#AceNewsReport – Feb.17: The 33-year-old has built a career out of penetrating Kremlin disinformation to expose high-level corruption and criminality:
Maria Pevchikh: ‘The young investigator uncovering ‘the hidden world of Vladimir Putin’ So on the morning of August 20 last year, she rolled the dice on a high-stakes gambit’
Ms Pevchikh was having breakfast in a Siberian hotel with other members of Navalny’s inner circle when they received an alarming text message — he was unconscious after falling gravely ill on a flight to Moscow.
Navalny’s plane had been forced to divert and make an emergency landing in Omsk after he collapsed on the cabin floor, screaming in agony.
Ms Pevchikh and her colleagues immediately suspected foul play.
“We live in Russia, we know how it works,” she told Foreign Correspondent. “We straight away suspected that this is a poisoning, because what else?”
Proving it would be much harder.
Hours earlier, Navalny had checked out of the Xander Hotel in Tomsk to catch his flight, but his room had not yet been cleaned.
Suspecting that clues to his sudden illness could still be there, Ms Pevchikh and her colleagues set about persuading hotel staff to let them in.
To their surprise, it took only a few minutes to gain access to room 239. Donning masks and rubber gloves, they quickly gathered up anything they could take away — rubbish, towels, water bottles.
“I don’t even know what we were hoping for back in the moment, we just knew for sure that if that is poisoning, no-one is going to investigate it,” she says.
“We just went, OK, we’ll grab what we see and then we’ll deal with it later.”
It was one of the water bottles Ms Pevchikh took from a bedside table that eventually solved the riddle.
It was bagged up along with the other items and whisked out of Russia to a German military lab, where traces of the chemical nerve agent Novichok were detected on its surface.
The obvious conclusion was that Navalny had Novichok on his fingers when he touched the bottle.
“When he left [the hotel] at 6:00am and had that last sip from that water bottle, he already was poisoned in that minute,” Ms Pevchikh said. “It was a very clear timestamp.”
The discovery of Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent developed by the KGB, also seemed to confirm who was behind the attempt on Navalny’s life.
“It’s pretty much just [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s signature on this crime,” she said. “It’s very obvious that no-one apart from the state has access to these sorts of things.”
History’s ‘biggest bribe’
Uncovering the secrets of Mr Putin and Russia’s cadre of powerful oligarchs has become a full-time occupation for Ms Pevchikh.
The London-based former finance professional leads the investigations unit in Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, a non-profit political organisation known in Russia as the FBK.
Educated at the London School of Economics, Ms Pevchikh is not a journalist by background.
But with a small staff of investigators and camera operators, she probes the obscene wealth and murky financial dealings of the Kremlin-connected elite, producing video investigations fronted by Navalny that have a habit of going global.
In a 2019 scoop, the FBK team claimed the head of the Kremlin-run VTB Bank, Andrey Kostin, had used state funds to provide his girlfriend with a private jet and yacht for her extravagant European holidays.
Another investigation that year claimed then Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev had similarly lavished a private jet on his wife.
But this was small fry compared with her latest bombshell investigation, resulting in a 113-minute YouTube expose titled Putin’s Palace: History of World’s Largest Bribe, revealing a vast estate allegedly built for Mr Putin at a cost of nearly $US1.5 billion.
“The place is so expensive that it is probably the biggest bribe ever given in the history of bribing,” Ms Pevchikh said.
Putin’s Palace untangles an intricate web of shell companies, bank transactions and Putin allies involved in the decade-long construction of a “new Versailles”.
“We managed to figure out the system that he’d built to be able to steal money from the state,” said Ms Pevchikh of her team’s work.
“The main message of our investigation is that Putin is probably the richest person in the world and he uses a network — a very sophisticated network — of his old friends to hide all of this.”
According to detailed models FBK investigators pieced together from building plans, drone video and photos taken by construction workers, the sprawling complex houses an underground hockey stadium, casino, ice rink, vineyard, “aqua disco” and a windowless hookah lounge with a pole-dancing stage.
Perhaps the most eye-popping details relate to what’s inside — luxurious furnishings allegedly including couches worth tens of thousands of dollars each and $US850 toilet brushes.
“[Mr Putin] likes to present himself as this very modest man who only cares about Russia,” said Ms Pevchikh.
“Whereas, in fact, he turns out to be this luxury-obsessed man who is spending ridiculous amounts of money on ridiculous pieces of furniture and decor.”
Mr Putin has denied any connection to the property, but that hasn’t stopped the video spreading like wildfire.
In a matter of weeks, Putin’s Palace has been viewed over 110 million times on Navalny’s YouTube channel, with one poll estimating a quarter of the Russian population had watched the video.
The FBK’s videos have become a potent political weapon for Navalny, transforming him from anti-corruption crusader to Mr Putin’s most high-profile political nemesis.
Part of their appeal is that they deploy mockery, memes and satire calibrated to do maximum political damage to Russia’s powerful elites.
Navalny’s social media prowess has long enabled him to bypass a state media wholly co-opted by the Kremlin to speak directly over YouTube and social media platforms, particularly to young Russians.
“It’s a fight for people’s hearts and minds,” Russian writer and commentator, Arkady Ostrovsky, told Foreign Correspondent.
“I think the internet is what enabled Navalny to break into politics and rise to the top. Without his media machine, none of this would have happened.”
‘The most unbelievable day in my career’
The extraordinary reach of the Putin’s Palace investigation was no doubt fuelled by the timing of its release.
On January 17, after months of rehabilitation in a German hospital, Navalny flew back to Russia where he was immediately detained by police at a Moscow airport.
Two days later, Ms Pevchikh’s team released Putin’s Palace.
As mass protests erupted in hundreds of towns and cities across Russia, some demonstrators could be seen taking to the streets brandishing golden toilet brushes as a token of their anti-Putin rage.
“I hope it’s damaging to Putin,” said Ms Pevchikh.
“We just uncovered the hidden world of Vladimir Putin. We showed what he really cares about; how he sees himself personally.”
The Kremlin and its proxies didn’t delay in taking their revenge. One of FBK’s cameramen, Pavel Zelensky, was swept up in raids targeting Navalny insiders.
Обыск в квартире @DrAnastasy
продолжается. Раз нарушила санитарный режим — изъять технику! С ковидом только так и можно бороться.
Анастасия отлично играет и на хамство внимания не обращает. Героическая женщина! ✊🏻 pic.twitter.com/Xif3BGljkI— zakharova ❌ (@exCheremnova) January 27, 2021
Navalny’s press secretary Kira Yarmysh was also detained, as was FBK lawyer Lubyev Sobol, who was grabbed off a public street and dragged away in front of the cameras.
A video of police entering the home of Navalny’s personal doctor, Anastasia Vasilyeva, went viral after she coolly played Beethoven on the piano during the confrontation.
“You can applaud if you wish,” she said defiantly, before demanding a lawyer be present before she would sign anything.
Hours later she was taken into custody and has since been placed under two months’ house arrest.
Although safe for now in her home in London, Ms Pevchikh also knows what it’s like to be a target for state harassment.
In November, Russian state TV insinuated she was “connected with foreign intelligence services”, labelling her “like one of the James Bond girls in a spy movie” for her role in smuggling the tainted Novichok bottle out of Russia.
She was even smeared with suggestions she was behind Navalny’s poisoning.
According to a joint investigation by Bellingcat and The Insider, an agent from the toxins team of the Russian security service, the FSB, trailed Ms Pevchikh to Siberia in August on an advance trip the week before Navalny was poisoned.
But sparring with Russia’s intelligence services comes with the territory for those in Navalny’s inner circle.
Back in December, Ms Pevchikh was at Navalny’s side when he prank-called the FSB agents behind his poisoning in a bid to extract an unlikely confession.
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“We were just calling number after number. It was about 4:00am, everyone was sleeping. The plan was just to catch them off-guard,” said Ms Pevchikh.
Initially, the ploy didn’t work. The agents refused to talk. But when Navalny changed tack and posed as a superior officer demanding a debrief about the Novichok operation, the team suddenly struck gold.
Ms Pevchikh watched on in stunned disbelief as one of the agents bought into the ruse, revealing details of how the solution of lethal nerve agent was applied to the inner seams of Navalny’s underwear.
What followed, she said, was an hour-long conversation in which “a member of a kill-team confesses to the person who they tried to kill”.
“That was the most unbelievable day in my career. He’s the guy who’s doing the clean-up, so he would go to places where Alexei went afterwards and just clean up,” she said.
“He even specified, you know, the area of the underwear where it was applied and how he was cleaning and washing the seams of [Navalny’s] underpants afterwards.”
The resulting video garnered global media coverage, striking a blow to the image of Russia’s secret agents as crack intelligence officers. Ms Pevchikh can still hardly believe it happened.
“The guy we spoke to was just so stupid,” she said. “I don’t know what’s happening with him now. But it’s sad and funny — and good at the same time.
“It helped us to solve the crime, which to be honest I barely hoped we would ever be able to solve.”
Keeping Navalny alive
Having escaped the political crackdown on her Russia-based colleagues, Ms Pevchikh is now part of a core group of Navalny operatives tasked with keeping the political organisation functioning from abroad while their leader is in prison.
On February 2, Navalny was sentenced to two years and eight months in jail for breaching the terms of a suspended sentence by leaving Russia to seek medical treatment in Germany.
“Our political structure knows how to operate without Alexei being in the office,” Navalny’s chief of staff and key strategist, Leonid Volkov, told Foreign Correspondent from Lithuania.
Mr Volkov, himself the subject of an international arrest warrant, said viral video investigations like Putin’s Palace, along with other efforts to keep Navalny in the public eye, are more important than ever as their boss prepares to enter the brutal Russian prison system.
“He’s in custody of the very people who [tried] to poison and kill him just six months ago,” said Mr Volkov.
“When, as the Kremlin hopes, the dust settles a little bit, it’s easy to stage something when a person’s in prison. Like, OK, it was a conflict with a cellmate or something like this.
“So our task is not to let the dust settle, not to let Navalny disappear from public awareness. Otherwise, his life will be very much in danger.”
The focus for Navalny’s team is now on defeating Mr Putin’s candidates in the upcoming Duma elections in September.
Ms Pevchikh and her investigations unit are already planning their next investigation.
“We are, of course, affected by the fact that Alexei has been put in prison. It’s not nice, it’s not good. We prefer to work when he’s around,” she said.
“But it’s not going to stop us from doing what we’re doing and it’s not going to make our work less noticeable or less effective.”
For now, she takes some sense of satisfaction that her team’s investigations are making life more difficult for Vladimir Putin.
“He definitely cannot live [at the palace] now,” she said. “And I think this is probably why he is most upset with us.”
Watch Foreign Correspondent’s Poking The Bear at 8pm tonight on ABC TV and iview, or streaming live on the ABC News Facebook page and the ABC In-Depth YouTube channel.
#AceNewsDesk report ………Published: Feb.17: 2021:
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