Censorship in Russia — with bombs and brass knuckles

November 2, 1994

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — Did officials of Russia's Federal Counter-Intelligence Service and of the Defence Ministry organise the murder of a crime-fighting journalist? This is the suggestion — backed by a disturbing volume of evidence — that has been preoccupying media workers in the Russian capital since a briefcase bomb exploded on October 17, fatally injuring Moskovsky Komsomolets military affairs reporter Dmitry Kholodov.

In the months before he was murdered, the 27-year-old Kholodov had published a series of articles on illicit weapons sales by officers of the Russian Army's Western Group of Forces. Despite threats, he had persisted with his investigations, and at the time of his death had been about to testify to parliament on corruption in the armed forces.

Illegal weapons sales by the army have been the subject of a series of official commissions of inquiry during the past four years. In his articles, Kholodov made detailed accusations against commanders, pointing to their complicity in the illegal sale of equipment that included transport aircraft, helicopters and even tanks.

Journalists seeking to explain Kholodov's murder have also noted a visit which the young reporter made to a secret army unit charged with training personnel for the Main Intelligence Directorate. According to Moskovsky Komsomolets chief editor Pavel Gusev, Kholodov found evidence that members of the unit were supplementing their incomes by providing sophisticated training to professional killers working for mafia organisations.

A few days before Kholodov was murdered, the trail he was following led him to the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service (FSK — the former KGB). According to Gusev, Kholodov told editors at Moskovsky Komsomolets that he had set up contacts with a senior official of the FSK who could give him unique documents about the illegal weapons trade.

On the morning of October 17, the FSK informer telephoned Kholodov and told him to pick up a briefcase from the left luggage section at Kazansky railway station. Kholodov collected the briefcase and took it back to the offices of his newspaper. When he opened the briefcase, it exploded, tearing off his legs and inflicting other massive injuries. An ambulance took 40 minutes to arrive, and Kholodov died on the way to hospital.

The bomb was obviously constructed by a skilled professional. Sergei Vorobyov, a spokesperson for the FSK group which is conducting initial investigations, noted that the mechanism used to trigger the explosion was not typical: "There were no remains of the device after the explosion occurred". The explosives were not placed in an ordinary vinyl briefcase, but in a plastic case that would shatter into lethal fragments.

'The right to kill'

The murder of Kholodov has left Moscow journalists shaken and angry. In an emotional interview, Gusev declared: "I am sure the clues of the murder will lead to the FSK, to Matvei Burlatov (deputy defence minister and former head of the army Western Group) and personally to (defence minister Pavel) Grachev, who is loaded with Mercedes cars that he got in Germany." Burlatov and Grachev have denied any links to the killing.

In part, the anger has been spurred by journalists' recognition that the freedom they gained when the Soviet government abandoned press censorship in 1990 is now drastically restricted. "We have the right to write, and they have the right to kill us because of what we write", well-known journalist Alla Yaroshinskaya has been quoted as saying.

The cheapness of murder contracts in Russia — it is said that arranging the killing of a crime rival or business competitor can cost as little as US$1000 — means that for journalists to probe even minor cases of corruption and racketeering can be mortally dangerous.

Izvestia on October 20 published a list of 12 journalists who have been murdered in the former Soviet Union this year, evidently for reasons related to their work. The front-page spread also listed the names of several dozen more journalists who had been subjected to vicious beatings.

"This is censorship with fists and clubs, knives and brass knuckles, Kalashnikov automatics and explosives", Izvestia exclaimed.

As censorship, the violence against media workers is predictably effective. Crime reports in the press are extensive and lurid, but top-flight criminals are almost never named. It is stated as a matter of course that organised crime is flourishing, and spreading its influence throughout the business world and into the state administration. But so long as the assertions in the press are only general, and the accusations unspecific, law enforcement authorities are under little pressure to bring prosecutions.

For that matter, crime-fighting organisations may well be so riddled with corruption that even highly specific information cannot spur them to act. According to Izvestia on October 19, Kholodov's charges against the Western Group commanders drew not the slightest reaction from government authorities, although the articles stated precisely where stolen military property had gone and to whom.

Journalists' campaign

Since October 17, Moscow journalists have mounted an impressive campaign to demand that the threats against them be ended and that Kholodov's killers be brought to justice. On October 20, the funeral of the murdered reporter was followed by a spirited demonstration. President Boris Yeltsin has denounced the killing as "political terrorism" and has promised to take the case under his personal control.

But media workers are sceptical that they can expect results. Moskovsky Komsomolets chief editor Pavel Gusev stated that he was sure the killers would not be apprehended or punished.

Meanwhile, there are many ironies in the fact that newspapers such as Izvestia and Moskovsky Komsomolets should be denouncing political terrorism and demanding an end to de facto censorship. Both these publications ardently supported Yeltsin's September 1993 coup against the constitution and parliament, cheering as the acts of presidential repression and violence mounted toward their culmination in the mass killings of October 3 and 4.

When the fires of the parliament building had burned themselves out, Yeltsin shut down the opposition press and issued a decree imposing censorship. At this point Izvestia managed a degree of protest. But Moskovsky Komsomolets, a sensationalist daily with fiercely right-wing politics, is remembered for uttering scarcely a murmur of dissent.

Writers and editors of both newspapers are horrified that in Russia's newborn capitalism the capitalists are often criminals, while the army and security services show signs of degenerating into organs of pillage and terror. But journalists must accept a considerable share of the blame for this situation.

Pro-capitalist media workers are unlikely to admit it, but like most members of the ex-Soviet intelligentsia, they made a catastrophic error at the beginning of the 1990s when they looked for a new force to rule society in place of the corrupt party-state apparatus.

Their disastrous choice was a large faction of the same party-state apparatus — in new garb as "democrats", and with half-baked monetarist theories in place of the vulgarised Marxism of the "command economy". Heavy backing from the press and television was a critical factor ensuring victory to Yeltsin and his allies.

However, a new name and a switch of ideological shop-signs could not render the Yeltsin wing of the apparatus competent, honest or humane.

In reality, the only force in Russian society that is capable of ensuring democracy, civil liberties and the rule of law — not least through conducting an exhaustive purge of the armed forces and security services — is the working class, mobilised in the defence of popular interests. One wonders how many more Russian journalists must die before their colleagues understand this.

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