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July 23, 2004

An American Journalist is Murdered in Russia: Paul Klebnikov, 1963-2004

Only in a highly developed and reasonably secure political system do journalists have the luxury of thinking apolitically about their work. Only when democracy and the rule of law have won is it possible to lose your political identity as a journalist and go around saying things like: we're just reporting the news. Some reflections on national greatness journalism.

Only in a highly developed and reasonably secure political system do journalists have the luxury of thinking apolitically about their work. Only when democracy and the rule of law have won, historically, is it possible to “lose” your political identity as a journalist and go around saying things like “we’re just reporting the news.” Or I’m a professional and so my politics don’t enter into it.

Journalists who operate in more dangerous situations can never afford this illusion. Although I didn’t know him, and heard little about him before his death, Paul Klebnikov of Forbes, who was shot dead in the street in Moscow July 9, must have been the sort of journalist who knew very well that his work was politics, even though it observed the rules of a different discipline— journalism, category: investigative. From the Baltimore Sun account by Dougal Birch:

Four of the bullets struck Klebnikov before the sedan sped away, police said. A colleague working in the same building found Klebnikov dying on the sidewalk minutes later. “He said he didn’t know why he had been shot,” Alexander Gordeyev, editor of the Russian edition of Newsweek magazine, told the Associated Press.

The Moscow prosecutor’s office described the slaying as a contract killing yesterday and called the case “a matter of extreme importance.”

Klebnikov investigated rich, corrupt and dangerous people, ruthless billionaires in Russia (and also ruthless mullahs in Iran.) During the Yeltsin era, he published an expose in Forbes of Boris Berezovsky, the original oligarch, calling him a “gangland boss.” According to Andrew Meier, Moscow correspondent for Time magazine from 1996-2001, “Klebnikov’s investigation of him, in the article and later in a book, reverberated in Moscow boardrooms and dachas.”

When he became editor of Forbes Russia, a new publication launched this year, Klebnikov did what no editor in that country had ever done: he named Russia’s 100 richest people, including estimates of what they owned and how they had acquired their wealth.

“This authoritative list is often cited in local media, to the fury of wealthy Russian businessmen and women who prefer to keep their affairs quiet, and Klebnikov made himself no friends with its publication,” said The Guardian. “The attempts to shed light on the state of our businessmen, on their type of activities, is a very dangerous profession,” said Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of the Union of Journalists, according to the Interfax news agency.

By some accounts his killing is a direct challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin. By all accounts his death is a political crime. Andrew Meier wrote:

There is little doubt that Klebnikov’s was a contract killing. Moscow hadn’t seen the contract murder of an American citizen since 1996. Although during Putin’s presidency 14 reporters have been killed, with one exception they were all Russians, so Americans thought they were safe. Business, imagined Western reporters covering the rise of Russian capitalism, had matured. The bosses of the underworld and the lords of the oligarchy had learned. Disputes were settled in courts, not bloody sidewalks. How wrong we were.

It’s certain that his life was a political life.

Paul George Klebnikov, journalist, born June 3 1963; died July 9 2004, known to Russians as Pavel Khlebnikov, whose descendants left Russia after the Revolution in 1917; whose ancesters included Ivan Pouschine, a lawyer friend of Alexander Pushkin who had been exiled to Sibera for his role in the 1825 uprising against the Tsar; and who as a college student persuaded his grandfather, then 88, to return to the Soviet Union for the first time since he had watched his own father, an admiral in the White Russian fleet, assassinated by the Bolsheviks in 1917, (all this from the Guardian’s obituary) was an American who gave his life for Russia.

In announcing his death, the Russia Journal, published in Moscow, told what dangers journalists face there:

Contract killings, attacks, intimidation, frivolous legal challenges, threats of physical violence, arson and burglaries are ever-present features of honest journalists’ lives in Russia. News media and individuals that would not compromise their principles in their dealings with the oligarchs are intimidated in a gory manner across Russia. Even the official authorities have little or no sympathy for good, honest reporters. Few of the contract crimes have been solved, and even fewer are reported and investigated diligently. The list of assassinated, beaten, wounded and threatened journalists in Russia is endless.

Khlebnikov was killed because of his journalism, but also because of his politics, which called for truth in situations were no one but a journalist was going to find it, speak it and make people deal with it. “You can say of Paul, without exaggeration, that he gave his life for the truth,” said the longtime editor of Forbes, Jim Michaels, and he was right. It’s not an exaggeration. Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal— same thing.

But then Michaels went on: “Paul believed in his soul in the greatness of Russia. His harsh criticism of the post-Soviet kleptocracy sprang from a passion to see that greatness realized.” A passion for truth is frequently attributed to great reporters. His former editor, Jim Michael, attributed to Klebnikov a different kind of passion, which informed his work: to see the greatness of Russia realized.

The editor of Forbes Global, Tim Ferguson, was more explicit: “With a couple of books in addition to his magazine journalism, the man known to Russians as Pavel was a pioneer in trying to bring about the kind of openness the country will need if it is actually to emerge as a modern economy.”

Notice, then, that Pavel Klebnikov, according to the testimony of peers who knew and admired him, was trying to bring about things in Russia, and from that passion sprang his investigative work. His survivors spoke repeatedly about this in their tributes to a slain colleague. After years of writing exposes for the magazine, Klebnikov moved to Russia this year to launch a new publication, Forbes Russia, which he launched on April 22, Lenin’s birthday.

Steve Forbes, publisher:

As Paul made clear at Forbes Russia’s launch, he thought that Russia, despite setbacks, was entering an era in which a lawful, innovative, opportunity-enhancing, free-enterprise kind of capitalism was beginning to emerge. Indeed, he felt that a new Russia was aborning that would, to use Abraham Lincoln’s words, “appeal to the better angels of our nature.”

Paul passionately believed in this better Russia and felt his work would play a role in moving this redemptive process forward.

Moving things forward. C.J. Chivers said the same thing from the Moscow bureau of the New York Times. “Mr. Klebnikov had alighted in Moscow with a spirit of civic reform.” Which reforms? Transparency, openness, “the dictatorship of the law,” which he not only believed in, personally, but wanted his work to advance. He practiced what we might call national greatness journalism— for Russia. I think this is what Steve Forbes meant when he wrote, “Paul didn’t see his purpose as being only to expose malignantly entrenched wrongdoing.” He was also trying to bring about an open society—open for business, for capitalism, being included in that. Here’s Chivers of the New York Times again:

Having studied both early privatization and the hints of maturation, he dreamed of a better Russia: open, honest, law-abiding, an evolving nation with its wilder impulses tamed. He also saw a chance for the synthesis of Western standards and Russian traditions in a newly strong state.

Those are things that might be said about a visionary political leader. But they were said about a visionary journalist, whose politics were understood to be at one with his journalism, category investigative. But not only his politics— his personal commitments, his family, his heritage. If he did practice a kind of national greatness journalism, and fought for a cause in Russia, it was also a very personal form. The meaning of his work and the meaning of his life were pretty much the same thing.

You could say Paul Klebnikov died for truth, and Jim Michaels did say that. But you cannot say his only cause was the truth. You cannot say he kept his politics separate from his journalism (category investigative.) You cannot say that his only public commitments were to his profession, or that he was just a neutral agent reporting what went on, but taking no part in it.

You cannot say he distanced himself from the story of the new Russian state in order to see it clearly. (Rather he immersed himself in it, in order to see it whole.) You cannot say he had no stake in the subjects he was writing about. You cannot say any of the things that journalists like to say about themselves when they are out to convince us—or maybe it’s themselves—that the story is the story, and politics of it is left to others.

Klebnikov believed in truth-telling, in hard-hitting, fact-filled, tough-minded exposes, the form of reporting with the highest prestige in the American press. He also believed in civic reform, dreamed of a better Russia, and let that dream motivate his work as a reporter and editor.

Civic reform? It would be a comic under-statement to say that our journalists do not grant prestige to that; and if you asked most of them: are you a civic reformer? they would grimace first before telling you no, that’s not our role. This is all part of an apolitical—and ahistorical—identity our press has developed in a secure republic. Necessary, it is said, because truth must prevail over “politics.”

“Mr. Klebnikov’s work—informed and sometimes brazen—inserted him squarely into the worlds of Russian business, crime, power and wealth,” wrote C.J. Chivers of the Times. That work also inserted him squarely into Russian history, which he sought to affect for the better. By also having a politics, was he compromised as a journalist? No, we cannot say that. He was constituted as one. It would insult his memory to call him detached, and yet he was a great reporter who died for truth, and angered powerful people by exposing their deeds.

As I prepare to pack off for Boston and the Democratic National Convention, where no one in the press expects to find greatness, I keep thinking about Klebnikov and his complicated loyalties— mixing truth, politics, nation, history, family and biography. And it makes me wonder: It is said that we have, or ought to have, national greatness conservatives. But is there an American version of Klebikov’s national greatness journalism, fully compatibile, as his was, with the truthteller’s creed and courage?

Do we need such a thing? Would it necessarily be conservative? And what would it look like, sound like—what would it be about—if someone dreamed of it, and found it could be done?

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links….

The Economist’s obituary I found to be the best.

See also Peter Lavelle, Forbes’ Paul Klebnikov: A Victim of Political Terrorism?

The account of Khlebnikov’s death in Russia Journal includes this observation:

Unlike most current and former foreign reporters working for Western media in Moscow, Khlebnikov was known to have clean hands — a real professional journalist who saw it as his mission to tell the true story of Russian capitalism. To those who knew and associated with him, Khlebnikov was an impartial and fearless reporter.

Andrew Meier in the Los Angeles Times, Moscow Murder’s Other Victim: (July 14)

Author of a dissertation on Russia’s prerevolutionary land reforms, the New Yorker had moved to Moscow with an Arcadian dream of the land of his grandparents. Recently, he had taken a trip into the Russian provinces. Days before his death, he told a colleague of his unexpected joy at seeing the outlying regions doing well. Now more than ever, he said, he believed in the future of Russia. But after four fatal shots from two hit men, his stunned colleagues knew the truth.

A war is on in Moscow. The last round has gone to the opponents of free speech. And the fire, thus far, has gone unreturned.

From a Washington Post account by Peter Baker and Susan B. Glasser (July 15):

Klebnikov’s two older brothers said Wednesday that Russia could validate their dead sibling’s faith in the country by finding his killers. “This is a wonderful opportunity for the Russian government to show the world it has turned the corner,” Michael Klebnikov said at a news conference at the U.S. Embassy. “They have every incentive to demonstrate their competence.”

…The experience left even optimists about Russia questioning their faith. As Jordan left the service Wednesday, he shook his head. “It’s a catastrophe,” he said. In a later telephone interview, he added, “If this is not resolved, it will put an incredible amount of doubt in people’s minds about whether they can do business here, whether they should send journalists here and whether Russia belongs to groups of civilized nations like the G-8.

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 23, 2004 2:14 PM