Man battles Russian Oligarchs in court, survives assassination attempts

The first time someone tried to kill me, I had no idea I experienced an assassination attempt. It never occurred to me. As I drove down a roadway in Russia, the wheel of my car suddenly detached, and I smashed into a truck. It happened so fast; I barely remember it. After the second and third accidents, however, I knew someone was trying to take my life.

  • 1 year ago
  • January 5, 2023
9 min read
Igor Sychev, a Russian citizen granted asylum in Latvia, looks out at the Daugava River in Riga | Photo used with permission obtained by Igor Sychev
Interview Subject
Igor Sychev was born on March 9, 1975, in Russia in a small suburb of Moscow to an ordinary Soviet family. In 1992, he entered the School of Economics at Lomonosov Moscow State University. After graduating from the university with honors in 1996, he was invited to work for the company of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who later became a world-famous Russian businessman. He worked for 18 years for PhosAgro in their tax department. After helping PhosAgro defeat a court case, he says he was offered one percent share in the company. Pursuing the agreement, a string of events led him to believe officials at PhosAgro levied a fake case against him and made multiple attempts on his life. He fled to Europe eventually landing in Latvia and gaining asylum. He has filed a case against PhosAgro officials in Europe and says he maintained many recordings of the conversations he had with them, including multiple death threats. He lost his home, family, and life and remains abroad. The situation has been widely covered in media. Sychev launched a change.org petition which has over 15,000 signatures and runs fundraising campaigns on JustGiving and Indigogo to help with related expenses.
Background Information
Out of college, Sychev worked for the famed Mikhail Khodorkovsky (who later became an opposition activist against Russia, residing in London) at the company YUKOS. A case arose against the company after Khodorkovsky criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some say the YUKOS case was a turning point in Russian history as it transitioned from the democratic system initiated by the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin to dictatorship and autocracy – the antithesis of which, Sychev says, is evidenced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the YUKOS case Khodorkovsky and many colleagues became imprisoned. As the business empire fell apart, part of it became PhosAgro, one of the world’s largest mineral fertilizer companies. PhosAgro, under different management, would end up facing its own court case, which Sychev became a part of. After eight years, the litigation failed. Sychev says after fleeing the country, the Russian government arrested him in absentia and placed his name on the international wanted list. He says he turned himself over to Interpol and they took him off the list. He gained asylum, as mentioned, in Latvia. His financial case against PhosAgro continues.

MOSCOW, Russia ꟷ In the early morning of March 2016, a squad of police officers descended on my home in Moscow. My pregnant wife opened the door. Ten officers with specially trained dogs entered my house and served me with a warrant related to a supposed anonymous letter received by the shareholders of my employer PhosAgro.

After working for a Russian chemical company for 18 years, I endured multiple assassination attempts and ultimately fled the country. I lost my home, my family fell apart, and my life turned into a nightmare. Today, I live in Latvia under asylum status.

The wheels fell of his car

The first time someone tried to kill me, I had no idea I experienced an assassination attempt. It never occurred to me. As I drove down a roadway in Russia, the wheel of my car suddenly detached, and I smashed into a truck. It happened so fast; I barely remember it. After the second and third accidents, however, I knew someone was trying to take my life.

 As I drove down the road one day at a fast speed, the car began behaving strangely. I could not understand right away what was happening, so I tried to break. The car would not stop, and I could barely control it. Suddenly, once again, the wheel fell off. Without depressing the gas, after about two minutes, the car stopped on its own. Sparks and flames shot out from underneath the area where the wheel was.

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It seemed to be a pure miracle no one got hurt that day. Luckily, there were no other cars or pedestrians around. Had there been, I would have hit anything in my path. I often think, what if kids were crossing the street or I smashed into a crowd of people at full speed?

When experts looked at my car they told me, whoever loosened those bolts knew the wheel would eventually come off at a high speed, they just did not know when. While I suddenly realized this was an assassination attempt, I still never imagined the people I worked with might have organized it. I had good relationships with my coworkers and my employer, or so I thought.

Cops and dogs show up at his house

For years, I worked for PhosAgro [a Russian chemical corporation] in their tax department. When the company faced accusations of tax fraud to the tune of about a billion dollars, I participated in the court case which lasted eight years. The sum of money in question proved an extremely large amount at that time. If they lost the case, the company would likely go bankrupt.

Headshot of the story subject | Courtesy of Igor Sychev

Through my records and testimony, I helped PhosAgro win the case and avoid bankruptcy and prison. After the case closed, PhosAgro executives made a verbal agreement to give me one percent of shares in the company, but that day never came. I requested the verbal agreement be formalized in some sort of document and began negotiating with the company. Then, the assassination attempts began.

At first, I never associated my accidents with my company. I worked with an investigator who opened a case on my behalf. When the case opened, things took a dramatic turn. Other investigators opened a parallel case on behalf of PhosAgro.

When the police came knocking at my door, they cited an anonymous letter someone sent to PhosAgro about me. They identified witnesses – people whom I knew personally; people who worked at the company. I questioned the officers. How could this be? Nearly 13 million people live in Moscow and these witnesses just happened to be my colleagues? The police indicated it was a mere coincidence, but I knew something seemed off. For five hours the swarm of dogs and officers searched my house. I worried deeply. Would I end up in jail? And for what? During the search they took away my passport. They wanted to keep me hostage, but a miracle saved my life.

I packed a single bag and fled, leaving everything behind

Before the search happened at my home, and before I understood someone in Russia wanted me dead, I had applied for a second passport at the embassy in the United Kingdom. A law at the time passed in Russia allowing citizens to have two passports – one internal and one external. I had a foreboding feeling, but my primary motivation was simply to take advantage of the opportunity.

So while Russian authorities believed holding my passport made it impossible for me to leave, I had a second passport waiting for me in Europe. I represented one of the first Russian citizens to apply for the passport on the day the rules changed. It may have looked like over-prepping at the time, but that passport saved my life.

After the traumatic search at my home, I received a summons to appear at the police station. When I arrived, the investigator handed me a paper which outlined a demand that I limit my movement. In that moment, I knew I only had about a week before they began shadowing me. I feared for my safety, so I decided to run.

I packed a single bag early one morning and had a friend drive me in his car to Belarus. No border control existed between Russia and Belarus at that time. It seemed a safe escape route. Besides, I felt too afraid to fly out of Moscow.

Once in Belarus I hopped an airplane to Turkey and made my way to the U.K. to get my passport. I cannot describe in words the feelings of leaving home that way. I wondered, am I leaving forever or just for a period of time?

She did what was best – to protect herself and my children

Leaving my home, my wife, and my two children proved to be a truly horrible moment. With a single, little bag in my hands, I flew into the unknown, with no idea what awaited me. My wife and lawyer (who subsequently passed away) were the only two people who knew I was leaving. I had to say farewell to my family.

The entire situation became too much for my young wife and she fell into a deep depression. Going through such shock and horror in secret broke her. We had 16 wonderful years together. She even worked for PhosAgro for a time. Now, her life turned upside down. Eventually, she filed for divorce. She did what she thought best at the time: to protect herself and our children.

Many people run from Russia today. I read posts on Facebook where they describe the shock they feel when they finally leave that environment. They experience a social death of sorts, where your former life completely stops existing. It is ruined.

Yet, those who escape today have access to networks now. They can lean on and help one another throughout the process. For me, during that time, I remained completely alone. No one could help me. It felt incredibly difficult.

As long as Putin remains in power, I can never go home

I honestly do not know if I will be here forever, or what my future really holds. After obtaining my visa from the U.K. I needed to seek asylum somewhere. Some rules in Europe required I have a residency permit somewhere in order to receive asylum, so I looked into my options.

Latvia became my first choice. I needed a new place to live, and Latvia offered a pathway to residency if you invest in their economy. I visited once and received my documents. It felt like a pure accident, but today, I have asylum here.

Meanwhile, back in Moscow, investigators and PhosAgro thought I remained in Russia. PhosAgro officials reached out to me to negotiate. I recorded it all. First and foremost, they demanded I reduce my claim to shares in the company by five times, and if I did, they would stop the criminal case against me.

They also suggested I pay a bribe to the investigators for four million dollars. I could have my life back, but at what cost? If I paid the bribe, they would have something against me. I could never say what really happened. In these conversations I recorded, they talk about killing me and threaten my children – even the unborn baby I left behind.

Ironically, they believed I remained hostage in Russia. They had no idea I had already left. The drama continues today. I still get threats; I still fear for my life. The Latvian government opened a criminal case based on the threats. Sometimes I get emails, for example, from a funeral parlor announcing my obituary.

Those people who call and message me demand I close my case in the U.K. or die. The threats go on and on. I can never return to Russia as long as Vladimir Putin remains in power, because my opponents have strong connections to him. I know if I return, they will pursue and persecute me, or worse.

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