On September 6, a search party in Kiselyovsk, outside Kemerovo, found the bodies of two 10-year-old girls. Their names were Nastya Fesler and Ulyana Degtyar. Forty-one-year-old Viktor Pesternikov, who served 10 years in a prison colony for “violent actions of a sexual nature against a minor” until he was released in 2019, confessed to raping and murdering the girls. After his release from prison, Pesternikov was banned from leaving the city of Myski, where he lived, and was required to check in regularly with police. But this didn’t prevent him from traveling to nearby Kiselyovsk — or even from working and living there. On the day of the murders, Pesternikov sat with the girls at the playground, took them shopping, and bought them food and alcohol. Meduza special correspondent Irina Kravtsova traveled to Kiselyovsk to find out how this kind of crime was possible, and why two 10-year-olds would willingly follow a strange man just because he promised them food.
On the evening of September 6, fifth-grade best friends Nastya Fesler and Ulyana Degtyar walked up to their favorite street food vendor. There was a man with them. He asked the girls what they wanted to eat, and Nastya told him they’d each have a sausage-and-potato pie.
As she wrapped the pies up to give to the girls, the woman working the stand asked the man whether the girls were his daughters. “God knows why [I asked],” she later said.
“They are, yes,” said the man, stroking Nastya on the head. Nastya’s real father died six years ago when she was only four, but according to Marina, she didn’t correct him; she just ate her pie with relish.
It was Monday. After school, Nastya and Ulyana would walk around their well-traveled neighborhood, which the locals refer to as “Obuvnoy,” or the “shoe” district, for its shoe factory. Nastya had her light-brown hair in a bob and was wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt, while blonde Ulyana had on her school uniform: a black dress with a white collar. According to people who knew her, Ulyana was quiet and kind, while Nastya’s acquaintances described her as a leader — bright, athletic, fun, and brave.
The girls lived in different directions from school, so they’d sometimes walk each other home repeatedly, not wanting to say goodbye. Lyubov, Ulyana’s grandmother, had concerns about Ulyana befriending someone from a family like Nastya’s. “But children choose friends with their heart, and don’t take anything else into account, unfortunately,” Lyubov told Meduza. “She loved Nastya, and she felt sorry for her.”
At about four in the afternoon, when the girls were playing on the playground with some younger boys in the courtyard outside Nastya’s apartment, a 41-year-old man started talking to them. He called himself “Uncle Vitya,” according to another child who was present.
Uncle Vitya asked the girls about school with great interest, then he suggested they all go together to the grocery store so he could buy them something to eat. Ulyana and Nastya readily agreed and went with him to a store across the street, where they asked him for sausage, sunflower seeds, chips, seltzer water, and chocolate. Uncle Vitya used the opportunity to buy the girls some cheap alcoholic cocktail drinks as well, spending a total of 2,200 rubles ($30).
Charmed by his generosity, the girls even let Uncle Vitya into their fort in the courtyard behind Nastya’s apartment building. The fort is made out of concrete slabs, and getting into it takes real effort: the only entrance is a narrow gap that only children can fit through comfortably. Nobody on the outside can see what’s happening inside the fort. To make things a little homier, the girls had dragged out some small mattresses and other random junk, including a children’s bathtub, some old blankets, and the backs of some sofas. At one point, Nastya had built a cage and caught a pigeon, which she named Grisha. Best of all, a cat had recently taken a liking to the fort and given birth to some kittens inside of it.
Uncle Vitya wasn’t able to squeeze into the fort behind the girls, so he climbed onto the roof and jumped in from there instead. He spread out the food for the girls, poured them the cocktail drinks, and they started their feast. Sometime later, the boys who’d been playing with Nastya and Ulyana went home.
The girls didn’t have phones with them; Nastya didn’t have one at all, and Ulyana had recently started leaving hers at home, perhaps to spend more time with Nastya. Ulyana and Nastya accepted Uncle Vitya’s invitation to get some more food from the vendor next to the bus stop, where bus drivers often park to get a bite to eat. One of the boys on the playground saw the three of them walking away.
After eating some more meat pies from the vendor at around seven in the evening, Uncle Vitya took the girls to see his home, his car, and his pets, which he’d told them about back in the fort. They walked around the area for about 25 minutes — plenty of time, in theory, to run into someone who knew the girls, someone who would be alarmed to see them with a grown man. But they didn’t. Uncle Vitya brought them home, where he raped them and then strangled them.
* * *
When Nastya didn’t come home on the evening of September 6, her parents didn’t take much notice; she had spent nights away from home before. Neighbors had seen her sleeping on benches or walking around the neighborhood until the morning. According to Gyulnara Mustafina, the director of the girls’ school, Nastya was registered with the Committee for Juvenile Affairs (PDN) after she was once seen outside after 10 p.m.
When Ulyana’s mother came home from work at around seven p.m. to find her daughter missing, she got to work immediately. She got in touch with teachers, the police, and volunteers from the nonprofit organization LizaAlert, all of whom spent the entire night racking the city, looking in every abandoned building they could find. On the morning of September 7, volunteers found the girls’ bodies in one of the small houses near their school.
According to Ksenya Polikarpova, one of the Fesler family’s neighbors, on the evening of September 6, her second-grade son went into the girls’ fort. Nastya and Ulyana were sitting there alone, waiting for Uncle Vitya, who was on his way to bring them something from the store. When Uncle Vitya arrived, the girls told the boy, “That’s Uncle Vitya, he’s harmless. He feeds us.”
The police learned that “Uncle Vitya,” who’d accompanied the girls around town, was, in fact, 41-year-old Viktor Pesternikov — convicted in 2009 of sexual violence against a child clearly under the age of 14. He also had a wife and kids at that time. When Pesternikov was sent to a prison colony, his children were one and two and a half years old. His wife divorced him, changed her and her children’s names, and moved away.
From the time Pesternikov was released in 2019, he was required to register twice a month at the local police station and banned from leaving his home between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. He was also banned from visiting large event venues, leaving Prokopyevsky Municipal District, where he was registered, and visiting restaurants that serve alcohol.
After his release, Pesternikov moved to the nearby city of Myski and married a woman who had an eight-year-old daughter. He didn’t tell her anything about his past. One day, Pesternikov disappeared while on a fishing trip. Assuming he had died, his wife gathered volunteers to search for him. Eventually, he was found in a hospital — he’d had a mild stroke. There, his wife found out about his past. She immediately left him.
In 2019, Victor was officially reprimanded for not complying with the terms of his release, and in 2020, the Myski police chief filed an official request that the court increase Pesternikov’s restrictions. The court ruled that he would be required to check in with the police three times a week instead of twice, and his curfew would be moved from 10 p.m. to 9 p.m.
But this didn’t stop Pesternikov from leaving Myski Municipal District, which he was supposedly required to remain in, and going to Kiselyovsk to work part-time “dismantling bricks.” At the time of publication, the Kemerovo Oblast police department had not responded to Meduza’s request for comment.
The Kemerovo Oblast Investigative Committee reported that a criminal case concerning the “improper execution” of official duties has already been opened against the officers who were supposed to be monitoring Pesternikov.
* * *
The police found Viktor at his workplace on September 7. At first, he calmly told them it was the girls who first talked to him: he was nibbling on some sunflower seeds, and they asked him for a few to feed their pigeon. He then said that he bought the girls some food, fed them and the pigeon, and then they went their separate ways. But later that evening, he confessed to their rape and murder.
Seven-year-old Kostya, who had been with the girls and “Uncle Vitya” earlier that night, remembered only that the man had taught him and some other boys how to fight, and that he said he’d “bought a house, an apartment, and a car.” He also said both he and the girls “started shaking” when they tried the alcohol Uncle Vitya had given them.
His brother, eight-year-old Tolya, was a friend of Nastya’s. His mother, Ksenya, recounted how, when she came back from the search, Tolya asked her, “Mom, did they find Nastya?” “I told him, ‘They found her, but they found her dead. It’s already too late,’” said Ksenya. “I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me immediately when they left the yard with Uncle Vitya? We would have sounded the alarm, caught him, and found the girls alive.’ But what are we supposed to do now?”
Since then, Tolya has lied in bed for days at a time, eating practically nothing. He and his friends released Nastya’s pigeon, Grisha, from its cage.
* * *
“The one thing I don’t get is this: How did he win their trust enough to get them to just up and follow him, despite adults warning them hundreds of times before, in just a few hours?” said Gyulnara Mustafina, the director of the girls’ school. “We literally had a lesson on safety techniques on September 1: Don’t go anywhere with strangers and don’t take anything from them.”
“Nastya went with him just because she wanted to eat something!” said Viktoria, the mother of one of the girls’ classmates. According to her, everyone in the school knew Nastya was very poor.
Still, Mustafina insists Nastya’s family situation was “fine.” According to Nastya’s neighbors and her classmates’ parents, Nastya went to school in whatever clothes she could find. She was a mediocre student, but she never skipped school, and she was very outgoing. For her, school doubled as a chance to go to the cafeteria during recess and collect leftovers to bring home to herself and her siblings.
Nastya’s mom, Yelena Fesler, once had five children. She says she lost Nastya’s two-month-old sibling when she accidentally “crushed him with her chest while breastfeeding.” She now has three left: two daughters, eight and four, and a two-year-old son. Yelena and her husband are currently unemployed and live off of the government benefits they get for having a large number of children. According to Gyulnara Mustafina, the family receives about 25,000 rubles ($340) a month.
When Meduza’s correspondent went to Fedler’s house to speak to her on the morning of September 8, she immediately went on the offensive. “This happened because she’s disobedient. We told her a thousand times not to take anything from anyone,” she said. Fedler and her family live in a small two-room apartment. Clothes dry on a rope that hangs across the room. The children jump around and sing songs, while the cat, Kyeks, tries to escape.
“She was a big fan of not coming home at night — a naughty little brat. On the afternoon of the seventh, I went outside, and the boys told me they’d found them raped and chopped up,” said Nastya’s mom, referring to the girls who were strangled, not dismembered.
Yelena didn’t go to the building where her daughter was killed, nor did she go to identify Nastya’s body. “It was clear to me that was no place for women. They said he was so brutal that even the officers were covering their faces. We got in touch with his ex-wife. She said he was perfectly charming in public — and at home, he beat her and the kids something fierce. To the point they ended up leaving him,” said Yelena, lowering her voice as if gossiping about the neighbors.
But Yelena does regret losing a good helper. “Whatever you ask, Nastya will do it. She’ll tidy up, put up the machine after washing, do the dishes. She helped with everything. That’s why she was the grown one, as they say, the assistant. I guess now Liza will have to grow up a little bit.”
When asked whether it’s true that she and her husband drink, Yelena said, “I mean, we drink as much as anyone else. We don’t get shitfaced and blackout, but sure, we drink.”
Kiselyovsk Police Juvenile Affairs Unit director Yevgenia Suchkova told Meduza’s correspondent that after she visited the Fesler family’s home for an inspection after the murder, she “no longer has any questions or complaints for them.”
“Even after Nastya, this family still has children, and we’re worried about their futures as well. In any case, it’s better for children to be home than in an institution. This isn’t the kind of situation that should lead to the loss of parental rights,” Suchkova said.
Gyulnara Mustafina agreed that there’s no reason to take the remaining Fesler children away from the parents. “The girl had textbooks at school, she didn’t play hooky, she had a roof over her head — the parents drank, sure, but it wasn’t like they were lying out in the stairwell. They just drank, like everybody else here,” she told Meduza.
Meduza’s correspondent found Ulyana’s parents in the courtyard outside their apartment. Their eyes red from tears, they received the stream of government officials who came to give their condolences. They declined to speak with journalists.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale