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In Lavish Wedding Photos, Clues To An Alleged Russian Cyberthief's FSB Family Ties


The U.S. State Department has issued a $5 million reward for Yakubets' arrest -- the largest-ever reward for a cybercrime suspect. 

He's been named by the United States and Britain as being the leader of a Russian gang that committed some of the largest cyberthefts in history, an organization known as Evil Corp.

Moreover, U.S. authorities allege that at the same time as he was running Evil Corp, Maksim Yakubets was also working for Russia's main intelligence and security agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB).

There was already virtually no chance that Russia would consider turning over Yakubets to face prosecution. U.S. authorities have arrested more than a dozen Russians around the world in recent years on suspicion of hacking and other cybercrimes, and Moscow has accused the United States of "hunting" Russian citizens -- a claim Washington denies.

But there's another reason why Yakubets is unlikely to ever see the inside of a courtroom in the United States or Britain.

According to evidence discovered by RFE/RL's Russian Service, Yakubets' father-in-law is a former officer with an elite special-forces unit of the FSB.

The discovery, detailed in photographs, videos, and other documents, adds another element to the case against Yakubets. Additionally, it could bolster the long-standing belief among Western intelligence agencies that the Russian government has actively protected hackers and cybercrime suspects wanted abroad -- and in some cases, co-opted them into hacking on its behalf.

In the indictment unveiled on December 5 in Washington, D.C., U.S. authorities charged that Evil Corp used malware known broadly as Dridex to siphon off tens of millions of dollars from people around the world since at least 2011.

The Justice Department also charged that Yakubets "provides direct assistance to the Russian government's malicious cyberefforts, highlighting the Russian government's enlistment of cybercriminals for its own malicious purposes."

According to the U.S. government, Yakubets had worked for the FSB since 2017, including on government projects such as "acquiring confidential documents through cyber-enabled means and conducting cyber-enabled operations on its behalf."

As of April 2018, he was working to gain authorization to access classified information from the FSB, according to U.S. authorities.

The previous summer, Yakubets further deepened his connections to the FSB when he and a woman named Alyona Benderskaya were married at a lavish ceremony held at a golf club just north of Moscow.

In materials published on its website, a Moscow-based wedding-planning service called Karamel described the plans for the event as stipulated by "Alyona and Maksim."

"She saw her wedding exclusively as a classic, luxurious peony. He, on the contrary, saw it as only modern and technologically advanced," the company wrote.

A scene from "Alyona and Maksim's wedding"
A scene from "Alyona and Maksim's wedding"

Videos featuring highlights from the wedding were published by the production agency responsible for it in January 2018, as well as on the Vimeo video channel belonging to Karamel the previous month.

The videos show much of the setting for the event, which apparently included live performances by the famous Russian pop singer Leonid Agutin, among others.

The video also shows what appears to be Benderskaya posing for the camera, wearing an expensive wedding dress and carrying a bouquet of flowers. Yakubets, however, is never shown from the front, only from behind. His face is not visible.

RFE/RL was unable to contact Benderskaya for comment. No one answered the phone number listed on nearly all of the company registry documents that RFE/RL was able to locate.

Many of the videos and photographs reviewed by RFE/RL were removed from public view in the days prior to RFE/RL's publication of its story. Some videos, however, remain online.

According to Britain's National Crime Agency, Yakubets has owned a customized Lamborghini sports car with a personalized Russian license plate that translates as "thief," and he spent more than $330,000 on his wedding.

The U.S. State Department has issued a $5 million reward for Yakubets' arrest -- the largest-ever reward for a cybercrime suspect.

Corporate Trail

Russian corporate registries show that Benderskaya is the owner of a chain of Moscow stores selling Italian luxury clothing called Plein Sport.

On one of the company's social-media accounts, several photographs, which have since been removed, show Benderskaya seated in the front seat of a Lamborghini. Another, from May 2018, shows a Nissan GT-R, a high-end sports car, that is covered with the logos of Plein Sport.

The car's license-plate number was previously registered to another high-end sports car, а blue Audi R8. Yakubets' company, Evil Corp, had two Audi R8 cars registered to it, one of which is the same color as the one whose license plate is shown on the Plein Sport Nissan.

Alyona Benderskaya behind the wheel of a Lamboghini
Alyona Benderskaya behind the wheel of a Lamboghini

Corporate documents also show Benderskaya is a founder of several companies called Vympel-Aktiv and Vympel-Protekt, which are linked to another group called Vympel Group Association.

Formally known as Directorate V of the FSB Special Purpose Center, Vympel is one of the agency's elite special-forces units, known mainly for counterterrorism operations and, during the Soviet period, for foreign sabotage operations.

Corporate records also show Benderskaya serves on a committee for the Vympel charitable foundation, which supports veterans of the unit and sponsors sporting and cultural events for youth.

The head of the foundation is Benderskaya's father, Eduard, who served in Vympel in the early 1990s, before retiring in 1994 and founding a private security company called Vympel-A, according to an official biography published on the charitable foundation's website.

Eduard Bendersky features briefly in the wedding video, shown seated and applauding, apparently at some point during the ceremony. Another portion of the video shows a man resembling Bendersky escorting Alyona toward the cupola for her to say her wedding vows.

Eduard Bendersky (far right) is shown applauding at the wedding of his daughter, Alyona, to Maksim Yakubets, whom U.S. prosecutors accuse of a massive cybertheft.
Eduard Bendersky (far right) is shown applauding at the wedding of his daughter, Alyona, to Maksim Yakubets, whom U.S. prosecutors accuse of a massive cybertheft.

Bendersky has gained notoriety in the past as a big-game hunter, and in particular for hunting animals officially listed as endangered or threatened in Russia. He is listed as president of an organization called the Mountain Hunters Club.

In September 2016, about six months before his daughter's wedding, Bendersky asked a top government official for permission to shoot five mountain sheep known variously as Siberian long-horned, snow, or putorana sheep. According to news reports, Bendersky pledged to pay as much as 15 million rubles ($235,000) in exchange for the right to hunt the sheep.

Scientists and environmental advocates were outraged by the proposal, saying it violated federal law.

Eduard Bendersky (left) in 2012, (top right) on a Russian TV program Wild TV, and in the wedding video
Eduard Bendersky (left) in 2012, (top right) on a Russian TV program Wild TV, and in the wedding video

Mercenary Services

Bendersky's name also surfaced in a Russian news report from 2017 that said his company, Vympel-A, was involved in providing security for Iraqi facilities operated by the Russian oil company LUKoil.

Bendersky later became president of an organization called the Russian-Iraqi Business Council.

Written by Mike Eckel based on reporting by Sergei Dobrynin and Mark Krutov of RFE/RL's Russian Service
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