On July 10 Paul Klebnikov, the chief editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, was shot at point-blank range by a hired killer in Moscow. Almost one year earlier, on July 3, 2003, another journalist, Yuri Shchekochikhin, deputy editor of the Russian newspaper Novaya gazeta and a member of State Duma, also tragically died in Moscow. The overwhelming amount of indirect evidence suggests that his death was the result of poisoning, using experimental lethal chemicals that are available only at top-secret laboratories (See EDM, July 6).
However, the authorities refused to launch an investigation into Shchekochikhin’s death, instead officially sealing all materials related to this case. As Novaya gazeta wrote on the anniversary of his death, “Throughout his life Yuri Shchekochikhin revealed Russian government secrets that were important to society, and the Russian government made his death a secret.” In the months before his death, Shchekochikhin was deep into an investigation of the furniture-store chain Tri Kita (Three Whales), which he revealed to be controlled by Russian security officials. High-ranking Federal Security Service (FSB) generals used the chain to launder tens of millions of dollars, and their activities extended to the now infamous Bank of New York, which has been implicated in other schemes. Shchekochikhin’s death was not the first one related to the Three Whales network; there have been a series of mysterious deaths and murders linked to the operation. No official investigation followed Shchekochikhin’s revelations. The only reaction was the transfer of the godfather of the furniture mafia, General Yuri Zaostrovtsev, from deputy head of the FSB responsible for economic security, to deputy head of Vneshekonombank, which handles Russian foreign trade.
Now, one year later, another investigative journalist has been slain. Paul Klebnikov recently had been examining the nature of Russian oligarchic capitalism and writing biographies of its most prominent members. Klebnikov’s acclaimed book, The Godfather of the Kremlin, is one of the most vivid descriptions of the genesis of Russia’s gangster-style capitalism during the Yeltsin presidency. Klebnikov convincingly proved that Russian capitalism is characterized by a complete merger of money with power and that the super-rich oligarchs achieved their positions not due to their entrepreneurial abilities, but because they were anointed by the ruling bureaucracy. In contrast with Eastern Europe, he argued, Russia did not undergo a democratic revolution in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Rather, the communist nomenklatura deliberately deployed the Party’s supreme political power to create enormous personal wealth for its individual members and their allies. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “Never in the history of human conflicts have so many been robbed of so much by so few.”
Klebnikov launched the Russian edition of Forbes magazine with a sensational debut issue featuring the “100 richest people in Russia.” This was actually a rather dry reiteration of the biographies of the owners of Russia. However, it dealt a potentially fatal blow to the myth widely held both in Russia and the West that Putin’s reign has been characterized by the Kremlin’s struggle against Russian’s oligarchic capitalism.
But what is portrayed as the struggle against the oligarchic capitalism in reality is a struggle against two or three political opponents of Vladimir Putin. On a wider scale, it is a process of replacing Yeltsin-era oligarchs with representatives of the special services who are personally loyal to the new regime. When Stalin eliminated prominent communist leaders such as Trotsky and Zinoviev in 1937, it did not really change the nature of the power of the nomenklatura. Similarly, Putin’s expulsion of Boris Berezovsky and Vladmir Gusinsky in 2000 did not alter the essence of the oligarchy’s power. New appointees, particularly from the Russian bureaucracy and law-enforcement agencies, quickly stepped in to take the place of the exiles. Hence, what is portrayed as the struggle against the oligarchy is really a struggle between clans and factions within the oligarchy.
Who could have hated Paul Klebnikov enough to order his murder? It could be anyone on his famous register of the richest people of Russia. Most of the people listed rose to the heights of power and riches during the Yeltsin era. While they once might even been proud to make the list, the billionaires now find themselves targeted by the special services and perhaps they panicked. They understand very well that the legendary first issue of Russian Forbes has become a desktop reference in every prosecutor’s office.
The billionaires who are closely aligned with the siloviki could not forgive Klebnikov for exposing the myth of the dedicated and honest government official with clean hands, a warm heart, and cool head, determined to return to the people the treasures stolen by communism.
The popularity of Forbes’ roll of the 100 richest people in Russia and the fate of its creator confirm that Putinism is the highest and final stage of gangster-style capitalism in Russia, wherein the reigning bureaucracy is eliminating any remnants of democratic freedoms and is no longer even pretending that it is concerned with the social problems that plague the overwhelming majority of its people. More importantly, this powerful bureaucracy is determined to mercilessly eliminate anyone who comes close to exposing the secrets of its power.
Yuri Shchekochikhin and Paul Klebnikov were killed by the Russian “elite.” Anyone who openly talks of its crimes, regardless of whether they are American or Russian, should understand that they could become the next targets.