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The Dangers of Journalism in Russia


Michael Specter was The New York Times Moscow bureau chief in the late '90s. He's been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1998. Terry spoke to Specter earlier this week.



Now you write that 13 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1999. Can you go through this morbid roll call of which journalists were killed and what was done to them?

MICHAEL SPECTER: Thirteen journalists have been killed since Vladimir Putin became president. They share a couple chilling characteristics. One is ugly deaths and the other notable one is that they were opponents of the Kremlin. Different people were shot. One man, who I knew fairly well, Yuri Shchekochikhin who worked at Novaya Gazeta along with Anna Politkovskaya, who was also killed recently and who I wrote about in last week's issue of the magazine, died mysteriously while he was investigating nefarious connections between the FSB, which is the federal security agency, the successor to the KGB, and mafia in government. He died--doctors said he died of an allergic reaction, though they could never say to what, and his family is convinced that he was poisoned in the manner of Alexander Litvinenko, who was not a journalist but he was a former FSB agent who was murdered through radiological assassination in London in November.

GROSS: You know, you describe the Litvinenko murder as the first known case of nuclear terrorism perpetrated against an individual, nuclear terrorism because he was killed with polonium-210, which is a rare radioactive isotope. What are the theories in Russia about who is behind these murders and what the motivation is?

SPECTER: Well, there isn't enough time in this show or in our lifetimes to go through every theory because there are thousands of them. Here are some facts. Alexander Litvinenko was an extremely outspoken opponent of Vladimir Putin. He was asked to kill Putin's most famous opponent, Boris Berezovsky, seven years ago and instead defected to London. Became a member of the Berezovsky camp. Has said that Putin was responsible for starting the second Chechen war which began when a bunch of buildings in Moscow blew up, killing 300 or more people and which the government blamed on Chechen separatists without any real evidence whatsoever. Litvinenko was poisoned, and there seems to be very little doubt that it would have required a sophisticated organization to bring an isotope of polonium, which is rare and which is almost exclusively manufactured in Russia into London, slip it into a drink so that he could die. It's an unusual poison because if you touch it, you won't get sick. You have to ingest it, but if you ingest even a microgram, you'll die, and you'll die a very ugly way.

GROSS: Well, a law was passed by the Russian parliament, the Duma, that permits the assassination of, quote, "enemies of the Russian regime abroad." Is it believed in Russia that Litvinenko is a victim of this law?


SPECTER: It's certainly believed by many people, and I guess I would have to say I would be one of those people. As you asked in your last question, there are many theories. There are theories that Putin's opponents had him killed to make Putin look bad. That Putin personally had him killed because he hated him. I can't personally believe, though I will never know, nor will I think anyone know, that the president of Russia actually had him killed, but I do think there's an atmosphere where you can go out and kill people who you oppose and know that you're not going to get prosecuted, and part of that problem is that last year the Duma passed a law at the president's behest which basically said, `If there's an enemy of the Russian regime abroad, we can kill them and if you kill them, it will be fine.' And it just seems somewhat tailor-made to kill people like Alexander Litvinenko though definition of enemy of Russian regime is a rather vague term these days.

GROSS: And I find "abroad" a little vague, too. Does it mean a foreigner who's an enemy of the regime or a Russian who has gone to another country to visit or to live. Are they an enemy abroad?

SPECTER: Well, this is like asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I believe most people felt that the meaning of it was a Russian defector, people like Litvinenko who had turned against the country. But it isn't legally the case that it means that, and it could mean anyone that opposes the government in terms of the law. I mean, you know, I don't believe that any country can pass law saying it's OK to kill other people's citizens but that basically is what it says.

GROSS: Has there been any attempt to investigate the murders of journalists or of political or business people who were believed to have been murdered by the state?

SPECTER: Paul Klebnikov was an American who is the founding editor of the Russian edition of Forbes. He was gunned down outside his office. His murderers are still at large, and I actually do believe the Russian government is somewhat forcefully trying to prosecute that but they're not having a lot of luck, and again I think part of it is even when they want to, there is an atmosphere there where, you know, go kill people. It's OK. And people shoot people in the head there and walk away, and people see it and they're not reporting. Anna Politkovskaya, who was the most famous journalist and the one who died on October 7th, was shot in her elevator four times on a Saturday afternoon, the last time just inches away from her head. They call this in Russian...(Russian language spoken)...which means "control shot." It's a totally common term in Moscow. Everyone knows it. Housewives know it. When normal people know that term, it's not really a good thing for your society.

GROSS: Now, as you've pointed out, you know, there have been 13 journalists who have been murdered in Russia since 1999, when Putin became the president, so how has the press been covering the murder of journalists?

SPECTER: So TV is so tightly controlled and 95 percent information people get is from TV, that all these other investigations are somewhat meaningless. It is the case that you can go onto the Internet, and people write what they want and see what they want and they don't believe there's censorship there at all. It's also the case that very few people, once you get outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and even in those cities, either have access to or really get their information from the Internet.

GROSS: Can you describe how the TV network became owned by the state or by companies that function, as you describe it, as corporate arms of the state?

SPECTER: Vladimir Putin wasn't about to let that happen and when he became president, he made sure that these major networks were owned, either by companies, they just bought them--in the case of NTV, it's almost like the godfather. They just made an offer you couldn't refuse, and if you did refuse it, they upped the offer and if you refused that, then you were prosecuted and hounded out of the country. Vladimir Gusinsky now lives in Israel. I don't think that he would last one hour on the street in Moscow if he were to return.

GROSS: The state-controlled energy company Gazprom took over the TV station, NTV, in the middle of a broadcast. Would you describe what happened?

SPECTER: Well, they took it over. They bought it. They so-called bought it. It's not the type of purchase that we'd consider a normal purchase where people offer fair-market value and buy things, but they got it and then they just said, `We're going to change things.' And a man named Andrei Norkin, who was an extremely brave and intelligent broadcaster was on the air, trying to explain to his viewers, of which there were still millions, what was going on, and they simply cut him off. They just cut him off. It was like the old Russ Soviet days. The television went to test patterns, and Norkin and his gang were out and, you know, within an hour or two, a bunch of people speaking pablum were giving the news.


DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with journalist Michael Specter. His piece about the death of opponents of Russian president Vladimir Putin appears in The New Yorker.

GROSS: Before the state basically took over control of the TV networks in Russia, they were owned by the new oligarchs, the really wealthy people who prospered after the collapse of communism. You write a little bit about what journalism on television was like then, and you write about how some of the journalists after a while were so concerned that there was going to be a return to communism, or to neocommunism, that the journalists started taking sides and even slanting the news. What are some examples of that?

SPECTER: Zyuganov played into this and people in the liberal world, in the press world, in the world that had a stake in the new economy, some of them for worse but a lot of them for better, said, `Gee, I don't want to go back to collective life.' And the people who owned those networks and newspapers basically decided, `Hey, we're going to re-elect Yeltsin.' He had about 3 percent popularity at the time, and they pumped him up to 54 percent, just by accentuating the positive and trashing Zyuganov like you can't believe, and the press basically, including my friends, including really good, honorable people, went along with it. They hadn't had a history of thinking about these things, and all they really knew was they didn't want communism coming back and that was the worst thing that could happen to Russia, and they were going to stop it no matter what, and so they did.

GROSS: Do you think that in any way that opened the door to the manipulation of the press now?

SPECTER: Yes. I think that Vladimir Putin and his people are very clever and smart, and they watched this happen, and what they took away from this was a very important lesson, which is the press is powerful, and you can use the press to manipulate voter opinions, the way people think about issues. You can bring a man down, you can destroy a company, you can turn people against a policy, a nation, if you get out there and shove it down 95 percent of the people's throats, and that's what happened. And they were able to do that because they were very sophisticated and they also saw that in 1996, `Hey, these guys actually turned the election around. These guys have some power. Let's use it.'

GROSS: You mentioned that although freedoms are limited now in Russia, people are living better than they have in a long time. You know, the economy has improved and that has a lot to do with oil. How is oil affecting Russia now?

SPECTER: And oil prices do fluctuate. When the price of oil dropped in the '80s, it's pretty clear that it was one of the things that led to the destruction of the Soviet Union because they didn't have a Plan B and neither does Russia right now.

GROSS: So who's benefitting from the oil? Who's financially benefitting from it?

SPECTER: To be honest, the entire country to some degree. A bunch of people are getting obscenely rich, but that was true under Boris Yeltsin. What is also happening is that people are living better. Average people. Middle-class people. Pensioners. Retired people. Sick people are getting better benefits. It's really remarkable. If you go to Moscow today, it's not just the case that there's a bunch of shockingly rich people, but it's also the case that working people are taking vacations and sending their kids to schools and taking better care of their parents and buying new clothing from fancy stores and living like we consider ourselves to live in the West.

GROSS: Putin is supposed to step down next year. Is it likely that he will?

SPECTER: That's like asking the question of who killed Alexander Litvinenko. There are 27,000 scenarios. I'll go out on a limb and say, sure, I think he will step down. I don't think he wants to be seen as Idi Amin. But stepping down--there's stepping down and there's stepping down. I don't think he's going to step down and move to a retirement home and play pinochle. What he has said is he intends to, quote, "retain influence." He could do that in any number of ways. He could become the prime minister. He could become the chairman of Gazcom, the biggest company. There's a feeling that he may in fact just switch jobs with the current chairman who's his first deputy prime minister. So will he continue as president for a third term? I doubt it very strongly. But will he stop being obvious in decision-making. I don't think that's likely either.

GROSS: What's the relationship now between Bush and Putin? You know, early in his presidency, he said he looked in Putin's eyes and saw his soul.

SPECTER: I don't pretend to know the answer to that. They seem to get along on a superficial level. Condoleezza Rice has been openly critical of the Kremlin, very supportive of free press. But these are just words. We're not doing anything in this country to try to change Russia's behavior, and, by the way, either is Europe. European companies and European governments want the oil and they want the gas, and that's what they want, and that pretty much governs all relationships.

GROSS: Now, finally, I'm just wondering if your recent report from Russia, when combined with your experiences when you covered Russia from '94 to '98 have led to any, you know, new reflections about the role of the press in covering, you know, the most important political news of the day?

SPECTER: But I did take away a sense that the Russian people need to understand that better, and they don't understand it because it's--their freedoms just came one day and they never, you know--if Vladimir Putin ever says, `Gee, from now on you can't travel to England or turn in your passports or you can't go out on Friday nights,' they'll have a different idea about freedom of speech. But right now that hasn't happened, and living better and seeing your kids happier and in a better school and in a warmer coat trumps an idea, and that I understand, but it's sad.

GROSS: Michael Specter, thank you very much for talking with us.

SPECTER: Thank you for having me.

DAVIES: ANNOUNCEMENTS Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.