From the time Eduard Shmonin was a young man, he always wanted to be a gangster.
But disillusionment with Russia's criminal world came quickly for the Sverdlovsk region native after he served two years in prison for burglary in the 1990s. Shmonin, now 50, instead decided to get into journalism -- a profession that he quickly determined was inextricable from local battles over money, resources, and influence.
The business model he adopted involved digging up dirt on officials and industry players -- and then publishing it or withholding it, depending on the bidder.
“I understood at the time that the job of a journalist is to get paid for what he doesn’t write,” Shmonin told RFE/RL’s Russian Service, known locally as Radio Svoboda, last year.
Now prosecutors have asked a court to sentence Shmonin to 11 years in prison on charges of blackmail and distributing pornography -- allegations linked to media operations he ran in Russia’s oil-rich Khanti-Mansi Autonomous District in western Siberia.
A verdict in Shmonin’s trial in Surgut, in western Siberia, which has been closed to the public, is expected next week.
And while Shmonin has never denied trafficking in "kompromat," or compromising information, he believes he was targeted for an entirely different reason: a documentary he released exposing evidence of massive oil theft in the Khanti-Mansi region with the complicity of corrupt law enforcement officials.
An archive of materials gathered by Shmonin for the exposé and a planned sequel that never aired served as a pillar of an independent investigation by Radio Svoboda in March exposing the central role that Federal Security Service (FSB) and Interior Ministry officials play in the industrial-scale theft of oil from Russia’s network of pipelines.
Radio Svoboda was able to independently corroborate numerous details of this illicit business, which, according to a 2013 estimate by state-owned investment bank VTB Capital, costs Russian oil companies $1.8 billion to $3.5 billion annually and the Russian budget $632 million to $1.2 billion.
Shmonin released his documentary, Criminal Oil, in November 2016 and was arrested the following April on not only the blackmail and pornography charges, but also for suspected libel based on a complaint by four individuals mentioned in the film -- all of whom worked in security for a subsidiary of Rosneft, the state oil giant whose CEO, Igor Sechin, is a close ally of President Vladimir Putin.
One of the plaintiffs was a retired FSB general, and the other was a former FSB officer who has since been arrested and charged with oil theft.
Shmonin was held for nearly a year in pretrial detention, while his muckraking website and his TV channel, Yugra Public Television, ceased operations. He claims that, during his detention, he was tortured by FSB officers who tried to force him to reveal who financed the Criminal Oil documentary.
“They said, ‘You have three options to get out of here: You can be carried out of here feet first; you can eat the charges, we’ll release you on bail, and you leave the country; or you reveal who is behind you and we will classify you as a witness,’” Shmonin told Radio Svoboda, adding that he told investigators the documentary was made on his own initiative.
Shmonin claimed his interrogators then wrapped a plastic bag over his head and tased him, though Radio Svoboda was unable to independently corroborate his torture claims. The FSB did not respond to requests for comment sent in March.
A funny thing happened on the way to the verdict in Shmonin’s case: A trove of evidence went missing or was damaged, including hard drives, computers, mobile phones, and flash drives that authorities had confiscated. And the libel charges related to his Criminal Oil documentary were ultimately dropped.
Of the 13 original charges Shmonin faced, only two remain: blackmail and illegal distribution of pornography.
The blackmail charge relates to Shmonin’s alleged demand for money from Yevgeny Vostrikov, a lawmaker in the Khanti-Mansi city of Nefteyugansk, in exchange for withholding release of a film in which he was accused, among other things, of domestic abuse and trafficking in drugs. (Many of these allegations had already appeared on Shmonin’s websites prior to the film’s eventual release.)
The pornography charge relates to a secretly recorded video showing a sexual encounter between a lawmaker in the city of Nizhnevartovsk and another man. Shmonin has denied releasing the video.
He insists that the evidence that went missing in his case includes alibis that would exonerate him.
All of these developments have taken place behind closed doors. The trial was closed to the public, formally because of the intimate nature of the video related to the pornography charge.
Shmonin, who has been out on bail since 2018 pending a verdict in the trial, is barred by law from discussing the case with the media.
Meanwhile, the trial of Roman Chernogor -- the former FSB officer who filed a libel complaint against Shmonin over his Criminal Oil film -- continues.
Chernogor has been charged with illegally tapping into oil pipelines. His co-defendant, former FSB officer Vladimir Chernakov, was also implicated in oil-theft schemes in Shmonin’s film.