Beat the Press: The Plight of Reporters in Putin’s Russia
3:15 PM, Apr 22, 2011 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
Kiev – At around 10 a.m. Moscow time on March 23, the world saw another example of just how dangerous it is to be an investigative reporter in Russia. Sergei Topol, a 55-year-old political journalist, was beaten by two men outside of his apartment building at 1 Kotelnicheskaya Naberezhnaya—one of the prestigious Stalin-era, wedding cake-style buildings, located not far from the Kremlin. He was hospitalized with numerous bruises and a concussion.
Topol’s experience with “Beat the Press,” an increasingly popular activity in today’s Russia, is mild compared to that of some of his colleagues. Last fall, 30-year-old Oleg Kashin, a reporter for the influential Moscow daily Kommersant, was beaten with metal rods near his apartment home in central Moscow. The bludgeoning he suffered was so severe that he was in coma for five days and barely survived.
Russia has been one of the most dangerous places for journalists to live and work since the beginning of the 1990s, with some independent international organizations placing the total number of deaths to date at more than 200. A 2007 report by the International News Safety Institute calculated that in the previous 10 years more journalists had died violent deaths in Russia than in any other country in the world with the exception of Iraq.
In 1994, I was visiting at the apartment of a friend in Moscow who was a senior design engineer at one of Russia’s more prestigious missile and space systems. Although we were both in the aerospace business, most of our talk was generally about our other favorite subject: jazz. We could spend hours debating whose rendering of a particular song was better and were involved in one of those Frank Sinatra vs. Nat King Cole discussions when we heard a news broadcast about the death of Moskovsky Komsomolets reporter Dmitri Kholodov.
My friend was shocked. “Kholodov interviewed me himself in this very room not long ago,” he told me. “What is happening to this country?”
Kholodov had been working for more than a year on a series of stories exposing corruption in the Russian military. Earlier that day he had collected an attaché case from the left luggage section at a Moscow train station, having been told it contained a cache of documents revealing criminality in the highest ranks of the armed forces and Ministry of Defense.
Instead, the attaché case was booby-trapped with a bomb triggered to go off when the latches were released. He was killed when it exploded as he opened it back at his office.
Kholodov’s death was a watershed in the history of post-Soviet Russia because it was the first time (although certainly not the last) that a Russian journalist was targeted for elimination because of a story he was working on. Kholodov had been tracking the misuse of funds allocated for the resettlement of Russian troops who had been stationed in East German. As part of the German reunification agreement with Moscow, the German government allocated funds to pay for apartments to be constructed in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and elsewhere to house the Soviet occupation troops returning home.
Not surprisingly, a lot of this money ended up in the pockets of senior military officials. This corruption reportedly went as high as the then-Defense Minister, General Pavel Grachev. His activities included the use of military assets to transport stolen Mercedes-Benzes back to Russia, earning him the nickname “Pasha Mercedes.”
But there is a difference in the attacks on journalists of recent years and those of the 1990s. Kholodov and others were murdered or attacked because they were set to expose blatant criminality. More recent incidents, such as the 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya, have been political assassinations or warnings—as in the case of Topol’s and Kashin’s beatings—to stay away from covering subjects that might embarrass those in power.
Topol’s crime was that he had written a series of stories in 2008 stating that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would leave his wife for a 27-year-old Olympic gymnast, Alina Kabayeva. Shortly thereafter, Putin (while holding a press conference with Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, another politician with a penchant for women a fraction of his age) said, “I have always disliked those who, with their infected noses and erotic fantasies, break into other people’s private affairs.”