by Tony Wyman
Russian journalists and windows, balconies and
According to local police in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, journalist Maxim Borodin, the reporter who embarrassed the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin by breaking the story of the deaths of hundreds of Russian mercenaries killed in Syria by American troops, fell to his death from the fifth-floor balcony of his apartment complex. The police ruled his death a suicide
Mr. Borodin, who was 32 and, according to his friends, excited about plans he was making for his future, joins a growing list of Russian journalists critical of the Putin government who died sudden and violent deaths over the past several years.
One of the stories that Mr. Borodin wrote about recently concerned Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was recently indicted in the United States for running a “troll farm” that helped Russia affect the 2016 election that put Donald Trump in the White House.
In the indictment against Mr. Prigozhin, known in his home country as “Putin’s Chef” because he owns a chain of restaurants the Russian president uses to entertain foreign dignitaries, waged “information warfare against the United States” by creating fake Facebook profiles and using those profiles to spread false information in support of the Trump campaign and to disparage the campaign of his Democrat opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“The Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see,” Mr. Prigozhin said to Russian state media. “I have a lot of respect for them. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”
Mr. Prigozhin, in addition to owning restaurants, is believed to be the secret head of a company called The Wagner Group, or PMC.
Wagner, is a private military company that hires mercenaries and employs them around the world in support of Russian efforts.
The mercenaries killed in Syria by American forces were employed by Wagner.
While Wagner is listed as a private company, many inside Russia believe it is actually a unit of the Russian Ministry of Defense, used by the Kremlin in military operations where the government needs plausible deniability of involvement, places such as Syria, Crimea and Ukraine.
n Mr. Borodin’s reporting, he exposed these connections and tied Mr. Prigozhin’s involvement with The Wagner Group to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian military. Friends of Mr. Borodin believe his death was neither a suicide nor an accident. They believe it was likely murder and the perpetrator, they believe, was Mr. Prigozhin and his allies in the Russian government.
One friend, Vyacheslav Bashkov, posted on Facebook that Mr. Borodin told him earlier this week his apartment was surrounded by Russian security service members, armed “siloviki,” who he believed were marshalling on the ground floor awaiting a court order to search his apartment. He asked Mr. Bashkov to find a lawyer to represent him, should he be arrested, but called back later to report the masked secret policemen had left.
Four days later, he fell from his apartment balcony.
Other “Falling” Deaths
Mr. Borodin isn’t the only Russian journalist to die by falling. In fact, several prominent journalists, or those associated with them, over the years have died after mysterious falls. Mikhail Leshin, once Vladimir Putin’s state media head who had fallen out of favor with the Russian leader, died in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. after a fall the FBI said happened after a night of “extreme drinking”.
Mr. Leshin suffered injuries to his legs, arms, neck and torso, in addition to “blunt force trauma” to his head during his “fall” to his hotel room’s floor, a fall that must have been repeated several times.
Victor Afanasenko, editor of a paper investigating raids by Russian paramilitary troops like those from The Wagner Group, died in 2012 from a fall in his home.
Another, Olga Kotovskaya, who was battling a member of the government for control of her radio station, fell from her 14th floor window. Vadim Godlevsky, publisher of a magazine critical of the Kremlin, also fell from the 14th floor, last year.
And in 2017, lawyer Nikolai Gorokhov, who represented Sergei Magnitsky, an anti-corruption attorney who was the source of information reported in the news tying Denis Katsyv, the son of a prominent official in the Putin government, to a large-scale theft of Russian state funds, fell to his death from a fourth-story window while, implausibly, trying to move a bathtub.
Mr. Magnitsky, arrested for exposing the corruption of those closely associated with Russian President Putin, died in prison eight days before he was to be released. The cause of death was “traumatic application of a blunt hard object,” such as the ground, according to a coroner’s report.
Mr. Katzyv, the subject of Mr. Magnitsky’s investigation, settled a case brought against him by the U.S. Department of Justice related to Russian tax fraud associated with his purchases of apartment buildings in Manhattan. His attorney was Natalia Veselnitskaya, who later met with then candidate Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr. and Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson and Paul Manafort, to, initially, lobby the president’s son against enacting sanctions against Russia, but, she later revealed, also to offer to provide the Trump campaign with “compromising information” on Mr. Trump’s Democrat opponent, Hillary Clinton.
More Violent Deaths
Many other journalists critical of Mr. Putin and his allies in the Russian oligarchy, at least 200, according to human rights groups monitoring freedom of the press, have died under violent and mysterious circumstances. Perhaps the most famous case was the 2006 death of Anna Politkovskaya, a reporter and human rights activist, who was shot and killed in the elevator of her apartment complex. Ms. Politkovskaya had been critical of the Russian government’s war crimes in Chechnya, receiving numerous awards for her books about the Chechen conflict.
A week after Ms. Politkovskaya’s murder, Alexander Litvinenko, a former spy in Russia’s FSB, accused Mr. Putin of sanctioning her murder. Two days later, in England where he had sought refuge from the Russian government, Mr. Litvinenko was poisoned by radioactive polonium delivered by Russian agents in the country.
Before he died, Mr. Litvinenko, who had investigated Ms. Politkovskaya’s death and was reportedly writing a book exposing the FSB’s crimes, named Mr. Putin as his and the journalist’s killer.
“Name the bastard. Anna Politkovskaya did not do it, so I will, for both of us. You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people.”
Russia Ranks 148th in Press Freedom
The deaths of reporters in Russia hasn’t gone unnoticed by international groups dedicated to protecting journalists and the work they do. Reporters Without Borders ranked Russia 148th out of 180 nations when it comes to respecting press freedoms. Nations like South Sudan, Pakistan and Venezuela ranked higher. About the atmosphere for a free press in Russia, RWB called the climate “stifling.”
“Between draconian laws and website blocking, the pressure on independent media has grown steadily since Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012. Leading independent news outlets have either been brought under control or throttled out of existence. As TV channels continue to inundate viewers with state-run propaganda, the climate has become increasingly oppressive for those who question the new patriotic and neo-conservative discourse or just try to maintain quality journalism. At least five journalists are currently detained in connection with their reporting—an unprecedented number—and more and more bloggers are being jailed. The leading human rights NGOs have been declared “foreign agents.” Murders and physical attacks against journalists continue to go unpunished. Chechnya and Crimea, which was annexed in 2014, have meanwhile become “black holes” from which little news and information emerges.”
Reporters Without Borders, calling the nature of Mr. Borodin’s work “sensitive,” released a statement demanding a “full and impartial” investigation into his death.
“In what circumstances did the 32-year-old Borodin, who worked for the Novy Den news agency, fall from the balcony of his fifth-floor apartment on 12 April? He died from his injuries yesterday without ever recovering consciousness.”
Borodin covered very sensitive subjects including crime and corruption. He had been the subject of comment at the national level several times in recent months in connection with his reporting on the involvement of Russian mercenaries in Syria, the scandal surrounding the oligarch Oleg Deripaska and the controversy about the Russian film “Matilda.”
Considering Russia’s history of investigating the murders of journalists, it is unlikely that Reporters Without Borders demands will result in the government revealing the truth about Mr. Borodin’s death. One only has to look to history to see what happened in a similar case.
In 2007, a reporter for Kommersant, Ivan Safronov, who had just called to tell his editors that he had proof Russia was supplying Syria with military aircraft and other weapons. Even though he had proof, he said that he would not report on the news because he had been threaten by the Russian FSB, who told him that exposing Moscow for selling weapons to a pariah state would embarrass the country and cause an international scandal.
Mr. Safronov never published the story. He fell to his death from the fifth floor of his apartment building shortly after.
His apartment, however, was on the third floor.