ESSAY: Insider Wages War on a Rotten Police Force

I first met policeman Igor Lykov while on a work trip to Saratov, and later wrote about him. Whenever he was in Moscow, Lykov the pravdoiskatel', or "truthseeker," as I refer to him, would call me, we'd get together and he'd tell me about his family life as a widowed father of two, his work and the criminal situation in Saratov. On his last visit he told me about his legal work and how he, a major in the police, acted as defense counsel for people he felt were in the right but who had little legal recourse. And then a few days later I heard the news. Lykov had been shot dead.

Late one evening there was a ring at the door of his apartment and when he opened the door his killers gunned him down at point-blank range. Lykov managed to call out to his 15-year-old daughter Lida who ran out into the corridor to see her father clutching his wounds and groping his way along the wall to the kitchen where his papers were laid out on the table. A minute later he was dead.

"He always opened the door to anybody that rang," Lida told me later. "He wasn't afraid of anyone."

And that was the truth of the matter. I became convinced of this four years ago when I first got to know him and decided to write a profile of this remarkable man who seemed to be afraid of no one because he didn't doubt for one moment in the things he perceived as being right and just.

Lykov was a professional detective with about a thousand successful arrests of wanted criminals to his name. He was also a constant thorn in the side his superiors because he consistently disregarded the strong order of subordination within the police, confronting them with the unpleasant truth of what he observed in his work. Like his insistence that the real reason for the low success rate in solving serious crimes, especially contract murders, was that the police relied heavily on the use of unprofessional amateur agents, usually recruited using dubious methods from the semi-underworld.

He was the first man in Russia to publicly kick up a fuss - without revealing real or code names - about the way the police forms networks of agents by blackmailing pickpockets and unfaithful wives, arguing that this system only deepens the rot, and that only professional agents can wage an effective war against the criminal world. And, of course, people who decide to help the police of their own accord.

After a Saratov newspaper published an interview with him on the subject, two men in plain clothes - from the Interior Ministry in Moscow it turned out - appeared in the editor's offices, demanding to know the source of the information, supposedly a state secret. Lykov then started to receive summons to appear for questioning at the local bureau of the Federal Security Service.

Here I should point out that these days even schoolchildren know that agents, or snitches, in everyday parlance, get paid for their services, that they are generally blackmailed into cooperating after they have committed some minor offense. All this and much more besides features regularly in the press and television shows, and can hardly be considered a state secret.

Perhaps the state secret revealed was Lykov's mentioning the crimes and misdemeanors these informers commit themselves while under the protection of the police. Like, for example, establishing drug supply channels and planting cannabis on people in order to compromise them. Or how mothers and fathers squeal on their own children. In other words, by condemning a system that wrings out the last vestiges of morality and respect for the law from those who are coerced into cooperating.

Someone somewhere thought Lykov should pay for speaking out and he was arrested and brought in. As it was a "secret" case, he was denied the right to familiarize himself with the charges against him, but even then, the case proved to be too flimsy when it came up at the Saratov regional court and was dismissed.

Instead, Lykhov was demoted, presumably as a lesson to him and a warning to any one else who dared to rock the boat. This led to two more cases in the Saratov regional court, one where Lykov fought to have his rank reinstated, the other to have the "secret" status removed from the case against him so that he could look at the "evidence" against him. Traveling repeatedly to and from Moscow, eventually he won both cases.

Lykov could have just piped down after he not only got back his old rank but was promoted to the rank of major. But he continued to speak out against the system of informers, arguing that only new laws on agents could correct the situation. He started to travel to Moscow to attend civil rights conferences and to provide legal defense to people he saw as genuine victims. The last time we met he told me with more than a little pride how he had just won a case against two former police officers who had basically become racketeers and had taken another man's car away from him.

So it's hard to say just who he aggravated to the point where someone simply hired a killer. His son Ilya, a student at a Saratov medical institute, recalled how after the shooting an investigative team came to the family's apartment and collected his father's papers. "I asked them to do a signed inventory and they just brushed me off," he said. "That's how falsifications come about, I told them, it's against people like you who don't follow the law that my father fought, to which they gloatingly replied 'And look what he ran up against ...'"

Ilya also said that not long before Lykov died he was stopped by police officers on the street and taken to the local police station where they checked his documents and put handcuffs on him saying "He's the one who puts our former colleagues behind bars." He was only released when police friends came in person to collect him.

Nor was it only policemen-turned-racketeers that he upset. Others he had openly opposed included a senior Saratov police officer charged with corruption and two local prosecutors who had illegally engaged in commerce.

But he didn't simply look for conflict with shady individuals as some people have said. He was driven by a broader dislike of arbitrary rule by officials and bandits, and used to tell everyone he met that "People must know their rights if this is to change, because only then can they start to proceed correctly. According to the law."

I have actually met people like him before. They come to Moscow from all over Russia, clutching sheaves of documents and letters in the hope of seeing some deputy or other, or other senior officials in a bid to get themselves reinstated or to have someone removed from their position for gross abuse of authority.

The difference is that before there were never any police officers among them, so strong was the subordination in the police ranks, so entrenched was the idea that it's pointless to get in the way of the bad guys - people in the police know all too well just how easy it is to get hit by a stray bullet in Russia these days. Perhaps Lykov was the first to break out of the rut.

Igor Gamayunov is a correspondent for Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.