A Year On, Few Clues in an Opposition Death

MTChervochkin was found lying unconscious between the tree and the stalls. The Internet cafe is located in the building.
SERPUKHOV, Moscow Region — Yury Chervochkin had no Internet connection at his apartment in this industrial town 100 kilometers south of Moscow where he lived with his mother and younger brother.

So when the 22-year-old opposition activist was released from police custody on the evening of Nov. 22, 2007, he went straight to the Internet cafe Portal in the center of town to post an account of his detention on an opposition blog community.

Chervochkin's account, posted at 8:45 p.m., described how police and Federal Security Service officers warned him and his fellow activists not to attend an opposition demonstration in Moscow planned for two days later "if [you] value your health."

Less than an hour later, Chervochkin, who led the local chapter of the banned National Bolshevik Party, was discovered unconscious just beyond a row of kiosks near the Internet cafe, having been savagely beaten with a blunt object.

He never regained consciousness and died 18 days later at the Burdenko Research Institute's medical center in Moscow.

Chervochkin's death, a year ago Wednesday, his fellow activists say, was the bloody culmination of a campaign of harassment and intimidation against Kremlin critics ahead of last year's State Duma elections.

His friends and colleagues have produced no concrete evidence linking authorities to the beating, though they say Chervochkin had told them that he received threats from local police and was being followed by two police officers shortly before he was discovered beaten and bloodied.

It appears unlikely, however, that the perpetrators will be brought to justice anytime soon: The investigation into the crime has been suspended indefinitely because of an "absence of suspects," said Yulia Zhukova, a spokeswoman for the Moscow region branch of the Investigative Committee.

Some former police investigators have been questioned in connection with the case, Zhukova said, though she could not name the officers or say where they worked.

Nadezhda Chervochkina — a petite, thin woman wearing blue jeans and an oversized T-shirt and with her hair in a ponytail — does not give the impression of a grief-stricken mother, only occasionally fighting back tears.

She appears resigned that no one will be held accountable for her son's death.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Chervochkin's mother sitting near his portrait in her apartment in Serpukhov.

"Yura's death has revealed the state of law enforcement authorities," Chervochkina said in an interview last week at her apartment in Serpukhov. "They don't solve anything."

Chervochkin was a prototypical rabble-rouser with the National Bolsheviks, whose ambitious and theatrical political stunts have angered Kremlin loyalists and helped earn their group an official ban as an "extremist" organization.

He became a National Bolshevik in January 2006 and within a few months had created a party branch in Serpukhov, said Anna Ploskonosova, Chervochkin's fiancee who fled Russia earlier this year and received political asylum in Ukraine.

"He joined in order to make people's lives better," Ploskonosova said in a telephone interview.

In September 2006, Chervochkin was one of dozens of National Bolshevik activists who stormed the offices of the Finance Ministry to demand compensation for citizens who lost their savings during the 1990s economic reforms.

During regional parliamentary elections in March 2007, he and two other National Bolsheviks entered a polling station in the Moscow region town of Odynstovo brandishing flares and chanting: "The elections are a farce."

Chervochkin was facing criminal charges at the time of his death in connection with the polling station incident. His two fellow activists received suspended prison sentences in March of this year.

When Chervochkin was detained by Serpukhov police shortly before being attacked, he had been promoting a Dissenters' March planned for Nov. 24 in central Moscow, his mother and friends said.

The officer who questioned him was Alexander Chyorny, head of the criminal investigations department at the Serpukhov police headquarters, Chervochkin's mother said, citing materials from the investigation.

Before he was released from custody, Chervochkin told Chyorny that he planned to post a report about his detention on a National Bolshevik blog community, Chervochkina said.

Vasily Terekhov, a National Bolshevik activist from Serpukhov who was in police custody at the same time as Chervochkin that day, said he heard Chyorny yelling at Chervochkin in the next room, but he could not make out what the investigator was saying.

Natalya Lotkova, a spokeswoman for Serpukhov police headquarters, said her office had received no complaints from Chervochkin's fellow activists about the actions of their officers.

Terekhov said police released the two of them from custody at the same time, after which Chervochkin went to the Internet cafe.

After leaving the cafe, Chervochkin called fellow activist Alexei Sochnyev at about 9 p.m. and said four men were following him, including two police officers that had detained him that day, according to Sochnyev, a journalist with the web site of opposition politician Garry Kasparov.

About 45 minutes later, he was discovered bloodied and unconscious.

Writer and opposition politician Eduard Limonov, founder of National Bolsheviks, said he believes that police are involved in a cover-up of the circumstances surrounding Chervochkin's fatal beating.

"They will drag on hoping that our patience snaps," Limonov said.

Chervochkin's colleagues have also suggested that officers from the anti-organized crime department of the Moscow region police were involved in the attack. The press office for the department, which has since been disbanded by presidential decree, could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for the department last year denied any involvement in the attack, national media reported.

Kasparov noted the eerie similarity between the attack on Chervochkin and last month's brutal assault on Mikhail Beketov, a newspaper editor in the Moscow suburb of Khimki whose publication had repeatedly criticized local authorities.

Like Chervochkin, Beketov was beaten by unidentified assailants and left for dead before he was discovered unconscious near his Khimki home on Nov. 13.

Beketov has managed to survive and remains hospitalized at Moscow's Sklifosovsky Clinic, where his right leg was amputated after gangrene set in.

Unlike Chervochkin's case, the attack on Beketov has prompted outcry not only from opposition circles but also from government officials, including Oleg Mitvol, the outspoken deputy head of the Federal Inspection Service for Natural Resources Use, and several members of the Public Chamber.

Prosecutors took the Beketov case over from police and classified the attack as attempted murder rather than aggravated assault.

The attack on Chervochkin remains classified as aggravated hooliganism, punishable by up to seven years in prison, said Zhukova of the Moscow region branch of the Investigative Committee.

Nadezhda Chervochkina said she had always been worried about her son "because he was an idealist in this pragmatic world."

She said she tried to warn him about the dangers of his political activities but eventually realized that her efforts were in vain.

"I told him jokes against the authorities can go bad."