26 Nov 2020
By Andrei Zakharov, Roman Badanin, OCCRP, 24 November 2020
Viktor Zolotov, head of the National Guard of Russia, visited a village on the Gulf of Finland last year to make a special delivery.
In a solemn ceremony, flanked by troops standing at brisk attention, he presented the commander of a locally stationed National Guard brigade with a red-starred banner that once belonged to a Soviet secret police regiment.
“The troops of law and order are strong with their traditions,” Zolotov said, “and I am convinced that this banner will take an honorable place among the other exhibits … in the renovated brigade museum.”
The event was attended by the regional governor and the heads of local law enforcement agencies. But one person stood out among the dark blue uniforms: a severe-looking woman with a tight ponytail, wearing all black. That woman then accompanied the high-level guest on a museum tour.
As it turns out, she was no ordinary visitor. According to seven separate sources, including several of her acquaintances and business partners, this woman, whose name is Dina Tsilevich, had an intimate relationship with Zolotov that began in the 1990s.
For their own protection, none of the sources agreed to be named in this story, which was produced by OCCRP in collaboration with The Project, an independent Russian publication.
But their claims find support in a leaked ticketing database that shows Tsilevich and Zolotov travelling together between Moscow and St. Petersburg on at least three occasions. Her son’s patronymic , “Viktorovich,” helps bolster the claim, made by two of the sources who know Tsilevich personally, that she and Zolotov had a child together.
Tsilevich is a wealthy woman, with millions of dollars in real estate to her name. She also does lucrative business, worth millions of dollars, with state firms.
For one, according to multiple sources, she represents Baltic Escort, a legendary private security company — which is closely associated with Zolotov — in contract negotiations with its main client, the St. Petersburg energy distributor.
She is also a minority owner of multiple companies that have received difficult-to-obtain permissions to issue employment permits to labor migrants from a state company affiliated with the Interior Ministry.
Strictly speaking, Zolotov’s National Guard is a separate federal body from the ministry. But in practice the two entities are tightly interlinked, both in their operations and through Zolotov’s own biography. Before the National Guard was created and Zolotov named its head in 2016, he served for two years as Russia’s first Deputy Interior Minister, responsible for its interior troops — which were then assigned to his new agency.
Moreover, the level of access to government institutions the otherwise unknown Tsilevich enjoys is difficult to explain except by Zolotov’s possible influence.
When reached by reporters, Tsilevich denied having any relationship with Zolotov, saying she had “no personal contact with him,” and said her son had nothing to do with him. She also said she was not involved in the management of Baltic Escort and did not own the company, though she has known its official owner for many years.
Zolotov’s National Guard and the Interior Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
The Founding Fathers
As head of the National Guard, whose hundreds of thousands of troops include the former “OMON” special police units and “SOBR” rapid response forces, Zolotov is one of Russia’s most influential siloviki, or security officials.
He has also become known for other reasons: His friendship with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, his threat to “make mincemeat” out of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and his family’s dubious acquisition of elite land worth millions of dollars.
But Zolotov’s official biography reveals little about what he did before being named head of President Vladimir Putin’s security detail in 2000, saying only that he “served in various senior military positions in state security bodies.”
The full story of his rise to prominence is far more interesting. Having once worked in an automobile factory, Zolotov was plucked out of obscurity in the last days of the Soviet Union by then-Russian leader Boris Yeltsin’s security chief, who hired him as a bodyguard. When Yeltsin climbed atop a tank in Moscow to decry the hardline anti-Gorbachev putsch in August 1991, Zolotov was captured in a famous photograph standing near his boss.
That same year, Anatoly Sobchak, the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersburg, asked Yeltsin to provide him with a security detail. Zolotov was among those sent to the city, a stint that proved important for his career in part because it led to a series of key introductions.
Among those he met there was Vladimir Putin, then Sobchak’s deputy in the mayor’s office.
Another was Roman Tsepov, a notorious figure often described as an intermediary between the criminal world and official St. Petersburg. Tsepov figured in several criminal cases that included allegations of illegal weapon possession and extortion, but he always avoided court — a fact many in the media attributed to his connections in the government.
In 1992, Tsepov founded Baltic Escort, a security agency that grew infamous as it conquered the St. Petersburg market. His official co-owner in the enterprise was a former KGB officer. But according to an acquaintance who spoke with reporters on condition of anonymity for safety reasons, the agency’s secret “third founder” was Zolotov. The future National Guard head “stood at the origins of the Baltic Escort,” the acquaintance said, “but because of his [official] status he could not officially be listed as an owner.”
One of Baltic Escort’s clients in those years was Deputy Mayor Putin, as Tsepov recalled in a 2003 interview with Gorod magazine. He explained that the mayor’s office hired the company to guard Putin because, while he was not entitled to state protection, there were “serious reasons to think that an attempt [on his life] was being prepared.”
As a result, the three men were known to be associated with each other. “Everyone understood,” a close acquaintance of Tsepov explains. “There was Putin, under him was Zolotov, and Roma [Tsepov] was his man.”
In 1996, Sobchak lost his bid for reelection and Putin left for Moscow, where he found a job in Yeltsin’s presidential administration.
As Tsepov’s two acquaintances recalled, before leaving for Moscow to work for Putin, Zolotov stayed on in St. Petersburg for a while to work at Baltic Escort. “In essence, he was [Tsepov’s] deputy,” one of them said.
In 2004, Tsepov died after a sudden illness that doctors suspected was the result of a poisoning. Zolotov, who by now had served for four years as head of Putin’s security service, was among the dozens of officials and underworld figures who paid their respects at his funeral. There, he gave a toast pledging to find Tsepov’s killers, one attendee recalls.
Today, the security business Tsepov left behind is represented by several affiliated legal entities. But most of its business is done by Baltic Escort Holding, a company that has earned between $4 and $6 million in annual revenues over the last five years. It has won tenders worth about $43 million from its largest client, the St. Petersburg power grid company Lenenergo, since 2012.
Read more at OCCRP
RiskScreen: Eliminating Financial Crime with Smart Technology
Count this content towards your CPD minutes, by signing up to our CPD WalletFREE CPD Wallet