Russian opposition journalist Arkady Babchenko has been alive for 37 days. He “died” on May 29 and was “resurrected” on May 30. But that’s not to say that he’s been fully enjoying his life since. He’s been kept under close monitorship of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU).
“I don’t have a job, I don’t have anything to worry about. I don’t need to buy petrol, I don’t need to earn money for anything. I live my life, they watch over me, I don’t have a thing to do. It’s unbearably boring,” he tells Hromadske during an interview on June 27.
The journalist explained to Hromadske the extremely great lengths he and the SBU went to pull off his “murder.” That included bruising his knees by falling on the floor multiple times, sending his t-shirt to a shooting range to be shot at, swallowing pig’s blood and subjecting his wife to training sessions on how to behave after his murder.
Babchenko also said that, while staging the murder, things quickly went from chilling to chilly after being forced to lie in cold pig’s blood for hours.
“This is a problem when you have a corpse lying on a stretcher and trembling,” he says smiling. “I was wrapped in blankets, warmed up, taken to the morgue and dumped there. I was pretending to be dead this whole time. And when the gates closed, I could finally be 'alive.'"
Hromadske spoke with Arkady Babchenko, a Russian opposition journalist, to learn about what it took to help the SBU stage his murder, whether he believes the case has a “Russian trail” and how he’s been coping since.
Is it now one of the conditions that you have to live your life in secret?
I don’t set the conditions. They tell me what to do and I follow.
Are you under round-the-clock supervision?
I cannot talk about that.
Is this hard for you?
What can I tell you? I now have a “bohemian” way of life: I don’t have a job, I don’t have anything to worry about. I don’t need to buy petrol, I don’t need to earn money for anything. I live my life, they watch over me, I don’t have a thing to do. It’s unbearably boring.
It seems to me, taking into account your personality, that you must be ridiculously bored and sad…
I have nowhere to go, nothing to do. Right now, I’m completely in limbo. We wait and hide from assassins and from the FSB in the bunker.
Arkady, tell me how it all started
It just started. A friend called me, asked me to drive to his. I went. There were two people sat there. He told me they were SBU guys. He said that he knows them and can vouch for them as they spent some time together in the Donbas during the government’s military operation. So we started talking, they showed me the briefing, printouts of conversation transcripts, photographs of all the money. They said: There’s an order against you. I asked: When did you find out about this? They said they found out a month ago. I said: Great! Why have you waited a month? For them to bump me off? You wanted to use me as bait? They said: No. It’s been under discussion for a month. It wasn’t clear whether these conversations were serious. There was a month of conversations and yesterday they handed over the money.
Then it became clear that it all was serious. “We came to you straight away. What do you think?” I said: Well, what is there to think about?
And did you not notice anything strange over the course of that month? You weren’t being followed, for example?
No, no, no. But I wasn’t looking out for anything in particular.
I relaxed after leaving Moscow. It was tense in Moscow. You track every single car. When someone gets in the lift, you look around. If a new car appears in the courtyard, you take a look at it. Here, however, I relaxed.
Did you believe everything you were told straight away?
Well, how can you not believe it here? When you see the printouts when you see your passport information, which has a 99% of coming from Russia. Printouts of conversation transcripts, briefings about you, your photo from the passport office. And, I’m sorry, but I lived in Mordor for 40 years. And the last five to ten of those years I was in fairly close communication with the state and the FSB. I had my friends and colleagues buried. I had my friends convicted. I’ve been tracked. They somehow sent these thugs after me. So, when someone says: “Dude, this is the money for your murder, they want you dead,” I prefer to believe it. Especially if there is evidence.
You said there was a photo of you from a passport office. Is that from home, from the place of your residence registration?
The photo was from the Russian passport that was issued to me. It’s a photo from 20 years ago. It’s clear where it came from.
Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko poses for a photographer during his first interview after the SBU sting operation on May 31, 2018 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo credit: EPA-EFE/VALENTYN OGIRENKO/POOL
Tell me about the “day of your death.”
“Death” and then “resurrection.” There was another month of planning before that day. We had to make up a story about me breaking my leg. Because they were pressured by someone in Moscow. So they started to put pressure on the supposed hitman.
You mean Borys Herman? (the Ukrainian citizen suspected of organizing Babchenko’s assassination – ed.)
Yes, they started to pressure [Herman.] The SBU showed printouts of all these conversations during the second briefing.
Everything was actually supposed to happen on the Friday, the day before the Champions League final [which took place in Kyiv]. But for juristic reasons, it had to be postponed. There were juristic nuances, many services were involved. As far as I understand, they just didn’t have anything prepared in time. But I don’t know, I didn’t ask. All these little details are none of my business. A couple of days before it, they summoned my family as it was clear that the whole family cannot just remain in Russia, they have to be evacuated.
We couldn’t give ourselves away, do you understand? We couldn’t do anything without thought. It’s how we lived for the last year or a year and a half: I’m here [in Kyiv] and my daughter is studying over there [in Moscow]. She comes to visit me during the holidays for two or three weeks. So they came and went back. The academic year hadn’t finished yet so if they had stayed, it would have immediately caused suspicion. We had to continue living our lives the way we were. So, of course, they went back but they went back knowing everything.
Did your daughter know?
No, my daughter was told at the last minute. Two or three days prior [to the “death day”] we decided to evacuate my family. They came here with three suitcases in one car. Everything was ready before the Friday, we were waiting. But it got postponed, so we all just relaxed. You know, as in, “thank God, it’s not today, we can live for another three days.” Or how many would it be? They just said it wouldn’t be that day, it would be in the middle of next week instead: Tuesday or Wednesday. So we relaxed for those two-three days, had some champaign. And then I wake up on Tuesday. Wait for the call… There’s no call. So I think maybe it’s not today too. And then the phone rings: “We’re doing it today.”
At 6 p.m. an [SBU] operative arrived with a makeup artist. The makeup artist told me how someone who had just been shot would fall, how they would cough if a lung was punctured, how the body would lie, how an injured person would breathe.
Police and journalists wait outside Babchenko's house the night of the "murder" on May 29, 2018 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo credit: Dmytro Replianchuk / HROMADSKE
A security service makeup artist? They have special people for that?
I have no idea, I can’t tell you because I don’t know. I was trained to fall and I had bruises all over my knees after that. When you fall, you have to do it naturally. No one was there to hold my hands, I didn’t move my legs. By 7:20 p.m. they had already done my makeup: shadows under my eyes, they made my lips dry – like what happens after heavy blood loss. So at 7: 20 p.m. I already stood with my back to the door. And, by the way, this is where the journalists came up with fake news. Where did the story about me going out for bread come from?
It wasn’t journalists, it was Anton Herashchenko
It was journalists who circulated this. I didn’t go out for bead, but for water. This is how “fake news” is made.
Anton Herashchenko from the Ministry of Internal Affairs wrote a post. I remember this well. I was working the night shift. [Journalist] Ayder Muzhdabayev wrote a Facebook post that Babchenko had been injured and was being taken to the hospital. After five to seven minutes, I got hold of Anton Herashchenko, he said: Ira, I can’t say anything right now. I asked: Is he alive? He said: Dead. And then all hell broke loose. An hour later, Herashchenko’s post appeared, stating that Arkady had gone out for bread. He left his flat, stood in the doorway, opened it and he was shot.
Yes, that’s how the story went. They poured pig’s blood into my mouth. I fell to my knees, coughed a little bit so that some splashes flew out.
And who was there at the time? You and your wife?
Me, my wife, the operative and the makeup artist. I fell and she started to create these holes on my back. My t-shirt was taken to a shooting range for a few days and shot at. The staging was immaculate. [The make-up artist] pushed a pound of blood into my nostril – be patient, she said. They left before 8 p.m.. Then the killer came in. He was in the apartment for 10 seconds. I don’t even know if he stepped over the threshold. That was [Oleksiy] Tsymbalyuk. He says: “Good day to you!” I told him not to make me laugh, I can’t laugh, I’m a dead man now.
The makeup artist also instructed my wife on what to do: how a person would behave, how they would breathe. There’s a surge of adrenaline, blood pressure rises, your face turns red. And then you close in on yourself, shock sets in, you’re completely quiet, not a single [sign of] hysteria.
My wife called the police and the ambulance. They came, the special police force arrived. They all knew.
Donbas volunteer Oleksiy Tsymbaliuk who was allegedly tasked to assassinate Babchenko. Year 2014. Photo credit: Bohdan Kutiepov / HROMADSKE
So they were warned? Was it an operative group?
Of course. They put a tremendous amount of work in, there were a lot of different aspects to it. The duty officer, who was to receive the call, knew. He had to send a special group. They had to be informed. Because people would be able to tell if there are holes in someone or not.
The special forces were not aware. They ran in, leaned over, had a look and saw that I was breathing. They checked all the rooms, up and down the stairway in the hall. They stationed security there. The guys were clearly worried and breathing hard. They asked my wife who I was. She said: “A Russian journalist.” They said: “Shit, it’s starting again!” The police ordered them to take me away quickly because the main thing was getting me out of there quickly.
The special forces did not [understand that it’s pig’s blood]. The police did not allow them to touch me. The ambulance came, they put me inside the car and started something of an intravenous therapy. Those doctors also knew because they can tell whether a person is alive or not.
The resuscitation was “unsuccessful” and I “died” after 20 minutes. The doctor phoned the superintendent and recorded the death. The police drove over surrounded by paramedics. The coroner came. It turned out that I'd been covered in this pig’s blood for two or three hours and I was freezing.
This is a problem when you have a corpse lying on a stretcher and trembling. I was wrapped in blankets, warmed up, taken to the morgue and dumped there. I was pretending to be dead this whole time. And when the gates closed, I could finally be “alive.”
Tell me whose obituary you liked the most.
I don’t know, it all just passed me by because I hadn’t time to think about it then. It was all very tense and I was tired. It was an interesting experience, an interesting feeling when you’re lying there naked covered in pig’s blood. You sit there wrapped in a sheet and listen to obituaries about yourself. And through the wall I could hear a hospital worker sawing through bone, dissecting someone. I was at the morgue until around 2 a.m. because journalists had arrived.
But this whole game was not useless. For example, my colleagues at ATR saw that I had been brought there and they confirmed everything. It was all necessary. At 2 a.m. I was put in a car with tinted windows and driven to a safe place. This all ended for me around 5 a.m. So it started at 6 p.m. the day before and ended at 5 in the morning, it took 11 hours.
SBU Head Vasyl Hrytsak (L), journalist Babchenko (C) and Ukraine's Prosecutor General Yurii Lutsenko at the SBU briefing on May 30 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo credit: EPA-EFE/SERGEY NUZHNENKO
I made two video reports on that day: “Babchenko is dead” and “Babchenko is alive.” I think it was like that at every news organization. We were watching the SBU head Vasyl Hrytsak make a statement live. He was saying that they detained someone. Until the last moment, we did not realize [what was going on]. And then the key moment: he says: “Look, here’s Arkady Babchenko” and you appear.
At first, we were all happy, but my second reaction was that I’d been cheated, we had been manipulated. It was confusing, but it struck me that, if this is a special operation – cool, but show me the evidence. It’s hard to get over all the theatrics from the head of the SBU, the Prosecutor General. There were also inconsistencies with this list – first it was 30 people and then it was 47. What do you think of this PR stunt?
This is not for me to answer, who or what this publicity was for. My task lasted a month, from the moment they told me, to the moment I was “resurrected.” That was my job. I did it. There was no question about it. And everything else wasn’t my job. I think the SBU had been taught to catch terrorists, not to write good press releases. Yes, communication was poor, but that’s not what they do. For the thousandth time, I want to apologize for the fact you had to endure all of this. But there was no other way of doing it. Information could have been leaked.
Borys Herman, co-owner of a weapon manufacturer in Ukraine and the man who allegedly organized Babchenko's assassination during a court hearing in Kyiv on May 31, 2018. Photo credit: Igor Burdyga / HROMADSKE
Why was it necessary to stage your death? Why could you not have been injured, for example?
Staging a death is the simplest and most effective way of uncovering an ordered assassination. Of course, no one expected it to have such repercussions. No one probably thought this through and that was their mistake. I don’t dispute that. But the crime was brought to an end, there is all the evidence. This was done for the court. Not for me or for the SBU. It changes the crime article to “completed crime.”
Your “resurrection” evoked a lot of criticism from western media and politicians who just don’t understand any of this. In your opinion, was it just a matter of not calculating the repercussions?
The next day all of you were saying: “Show us all the evidence.” As in, the SBU and the counterintelligence will just stop everything they’re doing to hand all the information they have over to you on a silver platter.
Wait. Two weeks went by, the SBU held a briefing. In my opinion, there was already a load of evidence there. All those negotiations, printouts, the three guys who had come over from Donetsk. Conversations with [Russian businessman] Viacheslav] Pivovarnik (the alleged organizer of the “assassination” – ed.), conversations about weapons. This person says all these details about the weapons, about his conversations with the “Big Pu” and so on in these wiretappings. It seems to me that there is already a lot of evidence.
But there will be more proof. Wait for the court hearing. Don’t get ahead of yourselves.
Are you sure that the indictment on your case will reveal this so-called “Russian trail"?
No, how can I be sure? They don’t report every single detail to me. I have no idea how the investigation is going. I find out most information from open sources like you do. But, for me, personally, there are no questions. I’ve had a look and piled it all up. It all goes back to Russia and I have no doubt about that. And which way all of this makes to the court in – I don’t know. I’m not the one to answer this question.
I have my own vision of who this person who Pyvovarnyk was working for is, as well as what this Putin Foundation is. And why they chose me. Because it looks like I wasn’t their first choice. But I will talk about that at another point, now’s not the time.
How will you take it if the case is taken to court without this “Russian trail”?
Badly. But, then again, it’s none of my business. It’s Ukraine’s case, and it’s the court’s job to bear that in mind. But I’m not going to voice my opinion, I will work from a journalistic point of view.
How do you see this story ending?
I hope that it will all go court, that the case won’t collapse and everything will be disclosed. It has already turned out quite well. The problem is that this is just one small part of it all and there are many others. The elections are coming up, there’s money coming, weapons are being bought. They will carry on regardless. This is not the end at all. Only the top layer has been removed, there’s still the rest of the iceberg underneath.
I’m in complete limbo. It’s no longer up to me what my future holds. Where will I live, where will they hide me, where will my daughter go?
In your opinion, how will this war end?
It’s here for a long time. It’s now impossible to defeat Russia by force. It has one of the most powerful armies. 140 million people, 100 million of whom have lost their minds. They have a leader, he has an overarching idea and he really is supported.
But all of this will collapse. This is the law of history. An empire cannot survive in the 21st century on laws of the 19th century. Russia will definitely roll backward. There will definitely be another oil crisis when oil drops to $20.
But there is another option: the world has gone mad. Russia injects cash into the west, cash will win over good again. Then this will all lead to World War III.
/By Irina Romaliyskaya and Maria Romanenko