When the rebellious head of a small district near Moscow was summoned to a meeting with an FSB security service general and Kremlin officials, they spelt out in stark terms what awaited him if he refused an order to resign.
Alexander Shestun, 56, was warned he would be hit with trumped-up criminal charges, that his family’s home would be seized and, after a show trial to be accompanied by a vicious state media smear campaign, he would be imprisoned for many years.
The conversation was menacing but also oddly routine. Mr Shestun was not the first insubordinate provincial leader to have been broken this way, the Kremlin’s men boasted. These were not empty threats.
After a court hearing, Mr Shestun faces a long prison sentence, and his case is being used as an open warning to keep servants of the regime in step. It illustrates what happens when officials step out of line or are seen as having betrayed the system they once served.
Although he had been a member of President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party for about a decade, Mr Shestun had an independent and stubborn streak.
In 2017, he disobeyed an order to ban protests against a toxic landfill, said to be controlled by corrupt security officials, in his Serpukhov district, and even used his stretch Mercedes to prevent police breaking up a demonstration. He was also locked in a dispute with Andrei Vorobyov, the Kremlin-loyal governor of the Moscow region, who was aiming to abolish direct elections for district chiefs such as Mr Shestun.
Unknown to the officials who threatened him, Mr Shestun was secretly recording everything. And as the pressure against him grew, he posted the conversations to YouTube in April 2018. The recordings provided a rare and disturbing glimpse into the inner workings of Mr Putin’s system.
“They will steamroll you, and you will have bad f..king problems. You’ll go to jail. Don’t you want to live any more?” a man identified as Ivan Tkachev, a top FSB general, can be heard saying. “They will bury you.”
“Don’t you feel sorry for me?” Shestun countered. “I have five children.”
“I feel sorry, of course, but that’s not what I’m talking about,” General Tkachev replied.
As Mr Shestun tried to argue his case, an infuriated General Tkachev tried one more time to make him see the seriousness of his situation. “Listen, this is a command from the president!” he said. “Move aside.”
Mr Shestun refused to buckle. Retribution was inevitable. On June 13, 2018, on the eve of the World Cup opening ceremony in Moscow, dozens of armed and masked FSB officers stormed the Shestun family home.
He was charged with illicit property deals and taking bribes, which he denied, and locked up in Lefortovo, a former KGB prison in Moscow. As promised, his family home was confiscated.
“He believed that once he had made the audio recordings public, the officials who had threatened him would go to prison instead,” said Mr Shestun’s wife, Yulia, a tireless advocate for his cause, last week. “Like in any normal country.”
On November 20, prosecution lawyers asked a court to imprison Mr Shestun for 20 years. This would be the harshest sentence for economic crimes in modern Russia’s history. “This was like a sledgehammer to the head. This is additional evidence that the charges are politically motivated,” Mr Shestun said in written comments from jail. “This is revenge, I am 100 per cent certain.”
THE SUNDAY TIMES