Kolesnikov graduated from the Leningrad Polytechnical Institute in 1972, where he studied biophysics. He holds a doctorate from the Sergei Kirov Military Medical Academy, and spent 20 years as a scientist specialising in the applications of biophysics in medicine.
In 1991 he and scientific colleagues combined with the St Petersburg health authorities to found a state enterprise to manufacture medical equipment which they had been developing. In 1992, when it became legal, they set up a joint stock company called Petromed. Vladmir Putin, then head of the St Petersburg Committee on External Economic Affairs, was one of the founders. Petromed expanded through the 1990s from the manufacture of equipment to procurement, and from procurement to major health infrastructure projects. The election of Vladimir Yakovlev as Mayor St Petersburg was a setback for Petromed as the company did not enjoy as good relations with him as they had with Anatoly Sobchak. The publicly owned stake in the company was sold so that Kolesnikov and another of the co-founders, Dmitri Gorelov, each held a 50% stake.
Kolesnikov's involvement in this is described in his letter to Medvedev and has been covered by the media, notably by David Ignatius in the Washington Post, who concluded from his investigations that 'Kolesnikov is one of those brave souls a journalist meets occasionally, who decides to expose what he sees as wrongdoing, regardless of the personal risks.' In 2000 Kolesnikov was approached by Nikolai Shamalov, a contact from Petromed's early days, on behalf of Putin. Putin proposed the following scheme: Petromed would be commissioned to undertake a number of health infrastructure projects, funded by oligarchs, including Roman Abramovich. A proportion of the donations would be siphoned into an offshore investment fund, in which Putin would have by far the largest stake.
This scheme went ahead, as well as 'Project South', aka Putin's Palace, which Shamalov supervised. Kolesnikov claims that he became disillusioned when, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, he was instructed that all funds were to be directed to Putin's Palace and investment projects on which people's livelihoods depended were to be shut down. In September 2010 he left Russia having decided to become a whistleblower. After consulting lawyers and meeting with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius he published his letter to Medvedev, which met with official denials. The plausibility of these denials has been undermined by investigations by Novaya Gazeta, which revealed a paper trail going back to the Kremlin.
Asked by Masha Gessen why he had become a whistleblower he replied, 'On the one hand, it's a complicated question, on the other hand, it's simple. If you are a Russian, if Russia is your homeland, and if you have something you can do for her, then the act is perfectly natural. Sometimes I wondered whether I would be able, for example, to 'go over the top' as my father did. Well, I came to the conclusion that maybe I could.' On Russia today he is pessimistic, 'My analysis led to the conclusion that the country has no real positive development. The country is heading for collapse. Moreover, for a really serious collapse, possibly revolution. And considering that today Russia is a nuclear power, and that revolution in a country where there is a huge number of nuclear weapons is an incredibly dangerous thing for the existence of the whole world, I came to the conclusion that something had to be done. These were the main motives for my decision to write the letter. Well, in the end, let's say, I have lived most of my life, I've got children and grandchildren, and not just me, everyone.'