Just when you think Russia can’t possibly get any weirder . . .


The New York Times reports:

The killing was as baffling as it was vile.

As she arrived at work one afternoon in April, Kermen Basangova, the director of a small academy here, was stabbed to death in her car, the police said. A 34-year-old mother of two who was eight months pregnant, she was the victim of a contract killing, they said.

In television newscasts, a photo of the dark-haired woman was juxtaposed with images of police officers combing the academy’s grounds in a seedy corner of the city, seemingly searching for clues. Members of the faculty and staff at the school, the State Polar Academy, expressed grief and confusion.

They were even more confused the next morning, when Ms. Basangova returned to work. The killing had been a ruse. The police said they had staged her death to ensnare her deputy, who had been plotting to kill her.

It is a tale in harmony with this city of Dostoyevsky, where intrigue and dark conspiracy, fictional and real, have been plotted for centuries in the creepy alleyways behind and between the grand imperial facades. It is also another example of why so few people believe the news media or the police in Russia, where official explanations often contain as much fiction as fact.

The police said that the academy, a public postgraduate professional school, was rife with fraud and embezzlement, and Ms. Basangova was trying to clean it up. Fearing that her insistence on financial transparency would expose his thievery, the deputy, Vladimir Lukin, hired two of the academy’s groundskeepers to arrange her killing, the police said. They in turn found a killer — who turned out to be a police informant.

“We received information that individuals working in this academy, who were the subject of an audit by Basangova, planned to kill her,” Igor Paradeyev, a detective with the St. Petersburg Police Department, told Russian television. “A decision was made to hold an investigative experiment to stage Basangova’s murder.”

The phantom killing took place in a dusty parking lot of the academy. Ms. Basangova had just parked her car and was reaching for her purse in the back seat when a man in a black mask wielding a knife ran up, she said in an interview. He pretended to stab her several times, she said, and doused her with fake blood. He ran off while a friend, who was in on the scheme, rushed her to a hospital.

“It happened in several seconds, very quickly,” Ms. Basangova said, “and though I knew it would be staged, it was very frightening.”

Such elaborate sting operations are not uncommon in Russia, where the police routinely manipulate the news media in criminal investigations, said Yevgeny Vyshenkov, a former police detective here who is now the deputy director of a St. Petersburg Internet news agency, fontanka.ru. In his previous career, Mr. Vyshenkov said, he once had a journalist agree to publish a fake article to coax a suspect to divulge information about accomplices.

“The journalist wrote an untruth, but this untruth helped solve the crime,” Mr. Vyshenkov said. “This method is used when necessary.”

In Ms. Basangova’s case, the police simply put out a false story and apparently relied on the ensuing publicity to tip off the plotters that the deed had been done. In fact, Ms. Basangova said, no one witnessed the putative attack, which raises questions as to why it was enacted or whether it even happened.

The police said officers arrested Mr. Lukin and two co-conspirators as they handed about $9,400 to the person cast as the killer. Aleksandr Klaus, an investigator with the St. Petersburg prosecutor’s office, said shortly thereafter that all the suspects had admitted their involvement in “organizing a contract killing.” He said the office was still building its case in preparation for trial.

But the accused and their families vehemently dispute the official accounts of the crime and the confessions. They say Ms. Basangova and a student at the academy, a former police officer with whom they claim she was having an affair, hatched the scheme to get Mr. Lukin and his wife out of the way so that she could gain full financial control over the school.

Mr. Lukin, an economist, and his wife, Azurget Shaukenbayeva, helped found the small academy in 1998 to prepare students for jobs in Russia’s northern regions. Ms. Shaukenbayeva was the academy’s previous director and had groomed Ms. Basangova as her replacement.

Ms. Shaukenbayeva now calls her former protégée a “werewolf” bent on “seizing the institution.” She says she fears for the academy’s future.

“The school will be privatized and left with nothing,” she told Channel 5.

Ms. Shaukenbayeva refused to be interviewed for this article, warning a reporter from The New York Times by telephone: “Do not pursue this issue. It will be handled inside the country.”

Ms. Basangova’s account, meanwhile, is vague; she said she would not elaborate on the operation to avoid interfering with the police investigation. She said she was incredulous when the police called her with a tip that Mr. Lukin was plotting to kill her.

“I am a regular, simple person living a normal life,” she said. “Since they asked me to participate in this, I agreed, thinking that if such important people were involved, I needed to cooperate.”

She said she had been quarreling with Mr. Lukin over accounting discrepancies since being named director of the academy in February. An audit of the academy’s finances showed that Mr. Lukin had authorized spending large sums on renovations of the academy.

She would not speculate on the innocence or guilt of Mr. Lukin or the others. “Police will deal with this,” Ms. Basangova said. “They have materials. It is their affair.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s