Russian Journalist Lives to Tell the Tale of His Murder

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- (This is an updated version of a column that appeared after Ukrainian authorities misled news organizations into reporting the death by shooting of Arkady Babchenko.)

The survival skills of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko are nothing short of amazing. He fought in two wars and came back alive. He survived several conflicts as a war reporter. On Tuesday, if the Ukrainian authorities are to be believed, he nearly got killed for his political opinions; his family, his friends and the global media all considered him dead — but he resurfaced on Wednesday afternoon, alive and well. 

Ukrainian police reported on Tuesday that Babchenko’s wife found him in a pool of blood at the entrance to his apartment in Kiev, shot in the back by a hit man, and that he died on his way to hospital. The reporter’s friends and colleagues — including this one — wrote obituaries and tearful Facebook posts. Then, on Wednesday afternoon, Babchenko showed up at a press conference and the Ukrainian Security Service said it had all been staged so the hit man could be traced to the person who had given him the contract. That, according to the Ukrainians, was a local man who had been recruited by Russian intelligence. 

Ukrainian legislator Anton Gerashchenko praised the “brilliant special operation” and wrote that “law enforcers couldn’t fail to understand that news of Arkady Babchenko’s murder would send a shot of pain through thousands of hears the world over, they couldn’t do it any other way.” The theatrics will probably hurt Ukraine’s credibility, but it’s more important to consider why Babchenko was a credible target for such an attack on his life — which wouldn’t be the first one of this kind for an opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Active opponents of the Putin regime in Russia — politicians, investigative journalists — can be harassed and jailed for short terms like Alexey Navalny and his crew of dirt diggers. They can pursue their journalistic careers overseas or even in Moscow, like the authors of numerous published exposés about regime figures, including Vladimir Putin’s daughters. But they don’t tend to die for what they know.

It’s their strong, passionately expressed opinions that put regime opponents in mortal danger. That’s the pattern which unites Babchenko with Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov, both murdered in Moscow with no anti-Kremlin intelligence services to protect them.

Babchenko didn’t start out particularly opinionated. He was sent to the first Chechen war as an 18-year-old conscript in the mid-1990s, then re-enlisted to fight in the second one. The books he’s written about it (“One Soldier’s War” has been translated into English; I recommend it) are anything but politicized. They are, as he admitted, therapy — attempts to get war out of his system. They are matter-of-factly physical, gritty and sarcastic — stories of survival told deliberately from the point of view of someone focused on making it through another day even if it means selling weapons to the enemy. They steer clear of delving into the motives behind the wars.

Since 2000, Babchenko worked as a war reporter for a number of Russian news outlets. His journalism differed sharply from his prose: He made no secret of condemning, quite consistently, all of the Putin regime’s wars — the one in South Ossetia and Georgia in 2008, the unacknowledged one in eastern Ukraine since 2014, the one fought in Syria since 2015. Reading his stories after having read some of his prose, I think I understood where he was coming from. Despite the widely touted Putin-era military modernization, what Babchenko saw wherever he went was the ugly, dehumanizing, desperately violent military in which he served. It was hard for him to justify the endless repetition of his Chechen experiences for others. 

That led to a particular kind of moral clarity in his writing and a lack of nuance that even Babchenko’s colleagues and editors couldn’t always accommodate.

In December, 2016, a Russian plane carrying a Defense Ministry choir and a delegation of dignitaries and journalists flying to visit the troops in Syria crashed into the Black Sea. Babchenko responded with a Facebook post saying he wasn’t particularly sorry for the ministry employees or for propagandists from government TV stations. He wrote:

No, I have no sympathy or pity. I do not express condolences to the next of kin. Just as they didn’t. They continued to sing and dance in support of the government or pour manure from TV screens even after people died. I only have one feeling: I don’t give a damn. It wasn’t I who put myself in opposition to this government and its servants. It was the government and its servants that put themselves in opposition to me. It was they who appointed me an enemy and a traitor.

Babchenko described what followed in a column for The Guardian: a full-scale bullying campaign, not just on social networks but on state TV with its massive firepower, with legislators and all sorts of pro-Kremlin characters and outlets joining in. Death threats arrived by the thousand. Even Babchenko’s friend and erstwhile editor at the liberal Novaya Gazeta newspaper wrote that he would now cross the street if he accidentally ran into Babchenko. 

Many of my generally anti-Putin friends and colleagues thought at the time that Babchenko’s hatred of the Putin war and propaganda machines had crossed a line into callous incoherence. I too thought he’d missed a good opportunity to show more humanity than those he criticized, or at least to remain silent. Now, I’m not sure anymore — even despite Babchenko’s miraculous resurrection.

The reporter moved first to Prague, then to Kiev. The latter isn’t exactly a safe place for journalists: some high-profile murders, including the one of another Russian reporter and editor, Pavel Sheremet, remain unsolved. Babchenko, the professional survivor, has been more lucky than others.

That doesn’t change the fact that he still shares a defining trait with Politkovskaya and Nemtsov — that clarity and certainty of opinion about the Putin regime. All three have hated it for its cult of force, its contempt for human life, the hypocrisy of its propaganda — its reptile cruelty and cunning and its lies. All three could be counted on never to equivocate. “On the one hand, on the other hand” was not their style; they delivered a simple message they believed in, an inconvenient “us vs. them” message than won them more enemies than friends.

Even despite their inability to deliver that message to large Russian audiences, it apparently has plenty of power of its own. Facts can be distorted by propaganda. Convictions that grow from personal experience are much tougher to counteract, except with a bullet. It’s good when it misses — even though Babchenko’s friends have a good reason to smack him when they next see him for giving them such a fright.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.