On June 4 2012, Russian reporter Sergei Sokolov was part of a press delegation accompanying the three-year-old Investigative Committee, often described as Russia's FBI, on a trip to Kabardino-Balkaria, a republic in the Caucasus. Sokolov's publication, Novaya Gazeta, is one of the few independent newspapers left in Vladimir Putin's Russia, a fact ominously borne out by the five journalists who have been removed from its masthead by being murdered -- among them, Anna Politkovskaya. So the 59-year-old head of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, might have expected a less-than-friendly audience in Sokolov, who had indeed already filed a blistering dispatch about the Committee's bungled investigation into the murder of 12 people, including four children, in Kushchevskaya, a village in the Krasnodar region, which took place in 2010. Krasnodar is notorious for its gang violence and Sokolov was particularly incensed about what had happened to Sergei Tsepovyaz, a local state official who'd destroyed evidence in the case and whose brother was a known member of the gang that perpetrated the killings: the brother got off with a $5,000 fine. Sokolov not unreasonably alleged a state coverup and named Bastrykin and Putin as "servants" of Krasnodar gangsters. After being cornered by his quarry in Kabardino-Balkaria, however, the journalist apologized for some of his prior coverage, but Russia's top cop was neither appeased nor amused. "I consider myself insulted," Bastrykin replied, "and not just personally. In czarist times they would have called people out to duel over this."
"The hard truth is that, in your emotional state, you rudely threatened the life of my journalist. And you joked that you would investigate the murder case personally."
A duel wasn't quite what happened next. The delegation, including Sokolov, returned safely to Moscow. Nine days later, on June 13, Dmitry Muratov, the editor of Novaya Gazeta, published an open letter addressed to Bastrykin, in which he claimed that Bastrykin had threatened to behead and dismember Sokolov:
"Sokolov was placed in a car by your bodyguards. He was taken without any explanation to a forest near Moscow. There, you asked the bodyguards to leave you and remained face to face with Sokolov... The hard truth is that, in your emotional state, you rudely threatened the life of my journalist. And you joked that you would investigate the murder case personally."
Bastrykin's initial reaction, in an interview with pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia, was to say that he hadn't even been in a forest "in years." All the allegations made in Muratov's letter, he said, were "outright lies." However, his denial couldn't stop an undeniably scandalous story -- what Muratov later described as "bad Hollywood" -- from gripping the nation's attention. Five journalists were arrested for picketing outside the Committee's headquarters in Moscow the day the letter was published. What then followed was unprecedented. Rather than retrench and perhaps lock up Muratov, Bastrykin invited the Novaya Gazeta editors to a meeting hosted by Interfax, another media outlet, whereupon the Committee chief issued a formal apology to Sokolov, who was by now well out of Russia, fearing for his life. (Sokolov returned a few days later.)
If Robert Mueller had been accused by Jill Abramson of taking a New York Times correspondent out into the woods of Long Island and threatening the journalist with decapitation, we can be reasonably sure that Robert Mueller would no longer be director of the FBI. But in Russia, no such presumption of accountability exists. Putinists rarely explain, and they never apologize. This is why Bastrykin's climb-down was met with widespread bemusement among Kremlinologists. One journalist at The New Times, another independent Russian journal, noted that his apology, surreal as it was to behold, also negated his rapid-fired demurral to Izvestia. Alexey Navalny, now Russia's most recognizable opposition figure, said that the apology was pointless anyway since Bastrykin had clearly committed a crime and deserved to be fired and arrested. About a month or so later, Navalny would offer evidence of yet another of Bastrykin's violations -- his ownership of an apartment, a business, and a long-term residence status in Eastern Europe, all undeclared. When the journal Argumenty i fakty first exposed the assets in 2008, Bastrykin had said: "Neither I nor any member of my family has ever engaged in commercial activity either in Russia or abroad." But that was, as Bastrykin himself might have phrased it, an outright lie.
Navalny produced documents showing that in 2000 Bastrykin had founded Law Bohemia, a real estate trading firm, in the Czech Republic. Bastrykin apparently sold his share in the joint stock company in July 2008 (when he was in his current post as head of the Investigative Committee), although, as Navalny noted, there was no notarized bill of sale available in the Czech corporate registry. Bastrykin's wife, Olga Aleksandrova, sold her ownership stake in May 2009, or rather transferred it to her predecessor, Bastrykin's first wife, Natalia Bastrykina. And even though Bastrykin had registered an apartment in Prague belonging to Olga Aleksandrova in his 2008 financial filing, he conspicuously left that property out of his 2009 filing and every one thereafter. (In reality, according to a reliable source, the Bastrykins own two apartments in the city.)
These disclosures about the assets coincided not only with the state's crackdown on the Bolotnaya protest movement which struck Moscow and other cities following the country's 2011 election, but also with new restrictions on public servants' ownership of assets abroad. This gave Navalny just the angle he needed to vilify the "foreign agent" Bastrykin. "What do you think," the anti-corruption blogger wrote on his LiveJournal page, "the special services of NATO countries would not be aware that the deputy prosecutor general of Russia, a man with access to state secrets, applied to the Czech police for a residence permit?"
No doubt it was that acid insinuation which prompted Bastrykin to take the decision to destroy Navalny by any means necessary. As I've written before, the so-called "embezzlement" case that has just resulted in a five-year sentence against the opposition leader is not only a soup-to-nuts fabrication, it was once investigated and dismissed by the country's Investigative Committee, which found no evidence that $500,000 worth of timber from the state-owned forestry company Kirovles went missing or that either of the eventual defendants in the case -- Navalny and Petr Ofitzerov -- ever enriched themselves to such an extent. Bastrykin demanded nonetheless that a theft be found or invented. "You had a criminal case against this man, and you've quietly stopped," he thundered to his subordinates in St. Petersburg. "For such things, there will be no mercy."
Nor was there. But since Bastrykin's mea culpa to Novaya Gazeta, there has been another bizarre and much guessed-at about-face in Russian injustice: the release of Navalny from prison a day after his sentencing on July 18 and the eruption of thousands-strong demonstrations in central Moscow as a result of his conviction. Bastrykin, acting as an agent or vessel of Putin himself, was the one who put Navalny away; but the man who let him out, if only to continue his bid to become the next mayor of Moscow, was Bastrykin's former boss, Russia's General Prosecutor Yury Chaika. So shocked was Navalny at this unexpected turn of events that he wondered aloud in court, as he was told of the decision, if the real Chaika hadn't been body-snatched. In fact, Navalny was only the latest victim-pawn in a game that's been played for several years and which Bastrykin, a cross between Al Capone and J. Edgar Hoover, has been steadily losing.
The only problem is, there is now a Sword of Damocles hanging over Bastrykin's head, too, as he's cultivated nemesis within and without the Kremlin.