Suicides or assassinations? Investigation into the mysterious deaths of Russian oligarchs

 Suicides or assassinations?  Investigation into the mysterious deaths of Russian oligarchs

In a few weeks, six Russian businessmen would have committed suicide, some after having massacred their family… But, to explain this strange black series, the trail of political assassinations is in everyone’s head.

This April 19, from the Bordeaux house where he usually resides with his family, a young man telephones the Spanish police. Fedor Protosenya is worried. He can no longer reach his father Sergey, his mother Natalya and his 18-year-old sister Maria, all three of whom have left for the Easter holidays in their villa in Lhoret de Mar in Catalonia. The police went there and discovered Sergey Protosenya, 55, former director of Novatek, the second Russian gas juggernaut after Gazprom, hanging from a tree in the garden. The lifeless bodies of the woman and her daughter are found in the villa, riddled with stab wounds. The first elements of the investigation lead the Spanish investigators on the trail of a double assassination, followed by a suicide. Some details, however, are disturbing: there is no trace of blood on the body of the Russian oligarch while the crime scene is carnage.

Read also: War in Ukraine: the hunt for Russian oligarchs

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Blood-stained socks were discovered in the mother’s room: they may have served as gloves for the killer(s) so as not to leave any fingerprints on the bloody knives and ax found on the spot. Collapsed, the young Fedor, the only survivor of the family, spoke in the British newspaper Daily Mail: “My father is not a killer, he declared. He could never hurt his family, he loved my mother and especially Maria, my sister. I don’t know what happened that night, but I know my father didn’t hurt them. “Never would Fedor’s father have done such a thing, Maria was his ‘princess’”, confirms a friend of the family who prefers to remain anonymous for fear of ‘reprisals’. Sergey Protosenya, at the head of a fortune estimated at 400 million euros, did he murder his wife and daughter before hanging himself? Or were all three killed before their killers covered up the crime? Two days after the discovery of the bodies, the gas giant Novatek, the country’s leading private player, which Sergey Protosenya managed between 1997 and 2015, issued a terse statement: “Sergey was an exceptional person and a wonderful father of family. Unfortunately, speculations have emerged in the media, but we are convinced that they bear no relation to reality. The firm targeted by economic sanctions since the start of the war in Ukraine does not believe in the hypothesis of external murder.

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Sergey Protosenya, his wife, and their two children. Fedor, his son, on the left, is the only survivor of the massacre.

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The violent and suspicious disappearance of the family of this wealthy Russian businessman, however, reminds us of another occurrence… the day before. And under very similar circumstances. On April 18, the lifeless body of oligarch Vladislav Avayev, 51, was found in his luxurious Moscow apartment next to that of his wife Yelena, 47, and daughter Maria, 13, riddled with bullet holes . Former vice-president of Gazprombank, the financial branch of the giant Gazprom, ex-high official of Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin and the Duma, the banker would have, according to the official version, killed his family with his personal weapon before committing suicide. The apartment was also closed from the inside, assure the Russian investigators. The local newspapers are lost in conjectures to explain this gesture: some say that the businessman had just learned that his wife was pregnant… from his own driver. Others say he had been bankrupt since Western sanctions.

Vladislav Avayev

Vladislav Avayev

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A neighbor of Vladislav Avayev, quoted by the New York Times, does not believe these theories: “He was a rich and intelligent man, he had no reason to do that. They were probably killed. Igor Volobuev, vice-president of Gazprombank and of Ukrainian origin, chose to leave Russia to go into exile in Ukraine and fight. In an interview given to the Insider media, he too rejected the idea of ​​his ex-colleague’s suicide: “It’s a staged suicide”. “It looks like intimidation,” suggests Russian historian Galina Akerman. As if we wanted to make an example. The FSB knows how to disguise a crime as suicide. But here, it looks more like mafia murders. A revenge, a settling of accounts. The victims may have collaborated with foreign services, they may have betrayed or were steeped in the transmission of sensitive information. »

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Vasily Melnikov

Vasily Melnikov

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If these tragedies were not commissioned from outside, their concomitance does not fail to surprise. Two oligarchs who made their fortunes in energy in Russia would therefore have massacred their families before deleting themselves, a day apart. “There are no coincidences, only meetings”, wrote Paul Eluard. As war drags on in Ukraine, as Western sanctions darken Russia’s economic future, tensions are brewing in the Moscow and St. Petersburg oligarchy, eager to show loyalty and patriotism, and at the same , crushed by increasingly severe Western retaliatory measures; nearly 30 billion euros in assets of oligarchs have been seized on the territory of the European Union since the first day of the Russian invasion on February 24; in this context, certain key figures in the Russian economy seem to have succumbed to an epidemic of fatal encounters.

On March 24, barely a month before the strange deaths of Sergey Protosenya and Vladislav Avayev with their family, the body of 43-year-old billionaire Vassily Melnikov was found at his home in Nizhny Novgorod, halfway between Moscow and Kazan. His wife and two children aged 4 and 10 are lying beside him. They were stabbed with knives. The brilliant forties headed the pharmaceutical firm MedStom, which supplies equipment to private clinics. Once again, the Russian police favor the track of the triple murder followed by a suicide. In the Russian daily Kommersant, the neighbors and relatives interviewed do not believe this thesis and speak of a united, exemplary family.

Leonid Shulman

Leonid Shulman

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The “suicide” epidemic among Russian businessmen began a month before the invasion of Ukraine. On January 30, Leonid Shulman, 60, head of the transport department of the Gazprom company, was found in the bathroom of his luxurious apartment in the Leninskoye district in the Saint-Petersburg region; at his side, a farewell letter. On February 25, the day after the invasion, Alexander Tyulyakov, 61, deputy director of the Gazprom treasury, still her, was found hanged by his companion in the garage of his house in the same district of Leninskoye where many large caps of the gas giant.

Alexander Tyulyakov

Alexander Tyulyakov

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Before suspending its publication on March 28 “until the end of the conflict in Ukraine”, the last independent Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, described in an article on this “suicide” a grotesque scene: while the police and the services of forensic medicine were working around the body of Alexander Tyulyakov, three large cars, SUV’s, arrived at full speed: it was the Gazprom security service. The big guns of the company arrived like a horde of enraged cowboys and kicked everyone out, journalists, medical examiners and… police.

Three days after the death of Alexander Tyulyakov, another oligarch is found hanged in his garage. This time it is Mikhail Watford (born Tolstosheya), a wealthy Russian of Ukrainian origin who made his fortune in gas, oil and then real estate in Great Britain. His gardener found him hanged in his mansion in Surrey. The British police described his death as “inexplicable” and have not yet validated the thesis of suicide.

Mikhail Watford

Mikhail Watford

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In the six “suicides” listed by News Week magazine since the beginning of the year, some may be genuine, but the recurrence with which this wave hits the top leaders of Gazprom is striking. If some of these suicides are disguised crimes, it remains to be seen who the assassins are and why they killed: “About the deaths in Russia, we will never know anything, but the Spanish police may be able to explain the death of Sergey Protosenya, his wife and his daughter other than by the thesis of suicide. And if so, it will be a strong signal. Russia has a very long tradition of targeted assassinations. But in the past, she killed differently. Finally, what is done today is more effective than the poisonings that often fail. But until then, we did not touch the families. What Russia is doing right now is beyond imagination. »