: Yes, it’s not very pleasant, I’ll put it that way. But I decided to talk for the simple reason that a lot of people are pitying, sympathizing with Ivankin. They’re supporting him, praising him, talking about how great he is, what a poor soul he is. And nobody’s considering the fact that he might actually have done it — they’re not even giving it a thought. If he did this to my daughter, how great, how pitiable is he then? How can anyone support him? And where’s my Katya, then? When it comes to her, there’s complete silence. As if these murders didn’t even happen.

It’s true, there’s almost nothing being written about Katya and Artyom.

I understand that people don’t like our system. They don’t like how the Investigative Committee works, the police. I’m not always a fan of it either. I also want everything to be done honestly, fairly, and legally. But to support someone who’s very likely a murderer — what kind of sense does that make? [Doing that] just because the system doesn’t work correctly, it seems to me, is inhuman. Or else someone was very good at manipulating people and turning them against the Investigative Committee and the entire government.

Is that what you think happened?

To be honest, that does occur to me sometimes. Like when I was reading the article about Ivankin in Novaya Gazeta. It said the Investigative Committee was only considering one version [of Katya and Artyom’s murder] — the one Poltavets told Meduza. That was the first thing they said. But how do they know what versions the Investigative Committee is considering? Where did they get that idea, and why do they think they can present it to people as fact? It seems like pure manipulation to me.

I agree with you about that. But there’s something else that bothers me, too: I don’t know what you think about this, but for me it’s tough. It’s the fact that, according to the suspects’ lawyers and relatives, the suspects have been pressured from the very start.

Yes, yes.

What’s your view on this? I think it’s upsetting that they’re using the same old methods even in a murder case. Why can’t they just follow the law? Pressuring the suspects undermines people’s faith in the investigators.

I completely understand that, but I’m looking at things more narrowly, from my own personal position. A person committed a crime and now he has the public’s support, there’s all this hoopla behind him. Naturally, he wants to hold onto it. Why would he confess? I don’t know what the investigators buried. There might be a lot of evidence, but maybe something’s missing. That’s why they pressured him. But to my mind, there’s a 99-percent chance he’s guilty. They just need to prove it.

By the way, you and I never discussed this. A lot of people didn’t believe our investigation. How can you have so little doubt?

The main indicator for me is that they found the remains right where Poltavets said they would. How else could he know that? I was certain she was alive until your article came out. Maybe he lied at some point, but for some reason, I have no doubt (about his version of events).

What do you think about the theory that he killed both Artyom and Katya singlehandedly?

He couldn’t do that all by himself. You think that afterwards he went alone into the forest while Ivankin stayed behind saying, ‘I won’t do it?’ As far as I understand, it comes from the story Viktoria Frolova is telling, that Ivankin isn’t guilty and Poltavets did it all himself. I don’t trust her, let’s put it that way. She was dating [Network case suspect Ilya] Shakursky, she was close to his mom, who has a very prominent position. So I think this is all being done to protect Shakursky, [to make it seem] like he has nothing to do with it at all.

But you acknowledged that we could be mistaken, right? The truth might be something totally different?

After they found the remains, I stopped having any doubts. Until then, I had a lot of different ideas. And now it’s like all the pieces have come together. And for me, that’s it, it won’t come apart anymore. I don’t know how to describe it. I don’t have any doubt. Sure, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s just a story I’m telling myself, but I don’t have any doubt.

I’d really like to hear the [Network case suspects’] version of events. I can remember the moment, after your article came out, when Pchelintsev wrote that he doesn’t know anything. Somebody pointed out back then how, as long as the suspects haven’t been charged, they can’t tell their story, and who knows what else the investigators will come up with. Now they’ve been charged. So why haven’t we heard their story? If you didn’t kill anyone, if you’re so honest, tell me what actually happened. But so far it’s just silence. Maybe they’ll tell their story in court.

What Ivankin did is irreversible. I have no desire to see him, to tell him what I think of him. The only thing I want is for the investigation to turn up some evidence. I really want to see how he would respond to that. I’m confident his answer would make it clear whether he’s been lying.

What do you think about Alexey Poltavets?

I don’t. At least probably nothing good. He’s a strange guy: leaving home at 16 with no real plan… But I don’t know him, I don’t have much information. Judging by what he did [killing Artyom Dorofeyeva], he’s a nasty person. Perhaps he has some mental problems, I don’t know.

Did the fact that he confessed to the murder to Meduza and led investigators to Katya have any effect on your opinion of him?

Probably, yes. I can’t quite call it gratitude. He does seem to have some semblance of a conscience left.

“Every day, I read the news, the comments. But I try not to reply.”

“When they found her remains, it hit me that she was gone. And then what? How do you accept something like that? You know, you’re sitting in the minibus, you see a girl that looks like her, and suddenly your eyes are full of tears. And you think, why did I even put on makeup today?” said Tatyana.

“I don’t think it will ever stop happening,” she continued. “It’s already automatic: you see a tall, skinny girl with blonde hair, there are a lot of them right now — and you just lose it. I try to think about something else, to force myself, but the tears are always instant. I don’t know, she’s gone, how am I supposed to accept that?”

In February 2021, Tatyana Levchenko sold her apartment in Penza and returned to her hometown of Zarechny. She had moved to Penza five years ago because of Katya: entering Zarechny requires a special pass, and Katya wanted her friends to be able to come visit. “I did everything for her,” said Tatyana. “And even though I didn’t want to move to Penza, I bought an apartment there. Katya only lived there for a year.”

In Zarechny, Tatyana has friends and a lot of relatives, including her older daughter and her seven-year-old son. But things aren’t the same without Katya. “We were very close spiritually, we understood each other,” she said.

When Katya was a teenager, she and her mom attended batik classes together every Saturday. “I’d be working on one picture for five or six classes, and she’d finish one just like that, in one class,” Tatyana recalled. Once a week, they’d go to buy materials together. “We’d go to almost every store in town looking for paint, paper, pencils. I didn’t even know stores like that exist. We’d go in one and the simplest pencil would cost 100 rubles. She’d be like, ‘well, Mom, it’s expensive, isn’t it? But they’re just so cool!’ What am I gonna do then, not buy them for her?”

Katya also loved celebrating her birthday. “As soon as her birthday was over, she’d start counting down the days until the next one. Maybe that means we gave her too many gifts. It was only the very best for her,” said Tatyana, laughing. One time, for example, Katya wanted a large drawing board. It wasn't an easy thing to find in Penza, but Tatyana asked around until someone put her in touch with an employee of one of the factories that produced the boards. He agreed to trade her one for a bottle of cognac. “Katya was so happy. She said, ‘Mom, it’s the best gift ever,’” Tatyana recalled. “She’d draw on it and do her lessons on it.”

Now, the drawing board belongs to Tatyana’s niece, who also likes to draw. And Tatyana’s already spent many of Katya’s birthdays without Katya. “When we were still searching for her, we’d celebrate it symbolically. My friends would come, we’d sit for a while, chat, and reminisce,” said Tatyana. “But now it’s just sad. Back then, we at least had some hope. I thought she was alive, so I’d wish her happy birthday in my thoughts. This year, I want to go to church.”

For her daughter’s most recent birthday, Tatyana made a slideshow of pictures of Katya at different ages. There’s one of Katya as a little girl with bows and pigtails. One of Katya sitting in her grandmother’s lap. One of Katya with her dad and her sister jumping in the air next to a road sign that says, “Happy Life.” Katya in a school uniform at her graduation. Katya in a red dress on the first day of art school. The dress is one of the few things of Katya’s that Tatyana decided to keep.

There are also her childhood diaries, a book Katya wrote when she was little, and her drawings, of course. The drawings include portraits of Artyom Dorofeyev, Alexey Poltavets, and Maxim Ivankin.

Dorofeyev, Poltavets, and Ivankin. Drawings by Katya Levchenko
Provided by Tatyana Levchenko

“I concluded that I don’t need to save things. Because it’s too easy to stumble on them later and have everything come rushing back. To feel bad again. To start missing her again,” said Tatyana. “But I’m ambivalent. On one hand, I understand logically that I need to get rid of it all so I’m not coming across it all the time. On the other hand, I feel sorry for some of the things. They’re Katya’s favorite things, it’s like I’m betraying her.”

To keep from thinking about Katya, Tatyana tries to distract herself constantly. “If you don’t do that, you’ll just lie down and die,” she said. “I try to stay active, but I do let myself cry sometimes. It’s like my therapist taught me: cry for fifteen minutes and then get back to it. That’s pretty much how it goes.”

Tatyana usually gets up around 6:00 a.m. She goes to work by 8:00 (she’s an accountant) and comes home around 6:00 p.m. Once a week, on the weekend, she meets with her church community. She also occasionally spends time with friends and relatives. Recently, she even took a trip to Karelia with some friends.

Every day, Tatyana goes on the Internet and reads everything that appears about her daughter’s murder case. “For me, it’s like a job. Every day, I watch the news, read the comments, but I try not to reply to them. Because there were a couple times when I answered in your defense. The things they were writing — my blood pressure, I just started shaking,” she said.

Tatyana admitted it’s impossible for her not to read about Katya’s murder. “I probably have some kind of defense mechanism going on, there are some things I just can’t remember,” said Tatyana. “I don’t like that. But on the other hand, it’s not like I’m one of the investigators. Although I do feel responsibility. I analyze everything, every situation, moment, nuance. There are some things I just forget, the picture becomes incomplete. What if I forget something important all of the sudden? I worry about that.”

* * *

Going through something like this must change a person. Have you thought about the effect it’s had on you? What’s it done to you?

It’s hard to put into words. In a way, it’s like I’m more at peace now. Before, it was business, work, achieving things, wanting things. And now, whatever happens, happens. I don’t have any drive. No goal. I’ve even started feeling somewhat apathetic about everything. Before, when something happened, I’d feel it acutely, but now everything seems trivial compared to what happened to Katya.

Is there anything that brings you joy?

You asked me that, and I got to thinking. As a matter of fact, I seek that feeling out, I make myself feel joy. For example, when there’s a beautiful sunset. In the past, I would have enjoyed it, but that doesn’t happen anymore. But I realize that, so I make myself enjoy the sunset, to think that it’s beautiful.

I make myself feel joy. But as far as joy arising naturally… Although there was a time in the summer, for example, when we went to swim in the river, it was really beautiful. I felt good there, comfortable. But that happens very rarely when you’re just sitting there, feeling good, not thinking about anything. That might have been the only time, out in nature.

You know, I noticed something: I can’t go into the forest. I mean, I can, but it’s better not to. Because I immediately start picturing it, and I start to feel sick. If I see a forest, I try my best to stay away from it.

Have you been to the forest near Ryazan, where Katya was found?

No, I have no desire to go there. I can’t do it. I think I would feel so bad, I just wouldn’t make it.

Do you ever wish you and I hadn’t met, since it led to you learning about Katya’s death?

Of course not. No, just the opposite. It seems like I prayed it into being. I’m also very grateful to Ilya Khesin and Sasha Aksenova. Because knowing the truth is more important. Even the psychologists will tell you that.

When I was working with the psychologists [at a rehab center], they told me I had the most difficult kind of situation: someone had disappeared, and nobody knew what had happened. It’s easier when you know the person has died. Especially if there’s a grave where you can go and pray. It’s probably easier for people who believe in God, who believe souls are immortal.

I told you about how [after Katya disappeared] a priest sent me to Kadom. When I was there, I spent two weeks living in a monastery, helping with the chores, washing the floors, cleaning up. Every day, I went to the miracle-working icons and prayed that I would find out what happened, where she was. Yes, it’s hard, it’s tough to realize and come to terms [with the death of someone close], but it’s much better than not knowing.

Because, you see, you’re constantly thinking, “What if she’s alive? What if she’s in agony right now? What if someone’s taunting her? And I’m sitting here, unable to help her. And I don’t know anything.”

But if I understand correctly, right now, you’re living through the investigation, waiting for the trial.

Yes, you understand correctly. There is some kind of a future right now, yes. And I’m even afraid to imagine this all ending and having to move forward. I don’t even know what’s next. I need to put some kind of goal out there. But I don’t have any. I don’t want anything. I know that’s bad. I understand I need to do something, and I’m trying. But my life has lost its meaning.

Story by Kristina Safonova, illustrations by Nastya Grigoryeva

Translation by Sam Breazeale