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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Not Just Another Murder in Tolyatti

For MTValery Ivanov
TOLYATTI, Southern Russia -- Valery Ivanov knew his life was about to end.

He knew that he couldn't get away with what he was doing for long, especially in Tolyatti, the organized crime-strangled capital of the automobile industry where contract killings are routine.

Home to AvtoVAZ, the behemoth automaker with a near monopoly on the domestic market, Tolyatti is a one-company town if ever there was one: It provides 75 percent of the city's budget and virtually everything here revolves around the sprawling complex of production facilities that directly employs one out of every five residents and indirectly employs half the rest.

As a journalist, and later an editor and politician, Ivanov pushed the limits of what was permissible to make public. By doing so, he routinely exposed -- and dared to endanger the profits of -- the unholy alliance of corrupt AvtoVAZ management, city officials and mafia dons that has instilled a general sense of fear among the city's 740,000 residents for most of the past decade.

Ivanov made it his life's work to lift the cloud of fear, and last month someone decided he had been too successful. Late on the night of April 29, in front of five witnesses, a man toting an automatic pistol equipped with a silencer discharged three bullets into Ivanov's head and four into his chest as he exited his apartment building. He was 32.

Upstairs, oblivious to what had just happened, his wife, Yelena, was holding her mobile phone to her ear, waiting impatiently for her husband to answer his, when the doorbell rang.

"I thought it was him and that that was why he didn't answer the phone," she said, visibly exhausted. "But when I opened the door all I heard were screams and someone saying someone had been killed. ... I still can't believe it."

The couple met in college and were married just before the Berlin Wall fell, Yelena said over tea in the modest, well-kept apartment that she now shares only with Masha, their 11-year-old daughter.

Intrigued by the idea that newspapers could promote social justice, Ivanov decided on a career in journalism, and it didn't take long for his byline to hit the front page, atop the first piece ever published detailing alleged ties between the mob and senior managers at AvtoVAZ.

Eventually, however, Yelena said Valery was fed up with the papers he was writing for, such as Komsomolskaya Pravda, because they were too influenced by vested interests and made it impossible to report the truth. So in 1996, with no money and one computer, Valery and some friends set up shop in an abandoned three-room apartment and launched their own newspaper called Tolyatti Review.

Even before its launch, the paper faced opposition. A few days before the release of the first issue, which focused on the candidates in the upcoming election for mayor, someone ransacked the newsroom and stole the sole computer, which held all the files. Nonetheless the paper came out, as it has ever since, and became an instant hit.

Yelena said her husband never told her what he was working on, what information he had learned. This was to protect her, he would say, because the information he learned was dangerous. "I remember when he first started reporting I was so terrified," Yelena said. "I told him all the time it was too dangerous, but after years the fear just dulled."

She said that about a month ago she heard, by chance, her husband telling someone on the telephone that he would only live "a bit more" and she was horrified. "What are you talking about?" she asked him, but he hung up the phone and didn't answer her.

Ivanov's colleagues say he had an "amazing" network of contacts that included informants in law enforcement, City Hall and several of the five major organized crime groups in the city. His fearlessness as the editor in chief of Tolyatti Review only grew as he learned and uncovered more. It made him a hero to many in the city fed up with the suffocating culture of crime.

By 2000, Ivanov had become so popular that he decided to run for a seat in the City Duma. He won easily. Contrary to inhibiting his investigative work, joining the same government whose corruption he regularly exposed only added fuel to his fire. The position opened up new avenues of information -- and made him new enemies. The city's budget process, Ivanov's colleagues note, very quickly became transparent.

"Valera had one main criterion for judging someone's character: whether or not the person stole from the budget," said Pyotr Bulgakov, a close friend of Ivanov's and one of the City Duma's 17, now 16, deputies.

Like Ivanov, Bulgakov discovered firsthand how Tolyatti really works. For more than 12 years he was an investigator for the local branch of the criminal police under the Interior Ministry. Now, in addition to being a legislator, he is the owner of a business that supplies aluminum to AvtoVAZ. "Valera was a bone in the throat of everyone who was stealing. He went public with everything he learned," Bulgakov said, with obvious admiration. "He was the first and only one who disclosed and unveiled what other newspapers and TV channels didn't. No one did it before ... there won't be another one like him. His death is a big joy for all of them ... it's beneficial to such an enormous circle of shadow businesses in Tolyatti."

Like Bulgakov, Ivanov's colleagues at the Tolyatti Review say Ivanov had reconciled himself to the fact that he would be killed "in the line of duty."

"One must be reckless to do what he was doing. That was him and his habit, though, to walk on the verge between life and death," Bulgakov said.

Larisa Guyenko, an editor at Tolyatti Review, said colleagues informed the police on numerous occasions about threats against Ivanov's life, but neither the police nor Ivanov himself paid much attention to them. "Valery refused to have a bodyguard or to put on a bulletproof vest. We offered to get him a gun, but he refused everything," she said.

No one doubts Ivanov's murder was a contract hit, but who ordered it is a matter of debate. So many people and groups will benefit from his death that it is difficult to single one out as the most likely culprit.

"The investigation is being conducted very actively, intensively, but we can't say yet that we have found a killer," said Tolyatti city prosecutor Yevgeny Novozhilov.

"There are five main organized criminal groups. Ivanov was a thorn in the side of all of them; he was investigating and writing about all of them. Evidently, the person who ordered his murder is one of them," Novozhilov said. "We are searching for all the leaders of the criminal groups, but they are not in the city."

Alexander Yefremov, the chief prosecutor of the Samara region, where Tolyatti is located, said that Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov is "very worried about the criminal situation in Tolyatti, in particular the killing of Ivanov," and will send his deputy, Vladimir Kolesnikov, to investigate the matter "soon."

So far, there is no word from Ustinov's office as to whether any progress has been made in the investigation or if Kolesnikov has indeed been sent.

Yefremov said there are 11 investigators from regional, city and district prosecutor's offices working on the case and considering all scenarios of the murder, including "Ivanov's fight with Tolyatti crime bosses, corrupted authorities and corruption at AvtoVAZ, as well as scenarios connected to his activity as a city deputy." He said six people had been detained in connection with the murder and that arrest warrants had been issued "for all the leaders of organized crime groups." Unfortunately, he said, "they all left the city right after the killing."

As a result of dozens of interviews with police officers, city officials, journalists and colleagues of Ivanov's, four major theories have emerged for who may be behind the murder.

Locals call the first the "Chekhi" or Chechen theory. In February, Tolyatti Review began two separate investigations into contract killings allegedly ordered by two mafia bosses who run businesses dependent on AvtoVAZ, Igor Sirotenko (aka Sirota) and Suleyman Akhmadov (aka Suleyman). When the paper printed the results of the investigations in March, both men were outraged, according to the newspaper's staff.

A few days after the reports were published, a representative of Sirota called the paper to say his boss wanted to meet Ivanov. "The first thing Sirota said at the meeting was: 'Should I kill you, or what,'" Ivanov said, according to colleagues. "Do you understand that everyone tells me I better kill you? Even my relatives, not to mention the mob." Ivanov's colleagues said he told them Sirota tried to bribe him with a handful of cash, but he refused.

The second theory centers around former Tolyatti Mayor Sergei Zhilkin and alleged associates of his who were top managers of trading companies ADA and MFK, who handled veksel transactions between AutoVAZ and City Hall as City Duma deputies. The paper uncovered $30 million missing from the city budget as a result of these transactions and it cost Zhilkin his bid for re-election.

The third theory involves Oleg Abramov, a powerful businessman whose father, Nikolai Abramov, is an advisor to Mayor Nikolai Utkin.

Shortly before Ivanov was killed, Tolyatti Review published two articles alleging that Oleg Abramov, through an English-Swedish company, embezzled $300,000 from the city budget and $1.867 million from AutoVAZ. The newspaper's reporters say Nikolai Abramov twice threatened Ivanov after the articles came out, and it was widely known that Ivanov was preparing a third article before his death.

Nikolai Abramov, together with the mayor, were on vacation at the time of the killing, and reporters at the newspaper pointed out that the mayor was practically the only official in the city not to publicly decry Ivanov's murder.

The fourth theory revolves around one of Ivanov's victories in the City Duma. Three months before the murder, Tolyatti Review published an article saying the city was paying way above market rate for gasoline, and that someone in the Mayor's Office pocketed $1 million in the scam. The report riled city employees and inspired a strike by transportation workers.

As a deputy, Ivanov led the fight to void the city's contract with the gasoline supplier and give the job to the lowest bidder in an open tender. According to his colleagues, he was offered a slice of the deal by city officials to remain silent, but he refused and they threatened him. Eventually the tender was held, the $1 million returned, and a new company named supplier. But two weeks after Ivanov's death, the mayor overturned the results of the tender.

Whoever the killer is, one thing is clear: Tolyatti will not be the same city again, residents say.

The turnout for Ivanov's funeral was larger than the paper's daily print run. Thousands of people who had never met him showed up to pay their respects.

"We didn't know him personally, but my whole family took the tragedy personally," said pensioner Anna Anatolyeva. "We admired him and his daring. What a sorrow and a shame for the city for not protecting such a person."

"He was so brave, it is amazing," said Mikhail, 48, who declined to give his last name.

"Tolyatti Review is the only newspaper in Tolyatti where we could all appeal for help, the only paper telling the truth," said Irina Ponkravota, a 35-year-old accountant. "We didn't protect him and he was living for us all."

The Review's Guyenko called the experience "terrifying." Before Ivanov's murder she said, "no one seriously believed that you could be killed for speaking the truth. Now we've all come to understanding that it could happen to any of us." Nonetheless, Guyenko and the rest of the staff say they will fight on, and have no intention of quitting.