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‘He was clueless’ Russian DJ Denis Kaznacheev was charged with laundering $310 million. Then, unexpectedly, the U.S. authorities withdrew their extradition request.

Source: Meduza
Justice for Denis! Facebook page

In early January, the American authorities withdrew a request to extradite Berlin-based Russian DJ Denis Kaznacheev. The U.S. had charged him with laundering hundreds of millions of dollars. As a result, a Berlin court placed Kaznacheev in pre-trial detention before releasing him on bail, while making it clear that Germany would not challenge his extradition stateside. In recent months, new details of the case have emerged: Kaznacheev was accused of running WebKazna — a money laundering service on the dark web, — supposedly naming the illegal business after himself. People close to the DJ think he was framed by a family friend. Meduza looks into how the story unfolded. 

On Monday, January 10, German lawyer Anna Oehmichen sent a letter to Denis Kaznacheev and several of his close friends. “We don’t know why, but this no big deal, right?” she wrote. Such a turn in Kaznacheev’s fate was entirely unexpected — rather than hoping for a happy ending to his case, the DJ was anticipating detention and extradition at any moment. In the United States, he faced up to 20 years in prison on charges of money laundering. 

By January 10, Denis Kaznacheev was in bad shape. According to his close friend, Berlin DJ Katya Lyasheva, Kaznacheev had been bedridden, popping anti-fever pills in an inexpensive rental flat in Berlin’s Lichtenberg borough that he split with a fellow musician. While Kaznacheev was formally free, he was obliged to report to the police every few days. The court had confiscated his Russian passport, his German visa had expired, and he lacked health insurance — rendering him unable to seek medical care, as even the simplest visit to the doctor costs hundreds of euros for the uninsured. Without a passport, Kaznacheev was also unable to obtain a coronavirus vaccine. 

Kaznacheev’s battle with German authorities to avoid extradition to the U.S. also seemed lost. In November, Berlin’s Higher Regional Court (the penultimate court in the German legal system) ruled that the American request was legally sound. In its decision, the Berlin court refused to consider both Kaznacheev’s risk of being infected with COVID-19 in an American prison, and the danger that his rights may be violated. In addition, the court determined that investigating the case and considering the arguments of Kaznacheev’s defense lay outside of their jurisdiction; rather, this fell to the U.S. justice system (according to the court ruling obtained by Meduza). Following this decision, the DJ’s attorneys considered their work done and stopped acting as his legal counsel. In December 2021, Kaznacheev and his friends were left to fend for themselves against two legal systems at once. 

Denis Kaznacheev was born on August 28, 1993, in the small town of Tashtagol in Russia’s Kemerovo region. In the early aughts. he moved to Moscow and worked as a salesperson in musical store at the 16 Tons club, while beginning his DJ career on the side. Kaznacheev’s tracks — recorded in the niche “minimal techno” style — failed to earn him more than a few hundred dollars in Moscow or Berlin, where he moved with his wife and son in the mid-2010s (the pair divorced in 2018). However, he became well-known in musical circles — after Kazancheev’s detention in May 2020, his DJ colleagues from Russia and Berlin voiced unprecedented support for the artist, even holding a rave outside the walls of his Berlin prison, in addition to several other joint performances to raise money for Kaznacheev’s legal defense. 

American intelligence took an interest in Kaznacheev in 2019, suspecting him of laundering money and cryptocurrency under the pseudonyms WebKazna, LRZnaki, and PMZnaki — effectively acting as a banker for hackers from the former Soviet Union. The scale of Kaznacheev’s alleged operations was immense — in their extradition request to the Federal Office of Justice in Bonn (obtained by Meduza), American attorneys claimed to have evidence implicating the DJ in laundering at least $310 million, which would yield him a “cut” of up to $15 million. 

Kaznacheev believes he was framed; that his documents were unknowingly used to create one or more illegal money laundering services. He maintains that he wouldn’t have thought to incorporate his real last name when naming WebKazna. The case was complicated by the fact that Kaznacheev allowed a friend, Kemal Shamanov, to open a bank account in his name and in doing so, photographed himself with a document to verify his identity. According to an investigation by BBC News Russian, Shamanov himself may be the person behind WebKazna. Kazancheev — who had a reputation among his friends for being particularly credulous and impractical, and often traveled to shows around the world (meaning monetary transactions could be conducted from different locations, in accordance with his tour schedule) — appeared to offer what was perhaps an ideal cover for criminal activity.

“[Denis] and his ex-wife weren’t getting along in Berlin. She’s from Minsk. And it so happened that her friend came over. He obtained Denis’ trust and they became close, super-friends. At one point he asked Denis for help. For Kaznacheev this meant withdrawing some money from the ATM — supposedly the friend couldn’t do it with his Belarusian passport, but Denis could. So that’s how clueless he was,” Kirill Golikov, a friend of Kaznacheev and a business partner in their Nervmusic label, told Meduza. 

Following his detention in 2020, Kaznacheev spent a month and a half in a Berlin jail, after which he was released on $20,000 bail, raised by his friends. In the next year and a half, he did not leave Berlin and occasionally performed at local clubs when permitted. Golikov recounted that “at some point Denis was spent — there was constant stress from the lawyers. He wasn’t allowed to perform anywhere, and he had to report to the commissioner three times a week. He had absolutely no money — we sent him money out of necessity — to eat, for beer. We held three or four events to collect money to pay his rent. We told him, go to Katya Ryba, we sent her some cash.”

Katya “Ryba” Lyasheva, a DJ, and Denise Gluck, Kaznacheev’s French manager, led the fight for his freedom. They raised funds, secured Kaznacheev’s legal defense, and organized the Facebook group “Justice for Denis,” which attracted 3,600 members. After Kaznacheev’s original counsel ended their relationship with him, the two women found a new attorney, Anna Oehmichen, who specializes in international law and extradition cases. Oehmichen was preparing to file an appeal with Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court. 

The Russian government also emerged as an ally of Kaznacheev: Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denounced the potential extradition as an “anti-Russian action” that would have consequences for Russian relations with Germany. The Russian government’s Foundation for Supporting and Protecting the Rights of Compatriots Living Abroad (established by the Foreign Ministry and Rossotrudnichestvo) contributed funds for Kaznacheev’s legal defense. 

So far, it’s not clear what exactly led American authorities to decline extradition. No documents confirm that Kaznacheev is no longer a suspect in the eyes of the United States, either. Kaznacheev himself is declining to comment until he receives “official papers.”

Katya Lyasheva says that Kaznacheev’s representatives will be seeking compensation for the false charges — at least to recoup their legal costs. 

“We were all shocked that they thought he was involved in this,” explains Kirill Golikov. “I swear on my life that he didn’t do it. Return Denis! What the hell? It’s some sort of Gulag! We fought for nobody to end up like this, nowhere ever again. May everyone learn these tales of fraud.” 

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Story by Dmitry Vachedin

Translation by Nikita Buchko