All around the world, dirty money pollutes public and private life. Those who wield it are a diverse cast of businessmen, politicians, and criminals - and sometimes, they're all three. In this anthology, Vanessa Kirby meets the investigators using open source intelligence to expose the murky relationship between international institutions and Russian financial crime. In Part 2, investigative journalist Olesya Shmagun goes on record with her efforts to expose the financial dealings of a wealthy musician with close ties to the Kremlin. But working against corruption inside the Russian Federation isn't without risk. Would you poke the bear?
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True Spies, Russia’s Laundromat Part 2: The Godfather

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Vanessa Kirby, and this is True Spies, Russia’s Laundromat Part 2: The Godfather. This story begins in a darkened concert hall in Moscow. A 20-something investigative journalist is moments away from revealing the details of a bombshell report. At its center, one of the very musicians she’s paid good money to see. He’s a man who claims little to his name. But in fact, he’s one of President Putin’s closest companions. So close, in fact, that the journalist and her colleagues will later call him Putin’s ‘secret caretaker’. But for now, nobody knows the scale of his fortunes, or the scope of his corruption. Nobody but our young journalist and her colleague, sitting in the dark, waiting and wondering what will happen when the truth comes out.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: You don't always feel danger, because basically you don't know. You might write about something less important than Putin and you get screwed, and you might write for your whole career about very high corruption and you will be safe. The problem is that you never know and there are no indicators that you can predict.

NARRATOR: In last week’s True Spies, we introduced you to Roman Borisovich, a financier who went undercover to expose Britain’s complicity in laundering dirty Russian money. He posed as a health minister and told five different real estate agents that he intended to use stolen money to purchase a London flat. Roman had all sorts of worries about the outcome of that operation: that he’d be caught in the act, that the police might be called, a lawsuit filed. But he didn’t fear for his safety. He knew he was protected in his adoptive country, even if unmasking some unflattering truths. But this week, our three-part series continues with a story about exposing corruption from within Russia itself. And for the woman at its center, safety cannot be guaranteed.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: My name is Olesya. I'm a journalist from Russia, currently based in Latvia.

NARRATOR: She is working to expose the same crooked practices that Roman attempted to uncover. But for her, the stakes are different.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: In Russia it's quite dangerous. It has always been dangerous to work as journalists. And I would even say that it's not only dangerous to be an investigative journalist because even at a local scale, in many cases, people are beaten and killed and everything. So it's like something you always have in your mind.

NARRATOR: At least 58 journalists have been killed in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Many more have been jailed, fined, and detained. According to Reporters without Borders some have even been tortured. In 2021, Russia landed at number 150 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index; this year, that ranking dropped to 155. A draconian media landscape restricts what journalists can say and publish about the Russian state. Censorship has only worsened since the pandemic began. And over the past few months, as the country has waged its war against Ukraine, foreign correspondents and other independent media personnel have left the country in a mass exodus as Putin’s government has tightened its control over the media and the way reality itself is presented to the Russian people. As a result, the truth about corruption in Russia can fall on deaf ears.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: It's always difficult to make a point about whose lives are affected by corruption because it's like there is a very long way from, I don't know, a poor worker in some distant city of Russia and these luxurious villas in France. And I think all these people in Russia who actually got robbed, they don’t always understand that.

NARRATOR: For Russian citizens, Olesya says, corruption is like the weather.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: It's so in the fabric of everything. It's so involved in everything in the state. So I think people don't pay attention to it because they see it everywhere and they don't think they can change it. 

NARRATOR: Olesya now works for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, or OCCRP. She describes her job as a process of connecting the dots, making it clear that the palaces Russian government officials and their friends own within Russia and around the world were bought with funds taken from their own constituents.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: It's actually purchased with the money that might be spent on education, on medicine, etc. So people see what terrible conditions they are living in, but they cannot always make this link to all this wealth. 

NARRATOR: You might recall that Putin himself has been linked to one of these homes, according to an investigation by Alexei Navalny, featured in episode 43 of True Spies. It’s a home worth nearly $1bn that Navalny says was purchased on the back of a complex corruption scheme.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: Many people say, “Yeah, he's a president. He deserves this luxury.” And sometimes it's hard to explain to them that it's actually money that is stolen.

NARRATOR: The tools of an award-winning journalist like Olesya are honed and refined over the course of many years on the job. But many of the techniques she uses, and the sources she turns to, are available to anyone with the curiosity and instincts of a dogged reporter.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: I'm working with a wide range of open sources. Every step of your life actually leaves traces. When you were born, you had a birth certificate. When you get married, you get a marriage certificate. So, there are a lot of databases, mostly official, governmental, that contain all this information. So it depends on the story you are working on. You just think of what kind of trace this information would leave or what kind of information you are looking for, and by that you understand where to go.

NARRATOR: That means making records requests, trawling online databases, searching land registries and commercial registries. But it also means searching the very same websites, the very same apps, that ordinary people like you and I are likely to use every day.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: Of course, we are using social networks as well as fishing for connections. Like if you have a person who owns a big business, right, who is a big contractor to a state agency, let's say, you need to know what this person is, who he is, and if he has any connection to your official. And you can see them in Facebook Friends, right? Or they might study in the same school. So it's always a strategy that you need to create for every investigation.

NARRATOR: According to Olesya, investigative reporters source their stories three different ways.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: You can either get it from a leak, so a source would come to you and show you some documents or tell a story, and you will have a hitch to investigate. Or you have to follow the news. And sometimes you see that something is not right. Like an unknown person just got a big stake in an important enterprise, for example. And you know that you need to look it up to understand who he is because he might have some high connections.

NARRATOR: But the third way of finding a story, Olesya says, is the most important way. It’s also the most challenging. 

OLESYA SHMAGUN: What we call fishing. So for example, you ask yourself a question: Okay, who are the main contractors to this particular state agency or state company? And you go through all contractors and look at what companies they are at because in many cases the main contractor would belong to a person who has close connections to a state official. And you see the conflict of interest. That's an example of fishing.

NARRATOR: For a seasoned fisherwoman, casting a net beyond Russia’s borders can be a powerful way of catching some big fish. 

OLESYA SHMAGUN: For example, you can look at all owners of villas in France, for example, all Russian owners, let's say to make the number smaller. So you look at the long list of people who own property in France, and you might see a very interesting name that may be a relative of an official who does not have an income to really afford this property. And that gives you a story about unexplained wealth, for example.

NARRATOR: And that’s precisely how some of her biggest stories have begun.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: This is how I found this new husband of Putin's ex-wife in Biarritz. I was going through the long list of owners, and I saw this name, Ocheretny, and I thought, “Yeah, it sounds very, very familiar.”

NARRATOR: Ocheretny, meaning Artur Ocheretny, the second husband of Lyudmila Ocheretnaya, formerly Putina, a woman two decades his senior. In 2017, Olesya and her team at OCCRP discovered that Ocheretny was the owner of an estate in the South of France worth up to 7 million euros - a villa with marble floors, a swimming pool, a private park, and a music pavilion. Nothing to sneeze at.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: But when you look at this person, you see that he has no legitimate explanation of such wealth.

NARRATOR: Ocheretny was the director of a non-profit organization and not someone who could easily provide the sort of lavish lifestyle that the former first lady was used to. And his new wife’s asset declarations didn’t explain how he purchased the property, either. 

OLESYA SHMAGUN: It's a curious story and it's definitely a story on corruption.

NARRATOR: Olesya and her team weren’t able to pinpoint exactly where the money came from. But it was certainly a case where following the scent of something fishy was a worthwhile exercise. Going fishing can be a thankless task. Sometimes you spend all day waiting for a bite only to find yourself catching flies and the odd rubber boot. 

OLESYA SHMAGUN: But there are no such cases in Russia. Every industry you fish, you will find the case of conflict of interest or nepotism. It's a very difficult job because you are always searching and you are always in the process of looking and you're not sure if you spend another month, it'll give you a story or not. But at the same time, when you find a story, it's usually a big story compared to other countries because in Russia, stealing 1 million is nothing. We always talk about billions, unfortunately.

NARRATOR: Investigating people like Ocheretny is Olesya’s bread and butter. In the murky swamp surrounding Vladimir Putin, she knows where to cast her line to find those hidden millions and billions. And every so often, information comes out that makes it possible to crack open the big stories, the ones that reveal the scale of the corruption and the tricks people use to hide it from view.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: We work a lot with offshores and there is no easy way to find out the beneficial owner. That's why we use leaks so much. Because in some cases open records wouldn't show you what you're looking for. But that's why these huge leaks are so important, because they show you what is going on behind fences.

NARRATOR: And that brings us to the biggest leak of all time: the Panama Papers. Don’t remember all the way back to 2016? Here’s a refresher. It all began with a group called Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based legal firm quietly providing services to offshore companies.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: This is basically a law firm that provided a wide range of services for wealthy clients. They can establish an offshore company for you. They can provide you with nominee directors and shareholders so your name would never appear on any registry openly. And they also provide different fiduciary services. 

NARRATOR: An anonymous source leaked 2.6 terabytes of data to a German newspaper disclosing more than 40 years of data on Mossack Fonseca’s clients. That paper called on the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to mobilize a team of investigators around the world to make sense of the data. 

OLESYA SHMAGUN: It was a collaboration of hundreds of journalists around the world. We all worked together. And that gave us the opportunity to make international stories, because, as we always say in OCCRP, organized crime is international. So international efforts needed to expose it. And that's why our work sometimes is even more successful than law enforcement. Because law enforcement cannot work together in international teams because a lot of bureaucracy is involved. And journalists can just set up a group and start investigating internationally. 

NARRATOR: And that’s a key part of investigating corruption. Because as Roman showed the British public, dirty money is everywhere you look. And: where you might not think to.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: All these kleptocrats, they like to park the money in Europe, in America. So you need to understand how corporate records work in different countries. And that's why international cooperation is so important, because I know how records in Russia work and my colleague from Germany would know whom to speak to in Germany or where to look in Germany records.

NARRATOR: For Olesya and her colleagues, the anonymous leak was a game-changer.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: We found a lot of politicians, a lot of politically exposed persons from Russia because we were working mostly on Russians, of course. And that provided a huge insight about how many politicians, actually, are hiding behind offshore or secretly owning billions of dollars. I got involved in the Panama Papers in September of 2015. And a colleague of mine invited me to this small gathering of journalists involved in the project. And we were, we already did very brief research in the data. So somebody came up with the name Roldugin.

NARRATOR: Sergei Roldugin. Maybe not number-one on a western list of oligarchs to watch. But certainly a known entity in Russia. Roldugin was a musician living in St. Petersburg, a respected classical cellist. 

OLESYA SHMAGUN: Unlike many others who were referred to as a close friend of Putin, he really knows him from his childhood. Right? Because I think in Western press, it's common to call any person from Russia, especially if we're talking about oligarchs, a friend of Putin. But it's not always the case. Not every famous person from Russia is a friend of Putin.

NARRATOR: But Roldugin, he was the real deal. The two were thick as thieves, so to speak.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: They’ve known each other since childhood. And Roldugin, actually was the guy who introduced Putin to his future wife, Lyudmila.

NARRATOR: Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. 

OLESYA SHMAGUN: And Roldugin is a godfather of Putin's first daughter, Maria.

NARRATOR: Putin offers up a great deal about his dear friend Sergei in his biography, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President. In it, he recalls inviting Roldugin to his dacha and dancing the night away in celebration of Maria’s birth in 1985. For his part, Roldugin once said publicly that Putin was “like a brother” to him. And yet, while the majority of Putin’s buddies were known to be men of extraordinary wealth, Roldugin was a musician on a very modest salary.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: Many of Putin's old friends became very wealthy during his presidency, right? So Roldugin was a rare example who did not start a business since Vladimir Putin became president.

NARRATOR: Or at least not to anyone’s knowledge. Roldugin was careful to make himself seem like a man of limited resources. Wealthy? Yes. Oligarch wealthy? No. In 2014, he came under scrutiny as a 4% stakeholder of Rossiya Bank - a bank that has earned itself the moniker ‘Putin’s personal cashbox’. Rossiya was set up in the early 90s with funds from the Communist Party, as the Soviet Union was collapsing. A collective of Putin’s closest friends pooled their money into a shared account. When in 2014 it was revealed that Roldugin was a major stakeholder of the bank, the cellist was the artistic director of the House of Music, a conservatory in St. Petersburg. He told The New York Times that he invested in Rossiya because, as he put it, “There was no money for art anywhere.” And he also said in plain language: “I’ve got an apartment, a car, and a dacha. I don’t have millions.” But if Roldugin owned a major stake in Rossiya, he likely wasn’t revealing the extent of his wealth. It wasn’t until April 2016, with the 11.5 million secret documents known as the Panama Papers, that the fuller picture would be made clear thanks to Olesya.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: When we started to look into real documents, we saw a real picture of the business empire. And that's when we realized it would be a huge and very interesting story.

NARRATOR: Let’s recap: Sergei Roldugin was a longtime friend of Vladimir Putin and the godfather of his first-born child. Journalists had suspected Rodulgin might have more money than he claimed. But it wasn’t until the Panama Papers leak that Olesya and her colleagues were able to uncover the scope of his wealth.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: Basically, our story was showing how he got money and how he spent it. And he got it in a very, let's say, suspicious way that should have raised red flags in any banks involved. And yeah, from the documents, we also saw how he spent this money.

NARRATOR: Of course, trawling through the countless pages of documents leaked to the press would not be a one-woman job. Olesya worked with a team and broke down the task - and the massive troves of hidden money - down to more manageable sums.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: So we started with very basic stuff. It was three of us who were working on the story. 

NARRATOR: Six companies held assets linked to Roldugin, including a Sonnette Overseas in the British Virgin Islands, and International Media Overseas in Panama. 

OLESYA SHMAGUN: These two belonged to Rodulgin directly, but others were represented by the same people [where] documents were sent in the same patch by the same people. So we split six companies between three of us and started looking document by document, started reading it, and trying to understand what it is about. I would say that every company would play a certain role.

NARRATOR: Those companies were all linked to the same cohort of Swiss lawyers, who in turn could all be traced back to Bank Rossiya. “Putin’s personal cash box.” The largest of those companies had a turnover of $2bn. As the team began to peel back layer upon layer obscuring Roldugin’s wealth, they identified several specific ways that his accounts received funding. First of all…

OLESYA SHMAGUN: Loans from big businessmen from Russia. But all these businessmen were from a very close circle of Putin's. And he got loans with interest rates like one percent - so very, very low. That made us think that this is not really a commercial loan, but more like gifts. And especially because there was no information how Roldugin really got that back. So it was gifts of money, formalized like loans.

NARRATOR: Put simply, Rodulgin held money given to him by the Russian oligarchs, the people closest to Putin, and those who held some of the most power in post-Soviet Russia. Another source? Also, allegedly, loans from a bank.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: It's a Cyprus bank. But the majority stake at that time belonged to the Russian State Bank. And again, the interest rate was very low and it seems that he never returned any of this money. So this shows us how it basically goes from a state institution to Roldugin's pocket.

NARRATOR: Some of those six companies linked to Rodulgin took out loans from the Cyprus-based bank and distributed them to still more companies. All in all, it made for a tangled web of donations, loans, and investments, all of which was coordinated by Putin’s closest allies. They also racked up their funds, in large part, by buying stocks and making carefully premeditated cancellations.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: Roldugin would sign two contracts the same day, one to buy stakes, and second is cancellation agreement. But ‘cancellation agreement’ implies a reward for Roldugin. 

NARRATOR: A reward to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Roldugin would send a contract to Mossack Fonseca for the purchase of stocks and another that would guarantee him up to a quarter of a million dollars if the agreement was not carried out. But because the two contracts were executed at the same time, he could be assured to receive the cancellation payment. These sorts of manipulations were also used in the Sergei Magnitsky case. Go back to Episode 53: Russia’s Most Wanted for a deeper dive into that. Rodulgin also made vast sums of money by purchasing stocks of Russian companies and then immediately selling them back for a profit. According to Olesya and her colleagues, these sorts of deals may simply have been a red herring, a way of hiding the true source of other payments.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: There were different experts in different fields that walked us through all the red flags that might be seen in this document. I remember how it was a Lithuanian colleague who shared his opinion on the documents that we see. And he told us that it looks very much like money laundering because it was a Lithuanian bank involved. So there were different experts from different countries as well.

NARRATOR: The billions of dollars moving through this labyrinthine network were used in part to buy Russian real estate. But the offshore companies also held massive stakes in Russian companies, including the country’s largest seller of television advertising and its largest producer of trucks. The big takeaway? Putin’s best friend, and many of their buddies, held major investments in some of Russia’s biggest companies and were receiving huge profits from them. And they were able to buy those stakes for next to nothing. In previous years, Putin had called for “de-offshorization”, essentially, for Russian money to come out of hiding. But even though the net worth of the Russian president remains uncertain, investigations like Olesya’s make it crystal clear. Putin is surrounded by secret, and sometimes stolen wealth. It’s customary for a journalist to ask the subject of her story for comment prior to publication. But in Olesya’s world, things work a little differently.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: In Russia, it rarely happens because nobody would speak to a journalist. Nobody answers your phone calls, nobody agrees to meet you. It's impossible.

NARRATOR: But. Sergei Roldugin was not your typical kleptocrat. 

OLESYA SHMAGUN: Roldugin is not only a secretive oligarch, right? He is a public musician. So I checked his time schedule.

NARRATOR: His time schedule meaning his list of upcoming performances. Olesya wanted to confront Roldugin on his home turf, a concert hall.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: And I found a few dates where we could go there because it was closer to our publication date. That was very important because in Russia, again, it is different from how international journalists work. We don't want to give the main character too much time to answer because he might try to act before you publish anything.

NARRATOR: Remember: this is a dangerous job Olesya is doing. She can’t be certain if her physical wellbeing is at risk. And the reputational damages are likely to be painful, too, once the president’s inner circle denounces her work - as they most assuredly will. But those worries will have to wait. Olesya has a concert to attend.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: It wasn't just me. It was me and Roman Anin, my colleague. It was two of us. It was in a conservatory in Moscow. I don't remember what performance it was exactly. But it wasn't very important for us.

NARRATOR: Fair enough. There are surely better circumstances under which to enjoy a night out.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: It was funny because it was Roman who bought the tickets, and I don't remember exactly, but I suppose it was Tuesday then. I spent a lot of time choosing my dress to go there. So we went there. We went to the conservatory and went inside. We were very nervous because it was important to be there. And when we showed tickets to the guard he didn't let us in. And it was a shock, like, ‘Okay, he knows something.’

NARRATOR: Pause for a moment. Imagine being in Olesya’s position. You’re in a race against time to get a comment from this slippery oligarch - Putin’s dear old friend. Had you come sooner, your story would have been pilloried by the government and its cronies before it could ever see the light of day. But miss this chance and you’ll be up against the publication date with no word from the subject himself. As a journalist, it’s your job to get all sides of this story - even if some of them are of questionable veracity. Without that, your reputation will be on the line and you’ll be even more vulnerable to attacks by the state. Now you’re at the door of the concert hall where the cellist is about to perform. Your heart is pounding in your chest. And the guard knows something you don’t know.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: He told us, "But no, it's not today. It's tomorrow."

NARRATOR: Well, better a day early than a day late. The mix-up took the pressure off Olesya and Roman. When they returned the next night, they were feeling lighter. Less nervous for the most part.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: Roman bought tickets to the first row. So we were sitting right in front of Roldugin and I was wondering if he would see my face and see how I looked at him differently from other people. It's like I was looking directly at him and he was playing and sometimes he had his eyes closed, like he was very into music, but sometimes he, I believe, looked at me and he knew I looked suspicious. But maybe I'm exaggerating, of course.

NARRATOR: Would they really politely sit through the whole show before confronting the cellist? Olesya decided it was better to take care of things before the evening ran away with them.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: It was in two parts. And after the first part, I told Roman, it's time to go. If we wait till the end of the second part, he will probably just disappear. but this is a good time to try to find him.

NARRATOR: But find him where? And get to him how? It’s not like these two young journalists were brandishing their press passes.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: And I didn't know if it was at all possible, but we were lucky so we could go through a small door to the place where dressing rooms are.

NARRATOR: The door, to their relief, was open. Olesya and Roman could waltz right in, joining the queue of people wanting to speak with the famed musician.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: So that's when one person started his conversation with Roldugin with something like, "Hi. You probably remember me from childhood. I started with you, but now I'm doing finance." And Roldugin was like, "Oh, no, finance, I don't know anything about finance."

NARRATOR: Oh really, Mister Roldugin?

OLESYA SHMAGUN: This kind of thing just happened. Like, it was a coincidence.

NARRATOR: Olesya and Roman could have called him on his bluff then and there. But Roldugin went further.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: He answered that guy, saying that he knows nothing about finance and even his cello is secondhand.

NARRATOR: Even his cello is secondhand. Credit to this guy for sticking to the script.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: We were trying not to show how happy we were to hear this fruitful thing he was accidentally saying. And then we took a moment to say hi, to attract his attention and to say, “We're journalists. We really want to talk to you.” And I don't think we disclosed the topic in advance but he probably understood because the day before we sent him our questions. And actually we expected him to say, "I don't have time. Go away." But he was very polite. He told us, "Okay, I'll talk to you. Wait a moment." And he finished conversation with someone else in the line and then walked us into his dressing room.

NARRATOR: Strangely hospitable behavior for someone who likely already knew he was under scrutiny. Olesya was on alert.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: I remember I put my dictaphone on record, like in secret. Just to have the record, not to forget what he was saying. And we were asking questions about all these offshores. And I think somebody was naturally playing the role of good cop and bad cop.

NARRATOR: Roman asked general questions while Olesya grilled Roldugin on the details, calling him out when the facts didn’t line up.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: The conversation probably lasts for, I don't know, five to 10 minutes maximum. And then he told us something like, "Okay, these are very interesting questions. I need some time to gather information. I want to address them properly. So let's talk in a better situation and better time. Call me." And of course, we tried to call him, tried to email him, but he never answered after that.

NARRATOR: Still, it was a victory for the two journalists. They’d got what they came for. And Roldugin was even polite to them about it. 

OLESYA SHMAGUN: We were very happy. We did everything, so we enjoyed the music. The second part.

NARRATOR: Two performances for the price of one.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: And then we went off. We went to the next bar, like the bar next door to have a good drink to celebrate. And Roman told us something like, “Yeah, we need to write down what he has said so not to forget.” And then I took my dictaphone and said, “Yeah, I have it recorded.”

NARRATOR: Masterful. Of course, what happened afterward felt less triumphant. In the concert hall and in the bar, Olesya could celebrate their victory. But she was still living in an oppressive environment for people working to circulate the truth. And the set of truths she’d be publishing would not be pleasing to the president or his friends. 

OLESYA SHMAGUN: A few days after, an official spokesman to the President held a press conference before our publication, claiming that our publication would be a lie about President Putin. He didn't try to prevent us from publishing, but he tried to discredit our article even before the publication.

NARRATOR: Olesya and her colleagues published their article The Secret Caretaker in April of 2016. Its title came from someone who knew Roldugin well. Putin’s trusted friend, the source said, could be described as the president’s caretaker, a keeper of his secrets and protector of his fortunes. In the aftermath of the revelations, Olesya never faced direct threats but a pall of suspicion hung over her newsroom.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: I remember it was said by someone that there were suspicious cars spending time near Novaya Gazeta, where we were working from. So there were some red flags for us. But it was very important to me to stay in Russia during the investigation and when we published. Because at that time, I thought, “That's it.” It was not too dangerous to stay there. So I wanted to be there. After we published, even Putin himself said that the article was so well written - as if it were lawyers who wrote it because I think they were looking for something to sue us for, or to claim that it's not correct.

NARRATOR: That was the environment Olesya left behind when she decided to move to Latvia, to trade the suspicion and aggression of the Russian authorities for the relative freedoms of life in the European Union. For years, Olesya traveled back and forth from Riga to Moscow but last year she decided it was time to go home.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: We were with my husband. We were actually arranging our life in Moscow. We rented our flat in our favorite district of Moscow, and we already imagined what kind of fabulous life we will be living in Moscow because I miss Moscow very, very much. And then I was proclaimed a foreign agent.

NARRATOR: A foreign agent. So unwelcome was Olesya’s work on the corruption of Russian politicians and their cronies that her government labeled her an enemy of the state. And that upped the stakes for her in a tangible way.

OLESYA SHMAGUN: It happened a year ago in August 2021. It just, like your name just one day appears on the website of the Ministry of Justice, or of the so-called Ministry of Justice. And yeah, that's how I knew that I'm a foreign agent. That was a clear sign that they know your name. It's like a mark that they are looking at you very closely. It's sad but it's only when you really think of how things might be different that you feel that it's sad because otherwise it’s just...Your life is in Latvia. And all your relatives live in different countries, of course. I'm looking at my colleagues in European countries or in the US, who are praised for their work. And only then start to imagine how it might be if the political situation was different. I might have done the same job and feel safe in my own country. But for me it's not the case.

NARRATOR: Today, Olesya is still living in Latvia, still investigating dirty money in her home country and around the world. But as time passes, it’s harder to envision her giggling with a colleague in a darkened theater, or celebrating their successes over a round of drinks. It’s harder for her to fathom finding much to celebrate at all. 

OLESYA SHMAGUN: The older I get, if I can say so, the more dangerous it seems. And for now, I really understand what it means because when I was young, it was more glamorous and -I don't know - fun. But now you really understand what it is. I would say I like my job a lot but... Yeah. Sometimes I feel it's all useless, and sometimes I feel desperate because when I see how people in Russia in many cases support what is going on in Ukraine, that just doesn't go into my mind. That is just too terrible.

NARRATOR: Regardless of where you live, following the trail of Russian cash leads you all over the world. 

OLESYA SHMAGUN: What is, let's say, stolen in Russia never stays in Russia. It goes abroad.

NARRATOR: And according to next week’s expert, it might even lead you to some of the biggest threats faced by the democratic world.

OLIVER BULLOUGH: If these countries are going to have any chance of breaking free of this sort of predatory political elite who've colonized them, then at the very least foreigners need to start helping the good guys instead of helping the bad guys.

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next time to learn the secrets of the world’s most powerful butler. Or, if you’re a subscriber to *Spyscape Plus* on Apple Podcasts, there’s no need to wait. You can listen to it right now.

Guest Bio

Olesya Shmagun is a Russian investigative journalist who has worked for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). She has won many awards including the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting as a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists working on the Panama Papers archive.

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