Vera Vasilieva on the case of Aleksei Pichugin: the main cold case of Putin’s Russia

8 July 2021

Nikolai Vasiliev of Sobesednik.ru in coversation with the human rights journalist Vera Vasilieva about the case of Aleksei Pichugin

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Собеседник]


Aleksei Pichugin, the former head of the Yukos security service, who has been sentenced to life imprisonment, has once again been taken to Lefortovo for questioning.

The general reader might not know that all criminal charges against the disgraced Mikhail Khodorkovsky, as well as the enterprise’s main shareholder, businessman Boris Nevzlin, are based on a different criminal case—against Aleksei Pichugin, the former head of the Yukos security service. It is this man who has been accused of allegedly organizing contract murders in the 1990s for Khodorkovsky and Nevzlin. Since 2003, Aleksei Pichugin has been in the Black Dolphin penal colony in Sol-Iletsk and has twice been brought back to Moscow to give testimony against his former directors. Both times, this did not yield results, but now, on the threshold of the September trial in the Netherlands, based on the results of which Russia may end up owing Yukos shareholders approximately 50 billion dollars’ compensation, Aleksei Pichugin has once again been transported from the penal colony and brought to Lefortovo for certain “investigative actions.” Pichugin’s lawyers, Dmitri Kharitonov and Ksenia Kostroina, are not commenting on the situation with their defendant. As Novaya Gazeta’s sources report, Pichugin was forced to reject the lawyers he has collaborated with for many years.

Sobesednik.ru’s  reporter discussed Aleksei Pichugin’s case with journalist Vera Vasilieva, who has worked on his case since 2006 and is the author of a book, Aleksei Pichugin: Roads and Crossroads, as well as laureate of the 2018 Moscow Helsinki Group prize for her human rights journalism.

“Previously, I worked as a journalist for a popular science publication devoted to IT technologies,” Vera told me. “But I got interested in the Yukos case when it began, and I was in court several times. The first trial in the Aleksei Pichugin case was closed to the public. I decided to attend the second. That was 2006. At the time, Pichugin had already been sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment. I knew about this through the media and decided to put together a more accurate and unfiltered presentation of the case. In April 2006, I went to the hearing. I will say only that all the testimony in the case was based on hearsay; witnesses related what other people had said. For example, a witness stated, “Sergei Gorin (a Tambov businessman whose murder is attributed to Pichugin – Sobesednik) told me, ‘If anything happens to me, it’s this man who’s to blame’—and he showed me a photograph of Pichugin.” That stunned me. I started writing about this in LiveJournal, which was popular at the time. After a while, the directors of my publication said I was devoting too much time to this topic. I left and got a job at a certain human rights portal, For Human Rights. Then, many years later, that was deemed a foreign agent and shut down. I worked there for 11 years.

What else seemed strange to you in the Pichugin case?

Several accusations were made against Pichugin. I tried to attend every session and analyzed all these accusations. I got the impression that these were all cold cases: cases from the 1990s that had never been thoroughly investigated, in which it had been impossible to establish the person responsible. At best, they’d managed to find the killer, and after that the investigation hit an impasse. This went on for many years. And suddenly, when the Yukos case began, it turns out that the person responsible for all those crimes was Pichugin. And the people who’d been convicted and were serving their sentence started giving testimony to the investigation saying that the person responsible was Pichugin.

Let’s start with the murder of the mayor of Nefteyugansk, which they’ve been trying to pin on Mikhail Khodorkovsky since 2016. Actually, Pichugin is considered the organizer of that murder.

Nefteyugansk Mayor Vladimir Petukhov was killed on 26 June 1998. One story says that this was connected to a conflict around the Nefteyugansk market. Petukhov had moved it to a different place and made it municipal, and not all the market’s owners were happy about that. There was a story about Petukhov’s wife, who inherited a fortune after his death. Subsequently, that story was not followed up on. There was a story that the Kamyshin criminal group was involved in Petukhov’s murder. Its participants were questioned, were in the remand centre, and then were given another punishment. And then they died under strange circumstances. In 2005, people were found who testified that Pichugin had hired them to kill Petukhov. However, the appearance of these men did not coincide with the statements of witnesses to the mayor’s murder, which had been given back in 1998. The witnesses had described “tall blond young” killers. And in the end, sitting on the defendant bench was a dark-haired man with a completely different appearance.

And the version about the conflict with YUKOS over the failure to pay taxes to the Nefteyugansk budget?

There was such a conflict. Negotiations were underway to agree on the amount of money to be paid into the city budget. There were debts of Yukos – the company was privatized in 1996 – and there were debts that dated back to the time when the company was under state ownership. On the eve of the assassination, an agreement was reached: Yukos paid off the debts from 1997. There were still state debts, which Yukos agreed to gradually repay.

What about the case of the attempted assassination of businessman Yevgeny Rybin, head of the Austrian oil company East Petroleum Handelsgas GmbH?

There was a conflict between Yukos and Rybin over the development of oil fields. Rybin was engaged in the supply of equipment for the development of these fields. The Yukos management didn’t want to do it, considering it a one-sided, unfair contract, which had been signed before Yukos was taken over by Khodorkovsky. In ’98 and ’99, Rybin was shot at twice, in Moscow and the Moscow region. But when these assassination attempts took place, no one connected them with Yukos. In 2008, when the case against Leonid Nevzlin, one of the main shareholders of Yukos, began, two witnesses in the Nevzlin case, Reshetnikov and Tsigelnikov, told the court that they had previously implicated Aleksei Pichugin under pressure from the investigators. But the court considered their statements unconvincing.

What can you say about the case of the attempted murder of journalist Olga Kostina?

This is Pichugin’s first indictment. On the night of November 1998, an explosive device went off in the stairwell of Kostina’s parents. No one was injured in the explosion. Why did Yukos have anything to do with it? Kostina said that she had had some kind of disagreement with Yukos management, yes. But before that she blamed the Moscow authorities and Sergei Tsoi, then press secretary of the Moscow mayor’s office, with whom she also had a conflict. In general, the most dubious witness in this case is Igor Korovnikov, a criminal from Tambov. A man from Tambov, who raped and murdered young girls. For this he was serving a sentence in a penal colony on Ognenny Island in Vologda region. From there he was brought to Moscow many years later and placed in Lefortovo. This is the man who testified that the explosion on the landing of Kostina’s parents was ordered by Pichugin. At Ognenny island, where Korovnikov was serving his sentence, prison conditions are quite harsh. The penal colony is the only thing there is on the territory of a former monastery. The humidity is high, there are many mosquitoes. I don’t know where Korovnikov is serving his sentence now.

The murder of Moscow entrepreneur Valentina Korneeva in 1998?

Korneeva owned a store, called ‘Chai’ [Tea] on Pokrovka Street. Yukos wanted to buy or lease premises on that street and a nearby alleyway, so the company’s offices would be next to each other, and in exchange purchase other premises in other districts of Moscow for the store. Korneeva didn’t want to do the deal. Apparently, because further along Pokrovka Street there was a restaurant owned by Valentina Korneeva’s son. But when the murder took place, Korneeva’s son did not link it to Yukos, but to a conflict between Korneeva and another shareholder of the Chai store with whom there had been a dispute over the shares in the business. Then Korneeva’s son changed his mind and began to argue that the reason for the murder was a conflict with Yukos. However, after the murder, the store premises were not transferred to Yukos. It is still unknown who benefited from the murder.

Finally, the murder of the Gorin couple, business people from Tambov, in 2002?

In 2002, Sergei Gorin and his wife Olga disappeared. It happened under strange circumstances. Some people came to the Gorins and they locked their children in the bathroom. The children heard an argument, and then the parents left the house with those people. The Gorin couple’s car was later found empty. In Tambov, Sergei Gorin was head of Menatep’s office (a group of companies founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky – “Sobesednik”). He also set up a pyramid scheme to sell apartments. It was a dubious story, but the case was hushed up, and Gorin was fired from Menatep. It is possible that the visit of strangers to Gorin’s house is related to this story. Aleksei Pichugin went to Tambov on Menatep business and was the godfather of Gorin’s son. Pichugin also found Gorin a job at a petrol station after Gorin left Menatep. Before the couple went missing, Gorin had failed to arrive at a meeting with Pichugin to arrange this employment.

That is to say, all the charges are the very least controversial?

I came to the conclusion that they are all very dubious.  Recall that Pichugin’s case has been heard three times.  As regards the first accusation, the court sentenced Aleksei to twenty years in prison.  As regards the second – that is, the allegedly proven organisation of the murders of Petukhov and Korneeva, and two attempts on the life of Rybin – the court added only four years to the original sentence.  I think the judge realised that Pichugin’s guilt had not been proven, and that is why he added such a short extra term, though for political reasons he did not want to acquit Pichugin.  But then the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation ruled that this sentence was not sufficiently severe and, as a result a second trial was held regarding the second accusation, and Aleksei was given a life sentence.

Is Aleksei serving his time in the “Black Dolphin” penal colony in Sol-Iletsk [a penal colony in a town in Orenburg Region – trans]?  Have you been there?

Yes, I went to Sol-Iletsk.  Of course, I could not visit the penal colony itself.  The town is both a holiday resort and the site of a penal colony.  Photographs of holidaymakers relaxing beside the salt lake with the prison visible in the background are bizarre.  Aleksei has been there ever since he was sentenced to life in prison.

What are his conditions like?  Is he under pressure?

He has always written to me saying that he has no complaints.  Each cell houses two prisoners.  It seems the conditions are tolerable.  As far as I can tell, nothing illegal has been done to Aleksei in the colony.


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Entrance to the resort at Sol-Iletsk.  Photo by Vera Vasilieva
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The beach at Sol-Iletsk, on Lake Razval, with the penal colony in the background.  Photo by Vera Vasilieva
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The new penal colony building.  Photo by Vera Vasilieva


Aleksei has been taken twice from the colony to give testimony in Moscow, is that right?

He was taken to Moscow in 2008, when the trial of Leonid Nevzlin was under way.  He did not testify against Nevzlin.  He wrote to tell me that the investigators asked him to give testimony and promised him that, if he did so, his sentence would be shortened.  He refused.  I think that was because he is a deeply religious person.  For him, it’s not acceptable to slander another person.  That’s apparently why, in 2008, he was sent back to the Black Dolphin.  Then in 2016 he was brought to Moscow again, this time to testify against Khodorkovsky, and in 2017 he was sent back to the colony.  And now something similar is happening again: they have brought him back to Moscow again and will apparently interrogate him regarding the Khodorkovsky case, demanding testimony and promising in return to shorten his sentence.

The well-known Igor Sutyagin, accused of espionage in Russia, now living and working in Great Britain, claimed that Aleksei Pichugin was exposed to psychotropic substances during investigation.

In 2008, when Pichugin was brought to Moscow City Court for interrogation in the Nevzlin case, he said that in 2003 he was in the same cell with Sutyagin and that he was exposed to a psychotropic substance. I later sent Sutyagin my book about Aleksei Pichugin, thinking that it might be interesting for him to read a book about a man with whom he once served time. Indeed, on 14 July 2003, Pichugin’s lawyers recorded his general illness after interrogation and marks from injections on his arms. The doctor, called on this occasion, came only after 10 days and did not find any traces of the substances used. It is possible that a psychotropic substance was used in an attempt to get evidence on Nevzlin and Khodorkovsky but Aleksei had absolutely nothing to say. When Pichugin was ill he gained a great deal of weight, bumps appeared on his head which were surgically removed years later. In his letters he did not report all this, only thanked me for my support. His mother also saw evidence of injections. He looked so bad then that she didn’t know whether her son would survive after the psychotropic substances were used on him.

Do you know anything about the upcoming September trial in the Netherlands in the Yukos case?

This trial began in 2014. Initially, there was a court decision in The Hague that Russia should pay compensation of 50 billion dollars. But Russia has appealed this decision. The case went to the Supreme Court of the Netherlands. Commentators suggest that, perhaps, this appeal will not be upheld. As far as I know, in case of a victory in court, Yukos shareholders will be able to seize Russian property in other countries. Therefore, Russia apparently wants to start negotiations in order to somehow reduce Pichugin’s prison term in order to receive some advantage in exchange.

We are talking about possible losses abroad for Russian officials and heads of state structures like Gazprom. Apparently, Mikhail Khodorkovsky himself understands this, saying the following in a recent broadcast on Ekho Moskvy radio: “My position is that Aleksei Pichugin has been serving an 18-year prison term for nothing. I believe that he should give any testimony that is required. I couldn’t care less who says what about me, so long as Aleksei manages to gain his freedom.”

Translated by Marian Schwartz, Simon Cosgrove, Elizabeth Teague and Ecaterina Hughes

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