In three months, four top managers closely associated with Russia’s largest gas company, Gazprom, have died. They died atrociously, often together with their families. This ‘curse’ also affects businessmen from non-oil circles. Is it an unbelievable coincidence of fatal accidents or is there a plan to eliminate people adverse to the regime? This is not a new trend: already in 2017, the US newspaper USA Today published an investigation, according to which at least 38 oligarchs had died or disappeared in the last three years, but since the war in Ukraine began, the situation has become much worse.
This is yet another fact that makes us think that the invasion ordered by Putin is just one chapter in a long-term strategy – a strategy that, according to the philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky, has its motivations in the frustration of the war in Afghanistan and the implosion of the Soviet Union, and is justified by comparing it to the impunity enjoyed by Western countries in the specious and criminal invasion of Iraq. An invasion that shows several specular features of the US foreign policy actions of the past 80 years: war abroad to compact domestic public opinion with a campaign against defeatism and anti-patriotism; war abroad to blind those who begin to believe that domestic problems are unsolvable due to the regime’s incapacity; war abroad to make people believe that democracy is a weakness and only dictatorships are able to effectively run the world. Let us not forget that even the European Union has seen some of its most powerful businessmen die in at least dubious circumstances, starting with the founder of ENI, Enrico Mattei, killed because he dared to break the American monopoly on the global oil trade.
The mysterious Leninskiy suicides
Alexey Miller’s property in Leninskiy, St. Petersburg
On 30 January 2022, police officers and the Investigative Committee went to the village Leninskiy, in the St. Petersburg region, for an apparent suicide. The body of Leonid Shulman, 60, head of the transport service of Gazprom Invest, was found in the bathroom of his home. There is a lot of blood and a knife. Next to the body is a note saying that Shulman did not want to be a burden on his family, especially after breaking his leg during the New Year holiday. The motivation of a man who has the money to pay for the best care in the world seems extremely dubious. The cornucopia of gossip proposes another motive: Gazprom’s internal security service is conducting an audit of its subsidiary’s transport department, and who knows what it will have discovered.
Shulman lives in Leninskiy, 35 km from St Petersburg. Until 1940 the village belonged to Finland and was called Haapala. In 2010, Mikhail Miller, then 14 years old (now head of Gazprom), bought the 40,000 square metres of land in the beautiful pine forest, which is now worth at least 200 million roubles. A village of huge, luxurious villas stands there. In 2019, the powerful arrive: Alexander Dyukov (head of Gazprom Neft, a half-billion-dollar fortune), Yuriy Gorokha (deputy head of the Gazprom board of directors), Pavel Nikolayev (who became a Gazprim leader at the same time as Miller), Sergey Kupriyanov (spokesman of the state gas monopoly agency), Mikhail Sereda (deputy chairman of the Gazprom and Gazprombank board of directors), Olga Dragomiretskaya (General Director of Gazprombank’s North-Western branch), Anatoliy Marinichev (Deputy General Director of Gazprom Mezhregiongaz), Kirill Seleznev and Alexander Ivannikov (Head of Gazprom’s Economic-Financial Department) have their homes in Leninskiy – they are Gazprom’s key men.
On 25 February 2022, Alexander Tyulyakov, 61 years old, deputy general manager, one day after the invasion of Ukraine, is found dead in his home in the same village of Leninskyi, hanged in the garage of his house. For the police it is a suicide. While the forensic team is at work, a militia team arrives in three jeeps: they are part of Gazprom’s security service, cordon off the area and chase everyone away. The content of Tyulyakov’s posthumous note has not been disclosed. At the same time, witnesses saw militiamen roughing up Tyulyakov shortly before his death. This lead will be considered irrelevant, the investigation will be closed within 24 hours: suicide.
The massacres of entire families
Sergey Protasenya’s family
On 23 March 2022, billionaire Vasily Melnikov was found dead in his home in Nizhniy Novgorod by his children’s nanny: the oligarch, as well as his wife Galina and two children aged 10 and 4, had been stabbed. According to the police, Melnikov first butchered the family in their sleep, and then took his own life. The press points to another possible cause: Melnikov was allegedly killed by a former business partner. In any case, Melnikov knew his murderer: there are no signs of forced entry in the flat.
The oligarch owns a medical equipment company, Medstom, which has suffered significant losses due to Western sanctions. His company has been supplying laboratory equipment and consumables since 2003. In 2007, the company began introducing modern diagnostic systems throughout the Volga Oblast and, since 2010, has been active in equipping PCR laboratories. Its headquarters are located in Nizhny Novgorod, but it has representative offices throughout the Volga region, and in recent years it has started selling to the United States, Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, Latvia and Canada.
On 19 April 2022, in Lloret de Mar, Spain, Sergey Protasenya died: former top manager (2015-2016) and chief accountant (2002-2015) of Novatek (Russia’s second largest natural gas producer, also affected by sanctions and in which Gazprom is a minority shareholder). According to the TV channel Telecinco, Protosenya has assets of $430 million and resides in Bordeaux, and left for Spain with his family for the Easter holidays. In the villa are the lifeless bodies of his wife Natalya and daughter Mariya – murdered by stab wounds in their sleep. The body of the father of the family was found in the garden, strangled. The police believe he killed his wife and daughter and committed suicide.
But the further the investigation goes, the more doubts arise. The women were stabbed in their sleep, but no bloodstains were found on the man. Bloodstained socks were used as makeshift gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints. An axe and a knife were also found at the crime scene. During the search, six BMW, Mercedes, Mustang and Audi cars and at least 10’000. The murder version is supported by the fact that until the end of November 2021 Protosenya was a shareholder of Forbank, whose head, FSB colonel Kirill Cherkalin, was recently sentenced to 7 years in prison. Forbank was stripped of its licence by the Central Bank in 2021 (at the same time, the records of the founders were deleted, including those of Protosenya) . It is possible that the former manager knew something he should have kept quiet.
Protosenya was also until 2010 co-owner of the real estate company Sherwood Premier, which was later sold to Novatek. Protasenya was listed several times in Finance magazine’s annual list of billionaires, with assets of 13.4 billion roubles. The businessman leaves behind his son Fyodor, who is in Bordeaux. He refuses to believe in suicide and points the finger at a personal friend of Putin, Gennadiy Timchenko, co-owner of Novatek. The business relations between Gazprombank and Novatek are obvious: Pyotr Kolbin, a childhood friend of the Russian president (the man who administers Putin’s money), in 2011 ‘earned’ $500 million by selling Novatek a block of shares in Yamal LNG, which he had bought at a ridiculously low price from Gazprombank itself.
Media images of the place where the Avaev family was exterminated
On 19 April 2022, while the Catalan police were dealing with the bodies of the Protosenya family, the Russian press broke the news of the death of Vladislav Avaev, 51, a shareholder of Novatek, deputy chairman of Gazprombank, a Kremlin official, and a former member of the board of directors of the sports club Dinamo Moscow. Avaev was found dead with a gun in his hand in his Moscow flat. His wife Elena and 13-year-old daughter Maria were also killed. Avaev had the gun in his hand and the flat was locked from the inside. The eldest daughter found her family dead when she returned home. Avaev is in business with the daughter of Nikolay Volobuyev, vice-president of Rostec: they produce bone replacement carbon implants, and was deputy director of the Russian government’s Business Management Department.
Vladislav and Elena Avaev’s family has problems, starting with a disabled teenage daughter, over whom the couple went as far as to argue in court. Then it was discovered that Elena was five months pregnant with her former driver, and jealousy drove the banker crazy. According to Igor Volobuyev, the former deputy chairman of Gazprombank, at the time of his death Avaev held the private accounts of many of Russia’s most powerful men, and is the only bank that has been spared international sanctions, because it is the vehicle through which payments from all over the world arrive for Russian hydrocarbons. In this confusion, it is impossible to hope for the truth of this death: murder or suicide.
The other excellent corpses
Vladimir Gabrielyan’s off-road vehicle when it was found
On 1 May 2022, Vladimir Lyakishev, the former co-owner of a chain of coffee shops, died in Moscow – his body was found on the balcony of an apartment building, killed by a gunshot wound to the head. There is talk of suicide, but his wife claims that it was a peaceful and enthusiastic time for him because of a new business project, and that he was curing his long-standing problems with alcohol. Lyakishev has a mistress, his wife is aware of this. The man died after a violent argument with the two women, but the police have not yet been able to reconstruct the last two hours of his life and do not know how he ended up in the flat where he died.
On 9 May, Alexander Subbotin, former top manager of Lukoil, died during a session with a shaman in Mytishchi, near Moscow. The shaman cured him of alcoholism by unconventional means: toad venom, cock’s blood and spirit aid. These shamanic remedies caused him heart problems: during the session he felt ill and the shaman, instead of calling an ambulance, administered a valerian sedative – and Subbotin died. He had been a member of the board of directors of the Lukoil Trading House. His brother Valeriy was vice-president of Lukoil. After leaving the company, Alexander Subbotin headed the New Transport Company in Vysotsk, St Petersburg Oblast.
The trail of death continued. On 6 June, the deputy managing director of VK Vladimir Gabrielyan and a partner died. The managers were on a tourist trip along the White Sea coast in all-terrain vehicles, and died while trying to cross the Bugryanitsa river near the village of Shoina. The vehicles overturned and the current swept them into the sea. Gabrielian’s wife Alyona and a friend who was with them were rescued by two locals. The bodies of Gabrielian and Merzlyakov were found by rescuers several hours later. Vladimir Gabrielyan in VK holds a very sensitive position: dealing with Russian intelligence and IT. But this time, almost certainly, it was really an accident.
Who takes out the Russian oligarchs?
18 December 2019: Secret service agents in action during a shooting at Moscow headquarters
Igor Volobuyev, vice-president of Gazprombank, resigned in March and fled to Ukraine, and is the most influential supporter of the claim that the managers who died this year were executed: “All these stories are strange. I don’t believe in suicides. It doesn’t make sense“. “It is hard to believe that Avaev shot his 13-year-old daughter and his wife and committed suicide. In my opinion, it is a staged suicide. I think he was killed,’ he added, speaking of Protasenya’s death, because he finds it not at all credible that he ‘killed everyone and hanged himself in Lloret de Mar, a small Spanish town with a large population of Russians‘.
Gennadiy Gudkov, a former opposition deputy and retired FSB colonel, believes it is possible that these deaths are a form of settling of scores. He is convinced that there is an operation by Putin to eliminate inconvenient witnesses: ‘It is very important for them (the FSB and the Kremlin) right now not to let too many rats get off the ship, because these rats know a lot of things and could start talking. I was shocked by the coincidence of the details [of Avaev and Protosenya’s deaths]. After all, such a coincidence is a modus operandi, as serial killers call it‘.
Within the FSB, a deep repulse is underway. Sergey Beseda, head of the FSB’s 5th service, has been detained in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison since the beginning of April. The official version is ‘on suspicion of misappropriation of state funds‘. This charge is traditionally brought when Putin supporters fall from favour. Sergey Chubais, the long-time head of Rosnano, has resigned from all posts and emigrated; Andrey Panov, the deputy general director of Aeroflot, has left Russia; Arkadiy Dvorkovich, the former deputy prime minister and president of the International Chess Federation, is the victim of violent retaliation. Gudkov predicts that there will be more cases of ‘suicide’. “We are heading for a quick split of the elites. So far it is a fierce fistfight between clans, engaged in a deadly battle. But there may be more to come,’ he suggested.
Abbas Galliamov, a well-known Russian political scientist, sees signs of a strengthening of the FSB’s role. The security services have allegedly been given carte blanche to shuffle the cards among the oligarchs: ‘Putin has returned to the practice of the early 2000s: he speaks to the people over the heads of the elite. He promises to take away what has been stolen, to fight against contractual agreements and so on. This means his rating is down and the Kremlin has started to panic‘.
Gazprom, war, sanctions
Gazprom blocked most gas supplies to Europe that pass through Ukrainian pipelines
Russia, through Gazprom, has been blackmailing Ukraine with gas supplies for years. This struggle has been going on for at least 20 years. According to Igor Volobuyev, it all started with the Russian economic crisis: the aim was to bind Ukraine to Moscow, blackmailing it with gas deliveries, as had already been done successfully with Belarus. It was part of the war: ‘I have to admit that I participated in these gas wars when I worked at Gazprom. The first gas war was at the turn of 2005-2006, the second in 2008-2009‘. The method is to discredit Ukraine as a reliable supplier in the eyes of Europeans. Gazprom has done much to this end, and the result has been to promote the construction of alternative pipelines to the one currently passing through Kiev: Nord Stream, Turkish Stream, Nord Stream-2.
An extensive and expensive propaganda campaign has tried to prove that the Ukrainian pipeline system is in a perpetual state of emergency, that the pipes are rotten, that it is too expensive to rebuild the system and it is easier to abandon it. In many ways they have succeeded: they have reduced gas transit to the ridiculous figure of $41 billion per year. Many political leaders from different countries have joined the boards of Russian companies: in early February, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder joined the board of Gazprom, but then in May (under pressure from the German government and people) resigned. Matthias Warnig (former STASI officer, friend of Putin, CEO of Nord Stream 2 AG), left the board of Rosneft (where he had been since 2011) together with Schröder (on the board since 2017). The West has finally realised that it has misjudged the Ukrainian pipeline issue – but it is probably too late.
The reaction of the West has been the decision of a massive list of economic sanctions, many of which personally affect Russian billionaires, who react by denouncing the sanctions in the European courts. Among those who intend to demonstrate their distance from Putin before the court are famous men such as Roman Abramovich, Andrey Melnichenko (main shareholder of fertiliser producer EuroChem and coal giant SUEK), Mikhail Fridman (co-founder of the Alfa-Bank group, Russia’s largest bank) and Andrey Konov (former CEO of petrochemical company Sibur Holding). But in recent weeks the petitions have continued to increase.
It is not easy for them to find lawyers willing to fight for their interests: many law firms stopped serving Russian clients after 24 February, and it is credible that the sanctions list will continue to grow. Britain has compiled a ‘target list’ of Russian oligarchs to be prosecuted (they want to seize private jets, boats, shareholdings, business, everything) with over a hundred names. And even if they find a lawyer, the road is long and difficult. Just ask Viktor Yanukovich, who was hit by sanctions in 2014 and has been fighting in court for 8 years, aware that the probability of a positive verdict is statistically very low.
Putin needs oligarchs who will resist and not genuflect before the West. Of businessmen ready to participate economically, politically and publicly in the strategy of military intervention. Of people who will strengthen his position, not publicly weaken it. Anyone who disagrees with him must obviously be removed. Exile is no longer enough.
 https://www.sueddeutsche.de/leben/enrico-mattei-oel-gas-italien-attentat-eni-agip-1.5558260 ; https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9780230606913_5 ; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmU9IqlRXd4
 Dyukov recently became president of the Russian Football Union. He is improving the transport infrastructure in the Leningrad region and owns a minority stake in Sibur; https://47news.ru/articles/161402/ ; https://www.forbes.ru/profile/342801-aleksandr-dyukov
 https://www.woman.ru/news/policiya-usomnilas-v-samoubiistve-russkogo-milliardera-tam-est-russkii-sled-id728423/ ; https://ru.euronews.com/amp/2022/04/28/spain-oligarch-mysterious-death ; https://focus.ua/world/513451-syn-rossiyskogo-oligarha-protoseni-zayavil-chto-ego-semyu-ubili
 https://www.woman.ru/news/izmuchennyi-revnostyu-bankir-ubil-zhenu-doch-i-svel-schety-s-zhiznyu-kogda-uznal-chto-supruga-zaberemenela-ot-voditelya-id727433/ ; https://www.5-tv.ru/news/383790/nedostavajsaze-nikomu-hronika-iversii-ubijstva-semi-krupnogo-biznesmena-vmoskve/
 https://www.5-tv.ru/news/383790/nedostavajsaze-nikomu-hronika-iversii-ubijstva-semi-krupnogo-biznesmena-vmoskve/ ; https://www.woman.ru/news/izmuchennyi-revnostyu-bankir-ubil-zhenu-doch-i-svel-schety-s-zhiznyu-kogda-uznal-chto-supruga-zaberemenela-ot-voditelya-id727433/
 https://www.liga.net/ua/politics/interview/ya-uchastvoval-v-voyne-istoriya-vitse-prezidenta-gazprombanka-kotoryy-sbejal-iz-rossii ; https://www.sibreal.org/a/ispolnitelnyy-direktor-ushel-iz-gazprombanka/31783579.html ; https://www.liga.net/ua/politics/interview/ya-uchastvoval-v-voyne-istoriya-vitse-prezidenta-gazprombanka-kotoryy-sbejal-iz-rossii
 https://news.liga.net/ua/politics/news/vitse-prezident-gazprombanka-o-smertyah-gazovyh-top-menedjerov-v-rf-ne-veryu-v-samoubiystva ; https://www.liga.net/ua/politics/interview/ya-uchastvoval-v-voyne-istoriya-vitse-prezidenta-gazprombanka-kotoryy-sbejal-iz-rossii