The murder of Paul Klebnikov, editor of the Russian-language version of Forbes magazine, which began publication in April, has shocked observers in both Russia and the West. It has also sparked intense speculation about who was behind what everyone believes was a contract killing.
The murder occurred on July 9 at around 9:50 pm, Moscow time, moments after Klebnikov had left the business center in northeastern Moscow that houses the offices of the Russian-language versions of Forbes and Newsweek on foot for the local metro station. Eyewitnesses later told Moscow Criminal Investigation Department (MUR) investigators that a VAZ-2115 automobile with three passengers stopped near Klebnikov and that someone from inside opened fire, apparently with a machine pistol (Gzt.ru, July 11; Vremya Novostei, Kommersant, July 12). Some media speculated that two shooters were involved (Ekho Moskvy, July 10).
Klebnikov received four bullet wounds — in the stomach, chest, and right leg — but was still conscious when the Russian Newsweek’s chief editor, Alexander Gordeyev, arrived at the scene. Gordeyev said he asked Klebnikov whether he had seen who shot him and why he might have been targeted; Klebnikov said a man he had never seen before had shot him from a car and that he did not know why it happened (Vedomosti, July 12). Klebnikov died shortly after being taken to a local hospital.
Kyril Vishnepolsky, deputy editor of the Russian Forbes, said the magazine’s staff “cannot imagine what could have caused this crime,” while Leonid Bershidsky, publisher of the Russian editions of Forbes and Newsweek, said Klebnikov had not been engaged in any journalistic investigations since February. “This could possibly be a preventative measure,” Bershidsky said. “It could be that some tough guy just doesn’t like the very project of the Russian Forbes” (Interfax, July 10). Bershidsky said he doubted that Klebnikov’s murder was connected to the list of Russia’s 100 richest oligarchs and their estimated wealth that the Russian Forbes published in May. “It is difficult for me to imagine that someone unhappy about the assessment of their wealth, [unhappy] over the fact that it was published Écould because of this shoot Paul,” Bershidsky said, noting that those on the list are more or less public figures (Ekho Moskvy, July 10). Likewise, an unnamed Russian Forbes employee said he and his colleagues did not believe someone from the list ordered the killing: “They are not idiots to expose themselves in that way” (Kommersant, July 14).
Other observers disagreed. “Attempts to shed light on the wealth of our businessmen, on their line of work, is a very dangerous profession,” said Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists (Interfax, July 10). Perhaps more significantly, Kommersant quoted a MUR investigator as saying: “Klebnikov himself compiled the list of suspects and even published it. I would start with these gentlemen.” Citing the MUR source, Kommersant claimed that after the list was published, representatives of several of those listed called the Russian Forbes offices threatening “lawsuits and all kinds of unpleasantness.” The newspaper even cited MUR sources as saying that friends of Klebnikov had urged him to hire bodyguards, but that he refused (Kommersant, July 12). According to Gzt.ru, the wife of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, Yelena Baturina, who ranked at 35 on the Russian Forbes list with an estimated fortune of $1.1 billion, and several others on the list, were “extremely unhappy” about being listed (Gzt.ru, July 11). Still, conspiracy theorists might argue that Klebnikov’s murder would — a la Sergei Kirov — provide a good pretext for going after one or more of the oligarchs on the Forbes list.
Leonid Bershidsky and others noted that Klebnikov had worked as an investigative reporter for years and undoubtedly made enemies along the way. Most notably, he wrote an article for the U.S. edition of Forbes in 1996 entitled “Godfather of the Kremlin?” an expose of Boris Berezovsky, the then-powerful Kremlin insider now living in exile in London. Berezovsky sued Forbes in Britain over the article but dropped the suit last year after Forbes acknowledged there was no evidence for Klebnikov’s charge that Berezovsky ordered the 1995 murder of television journalist Vladislav Listyev (Moscow Times, July 12). Klebnikov subsequently wrote a book entitled Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting of Russia.
Following Klebnikov’s murder, Berezovsky described him as “not an honest journalist” who “taught me that that even leading Western media lie.” Berezovsky added: “In Russia, if you publish a list of the country’s richest people it’s like informing on them to the prosecutors. Somebody clearly did not like the way he operated and decided to sort it out with him, Russian-style, not through the English courts as I did” (Telegraph [U.K.], July 11).
Still others noted that Klebnikov’s second book, published in Russia and entitled Razgovor s vavarom (“Conversation With a Barbarian”), was based on fifteen hours of conversations with Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev, a Moscow State University graduate who became a Chechen mafia boss and later a Chechen separatist leader. According to the book’s publisher, Valery Streletsky, who in the 1990s was a deputy to then Presidential Security Service chief Alexander Korzhakov, Klebnikov did not inform Nukhayev that he was turning their conversations into a book (Vremya Novostei, July 13). However, another newspaper reported that while Klebnikov’s book about Nukhayev caused “strong displeasure” within the Chechen diaspora, “authoritative Chechens,” including representatives of Nukhayev, said suspicions that it caused the journalist’s murder were baseless (Kommersant, July 12).
Whoever was behind Paul Klebnikov’s murder, it will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on journalism in Russia, which is already under increasing pressure from the state. Indeed, Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Moscow Center predicted that Russian publications writing about big business would become “more cautious, including in their choice of topic” (Vedomosti, July 12). And, as another observer noted: “The violent death of an editor of one of the most influential magazines on the planet is yet another stone falling from the edifice named ‘Stable Putin-ite Russia’ ” (Gazeta.ru, July 10).