In October, "The New York Times" reported that Islamic State (IS) militants had shot dead a Russian hostage named Sergei Gorbunov. The story of Gorbunov's execution, which reportedly took place in Raqqa in April 2014, came from testimony given by eyewitnesses, including five former hostages.
In response to "The New York Times" report, the Russian Embassy in Damascus announced on October 28 that it was verifying the information about Gorbunov's death.
However, senior Russian diplomats are now publicly casting doubt on the very existence of Gorbunov.
The Russian President's Special Representative for the Middle East and Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told the Interfax news agency on November 21 that Moscow "didn't know anything about such a person."
According to Bogdanov, no one has ever come forward to claim any kind of relationship with or knowledge of Gorbunov.
"The most surprising thing in this story is that it's as though he has no relatives or friends, because no one cares about his fate," Bogdanov said.
Reports that a Russian engineer named Sergei Gorbunov had been abducted by militants in Syria emerged last October. A video published on social media showed a Russian-speaking man claiming to be Gorbunov who said that if Moscow did not meet his abductors' demands that the Syrian government release a Saudi militant named Khaled Suleiman, he would be executed. The man said that the man had been abducted in the vicinity of a military airport in Hama.
Russian media said that Gorbunov had been abducted by a Chechen-led faction, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar. However, the Kavkaz Center website, which is close to Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar denied the group had any role in the kidnapping: a believable response, since the group has not been present in Hama.
Following the release of the video, RIA Novosti reported on October 24, 2013 that the Russian Foreign Ministry was verifying information that Gorbunov had been abducted in Syria.
Since then, there have been sporadic reports about Gorbunov in the Russian media but nothing to suggest that Moscow did not believe the man did not exist.
In March, the TASS news agency reported that the Russian Foreign Ministry was continuing its efforts to have Gorbunov and a second Russian hostage, Konstantin Zhuravlev, freed -- a sign that Moscow did not doubt that Gorbunov was a real individual.
Signs that Moscow's official position on Gorbunov was changing came as early as October 28, the same day that the Russian Embassy in Damascus said it was checking the report of Gorbunov's death.
Russian government daily "Rossiskaya Gazeta" published an article titled: "Checking The Rumor: What Is Behind The Reports Of The Death Of The Russian Gorbunov?"
The report casts scathing doubt on the veracity of the story that Gorbunov even existed.
"Who is Sergei Gorbunov and where did he come from? How old is he and what is his family status? He did he come to be in the Middle East? Was Gorbunov really an engineer and where had he worked in Russia before that? And most importantly, possible relatives of this person did not come forward. Neither did his friends sound the alarm. Also silent were those very same media outlets who were very well paid for the "sensational information" and who had paid sources is many places. And now, a year later, the [Russian] media replicate news that came from the correspondent of an American outlet, saying that the execution of this Russian had happened. And it happened, they say, this spring, after his tormentors "just got fed up" with him," "Rossiskaya Gazeta" wrote.
'Thick Eastern Accent'
The paper went on to suggest other reasons for why the story of Gorbunov's execution was strange: the execution was apparently filmed by IS militants on cellphones but never appeared on the Internet.
"So how come, when it came to the executions of other hostages, IS certainly released information about them with such "propaganda chic" that it was immediately picked up by the world's media," "Rossiskaya Gazeta" asked.
In his November 21 interview with the Interfax news agency, Bogdanov makes similar arguments that the story of Gorbunov is "some kind of incomprehensible fiction."
In his comments, Bogdanov addressed the one piece of evidence in the case that had been made public: the issue of the video address by Gorbunov. Bogdanov cast doubt on whether the man in the video was actually a Russian citizen.
"When we consider his video address on YouTube, we get the impression that this is no Gorbunov: the man spoke in Russian but with a thick Eastern accent. Therefore, we have serious doubts, all the more so because no inquiries were made to any appropriate Russian body. Maybe this is not a citizen of the Russian Federation," the deputy foreign minister suggested.
While Bogdanov cast doubt on the very existence of Gorbunov, he said that Moscow was making every effort to release Konstantin Zhuravlev, a Russian national abducted in Syria last October.
Zhuravlev, who the Russian media has said is a backpacker and blogger from Tomsk, was abducted by the Syrian faction Liwa al-Tawhid near the Turkish border. Zhuravlev, whom his captors said was a spy, had reportedly planned to spend 21 days alone in the desert, and his route took him through Syria.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk