Russia: Death Threats for Journalists and Forgiveness for Officials

Yesterday, Russia's head of the Federal Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin, stood before the press and shook hands with Dmitri Muratov, chief editor of the country's most oppositionist newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. Bastrykin turned to an audience of journalists and said [ru] repentantly, “I want to begin by offering [Muratov] my apologies for my emotional outburst at the [June 4] meeting.” The head of the Investigative Committee was referring to a recent argument with Sergei Sokolov, Novaya Gazeta's deputy executive director, whom Bastrykin allegedly abducted and led into the woods beyond Moscow, where he threatened the journalist's life because of an article [ru] accusing him of aiding a known gangster.

Aleksandr Bastrykin, 21 Jan 2011, photo by the Press Service of the Russian President, CC BY-SA 3.0; Wikimedia Commons.

The scandal between Novaya Gazeta and the Investigative Committee, now roughly two days old, has been a curious affair, incredible both for the magnitude of the initial accusations against Bastrykin and the swiftness with which both sides declared a truce.

It Began on Twitter

The first traces of the controversy emerged on Twitter. On June 11, two days before Muratov published an open letter to Bastrykin revealing the story, Duma Deputy Aleksandr Khinshtein tweeted [ru] ominously that that “an unprecedented scandal” awaited the Investigative Committee's chief. Khinshtein's tweet came a day before the most recent mass demonstration by the opposition, the ‘Million Man March 2,’ on a day that federal investigators raided the homes and businesses of prominent oppositionists, including Aleksei Navalny, Ksenia Sobchak, and others. At the time, Khinshtein's remark aroused some interest, but his own troubled relationship with Bastrykin obscured the foreboding of his prediction.

On June 13, when Muratov exploded the story in a public letter [ru] to Bastrykin, Russia's political class responded with varying degrees of suspicion and disgust. Social commentator and all-around gossip Bozhena Rynska wrote in her LiveJournal that Bastrykin was ‘all bark and no bite,’ though she expressed a certain respect for his audacity:

Я одно хочу сказать: человек, способный вывезти в лес самолично, под своим именем, в ярости и в запале погрозить убийством — не гнида. Бастрыкин показал, что он способен на прямую конфронтацию, он не боится афронта.

I want to say one thing: someone capable of taking [Sokolov] out into the forest personally, openly by himself, and in a rage threaten [him] with murder — this person isn't a twit. Bastrykin showed that he's capable of a direct confrontation, and unafraid of any affront.

The Moscow Charter of Journalists (a group of ‘independent-minded’ reporters established [ru] back in 1994) published a statement [ru] on Echo of Moscow's blog, demanding a “detailed investigation” into Muratov's accusations, along with Bastrykin's suspension, until the review was completed. Novaya Gazeta columnist Andrei Kolesnikov expressed [ru] roughly the exact opposite sentiment, defending Muratov and his newspaper against criticisms following the reconciliation with the Investigative Committee:

Жаль, что важные тексты иногда остаются непрочитанными. […] В нем редакция требовала три вещи: извинений за угрозы; обеспечение безопасности заместителя главного редактора Сергея Соколова; обеспечение безопасности сотрудникам редакции, выполняющим задания на Кавказе. Все три требования были удовлетворены. И теперь, после принятых извинений Бастрыкина, в глазах части коллег и читателей «Новая газета» — предатель дела борьбы с «кровавым режимом».

It's a shame that important texts sometimes go unread in full. […] In [Muratov's article], he demanded three things: an apology for the threats, [a guarantee on] the personal security of deputy executive editor Sergei Sokolov, and [a guarantee on] the security of the paper's staff working in the Caucasus. All three demands were satisfied, but now — after accepting Bastrykin's apologies — in the eyes of some of our colleagues and readers, [the paper has become] a traitor to the battle with the ‘bloody regime.’

Also published on Echo's blog, journalist Aleksandr Podrabinek wrote that he forgives Novaya for backing down after Bastrykin met Muratov's demands, explaining that publications have to look out for the safety of their own reporters, first and foremost. He added, though:

Однако «лесная история» перестала быть фактом личных отношений между Сергеем Соколовым и Александром Бастрыкиным. Она перестала быть даже частным делом «Новой газеты» и СК. Это стало общим делом, публичным, и взаимные извинения фигурантов этой истории ничего не меняют.

The ‘forest story,’ however, is no longer a personal episode between Sergei Sokolov and Aleksandr Bastrykin. It is no longer even a private affair between Novaya Gazeta and the Investigative Committee. It has become a social and public affair, and no amount of reciprocal apologies changes any of that.

Echo of Moscow in the Trenches & the ‘Siloviki’

In the twenty-four hours that this scandal was ‘unresolved,’ several Echo of Moscow reporters staged a picket outside the Investigative Committee's main building in Moscow. Several prominent journalists were detained almost immediately (leading to the now-typical barrage of Instagram photos from inside police vans). Echo's chief editor, Aleksei Venediktov, blogged [ru] a ‘thank you’ letter the next day, expressing his gratitude to those who covered the arrests. He also flashed a bit of his temper at those who did not:

А тем коллегам, которые предпочли не заметить этого, скажу – не волнуйтесь, когда ваши журналисты попадут в подобную ситуацию (а наша профессия такая – обязательно попадут), “Эхо Москвы” будет информировать своих слушателей о таких историях. Мы просто считаем это правильным.

To those colleagues who preferred not to notice [the Echo reporters’ picket and arrests]: don't worry. When your journalists land in a similar situation (and they absolutely will, given our profession), ‘Echo of Moscow’ will inform our listeners about such incidents. We just think it's the right thing to do.

Alexey Venediktov, 10 April 2011, photo by Andrei Romanenko, CC BY-SA 3.0; Wikimedia Commons.

Author, blogger, and critic of the opposition Maksim Kononenko highlighted Khinshtein's peculiar role in the controversy, mocking [ru] Echo's reporters for getting drawn into a scandal presumably orchestrated by actors within the political establishment:

[…] Бастрыкин, конечно, гондон (оценочное мнение), но все же эта история (зная методы и направления работы Хинтшейна) выглядит прямо скажем сомнительно.

Bastrykin, of course, is a real dick (in my judgment), but this whole story (knowing Khinshtein's methods and field of work) looks pretty sketchy.

After the public reconciliation, Kononenko summarized his conspiracy theory as follows:

Я думаю, что было так. Муратов рассказал Хинштейну. Хинштейн посоветовал ему: раздуй. Бастрыкин не устоит. Бастрыкин устоял. Муратов откатил назад. А Хинштейн вроде бы ни причем. ггг

I think it was like this: Muratov told Khinshtein [about Sokolov's incident]. Khinshtein advised him to inflate the story. Bastrykin won't hold out. [But] Bastrykin held out. [And] Muratov backed down. And Khinshtein's hands are clean. trololo [en]

Belorussian journalist Pavel Sheremet also noted shades of inter-elite fighting, writing on LJ that the scandal, which was probably true, was also likely a setup:

Главного российского следователя, наверняка, подставили. […] Ему подослали для дискредитации не проститутку, как обычно, а журналиста. В том мире привыкли ставить знак равенства между проституткой и журналистом. Несчастный Бастрыкин провокации не почувствовал, сначала наорал на журналиста, потом вывез его в лес, угрожал […]. […] Нам хотят показать, что Бастрыкин беспредельщик или немного устал.

The chief Russian investigator, probably, was set up. Instead of sending a prostitute to discredit him, like usual, they sent a journalist. In that world, they're used to drawing no distinction between prostitutes and journalists. Unlucky Bastrykin didn't detect the provocation: first he yelled at [Sokolov], and then he took him into the woods and threatened him […]. […] They want to show us that Bastrykin is out of control, or at least a bit tired.

Blogger and columnist Oleg Kashin seems to agree. In a June 14 op-ed, he noted Khinshtein's role and wrote that the accusations against Bastrykin are too odious not to be a part of a larger campaign:

[…] участие во всей истории известного микроблогера Александра Хинштейна, анонсировавшего накануне скандал в своем Twitter, и публикация разговора Бастрыкина с журналистом Соколовым на известном таблоидном сайте, и давний конфликт между Следственным комитетом и Генпрокуратурой — контекст нельзя игнорировать, и в этом контексте превращение Бастрыкина в образцового “плохого парня” из кино выглядит именно как эпизод информационной войны.

The participation throughout this story of micro-blogger Aleksandr Khinshtein — having announced [it] on the eve of the scandal via his Twitter — and the publication [ru] of the Bastrykin-Sokolov [official] conversation on an infamous tabloid site [LifeNews], and the longstanding conflict between the Investigative Committee and the General Prosecutor — it is context that one cannot ignore. In this context, the transformation of Bastrykin into a classic Hollywood ‘bad guy’ looks precisely like an episode of information warfare.

In a blog post titled “Siloviki Run Wild” [en], Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty's Brian Whitmore cited an alarming (or alarmist, depending on one's view) editorial [ru] in Vedomosti that identified the Bastrykin scandal as evidence that Putin has given the siloviki (the security forces in the government) a ‘blank check’ to fight the President's enemies. Whitemore compares this atmosphere to the period ahead of Dmitri Medvedev's ascent to the Kremlin in 2007, when warring ‘clans’ battled for influence in a changing, uncertain political landscape:

Of course, it's all speculation at this point. But as I noted, the last time the elite was behaving like this was in late 2007, amid the uncertainty that prevailed just before Putin left the Kremlin. If this is indeed what is going on now, it suggests the ruling elite is just as nervous today, little more than a month after Putin's return to power.

Lingering Questions

Was this controversy engineered or fabricated by Bastrykin's enemies within the establishment to weaken the Investigative Committee and empower some other branch of the security services — perhaps its historical rival, the General Prosecutor? Does Novaya Gazeta's eagerness to settle the dispute with Bastrykin indicate that Muratov panicked and betrayed Russia's ‘independent’ press? Was Khinshtein a schemer or just another pawn in all this? The answers to such questions either depend on one's political beliefs, or simply do not exist today in any persuasive form. A more poignant question is perhaps: will anyone remember this story in a year? What about in five-and-a-half, when Putin's current presidential term is nearing its end?


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