Attack on popular Russian journalist spurs rare outcry
MOSCOW // The attack on the Kommersant reporter, Oleg Kashin, seemed to cross some sort of invisible line in Russia, already one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Before him, virtually all the victims were opposition journalists of one kind or another.
But Kashin is mainstream, a popular blogger working for an important national newspaper and the attack provoked a rare outcry.
The motives for his near-fatal beating on November 6 remain mysterious as do the identities of Kashin's attackers. There are several theories, all sharing one central factor.
"In each case, the ultimate perpetrator is the state," Kashin said later.
Russia ranks eighth in the 2010 Impunity Index compiled by the New York-based organisation, Committee to Protect Journalists. It is the only European country on the 12-nation list of countries where journalists are routinely killed in unsolved crimes; it has sunk a notch in the past year.
Russia's record - 32 journalists murdered since 1993; more than 30 attacked just this year - is thoroughly condemned in international circles. In Russia, however, there has been little public attention.
Until Kashin, that is.
"He was just a journalist who didn't seem to be doing anything particularly dangerous," said Olga Kravtsova, the director of the Committee for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a Moscow-based monitoring group. "That he was attacked shows that anybody can be attacked."
Indeed the reaction, swift and sharp, seemed to suggest the attack on Kashin struck fear into many hearts. There were several demonstrations, small, quiet gatherings of journalists outside Moscow police headquarters, asking for justice. It was the first time journalists had taken to a picket line in defence of their own.
"I never could have imagined such journalistic solidarity was possible in Russia," Kashin said.
The outcry from journalists was not the only striking thing. Condemnation came from the very top when the president, Dmitry Medvedev, promised justice in a message over Twitter shortly after Kashin's beating, one of several suffered by journalists over the same weekend.
More than a month later, the identity of his attackers remains a mystery, even though the beating was caught by surveillance cameras outside his apartment building. A witness said the two men with a bouquet had waited for him to come home on Saturday night. Instead of flowers, they delivered a series of blows that broke his jaw in two places, fractured both shins, tore off a finger and cracked his skull. After undergoing multiple surgeries and rehabilitation, Kashin was discharged from hospital on Monday.
"The doctors on the instructions of President Medvedev worked a miracle," he said in an e-mail last week from his hospital room. "I say this without irony because I imagine quite well how long it would take to cure me if I were an 'ordinary' patient."
Kashin attributed the outcry over his attack and the high-level attention it attracted to his employment with such an authoritative newspaper. Others pointed to his well-read blog and the fact that he is part of a new, young generation of journalists. Earlier attacks targeted journalists who were opposition figures or worked for non-mainstream organisations. The attack on Kashin suggested that no journalist in Russia is safe.
Perhaps the most notorious murder of a journalist in recent years was that of Anna Politkovskaya, shot to death on October 7, 2006, in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building. Politkovskaya was known for her critical reporting about the war in Chechnya for the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta and her unrelenting criticism of the then-president, Vladimir Putin, who was openly dismissive after her murder. "Politkovskaya's political influence ... was of little significance," he said.
For many, the motive for Politkovskaya's murder seemed clear. But Kashin was a different story.
Three theories quickly developed.
One theory linked the attack to Kashin's extensive coverage of Kremlin-backed youth movements. At first, his coverage of movements such as Nashi ("Us") and Molodaya Gvardiya ("The Young Guard") was positive, but as time went by he became publicly critical of the violence and xenophobia associated with their activities. The weekend he was attacked, the youth groups marched in military-themed patriotic events organised by the Kremlin.
Kashin's name had also appeared on a Young Guard's list on the internet of "Journalist Traitors Who Must be Punished". Kashin said he had "subconsciously anticipated" an attack for several months because of a rising public mood of "aggression and hatred".
"It's the authorities with their youth projects who are responsible for this growth in aggression and hatred, raising teenagers to see enemies in everyone who is not with them," he said. "They let this horrible genie out of the bottle."
A second theory held that his coverage of a highway project through the town of Khimki that was destroying a forest was the reason behind the attack. Buttressing this idea was the beating suffered by Mikhail Beketov two years ago. It left Beketov, the editor of a small local newspaper critical of the destruction of the forest, so brain-damaged that he cannot speak. One leg was so badly mangled that it had to be amputated. His hands, like Kashin's, were crushed.
The third theory centred on a testy online exchange Kashin had with a provincial governor who was upset with the journalist's critical blog at kashin.livejournal.com.
If experience is any guide, Kashin's attackers are unlikely to be caught and punished; Russian journalists will continue to be beaten and murdered with impunity.
"A man with a steel rod is standing behind the smiling politicians who speak of democracy," Kashin wrote recently in an opinion piece for The New York Times. "That man is the real defender of the Kremlin and its order. I got to feel that man with my own head."
Published: December 22, 2010 04:00 AM