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'More Serious Than We Imagined': Russian Journalist Flees After Feces, Fumes, And Fire Incidents

Yulia Latynina has long been demonized by hard-line Kremlin loyalists as an enemy of Russia.
Yulia Latynina has long been demonized by hard-line Kremlin loyalists as an enemy of Russia.

Russian journalist Yulia Latynina was walking to work in central Moscow last year when she saw the man in the motorcycle helmet waiting for her.

She scrambled backward as he rushed toward her but couldn't escape the canister he threw at her and its putrid contents. Latynina, covered in feces, ran after the assailant as he sprinted across the road, where another man wearing a helmet was waiting for him on a motorcycle. After they sped off, she tried in vain to catch a car to give chase.

"You can understand them, right?" Latynina, a biting critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, told listeners of her radio show the same day of the August 2016 incident. "A woman covered from head to toe in crap wants to hop in your taxi. It would take two hours for [the driver] to clean the taxi."

Police looked into incident, which a radical nationalist group implicated in attacks on Kremlin critics hinted it had carried out, but the probe went nowhere.

Latynina publicly made light of the feces attack. But after two more recent incidents, including an alleged arson attack on her car, she has left Russia, citing security concerns for her and her elderly parents.

"It became clear that the situation is a lot more serious than we imagined," Latynina said in an interview this week with Current Time, the Russian-language TV network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

"I reiterate: not in the sense that someone has put a hit out on me, but rather because the people who do these things are absolute nut jobs and I don't know what's going on inside their heads," she said from a location she declined to disclose.

Noxious Fumes

Latynina, who hosts a weekly political-commentary show on the opposition-minded Ekho Moskvy radio station, writes sci-fi novels, and is a regular contributor to the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, has long been demonized by hard-line Kremlin loyalists as an enemy of Russia.

A wry and often searing observer of Putin and his circle of ruling elites, she is also a polarizing figure in Russian liberal circles, including over her backing of strict immigration policies, opposition to efforts to combat climate change, and criticism of rights groups she accuses of coddling terrorists.

Novaya Gazeta said after the feces attack that Latynina had "regularly" received threats and that "several years ago" a planned attack on her had been thwarted.

In March 2015, she left Russia temporarily amid reports that she was on a rumored "kill list" that included prominent Kremlin critics. She said in an interview with Ekho Moskvy at the time that she fled after noticing she was being followed on the street.

The circumstances surrounding her recent departure began in July, when she said that unknown assailants sprayed an unidentified substance around her home west of Moscow that resulted in noxious fumes wafting throughout the property.

Latynina's parents were home at the time, and her mother said in a radio interview that the fumes gave off an "unbelievable smell" and made her feel as if she were suffocating. Two neighbor children also suffered nausea and diarrhea due to the fumes, her mother said.

Latynina told Current Time that she had learned that the substance was a "nonlethal combat substance" that is not even available to police. "A very limited group of people has access to this," she said.

As with the feces attack, police said they were looking into the matter but offered few details other than to say that the substance sprayed around Latynina's home was not dangerous.

Latynina said after the noxious-gas incident that she would not file a report with police. "I don't intend to participate in this comedy," she wrote.

She told Current Time this week, however, that she believes her parents and neighbors did go to police "because they were absolutely furious."

"The mice in the house died off, the children had diarrhea. Overall, there were tons of unpleasant things. I suffered less than anyone," she said.

'We Were Very Lucky'

It was at the same home west of Moscow that Latynina's car went up in flames on the morning of September 3. Both she and her mother initially believed that the fire might have resulted from the noxious, possibly flammable, substance left over from the July incident.

But Latynina told Current Time that an investigator from the emergency services concluded there were three starting points for the blaze. As with the previous two incidents, police said they were conducting a probe and would decide later whether to open an investigation.

Latynina, who said she was not in Russia at the time of the incident, said she did not know whether someone set the fire or whether a small explosive device went off. She added that the fire could have erupted when someone was in the car.

The Russian Journalists Union has said it considers the incident not merely an act of "hooliganism and intimidation," but rather "a direct threat to her health and life."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), meanwhile, called on the Russian authorities on September 11 to "identify and prosecute" those responsible for the "attacks" on Latynina and her family "and to ensure the journalist can live and work safely in Russia."

Latynina told Current Time that her decision to leave Russia was motivated primarily by concern for her parents' safety and that she did not know when she'll return. "I can't risk my parents' lives, because I understand very well that there were several bad possibilities in such a situation," she said. "We were very lucky."

Regarding the feces attack in August 2016, Latynina said she ultimately received a reply to her police complaint. She summed up the response as: "The actions of those who splattered me with crap were not criminal in nature, and for that reason there's no sense in looking for them."

Moscow city police did not immediately respond to RFE/RL's request for comment on September 12.

In the wake of large-scale antigovernment street protests across Russia earlier this year that triggered mass detentions, Latynina joked that demonstrators could learn from her experience.

"They can splatter Russian riot police with crap, because it's not a crime," she said.

With reporting by Current Time and RFE/RL's Russian Service
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.