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Journalists throw light on Russia's murky underworld

Set up 14 years ago amid bloody gang wars after the Soviet collapse, an investigation agency has solved a series of high-profile cases where police have failed.
Yevgeny Vyshenkov, left, is a trained Arabic linguist and a former police detective, while Andrei Konstantinov, right, served as a military interpreter in Libya and southern Yemen.
Yevgeny Vyshenkov, left, is a trained Arabic linguist and a former police detective, while Andrei Konstantinov, right, served as a military interpreter in Libya and southern Yemen.

ST PETERSBURG // Yevgeny Vyshenkov was reclining in his chair, languidly chain-smoking Marlboro Reds as he told of his exploits as a journalist investigating mysterious murders here in Russia's former tsarist capital. He spoke nonchalantly about murder cases - political assassinations, contract hits against businessmen, brutal stabbings by skinhead gangs - in which he would find the suspects before the authorities.

But when talk turned to his former associate, Maxim Maximov, Mr Vyshenkov stood up and began pacing. Maximov vanished five years ago while investigating local police corruption. Mr Vyshenkov and his colleagues say at least two police officers were involved but, because Maximov's body was never found, authorities have shelved the case. "I've found a third person who will tell us how these guys killed Maximov," Mr Vyshenkov said, his trembling voice barely concealing his rage. "I'm not going to take him to prosecutors. I'm going to do a huge interview with him in front of a video camera. And when the authorities ask us why we didn't call them, we'll just say: 'Maxim Maximov's body is missing. Your position is clear.'"

If any group of Russian journalists can make good on threats to sidestep authorities in tracking down killers, it is Mr Vyshenkov and his colleagues at the Agency of Journalistic Investigations, a muckraking online and print media holding specialising in illuminating the dark, sordid corners of St Petersburg's criminal underworld. A trained Arabic linguist and a former St Petersburg police detective, Mr Vyshenkov has been with the agency since 1996, when the renowned crime journalist Andrei Konstantinov set up the organisation at the apex of the bloody gangland wars that plagued the city after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"On some days you'd have several murders, and not just run-of-the-mill stuff, but real contract hits," Mr Konstantinov said. "It became difficult to surprise us with anything. Maybe if there were 15 bodies in a sauna or something we might say, 'OK, that's interesting.'" Mr Konstantinov, who served as a military interpreter in Libya and southern Yemen, said the contacts he inherited on both sides of the law as the Soviet Union collapsed became enormous assets to the agency's investigative journalism. A former judo enthusiast, many of his former athlete friends went into organised crime in the 1990s.

"A lot of them would try to recruit me, saying: 'Come join us. You'll be driving a Mercedes'," he said. The agency's first major coup came in 1999, when it tracked down one of the assassins who murdered Viktor Novosyolov, a powerful St Petersburg politician who was killed by a bomb placed on the roof of his car at a stoplight. The journalists traced the suspected hit man, Alexander Malysh, to a St Petersburg apartment and convinced him to give an interview, saying police or mobsters would soon find him anyway. After interviewing Malysh, they turned him over to the police. He was convicted as an accomplice in the murder and sentenced to 16 years in prison.

The authorities did not take kindly to journalists assuming the role of an auxiliary homicide unit in the case, which marked the beginning of a decade of tension between the agency and local law enforcers, Mr Vyshenkov said. "The government is not ready to forgive such things," he said. "If a few journalists find a killer that 100 police detectives are looking for, that means that a few journalists are better than the entire system. Such things are not forgiven in Russia."

The scenario has repeated itself several times over the years. In 2002, Mr Vyshenkov was jailed for several hours after a source he had cultivated in a murder investigation claimed he had been kidnapped by the journalists. The accusations went nowhere, and Mr Vyshenkov was released, but the agency says it was subsequently subject to groundless police searches out of retribution. (With Mr Vyshenkov working undercover, the journalists later arranged a meeting with the killer at a restaurant, where they called in police to arrest him. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to life in prison.)

"There are legitimate tensions, because sometimes they do things authorities simply cannot do," said Vadim Volkov, an expert on organised crime at the European University in St Petersburg. As the 15-year anniversary of the agency's founding approaches, Messrs Konstantinov and Vyshenkov say the project is living rather than merely surviving. Their investigations are published in various print and online publications owned by the holding, including Fontanka.ru, a popular Russian news website that covers St Petersburg.

"We became profitable sometime around 2004, and in 2007 we understood that we are alive," Mr Vyshenkov said. "That doesn't mean that we don't pinch pennies. But before then we were always trying to get loans and always owed people money. We were living month-to-month." Most of the revenue comes from online ads at Fontanka.ru, but there are other sources of income as well, Mr Vyshenkov said. Occasionally businessmen will approach them with offers to investigate alleged corruption by competitors or government officials. They take on such cases but say up front that they will publish the results of the inquiry even if they are not favourable for the client. "Some of them say: 'No problem'," Mr Vyshenkov said. "Others just walk away." @Email:c.schreck@thenational.ae The caption on this story has been altered to correctly identify the people in the photograph.

Updated: May 24, 2010 04:00 AM

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