A Russian pastoral. How a killer sentenced to 21 years in prison was pardoned by Putin and died in the war in Ukraine
Оля Ромашова|Дмитрий Швец
A Russian pastoral. How a killer sentenced to 21 years in prison was pardoned by Putin and died in the war in Ukraine
12 January 2024, 14:27

Denis Zubov's grave. Photo by the Dozor project (Volgograd)

10 years ago, Denis Zubov, a shepherd from the Volgograd region, killed three people: a former girlfriend with whom he worked on a farm, her new lover and a pensioner he met on a bus. He cut off parts of his victims’ bodies in order, as he explained during interrogation, to pose as a serial killer and confuse the investigation. In 2017, Zubov was sentenced to 21 years in a maximum security penal colony, but he was not in prison for long. Mediazona found out that 41-year-old Zubov had been recruited for the war. In the spring of 2023, he died in Ukraine.

“Passed off his actions as ‘a pattern of a serial killer.’” The victims

The crimes committed by Denis Zubov were described in detail by the newspaper Volgogradskaya Pravda. In 2009, Zubov got a job as a shepherd on a cattle farm, where he met Nina Pravdina, a milkmaid. They started dating, but after a while she left him for another farmworker, Valery Melnik.

On 1 September 2013, Zubov decided to visit his former girlfriend and met 63-year-old Melnik at her home.

“Blinded by jealousy, Zubov grabbed his rival by the collar of his jacket and threw him to the ground, delivering random blows to his head and torso,” Volgogradskaya Pravda quoted regional investigator Alexander Sapargaliev of the Investigative Committee’s regional directorate as saying. According to him, it was easy for the young man to deal with Melnyk, who was also drunk that evening. “Zubov wrapped his hands around Melnyk’s head and started beating it on the floor. When the unfortunate man fell silent, Zubov found a knife in the pockets of his outer clothes, stabbed him once in the heart area and then, realizing that Melnyk was dead, cut off his genitals,” Sapargaliyev added.

According to the verdict, Zubov threw the severed penis and scrotum into a canal. The newspaper Volgogradskaya Pravda noted that he later explained this murder as revenge for “violated male honour.”

A few days later, Zubov committed another murder. He spotted a 73-year-old woman on a bus and followed her to her home. “He entered the house and immediately attacked the retiree. First he hit her with his hands, then he saw a wrench, which he used to smash the victim’s head,” Sapargaliev said. Zubov stabbed the woman three times with a kitchen knife, dragged her body to the bed, removed her bra and cut off her mammary glands. During his interrogation, Zubov said that he wanted to confuse the investigation by passing off his actions as the ‘pattern of a serial killer’”, the investigator added. After committing the murder, Zubov inspected the house and took 1,800 roubles. He threw the knife, wrench, and body parts into the river.

That same month, Zubov reunited with Nina Pravdina. They lived together until June 2014. They broke up again because of his jealousy, which eventually led to a decision to kill the woman. On 27 July, Zubov persuaded Nina to meet him in the village of Zenzevatka, lured her into the woods and strangled her. He then buried the body. Nina’s remains were found a year and a half later and, as the verdict states, only a fragment of her lower jaw was found.

After the third murder, Zubov went into hiding in the Saratov region. In 2016, he returned to Volgograd, where he was arrested.

“Individual psychopathic character traits.” The court

Zubov initially confessed, but denied guilt in court, wrote the local news website V1, citing the press service of the regional prosecutor’s office. His involvement in the three murders was confirmed by genetic tests.

The forensic psycho-psychiatric examination found Zubov sane, while the verdict mentions “the presence of the defendant’s individual psychopathic traits within the limits of individual features of the mental norm.” The court considered this a mitigating factor. It also took into account the fact that Zubov had written a confession for each offence and that he had a minor child. Judging from the text of the verdict, this may have been his child with Nina Pravdina. On Zubov’s abandoned VKontakte page, there are photos with an infant and a young woman dated 2011.

The jury found him guilty and undeserving of leniency. On 27 March 2017, the Volgograd regional court sentenced him to 21 years in a maximum security penal colony for murder of two or more people driven by selfish motives and a robbery causing serious damage to health.

“He signed the contract on his own.” Pardon and death at war

A few months after the verdict, Zubov and his lawyer, Natalia Glushko, appealed to the Russian Supreme Court. The convict described the sentence as “excessively harsh” and pointed out that, in his opinion, the court of first instance had seriously violated the norms of criminal procedure, for example in the selection of the jury. According to the complaint, the presiding judge restricted the lawyer’s speeches, failed to respond to unacceptable statements by the prosecutor, and exerted pressure on the jury. Zubov asked that the verdict be overturned, and the case retried, but the Supreme Court left the verdict unchanged.

As Zubov’s sister Tatyana told Mediazona, the man served his sentence in the Surovikino prison colony No. 19 in the Volgograd region. It was there that he was recruited for the war. The order for his pardon, like others, was signed by Vladimir Putin himself.

The grave of 41-year-old Zubov in one of Volgograd’s cemeteries was discovered by activists of the Dozor project in Volgograd, which helps to keep the list of Russian soldiers killed in the war with Ukraine. Zubov’s sister said she knew about her brother’s recruitment and death.

“I was told that he made the decision on his own. We don’t know the circumstances. As the military supervisor told me, he signed the contract on his own. These people, how do you call them, came to their cells,” Tatyana said.

The exact circumstances of Zubov’s death remain unknown. Judging by the date on his gravestone, 20 April 2023, he could have been killed near Bakhmut, like most of the prisoners recruited by the Wagner PMC. But his body was only identified in the end of July, and that’s when the death certificate was issued.

In a conversation with Mediazona, Zubov’s sister Tatyana said she doesn’t think her brother is a serial killer: “He was a normal brother to me. It’s just that he killed his wife, who wasn’t even a wife, just a partner, and left his kid in a forest strip. Yes, I know he got convicted for it. And they also attached some grandma to his case, and some man, too. I talked to him personally, and he said: ‘Tanya, I only smacked her and left the kid in a forest strip, nothing more.’ I’m like: ‘Why the hell did you sign the sentence then?’ And he’s like: ‘They made me.’”

Editor: Maria Klimova

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