It's a twisted tale (in more ways than one) and a bit complicated, so bear with me.
Let's begin with the present. In an open letter published on June 13, Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of the opposition newspaper "Novaya gazeta," alleged that Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin personally threatened the life of his deputy editor, Sergei Sokolov. (Read RFE/RL's Russian Service's interview with Muratov here and the news story here)
According to Muratov's account, Sokolov and Bastrykin got into an argument over "Novaya gazeta's" coverage during a trip the two took to Nalchik, capital of the Russian Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, last week. When they returned to Moscow, the Investigative Committee head's security guards forced Sokolov into a car and drove him to a forest outside the capital where Bastrykin was waiting.
"You brutally threatened the life of my deputy editor. You even joked that you would be the one investigating the case [of his murder]," Muratov wrote.
OK. That's pretty creepy. But it gets even worse. What appears to have gotten Bastrykin so upset was Sokolov's coverage of how he handled the investigation into a ghastly mass murder in the town of Kushchevskaya in Krasnodar Krai in November 2010.
In the Kushchevskaya massacre, 12 people -- including four children -- were brutally slain at a farmer's home at the hands of a politically connected local organized crime gang (you can read my blog post on it -- titled "The Criminal Vertical" -- here).
The group's ringleader, Sergei Tsapok, was head of an agricultural holding company that had been pressuring farmers to turn over their land. Server Ametov, the farmer who was killed along with his family and house guests, had refused.
Tsapok, who had long terrorized the town, had previously been shielded from prosecution due to his close ties with local police, prosecutors, and politicians. One of these contacts was Sergei Tsepovyaz, a local legislator from the ruling United Russia party. Another was Aleksandr Khodych, who headed the antiextremism department in the regional Interior Ministry.
On May 31, a Krasnodar court found Tsepovyaz guilty of assisting in covering up the massacre, but he got no jail time. He was fined a shockingly low 150,000 rubles ($4,570). Prosecutors had not even asked for any prison time.
In a June 4 article in "Novaya gazeta" headlined "A Little More Than 10,000 Rubles Per Life: That's the State's Price List," Sokolov harshly criticized the decision and the ruling United Russia party -- and implicitly accused Bastrykin of protecting Tsepovyaz.
"[United Russia] is not the party of swindlers and thieves," he wrote. "It is the party of thieves and gangsters," he concluded. "Now it's obvious. Either the bandits, the cops, and the prosecutors just wipe their feet on everybody or this was a cover-up."
The next day, according to Muratov's account, Bastrykin invited Sokolov to Nalchik under the pretext of a security conference.
The tabloid website Lifenews.ru, which is rumored to have ties to the security services, published what it says is an audio recording and transcript of Bastrykin's argument over the article. "In Tsarist times this would be cause for a duel," Bastrykin said, according to the recording.
Upon returning to Moscow, Sokolov was taken out to the woods where Bastrykin was waiting. Sokolov has since left the country, according to Muratov.
What to make of all this? My first reaction was that the crackdown is getting downright macabre.
Searching the apartments of opposition figures is one thing. Hauling a leading journalist out to the woods to have his life threatened by one of the country's top law enforcement officials is something else entirely. (Especially a journalist from "Novaya gazeta," which has seen several of its reporters killed in recent years, most famously Anna Politkovskaya.)
My second reaction was to wonder why Bastrykin would do this himself. It's pretty odd behavior for an official of his rank. Usually such tasks as intimidating troubling journalists are carried out by underlings. Was he acting with any kind of official sanction? Or was he going rogue? It's all pretty unclear.
And finally, the fact that Lifenews.ru posted the purported recording of Bastrykin's argument with Sokolov in Nalchik online suggests that some kind of power struggle is going on inside the security services.
Russian state-run Rossia-24 news channel, meanwhile, has been reporting Muratov and "Novaya gazeta's" account of the story throughout the day without comment from Bastrykin or the Investigative Committee. Is another siloviki war on the horizon? Is Bastrykin on the way out?
We're sure to get more signals about what is behind this very strange story in the coming days.
-- Brian Whitmore