[Note: In yesterday’s exerpt we looked at possibility that a component of the Inmarsat data had been hacked. If that were the case, then the plane went north instead of south. The portion of the Inmarsat data that is much harder to hack is itself sufficient to calculate the route along which the plane traveled. The endpoint of this route is Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan lacks the technical chops to carry out an operation of this sophistication, but it is a close ally to Russia, which would have that capability. But were there any Russians on board? I address that question in today’s excerpt from “The Taking of MH370.”]
There was only one Russian aboard MH370, a 43-year-old businessman from Irkutsk named Nikolai Brodsky. Brodsky was sitting in business class seat 3K, approximately 12 feet from the E/E bay hatch. Back in economy class were two Ukrainians of Russian ethnicity, Sergei Deineka and Oleg Chustrak. The men, both 45, were sitting together in row 27, almost directly underneath the SDU. I was unable to find anything about the Ukrainians from online news reports, but Brodsky had received some coverage in the Russian press. His wife, Elena, gave several interviews to local media. In one, she calmly indicated that her husband was still alive. “He’ll be back,” she told the Komsomolskaya Pravda, “and he will tell all.” I started putting out feelers to find freelance investigators in Russia and Ukraine.
I hired a freelance investigator in Irkutsk who was able to interview one of Nikolai Brodsky’s friends and three of his relatives. From their accounts she was able to assemble a rough outline of his life.
Born in 1971 in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, Brodsky moved with his family to the eastern province of Yakutia when he was eight, and then returned to Irkutsk when he was 16. He attended a local polytechnic but was a poor student. When he was 18, his girlfriend Nadia became pregnant, so they married and moved to Yakutia along with Brodsky’s parents. The marriage was unhappy, however. Nadia left and returned to Irkutsk. Brodsky followed, but the marriage ended soon after.
Brodsky subsequently moved to a small town further north where he worked for a timber-products company. For a time he attempted to continue his education via correspondence course, but the school eventually expelled him for poor performance. Then he hooked up with a future oligarch, Vitaly Mashchitsky, and his fortunes improved dramatically. While still in his 20s, Brodsky founded a wood-products company whose operations ultimately extended to three cities in Siberia and the Far East.
Brodsky’s passion was technical scuba diving. He was proficient in the use of trimix gas breathing equipment, which allows dives to depths of 1,000 feet, and is primarily used for commercial and military diving. Brodsky was active in a local scuba club, and regularly made dives under the ice in nearby Lake Baikal. (A yearly club tradition is to brave subzero air temperatures and water temperatures of 34 degrees in order to hold an underwater party, complete with Christmas tree and a Santa who hands out gifts.) He was an instructor in the club, and at the time of his disappearance was on his way back from an 11-day club trip to Bali.
Brodsky’s eldest son, 25-year-old Lyev, described his father as “a very strong and prepared person, both morally and physically… I’ve never known him to be afraid of anything.” He said that Nikolai had never been in the military, having received an exemption from the draft due to flat feet. Lyev had no firsthand knowledge of his father’s whereabouts between the age of 19 and 29, however, as Nikolai had left his mother soon after Lyev’s birth and only reconnected with them later.
One of Brodsky’s fellow dive club members also described Brodsky as fearless and exceptionally competent. When Brodsky first joined the club, the friend said, most of the members were ex-military who had learned to dive in the service. The first day Brodsky showed up, he went in the water with two instructors and another first-time diver. Conditions were tricky, and the other beginner nearly panicked. Brodsky kept his cool. “Nick felt very comfortable and did not look like a novice diver,” the friend said. Later, he got to know Brodsky as a man who “has a very good mentality, resistance to stress. In any situation it is collected, a sober assessment of what is happening can never be in vain to take risks.” Brodsky was adept at rigging up whatever gear or amenity might be needed, out of whatever materials might be at hand. “We often joked about him that he is a hamster—in his car always find all the necessary and useful.”
Brodsky most definitely enjoyed the challenge of diving under the ice, in poor visibility, at great depths, with special gases. But he did not enjoy diving in warm seas and tended to skip club trips to the tropics. “He took part almost in all dive-club activities except for long trips,” his friend said. “His decision to go to Bali with club was pretty unexpected. He didn’t love the warm water and this kind of activity.”
Brodsky was on MH370 because he had decided to cut his vacation short by three days. According to early press accounts, this was because he had promised his wife that he would have dinner with her on International Women’s Day, a kind of Soviet-era counterpart to Valentine’s Day. His family, however, said that wasn’t the reason, but rather that he had to make a business trip to Mongolia.
At first I had a much harder time finding out anything about the Ukrainians, Oleg Chustrak and Sergei Deineka. The men had no presence on the web except for cursory, recently created profiles on Google Plus, which contained little information beyond photographs.
Deineka’s page listed his employer as an Odessa furniture company, Nika Mebel. The company sold upholstered furniture online but listed no physical address and only accepted cash payments. The website, which was registered in 2011 but only seemed active since mid-2013, listed three phone numbers; all were cell phones.
Nika Mebel’s Google Plus page listed only two members: Oleg Chustrak and Sergei Deineka. But when a translator called Nika Mebel on my behalf, the man who answered said that neither man worked for the company, and that he knew nothing about them.
A second translator visited Chustrak’s apartment for me and briefly spoke to his father, but the man didn’t want to talk. He did say, however, that Oleg worked for Nika Mebel. A third translator then called the company and was told that not only did Oleg Chustrak once work there, his son still did. The translator then called Chustrak’s son, who said he didn’t know if he wanted to speak with us, and referred us to the family’s lawyer. The lawyer refused to provide me with any information.
A few weeks later, I reached out via a translator to a woman named Mila Breeze who identified herself as an old friend of the men on VK.com, a Russian-language social media site much like Facebook. When asked if she would be willing to do an interview about the men, she sounded game, but said that she would have to check with the men’s wives, “because we all think that they’re still alive.” She did not respond to any follow-up questions.
As time went by forward progress was slow and intermittent. It was hard to find good researchers on the ground in either Russia or Ukraine. But bit by bit I chipped away at the problem.
Having already probed Brodsky’s personal life, I decided to see what I could find about his business dealings. It was interesting to me that his life had turned around after he fell under the tutelage of Vitaly Mashchitsky. Mashchitsky, a wealthy and powerful oligarch with interests in the oil business, is ranked by Forbes magazine the 144th richest person in Russia, But when he and Brodsky first met in the early ‘90s, Mashchitsky was just getting started, having founded a timber export business called Sibmix.
Among the Russian industries most affected by corruption is the timber trade. According to a 2011 report by Vitaly Nomokonov of the Vladivostok Center for Research on Organized Crime, 80% of the wood in warehouses in the Far East has been harvested illegally.
Could Brodsky be linked to what writer Garrett Graff has called “the Russian octopus—the strange mix of politicians, intelligence officers, oligarchs, criminals, and professionals who surround the Kremlin”?
Looking for clues, I dug into the registration records for his seven companies. I couldn’t see any evidence of organized crime links, but did find something else that surprised me. It turned out that between 2007 and 2011, all Brodsky’s assets had been liquidated, with the exception of some real estate he owned jointly with four other people. Of particular note was that his main company, “NB,” was wound up in 2011, apparently due to bankruptcy. Yet three years later, at the time of Brodsky’s disappearance, NB’s website indicated that it was processing more than 35,000 cubic of timber per year, with an integrated production line that ran from cutting down trees to assembly of completed homes.
Further evidence that the family was not struggling economically came from business registrations filed by Brodsky’s wife, Elena. Between 2004 and 2015 she registered six companies, including a travel agency and several involved in forestry products. The year before NB went bankrupt, she and her two sons founded “NB Company.” In 2015, she registered “NB Export.” None of her companies has been liquidated.
It looked to me as if in the run-up to his disappearance Brodsky had deliberately wound up all of his business dealings and shifted his assets to Elena.
When I turned my attention to the Ukrainians, I found similarly unusual dealings. With the help of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a nonprofit that supports investigative reporting around the world, I was able to retrieve business registration documents for Chustrak and Deineka’s company, Nika Mebel. On paper, Nika was a failure, reporting small revenues and chronic losses in the years before the men disappeared. Yet when Chustrak and Deineka’s families joined a lawsuit against Malaysia Airlines filed by next-of-kin in a Kuala Lumpur court in 2016, their lawyer said that each man had been earning US$2 million a year.
I reached out to Olga Lautman, a researcher who specializes in Russian and Ukrainian organized crime. “It smells like a front company,” she told me. “One hundred percent. No one in Ukraine makes $4 million a year off furniture.” She added that as Ukraine’s main seaport, Odessa is a notorious haven for mob activity. The city’s mayor, Gennadiy Trukhanov, has been linked to the international drug and weapons trade, has ties to some of the country’s most powerful gangsters, and is under multiple investigations for illegally profiting from the sale of public property.
Deineka’s page on the Russian social media site Ok.ru gives the impression that he did have money. In the images he posted there he and his family scuba dive in the Red Sea, dine al fresco in Istanbul, and pose poolside in Egypt. Deineka looks trim, fit, and well-muscled.
I was able to track down a former high school classmate, who told me that Chustrak and Deineka had been best friends at their automotive high school in Odessa. “They weren’t particularly good students,” he said. “Their interest was chasing girls.”
After school both were conscripted into the Soviet Army, as were most of their contemporaries. Deineka served in a tank regiment in Hungary; I’ve been unable to find out where Chustrak served.
According to court papers filed by Chustrak’s wife, the two men had boarded MH370 because they were traveling from a furniture trade show in Kuala Lumpur to a subsequent one in Guangzhou, China. Was that the simple fact of the matter, or was the trip a cover story? The Malaysian International Trade Fair took place from March 4 to 8, 2014, so if they really had gone as legitimate attendees that means they skipped the last day of the show to get to the next one. But the 33rd China International Furniture Fair (CIFF) didn’t start until 10 days later. And it seems strange that the men would fly to Beijing to get to Guangzhou, when there are plenty of shorter flights direct from Kuala Lumpur to Guangzhou. Traveling via Beijing means flying past Guanzhou and continuing another 1200 miles, then doubling back. It’s like going from New York to Dallas by first flying to Los Angeles.
In photographs Chustrak and Deineka look like they could still hold their own in a brawl. Florence de Changy, who has seen closed-circuit camera footage of the men passing through security, describes them in her book Le vol MH370 n’a pas disparu as arriving together, “in the last minutes before the plane boarded, clearly more energetic than their fellow travelers. With their Navy SEAL physiques clad in form-fitting black t-shirts, each carried a big carry-on bag that they tossed on the scanner conveyor belt with practiced ease. Among all the passengers to board this flight, if you had to pick out two hijackers, the Ukrainians would be the only ones to fit the stereotype: age, physical condition, appearance, attitude…”
As of late 2017, two years after Chustrak and Deineka were declared legally dead in Malaysia, they were still listed as the company’s owners. Similarly, Deineka remained the legal owner of his family’s apartment and the commercial space where his wife runs a beauty salon. His and Chustrak’s situation seems to be the reverse of Brodsky’s: while Brodsky’s holdings were dismantled before his disappearance, Chustrak and Deineka’s affairs continue to be conducted in their names. “This is odd,” said Ukrainian business lawyer I consulted: usually partnerships of this type are dissolved when the owners die.
Is it possible that Chustrak and Deineka were not really dead, but had successfully hijacked MH370 and taken it to Kazahkstan? As I researched further I was rather surprised to learn that it is not unknown in Ukraine for intelligence and organized crime-connected figures to fake their deaths. In October 2018, French police arrested Odessa-based businessman Dmytro Malynovskyi after he forged a death certificate in Ukraine and then holed up in a 12th century castle near Dijon with a small collection of Salvador Dali paintings and a vintage Rolls Royce Phantom. Malynovskyi had spent three years on the run from corruption charges. In 2015, a pro-Russian Ukrainian militant named Alexander Mikhailovich Evtody attempted to fake his death after taking part in the artillery shelling of a civilian neighborhood in the Black Sea port of Mariupol.
Given the questions surrounding Deineka’s status, I was intrigued by some of the postings that his daughter, Liza, made on social media. In the year after MH370 vanished, Liza, then 16, frequently visited a site called Sprashivai where users can anonymously ask short questions. Most questions seemed to come from her friends, and asked about typical teenager stuff. Some were about her father, and these she mostly swatted away. But occasionally she gave a different kind of answer.
Q: What about your dad (if not secret)? Does he live with you?
A: My dad is temporarily on an unscheduled trip.
Q: Forgive the question, but what about your father?
A: Alive, healthy.
Perhaps she was just messing around with her readers. Perhaps she still clung to the belief that, though she had no particular evidence to that effect, her father must still be alive somewhere. Whatever the case, Sprashivai was not the only website where she referred to her father as being alive.
On March 26, 2014, just 11 day after her father and all the other passengers aboard MH370 had effectively been declared dead by the Malaysian prime minister, Liza posted a photo of herself with her father on Instagram with the comment, “Happy Birthday, Daddy.” Several friends added comments with their own well-wishes. “With the birthday boy!” wrote one. “Thank you,” Liza replied. Another wrote, “With the birthday boy! Let everything always be good for him,” followed by a string of emojis: a blushing, smiling face; a gift wrapped with a bow; a noisemaker; confetti; a toy balloon; a bow. “Thank you,” Liza responded, with a kissy-face emoji.
The ebullience struck me as odd, but I wondered if it might be a cultural thing. For clarification I turned to Olga Lautman, who’s part Russian and part Ukrainian, and asked her what she thought. “To put balloons, after someone just died, that’s not normal, even in Russian culture,” she said.
Understanding that Sergei Deineka’s birthday was March 26 helped put another Sprashivai exchange in context. Shortly after midnight on March 26, 2015, someone had asked her: “What are your plans for tomorrow?” She answered: “University, then DR.” In Russian, DR is the abbreviation for “den’ rozhdeniya,” or birthday. It sounded like she planned to celebrate her father’s birthday—an odd thing, it seemed to me, if he’d been presumed dead for over a year.
A followup question came immediately: “Are you going to be together tomorrow?” Liza replied warily: “Watching who you are.”
Then, that evening, at 9:25pm, someone broached the subject again: “How was the DR?”
Liza answered: “I do not want to talk about this.”