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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Prosecutor's Unpredictable Ascension

Itar-TassUstinov standing in front of the wreckage of the Kursk in October 2001. His investigation boosted his popularity.
Vladimir Ustinov's rise to the nation's top law enforcement post, like President Vladimir Putin's own career trajectory, was hardly inevitable.

When a man resembling Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov was captured on film in April 1999 with two prostitutes and subsequently suspended, Deputy Prosecutor Yury Chaika became chief.

In July of that year, Chaika took an unannounced two-week vacation, and in August, Ustinov, who had recently been named interim deputy, took over.

The following spring, Putin, fresh from winning his first term, was expected to name Dmitry Kozak, an old St. Petersburg ally, to the top job, when then-chief of staff Alexander Voloshin prevailed on the president in a last-minue meeting to tap Ustinov.

Ustinov was raised in the Krasnodar region and served in the regional prosecutor's office there before being named Sochi's prosecutor in 1992 and eventually ascending to federal prosecutor for the North Caucasus. His father and brother had been prosecutors.

Kremlin aides were so rushed in the days leading up to the appointment of the new prosecutor general that they failed to fill out properly the forms requesting that the Federation Council back Ustinov. He was approved by the council, 114 to 10.

Apartment Scandal. Within months of becoming prosecutor general, Ustinov was in the middle of a high-profile flap. In July 2000, security agents raided NTV television's offices in response to a report on the channel's political show "Itogi" that said Ustinov had received a plush Tverskaya Ulitsa apartment from former Kremlin property manager Pavel Borodin.

In January 2001, the Moscow City Court ruled in Ustinov's favor, ordering NTV to apologize for the original report. The next month, Putin ordered Kremlin auditors to investigate how Ustinov obtained the apartment. No wrongdoing on Ustinov's part was discovered.

The Kursk Disaster. That August, the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster occurred, leaving all 118 sailors on board dead. And in the fall Ustinov led the investigation into what went wrong.

"What happened inside these compartments was hell," Ustinov said at an October presentation of a seven-minute videotape showing the inside of the vessel's charred wreckage.

The presentation was aired on national television and apparently boosted his popularity. According to the independent Levada Center, Ustinov's approval rating jumped 7 percent, from 35 percent to 42 percent, in a poll taken a month after the broadcast. In a poll sponsored by Nezavisimaya Gazeta and published in December 2001, Ustinov jumped from No. 42 to No. 13 on the list of the 100 most-influential political leaders. That was partly due to his role in the Kursk investigation but mostly to his anti-corruption work. "If he continues at this pace, in three months Vladimir Ustinov will overtake the president's level of influence," the paper wrote. Ustinov ended the Kursk investigation in July 2002, saying no one was to blame for the explosion that sank the submarine.


The prosecutor general conferring with his boss in an undated photograph.

Oligarchs and Extraditions. Ustinov was less successful at prosecuting some of the country's most notorious oligarchs. In 2000, Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky fled Russia. Ustinov oversaw investigations of both, but his efforts were stymied: Britain, Israel, Greece and Latvia refused to extradite Gusinsky and Berezovsky despite requests from Russian prosecutors.

Gusinky was briefly arrested when Putin was visiting Spain in June 2000. The arrest cast an embarrassing spotlight on Russia's struggle to bring law and order to its nascent market economy.

Ustinov's office also unsuccessfully sought extradition of Chechen separatists accused of terrorism. The United States turned down a request for Ilyas Akhmadov; Britain rejected a request for Akhmed Zakayev.

The Lawyer. In November 2001, Ustinov became the first prosecutor general in post-Soviet Russia to practice law in a courtroom when he led the charge against Chechen rebel leader Salman Raduyev.

That same month, a possible attempt to assassinate Ustinov was made public. After the Federal Security Service, or FSB, detained three men on Dagestan's border with Chechnya, one of the men, a former soldier thought to have converted to Islam, said the three had been sent to Dagestan by Chechen warlord Khattab to kill Ustinov.

The next month, Raduyev was convicted of spearheading a 1996 attack on a Dagestani hospital that left 78 people dead. He was sentenced to life in prison and died in a penal colony, amid murky circumstances, a year later.

Health Scare. The portly Ustinov, who said he smoked for 34 years before quitting cigarettes and alcohol in 2000, suffered cardiac trouble due to high blood pressure while on a train from Moscow to Saransk in August 2002.

The health scare prompted an unplanned visit to a rural hospital in the tiny town of Shilovo, about 100 kilometers east of Ryazan.

But before he could reach the hospital, he had to weather another storm when a group of teenagers pelted the train with rocks, breaking 21 windows. Prosecutors said that Ustinov's armored car was not damaged and that the incident did not affect his health.

The Assault on Yukos. The following year, Ustinov led the Kremlin-orchestrated assault on oil giant Yukos and its founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Under Ustinov, 35 people -- Yukos owners, employees and subcontractors -- were charged, arrested or convicted, according to Khodorkovsky's online press center. Company co-owners Leonid Nevzlin and Yuly Dubov fled to Israel and Britain, respectively.

Authorities have demanded that Yukos pay $30 billion in back taxes and penalties. Last year, Khodorkovsky was sentenced to eight years in prison after being convicted of fraud and tax evasion, charges seen as politically motivated.

After the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe accused Russian law enforcement agencies of "intimidating action" and "serious procedural violations," Ustinov in January 2005 issued a sharp rebuttal, calling PACE's conclusions "illegitimate."

The Family. Also in 2003, Ustinov's son, Dmitry, an FSB school cadet, married the daughter of Igor Sechin, deputy head of the presidential administration. Inga Ustinov gave birth to a baby boy in July 2005.

Beslan. After the September 2004 Beslan school attack, Ustinov called for tougher measures to crack down on terrorists. Speaking to the State Duma in November of that year, he argued that authorities should be permitted to detain relatives of terrorists as a "counter-hostage-taking" measure.

The proposal prompted harsh criticism from political leaders, including Kremlin loyalist and Duma First Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska. "This raises the question of whether Mr. Ustinov is the right person for the job," she said.

Church and State. Ustinov was never shy about touting religion. After his April 2005 re-appointment, Ustinov told senators that the Prosecutor General's Office would help nurture prosecutors' spiritual sensibilities.

Ustinov also called for rooms to be set aside in prosecutors' offices across the country where staff could pray.

In November 2005, Ustinov waxed religious while offering support for small businessmen. At the meeting with Opora, a small-business lobbying group, Ustinov said many of Russia's woes stemmed from a lack of spirituality. Citing the Old Testament and Russian philosophers, he said businesses should do their utmost to obey the law.

The Adamov Investigation. In May 2005, the Prosecutor General's Office filed embezzlement charges against former Nuclear Power Minister Yevgeny Adamov. This followed Adamov's arrest in Switzerland at the request of U.S. officials; the Americans had suspected Adamov of misappropriating U.S. funds.

A Swiss court ultimately complied with a Russian request that Adamov be extradited, assuaging fears in Moscow that Adamov might have revealed national security secrets to U.S. officials.

Confiscations. Ustinov had also pushed for a return to property confiscations as an alternate means of punishment. The State Duma this April passed in the first reading a series of amendments to reintroduce confiscations but postponed a second reading after numerous protests.

The Klebnikov Case. Ustinov's prosecutors lost a number of jury trials, failing in many cases to present enough evidence to persuade jurors to convict. In one of their most recent losses, a jury acquitted suspects last month in the killing of U.S. journalist Paul Klebnikov, the former editor of the Russian edition of Forbes.

Staff Writer Anatoly Medetsky contributed to this report.