First, They Came for the Journalists
One year after Oleg Kashin was brutally attacked in Moscow, the noted journalist looks back on the clownishly futile investigations -- and the climate of fear that threatens his profession.
MOSCOW – Not many people survive the kind of beating Oleg Kashin got a year ago. Around midnight, on Nov. 6, 2010, two men holding a bouquet of flowers met him outside his home in the center of Moscow. Fifty-six whacks with a crowbar savaged his left hand, broke his leg, cracked his skull at the temple, and shattered both his upper and lower jaw bones.
Almost exactly three years earlier, Yuri Chervochkin, an activist in the radical National Bolshevik Party, had been attacked in a small town not far from Moscow. His assailants got him with a baseball bat, and their first blow was enough: He choked on his own vomit and slipped into a coma. His mother spent the critical days after his beating trying to enlist reluctant doctors to help her son. They wouldn’t, and he died three weeks later, just shy of his 23rd birthday.
Kashin, who wrote about Chervochkin’s death at the time, was luckier. "I understand that the fact that I didn’t die is all luck and good genes, because I had about a dozen chances to die," he told me, sitting in a cafe a few blocks from the courtyard where he nearly lost his life a year ago. "I could have easily lost consciousness and laid there for an hour, and that would’ve been it. Or if I got to the hospital just a little bit later."
But it wasn’t just timing that saved him or even the extraordinary fact that Kashin stayed conscious long enough to call the janitor of his building, who sat Kashin on some plywood, shielded him from the rain with a tarp, and kept him awake until the ambulance arrived. It was also the fact that Kashin was not a marginal or radical figure. He was already a famous blogger and a well-known reporter for Russia’s biggest daily, Kommersant, which is owned by Alisher Usmanov, a metals magnate with close ties to President Dmitry Medvedev. Usmanov flew a Russian neurosurgeon back from vacation to operate on Kashin. When Kashin was stabilized and in a medically induced coma, he was operated on by four big-name surgeons, simultaneously and for free.
Kashin’s vast social network — he was always the most gregarious of the Moscow journalists — also worked in his favor. Within an hour of the beating, a friend living near Kashin blogged about what happened. Another friend (a journalist) read it and contacted her friend Natalia Timakova, a former Kommersant reporter and Medvedev’s press secretary. Timakova roused Medvedev in the middle of the night, and the shocked president tweeted his promise that the perpetrators would be caught. In daylight, he instructed the prosecutor general to personally oversee the case. Medvedev saw Kashin a few months later on a visit to Israel, where Kashin was getting physical therapy, and according to Kashin, Medvedev promised to "tear off the heads" of those who had attacked him.
Yet despite all that, a year after the attack, not only have no heads been torn off, but the bodies to which they’re attached have not been apprehended either. This was both predictable and utterly shocking. Given the volume of the outcry and the apparent sincerity and generosity of the official response, there was, one year ago, some faint reason to hope that this case might be solved. Kashin, after all, was a mainstream, well-connected figure. He was no Anna Politkovskaya, killed on Putin’s birthday in 2006, whose work was so obviously dangerous (Kashin compared her to a suicide bomber). Nor was he like the other journalists and human rights activists whose work in the Caucasus has brought Caucasus-style revenge on their heads.
He was no Paul Klebnikov, gunned down in 2004, or Mikhail Beketov, assaulted and maimed in November 2008, who went against powerful financial interests. Kashin wrote about youth movements. Yet despite the seeming harmlessness of his beat, despite his luck that night, despite the big names and big money that immediately kicked into action, despite the wide shock and wide media coverage — even state news lead with his beating the next day — despite all these advantages that Politkovskaya and Beketov and Klebnikov and Chervochkin and dozens like them didn’t have, in the year since the first photographers arrived to take pictures of the blood-spattered ground in Kashin’s courtyard, Kashin’s case has gone cold, exactly like theirs.
Almost since the moment he emerged from his coma, Kashin has been doing everything he can to help the investigation, giving countless hours of testimony and helping compile composite portraits of the suspects. The first visit from a detective came when Kashin couldn’t talk yet — his shattered jaws were still sewn shut. When he was mobile, in February, he was sent to a scientific institute that was part of the Interior Ministry for a procedure called "memory activation."
"It’s a mansion with no sign," Kashin recalls. "And the people working there — green nails, crazy makeup — were real fortuneteller-types. The lady who was working with me is a lieutenant colonel and a Ph.D. in biology." The procedure was simple: Close your eyes, imagine you’re in school, imagine you’re writing on the blackboard, and then imagine you’re erasing it with a rag, and while you’re erasing, you fall into a trance. "I was kind of ironic about it all. But when they told me the procedure lasted an hour and a half, I was surprised because I didn’t think it was more than 15 minutes," Kashin says. While he was under, he described the face of one of the attackers (he didn’t have a chance to see the other one), which he had already done for the detective on the case. The two composite portraits weren’t very different, Kashin says. While his memory was activated, he also recalled that he had been smoking on the way home. "OK, so I was smoking," he shrugs.
Thoroughness did not seem to be a problem, either. Kashin’s friends were all extensively questioned: the friends he’d seen that night, his estranged wife, his broader circle of friends and fellow bloggers. Some described being grilled on what, exactly, a "blog" was. One was dragged into the police department so many times that she eventually suffered a nervous breakdown.
The whole year, whenever anyone asked, Kashin said he was satisfied with the progress of the investigation. He was in close contact with the lead detective on the case, Sergey Golkin, a general who worked only on VIP cases. "Usually people complain that their testimony isn’t being recorded or that the investigators don’t care," Kashin says. "Not at all the case here. Everything was recorded; everything was checked. I really had no complaints."
Yet the choice of Golkin should have been an ominous sign for Kashin. Golkin may have been a crack detective, but he was also the lead on two other high-profile cases: the murders of Novaya Gazeta reporter Politkovskaya and Klebnikov, who was the editor of Forbes‘s Russian edition. After sluggish progress, jury tampering, and the disappearances of key witnesses, Klebnikov’s case was suspended in 2007. Politkovskaya’s case, after a trial that looked a lot like a circus and resulted in an acquittal, has since been resuscitated and is dragging its way through the courts, five years after the murder. (During the Politkovskaya murder trial, one of her colleagues at the paper and a lawyer who had once represented Politkovskaya were gunned down in broad daylight, in the center of Moscow. A young neo-Nazi couple has been convicted of those murders, despite allegations of a confession made under duress.)
Golkin explained all this to Kashin. "He told me, ‘The judges are dilettantes, so my evidence isn’t enough for them,’" Kashin recalls. In court, Golkin claimed, he said, "’This is the murderer,’ but it wasn’t enough for the judge." That is, Golkin’s sleuthing, even at full tilt, was insufficient if the courts weren’t working. But of course, Golkin is still describing a system in which solving such crimes and pushing them toward a convincing conviction in court is not a pressing matter. And one doesn’t become a general within such a system without understanding exactly what the system’s priorities are and how much energy it’s worth expending on carrying them out.
Kashin’s case, to those following along with him, had some very plain and obvious clues. Kashin was beaten, it is absolutely clear, because of his journalistic work, which included his exceptionally acerbic blogging. The two young men who beat him were likely soccer hooligans, who, as Kashin himself was among the first to report, are often hired as hit men or used as enforcers by Kremlin youth groups. In the course of his investigation, Golkin apparently questioned high-ranking representatives from Molodaya Gvardiya, United Russia’s youth wing, and from Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth group. Both admitted to either having had Kashin under surveillance in the week before the attack or trying to find out his home address. They claimed this was because they wanted "to invite Oleg Vladimirovich Kashin to the home of Pskov Gov. Andrei Anatolyevich Turchak," the same governor whom Kashin had, in August, called "shitty Turchak" and who, in turn, publicly gave Kashin 24 hours to apologize. (Why "shitty"? "Meaning that he’s the youngest governor, that he became governor only because he’s the son of Putin’s friend, and because he is the most insignificant governor," Kashin explains. "And because this is LiveJournal, you have a little more room when it comes to word choice.")
Kashin never apologized, despite attempts of people like the governor of Kirov, Nikita Belykh, to reconcile them. "I told each of them, ‘Look, he’s not a bad guy. Why fight? You should meet and talk it out,’" Belykh recalls. "And they said, yeah, they were supposed to meet." They never did. By September, Kashin claims, people were telling him Turchak was out for blood. "Anytime [Turchak] walked into an official meeting, people would snigger," Kashin says of the rumors he was hearing, explaining that because he and other popular bloggers had teased Turchak, their followers did, too, eventually hacking the governor’s blog and changing his title to "The Shitty Governor of Pskov."
"He felt I was at fault for this, and he was, in many ways, justified in thinking that," Kashin says now. But last September, he became convinced that the threats were real and that they would get him inside his apartment building. Going up in his slow elevator, Kashin would press himself into the back wall when the doors opened, expecting an attack. Turchak was also involved with Molodaya Gvardiya, which openly threatened Kashin on its website, calling him a "journalist-traitor" and stamping "WILL BE PUNISHED" over his picture.
There is also the Nashi part of the story. Kashin, seen in Moscow journalist circles as something of an expert on youth groups, reported extensively and harshly on Nashi, which is a notoriously closed and guarded group: "Worse than a cult," Kashin says. The head of Nashi and of Russian youth politics more broadly, Vasily Yakemenko, is said to have dormant connections to Moscow street gangs and organized crime, specifically a group that once regularly beheaded its victims. "My sources were telling me that Yakemenko considers me an enemy — I mean, an enemy, enemy, enemy, enemy," Kashin says. While Kashin lay in a coma, Yakemenko’s possible role in the attack was openly debated in the Russian press. But 10 days after the beating, Putin summoned Yakemenko to his office to talk about physical education. In Russia, a signal like this is obvious, and the system responds accordingly, dragging its feet and letting an investigation gather dust. Going after someone in Putin’s circle is just not worth it.
About a month ago, Golkin was suddenly taken off Kashin’s case and replaced by another detective. The stated reason was that there were simply too many other high-profile cases to deal with in the department. Then Golkin sent Kashin a text message, suggesting that Kashin resubmit his testimony on Molodaya Gvardiya and Nashi — "in case it gets misplaced." He added a winking emoticon.
"Yes, I’m a paranoiac, but the fact that they changed the detective two weeks after the United Russia congress, maybe it’s connected," Kashin says. The promise to see the perpetrators brought to justice came from Medvedev, who saw his tenuous chance at remaining in power after 2012 snuffed at that congress. With Medvedev now a lame duck, Kashin thinks, that promise holds no water.
His seeming protector in the Kremlin hobbled, Kashin has become anxious. His hope, his belief that the investigation was going well — that it was going at all — has been steadily collapsing. Like the muckraker he is, he tracked down the new detective on the case, Nikolai Uschapovsky, through the reporters at Kommersant who cover crime. He called Uschapovsky and introduced himself, suggesting they meet and discuss the case. "He said, ‘It doesn’t make any sense to do that now; I haven’t read your case yet, and it makes no sense to meet ’til I read it,’" Kashin paraphrases. "It’s been two weeks. Seems he’s going to be reading it for a long time — there are a lot of volumes — and so the case isn’t going anywhere, as I understand it."
While Kashin lay in a coma, observers — myself included — expressed a sureness that, even if the hit men were found, the people who ordered the attack would never be punished, simply because they were too important and protected by Putin’s, or another powerful person’s, bulletproof loyalty. The number of journalists attacked or killed dwarfs the number of closed cases, and the figures, worn and oft cited to the point of cliché, are only swelling. Last week, Pavel Gusev, the editor of Moskovsky Komsomolets and the head of the communications division of the state’s Public Chamber, announced that, in the first 10 months of this year, over 150 journalists had been threatened or attacked.
Kashin has largely given up on finding his assailants, not to mention their employers. "I’m a realist; I understand the country we live in," he says. "If they catch a Spartak [soccer team] fan who guarded Seliger [the Nashi summer camp] five years in a row, then you don’t have to arrest Yakemenko. That’s enough for me. I get it. And that’s what I hope for." He adds, with some hope, "And after all, not every criminal case attracts the attention of Medvedev. No one made him say anything."
Yet Kashin has something most other journalists or activists who have become victims of such attacks don’t: He is alive; he is mobile; he is working; he is not in pain. But beyond those basics, the beating was a life-changing event. His temple, his upper jaw, and part of his leg are now made of titanium. He’s missing half his left pinkie. He’s missing teeth that can’t be permanently implanted until his shattered jaw fully heals. (When he does get them, in a year, they will be paid for by Usmanov.) His bottom lip is partly paralyzed. "I can kiss," he says, shyly, "but the sensations aren’t the same."
He still feels uncomfortable walking into his yard, and he has never gone back into the cigarette shop where he stopped before heading home that night last year. But Kashin says he has tried hard to normalize his life because any change, any fear is a concession to his attackers. This is why, when he was in Israel for rehab, he took a cab to Tel Aviv and bought the same Paul & Shark coat he was wearing when he met the two men with the bouquet. "When I read the notes from the investigation, they said I was wearing a leather coat," Kashin says. "But they were mistaken. It’s a cloth coat, just like this one." He holds up a navy-blue canvas jacket. "It was just totally soaked with blood."
Because no one has been arrested, Kashin says he does not feel totally safe, and the two bodyguards he traveled with all spring and summer are now gone. What worries him most, though, is the psychological ramifications of being the martyr who managed to live. "Of course this story bothers me, and of course for a long time it will be the most important event of my life," he says, draining his coffee and lighting up a cigarette. "From the point of view of the media, it was a year ago; there have been lots of interesting events since. What I’m really afraid of is that another year will pass and the only person to remember and care about this event will be me, and to everyone else I will be the crazy guy who’s obsessed with one old story."
So far, that hasn’t happened. This Sunday, Nov. 6, the anniversary of the beating, Kashin and his colleagues stood in the cold in front of the Central Directorate of Internal Affairs, holding a sign demanding the crime be solved, much as they did one year ago. Last year, no one dared touch them. This year, two 17-year-old girls were arrested. Afterward, everyone — except Kashin, who wanted to be alone — went to a bar. It was as much a social gathering as it was a show of professional solidarity, which, to a journalist in Russia, are equally important and insulating against the sense of utter exposure.
But not everyone has even this most basic shelter. To mark the two-year anniversary of her son’s death, Chervochkin’s mother staged a similar protest. She was the only one who showed up and was quickly arrested.