A Killing Epidemic: The Culling of Russia’s Opposition Journalists

Maksim Borodin (OSCE Media Freedom, Twitter, April 16, 2018) 

Analysis & Opinion, Op-ed

When I was working on the story of the attempted poisoning of former Colonel GRU Sergey Skripal in the English city of Salisbury, I managed to find a witness who confirmed that Russian special services have long been interested in deadly poisons.  Felix Kubin used to do some assignments for a certain Bashir Kushtov, whom he calls a high-ranking strongman, and who carried out orders from then Russian Minister of Internal Affairs Rashid Nurgaliyev, but also had connections to the FSB.  Later, Kubin exposed some of the provocations organized by Kushtov in an interview with the Russian opposition journalist Alexander Sotnik, after which Kubin asked for political asylum in the United States.  Kubin now lives in Northern California, from where he shared with us chilling details of his communication with Russian special services about the use of poisons for assassinations.

Once, in a conversation with Kushtov, I mentioned that I know some chemists with their own high-tech laboratory for the manufacture of various substances.” Kushtov suggested that I buy from them, for good money, some interesting formula or technology for the manufacture of poison that he planned to immediately test on someone.  He was mostly interested in poisons that could instantly kill a person even with the slightest contact or no contact at all, and also solvents capable of delivering the poison under the victim’s skin. Of course, I refused.

Kubin also shared that Kushtov, according to him, promised a good payment if the poison worked.

This means that the victims had already been selected, and the poison was going to be tried out on them,” – concluded Kubin.

Poisons on the level of “Novichok” used on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Great Britain are developed not in private criminal laboratories, but at a much higher level.

Kubin’s revelations once again confirm that in Russia, they kill at all levels: from the highest to the regional ones. Certain murders, of course, cannot be carried out without the prior approval “from the very top,” while “lower level” targets are determined by the local regional FSB – “Kadyrovtsy,” police, thugs, or simply corrupt security officials in collusion with thugs. It all depends on the level and the motives for the murder.  And it is extremely naive to think that there is a single “hit list” or “kill list.”  In fact, we do not know how many such lists exist today or will exist in the future.

Some die from a bullet.  Some are killed in a “gas explosion.”  Still others suddenly fall out of a fifth-floor window.  Human life in Russia depreciates daily.

Sophisticated poisons like Novichok, produced in state labs under government supervision, are used on the well-known defectors. Other toxins, developed by illicit drug manufacturers on the orders of strongmen, are deployed on local targets.  Some die from a bullet.  Some are killed in a “gas explosion.”  Still others suddenly fall out of a fifth-floor window.  Human life in Russia depreciates daily.  And really, what is life worth in a country that casually threatens the world with nuclear weapons, advises its own population on what to take with them to their bomb shelter, and talks about dying in a “blaze of glory”?

Why am I writing all this?  Recently, the journalist Maxim Borodin died in Yekaterinburg, my hometown.  Maxim was the first to write about the deaths of the members of the “Wagner Group,” a private military detachment of Russian mercenaries who were reported killed in Syria in February in a confrontation with US forces. Borodin was the first to uncover the identity of some of the dead, who hailed from our local region in the Urals. The 32-year-old investigative journalist died in the hospital this week, never having regained consciousness after falling from the fifth-floor window of his own apartment.  I personally knew Maxim for about ten years.  We were not close friends, but we always maintained good relationship, and before my emigration we periodically collaborated on some investigations. Sometimes, I commented on his stories, helped with the materials.  We discussed some issues together and met regularly at various press conferences.  Maxim always came across as a highly professional journalist and a truly decent, reliable human being.

After the start of the hot phase of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Alexander Shchetinin (the founder of the news agency in which Maxim worked, New Region) fully supported Ukraine and was forced to break ties with the Russian edition of the news site.  Alexander moved his operations to Ukraine, and I started working for the Ukrainian edition of New Region.  (By the way, Alexander Shchetinin also met an untimely death, which authorities deemed a suicide.) Maxim, living and working all his life in Yekaterinburg, stayed with the Russian outlet, which by then had changed its name to Novy Den, or New Day.  While we went our separate ways, Maxim never reproached me for my choice and was not afraid to ask me for comments, even a few years after the split from New Region. He, like many thinking people in Russia, understood the disastrous nature of the annexation of Crimea and the war that followed, and tried to write the truth, even under difficult conditions inside Russia. In addition to the investigation into Wagner soldiers in Syria, he led several local investigations, never hesitating to tackle the most dangerous topics.

Neither I nor many people who were much closer to Maxim in recent years believe that he committed suicide–the official Russian version of this tragic senseless death of a bright, young journalist. Paulina Andreevna Rumyantseva, editor-in-chief of Novy Denwrites that Maxim told her a week before his fatal fall, that he had been attacked from behind and struck on the head with a steel pipe, which landed him in intensive care.  She is sure that the journalist would never kill himself.  Another friend of mine, human rights activist Vyacheslav Bashkovwrote that on the eve of the tragedy, Maxim called him expressing worry because he saw operatives in camouflage and masks surrounding him balcony and on the landing near his apartment. All these events aren’t necessarily connected with his Syrian investigation, of course. For example, in October of 2017, Maxim and a colleague were attacked after an interview with the television channel Dozhd  (TVRain) about the controversial film “Matilda.” And it is not known what other investigations Borodin may have undertaken.  The fact remains that he had been attacked repeatedly.

Putin has created a system in which inconvenient people telling inconvenient truths are routinely beaten and killed with impunity.  Death is a convenient solution to the problem of the inconvenient individual.… The more cynical the Russian regime becomes, the more people die at its hands…

As mentioned above, Max investigations into the Wagner Group doesn’t necessarily mean that those “at the highest levels” were involved in his killing. It’s rather naive to think that Putin, personally, is behind the death of every journalist, especially a regional journalist like Max. However, it is certainly Putin who has created a system in which inconvenient people telling inconvenient truths are routinely beaten and killed with impunity.  Death is a convenient solution to the problem of the inconvenient individual.  And the more cynical the Russian regime becomes, the more people die at its hands, whether in senseless brutal wars or high-profile contract killings, and the farther the “killing epidemic” spreads throughout the country.  Contempt for human life, demonstrated by Putin personally and his entire regime, cannot but affect the entire country.  And the main targets throughout Russian history have always been those who are the best, the most honest and the most uncompromising.

Edited by: Paula Chertok

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