MOSCOW -- The jailing earlier this year of a former Defense Ministry official was held up as proof that no one was untouchable -- that no one could escape the long arm of the Russian law.
But after Yevgenia Vasilyeva was reportedly spotted in an upscale Moscow neighborhood, followed by a fruitless effort to determine her whereabouts, lawmakers have run with the idea that a "double" could be serving her sentence and are scrambling to slam the door on the reputed practice.
After a months-long trial, Vasilyeva was sentenced in May to five years in prison for embezzlement, sealing her spectacular fall from grace as director of a huge Defense Ministry property company.
The tough sentence for the glamorous 36-year-old, whose case has been broadcast in juicy tabloid detail across the country, was taken as a powerful signal that the authorities were committed to going after corrupt officials.
That is, until last week, when Vasilyeva was reportedly spotted entering a bank in Moscow's upscale Patriarch's Ponds neighborhood, where Mikhail Bulgakov's novel Master And Margarita begins.
Her lawyer Hasan-Ali Borokov dismissed the July 30 report by RAPSI, the legal news wing of the state news agency RIA Novosti, as "nonsense." But his words could not dispel speculation that Vasilyeva was not where she was supposed to be -- behind bars.
An unofficial search ensued, but no one was able to verify Vasilyeva's whereabouts after days of hunting.
Her lawyer Borokov failed to provide clarity, saying only that Vasilyeva was "where the court determined" and that "everything is being done in line with the law."
That led Anton Tsvetkov, a member of the Kremlin advisory body known as the Public Chamber, to demand on July 31 that the Federal Prison Service (FSIN) reveal Vasilyeva's location. But Tsvetkov told the Interfax news agency that, as of the end of August 3, he had received no answer.
Regional workers with the Public Monitoring Commission then took things into their own hands, and on August 4 combed the penal colony for women in Vladimir Oblast where she was believed to have been sent.
But their extensive search turned up nothing, according to Gazeta.ru.
"We went through the entire colony," the commission's Irina Kitayeva was quoted as saying. "We visited the quarantine and all the other departments, but we did not find the prisoner. The colony director declined to say where Vasilyeva was."
The regional prosecutor's office added to the mystery by telling Gazeta.ru that Vasilyeva had never been sent to the colony at all. And the news website reported that its sources within the FSIN had said she was also not in pretrial detention, where she presumably would have been held prior to being sent to the penal colony.
Writing on Twitter, Pavel Chikov, a rights worker for the Agora organization, suggested that Vasilyeva must still be in Pechatniki, the Moscow pretrial detention center, because her sentence had not officially entered force.
The Federal Prison Service itself told the Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid only that Vasilyeva was, in fact, in a detention facility in Russia. But it declined to say where, citing data-protection laws, prompting members of the Public Monitoring Commission to contend that the service was legally obliged to inform them of prisoners' movements.
Russia's prison authorities are deeply secretive, and the Soviet-era process of transferring inmates between facilities is a notoriously long and covert procedure.
Even considering the FSIN's secrecy as a given, the continuing and fruitless search for Vasilyeva has led outside observers to reach their own conclusions.
"The FSIN's silence says only thing -- that Vasiliyeva is not in jail," lawyer Oksana Mikhalkin told the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper on August 4.
Discussion quickly turned to speculation that Vasilyeva was not in prison at all -- perhaps was not in the country even -- and that a "double" might be serving her sentence.
Vasilyeva's disappearance has caused an especially large stir for a public that has been drip-fed juicy tidbits of the case against her since its spectacular beginnings.
In October 2012, police raided Vasilyeva's luxury apartment in Moscow at dawn to find her with her apparent lover -- Anatoly Serdyukov, the then-Russian defense minister.
Police seized a large stash of diamonds and jewelry at her home in a corruption scandal that would cost Serdyukov his job and reputation, and ultimately see Vasilyeva convicted and sentenced to prison in May.
Well aware of the public interest in the case, and the outcry and speculation relating to Vasilyeva's disappearance, some politicians decided to cash in on the situation in an apparent attempt to burnish their image.
On August 4, a group of lawmakers with the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) called for a clampdown on the reputed practice of criminals paying or coercing lookalikes to serve out their jail sentences.
"Recently [these kinds of events] have had resonance because well-known people with status have been drawn to the public's attention, people like Yevgeniya Vasilyeva," LDPR lawmaker Yaroslav Nilov told the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia on August 4.
And it is not only the criminals that the LDPR wants to go after. Nilov and two other LDPR deputies of the State Duma told Izvestia that they also want to raise jail terms for prison officials or police officers who act as accomplices to criminals who use "doubles."
"It's clear that if a swap [of convicts] happens, then the public will not remain indifferent," Nilov said. "These kinds of machinations do considerable damage to the authority of the authorities, the authority of justice."
Wouldn't Be The First
Several cases involving the swapping of prison identities have made it into the media in recent years.
In 2009, Dmitry Bazhenov, a jailed fraudster, escaped SIZO Detention Center Number 4 on July 24 by pretending to be his cellmate, who was due for release that day. His cellmate remained in the prison, claiming to be Bazhenov, until he was discovered by prison authorities weeks later.
And in the region of Altai, in 2012, police officer Sergei Orgunov reportedly found a local resident of the Kosh-Agachsky village to serve out a 15-day administrative sentence that had been handed down to his brother.
The regional prosecutor, however, uncovered the ruse, firing Orgunov and pursuing disciplinary action against four other officers for turning a blind eye.