Illustration: Maria Granatkina / Mediazona
Two entrepreneurs from Pskov in northwestern Russia set out to deliver humanitarian aid to the Kharkiv region in Ukraine. Immediately after crossing the border, the two men went missing. Their wives are desperately trying to employ the help of Russian authorities in searching for their husbands. Mediazona reports on how patriotic ambition may put one in the fast lane to the frightful unknown.
Minushkins and Matveevs from the Pskov region of Russia are friends as families. Vladimir Minushkin is a hereditary beekeeper and makes his living as a honey salesman. According to his wife, Artyom Matveev works in construction, resells cars and is also a beekeeper. Both wives recently bore children and went on maternity leave.
“We are all patriotic to the bone here, every last one of us,” says Marina Minushkina the moment our conversation about her husband begins.
“The first four days [since the beginning of the war] we always watched the news on Rossiya-24 [TV channel]. He kept going: ‘Oh God! What about the civilians, children, and seniors?’ He was worried about everyone there. And I thought: my God, you have your own half-year-old to take care of, why are you worried about other people and their children?” she continues.
Irina Matveeva states that her husband was friendly with Alexei Maruschenko, an entrepreneur from Saint Petersburg who is also the founder of PMC Mar. According to Belarus authorities, the fighters of this company once were detained in the capital, Minsk, although Maruschenko denied his subordinates’ involvement. Some time later he founded PMC Yastreb.
“One day, he told [our husbands] that they ought to do something good, like gather humanitarian aid for the Luhansk People’s Republic refugees. He gave them the green light, so to speak. So they went ahead with it, rented an office, and hired an employee,” Matveeva recounts.
They had probably hoped that the patronage of a ‘PMC founder’ would somehow reinforce their status: since their charity operated ‘under a PMC’, it meant that ‘it was legitimate without any funny business,’ Marina figures.
According to Minushkina’s assessment, the two businessmen spent around 300,000 rubles in total on advertising and office rent; additionally, they were buying the humanitarian aid, mostly for the affected children, and receiving donations from patrons that she was unfamiliar with. Having started the venture in June, by early July they had enough aid to transport to a region affected by the war.
The aid was, naturally, intended for thore currently living on the territories under Russian control. On VK, one of the major Russian social media platforms, Minushkin’s profile picture is of an aggressive bear with an Orthodox cross and the Russian national flag in the background. The aid office’s Telegram channel posts news stories of Russia’s successes on the battlefield and of supposed Ukrainian savagery.
Since the men did not have their own freight trucks, those were provided by Maruschenko. Early in the morning on July 5th, they departed Pskov. According to Marina Minushkina, her husband assured her that they were going to deliver the aid only to Belgorod, a Russian city near the Ukraine border.
“Our husbands lied to us when they said they were only going to drive as far as Belgorod and there the aid was going to be loaded onto another vehicle. ‘We will just drive it there, and come right back.’ If they said that they had planned on driving all the way to the Kharkiv region, I would have handcuffed my husband to the radiator, and [Irina] would have done the same,” she swears.
Irina Matveeva’s claims are to the contrary: she was aware that her husband was going to Ukraine so that Maruschenko from PMC Yastreb “would have proof of delivery on video for the people that donated to see.”
On the morning of July 7th, Minushkina received a call from her husband who said that they were waiting for a ‘Green corridor’ to the Strelechie settlement, north of Kharkiv, right by the Russian border.
“I said: ‘What do you need the green corridor for if you are not crossing the border?’ And that is when he admitted that they were in fact going to Strelechie. Our last conversation ended in a big fight because I did not think he would lie to me like that,” Minushkina mourns. Vladimir told her of two fellow travellers that they picked up, who left the Kharkiv region when the war broke out and now decided to return with the humanitarian aid.
The next day their husbands disappeared, and all attempts at contacting them proved unsuccessful. By the evening, the wives figured they needed to find a Strelechie community online and ask the people there if they had heard anything of two men that came to their settlement with humanitarian aid.
Irina was not able to find out anything concrete regarding the men’s arrival in Strelechie. According to some, they spent the night at one of the locals’ house and began handing out humanitarian aid the following morning, at which point, they were approached by some men in uniform and went somewhere with them.
“They were put in a car that drove off in an unknown direction. The man, in whose house they spent the night, tried following them, but was told ‘Stop right there! This is none of your business,’” she recounts what she was able to find out.
The second version of the story is more concise: the humanitarian aid was intercepted the moment they crossed the border. Irina does not remember the origin of this inference; she admits that everything that has happened has made her extremely dizzy.
Artyom Matveev’s brother and father also went to Belgorod, where they contacted local authorities—to no avail, says Irina. Maruschenko’s wife was also unsuccessful in her attempts to find out more. “She met up with our people and said: ‘That’s it, I don’t know what to do, I give up, so write, appeal to Putin. Let’s all write a collective letter about this situation, because I don’t know what else to do’,” Minushkina recounts her words.
“Wherever [the father and brother] went, whatever forms they filled out, it seemed that, pardon my French, nobody gave a shit. There was no interest in helping us, we found out that some higher-ups are dealing with this case, but we do not know who they are,” Irina Matveeva continues.
Minushkina appealed to the governor of the Belgorod region, and on the official list, her inquiry was somewhere between ‘Trash removal’ and ‘Security guard’s abuse of power at the Zvyozdny wellness camp’.
Ultimately, she did receive a response, informing her that the case was passed on to the Interior Ministry. She was supposed to be contacted, but not a single phone call was made over two days, and she began losing hope.
Locals from Strelechie told Marina various stories of how it went down. Some called the Russian military ‘ours’, some were uncertain if there was Russian military in their settlement or that of the LPR, and some even bluntly stated: “We don't need your damn humanitarian aid, you can shove it up your ass.
She was also told of numerous detainments and cases of people going missing. Some people were sure that, if the women’s husbands did nothing wrong, they would be released soon, however, it has now been over a week and no word from the men. “Even murderers get a last phone call,” she said confusedly.
PMC founder Maruschenko was nearly powerless to help. The PMC Yastreb shares the same website and social media accounts as the Saint Petersburg-based company Peregovorschik [Negotiator]. The list of their services include: ‘official negotiations up to the international level’, ‘government lobbying’, ‘legal debt collection’.
“Maruschenko and his former company, ‘PMC ‘Mar’ (I put the abbreviation ‘PMC’ in quotes for a reason) first became known around 2015–2016,” explains Ruslan Leviev, founder of Conflict Intelligence Team. “Back then launching a PMC with ex-militiamen was a popular publicity stunt. In fact, most often such ‘PMCs’ had little in common with real private military companies. They would go to Donbas to merely do photoshoots with weapons and machinery. Occasionally some of them would go on guard duty for the humanitarian aid passing through local checkpoints. All in all, these companies and such entities as the Wagner Group are worlds apart. The ‘PMCs’ are merely PR projects.”
Maruschenko’s wife read the Mediazona reporter’s message and did not reply.
Marina Minushkina admits that in light of recent events, she experienced serious disappointment.
“This bear with the Russian flag that he put up [as avatar]—everyone asks about this profile picture, commending him that he is such a patriot of his country. Of course, he is a patriot. We live in Pskov, you cannot not be a patriot here, you’ll die. They’ll kill you. This is city full of military men. Everyone has relatives that are in some way connected to the military, and so do I and so does my husband. Lieutenants, Majors, who, by the way, are unable to help [with the search for the missing husbands] either. This is why I am utterly disappointed. If he comes back alive, I am going to personally close down this aid office of theirs. I don’t even care, he is not going anywhere ever again.”
Originally published on July 16; the whereabouts of these men are still unknown.
Editor: Dmitry Treshchanin
Translation: Sasha Smirnov
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