The Russian Agent Who Escaped

Vadim Mayorov was an FSB operative sent to entrap an anti-Putin opposition movement and give false testimony at its trial. He fled Russia and has shared his story for the first time in this Newlines exclusive

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The Russian Agent Who Escaped
Sergei Ozerov (L) and Oleg Ivanov, members of the Artpodgotovka movement, charged with preparing a terror attack and participating in a terrorist community, appear at the verdict announcement at the Moscow District Military Court/Anton NovoderezhkinTASS via Getty Images

The four men were awaiting their revolution.

Crammed into a shabby apartment in the town Moskovsky, on the outskirts of Moscow, Sergei Ozerov, Oleg Dmitriev, Oleg Ivanov, and Vadim Mayorov had four days until their cabal’s promised overthrow of the Putin regime would take place on Nov. 5, 2017. In the next room, a group of Central Asian migrant laborers were resting after a hard day’s work. A few minutes after Mayorov excused himself to use the bathroom, Russian riot police and officers from the Federal Security Service (FSB) burst into the apartment, shouting at all four Russians and their migrant cohabitants, forcing them all to lie facedown on the ground. A search of the premises uncovered bottles filled with oil and gasoline.

“They took off our shirts, took them away, and left us stripped to the waist,” Dmitriev later recalled in a letter later published online. “My eyes were burning, and it was hard to breathe. Someone was walking over me with their boots, leaving black oily traces on the linoleum.”

Either a policeman or FSB officer asked Dmitriev for his identification; Dmitriev said he couldn’t retrieve it in his current prostrate position. His uniformed inquisitor marked down his reply as a refusal to comply.

All four Russian activists, but not their migrant roommates, were lined up against the wall.

“Whoever drinks a bottle of gasoline goes home,” one of the authorities said.

“Drink it yourself and go away,” Dmitriev shot back. “And anyway, who are you and what do you want?”

“You’re about to find out who we are.”

The activists were taken to the apartment’s kitchen, one by one. Mayorov went first. Soon there was a commotion from behind the closed door, followed by shouts of “Don’t hit me, I’ll tell you everything.” Next it was Dmitriev’s turn. He was brought to the kitchen, and again put face down on the floor. One of the officers stood on his ankles, while another brought in an electrical generator. “Two wires were put in the kidney area, and they started twisting something, which gave me an electric shock,” Dmitriev wrote. “The shocks were weak, but my fingers were moving and there was a noise in my ears.” It lasted 10 minutes. Dmitriev urinated blood for a week.

At around midnight, the four Russians were bundled into a police van and charged with disobeying law enforcement — the reason given was that they had declined to proffer their identification (because they were unable to do so). Dmitriev, Ozerov, and Ivanov were still sitting in the van as Mayorov was coming out of the apartment complex with two FSB officers flanking him. Just then, Mayorov shoved the two officers aside and made a dash for the nearby forest. He disappeared, or so it seemed.

Upon reaching the forest, Mayorov stopped to wait for the FSB officers to catch up to him. Alexei and Yaroslav were their names, as Mayorov knew already. His “escape” had been orchestrated with their help, with Yaroslav even suggesting that Mayorov give him a good kick in the leg in front of the other activists for dramatic effect, only not too hard. Similarly, the ruckus that had come from the apartment kitchen earlier that day, suggesting Mayorov was being tortured just as Dmitriev would be, was staged for the benefit of Mayorov’s comrades. Nor did the FSB and riot police have to break down the front door to the apartment; Mayorov had let them in when he went to the bathroom.

Dmitriev, Ozerov, and Ivanov spent 15 days in temporary detention, after which they were tried for the terrorist offense of attempting to burn down the Kremlin. Each was sentenced to prison terms, no fewer than seven years, with no chance of parole. From their cells, they’d write that Mayorov was never truly one of them. He was an FSB operative.

Now living outside of Russia in an undisclosed location, Mayorov is also a defector from the FSB, the agency that paid him to infiltrate undesirable organizations, including political movements, in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The following story is one of entrapment and corruption within an agency created after the collapse of the Soviet Union to safeguard the Russian government, as its predecessor the KGB once did for the Communist Party. Putin himself once headed the FSB before being anointed prime minister on his interrupted 20-year glide path toward “managed democracy” or postmodern dictatorship. Yet the rot, Mayorov insists, has set in so thoroughly throughout the ranks of the FSB that “there is more justice for terrorists and bandits” than for political actors, or even a gaggle of cosplay revolutionists disinclined toward violence.

Mayorov has chosen to tell his story here for the first time in an exclusive with the London-based Dossier Center and Newlines. His testimony is backed by documents, correspondence, photographs, and audio recordings of his conversations with his FSB superiors. The Dossier Center and Newlines have independently verified his identity and many of the details of what he says transpired in his successful attempt to enlist a quixotic anti-Putin movement in armed insurrection.

Originally from Naberezhnye Chelny, in Tatarstan, Mayorov had always dreamed of joining the FSB. After he graduated from the Automotive Technical School in his hometown, he served in the Russian army and, in 2009, applied to the FSB Border Academy in Moscow. He was rejected: Some of his family members were ex-cons. Seemingly destined for a life of lumpen dissolution in the sticks, Mayorov pottered about Chelny, hopping from gig to gig: He was a builder one day, a used car salesman another, a real estate agent the next.

In 2016, he received a call from a man he didn’t know who identified himself as Rustam Galiakberov, who arranged a meeting in the parking lot of a local shopping mall. Galiakberov said he was an FSB captain, and he’d gone through Mayorov’s FSB application and files. “The motherland needs protection,” Galiakberov had told him, “and we need people like you.” Mayorov signed a contract to work undercover for the service. His salary was set at 15,000 rubles a month, about $650 at that time. Mayorov was trained physically and in the use of spy equipment. Galiakberov also molded him psychologically in the rules of secret police tradecraft, sharing his own experiences in the service in paradigms or cautionary tales. Before long, Mayorov was given his first assignment: penetrating a local gangster outfit in Chelny. He did well, helping to recruit other agents, working his cases, and pointing out places for the FSB to search.

In the spring of 2017, Mayorov got a call from one of his wife’s old acquaintances. Nadezhda Belova (her real surname was Petrova) was a fellow Chely native and activist working with an opposition movement known as Artpodgotovka, an art collective that transformed into an Alice-in-Wonderland-style political movement, a postmodern hodgepodge of so many (often contradictory) ideologies and devoid of any discernible policy positions as to be impossible to define. But one thing was certain. “There’s going to be a revolution soon,” Belova told him. “Gather all the people from Chelny and get involved!” Mayorov agreed. He also immediately reported the conversation to his FSB superiors.

We are not waiting, we are preparing.

Artpodgotovka isn’t — or wasn’t — an organization. It’s more of a YouTube channel, or so admitted its founder Vyacheslav Maltsev, who began posting videos on the social media platform, and fundraising off them, advocating the impeachment of the president. Maltsev said he wanted a revolution 100 years after the one in October 1917, in which the Bolsheviks seized power. “We are not waiting, we are preparing,” Maltsev assured his followers, although how he or anyone else around him was preparing, he declined to say. But in the age of the internet, noise and persistence can more than make up for substance and coherence. Maltsev’s followers rallied online under the name Artpodgotovka. Maltsev urged them to stand in their respective city centers on Nov. 5, 2017, until Putin resigned. A “new historical era” would commence the following day.

Maltsev has spent the last 20 years reinventing himself, trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to carve an inroad for himself through an increasingly closed and repressive political landscape. He was first elected in 1994 as a deputy of the Saratov Regional Duma (parliament) and served there until 2002. He was an early supporter of United Russia, Putin’s party fashioned out of the merger of two preexisting parties, and he even set up its Saratov branch. But Maltsev turned against United Russia in 2003 and penned a “manifesto” against it, outlining what he perceived as its manifold failures. He lost his seat in the Regional Duma in 2007 and spent nearly a decade wandering Saratov’s political wilderness, such as it is, trying to reclaim his lost status under different ideological guises. Probably not even Maltsev expected what happened next. He won a surprise victory in Parnas’ primary contest (the liberal opposition party) in advance of the 2016 national parliamentary election, placing him just behind party chairman and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. Neither Maltsev nor anyone from Parnas won enough votes to be granted a seat in the State Duma (and that parliamentary election was marred by allegations of vote tampering and fraud). Nevertheless, his primary win owed entirely to the popularity of the Artpodgotovka YouTube channel and the failure of Maltsev’s rivals to even campaign. “That’s what primaries are for,” said another YouTube star and Russian oppositionist named Alexei Navalny. “Someone new can come in and disperse the cozy world of party nomenklatura, accustomed to doing nothing.”

Doing something carries a mounting cost in modern Russia, and Maltsev’s online jeremiads against Putin and the regime eventually caught up with him. He was detained by police twice at anti-corruption rallies on March 26 and June 12, 2017. Fearing prosecution, he fled Russia via a clandestine and sinuous pathway, first to neighboring Belarus, then Ukraine, Georgia, Israel, Montenegro, and Morocco before finally arriving in Paris, where he applied for asylum.

Whatever Maltsev’s domestic troubles, it was a particularly bad moment for him to go abroad, just six months before his fated changement de regime. But not even Maltsev’s exile diminished Artpodgotovka’s clicks: The YouTube channel had around 130,000 followers at its height. For Galiakberov, Mayorov’s recruiter and handler in Chelny, the heralded insurrection meant an opportunity for career advancement within the FSB, especially since Maltsev’s loyalists spread far beyond Moscow and into Russia’s sprawling provinces, Chelny included. FSB generals in Tatarstan, Mayorov says, were ordered to identify how many Maltsevites there were in that region and “which of them were going to go to the revolution in Moscow.” The FSB’s mission was to infiltrate them, while anyone who hung back in Chelny was simply “handed over to the security services” right away.

Mayorov traveled to Moscow at the end of October 2017, around the time the Krasnoyarsk Regional Court had ruled that Artpodgotovka was an extremist movement, making membership in it a criminal offense. Mayorov had been told that his contact or handler in Moscow would be an FSB officer named “Alexei” from central headquarters in Lubyanka. They spoke in passwords when they first met face-to-face, then used mobile devices. Mayorov was able to trace Alexei’s number to a page on VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook, registered to “Alexei Vorobushkin.” No such person exists in any Russian database, but the Dossier Center and Newlines were able to track a car advertisement posted to Vorobushkin’s page to another Alexei, this one with the surname Monastyrev. Alexei Monastyrev is the FSB captain put in charge of the Artpodgotovka cases in Moscow. (Shown a photograph of Monastyrev, Mayorov confirmed that this was indeed his boss.)

Monastyrev gave Mayorov a recording device and told him to record his forthcoming conversation with Belova, his fellow Chelny native and access point into the Artpodgotovka network. Mayorov met her at the McDonald’s on Manezhnaya Square, where she’d been meeting other activists from Russia’s regions for weeks and helping arrange their stay in Moscow. “Are we really going to make a revolution with our bare hands?” Mayorov asked her. Belova assured him everything was in place for overthrowing Putin, but didn’t go into specifics, probably because, Mayorov said, she didn’t have any to share. “I doubt there was a weapon. Someone may have had them, but not in the quantities needed for a serious revolution,” he told Newlines.

During one visit, Belova told him he could be of more use in Moskovsky, 16 miles outside of Moscow, to organize a trio of Artpodgotovka activists cooling their heels in an apartment rented for 1,000 rubles ($17) a day. So Mayorov went to Moskovsky and met Ozerov and Dmitriev, two of the men he’d eventually set up. Their rendezvous was at another McDonald’s.

“We went to the apartment,” Dmitriev recalled in his letter from prison, published on OVD-Info, a Russian website dedicated to tracking the arrests of protesters. “At the apartment he introduced himself. Vadim Mayorov, a former contract serviceman, was awarded some kind of ‘Black Cross’ for his service in the Caucasus. He showed me this cross with documents. I didn’t look properly. … He was interested in a certain model of Makarov starter pistol, which can be converted.” Dmitriev wrote that Mayorov also suggested committing a spate of petty crimes — such as stealing from the rich — on Nov. 5.

According to Mayorov, no one in the Moskovsky apartment was interested in serious discussions about overthrowing the government. Rather, everyone behaved more like crackpot cultists caught up in a Ponzi scheme. “They were dreamers. They believed there would be a revolution. What a revolution is and how it is made, I don’t think they understood at all. In their minds it was supposed to happen somehow by itself. Maltsev told them to take out loans. He said that he would come to power and forgive them all. So, they ran to take out loans for themselves. He promised to give them all a car, a flat. They sat there and seriously speculated that they could take the mayor’s seat.”

And that, under other circumstances, might have been that. Ozerov was 45, Dmitriev was 38 and Ivanov was 40. They were hardly the second coming of the Decembrists and the FSB could have determined that for itself based on its agent’s recordings and debriefings. But Mayorov’s job wasn’t to observe and report; it was to stoke and provoke. The FSB brass needed a terrorism rap to pin on Maltsev’s movement, and if one didn’t exist, Mayorov would have to concoct it.

“I was told to press the subject of weapons, explosions (and) other plans … And the guys were discussing it vigorously, that they had to get ready somehow,” Mayorov said. “They decided to make Molotov cocktails. On the recordings I made, which are now lying in the FSB archives, (there were) such conversations: ‘Well, let’s make weapons, let’s make a revolution.’ But, you know, it reminded me of children bragging to each other. It was more fantasy than reality. They were just like children, they didn’t even understand what the cocktails were for. I myself thought that they should not be sent to prison, but to a clinic, to be treated for Maltsev’s disease. But orders are orders.”

At one point, the trio gave up on the guerrilla incendiaries, complaining that their construction was too dangerous. Mayorov relayed this to Monastyrev, who instructed him to press on until Molotov cocktails or “something else” came into being. Mayorov improvised. While Ozerov and Dmitriev were out one day, he convinced Ivanov that the other roommates had gone ahead with preparing for the revolution and he had better, too.

“Ivanov caught fire,” Mayorov told Newlines. “He went to buy the very bottles of gasoline that were later found during the search. By the way, they were bought with FSB money.” Mayorov added that what Ivanov ineptly put together, before he set himself alight with it, couldn’t even be considered a proper bomb.

The dragnet operation against Artpodgotovka was launched that same evening, across the entirety of Russia. For days, police and FSB officers broke down doors, searched, detained, and tortured supporters of Maltsev in dozens of cities, while the pro-government media reported on the detained “terrorists and extremists,” showing the alleged guns, knives, explosives, and other weapons found in their possession. Russia’s state-owned television network NTV aired footage of the topless Ozerov, Dmitriev, and Ivanov alongside Mayorov in the Moskovsky apartment. (Dmitriev wrote in his letter to OVD-Info that when he fainted from the torture, the NTV cameras stopped shooting. None of the abuse meted out to him, including his electrocution, was broadcast.)

Mayorov (middle) topless

Following Mayorov’s stage-managed escape from police custody, he linked up with Belova and her husband, both still unsuspecting of his role in snaring their comrades. “She and I met in a shopping center,” Mayorov said. “I was freezing to death and my eye was also injured (because) when I ran into the forest, a branch stuck in my eye, so I was bleeding intermittently.” Mayorov lied and told Belova he’d been tortured by the authorities, too. Then he sent her geolocation to Monastyrev, who dispatched a team of riot police to pick her up. Mayorov took his leave from Moscow and headed back to Chelny.

Within three days, the FSB proudly reported that it had identified and prevented the activities of “a clandestine cell of the ‘Artpodgotovka’ movement” in the Moscow Region, whose members had been intent on setting buildings on fire and attacking police officers.

Maltsev, meanwhile, was still in France, facing an arrest in absentia back home on charges for promoting extremism. On Nov. 2, the day after the Moskovsky apartment was raided, he recorded a video message stating he planned to be in Moscow “when things started” in 72 hours.

He never showed up for his revolution. And it was just as well: The whole thing went down as a surrealist spectacle in lieu of concerted political action. A few crowds turned up in scattered cities around the country, none with the intent of doing much else except to stand around under surveillance and … see what happened next. There were more journalists on Manezhnaya Square on Nov. 5 than there were Artpodgotovka activists, according to one eyewitness. “Some young men came, mostly middle-aged, but there were also a few young men — not very many at all,” Alexander Verkhovsky told the Russian news outlet Mediazona. “They were standing and huddling near the wall of the Hotel Moskva. Everything was fenced off. There were a lot of journalists, you could see the revolutionaries with the naked eye. Journalists came up to them and asked why you were standing there. ‘We’re waiting for the revolution.’ ‘What will you do?’ ‘Well, we were told, we’re waiting for 12:00.’ It’s 12:00 p.m., nothing happened.”

About 400 people were detained across Russia, almost 300 of them in Moscow. Some weren’t even Maltsevites but passersby in the wrong place at the wrong time, such as libertarians coming out of the annual Adam Smith Forum and young Pokémon Go! Players chasing virtual anime creatures around a paranoid city.

Sensing her own inevitable prosecution and conviction, Belova, too, fled Russia for France. Her lawyer’s fleet-footed petitioning in court, she says, got her released from administrative detention where she’d been held for three days and fined 2,500 rubles ($43) for disorderly conduct and using foul language. With the help of her lawyer, she told Radio Svoboda, she escaped Moscow in a car, hid out in “the territory of an abandoned psychiatric clinic, in some kind of forest” for two weeks before she made it into Belarus. Her Maltsev-like peregrinations took her through Ukraine, Georgia, Austria (where she stayed for 10 months), and Italy, until Belova finally reached France.

It was a smart decision. On Nov. 9, 2017, a criminal case was opened against her, according to which she and other Artpodgotovka activists conspired to destroy electricity transmission towers in order to create an energy blockade of Moscow. In addition to plans for arson against government buildings and attacks on law enforcement, Belova’s network was accused of trying to plant fake bombs in the Moscow Metro to inundate first responders with emergency calls. At the center of this extravagant web of sedition sat Maltsev, a gormless Lenin in exile.

Mayorov received a 40,000 ruble ($700) raise from the FSB for his role in this tragicomic sting operation, although he can’t remember what he spent it on. “For me it was the first time (I dealt) with politics, and I understood that they were innocent and that it was all, in fact, a provocation. When I came back home, I had to hand in a report to the Chelny office. And we discussed at the time that these were not methods — all this torture and Molotov cocktails, I won’t even call them cocktails, they were bottles of gasoline. That’s not what criminal cases should be based on.”

Mayorov’s FSB superiors told him that the Artpodgotovka activists were enemies of the state and not to worry about the jurisprudential methods by which they were brought to book. He was given new assignments, mostly focused on radical Islamists groups in Russia, for which he was slated to travel to the Middle East, although he also spied on and disrupted campaign events held by the anti-Putin opposition in Chelny in the leadup to Russia’s 2018 presidential election. Mayorov says other FSB officers were dispatched to polling stations to ensure election commissioners produced the “right” results.

Much to his chagrin, the FSB wanted Mayorov for a different kind of overseas operation once the election was over: to find out where Maltsev and Belova and other Artpodgotovka activists were hiding in France.

He was told that if caught by French counterintelligence, under no circumstances should he admit to working for the FSB. “You will have to do some time,” Monastyrev said, “but we will get you out.” Nor should he have any contact with the service while he was abroad, except in an emergency.

Belova and her husband hosted him in Cannes, still evidently convinced of Mayorov’s sincerity in spite of rumors and allegations swirling around the ranks of Artpodgotovka that he was an FSB plant, including in Dmitriev’s published letter, which Mayorov passed off as a provocation designed to discredit him in the eyes of his friends and comrades. He came up with another elaborate escape fantasy involving his cross-border transit through Belarus to Europe. In reality, Mayorov had flown directly from Moscow to Paris and even had in his possession the airline ticket, plus receipts for taxis and cafes, to prove it, not that Belova bothered to search his belongings.

Maltsev was still just as nutty and megalomaniacal as ever, at least if his public proclamations were to be believed. He claimed to have raised some 300,000 euros ($438,000) for “revolutionary purposes,” money he of course promised to share with his allies in Russia but never did. Some of those funds, Maltsev said, were stolen by a third associate, Konstantin Zelenin, who had access to Maltsev’s European bank account. The inner circle of Artpodgotovka was torn apart with accusations and counter accusations of espionage. Maltsev began referring to Belova in his broadcasts as an agent of the special services. Mayorov, meanwhile, sped along the cannibalization of the group by convincing other activists in France to march on Maltsev’s presumed address, then go live on YouTube accusing him of being a liar and a fraudster. In a dark and blurry video, Mayorov himself can be seen complaining that Maltsev has called him an FSB spy.

“So many lies, so many lies,” Mayorov, the FSB spy, says on camera. The rest of the footage consists of fellow exiles urging Maltsev to come out of his house and put them on his YouTube channel to argue their differences. The only snag was that Maltsev didn’t live there anymore; one of his friends from Russia did. And when that man emerged, he defended Maltsev’s embezzlement, saying a politician is free to spend his money however he likes. “Now Putin is looking on and clapping his hands because Artpodgotovka has fucked up,” says one hapless participant in the crowd.

Having never located Maltsev in France, Mayorov flew back to Russia. His mission was celebrated as a major success. Some of the other activists’ addresses he discovered were new to the FSB; others had already been established by Russian foreign intelligence officers.

But his work wasn’t quite done yet. At FSB headquarters in Moscow, Monastyrev told Mayorov he was still needed to help build the impending cases against the Artpodgotovka defendants — including by giving false testimony as a fellow activist. Months earlier, Mayorov had in fact been interrogated by Sergei Salikhov, a criminal investigator, who hadn’t known Mayorov was an FSB operative. When Salikhov found out (by calling Monastyrev to confirm it), he released Mayorov, whose testimony anyway didn’t “fit” the narrative Salikhov was crafting about events in the Moskovsky apartment. So Salikhov made everything up and attributed the fiction to Mayorov.

“According to my testimony,” Mayorov said, “Ozerov bought a canister of petrol and they made Molotov cocktails, and later the operatives found some witness who identified Ozerov as the buyer of the canister. I don’t know what that witness was. They decided to make Ozerov, as the most senior person, the leader of the group.”

In reality, he says, Ivanov bought the petrol and oil while Ozerov and Dmitriev weren’t home. (The activists claimed that Mayorov bought the petrol.)

Mayorov told Newlines that he first saw the allegation of Ozerov’s role as the gasoline buyer and ringleader of the trio at their trial. He was brought as a secret witness, meaning the defendants and their attorneys didn’t get to cross examine him or even know his identity. According to Russian law, a witness’s identity may be hidden if testifying openly could endanger his safety or life. Mayorov, however, was under no such duress; his testimony was classified only because he was an FSB operative.

The state prosecutor, Elvira Zotchik, complained to Monastyrev that the judge, Evgeny Zubov, was exasperated by the number of forensic irregularities in the evidence, such as the absence of fingerprints on the gasoline canisters. Monastyrev told her locking up the activists wasn’t a priority for the FSB; it was a priority for “him.” He meant Putin.

“Zotchik sighed and said she would talk to the judge, but it was very hard for them. She complained that she had been promised a medal for (the case), but never got anything. Then the judge came by, and (Monastyrev) told him the same thing: ‘It has to go upstairs. Do you understand? It’s not only you who will have problems, everyone will have problems.’ So that was it. The judge pretended to check my passport and left.”

Monastyrev in court was as blithe as outside of it. He mocked the lawyers and was confused about basic underlying facts of the case, such as what Ozerov had been doing on Nov. 1, the day of his detention.

Largely on the back of testimony from secret witnesses like Mayorov, all three activists were found guilty. Ivanov was sentenced to seven years in a penal colony, while Dmitriev and Ozerov were both sentenced to eight years.

Months later, Mayorov says, he was made to give secret testimony in a second trial of three other Artpodgotovka activists rounded up on Nov. 1. In this case, Mayorov hadn’t known, much less infiltrated, the defendants’ network, and indeed this trial was even more casually pro forma than the first, with an indifferent judge telling Monastyrev to “hurry up” his testimony because he had to go meet his wife.

Mayorov told Newlines he had tried to get out of becoming an accomplice to this second railroading of innocent people. He drafted a letter of resignation from the FSB, stating he didn’t know any of the new defendants and hadn’t anything at all to do with the case. He was told no one leaves the FSB and his next “business trip” to France was already being planned. Mayorov would this time travel under a cover name and plant flash drives with compromising material on Belova so that she could be turned over to the French authorities. He’d asked his recruiter, Galiakberov, “Aren’t you afraid that I’ll just stay there?” Galiakberov replied that if he did, he’d “come back in a zinc coffin.”

“It was at that moment,” Mayorov says, “I realized that sooner or later I would tell everything.”

Monastyrev offered him a transfer to FSB headquarters in Moscow, a reward for a job well done, and told him he had a bright future in the service’s political department. The only catch was that the money wasn’t good, and Mayorov would have a more lucrative run on foreign assignments. The latter option was also his way out of a life he now hated and a country he couldn’t remain in without continuing in that life.

In the summer of 2020, Mayorov got his chance. He’d been “flagged” in the Artpodgotovka cases as an FSB provocateur and didn’t think it wise to travel under his legal name anymore. “I informed my wife that she had a unique opportunity to choose her surname,” he says. “She laughed and said she wanted to be Bestuzheva. So, I became Konstantin Bestuzhev.”

The Bestuzhevs took a holiday to Turkey. Konstantin turned off his work phone, which had been lighting up with new assignments from Galiakberov.

He never came home.

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