Ivan Golunov: I’d like to get back to my normal life

Ivan Golunov is a Russian investigative journalist. In early June he was detained in Moscow on drug-related charges, where he faced a potential 20-year prison sentence. After it became clear that the police planted the drugs on him, a public outrage erupted and thousands of people took to the streets. The detained journalist was – in an unprecedented way – supported both by local media and high-ranking officials, including Vladimir Putin. Golunov was released after six days. Currently, he’s accompanied by state-sponsored bodyguards. We sat down for an exclusive interview with Ivan Golunov in Riga, Latvia, where we talked about the wave of solidarity, street protests and loss of privacy that his arrest prompted.

What came to your mind when police detained you?

I tried to comprehend what was going on. When they put handcuffs on me and shoved me into the car, they said they were from the narcotics department. I wondered if it was because a minute earlier I was taking a photo. In Moscow there’s an online service of complaints – for example when you see a damaged road sign, you take a photo of it and send it through the app to the authorities. They are obliged to fix it in seven days.

What has the photo to do with your detention?

I will explain that. In Russia, there is a widespread method of handing over drugs between the dealer and buyer – without a direct personal contact. The dealer conceals the drug, for instance, in the midst of a flower bed in the city centre and contacts the buyer to send him money on his account. Once he checks the payment, he sends to the buyer a photo with exact instructions where to find the drug. That’s why I first thought the police might have thought I was a dealer taking a photo of a stash. Later, it became clear that they were already waiting for me at the spot.

They handcuffed me and took me to a police station. It was suspicious that the policemen detained me in a precinct that did not fall within the scope of their authority. At the police station they started to search me. If you are arrested in Moscow, you are usually searched on the spot, but I was taken to the police station. In accordance with Russian law, the police had to provide two eyewitnesses – random passers-by who were present at the spot of detention. The policemen, for some weird reason, picked as a witness a man who had passed us at the police station. The second witness was taken from the place of my detention, but only a while after my arrest. This means that neither of them was a direct witness to the arrest. They began searching my personal belongings at the police station: they opened my backpack and at the top there was a plastic bag containing something that looked like green and yellow candies.

It turned out that these were not candies, but drugs – pills looking like ecstasy which are called “salt” in Russia, because their effective substance Alpha-PVP has a similar chemical composition as bath salts. How did you react to the alleged discovery?

Planting drugs by the police is a rather popular technique in Russia. I’d read a lot about it and had seen many videos. When they opened my backpack and found those “candies”, I figured out what was going on. At the moment of my arrest, I had a jacket on me, and I had kept an eye on it in case they tried to plant something in my pockets. I had my backpack on my shoulders, so I hadn’t been able to watch it. So I don’t know exactly when and how it happened.

How did the search of your flat proceed?

Everything was more obvious there. In the middle of one room, there’s a bookshelf. We inspected it from both sides with the policemen. Suddenly another policeman came and walked behind it. I was telling him: “We can’t see you, we can’t see what you’re doing there.” After a while he peeked out and called out to his colleagues: “Have you looked in here, too?” They took out a book from a shelf and a photo album appeared behind it. Behind the album there was a plastic bag with an object about the size of a cell-phone that looked like a silver plastic box. “Oh, there’s a drug scale!” one of them shouted. In order to accuse someone in Russia from drug dealing, it’s not necessary to caught him in the act. It’s enough if the police finds the digital weighing scale that is often used by drug producers or dealers. On top of that, they also found small bags of cocaine that had been planted in my bookshelf.

  • Ivan Golunov (36)

Golunov was born in Moscow. As an investigative journalist he has mainly covered organized crime and corruption among Moscow’s high-ranking politicians. He has worked with prominent Russian media organizations, including as Vedomosti, RBC, Forbes, Novaya Gazeta and Dozhd TV. Since 2016 he has worked as a Moscow correspondent for the independent news outlet Meduza, which moved from Russia to Latvia due to fears of repression from state authorities. At the time of his arrest, Golunov was working on an investigative article uncovering sharp practices in Moscow’s funeral business and its connection to employees of the Russian secret service FSB.

Is it true the police used photos of a flat that wasn’t yours as evidence?

Yes, that’s true. The press unit of the Ministry of the Interior published nine photos in relation to my case, which my attorney showed me while I was in custody. Only one of them was taken at my flat – a photo of my table on which there were small bags containing planted drugs. It was clear that the other eight photos weren’t from my flat: they looked like photos of a drug lab. My friends, who knew my flat, immediately started to raise doubts about the photos. And because they had a spare set of keys, they brought journalists in for a personal tour of my apartment.

The police probably thought that once they showed the public some photos of drugs, people would think I was guilty. But the effect was exactly the opposite: people understood the police was pulling their leg. The Ministry of the Interior subsequently claimed that it was a technical mistake and that the police mixed the photos [of my apartment] with others from a different case and place. We now know that the ministry’s press secretary was given a disciplinary notice for publishing the false photos. But he was only reprimanded.

Ivan Golunov at the Moscow’s court. Photo: Evgeny Feldman, CC BY-SA 4.0

The police in your case proceeded very unprofessionally, they were making one mistake after another. How do you explain that to yourself?

I partly attribute it to their low level of competency, as well as the fact that journalists reacted very quickly [to the case]. If I weren’t a reporter and wasn’t supported by the whole journalistic community, it could have ended up differently. The police didn’t assume that other people had keys to my apartment, and assumed that it’d be enough to take pictures and publish them. The police simply came into contact with the journalist community and started a small information war.


Wave of Solidarity

The petition requesting your release was signed by more than seven thousand Russian journalists. People started to hold protests. Did you know what was happening outside while you were in custody?

No. I only started to learn about it during the court hearing. People gathered in front of the court building chanting slogans. That was the first time I heard sounds from outside. Up until that point I’d been kept in a closed space in custody, and when I was transported somewhere by the police, it was always in a van without windows. So I could hear something [when going to the court hearing], but I still didn’t grasp how many people were outside. I knew something was going on because of the confused behaviour of the policemen. But I didn’t anticipate how huge proportions it would have.

Roughly a month after my release I read through my messages on social networks and only then did I realize how many influential and important people were supporting me. The policemen who arrested me were probably thinking, “we have an oppositional journalist, we’ll be, for sure, praised for his arrest.” And then even the [pro-government media] came out in my support, which shocked both the police and me. And that also brought massive media attention to my case.

You were supported by Dmitry Kiselyov, the main propagandist of Putin regime, as well as by influential politician Valentina Matviyenko. How did you explain to yourself their unexpected support?

I was very surprised. It’s difficult to say if it was their own initiative to support me, or if they were ordered to support me. It’s unclear as the whole case … the more I know, the more it seems to me that the policemen must have been total idiots. But then I learn about other facts and start thinking the other way around: how smart they must have been to come up with such sophisticated schemes. I simply don’t know my way around it yet. I don’t have any strong opinion, only a mixture of facts. The police investigation is still ongoing. I trust it, because I think the police itself has a keen interest to find out what exactly happened.

I was supported, among others, by Tatyana Moskalkova, Russia’s Commissioner for Human Rights. She has a reputation for being on good terms with the police, and the public often criticizes her for not doing her job well. But she supported me and now we know from official documents that she informed Vladimir Putin about my situation.

How did Putin comment on your situation?

He commented on my case on two occasions. First on 20 June during “Direct Line” [Editor’s Note: “Direct Line” is an annual TV program during which Vladimir Putin answers live questions from citizens and journalists]. They wanted me to be present during the shooting of the program, but I declined. The program’s asked Putin if it isn’t high time to adjust the wording of Article 228 of the Penal Code, which is about the acquisition and possession of narcotics. Even though the host did not mention my name or my case a single time, Vladimir Putin answered: “Yes, in the case of the journalist whom you mentioned…”. It was funny. The second time my case was mentioned by him was at the G20 summit in Japan. There, Putin said that what had happened was an errant decision on the part of the police that needs to be properly investigated.

That was still in June?

Yes. And if I’m not mistaken, Vladimir Putin hasn’t publicly spoken about my case since then. Tatyana Moskalkova, our human rights commissioner, stated that we need to improve protective mechanisms for investigative journalists. Our Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote a strange [newspaper] column in which he told the world that political parties like United Russia [Editor’s Note: the governing political party whose real leader is Vladimir Putin], should cooperate with investigative journalists. That’s, of course, inconceivable, but OK. No one from United Russia has contacted me with a request for cooperation so far.

Photo: Eva Kubaniova

Did I get it right that during your legal prosecution all charges against you were canceled, but the investigation itself is still ongoing?

Yes, they withdrew all charges. At the moment, I have “witness” status. The investigation is still ongoing, the case is being supervised by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, which is like the office of Attorney General. Its employees called all of my neighbors in for interrogation. They were, of course, not very enthusiastic about that. In Russia, everyone is afraid of the police and investigators. When you spot a policeman, your gut feeling is that you are in danger. That you’d better cross the street to avoid him potentially asking you questions. That’s just the way it is in Russia, unfortunately.

What happened after the high-ranking officials including Putin said it was the polices fault?

They fired two generals in the police department: Andrei Puchkov, the police chief in Moscow’s West Administrative Region, and Yury Devyatkin, the head of the Moscow police department’s drug-control directorate. In the narcotics department there were more departures, but we don’t know if they left on their own terms or if they were fired. The most horrifying thing is that those who left had received numerous state decorations in their careers. So I had the honor of working with the best of the best. I was surprised, for example, by the career of one of the ordinary policemen who was involved in my case. Although, to be fair he didn’t belong to the police’s elite: He had joined the service only a year prior, and until then had worked as a chef in a sushi restaurant.

That sounds bizarre.

I had also thought that someone who wants to do that kind of job needs a higher level of education. But it was like the job could be done by anyone: today he’s a truck loader, tomorrow a policeman. This fact has shocked me a lot. Most of the policemen who were dismissed because of my case had previously had for long time different professions. The policeman involved in my case with the longest time in service had only joined the force in 2011. None of them graduated from the police academy.

With such an attitude your police forces put themselves into risk of very low professionalism.

If a policeman botches something up in Russia – for example when he runs over a couple of people waiting at a bus stop while drunk – it always turns out that, by sheer coincidence, the policeman filed a voluntary request for dismissal from the service just a day earlier. So at the time of the accident he wasn’t actually part of the police anymore. Thus we don’t know if the policemen connected with my case were fired or left their jobs voluntarily.

You were supported by three significant economic dailies – Vedomosti, Kommersant and also RBC – which were issued with a front page “We are Ivan Golunov”.

So far I haven’t seen all of them, just one.

Is it true that these dailies were immediately sold out?

Yes. At the beginning I thought it was some kind of the newspapers’ supplement, or part of their circulation. Then I realized these were actually front pages. It was a dream. I can’t remember any instance in history where three of the main newspapers united in support of a single cause. At the same time, some of them had a reputation for being pro-regime: these aren’t just small independent media outlets, but three of the main business dailies. Kommersant is owned by Alisher Usmanov [Editor’s Note: A Russian oligarch of Uzbek origin worth USD 13 billion, according to Forbes]. He has very close ties to the Kremlin. There are a lot of censorship scandals connected with Kommersant. Meanwhile, at RBC, where I used to work, the management has gradually evolved to become more favorable to pro-Kremlin views. Vedomosti is quite independent, so I can understand their move, but not that of Kommersant. It seems that, despite their apparent differences, they are still able to unite for a single cause.

Front pages of Kommersant, Vedomosti and RBC. “We are Ivan Golunov” Photo: Meduza.io

When you were in custody, had you been telling yourself: that’s it, now they’re going to lock me up and never ever let me free again. Or – the other way around – did you keep yourself calm knowing that: the case is fabricated, I will walk free in a week?

I hadn’t thought about it this way at all. I tried to stay focused on particular tasks like: I need to inform my lawyer about something, now we have to go to an interrogation, and so on. I didn’t have time to think it through more thoroughly. Or maybe I had – during the couple of days of my home arrest. But there I tried to switch off mentally. I read books I hadn’t had time to read for a long time. But the letters and words would dance in front of my eyes: I couldn’t focus on reading. I was constantly thinking about my electronic bracelet for prisoners, because its construction didn’t look very sturdy. I was wondering what I’d do if the device loosened and fell off. In short, I was obsessed with these kind of technical details.

There wasn’t enough time to analyze anything while I was in custody. I fell asleep only 42 to 43 hours after the arrest, as up until that point there was just intensive investigation. Afterwards, the scandal erupted and civic activists and lawyers started visiting me. I didn’t sleep the first night, there was literally no time for that. The second night I was brought to the detention cell at 2 a.m. and then they woke me up at 6 a.m., because we had to attend a court hearing. When they took me to the hospital for a medical check-up, I could finally nap for about an hour. So I took advantage of that moment. Even though I could have thought about my next steps instead of taking a nap.

How did they treat you in custody?

By the time I was there the public was already closely following my case. So everything seemed alright. When I was falling asleep, I realized my left side hurt a lot, but I didn’t have enough capacity for reflection at the time to think more about it.

Media reported you suffered injuries. Did they beat you at the police station?

Yes, they did. When I took off my T-shirt in custody at the request of human rights activists, I had big bruises on my back. Until then I hadn’t felt the pain. I felt it intensely only the next day while I was falling asleep. I can’t recall it all because I was very stressed out the entire time. I even forgot to eat. Following the arrest, I was thinking only about having water and cigarettes. I haven’t eaten anything for perhaps forty hours.


Mafia in Moscow’s funeral business

People have speculated that you were arrested for investigating the illegal practices of an organized crime group that controls the profitable funeral business in Moscow, and their ties to employees of Federal Security Service (FSB), one of Russia’s secret services. 

I had already investigated this topic. My sources within the funeral business had told me to stop looking into it, that nobody had managed to figure it out. They told me that in reality everything is even more complicated. The sources were confidants of my main characters in the story. They were saying, for example: “Our people are getting nervous that your investigation will reflect badly on them.” They were telling me things like this about two weeks before my arrest. I never received any direct threats, there were only these hints so that, if necessary, they could always say they meant it as a joke that I misunderstood. There were no threats like those you see in famous mafia movies.

  • Investigation into Funeral Business in Moscow

The funeral business in Moscow Oblast constitutes 25-30% of the national funeral market, and hundreds of millions of USD cycle within it. Until recently, Moscow’s cemeteries and affiliated funeral services were under the control of an organized crime group from the city of Khimki and Jury Chabuev. A couple of years ago, this group was ousted by a group of bankers from the city of Stavropol in southern Russia.

According to Golunov, the violent takeover of the business in 2016 – which resulted in three deaths – was backed by FSB officers. The organized crime group allegedly strived to – together with the bankers – take control of the Russian banking sector, which is often abused for money laundering. In addition to these personal ties, Golunov and his colleagues at Meduza also revealed that the criminals’ lavish mansions in Moscow Oblast were, under mysterious circumstances, transferred to the ownership of a private organization named “Russian Federation”. Meduza published the investigation with thirty other media organizations around the globe, including The Times, The Independent, Der Spiegel, Ukrainska Pravda and OCCRP. More than 1.5 million people read the Russian-version of the article on the day of its publication.

You can read the full investigation in English here: https://meduza.io/en/feature/2019/07/01/bad-company

Did the police indicate that your arrest might have been connected to your latest investigation?

No, none of them ever said anything like “this is in reprisal for your article about the funeral business,” even though I personally expected some of them to throw in that kind of remark. On the other hand, why would they have told me that? If I was them, I wouldn’t have said anything like that either.

When you were in custody, twelve reporters from four Russian media outlets came together to finalize your investigation on Moscow’s funeral business.

Yes. This has never happened in Russia before. At the time of my arrest, I only had a working draft of the article ready. My colleagues kept asking me through my lawyers if they could publish the material. I told them: “If you’re sure you can fact-check all my findings and find the respective documents on my computer – which the police had access to – then you can publish it. If you aren’t able to fact-check everything, then don’t.” My journalist friends worked together and later on other journalists joined them. Some even came up with new findings.

The investigation was published in early July, three weeks after your release from custody. What impact did it have?

In Russia, there is a tradition wherein whenever a pointed and critical article gets published, the regime “keeps silent like a fish”: it pretends the article doesn’t exist. That happens when the criticism is legitimate, too. Instead of publicly acknowledging a mistake, the regime takes secret steps that may lead to the “fixing” of the reported issue. So officials don’t react at all to oppositional articles, but their subsequent activity shows that something is being changed.

And has anything changed since you published the article?

One of the main protagonists of my story – the head of the FSB’s Moscow branch, Alexey Dorofeev – went on a long vacation after it was published. And rumor has it that he will not return to the service.

Could the FSB officers you wrote about order your arrest?

I don’t know. I just know that the FSB started an internal investigation, albeit just an unofficial one. It’s possible that they’re not guilty and are trying to find the real culprits. Or it could be the other way around: that they’re trying to protect their own leaders and place the blame on the police. It’s difficult to say.

Has your investigation any other impact apart from the alleged withdrawal of Dorofeev?

Among the businessmen who teamed up with the FSB were also people who had previously engaged with the legalization of illegal alcohol produced in the North Caucasus. They also did business in banks from which they eventually siphoned off funds. And then they got into the funeral business. Gradually they expanded their sphere of influence to the entire Moscow Oblast, which makes up 25-30 percent of the funeral business in Russia. According to the information I have, they are currently facing problems around their expansion and illicit cooperation with state officials. However, we can’t currently talk about any apparent positive impacts.

(The day we held the interview the Russian daily RBC came with a finding that the Deputy Head of Moscow’s FSB branch Marat Medoev was fired. In June, investigace.cz, together with its Slovak and Russian colleagues, found out that Medoev’s family runs business and owns properties in Slovakia. When they encountered Medoev’s father Igor Medoev, a former FSB spy himself in front of his villa in the Slovak town of Limbach, he claimed that his family hasn’t been involved in this case. “Neither me, nor my son knows what he [Golunov] looks like. My son didn’t know what was going on. He was on vacation in Sochi at that time. Once I’m back in Russia I’d like to talk with Golunov and let him write that we [Medoevs] didn’t take part in it.”)

Russian Spy on Vacation in Bratislava

Protest Mood

Thousands of people took to the streets to protest against your arrest. The demonstration was not sanctioned, the protesters were risking severe penalties stipulated in the Russian law…

Most people in Russia are tired and resigned. In general, they want to live in stability and comfort. They realized that a situation [like mine] where anyone can be detained based on whatever made-up charges, concerns them, too. Some people protested against such injustice. It was a large demonstration, one of the biggest in the last three to four years. The estimates differ, but there were thousands of people. I know that around 400 protesters were arrested. This indicates a really plentiful turnout.

You were released a couple of hours before the demonstration…

When they released me, nobody – including me – could believe it. Many people thanked me, I didn’t understand why. They told me that I gave them their hope back, that they didn’t expect good news can still occur in Russia. The happy end to my case had a strong emotional impact on and inspired many people.

Ivan Golunov shortly after release. Photo: Vasily Maximov, CC BY-SA 4.0

Is it possible that this triumphant atmosphere influenced the people who contested the regime later in the summer when they called for free municipal election in Moscow?

“Atmosphere” is perhaps a good word. It probably inspired people in the same way my release from custody inspired them. It’s possible led people to protest and call for free elections in Moscow’s municipal body. That’s, by the way, an institution that very few people know about. If you talk to a Moscow resident, ask him who sits in the municipality, who our representatives there are, and for whom he voted. You’ll see they won’t know [Editor’s Note: the city’s municipal representatives possess, in fact, nearly no authority. The real power sits in the hands of Moscow’s mayor.]

Do this summer’s demonstrations differ from the large protests against the falsified parliamentary election in 2011? If so, how?

The current protests are more organized. Many people say that. The system of support for protesters is more elaborate – when you’re, for example, arrested, you know who to inform. Lawyers immediately arrive at the police station you’ve been taken to. The status of those detained is constantly being monitored: who was released, who is still in custody, whose detention was extended, etc. Organizers bring food and other necessities to those in detention. Before, when police brought you to a station, you could only rely on your family, which would have to find a lawyer and provide foodstuffs. Support from civil society today is much more systematic and organized.

Do you see any negatives regarding current protests? 

Yes, the police force is filming all protests in detail. They have a face-recognition system and put together lists of all of the people who attend demonstrations. They collect data on them. It remains, however, unclear how the police will use these lists. This is a new development from the 2011 protests. There were also far fewer CCTV cameras then.

Do you expect the regime to make any concessions to the protesters?

When it comes to elections, it’s absolutely unclear what will happen. The main demand of the protesters was to register oppositional candidates. That’s not possible any more as the election will take place in a week [Editor’s note: it took place on Sunday 8 September.] Those in power, nevertheless, understand that there is a threat and now have to think about how to diffuse the situation.

They are now, for instance, releasing some of the detainees even though they initially threatened them with harsh punishments. There was a film director in custody. The policemen took away his insulin injections, though they knew he was suffering from diabetes. And he slipped into a coma. At first they planned on sentencing him, but after the incident they hastily let him go. The police told the public they had been mistaken and that the director hadn’t committed any crime. So I think some will be sentenced, some released. It will be a strange situation. They might start thinking about how to contain the protest potential so they can control it. In the past they came up with the idea of establishing an All-Russia People’s Front. Among other things, this political movement was meant to initiate investigations of fraud and corruption within the state administration. But it became clear that officials were not really willing to investigate one another and the initiative slowly sank into oblivion.

Are the current protests led by strong leaders? 

In earlier protests, Alexey Navalny was one of many famous faces, and now he’s basically the only one left. If you ask people about this, they will mention him. The others have fallen off to the side. Also, other organizers of the summer protests – the oppositional politicians such as Ilya Yashin or Dmitry Gudkov – support Navalny. The youth don’t take the official political parties seriously. If you ask who is the leader of Just Russia [Editor’s note: a political party that imitates the opposition in parliament, but in fact votes in line with Putin’s United Russia], they won’t know him. They view the current communist party, which also tries to create an impression of belonging to the opposition, as a direct successor of the Soviet communist party. They simply don’t trust the parliamentary opposition.


Scooters for Bodyguards

Do you have any private life? 

I find myself in a very strange situation. I’m under state protection. If we were sitting together in Moscow or somewhere else in Russia, there would be two bodyguards sitting right next to us. I definitely don’t live a normal life, and it’s been a very complicated time for me. On top of that, people recognize me on the street. I’d like to get back to my normal life, but I haven’t yet succeeded in that. I hope the investigation of my case will end soon, and with a happy ending for me.

Do you trust the state protection?

Do I have a choice? When I talked about this with my bodyguards, it became clear that if something were to happen to me – even by accident – everyone would assume the state was involved. That’s why my safety is in their interest. If something happened to me, it would mean big trouble for them. I think I trust them. But that doesn’t mean that the situation isn’t difficult. When I want to meet someone, I need to announce it in advance so they can evaluate potential risks. And then they’ll sit by my side at those meetings, so I can’t really discuss anything important.

“If we were sitting together in Moscow or elsewhere in Russia, there would be two bodyguards sitting right next to us.” Photo: Eva Kubaniova

When I go for a walk into park, they’re a couple of steps behind me. People will notice that and turn their heads. It’s not very pleasant. Also, they want me to stay in Moscow all the time. They say they lack the resources for longer trips. Over the summer my flat outside of Moscow was flooded. I had to deal with the consequences through an acquaintance, because they wouldn’t let me go there myself.

We’re currently speaking in Riga. Do you feel more free abroad?

Yes, I do. That’s why I try to travel outside of Russia occasionally. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safer here, but I feel more free. I can, for example, take a ride on an electric scooter. That would be impossible in Moscow. Or I would need to rent another two scooters for my bodyguards.

By Jakub Simak
English version edited by Maya Perry
Feature photo by Eva Kubaniova