MOSCOW - Caught cutting up a dead moose at night in a forest, Moscow's top Communist is facing criminal charges for illegal hunting, the threat of losing his parliamentary seat and even his career.
His defenders say it's all about Kremlin payback.
Valery Rashkin, 66, leader of the Moscow Communist Party, was arrested in the middle of the night Oct. 29 for shooting a female moose illegally, the Interfax news agency reported, and could be stripped of parliamentary immunity on Thursday.
He has been at odds with Russian authorities for challenging the results of September parliamentary elections and rejecting the Kremlin's pet project, online voting, a system that critics say will promote electoral fraud.
Communist lawmaker Nina Ostanina, said the charges were "a political special operation" that was "designed to intimidate all patriots" who offered an alternative to fat cats and crooks in President Vladimir Putin's Russia.
"It is so blunt and clumsy that it is baffling," she added.
Rashkin, however, did himself no favors with shifting accounts.
At first, he claimed that he "found" the animal dead. But state television coverage showed him being confronted by police late at night last month looking confused and evasive, standing next to his car and a pile of bloody meat. An ax and knives were found on the scene. He did not have a hunting license.
On Thursday, he finally admitted that he had "blurted out" a lie - the first thing that came into his head.
"I was tired," he explained.
The scandal could end his career. The State Duma, or lower house of parliament, meets Thursday to vote on stripping him of parliamentary immunity, opening the way for prosecution.
Rashkin has been quoted as saying he is sure that the vote will go against him.He declined requests from The Washington Post for comment.
"Rashkin was very active protesting about the results of online voting in Moscow. Rashkin is very active and bright, and I think those in power had lots of complaints about him regardless of recent events." said Communist Party spokesman Alexander Yushchenko in an interview.
He said more than 100 Communist party members around the country were arrested for protesting the results of September's parliament elections.
To be fair, Rashkin's alleged crime seems to pale beside a June scandal when a member of Putin's United Russia party, Alexander Kramarenko, posed with the carcasses of hundreds of shot-dead wild geese and ducks laid on the snow, spelling out "Chukotka 2021" with a heart - the name of his home region across the Bering Strait from Alaska.
After he posted the ghastly photo online then deleted it, he was also charged with similar charges of illegal hunting. Kramarenko's membership in United Russia was suspended pending the outcome of case. No other information about his position has emerged.
According to analysts, Rashkin's arrest and accompanying crush of state media coverage is designed to send a message that opposition politicians, even from the tame parties permitted by the Kremlin, can face ruin if they are too outspoken.
"In Rashkin's case, even in terms of the crazy Russian VIP hunting, he did nothing wrong," said independent analyst Konstantin Gaaze, a sociologist at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences.
"In this year and the previous year there were a number of cases involving United Russia MPs and United Russia officials in ugly and crazy hunting episodes," he added. "Now they're jumping on Rashkin to show it's not only United Russia MPs who do evil and cruel things to animals."
In Russia, the only permitted opposition parties are typically in the Kremlin's pocket, analysts say. To them, Rashkin's crime was less about the moose and more about the fact that he crossed a red line in opposing the Kremlin.
"It looks like a planned action against Communists," said Andrei Kolesnikov, analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.
"It's a message to them that they must behave properly, that they can't be too active in their protestations like Rashkin was . . . They must follow the rules obediently and those who do not behave properly will be persecuted seriously."
Rashkin led street protests after the September result that saw many opposition candidates including Communists far ahead in paper balloting, only to have their leads overturned in online voting results - with electronic votes impossible to verify, according to election observers.
Rashkin told a protest rally in Pushkin Square in Central Moscow on Sept. 25 that there was "colossal fraud" in the election. That put him in contradiction with party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who hasn't posed a serious threat to the Kremlin since 1996, who obeys the rules, mostly, and benefits with recognition and a state salary.
Protesters at the rally chanted "Putin is a thief!" and police dispersed the demonstrators after an hour by playing loud music.
The past year in Russia has seen a toll in arrests, jail terms and repressions of activists, journalists, human rights lawyers, right groups and banned political groups like those of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Rashkin's arrest marks a new phase in Putin's moves to hammer out a tougher form of authoritarian rule - targeting anyone who challenges Putin's grip on power.
Russia's wild hunting culture was captured in the slapstick 1995 Russian movie hit, "Peculiarities of the National Hunt," in which a group of drunken hunting buddies stagger through many chaotic, vodka-sodden misadventures.
Rashkin admits his friends "had a good party" the day of the moose shooting incident near Saratov on the Volga River, but added: "I don't drink."
A friend of Rashkin's who was there, Vladimir Matrosov, told pro-Kremlin Russian television media last week that nobody in the group was planning to hunt. "We drank, and drank hard." He added that Rashkin never bothered to get a hunting license.
Rashkin made his confession on video this week, wearing a purple tie with an untidy knot and a patriotic lapel pin. He claimed he shot the moose cow by accident, mistaking it for a boar, and promised to replace it by buying a moose cow and releasing it in the wild.
Rashkin refused an alcohol test from police at the time of his arrest, sure he would be framed with a fake reading, he said. According to his account, Matrosov was supposed to have arranged a hunting license.
Vladimir Shabliy, a hunting inspector, said it was almost impossible to confuse a moose with a wild boar when hunting, Izvestia newspaper reported Friday.
Yushchenko, the Communist spokesman, said the wall-to-wall state television coverage of Rashkin's case was a political maneuver to distract from inequality, falling wages, greedy oligarchs, a failing health system and businesses going under because of the pandemic.
"That is why political technologists who create content on state channels are trying to distract people's attention from the social problems," he said. "Actually, Rashkin's case is really nothing.
"If he violated the law while hunting, then it should take up about 15 seconds of television news, not more." Instead, he said, it got more airtime than the Group of 20 summit in Rome that Putin joined by video link.
The Washington Post's Natasha Abbakumova contributed to this report.