Post-Soviet swingers versus the Kremlin

Bangkok (CNN)The sex guru from Belarus and his protégé/lover preached empowerment through what they described as "the art of seduction." They promoted themselves in books and on social media as masters of manipulation, but then this strange swinging pair suddenly found themselves desperate and frightened, and stuck in a jail in Thailand.

They claimed that after stumbling upon evidence of Russian government meddling in the 2016 US election, they were in danger of knowing too much.
"They can kill me here or in Russia," the 21-year-old Anastasia Vashukevich told me, speaking through the bars of the sweltering Bangkok Immigration Detention Center last Monday.
    Vashukevich is better known by her social media stage-name Nastya Rybka.
    A police officer escorts Anastasia Vashukevich from a detention center in Pattaya, south of Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, after she was arrested Sunday in the Thai resort city of Pattaya while giving sex lessons to Russian tourists.
    But first, full disclosure. This is one of the strangest stories I've ever covered. It involves a community of libertines with a pseudo-intellectual belief system espousing freedom through sex.
    Last month, they were arrested along with eight of their fellow "sex coaches" when Thai police raided their week-long sex training seminar on its last day.
    There is something about the arrest of these self-styled sex coaches in a coastal resort notorious for prostitution and seedy peep shows that just doesn't add up.
    Supporters of the couple claim the Russian government orchestrated their arrest to stop them leaking compromising information, accusations that were of course denied by the Kremlin.
    In her unusual memoir "Who Wants to Seduce a Billionaire," Rybka promises her readers: "I will analyze my every step, letting you in on strategies to manipulate the richest people on the planet."
    She also gives credit to her "incredible seduction guru" Alex Lesley, a Belarusian writer and leader of a group of self-styled sexual revolutionaries in the former Soviet Union named Alexander Kirillov.
    "Without him none of this would have happened," she wrote.
    Few of us will ever read Rybka's tawdry memoir, because the English translation was never published. With chapter titles like "Threesome with Marina and Ruslan" and "The sex with another girl trick," Rybka describes "techniques of seduction" taught to her by Lesley.
    Rybka was thrust into a different spotlight rather suddenly last month, after Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny posted this video on his YouTube channel. The video has garnered more than 6.5 million views since it was published on February 8 this year.
    In her book, Rybka had changed the name of the billionaire she claimed to seduce. But Navalny's team married her social media posts with details from the book as well as records of the movements of a Russian oligarch's private yacht in the fjords of Norway.
    Navalny said he was able to conclude with confidence that the oligarch she had "targeted" was aluminum baron Oleg Deripaska, a billionaire recently included on a US Treasury Department list of Russian government officials and 96 oligarchs with a net worth of $1 billion or more. Navalny claimed that Deripaska had hosted Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko on his yacht "Elden," and argued this was an example of corruption at the highest levels of the Russian government.
    Navalny is Russia's most high-profile opposition leader, an outspoken anti-corruption crusader and fierce critic of the Kremlin. He has been barred from running in upcoming presidential elections due to a prior embezzlement conviction, which he claims was politically motivated.
    Rybka says she was Deripaska's mistress for over a year. And even though photos show Rybka draped over Deripaska on the yacht, the billionaire's spokespeople deny he had an affair with the young woman. Prikhodko has denied multiple requests from CNN to comment on the issue.
    Friends say that after Navalny published his video investigation on YouTube, Rybka's "incredible seduction guru" Lesley suddenly got spooked. They say he feared he and Rybka would be targeted by powerful Russians embarrassed by the video.
    "He said 'f***, they're gonna kill us ... I don't know what to do,'" says Lesley's longtime friend Grigori Kogan, a Russian-Israeli software engineer, recalling phone calls with Lesley last February.
    Lesley and Rybka travelled to Dubai from Thailand in an attempt to lie low. From there, they asked a Canadian member of their movement to reach out to US authorities for protection.
    The Canadian, a Russian-speaking immigrant from Israel named Eliot Cooper, told me on Thursday he tried to contact the FBI through a hotline to offer evidence of Russian election meddling in exchange for US protection. But he claims US law enforcement didn't seem to be interested. CNN has not independently verified his claim.
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    He believes Rybka has evidence that would interest the Americans. In her book, she describes how Lesley instructed her to surreptitiously record hours of conversations on her phone while she was with Deripaska.
    "She accumulated about 80 gigabytes of audio and video observation," Cooper says.
    "They realized later on in those recordings they have discussions between Prikhodko and Deripaska about manipulating American elections ... proving businesses affiliated with Deripaska are involved in faking news and faking some messages," Cooper claims.
    Deripaska and the Kremlin have repeatedly denied playing any role in trying to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election.
    As for Rybka, Lesley and their supporters, they have so far withheld the release of any evidence that might back up their claims.
    But that didn't stop Lesley from clearly being frightened that he had offended powerful Russians.
    In an Instagram post on February 15th after what he described as "Rybka-gate" went public, Lesley wrote "they say we're gonna die soon so it means we have to f*** like it's the last time."
    Cooper says that after US law enforcement appeared to show no interest in Rybka's audio recordings, Lesley concluded that the pair no longer posed a threat to the Kremlin.
    "This is his big mistake," Cooper says.
    He went on to promote a previously-scheduled "sexual training course" that friends say he had been teaching in Thailand for at least five years.
    Pavlo Yunko, a 32-year old Ukrainian-American acolyte of Lesley's, traveled all the way from New York to Thailand to attend the course.
    During the seminar, which included among other things tips for dating, Yunko says Lesley told him he wanted to accompany Yunko back to the US.
    A still image taken from an AFPTV footage shows police officers detaining opposition leader Alexei Navalny during a rally calling for a boycott of March 18 presidential elections, Moscow, January 28, 2018.
    "He wanted to fly with me to meet officials and tell them what he knows about the Russian influence into the US election," Yunko told me in an interview in Bangkok on March 4.
    Yunko says there were around 40 people in the seminar, the majority of whom were men.
    "It was a seduction training, communication training, about relationship," he says. Yunko, who works in real estate in New York and freelances as an Uber driver, insists there was no pornography or nudity in the seminar and that the meetings were chemical free in adherence with Lesley's teachings.
    "Nobody's drinking, no alcohol, no drugs," he says.
    As attendees were waiting to receive their "diplomas" on the last day of the course at the Ibis Hotel in Pattaya, Thai police burst into the hotel conference room and began arresting self-described "sex coaches."
    "They never let me get my diploma," Yunko said later, ruefully shaking his head.
    From the back of a police paddy wagon on February 28th, Rybka made a video she then posted on her Instagram account, saying she wanted to share her Deripaska videos and audio recordings with journalists.
    But when I met her and Lesley during visiting hours in jail several days later, they had changed their tune.
    "Now we don't want to give information," Lesley said, standing barefoot behind two layers of bars.
    He reasoned that if they were deported back to Russia, they would suffer worse punishment if compromising recordings were made public. He still though wanted to give the evidence to US investigators.
    Since my visit last Monday, however, Thai authorities have refused to allow any of the couples' supporters to communicate with the detainees.
    Lieutenant General Suthipong Wongpin, chief of the Immigration Bureau, said this was "to prevent the group from giving untrue information to the media which could harm the country's image."
    He said a lawyer could theoretically submit a request for a visit.
    But friends of Lesley and Rybka concede that they are woefully unprepared for the current situation.
    "We're all learning new stuff, how to talk to lawyers," says Cooper, speaking on the phone from Canada.
    The group have has struggled to find decent legal representation.
    For several days, they worked with a Bangkok-based Russian-speaker who describes herself as a legal adviser and private investigator, but unbeknownst to them, this individual offered to sell CNN surreptitiously-filmed footage of the detainees in jail. CNN rejected the offer. Then, the P.I. quit.
    For now, police are accusing the suspects of working without proper permits.
    They say the suspects will eventually be deported after a court appearance.
    The question of where or when they will be made to leave Thailand is still unclear.
    After spending a week pursuing this story, I still have no idea whether or not there is any truth to the couple's wild and tantalizing claims.
    Rybka certainly spent time alongside some very powerful Russian people, but the writing of the self-styled seductress, and her mentor, reveal delusions of grandeur and constant self-promotion.
    What's behind the bravado, the fear shared by Rybka, Lesley and their supporters is very real. They truly believe they're in danger because they know too much.
    And I have no idea how their strange story will end.