The Mysterious Death of Ivan Safronov

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It seems that we can add another body to the pile. Last Friday, Kommersant military affairs correspondent, Ivan Safronov mysteriously fell to his death from a stairway window of his apartment building. At first, Safronov’s death was ruled a suicide, but Taganka police confirmed today that a criminal investigation has been opened to probe the incident.

The incident was not without a few witnesses. According Kommersant:

Two students who live in the building across the courtyard witnessed his death. “At about 4:00, my friend and I stepped out onto the balcony to smoke,” recounted Lena, a psychology student at the Sholokhov Pedagogical Institute. “Suddenly we heard a thud, like snow falling off the rooftop. It was almost empty in the courtyard, and we immediately noticed a man lying directly in front of the canopy over the second entranceway to building No. 9. He was lying on his stomach, and it seemed to us that he tried to get up, but couldn’t.” Noticing the open window on the stairway between the fourth and fifth floors and the fact that the man’s shoes had come off and his jacket and sweater were pulled up to his armpits, the girls called an ambulance. Their call was not accepted, however. “We cannot collect all the drunks in Moscow on Friday night,” they were told, along with the advice to call back in half an hour if he was still there. He did not go away. On the contrary, he stopped moving altogether.

Lena and her friend report that they did not see anyone near Safronov, nor anyone in the windows of the stairway or leaving through that door. At least three of his neighbors on the fourth and fifth floors, an elderly lady, a young mother and a middle-aged housewife, were hole at the time. They did not hear any suspicious noises on the stairway.

Evidence of foul play has not been found, but to colleagues and friends, the idea that Safronov committed suicide seems completely implausible. True, Safronov was recently diagnosed with a stomach ulcer, but that is hardly a reason to throw yourself out a fourth story window. No suicide note was found, and according to phone records collected by Kommersant, everyone who talked with Safronov before the incident didn’t recognize anything to suggest that he was distraught, let alone on the verge of offing himself.

The question is then if Safronov didn’t commit suicide, they why was he killed? Kommersant points a recent story he was working on:

Kommersant deputy editor-in-chief Bulavinov noted that Safronov’s death may have been violent and related to his professional activities. “We cannot exclude that possibility, even though there is no direct evidence,” he said. The newspaper is aware of only one sensitive topic that Safronov was working on.

Safronov stated that he would check information that he had received on possible new deliveries of Russian weapons to the Middle East while at the IDEX 2007 arms exhibition in the United Arab Emirates. That exhibition opened February 17. Safronov was interested in the sale of Su-30 fighter jets to Syria and S-300V missiles to Iran. He had information that those deals would be concluded through Belarus, in order for Moscow to avoid accusations in the West of selling weapons to pariah states. Safronov called the editorial office from Abu Dhabi to say that he had found confirmation of his facts.

“In the first days in Abu Dhabi, Ivan was perky and cheerful as usual,” recounted journalist Vladimir Stepanov. “But on the fourth day, he seemed to change. His mood became steadily bad. He even stopped coming to dinner, saying his stomach hurt. Once he woke up the front desk at 6:00 in the morning to ask for analgesic.” Stepanov said that Safronov had no personal conflicts with anyone there, however.

Back in Moscow, Safronov did not return to work because of his health. He did attend a press conference held by the head of the Federal Service of Military and Technical Cooperation Mikhail Dmitriev at ITAR-TASS on February 27, however. There he told colleagues that he had found information that more contracts had been signed between Russia and Syria for the sale of MiG-29 jets and Pantsir-S1 and Iskander-E missiles. He added that he would not write about those deals, however, because he had been warned that doing so would cause an international scandal and the FSB would made charges against him of revealing state secrets stick. Investigations of Safronov for revealing state secrets had been started before, but no charges had veer been filed against him. He did not say who had warned him. The same day, Safronov called Kommersant and said that he would dictate his story about arms deliveries through Belarus over the telephone. He did not do so, however.

This explanation of course fuels an already smoldering fire when it comes to journalists in Russia. If Safronov’s death turns out to be murder, he will be the 14th journalist killed since Putin became president. Not to mention the several Kremlin critics who’ve recently ended up whacked. These facts are already causing news reports to connect a variety of dots that begins with Anna Politkovskaya, runs through Alexander Litvinenko, twists around Paul Joyal, and now is looking to lasso Ivan Safronov. All of this has got to perk the suspicions of even Putin’s most ardent supporters.