Valery Ivanov and Aleksei Sidorov were friends and colleagues, a pair of crusading editors out to expose crime and make a splash in Russia’s car-making capital. They were murdered 18 months apart.
Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia
Journalists investigating alleged corruption among prosecutors, judges, and police officers face a difficult question: Can they afford to alienate the very officials responsible for protecting them? The murders of successive editors of Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye—a newspaper that exposes crime and corruption in the Volga River city of Togliatti—highlight the grave risks of examining possible connections between criminal gangs and law enforcement officials.
An industrial city of 700,000 about 600 miles (950 kilometers) southeast of Moscow, Togliatti is home to a 1,500-acre assembly plant for AvtoVAZ, the country’s largest carmaker. In the early 1990s, ethnic gangs fought battles in the streets to get a toehold at AvtoVAZ, where billions of rubles could be made stealing parts and cars, skimming profits, and extorting protection money from car dealers. Valery Ivanov and Aleksei Sidorov met during this violent, freewheeling era. Students at a teachers college in neighboring Samara, Ivanov, 21, and Sidorov, two years younger, worked together at the school newspaper during the 1990-91 academic year, according to Terry Gould, a Canadian journalist who investigated the murders of the Togliatti editors for his 2009 book, Marked for Death: Dying for the Story in the World’s Most Dangerous Places.
It was an exciting but chaotic time for journalists. They were free to expose criminal gangs and corrupt bureaucrats, but they did so without state financial subsidies and the state-imposed stability of the Soviet era. In 1993 and 1994, Ivanov and Sidorov wrote about local crime and corruption for tabloids in Samara and Togliatti, Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye reported in an account of its history. Ivanov had even bigger ambitions: He spent much of 1995 seeking funding to start his own paper, eventually opening a car dealership and travel agency and funneling the profits into a bold new publication, Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye.
“The newspaper was set up to conduct investigations, to find political, social, and criminal issues and unravel them,” Stella Ivanova, the editor’s sister, recalled in an interview with CPJ. The first monthly issue of Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye came out just before the September 1996 municipal elections. Despite a burglary at their office in which equipment and documents were taken, the editors put out a newspaper full of critical candidate portraits, Gould recounted. It caused a local sensation.
As the paper’s popularity and advertising grew, Editor-in-Chief Ivanov and Deputy Editor Sidorov hired a team of tough-minded reporters to produce exposés on crime and corruption. The aggressive reporting earned the paper powerful enemies and led to death threats, libel suits, and occasional questioning by police and Federal Security Service officers seeking to identify the paper’s sources, staff members said in interviews with CPJ.
In the 2000 municipal election, Ivanov won a seat on the Togliatti city council, where he was appointed chairman of a committee looking into potentially rigged city contracts, according to press reports. He was not above using his political position to further his reporting. With Ivanov’s access to internal government documents, Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye reported in December 2001 that the city was paying above-market gasoline prices for its buses even as the bus drivers were going unpaid, Gould recounted. The article sparked a political crisis as bus drivers went on strike and AvtoVAZ workers couldn’t get to their jobs.
By 2002, Ivanov’s stewardship of Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye, then a daily, led him to believe that corrupt public officials played the most significant role in the local crime scene, Gould wrote in an extensive account of the case. Ivanov’s reporting focused increasingly on alleged financial links between local politicians and criminals, colleagues told CPJ, causing them to become ever more fearful for his safety. In April, Ivanov was looking closely at allegations that local law enforcement officials had pocketed the assets of reputed gangster Dmitry Ruzlyaev, who was slain in 1998, Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye journalists told CPJ. He never finished the article.
On April 29, 2002, as Ivanov was getting into a car outside his home at about 11 p.m., an assailant shot him multiple times in the head at point-blank range, according to local press reports.
Eyewitnesses saw a man in his mid- to late 20s walk up to Ivanov’s car and shoot him, using a pistol apparently fitted with a silencer, and then flee on foot, press reports said.
Authorities initially said they were examining Ivanov’s government work, his journalism, and a purported business rivalry as potential motives. “Prosecutors and police worked actively on the case, in my opinion, for a very short time, about two to three months,” Yelena Ivanova, the editor’s widow, told CPJ. “I think they weren’t very interested in solving the case.”
Investigators soon focused on an alleged business-related plot, Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye journalists told CPJ. Authorities alleged that a rival media company had commissioned a criminal gang leader to eliminate Ivanov, and the gang leader had in turn delegated the job to another man, according to press reports and CPJ interviews. After Ivanov’s murder, the official version went, the killer died of a drug overdose. No one was charged.
“They tried to blame the murder on some dead drug addict,” Rimma Mikhareva, deputy editor of Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye, told CPJ. After conducting its own research, she said, the paper concluded that the government’s assertions were not credible.
A year later, with no evident activity in the investigation, Ivanov’s family members sought a meeting with Yevgeny Novozhilov, a Samara deputy prosecutor who was handling cases in Togliatti at the time. Relatives told CPJ that Novozhilov was unwilling to discuss details. In a 2004 interview with CPJ, Novozhilov said he was under no obligation to disclose such information. The Togliatti prosecutor’s office did not respond to written questions submitted by CPJ in June 2009.
Karen Nersisian, a lawyer representing Ivanov’s family, told CPJ that he formally sought access to the investigative file three times between 2004 and 2006 but was denied. Russian procedural code gives investigators discretion to disclose details of an active probe to a victim’s family or legal representatives. “We never found out which potential versions of the crime they investigated—or whether they did anything at all,” said Nersisian, who would later represent the Sidorov family in similarly tragic circumstances.
Sidorov replaced his slain colleague, vowing to complete Ivanov’s unfinished article, find the editor’s killers, and continue the newspaper’s aggressive reporting. After all, Sidorov told The New York Times, “They can’t kill us all.” By fall, he started receiving death threats and was concerned enough that he hired a bodyguard and twice left Togliatti for short periods, colleagues told CPJ. Still, Sidorov pushed ahead with the paper’s investigative work, exploring alleged criminal ownership of local businesses and charges of judicial corruption, colleagues and family members told CPJ.
He also continued working on Ivanov’s unfinished investigation, eventually pursuing financial documents that he believed would link law enforcement officials to Ruzlyaev’s missing assets, colleagues told CPJ. On the evening of October 9, 2003, Sidorov told a colleague he had received an important batch of documents and was prepared to finish the article, according to local press reports. Documents in hand, he went home to meet guests.
As Sidorov walked toward his apartment building at about 9 p.m., several witnesses said, two men followed while a third stabbed the editor several times in the chest and quickly searched him, according to local press reports. Sidorov bled to death in the arms of his wife, who had heard his calls for help and rushed down to the building’s entrance. By then, the assailants were gone and the documents were missing.
Police and prosecutors initially said Sidorov’s murder appeared to be a contract killing in retaliation for his work, but they soon changed their public position and labeled it a random street crime. On October 12, 2003, local police detained Yevgeny Maininger, 29, a welder at a local factory, and interrogated him for three days, according to Sidorov’s colleagues. The prolonged questioning produced a confession. Novozhilov, the prosecutor, told local reporters that an intoxicated Maininger stumbled upon Sidorov that evening, appealed for some vodka, and then murdered the editor in a rage when he was rebuffed.
Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye Editor-in-Chief Sergei Davydov, who had worked under Ivanov and Sidorov, told CPJ he believes local authorities were under political pressure to classify the slaying as a street crime. “The investigators and local law enforcement officials got a nonverbal, but firm message to stick to the ‘street crime’ version until the end of the case,” he said. Added Vladimir Sidorov, the victim’s father: “Many witnesses were not fully questioned; newspaper articles and computer files were practically ignored.”
Dismissing skepticism from Sidorov’s family and colleagues, prosecutors charged Maininger with murder on October 21. The defendant didn’t stand by his confession very long: In November, Maininger retracted his statement and said it had been coerced. Nersisian, the lawyer for the victim’s family, pointed to other details that undercut the prosecution as the case unfolded over the next year. Maininger’s co-workers, for example, said police had tried to pressure them to testify that they saw the defendant with the purported murder weapon the day before the killing. Eyewitnesses were uncertain whether Maininger was the murderer; their accounts consistently pointed to a killer who was taller than the defendant.
On October 11, 2004, Judge Andrei Kirillov acquitted the 29-year-old Maininger, saying the prosecution’s case was untenable. After the acquittal, Nersisian told CPJ, he requested that prosecutors in Moscow unify the Ivanov and Sidorov cases and re-investigate them at the federal level, where the inquiry would be less susceptible to political pressure. His requests were rebuffed, he said. The Togliatti prosecutor’s office did not respond to written questions submitted by CPJ in June.
Although authorities have reported no further progress in either case, they have appeared, at times, to have harassed Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye. In early 2008, after the paper endorsed an opposition mayoral candidate, staff members found themselves fending off an unscheduled tax compliance inspection and a raid in which police confiscated all 20 newsroom computers. Officers said the computers had to be checked for counterfeit software.
Mistrust of local law enforcement officials is high enough, colleagues of the slain editors say, that new witnesses could be deterred from coming forward. “Even if someone knows who ordered the crime, they won’t report it officially,” said Davydov, the editor-in-chief.