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June 14, 2023 31 mins

On March 23rd 2022, affluent Russian businessman Vasily Melnikov was found dead alongside his family in their upscale Moscow apartment. They’d all been stabbed to death: Vasily, his wife, and their two sons aged 4 and 10 years old. The killings were brutal and tragic. In the crime scene photos one of the murder weapons can be seen. It's a Russian Special Forces combat knife... 

In this episode we investigate the Melnikov family annihilation. Did Vasily kill his whole family as the Russian police claim, or is something else going on?

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:01):
Something strange is going on. Who is killing Russian billionaires?

Speaker 2 (00:06):
Another Russian oligarch has been found dead.

Speaker 1 (00:08):
Reports suggests that he hanged himself, fell out of a window,
slashed his wrists, was poisoned, murdered his whole family.

Speaker 2 (00:16):
Last year, more than a dozen Russian oligarchs died in
the space of nine months. Many of the deaths are
suspicious with links to the Kremlin. This is sad Oligach,
an investigation into.

Speaker 1 (00:29):
These recently dead Russian billionaires.

Speaker 2 (00:32):
It's created by me Jake Hanrahan and my colleague Sergey Slipchenkov.
Sad Oligarch is a H eleven production for Kulsomidia and
iHeart Radio. In the space of a year, more than

a dozen rich Russian businessmen have died in either brutal
or mysterious circumstances. Fell out of windows, some had heart attacks,
and a few even killed their whole families before committing suicide.
The official line from the Russian authorities is that most
of these deaths were accidents or violent consequences of mental illness,

and maybe that's true. But considering the majority of these
dead rich Russians are either outright oligarchs or have other
links to the Kremlin. It's possible that something much dark
it is taking place. These deaths have all occurred within
the backdrop of the Ukraine War, a brutal invasion that

has shown the whole world that Russia's President Putin is
both ruthless and brazen. Maybe the Kremlin has been tying
up loose ends or making examples of those who go
against them, as several of these dead oligarchs have for
some war can actually be bad for business. In this project,

Sad Oligarch, I'll be investigating the numerous strange deaths of
these rich Russian businessmen. I'll be doing this with my
friend and colleague, journalist Sergei Slipchenko. We believe that to
understand how these businessmen died is to understand more realistically
how the Kremlin truly operates. Now, of course, we're not

the only reporters to have done this. We're relying on
the work of many other sources and people who are
helping us, some of them can't be named. To appreciate
the relevance of these deaths, I think it's best to
first understand the role of the oligarch within Russia. Now

side note, we do have oligarchy in the West as well,
we just tend to refer to it by different terms,
such as lobbying. Anyway, for this series, we'll be focusing
on Russia.

Speaker 1 (02:56):

Speaker 2 (02:56):
Admittedly, not all of the dead Russians in this series
are necessarily starred up oligachs. They've often been branded as
such by Western media, but it doesn't always apply. The
lines are blurry. We're using the term loosely to help
understand a complicated situation. Ultimately, though, all the dead businessmen

were wealthy via employment in Kremlin linked business or otherwise
had connections to the Russian government, oligach branding or not.
But what actually is an oligach? An oligach put simply
is a wealthy businessman with deep political power and connections

to government.

Speaker 1 (03:40):
Whilst Russia has.

Speaker 2 (03:41):
A specifically recent history of oligachs since the fall of
the Soviet Union, the oligarch is by no means a
Russian concept only. However, in Russia oligarchs are often very
useful for the government when they're trying to dodge sanctions.
This is usually due to the complicated rupture of their
firms and shareholdings. We'll go into this in detail in

a later episode, As you'll see, many of the dead
Russian businessmen of the last twelve months shares several characteristics
with the tried and tested Oligachs. One of the first
murders we're looking into occurred just one month after the

Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is what happened to Vasily Melnikov.
On March twenty third, twenty twenty two, affluent Russian businessman
Vasily Melnikov, forty one, was found dead alongside his family
in their upscale Moscow apartment in the Nisney Novgorod area.

The family nanny discovered them. They'd all been stabbed to death, Vasily,
his wife, and their two sons, aged four and ten
years old. The killings were brutal and tragic. Straight away,
some European media outlets speculated that it could be a

contract killing an assassination. According to the police in Moscow,
though it was a murder suicide. They state that Vasily
stabbed his own family to death before killing himself, also
with a knife. Case closed. There's currently no verified indication
as to why this atrocity happened. Outwardly, things seemed to

be going well for Vasily Melnikov, him and his family
had just returned from a luxury holiday in the Maldives.
Vasily's company, Medstom, had just secured a lucrative three point
five million dollar contract. However, despite this success, and unnamed
source told Russian media that Vasily was apparently suicidal and

had confided this to his wife. There's no indication though,
as to why he would so callously take Kisshole family
with him.

Speaker 1 (06:05):

Speaker 2 (06:06):
On the face of it, this could just be a
case of a rich guy who went berserk and killed
his whole family before committing suicide. Maybe it really is
an open and shut case. It's possible. Sadly, things like
that do happen. However, when me and Sergey started looking
into the Melnikov murder suicide, we noticed a few unusual details.

What specifically caught our eye was one of the knives
used in the killings. In one of the crime scene photos,
the murder weapon, a tactical style knife, was seen resting
on a kitchen unit with blood on the end of
the blade. Molded into the handle was the insignia of
Russia's Special Rapid Response Team. They used the acronym SOBR,

which was also visible in the handle of the knife.
The SOBR or Sobber is an elite force in Russia
which was originally formed to deal with domestic anti terrorism
situations and high level organized crime. They even fought against
rebels in the Chechen and Dagistani wars. The knife at
the crime scene appears to belong to the SOB.

Speaker 3 (07:17):
R Surgery explains the knife was like part of the evidence.
The Sober knife. Sober is Russian basically swat. It's like
a special forces unit in the police. They were disbanded
after like the early two thousands, but at that time
they were like the elite kind of police, like counter
terrorist organization. I think I think the West also has

this where when you join like one of these groups,
you get like a knife kind of like I guess
they're like badge of honor.

Speaker 2 (07:47):
As Sergei mentioned, the SOB was at one point dissolved.
This was in two thousand and two. It was reclassified
and given a new name later though, in twenty twelve
and a volved version of these units was rearranged more
broadly as special forces and given the old name of

the SOBR. Whilst under different branches of control, the new
SOBR is in many ways the same as the original.
In twenty twenty two, SOBR units took part in Russia's
invasion of Ukraine. It seems that the idea was that
they'd be put in place to crush riots in Kiev

once the Russian military had taken the city. The Kremlin
believed this would happen quickly. They were wrong. Ukrainian military
and armed volunteers defended the capitol over a year later.
The nearest Russian position is around five hundred kilometers away
from Kiev. During the initial attacks on Kiev and February

twenty twenty two, there are reports the whole unit of
the SOBR was killed on the outskirts of the city.
The SOOBR a knife of theirs is clearly not your
average homewhere item. Yet this was the hand allegedly for
Vasily Melnikov when he killed his whole family and then himself.

Speaker 3 (09:14):
What they found out the scene was a sober knife.

Speaker 1 (09:18):

Speaker 3 (09:18):
Here it says they were multiple. I know it's but
this one was specifically photographed and it caught my attention
because like you could see the insignia on it, whereas
the other knives are just kind of plain, and you know,
this could be a replica. It could be something he
was gifted, But it's just interesting that he has this
potentially memorabilia, potentially an actual knife from the group. From

what I can tell, he wasn't a part of anything.
He wasn't a part of like any police units, any
of these special forces. But I mean technically that is
the only way you get one like a legitimate one, right,
But again, who.

Speaker 2 (09:52):
Knows where this knife is actually from is important If
it's genuine. At the very least, it shows a Vasily
meli Kov had some connection to someone who was once
a member of the soob Ah, even if he just
bought it from them as a collectible or was gifted it.
And if it wasn't Vasili's knife, whose was it. Over

the last decade of my career as a journalist, I've
covered dozens of wards on the ground all over the world,
from the trenches of East Ukraine to the barricades of
East Jerusalem. I've never actually seen any fighters put that
much value into a combat knife other than it being
a useful tool. I've seen people cut rope with them

or open it kind of food, but otherwise it's hardly
used as a weapon on the front lines. If anything,
I've seen them passed around a few times as a
sort of collectible or war trophy, but generally, in my
experience at least, it's something.

Speaker 1 (11:12):
Fighters will have at war.

Speaker 2 (11:13):
But again, it's just more of a tool than anything else.
So perhaps Vasily Melnikov fought somewhere and picked this knife
up along the way and kept it as a sort
of souvenir. It's possible, but neither Sergery or myself could
find any information on Vasily Melnikov fighting in any wars,

not one that the sobre units fought in. No old
photos on his social media, no mention of previous service, nothing.
It's likely he didn't fight. Still, though, this sob Our
knife was found in his apartment and was used in
the murder of his family. Due to its specific connection

to the Russian government and its numerous and forces, we
of course want to find out where it's from. So
I reached out to several different knife collectors and experts
to see if they could shed any light on the knife.
A few of them who really know their stuff associated

with the conflict journalism collective the irun Popular Front. At
Popular Front, we have a network all over the world
where people with very niche esoteric knowledge on war and
conflict come together, and so some of our people happen
to know a lot about combat knives, both collectible and practical.

Speaking to these people, it became clear that the SOBR
knife pictured in the crime scene photos is an NAR
forty three knife, a relatively inexpensive scout knife first created
in nineteen forty three and issued to Russian Special Forces.
Either that or it's a replica. Still, the design matches

exactly with the Russian Special Forces scout knives. Whilst the
crime scene photo of the knife is a bit out
of focus, a specific logo can be seen on the
blade of the knife. The logo looks like the infinity
symbol or the number eight. It's the logo of Aiars Latooste,
a large Russian knife manufacturer. They make decent knives that

are generally pretty accessible. You can buy a brand new
NR forty three knife, for example, from Latoost in Europe
for around one hundred euros. So the knife was manufactured
by Aiar's latoost However, there isn't a single one of
their NAR forty three knife for sale anywhere that has
the SOB medallion molded into the handle. The same way

as the Melnikov murder weapon. There aren't currently any commercially
available NAR forty three knives like that, so where did
it come from? We thought maybe theoretically, at some point,
a specific SOBR unit could have commissioned a batch of
spoke knives from ai As Latouste to award to some

of its fighters.

Speaker 1 (14:14):
It's quite possible. Now.

Speaker 2 (14:15):
This company is obviously not going to tell us the
specific details of another customer's purchases, especially if it actually
was so OBR. But we wanted to know if we
could order the same bespoke knife that would tell us
something at least. We reached out to Aiis Latoos to
see if this was possible, essentially acting as a customer.

They said, quote, yes, such an order with such an
emblem can be completed ends quote. Later they sent us
a mock up of what it would look like. Instead
of the knife with the SOB medallion molded into the
plastic of the handle, they sent us a version that
would have the SOBRE insignia laser engraved on to the

hilt of the blade. Whilst that's not the same knife
as what Vasily Melnikov apparently killed himself and his whole
family with it's pretty close. My point being, it's definitely
possible that this knife could have been produced by someone
unrelated to the SOBR, But still, why did Vasily Melnikov

have it if it was just a random replica. He
was a multi millionaire and the quality of the knife
is largely unremarkable. Is what our knife collector associate had
to say about the blade.

Speaker 4 (15:34):
It didn't really strike me as anything particularly special, just
your typical combat type knife that you'd see for sale
anywhere from some sort of a gas station or junk
shop all the way through maybe an outdoors tactical or
a surplus type shop. As far as construction goes, it's

not anything particularly high end. It's definitely not custom, just
your typical machine made, mass produced item.

Speaker 2 (16:05):
So if the blade doesn't appear to be particularly special superficially,
maybe it had some sentimental value for Vasily Melnikov, or,
as others seem to believe, maybe it wasn't his at all.
Online in Russia, there are various theories and rumors going

around about Vasily Melnikov and the slaughter of his family.
Many believe he was killed on behalf of the Russian government.
In fact, so many Russian oligarchs have died in the
last year that it's become somewhat of a running joke.

Speaker 1 (16:43):
Vasily was just another one.

Speaker 2 (16:46):
Even pro Russian telegram channels linked to Russian units fighting
in Ukraine joke about the likelihood of being bumped off
by their own government. For example, the operator of the
Russian propaganda tell channel gray Zone, with more than four
hundred thousand members, wrote recently saying, quote, once I was

having a cup of tea with a comrade from the
General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, talking about
the various risks and consequences of saying certain things in
this channel on telegram, I jokingly said that one day
I might fall out of a window, to which my
comrade replied, bro, if the generals want to eliminate you

by throwing you from a window, they'll most likely throw
you from.

Speaker 1 (17:32):
The first floor. End quote.

Speaker 2 (17:35):
As we'll find out later in this series, falling out
of the window is something many Russian oligarchs have recently
had in common. Plenty of people online in Russia have
found the whole situation suspicious. Now I don't speak Russian,
but Sergey does. He found numerous comments relating to the

Vasili Melnikov murders.

Speaker 3 (17:58):
There's a lot of speculator. You know, a lot of
them say like, oh, look at them cleaning cleaning out,
you know, referring to like whoever's higher up kind of
maybe cutting closing loose ends or getting rid of like
people who might know some like have dirt on them.
You know, it's all over the place.

Speaker 5 (18:13):
You know.

Speaker 3 (18:14):
Mostly you see this on Contactya, like their VK, like
Facebook kind of counterpart you see this on the actual
articles because you know, you can post anonymously, so a
lot of people will say like, oh, smell suspicious, or like, oh.

Speaker 1 (18:29):
Is this do you really want us to believe?

Speaker 3 (18:30):
This doesn't go like anywhere from that, but you know,
it's it's interesting to see that a lot of people
are voicing the fact that, like this sounds like bullshit.

Speaker 1 (18:39):
It's almost seems like they're used to it.

Speaker 3 (18:40):
They're kind of like, oh, there goes another one. It's
nothing new to them.

Speaker 2 (18:44):
That said, Rumors and theories on the internet, just rumors
and theories on the internet. We don't know if they
hold any white often they don't. What we do know, though,
is that the police in Russia say that we're silly
Melnikov killed his whole family, a brutal act beyond most

people's imagination. This crime is so awful that it even
has its own terminology. It's often referred to as familicide
and the perpetrators as family annihilators. To get a better

understanding of this horror, I spoke to Professor Elizabeth Yadley.
She's a professor of criminology at Birmingham University in the UK.
She's studied family annihilation at length and has authored several
papers on it.

Speaker 5 (19:53):
When this individual hills their family and so that is
often their wife or female partner and their biological children,
and in some cases they then kill themselves as well
and in other cases they know. So it is the
wiping out essentially of the entire nuclear family units in
one particular event.

Speaker 2 (20:11):
Right, And you've done a lot of research on this.
Obviously it's a case by case basis. But is there
any kind of idea that's shared by people as to
why people do this? Because it's extremely violent. It's just
unbelievable to anyone that's saying that someone would kill their
or own family. Is there any kind of consensus on

why this might happen?

Speaker 5 (20:33):
Yeah, I think For me, the two key words are
control and possession. When I look at cases of family annihilation,
the family members who are murdered, very often they're not
seen as living, breathing human beings with their own hopes
and dreams and freedoms and choices. They're seen as objects
that are possessed by the perpetrator. They are things that

the perpetrator owns, and therefore the perpetrator can do, you know,
what he wants with them. And these cases are really
interesting because a lot of the coverage of the cases
will present these as cases where somebody's snapped, somebody's lost it,
They've gone overnight from you know, a loving, caring father
figure to a homicidal maniac, and that just doesn't happen.

Snapping isn't actually a thing. And when you look in
detail at these cases, when you find out the details
about these families and their lives, what you often come
across is quite significant histories of domestic abuse, of coercive
and controlling behavior, a very kind of domineering head of
the household type figures. So it does make sense when

you look at it in that broader context. And I
don't think I've come across a single case where somebody
has just you know, snapped and lost it in an
instant that doesn't tend to happen.

Speaker 2 (21:52):
Do you think that it's a case of someone over
the years or over a certain amount of time of
fermenting these ideas, isn't getting more angry, or do you
think this is something that someone potentially kind of always
had in them.

Speaker 5 (22:05):
I think it's something that they've always had in them,
because the way that they think about their family, the
way they think about other people, that is an element
of their personality that's very much part and parcel of them.
To be controlling is normal for them. To be possessive,
is normal for them. To be abusive, it's normal for them.
So this is the key thing about all of the

family annihilations that I've covered, Like it's more about continuity
than it is about change. And very often these individuals
are quite good at maintaining like a facade of normality
and respectability. And this is vania which most people don't
really get to see behind. So it is really shocking

when this kind of thing happens. But very often you
speak to people who are kind of known intimately to
those involved in a crime, like this, and they're like, yeah, yeah,
he was an awful person. You know, he was just
very good at claiming that he wasn't.

Speaker 2 (22:59):
This case that I'm looking at with this guy in Russia,
this Melnikov guy. The thing with him is though he
just come off of a very luxurious holiday with his
two children and his wife in the Maldives. He just
made a deal on a three point five million dollar
business contract, and he had a really nice flat in

an upmarket part of Moscow. On the outside, like everything
was going good for him. Now, allegedly he told his
wife he was depressed, but the source for that is
kind of like anonymous person that told a Russian government
media channel, so it's not exactly reliable. But he seemed
to have everything going for him. Yet he apparently, according

to the Russian police, killed his whole family using a
series of different knives.

Speaker 1 (23:49):
Also then killed himself.

Speaker 2 (23:51):
He seemed to kind of have everything going for him.
Do you see that kind of stuff happen as well?
All the people do this, even if you know everything
find Angela is okay, and you know, I mean, who
knows what is going through someone's head?

Speaker 1 (24:03):
But I don't know. This guy didn't seem to be
losing things. It was quite the opposite.

Speaker 5 (24:07):
No, that doesn't really ring truth for me. If he's
if he's seeing a particular level of success and like
you said, he's got this this big multi million contract
in the offering, and if he's you know, quite well
healed and things are going well, that's not the time
when this sort of thing tends to happen. Then you've
got situations where you know, large amounts of money are involved.

It's normally when there's the threat of losing that money, right,
and that's like a real thing. And the murders are
essentially away of sort of regaining control essentially, because for
a lot of these guys, the family is is a
way of kind of displaying success, their indicator to the
world that they've made it. You know that they're economically successful,

they've got money, and if you think of you know
that the vast expense that comes from having a family
at the family home and and very often some expensive
leisure purshoots and hobbies and that kind of thing, and
these grand holidays in the Moldies. That's basically announcing to
the rest of the world, I've made it, and look,
my family are helping me.

Speaker 1 (25:11):
Perform my success to the rest of the world.

Speaker 5 (25:13):
When there's the threat of that money kind of going away,
the family doesn't serve a function anymore, because for these guys,
the family is a way of performing success. There isn't
any real sort of genuine emotion or kind of attachment
to the people in the family. They're simply props. And
when the fuel essentially runs out, the money runs out,
it's like, oh, well, you know that they're not serving

their purpose anymore. I'm kind of finished with them, and
I'm done with this and I'm going to take it
all down in the final kind of act of control.

Speaker 2 (25:42):
Some of his neighbors were saying that he'd recently hired
a bodyguard to kind of take his kids to school,
which I mean, I don't know, but that doesn't scream
to me a guy that is, you know, quite happily
ready to just kill his family if you want to
protect his kids.

Speaker 5 (25:55):
Yeah, yeah, it really doesn't resonate with me in terms
of that kind family annihilator, because they will do this,
they will carry out these murders and then their own
lives before everything goes horribly wrong. Yeah, it doesn't really
stack up for me.

Speaker 1 (26:11):
What is also interesting to me.

Speaker 2 (26:13):
So in this research that we're doing, we have found
people that are, you know, in some ways connected in
the way that they're Russian millionaires and billionaires, and they
have some connections to the state. I mean, they don't
know each other. I'm sure they knew of each other,
some of them, but in some way they're connected. And
there's over a dozen of these so called oligarchs that
are dead and two, at least two, maybe we think

three did this family annihilation.

Speaker 5 (26:38):
It is an incredibly rare phenomenon. Having a clustering of
them like this is relatively unusual, especially within similar circles,
within the same nation, within a particular time period. It
would seem quite anomalist to me.

Speaker 2 (26:54):
Yeah, and at least two of them, So the two
that we know for certain annihilated the whole families. There's
two children that survived that you know, they were older,
they weren't in the house. Both of them have said
that there's just no way, like there is no way
that they did this. But again, I mean, I guess
we have heard that before. Do you think that's like
a I don't know, do you do you think that's
worth listening to. I mean, these are members of this

guy's family, like literally there are other children, but I
guess their children would say that, I don't know, what
do you think?

Speaker 5 (27:21):
Well, the very fact that biological children of the alleged
perpetrator have survived tells me that this is very different
from any family annihilation I've come across before, because when
the perpetrator takes their family out, they take everybody out.
They make sure that those children are home for the
weekend or that they're all together as a family. They
don't leave anybody behind. All the members of that particular

nutliar family unit, the perpetrator takes them all out, they
won't leave somebody behind. It's yeah, that's quite odd.

Speaker 2 (27:51):
Have you seen cases before where they've committed family side
or whatever you call it. They've killed their whole family,
And you've seen situations where they've made sure, like they've
made sure that everyone was there, They've called someone in,
they made sure it's a family weekend or a dinner
or something like that.

Speaker 5 (28:07):
Yeah, and several of these cases that we came across
happened on the family holiday, the one time when they're
all together, you know, without any sort of outside influence.
That there might be in a different country, but no,
there's a very deliberate attempt to make sure that nobody
can get away essentially, and that everybody's contained within the

same space. So yeah, to have people surviving who are
part of that nuclear family unit is really quite strange
to me. I mean, it might be that we've discovered
a whole new type of family annihilator here, right, you know,
but this doesn't fit with anything I've ever seen before.
To be honest, I think if you were to develop

a checklist for you know, characteristics associated with family annihilation,
like this would not be off that checklist.

Speaker 1 (28:56):

Speaker 2 (28:56):
That's all not to say that Vasilly Melnikov didn't do it,
but it clearly doesn't quite fit the pattern of behavior
of other family annihilators, not according to Professor Yadley, someone
who knows a lot about this. Something else that seems
a bit off, as I mentioned, is the claim that
Vasily Melnikov hired a bodyguard for his kids, at least

according to his neighbors. Why if he was planning to
kill his family would he hire someone to protect them.
The neighbors said that seen the bodyguard taking the children
to school, The children who would sadly be murdered later on.
There are also rumors, again from the neighbors, the Vasily
had a murky past, possibly involved with criminal networks in

other cities. Still, these are just rumors. What isn't rumor, though,
is Vasily Melnikov's autopsy report. According to that, Vasily had
a stab wound in his foot. So, if we take
the official story as true, Vasily stabbed his family to
death with at least two different knives and then stabbed

himself in the foot before killing himself outright. Maybe or
maybe the stab to the foot was a defense wound,
and maybe, as some people speculate, the two different knives
were held by two different people. Maybe Vasily had upset
some people. Maybe those people killed Vasily Melnikov and his

family as a punishment and a warning to other oligarchs
who don't play ball.

Speaker 1 (30:32):
We don't know. It's just a theory.

Speaker 2 (30:35):
Unfortunately in this series you won't get definitive answers. Real
life doesn't always get tied up in a bow, especially
not when looking into the deaths of the Russian elite.
We don't exactly know what happened to Vasily Melnikov or
many of the other oligarchs will cover. What we do
know is that a suspicious pattern emerges the closer you

look into the deaths of these rich Russi businessmen. Sad
Oligach is a H eleven production for Cool Zone Media
and iHeartRadio. Hosted, produced, researched and edited by me Jake

Hanrahan and Sergei Slipchenko. Co produced by Sophie Lichtman. Music
by Sam Black, artwork by Adam Doyle, soundmix by Splicing Block.
Goes to Jakehanrahan dot com for more information.
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