Deadly costs of journalism

SUN JOURNAL

Russia: Often-lethal violence against those investigating corruption has raised little concern in government circles.

December 15, 2003|By Seamus Martin | Seamus Martin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The writers' village of Peredelkino is just 12 miles from Red Square and almost surrounded by the grim high-rise apartment blocks in which most of Moscow's inhabitants live. A quirk of the topography, though, gives an enchanting effect. Stands of pine, fir and silver birch are astutely planted around a natural dip in the landscape. The ugly buildings are shielded from view. The overall impression is of being in the heart of the Russian countryside.

Peredelkino is a peaceful place, particularly at this time of year when the snow lies thick on the ground. It was here that the Nobel laureate Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago, lived and died. He is buried in the little graveyard in the shadow of the golden domes of the parish church.

Not long ago another writer was laid to rest here. Yuri Petrovich Shchekochikhin did not come from the great Russian literary tradition from which Pasternak sprang.

"Shchekoch," as he was known to his friends, was a determined little man with a shock of gray hair and a fondness for Armenian brandy. He was, until his untimely and suspicious death, one of Russia's bravest journalists and a politician who campaigned vigorously for democratic values. He had exposed corruption in the bleak days of Leonid Brezhnev's reign and continued to do so right into today's post-Communist times.

At the time of his death, Shchekochikhin was deputy editor of the uncompromising newspaper Novaya Gazeta and a member of the Duma, Russia's parliament, for the liberal Yabloko party founded by the economist Grigory Yavlinsky and the former ambassador to the United States Vladimir Lukin.

He had come to the belief that his lifelong mission against corrupt politics could be well served by his dual mandate as a member of the Duma's Commission on Corruption and his journalistic efforts in the same field.

Investigations were launched into the activities of the furniture chain store Tri Kita and the bizarre happenings in the town of Ryazan after a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and the provinces killed hundreds of people in 1999.

Tri Kita was reportedly co-owned by Yevgeny Zaostrovtsev and Nikolai Patrushev, both of whom had close connections with the FSB, Russia's internal security service and successor to the KGB. Tri Kita and an associated furniture store had been accused of failure to pay the equivalent of millions of dollars in customs duties.

After the bombing of apartment blocks in Moscow and elsewhere that provided one of the main justifications for the resumption of Russia's war in Chechnya, a strange incident occurred in the town of Ryazan about 200 miles from Moscow. Quantities of a white powdered substance were found in the basement of an apartment in the city, and allegations were made that the FSB was involved in preparing to cause an explosion similar to those that had occurred elsewhere.

Shchekochikhin, according to his associates, was on his way to Ryazan on July 16 this year when he developed a slight fever. He returned home the following day. The fever got worse. His skin erupted in a series of blisters and began to peel off. He died nine days later.

An autopsy concluded that he died of Lyell's syndrome, an extremely rare allergic reaction to medication, infections or other illnesses which causes a particularly agonizing death. Also known as toxic epidermal necrolysis, it involves multiple large blisters that coalesce, followed by sloughing of all or most of the skin and mucous membranes.

This explanation is not believed by friends or political colleagues in the Yabloko party. They are convinced that he was poisoned.

Andrei Mironov, a human rights activist, former Gulag prisoner and friend of Shchekochikhin, questions the results of the autopsy. "It claims he died of Lyell's syndrome but gives no indication as to which medication or illness caused the supposed allergic reaction."

While conspiracy theories abound in Russia, it is not difficult to understand the suspicions about Shchekochikhin's death. Strange things have happened to journalists from Novaya Gazeta and members and supporters of Yabloko.

The most recent case concerned the imprisonment of Russia's wealthiest man, the oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was a major financial contributor to Yabloko. But there have been other, less highly publicized events in the past.

Larissa Yudina, who was murdered in the autonomous region of Kalmykia in 1998, was the editor-in-chief of the only local opposition newspaper. She was also a member of Yabloko.

Other attacks have focused on members of the Novaya Gazeta staff. One of its reporters, Igor Domnikov, was beaten to death outside his apartment block in May 2000.

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