In Russian Journalist’s Death, A Glimpse of Oppression

One week ago today, Russian journalist Mikhail Beketov died from heart failure while choking on a piece of food during lunch. He was badly traumatized five years ago when assailants beat him so badly that several fingers and one of his legs had to be amputated. He was confined to a wheelchair. He could not speak.

In man ways, Beketov died because of that beating. Like many other crusading journalists, Beketov was punished for exposing local corruption when thugs broke into his yard and beat him to a pulp.

Beketov had been harassed and threatened for years: his dog was beaten to death in 2007 and set his car on fire after he called for the resignation of the city leadership in Khimki, a city near Moscow. When he suggested the mayor of Khimki, Vladimir Strelchenko, was complicit in blowing up his car, a Russian court convicted him of slander.

Sadly, Beketov’s plight is not unusual. In Russia, violence against journalists is not directed by the state per se, but rather is enabled by the state. In her 2004 book Putin’s Russia, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya explained in detail how this system worked: when a journalist criticizes an official or rich person too strongly, they are first threatened, then hurt a little bit, and then, eventually, killed. The killers are never brought to justice.

Politkovskaya faced this system: after reporting on atrocities against civilians in Chechnya, she was first detained, then harassed, then threatened (including by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov), then poisoned, and, in October of 2006, shot to death in the elevator of her apartment building. The Russian government indicted three men in her murder, but in 2009 acquitted them all.

In 2011, Russian authorities decided to blame Politkovskaya’s murder on disgraced and exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky. There is no proof to substantiate the claim, and the mastermind of her murder remains unknown.

Vladimir Putin promised to investigate the beating of Mikhail Beketov last year. He never did. In all likelihood, he never will. Journalist murders in Russia rarely get investigated – they’re seen almost as a favor to the establishment. Without national leadership to end them, these murders will just continue.