ESSAY: Chilly Friendship Meets End in Shallow Grave

Natalya disappeared in late October. Her friends and schoolmates were questioned by police but to no avail. She was listed as officially missing and a search began. Her parents started waiting by the phone: If she had been kidnapped, the bandits would surely call and demand ransom. But the call didn't come.

Other calls, however, did: Somebody would dial their number and listen in silence on the other end as her mother cried, "Natalya? Is that you? Please say something! Where are they holding you? How can we help you?"

Natalya's parents, the Fonyakovs (whose names have been changed here), knew their daughter was susceptible to the influence of strong-willed people. Had she fallen in love? the Fonyakovs wondered.

Around this time, one of her friends, Valery Frolov, let drop that he had seen Natalya near the train station a few days before getting into a car that had out-of-town plates. After Fonyakovs heard that, they got a late-night call. Again, the caller was silent. Natalya's mother answered it with a cracking wail: "Why are you silent, my little one?"

No one answered.

Natalya wasn't found until springtime, when the snow in the woods had melted.

"Poor Natalya found herself under the lash of someone's power," Emilya Kraikina, an investigator at the Voronezh Regional Prosecutor's Office told me.

"She tried to break free. And she died."

Valery Frolov and Natalya's best friend Vera Prokudina (whose name is changed here) seemed to be doing their best to help the Fonyakovs. They patiently recounted for them all the details of their last encounters with Natalya.

But the Fonyakovs thought Prokudina might be holding something back. Had their daughter been leading a double life: hanging out at shady bars, maintaining dubious relationships?

This is what Prokudina and Frolov told the police but the stories weren't checking out. Investigators thought that Frolov and Prokudina were just inventing Natalya's "other" life. So they investigated Frolov and Prokudina.

Here is what was discovered: Vera Prokudina was no average person. She was extremely attractive. She did very well in school. Everything came easily to her. She had a brilliant command of English. Her upbringing had been strict and her family had been in the military for several generations. She was expected to adhere to strict military codes of authority: A person either commands or obeys. Prokudina preferred commanding and her willfulness estranged her from her parents. She found Natalya during her last couple of years at school. Natalya lacked Prokudina's self-assuredness. Convinced she was unattractive, Natalya became Prokudina's shadow. Alarmed by this friendship, Natalya's parents kept an eye on Prokudina, who visited almost every day. She talked loudly and told stories, one of which involved learning how to do injections in a nursing class. Eventually, school ended and the friends went their separate ways to different institutes.

Some time later, Prokudina made the acquaintance of Valery Frolov, a strange young man two years younger than her. Frolov was overwhelmed by her. Meanwhile, the more Natalya kept away from Prokudina, the more Prokudina met with Frolov and his girlfriend, 16-year-old Olga Sokolova. But Prokudina was troubled by Natalya's resistance. Why did her former shadow abandon her? Would others follow? Was she truly in control and the master of the situation?

Then Frolov told Prokudina that Natalya had said nasty things about her in public. Immediately, Prokudina dragged Frolov off to the train station where their friends hung out to verify this. They laughed but would give Vera no direct answers.

Vera attempted to interrogate Natalya on the phone but still things were no clearer, only more painful for the lost friendship. Vera began to be tortured by how quickly Natalya could drop out of her life. How could Natalya, who had copied her words and gestures, abandon and betray her? Didn't she deserve to be punished for this?

In spring, near Sinitsyno station, some local men spotted a pair of sneakers sticking out of the thawing soil. The burial pit was not a deep one, and what was excavated from it was nearly impossible to identify. Sokolova was the first to confess her part in the "execution of the traitor," as she called it. Frolov's thorough narration came next.

As to the organizer, Vera Prokudina, investigator Kraikina says the following: "She was brought in. I had scarcely uttered a word when she said: 'What language shall I speak when testifying - Russian or English?' Even at this time she was concerned about the impression she was giving."

Prokudina pleaded guilty. Here is what happened the night Natalya died: In late October Prokudina called Natalya and talked her into meeting. Natalya came to the train station and they chatted at first. Vera reminisced about their friendship when she suddenly said: "Look at that suburban train. Remember when we used to go to Sinitsyno?" And so they went.

They reached Sinitsyno and Prokudina suggested a walk in the woods. Just then, Natalya saw Frolov and Sokolova and pointed them out to Prokudina. "Yes, they are here too, because you are on trial."

Natalya was tied up in the woods and Prokudina pulled a few candles from a bag: "You will die in the candlelight, as I have decided."

Meanwhile, Frolov was digging a grave.

"You are a traitor," Prokudina went on, pulling out a syringe and some ampules from the bag. "But we will let you die an easy death." She injected a drug into Natalya, who went limp. The candles were crackling. The scene would have looked like comedic vampire show if Prokudina had not taken a knife out of the bag. Handing it to Frolov, she ordered him to stab Natalya. And Frolov did so. But she didn't die immediately and begged for mercy. Instead, they untied her and forced her to lie down into the freshly dug grave. Sokolova was ordered to finish Natalya off with the shovel.

It was Prokudina's idea to make the tormenting silent phone calls. Frolov placed them. He would dial the number and keep silent, listening to the victim's mother crying.

When the trial approached, Prokudina's father came to see Kraikina. Since the facts of his daughter's trial seemed damning, should he publicly repudiate her? Kraikina thought it was an interesting question. "Prokudin could not understand that he and his whole strict military upbringing had created this monster," she told me.

"Having power over other people is the most efficient form of self-assertion," Kraikina added. "It's a temptation! One of the most dangerous."

Igor Gamayunov writes for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.