He Played by the Rules of Putin’s Russia, Until He Didn’t: The Story of a Murder
When the Russian politician Denis Voronenkov was gunned down in Ukraine, officials blamed the Kremlin. The truth was more complicated.
On the thawing March morning he died, Denis Voronenkov stood on Shevchenko Boulevard, a broad poplar-lined street in central Kiev named after Ukraine’s national poet, his eyes glued to his phone. The 45-year-old former Russian lawmaker and security agent was promoting an interview he had given to a local news site about the life he left behind in Moscow months earlier. Given his past in Russia’s notoriously tight-lipped security services, it was particularly treasonous of him to open his mouth, while the sheer symbolism of his desertion gave his proclamations eminence. “The system is killing people,” he told the journalist, “and the reverse evolution makes the intelligent and worthy either stay silent or flee. I am not the first and I am not the last who tried to gnaw out their place in the sun in Russia.”
Voronenkov had seen the transcript of the interview a few nights earlier — quote approval is standard in the Ukrainian press — and told a friend over dinner that it was his best yet. Now that it was online, he sent a short note of thanks to the journalist, Natalia Dvali, telling her the article was “interesting” and “accurate” and closing with a smiley face. Handsome with round cheeks and sandy brown hair, he cut a dapper figure in his finely tailored suits. He presented a specific combination of Russian masculinity — he could be gruff and haughty but also earnest and affable, depending on the setting. He could recline, collar loosened, and speak to citizens about the troubled economy, or he could button up, cross his arms and act dismissively when journalists asked about things he didn’t think they needed to know.
Voronenkov was en route to the Premier Palace hotel to meet Ilya Ponomarev, another former member of Russia’s Parliament now living in Ukraine. Ponomarev had taken Voronenkov under his wing in their mutual exile and was helping him compose a filing to Interpol intended to pre-empt a red notice from Russia that would seek his arrest and prevent him from traveling out of Ukraine. Voronenkov told Dvali that he was not afraid of reprisals from Russia — “We all die sooner or later,” he said. “The important thing is how and why we lived” — but privately he was concerned. He had become obsessed with threats emanating from the Russian media, which called him a traitor and rooted for him to “choke on a piece of meat,” and he had personally lobbied the Ukranian government for protection. He strolled down the sidewalk with his bodyguard, while another was at home with his wife and their young son.
Voronenkov remained absorbed in his phone as he walked toward the entrance of the hotel, a grand classical building on the corner of Pushkinska Street, named after Russia’s national poet. Neither he nor his bodyguard saw a young man in a gray sweatsuit, black puffy vest and red sneakers emerge from a silver Daewoo Lanos and trot swiftly toward them from behind. Closing the distance, he shouted, and Voronenkov turned around. Security cameras captured grainy images of the scene: The young man pulled out a Soviet-designed TT pistol and fired, sending Voronenkov to the sidewalk, clutching his stomach. The bodyguard rushed the assassin, and as the two men tussled, the gun went off again. The bodyguard fell face down on the pavement. The gunman ran back to Voronenkov and fired multiple rounds, but as he turned to make his escape, the bodyguard, wounded in the torso, sat up, pulled a gun out of his satchel, took aim and shot the assassin.
In the hotel’s dark-wood-paneled lobby, Ponomarev realized that Voronenkov was running even later than usual. When calls to his cellphone went unanswered, Ponomarev contacted a Ukrainian official, who told him his friend had been shot. He rushed out to find a crowd of onlookers gathered around the three men. Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko, along with the director of Ukraine’s security service, the chief of police and the chief military prosecutor, arrived at the scene and stood around the cordon tape amid the assembling TV cameras. Voronenkov’s wife, Maria Maksakova, was the last to arrive, dressed in all black. Until that moment, she later told me, she hoped her husband was simply injured. But when she saw his body, riddled by six bullets, with multiple wounds through his chest and head, she crumpled.
As the bodyguard and the assassin were taken to the hospital, both still alive, officials announced the motive. “He had provided investigators of the military prosecutor’s office with highly important testimony,” Lutsenko said at the crime scene. “This was a typical show execution of a witness by the Kremlin.” Three and a half hours after the shooting, President Petro Poroshenko issued his own statement: “It is obviously the handwriting of Russian special services.”
The next day, March 24, 2017, the killer was identified as Pavlo Parshov — a 28-year-old far-right Ukrainian nationalist who served in the National Guard and was wanted in a money-laundering case. Known to his friends by his nom de guerre, the Boxer, he died in custody at the intensive-care unit. The Boxer never said a word.
Voronenkov was only the second sitting member of Parliament to have fled Russia while still in office and publicly oppose the government. The first, Ponomarev, arrived in Kiev about a year earlier. But while Ponomarev had been an outspoken critic in Moscow, Voronenkov lent his voice to the opposition only after crossing the border into Ukraine. The two countries had been locked in confrontation since 2014, when popular protests in Kiev forced President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin ally, to flee to Russia, which then moved to annex the Crimean Peninsula. Voronenkov traded his Russian citizenship for a Ukrainian passport, gave closed testimony in Yanukovych’s treason trial and embarked on an impassioned media campaign.
The picture Voronenkov painted of the system of control in Russia — referred to by Russians as sistema — was not just of some nameless and faceless cabal. Voronenkov had rubbed shoulders with President Vladimir Putin’s closest associates. He peppered his speeches with insider anecdotes about the Kremlin elite — including Putin confidants like Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s “gray cardinal.” He pulled up his pant leg in front of a TV camera to show scars from what he said was an assassination attempt that he earned by fighting corruption. Russia, painted as a grotesque demon by commentators in Ukraine and the West, was darker still in Voronenkov’s telling. “The F.S.B. runs the world,” he said in his first interview in Kiev, describing the successor agency to the K.G.B. “The current situation in Russia is reminiscent of Nazi Germany during Hitler’s rule. Everyone knew he was killing the Jews but continued cooperating with him for many years, acting as if nothing was happening. The entire country went crazy in the pseudopatriotic frenzy.”
The lead investigator into Voronenkov’s murder was Pavlo Kononenko, deputy prosecutor for Kiev. Kononenko could watch Russian television and read the country’s press, which contained myriad articles about Voronenkov’s life in Moscow, but diplomatic relations between the two countries have ceased and he could not question anyone there. Voronenkov had become an object of fascination in his own country — trashy programs looped on prime-time television, speculating on his career, the insincerity of his marriage to Maksakova and the involvement of the C.I.A. or its Ukrainian analogue, the S.B.U., in a setup. Television presenters interviewed guests who were sure that Voronenkov had undergone plastic surgery and was alive and well in Tel Aviv.
When I met Kononenko in his downtown office, he walked me through his investigation. He was focused on the gunman and his accomplices — right-wing ultranationalists who lived in a constellation of ramshackle towns in central Ukraine. Since 2016, Ukraine had experienced a surge of unexplained deaths, nearly a dozen in all, and Kiev had come to feel like a city of assassins in waiting. Ukraine immediately blamed Moscow for all the murders, but none were definitively linked to the Kremlin; most remain unsolved. Russian media outlets used the incidents to portray Ukraine as a warning of what happens to a nation when masses mobilize: instability, chaos and right-wing fanatics terrorizing citizens in the streets. Ukraine, meanwhile, saw the killings as more evidence of Russia terrorizing its population, after centuries of oppression and the recent war in Ukraine’s east, which has killed more than 10,000 people.
A large Ukrainian flag hung in one corner of Kononenko’s office, while the country’s coat of arms — a gold trident on an azure background — was mounted on the wall above his neatly arranged desk. He covered the table between us in charts, photographs and stills from surveillance footage of the assassin and his accomplices moving through Kiev. “We analyzed around three terabytes of information received from video control cameras and mobile-phone connection traffic,” he said. The S.B.U. tapped its network of informers. “Everyone worked with their agents, developing connections of our potential persons involved, trying to understand. Who could prompt them to perform this crime? Who could have been the customer? Who could have been assisting them?”
Kononenko assured me that he had done his best to comb through Voronenkov’s life despite the obstacles presented to him. Before he was murdered, Voronenkov had offered his own theories about who might want him dead. In his Interpol filing, he wrote that as a member of the Federal Drug Control Service, the F.S.K.N., Russia’s equivalent of the D.E.A., he led an investigative unit that helped crack a sprawling corruption case known as Three Whales, which has been called “the criminal case of the Vladimir Putin era.” More than a dozen high-ranking officials, including F.S.B. generals, were dismissed as a result of the investigation. Voronenkov said that the security services retaliated against him; in particular, he claimed that his work had drawn the ire of a notorious F.S.B. general named Oleg Feoktistov, who was known in Russia for his involvement in cases that brought down prominent officials. Feoktistov’s mentor was dislodged in the raid, and Voronenkov said Feoktistov pledged vengeance. In the end, it was the general’s plot, according to Voronenkov, that cost him his homeland and forced him to Ukraine.
By the time I met with Kononenko, I had been to Moscow in search of facts about Voronenkov, while well aware that they might be difficult to find; even if they did exist, I was certain I would find only shards of them. I spoke to Russian officials, lawmakers in the Duma, lawyers, businessmen and former security service officers. Few were eager to sit down with me. As one former security service member put it: “Unlike you, we live in a country where you can get seriously hurt for words. It is one thing for you to get a correct image, and it is another thing for me to spoil my life.”
Nearly everyone said Voronenkov was not the man he claimed to be. With uncanny regularity, they compared him to a fictional character in satirical Russian literature named Ostap Bender, a charlatan who traveled the country fleecing unsuspecting victims, seeking a score big enough to flee to Brazil. “Just show me a rich person, and I’ll take his money from him,” Bender tells a protégé. “I personally know 400 relatively honest methods of taking money. That’s not a problem.” While Bender had exposed the idiocies of Communist policy, Voronenkov’s tale, to those who know contemporary Russia, illuminated the chaos of Putin’s sistema: the personal rivalries, criminals, elites, crooks and clans trying to keep from running afoul of the country’s ever-shifting red lines. “It’s an absolutely unimaginable biography, even for Russia,” said Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, shaking his head at the information I presented him. “It means he was in the center of different kinds of communications — the mixture of criminal activity and state activity.”
“He’s a horse in a vacuum,” said Roman Rubanov, the director of the opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, using a Russian expression. “A story which perfectly characterizes and summarizes everything that is happening in this country.”
Sitting in Kononenko’s office, I chronicled my attempts to look into Voronenkov and understand why he might have been killed. Kononenko eyed me with frustration and a tinge of pity. He had given me hours of his time, but we went back and forth about even the most basic parts of Voronenkov’s biography. Between us lay an unspoken question: Why go to such lengths to understand the truth of a man’s life when the story of his death was already decided?
Voronenkov would come to represent a new kind of figure on the international stage: an adhocrat, someone who moved fluidly between the worlds of intelligence, crime and politics. These are people like Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower, who have political connections that can be leveraged but never officially proved. Essentially conduits, they are especially useful in places with diffuse centers of power, where everyone is busy trying to anticipate the leader’s whims. “You have business elite and political elite that in some ways fuse together with the upper levels of the criminal elite,” said Mark Galeotti, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “You have corruption, violence and all kinds of other activities baked into the political and business system. Therefore, when something happens, it begs this question: Why? Who was in charge?”
Voronenkov arrived in Moscow at the turn of the century from humble origins in Nizhny Novgorod, a city on the banks of the Volga River. I heard various rumors that he was estranged from his mother, that his father, a military man, died in a fire. He graduated from a prestigious military academy and claimed to have earned a law degree; he then quickly attained a coveted job in the Duma, while at the same time supposedly earning a Ph.D. In 2000, a little-known former F.S.B. director named Vladimir Putin assumed the presidency, yet the city was still very much a product of the freewheeling transition from the Soviet Union. Under Boris Yeltsin, shrewd operators found riches as state-controlled entities were privatized. A combination of back-room deals and lethal opportunism had turned toy sellers into industry titans, mathematicians into owners of TV channels.
In his official biography, Voronenkov lists a series of overlapping jobs he held — deputy mayor of Naryan-Mar in the Arctic Circle, law professor in St. Petersburg and adviser to the judicial department under the supreme court in Moscow. No one in Moscow told me about any work he did in those positions or how he handled what would have been a 3,500-mile triangular commute. Instead, I heard stories of his time as a “fixer.”
In Russia, fixers use their connections to solve problems — an impending court case, a sentence, a regulatory problem, a distribution issue. Nearly anything can be “fixed” if you speak to the right person and offer some money to smooth things over. “In Russia, corruption is not ‘corruption’ — it’s an element of work in this system,” said Svetlana Barsukova, a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “It’s colossal money. On the one hand, it allows people working in low levels of the hierarchy to earn extra money apart from their salaries. On the other, it seems to me it’s the condition of their membership in this system.”
I heard about a series of jobs Voronenkov took on, not always successfully. He created identities, feigned friendships and dropped the names of powerful connections to dupe people into paying him to solve their problems. He left in his wake a series of very unhappy customers. I spoke to a businessman who claims he paid $80,000 to Voronenkov and an associate to take care of a distribution problem. “He was at the beginning of his way,” the businessman told me. “You could feel his potential already. He was a very talented swindler.” Another prominent entrepreneur said he was asked for $800,000 to “settle issues with the Ministry of Internal Affairs,” issues that he later learned probably did not exist.
Most aggrieved, perhaps, was Mikhail Ignatov, a police officer who arrested Voronenkov on fraud charges. Within weeks, Ignatov was the one under investigation. He eventually spent nearly three years in pretrial detention on bribery allegations, done in, he says, by a false accusation drummed up by Voronenkov and his associates. Like most of Voronenkov’s victims, he expressed an odd admiration for the man’s cunning: “He knew how to nicely gain someone’s trust, how to nicely persuade people,” he told me. “It was impossible not to believe him. He made it look like everything was due to him, that he was the only savior. He was, you know, like a savior who came down from heaven.”
It was unclear if Voronenkov was working alone or with a krysha — literally a “roof,” a higher-ranking official who protects the fixer and receives a share of the profits. After a few years in Moscow, Voronenkov had amassed a sizable amount of money from graft and had become part of the lawless opportunism of the previous era that Putin promised to root out when he came to power. “Russia needs strong state power and must have it,” read a manifesto on the eve of Putin’s presidential election. To accomplish his goal, Putin relied at least in part on the institution with which he was most familiar: the security services, which had given him his start.
In 2003, an undercover operative from the Ministry of Interior named Alexander Sharkevich was assigned to trace networks of corruption in the government. (Putin’s so-called fight against corruption was also a convenient cover for the drive against various political or financial enemies.) Sharkevich, acting under cover, says he approached a former general under the pretense of needing a client sprung from prison; the general referred him to Voronenkov. The fee was $1 million.
As the two men met and discussed the deal over weeks and then months, Voronenkov charmed the man assigned to ensnare him. Most of the fixers Sharkevich knew were careless, chasing their next payment, but Voronenkov was ambitious. He invested in himself. He dressed in expensive clothes. He had a collection of tourbillon watches and the latest stylish haircut. “He knew how to connect people, how to bring money and power together,” Sharkevich said. “That’s why it was beneficial for any official to have him close, and he roamed from one official to another, higher and higher.”
The two men met in gaudy restaurants; they shot target practice at Voronenkov’s summer house outside the city. “We didn’t discuss his childhood, because he didn’t want to,” Sharkevich told me. “It was a very hard childhood, and it was a closed subject for him. He was full of complexes, very strongly. As I understand, he had a very poor childhood, very little money; the family was poor. That’s why internally he was strongly motivated to become a rich man.”
After about a year, Voronenkov caught on that Sharkevich was an undercover agent, while Sharkevich learned that Voronenkov “fixed” through contacts at the Moscow city prosecutor’s office. (The head of the office at that time denied any affiliation with Voronenkov.) As Sharkevich’s higher-ups learned more about Voronenkov’s connections, they asked to meet with him for a potential position at the ministry. Voronenkov jumped at the chance. But there was a problem: His résumé was a sham. “He has a double and triple biography,” Sharkevich told me. “All his diplomas are falsified, absolutely all.” Sharkevich said that Voronenkov attended the elite military academy but that “all the rest is a lie — either a lie or half a lie.” (I had been told by many that Voronenkov’s thesis papers were plagiarized and that his advanced degree was purchased, a common practice in Russia during the 1990s and 2000s. Putin himself has a “candidate of economic science” degree awarded by the St. Petersburg Mining Institute but never actually attended the institute and had no previous background in the topic.)
After Voronenkov was rejected from the ministry, he disappeared, Sharkevich told me, taking a third of the payment meant to entrap him. Only later did he realize that Voronenkov had been studying him. “Our meeting changed my life, very strongly, and it changed his life,” Sharkevich said. “He wanted to become me.” Voronenkov had been fascinated by the power of the security services: the IDs that let Sharkevich walk into different offices under assumed names, the papers that prevented his car from being searched by the police, the gun awarded for honorary service to the nation. Six years later, Sharkevich says, he was jailed for Voronenkov’s theft, and Voronenkov had found a position in the security services.
“I lost my job and three years of my life,” Sharkevich told me. “When I was released and wanted to meet him, I was told that I shouldn’t because Voronenkov had become a very big person. There is the State Duma, epaulets, patrons and so on, and it will hurt me.”
While Sharkevich was in prison, his mother died, and he didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. He made a vow, when he got out, to find the right people and tell them the truth about who Voronenkov really was.
Gen. Alexander Bulbov, the former deputy director of the F.S.K.N., told me that when the agency hired Voronenkov, it didn’t know about his forged academic past. In fact, when we met, Bulbov brought up Voronenkov’s educational achievements as one of the few things he still thought his former protégé could be lauded for. When I mentioned the forgery, Bulbov admitted that perhaps his team hadn’t properly vetted every agent. Perhaps, he said, it had been too busy staffing up.
The agency was headed by one of Putin’s friends from his days at the K.G.B. in St. Petersburg, part of a larger strategy Putin employed of stacking competing services with loyalists who would report on one another to him. By the time Voronenkov joined F.S.K.N. in 2006, Putin had handed it the notorious Three Whales file. The case, under investigation by various ministries and security organs since 2000, got its name from a showroom of a furniture company that had been underdeclaring the value of imported furniture and making tens of millions in profit. One of the chief security officers who worked with the company was also the father of the deputy director of the F.S.B. As the investigation grew to involve as many as five agencies, chaos erupted — grenades thrown into cars, armed standoffs at furniture warehouses, hospitalizations and a mysterious death that looked a lot like poisoning. Three Whales was the opening salvo in a battle between Russian security agencies that spanned more than a decade and came to be known as the siloviki wars. Putin was the sole referee.
Voronenkov joined F.S.K.N. at the time Three Whales was coming to its conclusion. He had written in his Interpol filing that he was “appointed to lead an operational investigations group” that solved the case. Maksakova, Voronenkov’s widow, provided me his F.S.K.N. ID, which listed his position as a director of an investigations group, but she did not have paperwork tying his name to Three Whales itself, and plenty of people I spoke to who worked on the case, and had seen various paperwork related to it, insisted that he played no part in the affair. Viktor Cherkesov, a former director of the F.S.K.N. who served in Parliament alongside Voronenkov, repeatedly declined requests for an interview; only Bulbov could confirm whether he had a role.
When I met Bulbov at the office of a Duma member he now advises, he sat beside a dainty porcelain tea set at a dark wooden conference table. With heavily lidded eyes and a soft, slow voice incongruous to his size, he was clearly unhappy to find himself sitting across from an American journalist. He sighed and fiddled with the tea set. At his most exasperated, he called me a term of endearment — “my little berry” — and wondered why Americans would care about Voronenkov in the slightest; he wasn’t important, he assured me.
He was adamant that Voronenkov wasn’t a lead investigator. He was, Bulbov said, just an “ordinary employee.” Bulbov admitted that there was no way he could prove on paper that Voronenkov had fabricated his role, but he offered as evidence the fact that everyone involved in the case from the F.S.K.N. became targets in a retaliation campaign by the F.S.B. Bulbov himself had been arrested at a Moscow airport with three others on charges of extortion, accepting bribes and illegal wiretapping. “The entire operative group that was involved in this case was arrested. Voronenkov was never arrested, was never interrogated, was never called. Never at any point were there ever any questions to him about this, and that’s why [he wasn’t involved]. How else can you confirm and prove it?” Bulbov challenged. “There was no relation to anything with Three Whales that Voronenkov ever had.”
Bulbov served his time in prison, and when he was released, he announced that he would return to the agency the next working day. It’s worth noting that almost every man I spoke to in Moscow had charges levied against him or served time in jail. All of them suggested to me that they were imprisoned not for their crimes but because their enemies were better connected — a vortex of loyalties with Putin at its center.
Voronenkov was waiting for Bulbov when he got out. Voronenkov had always been solicitous of the general’s attention; now he proved himself loyal. He invited Bulbov to his home; their wives became friends. Voronenkov, Bulbov said, was a doting father to his three children and a good husband to his wife at the time, Julia (who declined a request for an interview). By all accounts, the couple lived well. Voronenkov had a driver, vacationed frequently in Europe and owned property inside and outside Moscow.
Bulbov remained well connected politically after prison, and when an old friend, the head of the Communist Party, approached him asking for candidates for the 2011 parliamentary elections, Bulbov recommended his acolyte. In Russia, top placement on a party list in a district where the party was strong is a near guarantee of victory. There were rumors that Bulbov and Voronenkov were profiting on various “fixing” arrangements together, but Bulbov denies that accusation, as well as the assertion that Voronenkov paid for his endorsement. “I thought he was deserving,” he told me. Voronenkov won easily.
Voronenkov entered the Duma in late December 2011, taking his office on the ninth floor of the gray-and-glass block in central Moscow. By then, Putin had been in power for more than a decade (though his title of president would be interrupted by a four-year stint as prime minister, out of respect for the illusion of term limits), and the governing body had been transformed into a rubber stamp of his will. Voronenkov was like most of today’s Communist Party representatives — rich businessmen who play the role of opposition and provide a release valve for the older generation of Soviet nostalgists. The Duma retained the trappings of legislative power — marble staircases, ornate chandeliers, thick red carpets — but it had become an aquarium, brightly colored fish swimming in circles but getting nowhere.
‘He knew how to connect people, how to bring money and power together.
During Voronenkov’s first year in office, he called Bulbov constantly to keep him informed of his work and travels. His colleagues say he was a natural. “We probably did not have as many deputies as active as him, who would travel with pleasure and campaign throughout the country for us,” said Sergey Obukhov, secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. I asked if anyone had to teach Voronenkov how to govern. “How can you teach a person who has a doctorate in law?” Obukhov responded, referring to Voronenkov’s purchased degrees. “He understood everything. He published books. He wrote books — well, I don’t know he himself or not. Well, it’s not important. Books were published under his name.”
By the time Voronenkov entered the Duma, according to those I spoke to, his fixing had grown more brazen and commanded higher and higher prices. One lawyer told me he referred clients to Voronenkov around that time. He said he was paid in “suitcases full of cash.” (The lawyer did not want to be named for concern over his employment.)
Voronenkov went on to gain the distinction of being included on an anti-corruption watchdog’s list of the “poorest” Duma deputies, based on his publicly disclosed income filings and assets. “The value of the assets of the Voronenkov family is close to a billion rubles,” wrote Aleksei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader whose group compiled the list. “At the same time, the official claims that he earns two million rubles a year. With such a family income, Voronenkov needs 500 years of continuous work to allow him to buy everything he has declared.”
Voronenkov now had no fewer than five apartments, two garages and a huge country house on a salary that would have been worth about $45,000 in 2015. One property was on Tverskaya Street — Moscow’s Fifth Avenue — the value of which, Navalny estimated, was $5.3 million. He had a Mercedes S350, a Bentley Continental, two Range Rovers and a Land Cruiser. When the list was published in 2015, Navalny’s employees heard Voronenkov had been thrilled to be included. It offered a scorecard of his rise from the provinces and a perverse kind of protection: The Kremlin would never bend to Navalny’s accusations.
In the end, the deal that ruined Voronenkov was unremarkable. In fact, the scheme is so ubiquitous in Russia as to earn its own word, reiderstvo, which essentially means the theft of a business or property. An individual or a group will work with corrupt judges, administrators and the police to help shift the title into their own name, either through forgery or stock-purchase chicanery. Victims included Moscow’s planetarium, oil-and-gas companies, a firm making orthopedics and an airport. Raids often seemed to happen overnight — a company that existed one day would belong to someone else by morning, much to the puzzlement of employees and the owners. Though some cases were fought in court, most victims were left no alternative but to accept their fate.
The target, in this instance, according to court documents, was a single building. Voronenkov, who is not named but is referred to as a person with “special” status because of his parliamentary immunity, along with his co-conspirators, used their contacts with the government and law enforcement to switch the building’s ownership for a fee. Voronenkov found a businessman to front their scam for $2 million, who could flip the building for $5 million. The documents show that Voronenkov did not split the profits evenly, instead keeping $1.2 million for himself. The owner of the building found out, and soon there was an investigation. Voronenkov’s co-conspirators, including the man who fronted the operation, would spend time in prison.
I met one of those co-conspirators, Andrei Murzikov, in a restaurant in Moscow. The former F.S.B. officer looked the part — his muscled bulk was rounded with age, his hair closely cropped and slightly balding on top. He seemed as if he could easily break an arm. Murzikov showed me a photograph of his motorcycle, which has a large American flag attached to the back. He likes driving it around Moscow, he told me, to enrage Muscovites and entertain American tourists. “Everyone comes up to me, and I punch them all,” he said. I wasn’t sure he was speaking in jest. He said he had spent a month and half traveling around the United States, visiting a dozen cities on both coasts. He didn’t find it to be such a bad place. “They know what tomorrow will be like, if you follow all the rules and don’t go with your ass before your face,” he told me, seeming slightly wistful.
Murzikov denies having anything to do with the building heist, though he pleaded guilty to all charges and admitted helping Voronenkov smuggle illegal pistols from Austria. “There are no innocent people there,” he said. “You are guilty just because you got into such a situation. That’s why we confessed to the crime. We confessed that we were crooks.” Then he giggled, as if he were still surprised it happened. “I still want to go and look at that building, just to see what it looks like,” he told me, and giggled again.
When the story of the reiderstvo hit the papers, Voronenkov met with investigators twice but declined to do so again. So long as he was a member of the Duma, he received immunity from criminal prosecution. By then, Bulbov and Voronenkov had grown very close. The two men traveled to Russia’s cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in 2012 to watch a space launch. They took their families and got drunk waiting for humans to ascend to the unknown. Bulbov took Voronenkov home with him to his ancestral village in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, where Voronenkov drank so much he became emotional. He spoke, haltingly and through tears, about how he never had a real family or ancestral identity.
But now, Bulbov said he was starting to hear things from all sides. He heard that Voronenkov was “fixing” using Bulbov’s name. When Voronenkov assured him that he had nothing to do with the reiderstvo, Bulbov wasn’t sure what to make of it. He advised Voronenkov to continue to testify. If he was innocent, why hide behind his Duma immunity? Bulbov told me he used his own network to look into the case and found Voronenkov guilty, perhaps not as accused, but far more involved than Voronenkov claimed.
As his name was being dragged through the press, Voronenkov threw himself into what was expected of him as a member of Putin’s Duma. He was desperate to keep his immunity and avoid jail time. In his Interpol filing, Voronenkov wrote that he was known for protecting the “rights and freedoms of citizens.” But in fact, during those years, he sponsored amendments to Russia’s media law that barred foreign investors from holding more than a 20 percent stake in any outlet, gutting the country’s independent press. (“The government should immediately repeal the law before Russia’s once vibrant and diverse media market is devastated and freedom of expression is strangled,” Human Rights Watch warned.) He was an author of a law that clamped down on companies and individuals using offshore tax shelters, forcing Russians to return their funds to the motherland. (Two years later, Voronenkov himself would be named in the Panama Papers for having an offshore account of his own.) He supported the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which passed on a vote of 443 to 1. (At the time, Voronenkov went further than merely voting with the masses; he visited the peninsula and tweeted two photographs with the caption: “Photographs from a trip to Crimea, I was struck by its beauty. I fully support its accession to Russia!”)
The last time Bulbov saw Voronenkov was in 2015. The men hadn’t spoken for about a year. Voronenkov had left his wife for Maksakova, an opera singer and Duma member from Putin’s United Russia party. The couple visited Bulbov to invite him to their wedding, a historic interparty union that had been announced in the golden halls of the Duma.
I met Maksakova at a high-end restaurant in Kiev five months after Voronenkov’s murder. By the time we spoke, she had lost weight and cut her blond hair short. She told me that when she met Voronenkov, she had recently emerged from a relationship with a notorious mafia boss named Vladimir Tyurin. She said she barely escaped her mafioso ex. “My ribs were broken, dislocated jaw, patches of my hair were torn out, concussion of some degree and all the rest,” she told me. Being a member of the Duma offered her an escape. “For me, it was a way to shield myself from danger. It was a lucky charm. I became for him totally unreachable.” (Tyurin’s lawyer, Sergey Belyak, told me that he did not know whether Tyurin beat Maksakova, but he suggested that the matter was better suited for divorce court.)
Maksakova told me that she fell for Voronenkov while on a Duma delegation trip to Japan. He treated her with respect and reminded her of Daniel Craig in the latest Bond film. “He had the physical abilities,” she said. “I don’t know anyone else like him.”
Maksakova came from a famous family of performers stretching back generations. She had hosted a TV show, recorded pop songs and performed as a soprano in the renowned Mariinsky Theater. She had access through friends to some of the highest-ranking members of Putin’s inner circle, and she said she tried everything she could think of to protect her new husband from allegations that he assured her were phony. “There wasn’t a single person in my circle whom I wouldn’t be begging to help him — not a single one,” Maksakova told me. “As long as there is no political will in the particular case, it is useless,” she said, drawing out the word in her silky cadence.
Bulbov turned down the wedding invitation. And for the September 2016 election, Voronenkov wasn’t placed on the Communist Party’s list of candidates. It was obvious he would lose. At a campaign event, he played to one of Russia’s more peculiar new historical revisions; he explained that Maksakova’s grandmother was rumored to have been Joseph Stalin’s favorite opera singer. She had gone to her deathbed without telling Maksakova’s mother who her real father was. Maksakova was pregnant, and Voronenkov posed to reporters the possibility of exhuming Stalin’s remains for a DNA test. “Maybe he will be the descendant of Stalin?” he said. “These days in our country, he’s personality No.1.”
The night of his election loss, Maksakova told me, he was distraught. He lay in bed awake, staring at the ceiling silently, while Maksakova consoled him. “Denis, listen, life goes on. Look, I’m with you. I’ll never leave you, no matter where life takes us,” she said. “We’ll deal with all this. What can we do? Why are you so sad?” His choice was clear: flee or face prison.
It was a warm day in mid-September when Ponomorev and Voronenkov sat on the terrace of Korona, a restaurant in Kiev with white tablecloths, expensive crystalware and hookahs. Ukraine offered plenty of opportunities for the more unsavory activities in Voronenkov’s portfolio. Not long ago, the two countries’ security agencies, politicians and organized-crime rings held the same passports and answered to the same leaders. To date — and despite the conflict — Russia and Ukraine share cross-border businesses and illicit networks and have mirror images of the same types of corruption schemes. (Ukraine and Russia run neck and neck in Transparency International’s global corruption index.)
Voronenkov still had a few months of his Duma term left, at which point his immunity would expire. Maksakova had a German passport, though it is technically illegal for Duma members to hold dual citizenship. Ponomarev asked why they didn’t just move to Munich.
“I don’t want to live at the expense of my wife,” Ponomarev recalls Voronenkov saying. “She would tour the world singing, and I will just live on her money? The only thing I know how to do is to be an investigator. Do you think I can be an investigator here?”
Ponomarev had heard about Voronenkov’s reputation as a fixer and dirty dealer, but he told me that he decided Voronenkov’s value as a symbol of regime defection outweighed his reputation. “He’s not an angel,” Ponomarev told me. “He’s a security guy, and you know how those things work in Russia. I cannot say this for sure, but of course he’s not a crook to the degree that it was portrayed. That’s a discreditation campaign run by the F.S.B.” Ponomarev thought he might even prove useful as an actual investigator of Russia’s dealings in Ukraine, given his connections to the security services and the criminal class.
“There would obviously be distrust, but eventually you can do it,” Ponomarev told him. “You realize you’re buying a ticket to war?”
“That’s exactly what I want,” Voronenkov said.
Voronenkov kept his status secret while he moved his assets from Moscow to Ukraine, but in January, a Russian journalist confirmed that Voronenkov was the second Russian lawmaker to testify in the Yanukovych treason case. Social media exploded with vitriol, as Ukrainian journalists and activists began asking why their country had given refuge to a Putin crony. It was then that Voronenkov dedicated himself to yet another reinvention.
Voronenkov and Ponomarev discussed general messaging strategy. As a Russian person in Ukraine, Ponomarev explained, you should take care never to say things like “Ukraine must”; instead, use phrases like “I would recommend” or “I would think it would be better to.” When saying “Ukrainian” in Russian, stress the last syllable — UkrainSKI, instead of UkRAINski, as it is pronounced in literary Russian. Never “the Ukraine”; always, “in Ukraine.”
Voronenkov’s first interviews were works in progress. Confronted with his social-media posts about Crimea, he said his Twitter account had been hacked. As for his vote on annexation, he started by denying he had voted yes, only to change course and say he had been forced to do it. Not everyone in the press bought his explanations, but he was slowly getting better, more polished in his presentation. The interview with Dvali, his last in the Ukrainian press, was indeed his best. Less than two hours after it was published, he was dead.
In September 2017, the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office held a news conference to announce the results of its investigation. Lutsenko, Kononenko and Ponomarev lined up in front of the cameras to announce that law enforcement had solved the case. Under F.S.B. direction, they explained, Vladimir Tyurin — Maksakova’s former partner — hired three Ukrainian radicals through his criminal network: the shooter, whose nom de guerre was the Boxer; an associate, called the Hunter; and the driver, Yaroslav Tarasenko, who was arrested in June but maintained his innocence. “The heads of the F.S.B., together with the heads of the criminal world of Russia, had prepared actions toward the murder — or elimination, from their point of view — of an incredibly valuable witness,” Lutsenko began. (The prosecutor’s office denied my request to speak to Tarasenko, but I traveled to his hometown and spoke to his mother, his girlfriend and friends, who maintain that the Ukrainian government is setting him up.)
A little more than a week later, I sat down with Ukrainian officials to understand how they had traced the chain from petty criminals in Ukraine to the ex-partner Russian mafia don to the F.S.B. They repeated Voronenkov’s story about the embittered general, Oleg Feoktistov, and his vendetta against Voronenkov. I wanted to understand if they really knew who Voronenkov was. When we spoke earlier in the summer, the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs spokesman described the operation as “Russian hands in Ukrainian gloves.” After the announcement, they were walking back their claim that it was a Kremlin hit, but only vaguely. I asked the prosecutor general, Lutsenko, for any evidence they had that the F.S.B. or Feoktistov had played any role. “We have proof only against Mr. Tyurin, concerning his personal participation in this conspiracy,” he said. “All the rest are theories, which I offered.”
But what separated this theory from all the other conspiracies swirling around the case? Did they have any proof? “We have no proof that they met and made arrangements, paid money or organized the purchase of weapons,” Lutsenko said.
Lutsenko repeatedly held up Voronenkov as a valuable witness in the Yanukovych trial. But a Ukrainian journalist shared a copy of his testimony with me. Neither of us found anything revelatory in it. The closest thing to a bombshell was a letter that Voronenkov had referred to — one sent from Yanukovych to Putin begging for troops in his fight to stay in power — but that same letter had already been waved around at the United Nations by Russia’s delegate. At the news conference announcing the results of the investigation, Lutsenko held firm that Voronenkov was a truth teller, citing his testimony in yet another case of Russian aggression in Ukraine. “Elimination of such a witness and in such a case could have surely resulted in a nexus of a criminal boss with the special services,” he told me. (Tyurin’s lawyer denied that his client had anything to do with the murder. “If he really wanted to kill Voronenkov, he would have done it while Denis and Maria were still living in Russia.” A request for an interview with Feoktistov sent to the F.S.B. was never answered.)
The Ukrainian prosecutor’s theory seemed to make sense, and yet when one looked at it closely, its underlying logic seemed to color, flare and disintegrate, like a paper held too close to a flame. It was a combination of things the investigators could prove and things they wished to be true, and it relied primarily on a host of assumptions about Russia that were advantageous for Ukraine to promote: Russia as a monolith, with all power flowing in and out of the Kremlin. This myth has flourished in part because everyone has an interest in promoting it: The Ukrainians get their villain; the Kremlin gets a reputation for fearsomeness and efficiency.
To the contrary, the story of Denis Voronenkov is about something else entirely: a story of the chaos at the heart of the sistema, the Darwinian chaos Voronenkov himself exploited, mastered and was ultimately felled by. The ambiguity bred by such bedlam now stood in the way of us ever really understanding who or what was truly responsible for his death. It was strange that Voronenkov was unable to find his way out of the building raid, uncharacteristic of him to get burned by something so simple — was it the sum of all the people he had double-crossed? Had someone he swindled hired an assassin to kill him? Maksakova herself did not believe the Ukrainian government’s theory. She thought that her husband had been killed in a hit that involved the wealthy businessman from the building raid, whose lawyer denied that he played any role.
During my meeting with Kononenko, I asked whether they could really take Voronenkov’s own account of his travails at face value, knowing his biography and the lies that had built it. The investigator seemed genuinely empathetic to my distress. “There is such a concept of being friends against someone. This is true in this situation,” he said. “Crystal-clean people will not escape to here, same as from here to there. Each has their mercenary interests. We are compelled to use these mercenary interests because they are to our advantage, so we do it. What else to do?” He continued: “I don’t have the right to tell you about this. I am talking as a politician to you. I shouldn’t be doing this.”
In the end, none of it seemed to matter. It was in death that Voronenkov achieved his final rebirth. Days after his murder, the Western press trumpeted the assassination of a political dissident and hero: “The Brazen Killing of a Putin Critic Fuels Suspicion of the Kremlin”; “The Russian Regime’s Critics Are Falling Dead, but Their Discontent Can’t Be Killed”; “McCain Accuses Russia of ‘State Terrorism’ Over Political Murder.”
General Bulbov ran his large palms along his thighs. He asked me why I couldn’t just write a nice story about Russian-American relations, maybe about the space station. Did I plan to create a hero out of Voronenkov or an antihero? Did I plan to write that all Russian security services are corrupt?
Bulbov knew the sistema as well as anyone. As Putin supposedly said: “It’s better to be hanged for loyalty than be rewarded for betrayal.” Bulbov had served his time in prison. Throughout it all, and to this day, he maintains his innocence — but he was not angry, or at least he didn’t show it. He seemed to have come to peace with the price he had to pay. Voronenkov, to a man like that, was a coward. “I warmed a snake on my bosom,” Bulbov told me. “It’s my job to study people and understand who they are. Until today, I can’t forgive myself,” he said. “I missed the enemy at my back.”
As we spoke, Bulbov doodled in his notebook. He carefully drew lines that he connected into boxes; inside the boxes, he wrote numbers, then he crossed them out in rich blue ink. He seemed not to want to be there, but he also seemed desperate to convince me of something. We sat for hours. Voronenkov had done something unforgivable: He was a traitor. He had found wealth and status; he married fame. In rising so high, he knew the arrangement — you may steal a certain amount, but no more than that. You may make deals, but know that someone can always pull the rug out from under you.
Bulbov was trapped in his own box: He could not suggest that the system that had jailed him for three years while encouraging Voronenkov by rewarding his crimes, allowing him into F.S.K.N., catapulting him in the Duma, was a terrible one, because that too would be treasonous. He couldn’t tell me that Voronenkov had to go sit out his time in jail for the building raid, regardless of whether he was guilty, because that was part of the bargain. He could not say that Voronenkov was killed by Russia, but it wasn’t the authorities who signed his death warrant. That bore Voronenkov’s own signature. The general could not say that the Russian system is an ouroboros — it must consume itself in order to survive.