What is there to say about the beating Oleg Kashin that hasn’t been said, will be said, and won’t be repeated ad nauseum? The beating of journalists is a familiar story in Russia, and certainly one that will elicit equally familiar narratives, names, and generalizations. Yet, Kashin’s work doesn’t fall into the typical story of the liberal journalist from an oppositionist newspaper who penned vitriolic prose against all things Putin. His writing is more nuanced with a healthy dose of skepticism for all sides of the Russian political spectrum. As some have noted, Kashin had a lot of enemies, as many as he now has broken fingers. United Russia’s youth wing, Molodaia gvardiia and the govenor of Pskov Andrei Turchak quickly come to mind. But given the sheer brutality of Kashin’s beating only one really stands out: the business interests behind the Khimki highway project.
At first, Nashi or Molodaya gvardiia jumped up as a immediate suspects in my mind. Pro-Kremlin youth groups are known to hire football hooligans and other thugs to beat up oppositionists and act as agents provocateurs in protests. Kashin has covered Russian youth organizations for several years, and earlier this year singled out Nashi as the culprit behind the use of anonymous videos to discredit critics of the Kremlin. But Kashin’s point went further than denouncing the Nashists. “If we assume that Nashi has no involvement to these anonymous political provocations, then we have to admit that the government protects not only Nashists, but also some people who we don’t know at all.” Kashin’s brush against youth groups didn’t stop at Nashi. His recent interview with activists protesting the destruction of the Khimki forest sent Molodaia gvardiia into a tizzy. Vladislav Lovitskii, a so-called “marginal observer for molgvardia.ru,” called for Kashin to be punished for the article, saying that Kashin and the editors of Kommersant were “not simply enemies of the entire Russian (rossiiskii) people and all right-minded and law abiding citizens, but most genuine traitors.” Someone must have taken note because punished he was.
It is difficult to say whether pro-Kremlin youth organizations are behind Kashin’s beating. It looks like their modus operandi. But like many things in Russia, what seems apparent usually isn’t a testimony to the truth. Also the brutality of this beating–broken fingers, one of which was amputated, broken jaw, fractured skull, severe brain bleed, is beyond even pro-Kremlin youth’s standards. For the most part, their tactics are usually more hooliganistic than gangsterish.
The culprits behind this one were far more methodical and far more brutal.
Indeed, as Julia Ioffe notes in an excellent article on the subject, if you want to understand who might be behind this, you have to consider the beating suffered by Mikhail Beketov in 2008. Betekov was an early activist-journalists who wrote about the corruption in the Khimki road construction. Perhaps Beketov story would have never gotten widespread attention if it wasn’t for the savagery of his beating. The perpetrators left Beketov so mangled that he had three fingers and a leg amputated. It’s amazing that Beketov survived, though now he is confined to a wheelchair and has such severe brain damage that he can’t speak. If you can’t silence a journalist with a bullet, taking a steel pipe to his head is just as effective.
Such savagery smells so strong of the pungency of money and power that it makes any suggestion of Molodaya gvardiia’s involvement sound like a sick joke. And while most reporting will try to spin this story into yet another Politkovskaya or Estemirova, Kashin’s beating just doesn’t fit into the repression of human rights activist narrative. As Ioffe rightly notes:
Russian journalists are usually killed or attacked because they threaten powerful financial or economic interests. The chopping down of the Khimki forest to make room for a highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg has exactly those interests behind it: It was being financed by Arkady Rotenberg, Vladimir Putin’s judo buddy, and Putin proclaimed this summer, amid growing protests, that “all decisions have been made.” That is, the road would be built as planned. (This remains the silent consensus in Moscow, despite Medvedev’s August moratorium.)
Moreover the attack on Kashin seems to fit a disturbing pattern. Only a few days ago, Khimki activist Konstantin Fetisov was attacked with a baseball bat when he got out of his car in front of his Moscow home. The left side of his head was bashed in. His wife later found a fragment of the bat that had splintered off from the force of the blow. Like Kashin, Fetisov remains in an artificially induced coma and in serious condition.
Yet, even still, as Ioffe emphasizes, Kashin was no real critic of the Khimki project. His reporting defied classification into the usual binaries of anti-Kremlin and pro-Kremlin. Still, the brutal similarities between the attacks on Kashin, Beketov and Fetisov can’t be ignored. If the Russian police want to catch these thugs and if Dmitri Medvedev is serious about punishing them, then I suggest that they stare straight at the blood-monied interests behind the Khimki.
On a final note, there will be those out there who will offer apologetics for Kashin’s beating. They’ll decry the obsession with emphasizing journalists as victims. They’ll hem and haw about how western reporters churn out the same narrative about media freedom in Russia. They’ll scream, ‘What about . . . !” They will certainly offer banal explanations for why Kashin’s skull was fractured and his fingers broken. Such acts of violence happen all the time to normal people, they’ll say, and no one pays attention to their plight? Blah, blah, blah . . .
The truth is, and yes I’ll admit it, journalists ARE special. At least those who practice their craft with all the seriousness the profession demands. Journalists aren’t normal people. As has repeatedly been shown, they risk their lives even when, as in Kashin’s case, they aren’t really trying to. Journalists are members of what used to be hailed as the Fourth Estate, that section of society that in the best of times were the eyes, ears and mouths for the people. You remember that old Enlightenment notion where journalists serve as the guardians of the powerless against corruption, violence, and abuse. You know those people who thanks to their strict standards kept governments in check with straight, uncompromised truth telling. At least they were considered such until our cynical dark age reduced all truth to rhetoric. Journalists are special because cases like Kashin’s symbolize the nexus between money and power, and the levels of violence necessary to maintain them. Such violence shows how the stakes of this marriage can turn even politically ambiguous journalists like Kashin into examples of capital’s unabashed unambiguity.
Image: Частный Корреспондент