A journalist is beaten nearly to death in Moscow. Is this a deliberate crackdown, or something more subtle -- and more sinister?
- By Julia IoffeJulia Ioffe is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.
The paramedics reached 30-year-old journalist Oleg Kashin Saturday morning at 12:40 a.m. He was lying outside the door to his apartment building in central Moscow, his face bloodied, his legs mangled, the ground covered in blood. "He showed his hand to the doctor so he could see it was all broken," a neighbor told TV reporters. The toll, tallied by various news sources, was chilling: two broken jaws, one broken leg, a fractured skull at the temple and a heavy concussion, blood in the lungs, fingers partially torn off at the joints, one of them later amputated. By the time Moscow woke up to the news on Saturday, Kashin was already in an artificially induced coma.
At Kommersant, the newspaper where Kashin works, no one doubted that the attack was related to his journalism. "The thing that bothers me is that at the moment of the beating, they broke his fingers," the editor in chief said in a radio interview. "It is completely obvious that the people who did this did not like what he was saying and what he was writing." Kashin’s iPhone, wallet, and other personal belongings remained on his person, untouched.
There was no shortage of theories about why Kashin was targeted. Many pointed instantly at United Russia’s youth wing, Molodaya Gvardia, which openly threatened Kashin in an August article on its website. It was titled, in the hyperbolic, hyphenated language of early Soviet propaganda, "Journalist-traitors need to be punished!" "They have betrayed their homeland, they have spit on their civic duty!" it blared, adding Kashin to a list of others needing to be punished. Kashin’s sin was daring to interview one of the radical anti-fascist protestors who attacked a local government building while protesting the cutting down of the Khimki forest this summer. That interview was not particularly inflammatory — in fact, Kashin took a stern line with the young hoodlum — but it brought the police to Kommersant‘s offices, asking the paper to turn over Kashin’s email.
Russian journalists are usually killed or attacked because they threaten powerful financial or economic interests. The chopping down of the Khimki forest to make room for a highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg has exactly those interests behind it: It was being financed by Arkady Rotenberg, Vladimir Putin’s judo buddy, and Putin proclaimed this summer, amid growing protests, that "all decisions have been made." That is, the road would be built as planned. (This remains the silent consensus in Moscow, despite Medvedev’s August moratorium.)
Moreover the attack on Kashin seems to fit a disturbing pattern. Only a few days ago, Khimki activist Konstantin Fetisov was attacked with a baseball bat when he got out of his car in front of his Moscow home. The left side of his head was bashed in. His wife later found a fragment of the bat that had splintered off from the force of the blow. Like Kashin, Fetisov remains in an artificially induced coma and in serious condition.
Kashin’s case most resembles a far earlier one, however. In the spring of 2008, Mikhail Beketov, a local journalist in Khimki who sought to expose the corruption behind the road, was beaten and left unconscious and bleeding in front of his house. He too slipped into a coma. There are eerie similarities between this attack and Kashin’s: Beketov’s legs were so brutally beaten that one had to be amputated, and he suffered such severe brain damage that he can now barely speak. But his hands were the most symbolic, chilling target. Three of Beketov’s mangled fingers had to be amputated. Whoever got Beketov, and whoever got Kashin, wanted to make sure they never wrote again.
But that’s as far as the theory goes. Kashin covered the subject of Khimki thoroughly and in his characteristically beautiful, at times acidic prose. But nothing he wrote was all that seditious; he didn’t really expose anything that threatened anyone’s financial interests. And, unlike the journalists who have been killed, attacked, or harrassed in Russia during the last decade, Kashin is not a fringe or opposition figure. When I first met him, in the winter of 2006, to interview him about the politics of young Russians — his specialty — he struck me as a Kremlin apologist. Kommersant is Russia’s most prominent daily, a mainstream paper owned by Medvedev buddy and mining mogul Alisher Usmanov.
I was, of course, wrong about Kashin. He is not an apologist but is, in the best traditions of his generation, simply hard to categorize. He covers youth movements for his paper, and he is equally unsparing in his coverage of both the pro-Kremlin organizations, like Nashi and Molodaya Gvadia, and the opposition ones, like the Yabloko and Antifa movements.
He is also a loud, profane, and well-loved member of the Russian web community, which is why most of the fallout has occurred in a parallel Twitter universe. Kashin’s handle, KSHN, was soon trending as hundreds of updates and hang-in-theres flooded the Russian-language part of the service. Most surprisingly, the pro-Kremlin wing of the Twittersphere, aside from the occasional outburst of "he had it coming," was as horrified by the attack as everyone else. "This filth was harsh with Kashin," tweeted Konstantin Rykov, a blogger who often writes of the "liberasts" — that is, liberals plus pederasts. "Broke his fingers so he can’t write. Damn." Rykov spent the rest of the day tweeting frequent, distraught updates on Kashin’s condition and trying to remember what Kashin could have possibly said to have this happen. Kashin, however wrong in their view, was still a member of their community, and a physical attack, especially one of such savageness, was simply beyond the pale.
"Oleg never wrote flatteringly about Nashi," said Robert Shlegel, a federal commissar of the movement and a tech-savvy young Duma deputy. "He spoke rather harshly about us. We’ve known Oleg for many years, and he criticized us a lot, but no one ever spoke of attacking him ever, in any way." Kashin did sometimes defend Nashi, and the group, Shlegel said, plans on asking the prosecutor general to solve this case quickly. Shlegel also agreed that this was not a random attack, that Kashin was singled out because he was a journalist. "Hooligans don’t deliberately break fingers," he said. Sounding unusually morose and rattled, Shlegel sighed and added, "To be honest, I’m in total shock."
It wasn’t just bloggers who responded with alarm and empathy. Vesti, the leading news program on Russian state TV, led with a report about Kashin. Nashi and Molodaya Gvardia issued statements condemning the attack, though the latter chose to post it on its website with photographs of Kashin hugging two skimpily clad girls. Medvedev, whose press secretary had been woken in the middle of the night with the news, announced — on his Twitter feed, of course — that he had asked the Interior Ministry and prosecutor’s office to take control of the case. "The criminals must be found and punished," He wrote. (Medvedev has also called Usmanov, the paper’s owner, to offer help. Usmanov is said to be paying Kashin’s medical bills, including his eventual transfer out of the country for further treatment.) Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika was reported to be personally overseeing the case, and Kashin’s friends said that the entire police force seemed to be on the case, calling them in for questioning. ("I am now being interrogated by a woman in a gold Rolex," Kashin’s ex-wife and fellow Kommersant reporter wrote on her Facebook wall.)
It is all a striking contrast to when journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed in 2006. Then-President Vladimir Putin took days to respond. When he did, he said that "her influence over political life in Russia was minimal." Today’s emphatic response was, perhaps, due to the fact that Kashin was not a fringe figure, like Politkovskaya. Or it could have been because Kashin works for Usmanov. But it was also a tacit acknowledgment of how bad the attack looks abroad — and at home, too, during a period of relative openness. The question now is whether or not the Kremlin will follow through with an arrest and a conviction to send a strong signal to a culture used to a breathtaking impunity in such matters.
"The question isn’t whether they’ll find who did it — in fact, they probably already have their pictures over at the precinct," says Oleg Mitvol, who, until a few weeks ago, was a local prefect opposed to the Khimki road and spoke often to Kashin on the subject. "The question is who ordered the attack, and whether, once they’re found — given how high up they probably are — the government can tell society about them." Mitvol recalled that, when one of his deputies was attacked, the main hit man was found dead. "That’s what will probably happen here, too," he said. "Considering the massive public resonance of this case, the people who ordered it will try to get rid of the people who carried it out."
The explanation for the attack on Kashin, however, is probably far more banal than all the conspiratorial chatter would suggest. Kashin was attacked during a holiday weekend that was once intended to celebrate the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, but is now called, inexplicably, National Unity Day. Every year, it is marked by the Russian March, a parade — easily granted by the authorities — of ultra-nationalists, skinheads, white supremacists, and other terrifying dregs. They’re generally not a peaceful, or a sober, group. Fetisov was beaten right after this year’s parade, Kashin a day later. Molodaya Gvardia may not have directly ordered the attack on Kashin, but its incendiary language, coupled with enough booze and nationalist celebratory spirit, may easily have pushed someone past the boundaries of mere talk.
Tellingly, toward Saturday evening, Moladaya Gvardia scrubbed the incendiary article about "journalist-traitors," removing the pictures of journalists it had stamped with "WILL BE PUNISHED." Atop the story, the movement added this statement: "Molodaya Gvardia is extremely outraged by the barbaric attack on journalist Kashin. There is civilized political struggle, and there is cold-blooded criminality. There are artistic images, and there is real life. We call on everyone to understand that." It’s unclear what this hail-Mary addendum revealed: a craven need for self-protection, or, worse, an admission that the organization cannot control the nationalistic fires it ignites.
It’s common, when violence or death cleaves into the mundane, to remember the ordinary things that preceded the rupture. In retrospect, they can seem almost paranormal. Yesterday evening, before the thugs got to him, Kashin went to a dinner party at the home of his friend Max Avdeev, a photographer. He arrived around nine. "He certainly wasn’t expecting anything," Avdeev told me. "He was in a cheerful mood." On the way over, Kashin tripped on an exposed wire and scraped his knee. ("Fucking shit I busted my knee!" he tweeted.) Upstairs, in Avdeev’s apartment, just a few metro stops from Kashin’s, he complained that he was always unlucky.
Kashin left Avdeev’s around 11, apparently to meet a woman named Nastia, for whom the police are now searching. On the way there, he snapped a picture with his iPhone of a kiosk being demolished on the orders of the city’s new mayor. It was his last tweet before he lost consciousness a couple hours later.
The attack itself unfolded almost cinematically, something Kashin wouldn’t have failed to note, were he to write about it. He came home shortly after midnight to find two men waiting for him by the fence with a bouquet of flowers. Then they beat him with their fists and also with some metal objects. It was the yardman, witnessing this from the darkness, who called the ambulance.
Writing three days after journalist Anna Politkovskaya, laden with groceries, was gunned down in the elevator of her apartment building, Kashin was skeptical of her role as a journalist — she was, he said, "a newsmaker" rather than a reporter. "‘But how can that be!’ the reader-romantic will exclaim," Kashin opined. "‘She wrote the horrible truth about Chechnya, about Ramzan Kadyrov, about the feds [the federal forces in Chechnya]. One can be killed for the truth, and so they killed her for the truth.’ I am going to disappoint the reader-romantic: There is no horrible truth for which a journalist can be killed."