In the early morning hours on November 6, 2010, almost five years ago, a group of men attacked and nearly killed Oleg Kashin, one of Russia's most prominent journalists. They broke each of his fingers and smashed his head with a steel pipe. He was hospitalized in a coma, but he did not die.
Last month, on September 7, 2015, after a surprisingly exhaustive investigation by Russian police, Kashin revealed the names of his alleged attackers. The men appear to be linked to Andrey Turchak, the powerful governor of Pskov, and ex-employees of the security department of “Zaslon,” a company owned by Turchak's family that designs and produces aircraft electronics and weapons-targeting systems. Though the evidence against Turchak and his entourage has mounted in the press, he remains free and in office. He hasn't even been questioned.
On Saturday, October 3, Kashin published an open letter addressed to President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, where he discusses his case and the significance its abandonment has for Russia as a nation. That letter appears below, translated fully into English.
Dear Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev,
My colleagues have already written you open letters about my case. You haven’t responded (and, more importantly, neither has your Investigative Committee), though this actually makes perfect sense: you were asked to “sort it out,” but there’s no need for anything like that. I understand perfectly well that you “sorted it out” a long time ago, and you’ve known for just as long that it was your little Governor Turchak who was behind this crime against me—the same crime I once discussed with one of you, when one of you told me the heads of whoever was responsible would roll. But my case was solved a long time ago. You know this, and I know this. And I see no reason to pretend that the problem here is that you still need to “sort it out.”
Like I said: you’ve already sorted it out, and your decision not to act is clear.
You’ve decided to side with your Governor Turchak; you’re protecting him and his gang of thugs and murderers. It would make sense for somebody like me—a victim of this gang—to be outraged about all this and tell you that it’s dishonest and unjust, but I understand that such words would only make you laugh. You have complete and absolute control over the adoption and implementation of laws in Russia, and yet you still live like criminals. Every time, it’s something above the law. Consider Inspector Sotskov, who’s been handed my case and is now dutifully tearing it apart. Busy rescuing Turchak and his partner Gorbunov, Sotskov put it elegantly when he said recently: There’s the law, but there’s also the man in charge, and the will of the boss is always stronger than any law. Put bluntly: he’s right and that’s reality. Your will in Russia is stronger than any law, and simply obeying the law is an impossible fantasy.
I’ve known Inspector Sotskov for over a year now. He and I belong to the same generation. At one time, he was even a journalist at Narodnoe Radio. I can easily imagine him in his first year of law school, studying Roman law, still full of enthusiasm, honesty, and dreams about changing the world. And what’s become of him now? He’s a terrified bureaucrat, dreaming about keeping his job long enough to earn a pension, and he’s ready to do any foul thing to get it—even something criminal that could land him behind bars. Who made him this way? It was you.
For some reason, we weigh the last fifteen years of your reign purely in certain materialist terms. Oil costs so much, the dollar is worth so much, GDP rose so many percentiles, and so on. But it’s not about oil or GDP. History will judge these fifteen years precisely on the fate of men like Sotskov. It was you who turned an enthusiastic freshman—someone who hurried to the studio from lectures to read the news on an opposition radio station—into a uniformed cynic, who admits openly that the will of his superiors—his bosses—is for him (an investigator and an officer!) more important than any law. And I’ve got no right to judge him. When Sotskov looks around, what does he see? He sees an example being made of his colleague and friend, Alexey Serdyukov, the distinguished investigator who not long ago put behind bars Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov. After he dared to solve my case, where Governor Turchak is a suspect, Serdyukov was basically suspended.
Your choice between the Serdyukovs and the Sotskovs is a principled one, of course. The former you simply don’t need, and the latter make up your most reliable pillar of support. The more flexible they’re capable of being, the safer it is for you.
But don’t flatter yourself: the last fifteen years haven’t been a revival for Russia, and the country hasn’t risen from its knees; this time has been a monumental moral catastrophe for our generation. And both of you, Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev, are personally responsible for it.
In Russian society today, even obvious questions about good and evil have become impossible. Is it okay to steal? Is it okay to cheat? Is murder ethical? With each of these questions, it’s become customary in Russia now to answer that things aren’t so simple. All your good works have left the nation demoralized and disoriented. Lies and hypocrisy are convenient tools you use to control the masses, and it works for you and it’s comfortable, but each time you use these instruments it’s another painful blow to society, and every next blow could be fatal.
But you carry on, managing your problems without even realizing that you’re digging the hole yourselves. “Things aren’t so simple,” is what the angry crowd will tell you in unison, when it comes time for you to run away. I suspect that you’re afraid of this crowd, but just remember that it was you who created it, and you’ve got nobody to blame but yourselves. For you, it’s an act of high valor to say, “It wasn’t me!” even when you’re caught red-handed. Do you seriously expect to be remembered as true heroes, with a record like this?
Having cut yourselves and your elites off from society, you’ve also cut yourselves off from reality. There’s a wall separating you from the rest of us, and everyone on our side shudders each time the next one of your goons decides to show what a thinker he is by stepping up to a podium and talking about how the population is being controled by computer chips, about the “Euro-Atlantic conspiracy,” or about how the Americans are weaponizing cellular research.
Even we can still experience surprise when we hear such things. In your isolation, on the other hand, this sort of thing is all you hear, and it’s all you believe. Your superstitions and your mysticism—your vision of the world that’s something out of those 1980s samizdat conspiracy theories about Freemasons, and your pseudo-Russian Orthodoxy (which would have appalled Christ)—it all long ago turned you into a totalitarian sect. Most importantly, this sectarianism merged and multiplied with your old friend, the criminal ethics that ruled St. Petersburg in the 1990s. It is precisely this combination of sectarianism and gangster ideas about the nobility of absolute loyalty that make you pick Turchak, when choosing between him and the law.
And if only Turchak were the only one! This year we’ve also had to learn the name “Ruslan Geremeev,” [who is suspected of a playing a leading role in the murder of Boris Nemtsov]. We’ve learned this name thanks to you, because thanks to you the closest men like him will ever come to being prosecuted is seeing “anonymous sources” whisper in the newspapers about their guilt. Criminal charges? Dream on.
It’s common today to say that Chechnya belongs to Ramzan Kadyrov, but really it’s yours. It was you who created it, and, for you, it’s become the perfect example of the Russia you want to rule over. The rest of the country can only hope to catch up, and that’s what Turchak’s Pskov (which, again, is really yours—not his) is trying to do.
You arrested the Komi Republic’s entire ruling elite, and you act like a gang at the top of government is an anomaly. But you yourselves know perfectly well that Vyacheslav Gayzer was a perfectly ordinary governor, and Komi is a perfectly ordinary region, just as Kushchevskaya [a mobtown that was the site of a massacre in 2010] was an ordinary town and not an anomaly. You inherited Russia with the word “federation” attached to the name of its government, and what a wonderful federation it’s become, based entirely on the principle of personal loyalty, with you giving away whole regions to friends, to the children of your friends, or even to random thugs.
When things started between Turchak and me, in our little online exchange, I said his appointment as governor was an insult to federalism, but I didn’t phrase it quite right. In Russia today, everything that’s formally called federalism is an insult to the citizens, to the law, and to basic common sense. This, too, is your personal accomplishment, and nobody else’s.
Whoever comes after you will have to create Russia all over again, from scratch. This is your only service to history—what you’ve spent fifteen years achieving. Your favorite justification for all this (the only one, there are no others) are the troubles of the 1990s, but it’s important to understand that you preserved and strengthened everything about this period that we’ve come to hate today. You didn’t fix anything. You only made it all worse.
You like to think of yourselves as the heirs to two empires, Tsarist and Soviet. But the tsars sent criminals to hang; they didn’t put them in governors’ chairs. You take pride in your neo-Soviet militarism, but if anybody told Dmitriy Ustinov, who created the USSR’s military-industrial complex, that a man was beaten with steel pipes and it was passed off in accounting as an official defense project, paid for with official state funding, Ustinov would have thought he was hearing a nasty anti-Soviet joke. Veterans of Turchak’s factory told me that, twenty years ago, the young future governor would ride around the grounds in a black Volga, firing from a pistol at stray cats. The portrait of your era and your elites will be full of details like this, and you’ve got no reason to expect anything more.
Your main problem is that you simply don’t love Russia. You treat it like another disposable resource that’s fallen into your laps. And whatever your confessors tell you, know that God won’t forgive you for this.
In recent days, I’ve heard many times that all the noise around my case is getting kicked up thanks to some war among the factions who surround you. This is another feature of the system you’ve imposed: nothing just happens, someone is behind everything, and there are conspiracies everywhere. As a participant in this so-called conspiracy, I can say that a battle among the factions is certainly raging, but the shared goal of all the factions is to save your Governor Turchak and his associates from criminal prosecution. I suspect this battle is won. I can see perfectly well that the worst thing Turchak faces now is a quiet resignation, timed long after any developments in my case. This is the only justice citizens can expect, and it means that your system isn’t capable of any kind of justice at all.
You do what you want, but I wonder how comfortable life can be, when you know that you yourselves won’t be able to count on justice or the law, sooner or later.