Nikolai Andrushchenko, a cantankerous septuagenarian journalist with a turbulent past, rarely kept editors abreast of his investigations.
"As a rule, [he] kept his articles tightly under wraps. Hardly anyone in the office knew exactly what he was working on," said Denis Usov, editor in chief of Novy Peterburg, a small St. Petersburg newspaper that bubbles with Stalinist and anti-Jewish screeds.
So it was not unusual that Andrushchenko, a former city lawmaker who had written extensively about alleged local corruption, was tight-lipped about his work in his final conversation with Usov at around 5 p.m. on March 9 at the newspaper's office in the city center.
Like his work, precisely what happened next to Andrushchenko remains -- for now, at least -- shrouded in mystery.
Later that night, after the office closed, passersby discovered the journalist splayed unconscious on the street with severe head trauma, Usov said. He added that Andrushchenko's colleagues learned only a few days later that he had been hospitalized.
"He led a very private life. He lived alone. He didn't have any relatives in St. Petersburg at the time," Usov said.
Any hopes that Andrushchenko, an early and outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin, could shed light on the circumstances of his injuries vanished this week. He died in the hospital on April 19 at the age of 73, having never regained consciousness.
Usov told RFE/RL that it's possible Andrushchenko died as the result of an accident. The Kremlin-loyal website Life.ru, widely seen as having ties to Russian security services, cited an unidentified police source as saying the journalist had simply fallen down drunk and hit his head.
But just weeks prior to suffering his ultimately fatal injuries, Andrushchenko publicly complained that he had twice been attacked over the previous two months by unidentified assailants demanding documents related to an investigation he had been working on -- documents that he did not have.
"So unfortunately, it's not possible to exclude the possible criminal nature of this incident," Usov said.
'Extremely Difficult Person'
Andrushchenko's death, which his lawyer described as the result of an "attack," triggered widespread speculation among Russian political observers and international press freedom watchdogs that he had become the latest journalist in the country to be killed for his work.
The Committee To Protect Journalists described it as a "brutal murder" and called on authorities to "carry out a thorough and independent investigation."
Andrushchenko did not have the national name recognition of higher-profile journalists -- such as Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya Gazeta -- who have been killed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union.
And while he had carved out a reputation as a local rabble-rouser, his recent work was also far from influential in St. Petersburg, according to current and local media players.
"Andrushchenko has certainly not played any role in the political or journalistic life [of the city] for many years, which is not to diminish his possible strong points," Aleksandr Gorshkov, editor in chief of the prominent St. Petersburg website Fontanka.ru, told RFE/RL.
Nikolai Andrushchenko: 'Money Was At The Center Of Putin's Politics'
Andrushchenko did make enemies in the city -- in part with his investigations on human rights issues, police brutality, and organized crime, and in part thanks to his personality.
"He was an extremely difficult person," Usov told RFE/RL. "You wouldn't call him a sweetheart."
Usov, who said Andrushchenko claimed to have been a West German agent with the code name "Stepan Razin," acknowledged that the two men found little common ground beyond their approach to journalism.
A physicist by training, Andrushchenko served as a city lawmaker in the early 1990s, when he co-founded Novy Peterburg amid the raucous Russian media scene that emerged in the final years of the Soviet Union.
"The newspaper where he worked was in part very good and conducted deep human rights work and investigations," Dmitry Zapolsky, a journalist and former St. Petersburg television personality who served together with Andrushchenko on the city council, told RFE/RL.
Zapolsky added, however, that Novy Peterburg was a very "murky project." He noted longstanding rumors that it was funded by Yury Shutov, a former St. Petersburg politician and reputed gangster who died in prison in 2014 while serving a life sentence after being convicted of ordering the murders of businessmen.
Novy Peterburg’s editors previously denied financing by Shutov, who also published articles in the newspaper. Andrushchenko made no secret of his association with Shutov, however.
Law-enforcement officials suggested the two conspired against them. A senior St. Petersburg police official in 2007 suggested that Shutov and Andrushchenko were behind alleged machinations aimed at fomenting discord between federal and local authorities, Fontanka.ru reported at the time.
Aleksandr Skobov, a Soviet-era dissident and Russian opposition activist, told RFE/RL that while Andrushchenko was his "ideological and political opponent," he respected his criticism of authorities.
"He tried to root out their crimes, and for that reason he gave authorities reasons not to like him," Skobov said, adding that he believes Andrushchenko was attacked in connection with his journalism and his public activism.
'Maybe I Went Overboard A Bit'
Throughout the 2000s, Andrushchenko continued to publish in the newspaper, which suffered financial difficulties and was temporarily shut down by authorities in 2007 after it received two official warnings for articles allegedly containing extremist content.
One of those warnings was for a 2007 article written by Andrushchenko about why he was attending an opposition protest. Around the same time he was arrested and charged with libel and pressuring officers of the court with his tendentious articles.
That incident made him a minor cause celebre in opposition circles at the time, triggering at least one protest reportedly attended by around 100 people.
Andrushchenko, who peppered his often hyperbolic prose with exclamation marks and words in all-caps, played very loose with his facts, Zapolsky told RFE/RL, adding that he did not believe the journalist intended any harm with his approach to reporting.
"I would never say that he lied or that he wasn't an honest person. He was an honest person, and he really believed that he was a human rights defender and an investigator," Zapolsky said. "But from the standpoint of journalism and commitment to the truth, the quality of his work was rather low."
He was fined and released in 2009 after being found guilty of publicly insulting two prosecutors and stoking social discord. Prosecutors dropped the extremism and libel charges, and he was released from criminal liability because the statute of limitations had expired.
The original charges were based on Andrushchenkov’s articles about opposition protests, and about the trial of four men ultimately convicted of murdering a Congolese student. He passionately defended the accused, saying that "we will smite all of those who are killing justice, killing souls, killing faith."
In his final statement to the court, Fontanka.ru reported, Andrushchenko said: "Maybe I went overboard a bit with the sharp words in a polemical fervor, but I was acting in the interests of all citizens."
Andrushchenko claimed he was tortured while in custody, and Usov told RFE/RL that his time in jail took a significant toll on his health and his work. The prominent human rights group Memorial deemed him a political prisoner.
In the years before his death, Andrushchenko gave several interviews in which he offered his recollections of Putin in the 1990s, when he was a city lawmaker and Putin was working for Mayor Anatoly Sobchak.
Speaking to Current Time TV in 2015, he said that the future Russian president could be "frank" while speaking in private. Shortly after the 1991 failed putsch by hard-liners against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Andrushchenko claims Putin told him that now it's time "to make money."
"Money was at the center of his politics right from the start," he told the Russian-language network, run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
No Confidence In Investigation
Usov, the editor in chief of Novy Peterburg, told RFE/RL that he has no confidence authorities will get to the bottom of Andrushchenko's death.
"He was hated [by the authorities], so it's completely pointless to say that someone there might be interested in some kind of investigation," he said.
He added that the newspaper had not been contacted by authorities.
"They should probably talk to someone from our office if they want to get a full picture of what happened. And they haven't done this," Usov said.
Sergei Kapitonov, a spokesman for the Russian Investigative Committee's main branch in St. Petersburg, told RFE/RL that the agency is conducting a probe in connection with Andrushchenko's death. He declined to comment further.
Andrushchenko is survived by a wife, a daughter, and a son, Usov said. He added that the journalist's wife and daughter did not live in St. Petersburg and that Andrushchenko "didn't have much contact" with them.
His wife traveled to St. Petersburg after Andrushchenko was hospitalized, Usov said.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service