In early August, an explosion thundered from beneath the steps of the Smolninskoye municipal hall in central St. Petersburg. This part of the city has been the subject of a protracted and bitter struggle for power between the head of the local council of deputies, Grigory Rankov (who failed to get re-elected two years ago, but managed to cling on to his post), and local oppositionists. Rankov’s opponents on the council believe he’s the mastermind behind the blast, and although law enforcement have not corroborated his involvement, Rankov has indeed exhibited some odd behavior in recent weeks. For example, posting a video of himself shooting a Kalashnikov rifle, accompanied by threatening comments. Meduza tracks Rankov’s journey from IT teacher and ballroom dancer, to municipal councilman now known as “Detonator Greg.”
Grigory Rankov is 43 years old. He was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and has lived in the city all his life. After studying for a vocational degree and gaining a teaching qualification, he taught computer science at a local school and ran a ballroom dance after-school club. Twenty years ago he developed an interest in politics — a passion that changed the course of his life.
Rankov’s foray into politics began with a voluntary position as an assistant to an opposition politician, Mikhail Amosov, who then headed the St. Petersburg branch of the Yabloko party. Amosov recalls: “He got into Yabloko thanks to his auntie, who happened to be a party member. He was not a particularly effective assistant, and later both he and his auntie jumped ship and joined United Russia. I guess it was more convenient to be in the party of power — it’s not easy in the opposition.” (Rankov’s relative has indeed been a member of both Yabloko and United Russia).
In 2009, Rankov himself joined the political ranks when he won a municipal mandate. A few years later, following the 2014 elections, he was even voted in to head the council of deputies for one of St. Petersburg’s wealthiest and most prestigious districts, Smolninskoye, which houses both city hall and the government building for the surrounding Leningrad region. The district is also known to have been home to the infamous crime lords Gennady Petrov and Vladimir Barsukov (born Vladimir Kumarin). The powerful Barsukov earned the nickname “St. Petersburg’s night governor.”
Up until 2019, the district had always been ruled by the ruling United Russia party. Then, just before the 2019 municipal elections, the district suddenly became embroiled in controversy. Smolninskoye’s former administrative head, Natalya Smirnova, came under a criminal investigation and was subsequently convicted of fraud and given a two-year suspended sentence. Rankov managed to avoid prosecution.
It all went downhill from there.
The “Smart Vote” initiative developed and promoted by Alexey Navalny and his team proved very effective in St. Petersburg’s Smolninskoye district, and United Russia lost its majority in the September 2019 elections. Opposition politicians (mainly candidates from the Yabloko party and historic preservation activists) won 16 of the 20 seats in the district. Rankov was among those who lost their seats.
Soon afterwards, the newly elected members had to select a new chairperson for the council of deputies. The chair’s job is to represent the district in other government agencies, sign and promulgate laws and regulations, with the added power to convene extraordinary meetings of the council. Opinions diverged, however, and they could not come to an agreement. Members of the opposition came from a wide range of movements and parties, and found it difficult to find compromise on a suitable candidate, ultimately going so far as to accuse one another of colluding with United Russia.
Eventually, in the summer of 2020, twelve council members formed a coalition and agreed to appoint a new chair. But they were faced with a new problem: rules require a chair to be elected by fourteen members, and by then it was impossible to secure a quorum as the remaining eight deputies had simply stopped attending.
In the end, in accordance with the law, Grigory Rankov remained chairman of the council despite losing his mandate in the election.
Anonymous sources from the municipality office told Meduza that Rankov welcomed his reappointment and in private conversations said that he “did not wish to hand the district over to amateurs and outcasts.” He also accused the new opposition members of striving to “get their claws into the budget.”
In an interview with the local outlet Bumaga, deputies noted that Rankov’s appointment played into the hands of United Russia, as it allowed the party to keep control of the district despite both Rankov and the party losing the elections.
Unable to appoint a new chair, the coalition of twelve persisted and adopted a much more active stance than is customary in the quiet municipalities of St. Petersburg. They started streaming their meetings online and posting video appeals against proposed constitutional changes, and even tried (unsuccessfully) to reduce the “municipal filter” in gubernatorial elections.
They also voted to deprive a local election commission chairman of his salary, arguing that a person should not be paid all the time if his services are only required once every five years. As a result, they saved approximately one million rubles ($13,600 by today’s exchange rate) a year in budget funds, with the commission chairman later transferring to work for the city administration.
The opposition group got sufficient votes to withdraw Rankov’s salary too, for failure to attend council meetings at a time when its members were trying to select a new chairman (according to Rankov’s asset declaration, his annual income was around one million rubles, or $13,600).
Following this development, Rankov stopped attending work altogether, citing an illness. A local politician even reached out to the police for help locating the missing chairman, but to no avail. Meanwhile, council meetings were still not quorate, making it impossible to have Rankov replaced.
All the while, Rankov regularly contested (via the courts) council decisions made in his absence, and as a result the municipal budget for 2021 has yet to be adopted and the district’s accounts are encumbered with 400 million unspent rubles (the equivalent of $5.44 million).
Replacing Putin with Pushkin
In October 2020, this previously unremarkable St. Petersburg municipality ended up on the Kremlin’s radar. It all started when a local politician by the name of Nikita Yuferev removed Vladimir Putin’s portrait from the wall of the council chamber, replacing it with that of the poet Alexander Pushkin. To top it off, Yuferev subsequently tore up the president’s portrait.
Police were called, with several officers arriving to defend the president’s image. Yuferev managed to escape punishment, but Putin’s portrait was back on the wall by the following meeting – securely attached not only with nails but with a foam seal for good measure. The opposition group responded by hanging a picture of a kitten underneath.
Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov commented that while the Kremlin cannot approve of Putin’s portrait being taken down, there are “no instructions or regulations” for dealing with such an event.
The rebellious deputies’ treatment of the portrait was not appreciated by the district administration and they were banned from entering the building that housed their council chamber. In a social media post, Grigory Rankov wrote that it was “dangerous to approach the building” from around 6:40 p.m. (council meetings were usually held at 7:00 p.m.).
The district administration is headed by retired FSB colonel, Alexander Kolb. While in the FSB, he was involved, amongst other things, in investigating the case of the environmental expert Alexander Nikitin, and now openly wields pro-Kremlin views. His daughter, Anastasia Kolb, previously worked under the leadership of United Russia State Duma member, Vitaly Milonov (back when he was still a deputy at the St. Petersburg legislative assembly). She is also known for attempting, unsuccessfully, to challenge the 2019 local election results by claiming that the “Smart Vote” was “an unlawful campaigning method.”
When Meduza approached Alexander Kolb to comment on the decision to ban lawfully elected representatives from entering the municipal building where they are required to hold their meetings, he offered a protracted but uncomplicated explanation:
The fact that they used to meet inside the building — well, look at it as a goodwill gesture. Tearing up a presidential portrait amounts to anti-statism, in my opinion. It is not something that municipal deputies should engage in, as it is an expression of their personal views and has nothing to do with attending to issues of local significance. Expressing personal views is for the general population to do through their votes. Yes, the portrait is just a piece of paper, but by the same logic the flag is simply cloth and state emblems are just a collection of logos. Like it or not, the state has its own symbols and attributes. Politicians should have respect for the state and their homeland, and if such respect is lacking, well that is no excuse for acting aggressively.
Upon being banned from entering the municipal building, the deputies decided to hold their meetings on its front steps instead. In January 2021, they tried to enter through an adjoining building which hosts the Green Elephant municipal recreation center. Staff called the police, and the deputies were detained and charged with misdemeanor offences for breaching coronavirus restrictions. Of the thirteen charges, seven have now been dropped for lack of wrongdoing.
Following that incident, Grigory Rankov called the oppositionists “the bastard sons of the Smart Vote.” Alexander Kolb’s daughter added that all that was left after their attempted re-entry was “muck, a filthy toilet, and an LGBT flag!”
The squabble between the party of power and the local opposition culminated in a criminal investigation. At Rankov’s request, investigating officers raised suspicions that the opposition deputies might be using a forged seal on their documents, as the “true seal” was in Rankov’s safekeeping. A criminal investigation was launched but was later dropped as investigators found no evidence to support the claim.
The spring of 2021 saw another escalation of the conflict. On April 1, Rankov reported receiving a package containing a draft resignation letter in his name, along with a photograph of his daughter. Interpreting this as a threat, he called the anonymous senders “scumbags,” warned them that they had “crossed the final line,” and promised to deal with each one personally. He then filed a report with the police; a response is yet to be received.
Rankov insinuated that the letter may have been sent by his opponents at the council. In an Instagram post in July 2021, he shared a video of himself firing a machine gun. The accompanying caption read: “Shooting in burst mode can take out as many as 12 units in one go, and a mandate is no good as a shield! AK is king!” Presumably the “12 units” are the twelve council members who are trying to get Rankov replaced.
In the comments, a member of the district administration wrote that watching the video must have “made some lefties wet their pants,” to which Rankov replied: “They’ll have no time for that, we’ll just take them straight out.”
A source close to the politician told us that the video was shot during Rankov’s “private visit” to Ukraine’s war-torn Donbas region.
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On the evening of August 4, by tradition, Smolninskoye’s deputies met on the steps of the council building. Moments later, red smoke billowed from under the staircase on which they stood. Then came a powerful blast. Three of the deputies suffered injuries.
The local newspaper Fontanka reported that the following day, the St. Petersburg Anti-Extremism Center questioned a district administration employee in connection with the incident, who claimed that he had put on the “pyrotechnic display” at Rankov’s instruction. The opposition group at the council have no doubt that Rankov was behind the blast. The police have opened an investigation on criminal damage charges.
Despite witness evidence of Rankov’s involvement, police subsequently issued a statement pointing to “those taking part in the council of deputies meeting” as being complicit in the blast. They concluded that this was the deputies’ attempt to “draw attention to their meeting” and “evoke a public response.” A video accompanying the police statement shows two unidentified individuals placing stun explosives under the porch steps. As noted by the opposition deputies, individuals in the video bear a striking resemblance to certain employees of the district administrative office.
Municipality head Alexander Kolb commented: “As someone who has worked in investigative agencies for a quarter of a century, I know better than anyone what effect a leak can have on the outcome of an investigation. I do have certain information, but I’ll leave it to the investigative officers to reveal, if they should decide to do so.” Meduza approached Grigory Rankov for comment, but he did not return our calls or messages.
Human Rights Ombudsman for St. Petersburg, Alexander Shishlov has asked the police to investigate the blast, and over a hundred municipal deputies from both Moscow and St. Petersburg have requested that Russia’s top police official, Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, take personal charge of the investigation.
In the meantime, local deputies are defiant in their efforts to remove Rankov from office and have filed a court petition accordingly. The fate of the entire council is at risk, however, as the local prosecutor’s office has petitioned a court to have the council dissolved as it is technically “not currently functioning.” A court hearing is scheduled for September 16, but it remains to be seen whether Grigory Rankov — now referred to by local deputies exclusively as “Detonator Greg” — will show up.
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Translation by Kate Vtorygina