Ivan Klimov a 24-year-old Siberian triple boxing champion, member of Russia’s national squad and winner of the international Golden Glove championship, was murdered on 23 November 2013 in broad daylight outside the suburban tower block where he lived.
Ivan Klimov a 24-year-old Siberian triple boxing champion, member of Russia’s national squad and winner of the international Golden Glove championship, was murdered on 23 November 2013 in broad daylight outside the suburban tower block where he lived. Thousands of windows look out on the spot, there are dozens of cars parked there, and according to the police and the Investigative Committee (in Russian Sledstvennyi komitet, SK; Russia's equivalent of the FBI), the murder was witnessed by more than a hundred people (and that was only those who gave evidence). The murderer, however, managed to get away, and more than two months later the crime has still not been solved, despite ‘titanic efforts’ by the law enforcers (including more than 40 house searches and 34 forensic examinations of all kinds, 20 of which produced results), not to mention CCTV footage showing the murderer and the car in which he made his escape.
Ivan Klimov's death provoked outrage in his hometown of Omsk and exacerbated existing ethnic tensions in the community. Photo via VKontakte
All, however, are agreed it was a professional hit job, and so probably a contract killing. Klimov was lured out of the building by the alarm on his Chrysler going off, and discovered a slashed tyre. He phoned his friend, the boxer Sergei Sklyarov, on his mobile, asking him to come round with a spare tyre and tools. Meanwhile the killer sneaked up behind him and stabbed him twice with surgical precision, once in the liver and once in the throat, cutting his carotid artery and leaving his body in a pool of blood. It was all over in seconds; even Klimov’s lightning-fast reactions couldn’t save him, he just managed to redial Sklyarov and shout, ‘help me, mate!’ into the phone.
The Roma connection
The murder reawakened the only sensitive issue that evidently hadn’t gone away in Omsk in the stable Putin period – the Russian ultra nationalist, neo-Nazi one. The waves of anger coursing through the internet were all directed at the Port-Artur housing estate, where the local Roma population has been concentrated for many years. The general tone suggested it wasn’t the horrific killing itself that bothered them most, but the identity of the killer, or rather, the ethnic group they believed he belonged to, and there were fears that the situation could turn into a repeat of Biryulyovo. But now that the immediate racist outpourings, which fortunately didn’t spill over into action, have died down it’s clear that the emotions expressed and the reaction called for were as much ‘produced to order’ as the murder itself. And the investigators should be looking at who did the ordering.
‘Get the lads together and kill the gypsies – there’s no other solution!’ - from a blog
The Roma connection, whether real or imagined, was the crux of the matter. It went back to a fight at the city’s Angar nightclub in March last year, involving Ivan Klimov and Yan Lebedev, inevitably described by the local media as ‘son of the Gypsy drug baron.’ According to one version of events, Klimov was protecting a girl who had been harassed by some Roma; according to another, which doesn’t mention any provocation, it was started by Ivan and his friends, also boxers, who didn’t like the way Lebedev and his group were behaving.
Yan Lebedev, who had previously been sought in connection with a non-fatal shooting of Klimov in March, was the prime suspect in his murder.
What is indisputable, because it was recorded on CCTV and turned up on a lot of sites, is that once outside the club, a man resembling Lebedev took a Saiga shotgun out of the boot of his car, waited for Klimov to emerge and shot him from a distance of ten metres or so. The boxer fell to the ground. This happened in front of numerous witnesses and the club’s security people, none of whom tried to either stop it or to apprehend the gunman.
Klimov lost a lot of blood and arrived in hospital in a critical condition. The pellets had severed an artery in his thigh and he almost lost a leg. His recovery was slow and when he died he was getting ready for a trip to Germany for a further operation on the artery but was beginning to train again and planned to return to the ring.
After this incident Yan Lebedev disappeared from sight. The police announced a nationwide search but obviously didn’t look very hard, since the wanted man, while moving around, was on his VKontakte (VK; Russian equivalent of Facebook) page (which displayed his mobile phone number) most days.
Why was Klimov killed?
When Klimov was murdered eight months later, general suspicion naturally fell on Lebedev. As Klimov’s trainer said on a TV chat show in December, the boxer had no enemies ‘apart from that Gypsy.’ The trainer called it a revenge killing, but nobody asked what he thought Lebedev might have been avenging – he had already ruined Klimov’s career, after all. In the same show, Ivan’s friend Sergei Sklyarov told viewers that Lebedev had admitted on VK that he had fired on Klimov, but claimed he just wanted to scare him and hadn’t meant to hit him.
Back in September Klimov’s girlfriend also told a local paper that Lebedev had offered Ivan money to hush the whole business up, which the boxer refused. At that point Lebedev had left Russia and was living in Bishkek, in Kyrgyzstan, where he was arrested in December while attempting to fly to Europe on a false passport – another reason for many commentators to connect him to Klimov’s murder.
Theoretically he could have ordered the killing from Bishkek. But if he thought he’d be safer in Europe, why didn’t he fly there earlier, before the crime took place? Surely he realised he’d be suspect number one. Or if he didn’t, his father the ‘drug baron’ certainly would. Lebedev also didn’t seem to have a lot of money – if his VK page is anything to go by, he drove an ordinary Lada – and a professional killer who leaves no trace doesn’t come cheap.
An anonymous source has suggested a more logical version of events, passed on to us by Sergei Selivanov, a controversial Omsk businessman who heads a civil rights group in the city. According to this source, Yan Lebedev felt quite safe for a good six months after the shooting in March (he was on online most days, had his mobile number on his page) because he had reliable ‘protection’ within the regional police department. But at some point the ‘drug baron’ stopped paying his dues, probably because business wasn’t good: according to Omsk’s business weekly, the Lebedevs recently sold their three storey villa. Perhaps that’s why Yan left for Kyrgyzstan, where the local Roma community took him in. From there he offered the boxer his financial olive branch (according to Klimov’s trainer, 3 million roubles (£60,000). And when this was refused, he got himself the false passport, which cost only slightly less.
The shooting in March had already triggered a flood of anti-Roma abuse online, and the contract on Klimov’s life was designed to keep it coming.
Klimov’s murder, and the furore around it, seems to have taken Lebedev by surprise; his attempted flight to Europe took place three days after the chat show where he was named as a suspect. His mother was dead and his father in prison, so if the police decided to pin it on him he had no one to fight his corner. The shooting in March had already triggered a flood of anti-Roma abuse online, and the contract on Klimov’s life was designed to keep it coming. Several commentators have noted that people who order killings usually try to avoid too much blood, but here was a bloodbath in a crowded place in broad daylight – no one could miss it.
Who stood to gain?
The first person to suggest that the boxer was killed by ultranationalists was Aleksei Barchukov, a prominent Omsk lawyer, who told a local news site, ‘This murder could be useful to anyone who would like to channel their discontent into intercommunity hatred.’ It could, he continued, involve both political and criminal interests, often closely connected, since the ‘Roma connection’ is pretty strong in the drug business, but the Roma are mainly just contractors and are in any case under close police surveillance. Everyone knows this and the law enforcement agencies don’t bother to hide it either.
Klimov's death reverberated even outside his hometown, as this memorial to him in Novosibirsk shows. Photo via VKontakte.
After Lebedev was questioned in Bishkek by the Omsk police, they issued a brief announcement that ‘the information we have received suggests that he is unlikely to have been involved in Klimov’s death.’ However just before New Year the regional SK rebuffed this statement, saying that Lebedev’s guilt or innocence could only be established after his extradition to Omsk and further investigation – which can’t happen soon since he is facing trial in Kyrgyzstan over his false passport. So for the moment Lebedev remains one of the main suspects.
The known facts of the case, however, point to a political, not a personal, motive for the killing. In October, after the events at Biryulyovo, Putin introduced legislation making local and regional authorities responsible for handling interethnic conflicts. In November, at a supposedly spontaneous protest meeting at Omsk’s Lenin Market, business owners accused ‘illegal immigrants’ of not paying their taxes and ruining local traders by undercutting their prices. The local media and prominent political figures seized on the event to predict an open ‘tribal war’, for which the governor and mayor would have to take responsibility. But when the police surrounded the market and carried out a thorough inspection they found neither angry local shop owners nor foreign migrants. The ‘spontaneous’ meeting, it turned out, was most likely a deliberate provocation. Then Ivan Klimov’s murder took place only a couple of days later, and an uncontrollable torrent of xenophobia hit the local blogosphere.
‘For every Russian killed we need to kill ten wogs!’ - from a blog
Among all the online furore an incident from 2008, involving an identical knife killing after a fight in another nightclub, re-surfaced on the site of Omsk’s Business-Kurs weekly. The victim was Yan Lebedev’s step-brother and the alleged killer Igor Avdoshin, a well-know local businessman whose son had been wounded by Lebedev in the fight. Avdoshin however was not brought to trial, as the SK dismissed the case as ‘reasonable force in self-defence.’ This story seems to us to demolish the whole Lebedev revenge scenario: if, after all this time, the drugs baron hasn’t bothered to avenge his stepson’s murder, why would he want to murder Ivan Klimov, whom his son Yan had already disabled?
Could Klimov’s death have a positive result?
This time, after the murder of a boxer who was tipped as a future Olympic medallist, the law enforcement agencies won’t find it so easy to quietly close the case. Too many people are awaiting the results of their investigation. About 20,000 people from all over Russia are signed up to VK groups ‘We won’t forget! We won’t forgive!’ and ‘The people together for Ivan Klimov’, and 46,000 have signed a petition to Vladimir Putin demanding the murderer be found. If earlier these groups had a whiff of the swastika about them, this is no longer the case (and Klimov himself was no Nazi – among his closest friends there were Kazakhs, Armenians and other non-Russians). So the provocateurs failed to create a crowd baying for migrant blood.
If earlier the groups demanding the murderer be found had a whiff of the swastika about them, this is no longer the case.
There is also a group on the internet, with 1800 members, calling itself ‘Yan Lebedev is not guilty of murder.’ A month ago these would have been bitter enemies of the ‘Klimovites’, but now both factions are much more interested in finding out the truth. At a recent memorial meeting for Ivan Klimov, Sergei Selivanov read out, to general applause, part of a blog by a Lebedev supporter, who wrote, ‘Roma are sent to prison for possession of a few grammes of heroin, while the police sell it by the kilo’.
The murder has become the focus for a range of sensitive issues: the drugs mafia, ultra nationalism, corruption, the war between the criminal and power-wielding clans. Its unravelling might affect people at the very top, but it is too late to stop it now. Selivanov believes that if the investigation goes on for long enough, the Lebedev and Klimov supporters’ groups may even come together in a kind of civil society that even the most powerful will find difficult to control.