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‘Why couldn’t you save me?’ How a teenager in Perm who dreamed of being a chemist built and ran a drug lab in a rented apartment

Source: Meduza

In January 2021, police officers in Perm detained a 16-year-old high school student and his “twin assistants.” According to officials, they had been dealing illegal substances. The official police press release claimed the teenager had rented an apartment separate from his parents in a typical Russian high-rise building to “grow strawberries there,” but ended up setting up a meth lab instead. The media has reported how the detainee was a great student, especially when it came to biology. According to his friends and teachers, he was interested in science; nobody had any idea there was anything untoward going on. Meduza special correspondent Irina Kravtsova traveled to Perm to find out what really happened.

Please note. The names of the people in this story have been changed.

On the evening of January 4, 2021, Ekaterina Mironova paced around her tiny bedroom as the snow piled up outside. Her 16-year-old son, Ilya, had promised to be home by dinnertime, but that had long since passed. She’d been calling him for hours: at first, she just got his voicemail, but later on, a robotic voice started telling her his phone had been turned off.

She finally got an answer around 2:00 a.m., when Ilya was brought home by four police officers. Ekaterina, relieved, hugged him tight and pulled his head close to her. “Ilya, honey, did you see something?” she asked him, thinking he might have been a witness to some kind of criminal incident. But Ilya and the officers just stared at her in silence. “Ilya, baby, I know you didn’t do anything wrong, did you?” she asked with alarm. “Actually I did, Mom,” said Ilya.

Ekaterina was taken aback. “Did you steal some chocolate?” she asked him, then turned to the police. “Did he steal some chocolate? Just let me pay for it. Or I can work it off somehow — maybe I can wash the floors in the store?” One of the officers looked at her with bewilderment. “What are you talking about? What chocolate?” Then he told her Ilya was suspected of selling drugs.

Afterward, the police asked Ekaterina Mironova to follow them to a different apartment building on a nearby street, where they conducted a search. As officers walked through the unfamiliar third-floor apartment with drug-sniffing dogs, Ekaterina held her son close, ready to defend him.

On the table were ten or so large, dusty chemical flasks. Ekaterina suddenly recalled taking then-11-year-old Ilya to a flea market; he was fascinated by science and dreamed of doing his own experiments, so she bought him a small flask. After seeing how pleased he was, she promised him on the way home, “Ilya, since it makes you so happy, I’ll buy you some more after my next paycheck.” After that, though, there never seemed to be any money for it.

She’d even had her suspicions about him renting a separate apartment. One day, she even considered following him, but he told her, “Mom, there’s no apartment, and if you follow me, I’ll stop trusting you, I’ll stop respecting you.” She cried all evening.

Ekaterina recounted to Meduza the silent conversation she and Ilya had that night through glances as police officers searched the apartment around them. She looked at Ilya and “asked” him, “Well, you want to finish our conversation? So you did rent an apartment after all?” Ilya averted his gaze, but blinked in the affirmative. Then Ekaterina tried to signal back a question: “Ilya, why did you do all this?” But their conversation was cut off by the police: “No signals, please.”

Chapter 1

The extra room

Ekaterina Mironova, an elementary school teacher, and her husband Dmitry, a highway patrol officer, lived with their two sons in one room of a Khrushchev-era apartment on the outskirts of Perm. The room was one of the “perks” Dmitry received as a police officer; one of his coworkers lived in the neighboring one.

When their oldest son, Dmitry, was ten and Ilya was four, Ekaterina and Dmitry got divorced. Before he moved out, Dmitry scolded Ekaterina for being a “follower.” Ekaterina was soon ordered to turn in the key to the room; she was no longer a police officer’s family member.

She panicked and went to the head of the building. He agreed to let her and her sons live there until the youngest turned 18.

The small room is packed full: there are two sofas sitting across from each other, and two tables and a wardrobe sitting nearby. One of the sofas was for Ekaterina, the other was for the two boys. In the evenings, they squeezed into the tiny kitchen with their flatmate.

The family had a computer. Roman had managed to buy it by “working his ass off” in Petrozavodsk the summer after he finished tenth grade, and as the official owner of the computer, he was the one who determined who could use the computer and when. He gave his mom two hours on Sundays: “Mom, these two hours are yours, so enjoy them.” Ekaterina used the time to search for materials for her students and enter their grades into the online system. Ilya, though, rarely had access to the computer, and was “powerless” in that regard, according to Ekaterina.

Eventually, the man who’d been living in the neighboring room moved out, and Ekaterina started spending time in it. “I’d just stand there and take in the feeling of having some space,” she said. Her sons went in there sometimes, too, to play the guitar or solder things. The building head told Ekaterina that the family wasn’t allowed to move into the room, but it was fine to “go sit in there” sometimes. After a while, Ekaterina moved some of the furniture into the room to give them all some more space.

Roman soon started university, and before long, he brought a girl named Yulia home. Suddenly there was simply no way for everyone to fit in one room, so the boys decided to take turns occupying the neighboring room. Ilya would get a month (during which he would play computer games at night, a rare opportunity), then Roman and Yulia would get a month. “They always came out of there happy,” Ekaterina recalled.

Ekaterina herself had always lived “in dorms and that kind of thing,” so she told her sons that while she was willing to be last in line, she did want her own room sometimes. “I also wanted the chance to enjoy my morning — wake up, stretch like a lady, walk around in my underwear, and listen to my music.”

Ekaterina recalled a time when she lived in the room for an entire month and found it to be everything she could have hoped. “In that separate room, I could be myself, and I actually liked myself. I set up dolls all around and played music all the time, [singer] Irina Krug, I really like her,” said Ekaterina. Because she’d gone “a little deaf,” her sons often complained about the loud music she played — but still, she was happy that everybody was finally getting along.

Then the trouble began. Even with Roman and Yulia both working part-time, money was tight, and the family often went hungry. When she went to work, Ekaterina would leave three pieces of chicken: one for Ilya, one for Roman, and one for Yulia. “Then I learn Ilya hasn’t been getting his,” Ekaterina recalled. Roma told her he’d been eating two because he was hungry. “And you think your brother’s not hungry?” she told him.

Ekaterina worked double shifts at school and usually got home around 9:00 o’clock in the evening. When she was at work, she learned, Roma and Yulia would treat Ilya “pretty rough”: “Get out of here, this place is for grown-ups,” they’d tell him. When Ekaterina demanded Roman “stop playing house,” he lashed out. “You’re just lonely, so you don’t let anyone else live their lives!” Roman told her.

The next time it was Ilya’s turn to live in the separate room, Roma quickly started pestering him about it. “Listen,” he’d say, “can’t you just let us live there? You seriously expect us to sleep on the couch next to Mom?” Ilya gave in, but he wasn’t happy about it. Ekaterina would come home in the evening to find Ilya seething as he played computer games, his back straight and tense. “You can always tell from a kid’s back when he’s feeling bad,” she said.

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Chapter 2

‘It makes you feel so strong’

During our conversation, Ekaterina often cried silently, then got embarrassed, saying the tears made her look “ugly like Baba Yaga.” Ilya, she said, would get mad at her whenever she cried after one of their arguments. “He couldn’t stand my tears,” she said. “He’d always say, ‘Mom, go calm down, we’ll finish talking later.’”

Ilya didn’t have any friends until the eighth grade. “I find everyone boring,” he’d say. It made Ekaterina worry. “Son, you have to live with people. You can’t speak ill of them all the time,” she’d say, telling him to try to get along with his classmates.

It was clear to Ekaterina that Ilya both “loved himself” and felt very insecure. He was an okay student, but he didn’t enjoy much respect from his teachers or peers. In his mom’s words, nobody ever told him, “Ilya, you’re such a cool guy.” Troubled by this, she started doing her best to praise him whenever possible (though her praise was sincere).

When Ilya was soldering, his mom would run into the room and say, “Ilya, baby, it smells like rosin. What are you soldering? You’re getting so good at it!” When he played video games, she would marvel at him: “Ilya, how do you beat the levels so fast? You’re so good at it!” According to Ekaterina, the praise was great for Ilya’s self-esteem. “Mom, come sit with me,” he’d say when he sat down to play. “He’d be on the computer, and I’d be grading papers in my notebook on the corner of the table. It felt like the relationship I’d always dreamed of. A guy spending time with his mom, not saying, ‘get the hell out of here,’ not cursing her out,” said Ekaterina.

In eighth grade, Ilya finally became friends with a classmate named Alex. Pretty soon, he told his mother that he wanted to rent his own apartment and move out (he was 15 years old at the time). Ekaterina took it personally. “Son, why do you want to move out for? I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t have any boyfriends, I just work from morning to night. You and your friends can come back here, play the guitar, hang out.” But Ilya insisted, and eventually, Ekaterina gave in. She saved up for the first month’s rent, then signed the lease herself. “If I tell him no, he’ll just want it more,” she told herself then. “Let him live alone for a month — he’ll get sick of cooking and cleaning, then he’ll come running back.”

Ilya and Alex moved into the apartment. Meanwhile, Ekaterina continued to worry. “Ilya, honey, you’re going to get some uncomfortable questions at school. Two young guys living together. Why?” But Ilya said he didn’t “give a crap.” Soon after, Ekaterina and Alex’s mom brought the boys’ bicycles to their new apartment. “‘Guys, now that you have your bikes, you can get some exercise!’” she announced. “And the boys started laughing this terrible laugh.”

Soon, Ilya began to change. “In the past, he’d worn his heart on his sleeve. He’d say, ‘Mom, don’t worry, you and I will be okay.’ Now, everything was, ‘whatever,’ ‘whatever,’ and that stupid laugh. “Ilya, baby, you’re not yourself,” she started telling him.

She used every excuse to visit him. “I’d be sitting at school on my lunch break, eating bread and butter, and I’d start trembling — what if he hasn’t been eating?” After her classes, she’d rush to the apartment. Then, Ilya would tell her she was worrying too much and that they had plenty of food — ”even good food.” And it was true: the apartment had avocados and pineapples, things she herself had never bought. “My God, they really are doing well here,” she thought.

Ilya told his mom that he and Alex were paying for food, and for the rent, with money they earned making YouTube videos, though they didn’t show Ekaterina the actual videos. One time, she asked them to make her a video to use in a lesson about traffic rules — ”You guys are my experts on this,” she told them. The boys just “howled with laughter.”

One day, Ilya revealed to his mom that Alex “knows how to steal.” Ekaterina immediately started crying, imploring him not to steal anything. “What do you steal?” she asked.

“Chocolates,” he told her.

“How do you steal them?”

“We walk past the shelves, Alex puts a chocolate in his sleeve, and then he pays for another one.”

That frightened Ekaterina. She threatened to tell the person Ilya respected most: his grandmother. “Mom, why would you upset Grandma like that? It’s not like I actually stole anything myself. It’s just so cool when you walk out of the store knowing you’ve duped the government — you feel so strong,” he said.

That made her livid. “Are you an idiot? You should feel strong when you help an old woman, [not when you steal something]. Go help your grandma — she spends all her time slaving away in the garden. Help her plant vegetables, she has a hard time. Or come help me — even just take out of the trash, for God’s sake.” But Ilya didn’t budge. “Mom, that’s boring. That’s the kind of thing nobody pays attention to. But in the store [when we steal], I feel like a man.”

Some time later, when Ilya came to his mom to tell her that he and Alex had stopped stealing, she threw her arms around him, tears in her eyes. “Son, that’s right, don’t steal anymore! I’ll buy you chocolates, I’ll give you all the money I have — just don’t steal anymore.”

After that, Ekaterina decided that Ilya must want his own place so he could have girls over. Whenever she went to the apartment, she’d scan for women’s shoes, women’s toiletries, bottles of alcohol. “I completely understand,” she told Ilya. “I was young myself once. But come on back home — I spend all day at work anyways. I’ll even buy you a nice cake, make it romantic for you. Come on. You can cuddle, eat cake… Just make sure to use protection!”

Ilya laughed and told her, “Mom, it’s not about girls.” So Ekaterina kept pushing. “Then what is it? Why do you need your own apartment?” “I wouldn’t let it go, and he even started to get mad. He’d come over for a snack when he was hungry. I’d bring it up again, I’d say, ‘Ilya, honey, why?’ And he’d say, ‘Mom, I’m sick of you asking why. I don’t like living with you. That’s why.”

Chapter 3

Catching grasshoppers

Two months later, at the end of his eighth-grade year, Ilya moved back home. Since moving out, his grades had tanked, but neither his mother nor his teachers were sure why. “Mrs. Mironova, don’t worry,” the teachers told Ekaterina, “Ilya’s a good boy. You just need to push him, we’ll push him on our end, and things will work out.” Another teacher told her Ilya had “completely stopped studying. Something’s going on — try to figure out what it is.”

In the summer of 2020, after eighth grade was over, Ekaterina asked Ilya to live with his grandmother in the village for a while; she thought the “nature and conversations might get his mind back in order.” Ilya stayed there for three days, then said, “My dear women, I need to go to the city. I found a new income stream.”

Ekaterina started worrying again. She offered to start giving Ilya a bit of money from each paycheck she earned. Ilya, however, insisted, but when she asked what he intended to do instead, he couldn’t provide a clear answer. “I, for one, trust Ilya,” said his grandmother — so he left.

Then one day, Ilya came home with five gas masks. He told his mom that he and his friends had swiped them from an abandoned military warehouse on Lyadov Street. When he tried one of the masks on in the mirror, said Ekaterina, his face just lit up. It sparked a memory for Katya: the boys’ father had once brought a gas mask home from work and shown it to Roma and Ilya, who was then just a toddler. Then three of them started playing with it, “and it was so funny because there was no danger — just a gas mask bouncing around on their little baby heads.”

“When the boys would play with the gas mask, they’d take turns putting it on, stealing it from each other. Of course, my oldest would always win because he was stronger. He’d take it from Ilya, then Ilya would start bawling. It was painful for him.” There’s even a photograph of the boys with the mask in a family photo album.

When they got back to Perm, Ilya asked his mom to let him rent an apartment again. Ekaterina was “dead set against it,” but Roman liked the idea, so he helped Ilya by signing the rental agreement himself. “My oldest was just happy he and his girlfriend could live in our separate room together — they just wanted there to be fewer ears in the house,” said Ekaterina.

This time, Ilya and Alex moved into an apartment near Prison Colony No. 32, in the middle of Perm. Ekaterina Stepanova was upset: “Ilya, honey, there’s barbed wire right outside your window. I don’t like it.” “We don’t look out the window,” Ilya would reply. Indeed, he and Alex kept the curtains closed.

Just like before, Ekaterina found herself taking care of Ilya’s pets, a cat named Pasha and a lizard named Katya. She’d hunt for food for the lizard in the clearing behind their building. “All the neighbors would laugh: ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Catching grasshoppers.’ ‘What for?’ ‘To feed the lizard,’” recalled Ekaterina.

In the summer of 2020, soon after Ilya moved into his second apartment, Katya the lizard ran away. Ekaterina took it as a bad omen. Ilya’s only reaction was to scold his mom: “It sucks that you’re not taking care of my pets.”

One day, Ekaterina went to visit Ilya, “all done up and pretty after a holiday party at school,” and nobody answered the door. Worried and confused, she sat on the bench outside the building and waited. Soon, she learned from the older women who lived nearby that “the boys sure have fun in there, leaving late at night and coming back even later.”

She came back the next day, and this time, the boys were home. The first thing Ekaterina did was to “trot” around the entire apartment.

“Mom, what are you doing running around someone else’s apartment?” said Ilya, dumbfounded.

“It’s not just someone else’s apartment, son, it’s your apartment. What have you got in here? Girls? Liquor?” she asked him. “Is there some strange man living with you?”

“Mom, are you insane?” said Ilya.

In the apartment, there was trash all over the ground, and some kind of liquid had been spilled. As Ekaterina ordered the boys to clean up, she silently came to the conclusion that they “weren’t drunk or on drugs, but something was off about the way they looked.” After that, she started visiting them more often. “I’d run over there and make sure to peek around with my own eyes.”

Sometimes, Ilya and Alex still came to see Ekaterina at home. She would feed them — usually just potatoes and mushrooms her mother had gathered, and never anything fancy. Ilya started talking to her differently.

“Mom, you don’t live very comfortably,” he’d say.

“Ilya, it’s fine here, I’m used to it — I’ll make do, you study, start earning money, then you can help me get a new apartment,” she’d tell him.

“Come on, Mom. You don’t even know how to live,” he’d answer.

After he started ninth grade, he grew out his hair and stopped washing it. Every day, he wore black shirts and a black jacket he picked up at a thrift shop. “For some reason, he thought he needed to look that way,” said Ekaterina. “Ilya, honey,” she’d say, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but that doesn’t suit you. You’re skinny, your face is narrow, your skin is pale, your hair is long and red — you look like a priest. Better to get a buzz cut.”

Ilya snapped. “Mom, don’t you dare talk about my appearance. You don’t look great yourself.”

Chapter 4

100 polythene bags

Ekaterina Mironova usually left for school early in the morning and returned home around 9:00 p.m., then started grading papers. She loved her job, especially putting on plays with the students — she sewed their outfits herself using whatever fabric she could find at home. “I cut up half the apartment for their costumes,” she said.

 She earned about 25,000 rubles ($330) a month working two shifts a day, and she used the money to support herself and her boys, as well as to help her mother. But she also wanted to prove to everyone around — but most of all to her ex-husband — that she “was capable, too.” That’s why she went out one day and bought a Lada. It required taking out a loan, which she paid back over the next six years. She got used to telling her sons, “Guys, no dessert tonight. My loan isn’t paid off yet.”

Still, the car allowed her to go see her mother in the village more often, and from there she could bring back food they cooked together, as well as fruits, vegetables, and chicken. She also hoped the car would help her earn her sons’ respect — but they weren’t impressed, and they told her she’d bought the car more for herself than for them. “It was like they were putting me in my place. Sure, it’s convenient for me to drive myself, a queen, to work,” said Ekaterina.

Roman started working when he was still in school, and he “tried doing everything,” from waiting tables and selling cigarettes to doing tech support for a cell phone company, where he would sit at a computer for 12 hours a day answering customers’ calls. At one point, he jokingly asked his mom to run a straw through the wall to the teapot so he could drink tea while he worked. “By the end of the workday, he’d be trembling with anger. He’d say, ‘Mom, you old people are impossible to work with, you’re so clueless,” said Ekaterina.

Ilya laughed at his brother: “Roma, you’re barely even making any money,” he’d say. “Just you wait,” Roma would reply, “fall behind in school and soon enough, you’ll be killing yourself for pennies, too.”

Ilya would lecture his mom, too, for staying up half the night grading papers. “You keep plugging away, putting everything into a job that pays you next to nothing. If our government sees how hard you work, how much you suffer, and doesn’t pay you for it, it’s no good,” he’d tell her. But Ekaterina saw it differently. “On the other hand, people respect me. The parents greet me, the kids hug me — that’s also an important part of feeling like you’re a good person.” But Ilya wouldn’t let it go.

The family never had any money for birthday parties, so when Ekaterina turned 50, she and her boys just had a small get-together with her mother. Roman gave his mom a notepad and told her it was to help her accomplish everything she wanted in life. Ilya looked at it and snickered. “Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll get you a really big gift soon.”

As always, Ekaterina took the opportunity to praise him. “Of course, you will,” she said, giving him a hug.

“Mom, I’m going to give you a very big gift,” Ilya repeated with a serious look. “I’ll give you an apartment.”

“Of course, you will, son. Of course, you’ll give me an apartment,” she told him.

Soon after that, Ekaterina noticed a big pile of tiny polythene bags. She asked Ilya where they came from. After a pause, he told her, “Mom, you have all those buttons and beads for your dolls. So I decided to order you 100 little bags for them.”

“Ilya, are you crazy? What do I need 100 of them for?” she asked him.

“You can use them to make patterns for your kids,” he said.

“Ilya, honey, that’s a great idea! Good thinking!” she said, convinced.

Ultimately, though, Ilya only gave her 20 bags. The rest, he told her, must have gotten lost.

In the fall of 2020, Ilya, then in the ninth grade, asked his brother to sign a rental agreement for him again (Ilya and Alex wanted to move back to their first apartment). Roman refused, saying it was too difficult for him to go to Perm to pay the rent every month. So Ilya turned to his mom. “No, Ilya, you’ve already made your money,” she told him. “I sob, worry, stay up all night, not to mention your grades have tanked. I’m against it. Stop being silly and come home.” In September, Ilya moved back in with her.

A few months later, in November, Ekaterina noticed Ilya was frequently disappearing. When she asked him about it, he said he’d made some new friends and that they spent a lot of time hanging out and playing guitar. That calmed Ekaterina’s nerves; she’d always worried that Ilya was a lonely kid. “I thought, thank God, maybe I have a normal kid after all, maybe he’s finally stopped being so arrogant.”

Still, she suspected Ilya might have found a way to start renting a separate apartment again. He denied it, but Ekaterina wouldn’t let it go. “Ilya, I’m going to find your apartment. Sixty of my students’ parents live in this area — someone’s going to see you go there and let me know. They’ll recognize your face,” she told him. “Try your best,” said Ilya.

So Ekaterina decided to bluff. “Ilya, honey, someone spotted you going into an apartment building near the Pyaterochka [grocery store],” she told him one day at random. Ilya was startled. “Which one?” he asked. Ekaterina could tell she was on to him, that he was “hanging out in some apartment after all,” but Ilya soon realized she was lying and started denying everything again.

One day, Ekaterina called Ilya to ask him to help her log on to Zoom for a school meeting. Ilya, however, said he couldn’t come because he was busy. Ekaterina jokingly threatened him: “I don’t know where you keep disappearing to, but if you don’t come home and help me right now, I’ll call the police.” Five minutes later, Ilya appeared in her doorway with a scared look on his face. “Mom, you mentioned the police, so I came running,” he said, out of breath. Ekaterina was bewildered. “Son, why are you so afraid of the police?” she said. “Your dad was a police officer.”

But she made a mental note that her strategy had worked. Later, when Ilya stayed the night with a friend and called her in the morning to say he wasn’t going to school because he wanted to sleep in, Ekaterina told him she knew he was “hanging around” a certain house, and that she would send the police there for find out why he was “constantly losing track of things, skipping his classes, and getting Cs.”

“Mom, don’t freak out, I’m on my way to school,” said Ilya.

Chapter 5

‘Swallow your pride and call their father’

On New Year’s Eve 2021, Roman was in another city with his girlfriend, the boys’ grandmother was in the village, and Ilya and his mother were alone together at home. Ekaterina dressed up, did her hair, and set the table. Then she sat down next to Ilya and hugged him. “Ilya, honey, thank God you’re with me. It’s very important — it means everything will be okay,” she told him. Ekaterina had always believed in omens: namely, that the way you spend New Year’s Eve determines how the rest of your year will go. Because Ilya was with her that night, she assumed he would stop disappearing and would soon live entirely back at home. (She still believes it today.)

On January 2, Ekaterina went to see her mother in the village. She returned home on January 4, and immediately lay down to take a nap. Meanwhile, Ilya went out. After Ekaterina woke up in the afternoon, she spent a while walking around the house, eating oranges and singing along with the TV. Then she drove to the store to buy herself some earrings. “I thought, ‘I earned it! It’s my right!’ And I felt good.” That evening, she made dinner, then waited for Ilya. After a while, she tried calling, but couldn’t get ahold of him.

That same afternoon, January 4, Perm police officers had detained twin sisters Marina and Olga after the two allegedly attempted to make a large drug delivery near the entrance of an apartment building. Police photos show the young women hiding a large bag in the snow. A later analysis found that the bag contained about 50 grams of mephedrone.

At around 4:00 p.m., Ilya was detained on his way home. The police took him to their precinct, where he was kept late into the night — without his parents or a lawyer. It wasn’t until about 2:00 a.m. on January 5 that Ilya was finally brought home to his mother. Officers then searched her apartment, hoping to find the passwords to Ilya’s computer or cell phone in a notebook somewhere (after Ilya himself refused to disclose them). He was then taken to a drug testing site. Ekaterina got in her own car and followed them.

The analysis didn’t find any drugs in Ilya’s system. After that, he was taken to a pre-trial detention center (where he “sat on a stool in the hallway,” he later said), and Ekaterina was told to go home. “Can I go with my child?” she asked the police. “No,” they told her. “Wait for us to contact you.”

At 6:00 a.m. January 6, Ekaterina got a call. She was told to go to the apartment Ilya had been renting so she would be present while a search was performed.

According to the police report (obtained by Meduza), officers found more than 100 grams of mephedrone in the apartment. The police claim that Ilya “produced” the substance “with the intention of selling it illegally.” They also found about eight grams of hashish, which Ilya had allegedly tried to “sell through an organized group.” Three grams of MDMA were found, as well.

The Investigative Committee’s Perm branch has opened a criminal case under the article in Russia’s Criminal Code that concerns the production and sale of narcotic substances in large amounts. A court has placed Ilya under house arrest.

Ekaterina recalled how, when officers were searching the apartment, they gave her and Ilya “a whole bunch of papers” to sign. She didn’t read any of the documents — she just signed “because the police asked,” and because they “never once considered that it might harm her son.” Ilya’s lawyer later reproached her for signing them.

Meduza got in touch with the lawyer, Nikolai Kisik, but “in the interests of [his] client,” he declined to comment on the case. “I’d understand if you were asking for comment after the case had already made it to court and the sentence had already been declared. But what is there to comment on right now? I’m not going to comment on the officers’ actions. I’m also not going to comment on all the things his mom said to you. A case has been opened; he’s been charged with attempting to sell drugs. That’s it. Whether he’s pleaded guilty or not — I’m not going to talk about that,” said Kisik.

* * *

Ekaterina claims that when she and Ilya were still with the police, Ilya told her, “Mom, don’t panic, but I confessed to smuggling drugs. But everything will be okay — I’m still a minor.” After that, she called her mother and “wailed.” Ekaterina’s mother told her she should contact her ex-husband, a former police officer: “Look, Katya, you have to swallow your pride and call their father. Ask him for help. He’s a man, he can fix the situation. At the very least, he can give you some advice.”

When Ekaterina talks about Dmitry Mironov, her ex-husband and Roman and Ilya’s father, she always refers to him as “Dad.” As she tells it, when Dmitry was young, he was attractive and charming — and he worked his way up to the rank of deputy regional commander in the Federal Highway Patrol. He only drank occasionally. After some conflicts at work, however, he was fired. He’s currently living in a village in the Perm Krai. (Meduza was unable to reach Dmitry Mironov for comment.)

When Ekaterina and Dmitry got divorced, they both agreed that Dmitry would stay in touch with the boys and continue to help them financially. Soon, though, “Dad started a new life,” according to Ekaterina. And while he sometimes brought the boys to his summer home, he rarely set foot in their apartment. When he did come by, he would ask, “Why’d you file another alimony claim against me?”

With the kids, Dmitry was friendly. But when Roman and Ilya left to play on the computer, he’d ask Ekaterina, “Why do you want my money so bad?”

“Dima, my paycheck isn’t even enough to live on,” she’d tell him. “I do my best to sew and knit all their things, and I still don’t have anything left to spend on myself.”’

“Then earn more money,” he told her.

According to Ekaterina, Dmitry did everything he could to avoid paying alimony. She filed claims again and again, went to court multiple times, and established over and over again that he was required to pay up. But one after another, “the cases somehow got lost.” She suspected he might be using his connections as a former police officer.

After he learned about Ilya’s arrest from Ekaterina, Dmitry found a lawyer. However, he told Ekaterina that she would have to pay for the legal services herself: 50,000 rubles ($670), 30,000 rubles ($400), and 40,000 rubles ($540) for each of the court hearings, respectively, and another 100,000 rubles ($1,350) for the final trial. Ekaterina pushed back: she told him that since he owed her 300,000 rubles ($4,000) in alimony, he needed to pay the first part of the legal bill, and she would pay for the final trial.

The police also searched Ilya’s rented apartment for the money that, according to them, Ilya had earned from his drug sales. After failing to find anything, they went to Ekaterina’s apartment, where they asked everyone (Ekaterina, her mother, Dmitry, Roman, and Ilya himself): “Where are you keeping your millions?” Soon after, a police psychologist turned up to ask the same question.

Ekaterina assured them the family wasn’t hiding any riches. But when everybody finally left, she started asking her son: “Ilya, honey, do you think you could tell me how many millions of rubles you made?” But Ilya maintained that the money didn’t exist. Still, according to Ekaterina, Ilya’s brother and dad couldn’t help asking him about it:

“Ilya, buddy, give us the millions. You have to go to jail either way.”

“Bro, you’re going to jail, but I need to buy a car. Give me the money you earned.”

“Guys, I’m not a millionaire. All I have ahead of me is prison time,” Ilya told them. Ekaterina couldn’t stand it, either. “Ilya, don’t give anyone the money! It’s drug money, it won’t bring anything good! Let it all burn,” she said.

On his way out, Dmitry whispered to Ekaterina, “Ask him about it. Maybe he buried it somewhere. See if he can send the money to our accounts.”

Only later did Ilya reveal to his mom that he’d earned a “really large amount of money.” According to Ekaterina, he spent some of the money on laboratory equipment, while the rest went to his “supervisor,” whose name he refused to give to both her and the police, for safekeeping.

Chapter 6

Desperate measures

After he was put under house arrest in his mother’s apartment, Ilya gradually began telling his mom the truth about what he had been up to for the past year.

While in eighth grade, he’d spent a lot of time thinking about how to earn money. One day, while looking for new income streams on the Internet for the umpteenth time, he stumbled upon a site that advertised a job selling tea. “The first time you do it, they have you take tea and sell it. The second time, it’s no longer tea,” Ilya explained to his mom. When Ekaterina asked him why he did it, he said, “Mom, you should have seen how much they paid me.”

Later on, Ilya’s lawyer asked Ekaterina, “Listen, didn’t you notice your son was walking around pale as a ghost? That’s because he would wear a gas mask for large amounts of time when he was separating the substance into bags — the lack of oxygen turned his face that color.”

Not long after Ilya started the job, Ekaterina scolded him and Roman for not cleaning up after themselves, so some friends of theirs decided to call a cleaning service. The cleaners who arrived were two tall, long-haired twins named Marina and Olga. After the twins and Ilya struck up a conversation, they complained to him about their job at the cleaning service: their boss often failed to pay them and “harassed” them. Ilya offered them a different job.

Whenever a shipment of “bulk product” arrived, the twins would don gas masks and separate it out into bags (Ilya paid them extra as “compensation” for the dangerous work environment), then they set out to deliver orders. Over time, they became friends; Marina even started coming over to Ilya’s house to drink tea and play computer games.

In the fall of 2020, as Ilya later told his mother, he wanted to earn more. He bought a flask and other chemistry equipment and started making drugs himself.

According to Ekaterina, when Ilya was being questioned by police, he described in detail how to make mephedrone — “like a teacher.” She was shocked. “Ilya, honey, how did you do all that? You have a C in chemistry!” Ilya explained that his chemistry class at school was boring because his teacher made them learn old, already-established information instead of helping them make “new discoveries.” He told his mother privately that when he mixed substances in his lab and achieved the result he wanted, it made him happy because he “felt like a real scientist.”

Still, according to Ekaterina, Ilya never figured out how to produce any drugs himself (though the police have stated that Ilya both produced and sold drugs).

When Ilya and the others started producing drugs in the fall of 2020, they didn’t have anything to breathe through. Ilya and Alex tried to install a primitive vent in the window, and they agreed that they wouldn’t live there anymore, they would only work there (this was why Ilya started sleeping back at home). “Later on, the police explained to me that when people produce drugs, it leaves a strong odor that you can smell even outside of the apartment. I’m surprised none of the neighbors complained about people making drugs next door,” said Ekaterina.

Ilya’s apartment was on the eighth floor. The neighbors directly above told Meduza that they never smelled anything, “but the guys downstairs were constantly ventilating their apartment in the winter — to the point that their floors froze.” Neighbors who used the same stairwell told Meduza that they read about the boys in the news — but they had no idea that the drug lab was just a wall away from them.

Chapter 7

‘I was just doing my job’

Ilya was placed under house arrest on the condition that an adult be home with him at all times. Ekaterina had to go to work, so she called her 75-year-old mother, Olga, to leave the village where she lived and come babysit Ilya in Perm.

Olga spent all her working life as a kindergarten teacher. She enjoyed the respect of the whole family, all of whom considered her wise and fair. Whenever a conflict arose between Ekaterina and her sons, whichever party considered themself wronged would call Olga, who would help everyone reconcile.

Ilya’s relatives had a lot of questions for him. Sometimes he answered them, but most often he kept silent. He usually spoke only after talking to his lawyer, who would come over after meetings with investigators. “Don’t be surprised when the police call you all the time and all kinds of information starts coming out. It turns out we don’t know anything about him [Ilya],” Ekaterina told the lawyer.

One time, Ilya’s lawyer called Ekaterina and asked her to give the phone to Ilya. “Ilya, where did you travel?” asked the lawyer. Ilya breathed heavily into the phone. “Ilya, where did you go on a plane? Tell me,” the lawyer insisted. In November 2020, then-15-year-old Ilya had followed his “supervisor’s” instructions to fly to Kazan to pick up a “large quantity of merchandise.” It was Ilya’s first time on a plane. To keep his mom from finding out, Ilya had flown there and back in one day.

When it was time for him to take his bags through security, Ilya got scared he would be arrested, so he got rid of the “merchandise” and returned empty-handed. “Ilya, you didn’t think you’d be arrested later on?” asked Ekaterina. “Mom, everything was working out,” Ilya told her.

(Ilya returned from Kazan the day he told his mom he wasn’t going to school because he was “tired” and she jokingly threatened to call the police.)

“Ilya, where else did you fly?” Ekaterina asked him. Ilya didn’t answer. Soon, though, his lawyer called again. “Ilya, you went to one other city. Tell me which one,” he said. “Yes, I also went to Tyumen,” Ilya confessed.

The Interior Ministry published a press release stating, among other things, that Ilya was a gifted biology student who told his mother that he was growing a new type of strawberry in his rented apartment, when in actuality he was producing drugs.

Ekaterina said that when he was in the eighth grade, Ilya and one of his classmates really did grow strawberries using a hydroponic system for a school project. They didn’t do it in the rented apartment, though. When it was time for Ilya and his partner to present the project to the class online, Roman refused to give Ilya the computer, so Ilya’s partner presented it alone.

* * *

When Ilya was under house arrest, Ekaterina hired a hairdresser to come give Ilya a haircut in their apartment. When the woman arrived, Ekaterina and her mother sat down next to Ilya and tried to convince him to agree to get a haircut. He had trials, “or, God forbid, a prison sentence,” coming up and long hair would just make his life harder. Ilya flatly refused. In the end, though, the hairdresser managed to convince him, and Ekaterina and her mother breathed a sigh of relief.

“There’s a lot I can do — you guys don’t even know,” Ilya once bragged to his lawyer and his mom. Ekaterina panicked: “Ilya, have you killed people?” Ilya said he hadn’t — but his lawyer disagreed. “Ilya, you have killed people. But you didn’t stab them or strangle them — you killed them another way,” he said. That angered Ilya. “I didn’t kill anyone. I just did my job well. They valued me, they praised me,” he argued, truly not understanding what he was being punished for.

Ekaterina also worried about how skinny Ilya was — “abnormal, even for a teenager.” “Tell me you at least ate a piece of meat with that money you made!” she told him. “Mom, I didn’t have any time to eat. At night, I had to measure out chemicals, during the day, I had to go to school, and in the evenings, I had to package and make deliveries,” said Ilya.

“Everyone does it — why is it me that has to go to jail for ten years? Mom, two thirds of the people at school have connections to drugs,” Ilya told his mother and his teachers (Meduza was unable to confirm when exactly this conversation took place). “Ilya, tell us who,” said the teachers, according to Ekaterina. “No, I won’t tell you,” he said. “A third of them bury [the drugs]. A third of them dig them up. And the rest watch.”

After Ilya was detained, Ekaterina was ordered to bring him in for a psychiatric assessment. According to Ekaterina, he walked into the building “like a king,” unaware of what was in store.

They settled in the hallway and waited for his name to be called. Sitting next to them were the kinds of boys Ekaterina refers to as “welfare kids.” “There were these guys who had [evidently] seen quite a few things: they were so cool, bruised, rumpled. Their moms looked to be alcoholics,” Ekaterina told Meduza.

“Mom, who are they?” Ilya asked her.

“Ilya, honey, those are the kinds of guys you’ll be seeing a lot of. Prison is full of people like that. That high society life you got used to at the lyceum is over now. You didn’t like those people — you said they were boring,” she told Ilya.

“Mom, I’m not getting locked up with them,” he said, frightened.

“And just like that, my tall, skinny guy, who was always so cocky, moved closer and nestled up against me — like a little kid,” Ekaterina recalled. “That’s when I realized everything was worse than I thought.”

Eventually, a police officer came into the hallway and shouted at Ilya to come with her. “Like he was a criminal,” said Ekaterina. “And my Ilya isn’t used to talking with people who don’t respect him.” “Mom, I’m not going to talk with her, I won’t tell her anything,” Ilya told her. “Son, what you want doesn’t matter anymore. Whatever they say, you’re going to do.”

Later on, Ekaterina was summoned to the city’s commission on juvenile affairs. Her mother praised her, telling Ilya, “You need to give your mom a hug — she’s going to the front lines.” Ilya took his mother by the shoulders — ”that part was important” for her — and embraced her. “Mom, hang in there,” he said. “Forgive me, Mom, and hang in there.”

“Okay, go ahead,” the officers at the commission said when it was Ekaterina’s turn to speak. She told them “through tears” about everything that had happened. They heard her out before telling her that they had “no comments about her parenting skills.” Ekaterina was given an administrative warning and was not fined. “Guys, they didn’t take the 3,000 [rubles, about $40] from me,” she said when she returned home. “Let’s go drinking.” The three of them decided that this was their tiny victory — “not everybody punishes you, some people listen to you” — and they made a pact to “have a laugh” that day.

They decided to buy something sweet — the kind of thing Ekaterina didn’t usually buy. Her mother had always been conservative with money, saved up for her grandsons while at the same time forbidding Ekaterina from “overindulging.” That day, however, she gave her permission: “Let’s treat ourselves.” Ilya asked his mom if he could have non-alcoholic beer since he had a “tough life ahead.” Ekaterina asked her mother: “Is it okay, Mom?” Olga allowed it. For themselves, the women bought a small bottle of vodka. Before they drank it, Ekaterina asked Ilya’s permission: “Can we have vodka?” “You can today,” he said.

“And so we drank vodka with Mom, bought a melon, ate, and laughed,” Ekaterina recalled. “And then we made sure Ilya knew: no matter what happens to you, we’re here.” Ilya gave her a hug. “You guys are cool,” he said.

“That meant so much to me, because I had thought he hated us,” said Ekaterina.

Chapter 8

Ilya’s breakdown

“You could have finished school, gone into the chemical industry, become the head of a chemical firm and had a ball with all those flasks,” Ilya’s lawyer told him at one of their meetings. “You would have had fun. You could have done it all legally. Discovered a new substance. Why, Ilya, why did you do it?”

“You won’t believe it, but I felt like a scientist,” Ilya told him. “Mom, I was a scientist. Did you see the flasks? They’re so cool, Mom.” He talked about mixing chemicals, watching them react, and seeing the sediment turn the right color.

“Ilya, it’s not just a chemical. It’s a drug,” Ekaterina told him.

“That doesn’t matter,” said Ilya.

Ilya asked his lawyer, “Nikolai, could they punish me with army service?” “How would that work?” he replied. “Let me serve in the army for ten years.” The lawyer laughed and said, “Ilya, from now on, nothing is going to go the way you want. All that matters is what the state wants.”

Ekaterina recalled one time when she tried to cheer Ilya up after she spoke to one of her students’ fathers who worked in the prison system. “Ilya, honey, he promised he’d act as your insurance there. He’ll make sure they don’t beat you up every day. Nobody will beat you too hard. That’s one thing to celebrate. And they’ll let me come bring you food once a month. Ilya, honey, maybe we can sit together like we are right now,” she told him. But Ilya wasn’t convinced. “Mom, read a bit about juvenile detention centers. Mom, the kids there are morons. They hurt people, Mom, they cut you into pieces. I don’t want to go.”

Right after he was detained, the police told Ilya, “Well, man, it’s ten years for you.” Nonetheless, Ilya was initially confident he’d be given a shorter sentence because he was a minor. He walked around the apartment singing prison songs and making jokes about prison. Later on, at his court hearings, though, people continued to remind him that he was facing up to ten years in prison — and he finally broke. “I’m not going,” he told his mother once. “I’ll do everything I can not to go.” Ekaterina worried he would have a mental breakdown and take his own life.

Then one day, in late April 2021, Ilya started yelling at his mother. “Why couldn’t you save me like Alex’s parents did? Why didn’t you tell them they couldn’t interrogate me without a lawyer? Why can’t you and dad help me? Why have I never seen anything in my life? Why have we always been so poor? I wanted to buy you an apartment so you could do whatever you want!’ said Ilya.

“He shouted and shouted at me, and I knew he’d finally had the breakdown I’d been worried about,” said Ekaterina. “He yelled and me, and I thought, ‘Thank God this is the form the breakdown is taking — now he won’t do anything to himself, now he won’t run away. I didn’t even stop him. He screamed about all the things he didn’t like — how poor we were, how I divorced his dad. How Alex was a diver and played the piano, how he had everything. He said, ‘I haven’t seen any of that. But I could do it, too. I could dive, too’.”

Then he started questioning whether it was true that Ekaterina hadn’t suspected anything. He told her she should have been able to guess. He told her about how that fall, Alex’s dad had come to the rented apartment, collected Alex’s things, and dragged him out by his neck.

“Son, did you ever give me the chance to drag you out by your neck?” she asked him. “You didn’t even tell me where the apartment was.”

“I thought you would freak out and call Dad for help,” he said. “I wish Dad would have come and punched me.”

“He said he’d expected us to act more like parents,” Ekaterina later told Meduza. “He said we both knew what was going on. He said we were bad parents for not helping him come back home.”

“Ilya, honey, you’re always trying to take a stand, prove that you’re the best, but you still haven’t shown yourself to be the best,” she once scolded him. Ilya took offense. “And what have you proven, Mom? Living hand to mouth,” he said.

“I proved that I’m an honest woman, that I work to earn honest money, and one of my sons already has a college education,’ she told him.

“You know what would prove more, Mom? If you were happy,” he said. “I really was tortured by my work and rarely happy,” Ekaterina conceded later on.

At the end of their conversation, Ilya told her, “Mom, I’m not happy with our government, I don’t trust our government.” “Son,” she told him, “we live here, your mother is here, your grandmother is here, and the laws here are the laws you’re going to live under.”

“I’ll come up with something,” said Ilya.

* * *

Ilya spent the entire fall thinking about what he would need to build a computer. He’d saved the money over a period of several years — most of it was money he’d received on holidays from his family (Ekaterina and her mother both ate as little as possible in anticipation of the holidays so they could afford some gifts for the boys). Ilya refused to spend any of it — even when there was nothing to eat at home and his mother asked him to let her borrow some money for food.

In December 2020, all of the parts he needed to build a system unit finally arrived. He convinced his mom to let him skip school that day to put everything together. “You know it’s my dream,” he told her. “Please let me skip school just once in my life. I’m so happy right now.” Ekaterina let him. “It seemed to me that since nothing good had been happening to him lately, he might as well have one day of happiness,” she said.

Ilya spent all day building the computer, singing all the while. The computer “glowed, spun around,” and looked like something very expensive. “How much did this all cost?” his mom asked him. “For you? Expensive,” he told her, then told her he had saved the money over a period of years. Initially, Ekaterina believed him, but over time, she started to have doubts. Ilya put the receipts in a bag, and whenever Ekaterina wanted to peek at them, he took them away and stopped her from looking. They even got into arguments about it.

Ilya didn’t even get to use his computer for a month; because he allegedly used it to commit a crime, the police confiscated it. Only then did he confess to his mom that he’d bought it with ”bad money” (as Ekaterina calls it).

During his time under house arrest, Ilya did his homework every day, and Ekaterina brought his notebooks to his school before work. Ilya’s school administrators decided that despite his getting arrested, he would be allowed to take the end-of-year standardized tests “so he could come back and study or get a job after prison.”

At the end of April, Ilya became very closed off. He stopped speaking with his family almost completely. “I could see him thinking, thinking, thinking,” Ekaterina recalled. “And then on the evening of April 25, he said, ‘Mom, what should I do?’ ‘Your math homework,’ I told him. ‘I’ll do it now,’ he said.”

A little after midnight, Ekaterina went into Ilya’s room. Ilya sat on his bed in the darkness with his math textbook. Ekaterina tripped on his backpack, which was leaning against the wall. “Mom, what are you looking for?” Ilya asked, annoyed. “I came in to get your notebook,” she said. He glared at her. When she left the room, she had the feeling she’d “been in the line of fire.”

On the morning of April 26, Ekaterina left for work at 7:00 in the morning. After her first few lessons, she called Ilya to wake him up for his online classes. When Ilya didn’t pick up the phone, she got nervous: what if he’d done something to himself? At 5:00 p.m., she couldn’t take the stress anymore, so she headed home. When she got up to their floor, she saw that the apartment door was open. Lying on the hallway floor was Ilya’s cut-off ankle monitor, along with a metal saw and some other tools.

“Apparently, he was having a hard time cutting the bracelet and he started hyperventilating. He got scared it would take too long to cut off and the police would arrive before he could escape. He even made himself some tea in the kitchen before leaving and didn’t drink a single sip — and made a sandwich that he didn’t eat,” said Ekaterina. Apparently, in his hurry to leave, Ilya also put on only a light windbreaker, despite the still-wintry weather. All he brought with him was his backpack — the one his mother had tripped over the previous night — and his computer monitor.

Lips quivering and tears flowing, Ekaterina called Ilya’s lawyer, who immediately notified the Investigative Committee. Soon, the police arrived. They said Ilya’s bracelet had stopped showing up in the area sometime between 8:00 and 10:00 a.m., but they didn’t think anything was wrong, because it had temporarily stopped working several times in the past.

The officers, and later an investigator, searched the apartment for any kind of note Ilya might have left for his mother. They found a landline phone on a shelf in the entryway and asked Ekaterina whether she had called a taxi at 8:00 a.m. that morning. She hadn’t. It turned out Ilya had called a taxi and then left a message on the phone for the police: “So, did you get me?”

“You had no right to give him a phone!” the police told Ekaterina. “But they gave us permission to leave him a landline phone so he could get in touch with me,” she told them.

The police examined the browsing history on Ekaterina’s own phone. Then, claiming Ilya had been using it to log onto the Internet at night for the past week, they confiscated it — “because it had been in the hands of a criminal.” They promised to give it back whenever Ilya returned.

Under Ilya’s desk, police found a long list he’d made of the things he would bring with him when he fled, including matches, a tourniquet, and some pills to treat tooth pain. “All of these items made it clear to me that he’s outside with no roof over his head, no money, nothing. And the police just said, ‘See? He’s already a seasoned criminal.’ It’s like he thought everything through, so now people consider him experienced. But to me, he’s just a clueless kid who I would butt heads with,” said Ekaterina.

As police later confirmed, Ilya got in a taxi and took it to the Medical Institute. Where he went after that is unknown. The police believe he took his computer monitor with him so he could sell it.

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Sorry we exist The emergence, blossoming, and almost complete defeat of Russian drug activism

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Sorry we exist The emergence, blossoming, and almost complete defeat of Russian drug activism

Chapter 9

‘I want to know that he’s eating’

Ekaterina told the Investigative Committee that Ilya and the twins, Marina and Olga, had been sold out by Alex. Back in the summer — on the same day when Katya the lizard ran away — Alex got caught delivering an order. But he was soon set free — evidently after agreeing to cooperate with investigators. Ilya’s lawyer declined to comment on the investigation.

Later, on the girls’ phones and on Ilya’s phone and computer, the police found messages in which Ilya told the girls where to deliver specific quantities of drugs (according to Ekaterina).

“Alex got out of the investigation because he was 15, and from that point on, even though he continued working for Ilya, from the police’s perspective, he was part of one case and the girls and Ilya were part of a completely separate one. Because it turned out that the girls were 22,” said Ekaterina.

She’s confident the authorities intentionally waited until January (when Ilya had turned 16) to detain him. She says the police told her that they “deliberately waited until his sixteenth birthday so they could hold him fully responsible for his actions.” According to Ekaterina, Ilya’s lawyer pointed out in court that the majority of Ilya’s alleged crimes had been committed before Ilya turned 16.

Ekaterina also explained that her son was the third person to have worked with the “supervisor” at his drug trafficking job. Ilya told the police that he never saw the “supervisor” in person; they only communicated when Ilya received instructions.

In the summer of 2021, after Ilya ran away, Ekaterina saw Alex from a bus window. She said that he had always “had curls,” but now, he was sitting at the bus stop with his head almost completely shaved, “cracking up with the other guys.”

The twins were also put under house arrest (they were arrested the same day as Ilya) — but after Ilya ran away, they were released on recognizance. Now, they both work and move around the city freely.

When lya was still at home, the girls’ mother came over to meet Ekaterina. It turned out that their family was very poor; their father was absent, their mother was very religious, and the girls themselves, their mom said, were “very modest and well-behaved.”

After that, one of the twins — Marina, the one Ilya was closer to — came over to visit. That’s when she learned that Ilya had run away. All evening, she and Ekaterina talked “woman-to-woman,” and afterward, Ekaterina decided to give her a ride home. When they went outside, Ekaterina noticed several plainclothes officers standing next to her car — they seemed to be keeping tabs on Marina.

As soon as they set off, the officers climbed into a vehicle and followed behind them. “That’s when something snapped,” said Ekaterina. “I don’t live under a rock, I’ve seen movies. They were tailing us, and I was at the wheel.”

“Marina,” she said, “we’re going to break away from the police.” According to Ekaterina, she tried to be brave — she wanted Ilya to hear later on that his mom hadn’t been afraid — but her arms and legs were shaking. “I’m really scared of the police,” she later admitted.

Disoriented from the fear, she drove in the wrong direction, away from the city.

“You’re going the wrong way,” Marina told her.

“Where do I need to go?” Ekaterina asked.

“Towards the city,” said Marina.

Ekaterina pulled herself together and drove Marina home. After that, according to her, the police realized Ilya wasn’t with them and left.

Later on, Ekaterina had a dream that she was driving her mother to the village — and someone in another car was following them. When she stopped, she got out and said, “People, I’m not guilty.”

* * *

On the first day back at school after summer break, Ilya’s teachers gathered for a staff meeting. One teacher who was there told Meduza that the news “that it was Ilya who was involved with drugs shocked everyone.” The most shocking part was that “this kid hadn’t aroused any suspicion, not in the slightest.” He did his work diligently; he may not have always been prepared for class, but he never skipped school; he was interested in physics, chemistry, and biology, although he didn’t always get the best grades.

According to another school employee, Ilya “never got a single A, but he had absolutely no problems with academic performance — he had a good head on his shoulders.” When inspectors came to the school after Ilya’s arrest, they found that “he wasn’t registered on any social workers’ lists,” and he had never been categorized as an at-risk child.

Another school employee Meduza spoke with said that “when all of this went down, investigators turned the whole school upside down looking for a teacher to blame and trying to find out whether other students were involved.” All of Ilya’s classmates assured their teachers they hadn’t known anything about what he was up to. Two of the teachers had sons who studied in the same class as Ilya; “They swore to their mothers that they didn’t know anything,” she said.

The school is trying its best not to publicize the fact that “a kid like [Ilya]” studied there. When Meduza asked the school’s director of academic affairs for comment, he responded with a threat: “If you put out this article and there’s even one detail denigrating the school, even one little nuance, I’ll hire lawyers from Moscow.”

* * *

Ilya has been on the run for seven months now. At first, Ekaterina tried searching for him herself. She asked upperclassmen at the school where they usually hang out, then she personally checked every basement and alley they mentioned, but her son was nowhere to be found.

In her bedroom, Ilya’s photograph hangs underneath her icons. Several times, she’s gone to a psychic “to at least find out whether he’s still alive.” Her eldest, Roman, rebukes her for it because it’s not cheap — each session costs 2,000–3,000 rubles ($27-$40). The other teachers at her school also recommended a psychic based in Perm who only charged 1,000 rubles ($14). He told her that Ilya is stuck somewhere with no money, and that he had some kind of “financial agreement” with someone at one point, but it fell through.

“Come on, Katya, don’t worry. He’ll find a way to make money,” Ekaterina’s colleagues have told her. “But no, that’s not enough — I want to know that he’s eating,” she said.

She asked the police for permission to go to the rented apartment where Ilya work and pick up his things. “People have told me that I need to get the clothes he wore there, bring them home, wash them, and fold them. Otherwise, according to the superstitions, bad things will happen to him,” said Ekaterina. The police agreed, and Ekaterina went to get his “underpants and undershirts.”

Occasionally, Ekaterina still gets called in for questioning. Since the police took her phone away, she “lost touch with her students’ parents, and all of [her] work has just been piling up.”

She also heard somewhere that women visiting their kids in jail are allowed to stay for “as many hours as [they give the guards] pieces of jewelry.” She now buys a new piece of jewelry every time she gets a paycheck. Last summer, a police officer even called her to ask, “Mrs. Stepanov, are you getting ready to go to a ball or something? That’s the third piece of jewelry you’ve bought.” “That’s just my style. I have to look good at school,” she told him.

The police have told her that Ilya must still be alive because they haven’t found his body. They also reminded her that he can’t hide forever: “He’ll run for a year or two, maximum, and then he’ll serve,” an officer said. “By that time, I’ll already have a bag full of jewelry,” said Ekaterina.

According to her, despite the fact that Ilya’s real name has almost never appeared in the news, somehow “almost the entire city” knows that her son is a criminal. Although she expected her students’ parents to turn against her for having raised a drug dealer, they’ve only supported her and sympathized with her.

Ekaterina’s mother has promised that if Ilya ever shows up at her house, she’ll feed him before he gets arrested again. In the meantime, Ekaterina considers it her mission to take care of Pasha the cat — so that when Ilya returns, he’ll both praise her and understand that he can trust her with his children. Some days, she has to think about whether to feed Pasha or herself. Then she opens a tin of meat and gives it to the cat.

Story by Irina Kravtsova, with illustrations by Nastya Grigoryeva

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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