What it’s like to be on Russia’s journalist hit list

November 12, 2010


By Masha Gessen
The author is a guest contributor to Reuters.com. The views expressed are her own and not those of Thomson Reuters.

“Are you scared?” someone asked me during a talk in New York last Friday night.

I always get that question. I am a journalist working in Russia, where 19 murders of journalists remain unsolved. Russia ranks eighth in the Impunity Index compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists — the only European country on the list, it is wedged between Nepal and Mexico.

People may be forgiven that being scared is an occupational hazard for me.

So I gave my stock answer: “No, I am not scared,” I said. “I have been at times, but right now I don’t seem to be doing anything particularly dangerous.” This is true.

Recently I have grown so cavalier as to stop asking my partner to meet me outside when I get home after dark — a precaution I started taking after I was last threatened a couple of years ago.

“But I hate talking this way,” I added, “because when I start dividing peacetime journalism work into the sort that might get you killed and the sort that might not, I feel I am somehow validating the idea that a journalist can be killed for doing her job.”

What I did not say was that every time a colleague is killed or assaulted, I start compiling a mental list of reasons why the person was targeted, all the while looking for reassurance that I will not be.

I was in New York to publicize the magazine and web site I edit in Moscow. My talk went well. The question about being scared was the only one that made me uncomfortable. I went out for a drink with some friends, considered going to a party in the Village, but opted to go back to my hotel room, planning to go to bed early. Before gong to sleep, I logged onto Facebook and saw the following post:

“Lower jaw broken. Upper jaw broken. Both shins fractured. Finger phalanges torn off. They are taking him into surgery now.”

It took me all of a few minutes to piece together what had happened. Oleg Kashin, a thirty-year-old journalist, was returning home in central Moscow around 1 o’clock Saturday morning. Two men were waiting for him outside his apartment building. According to a friend who happens to be Kashin’s next door neighbor, the men had a bouquet of flowers.

My guess is the bouquet may have concealed whatever heavy object they used to beat the journalist. When Kashin was found, he had his wallet and his cell phone on him: The attackers made no effort to disguise the beating as a robbery.

I have known Kashin for about six years. I have worked with him as an editor. I think of him as talented, resourceful, smart, abrasive, and rather full of himself. I have never thought of him as someone who might be attacked for his work as a journalist. Obviously, I was wrong. It took me only a few minutes to piece together that part of the story, too.


One of Kashin’s longtime reporting beats was youth activism. For a while he was enamored of pro-Kremlin movements such as Nashi (“Us”), Molodaya Gvardiya (“The Young Guard”), and others. All of these movements have common features: They have no identifiable ideology aside from their allegiance to the regime, their nominal leaders are uncharismatic functionaries, but they are lavishly funded by the Kremlin, which allows them to mobilize tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of young people for occasional displays of ersatz military might, such as uniformed parades in Moscow, or summer training camps that go on for weeks. Over the years Kashin’s reporting grew critical of these movements – to the point where he made some real enemies.

This is where I would normally breathe a sigh of relief: Thank god I don’t write about youth movements. But in the fleeting safety of my New York hotel room I could allow myself a few minutes of being really scared. Because here is how it really works.

A large number of Russian journalists and activists have long been outside the protection of the law. These people are easy to identify. They are the subjects of pseudo-investigative exposes on state television, as, for example, was victims’ rights advocate and blogger Marina Litvinovich, who was beaten unconscious in Central Moscow in March of 2006.

They are the ones whose names are on any number of hit lists circulated by Kremlin-funded bloggers, as was Kashin’s name. The lists include ones such as “Journalist Traitors Must Be Punished” that get posted on the Molodaya Gvardiya web site. My name has been on those lists, too. Most recently, I believe, on one titled “They Must Be Nailed to the Pole of Shame.” But that was a few years back, I reassured myself.

I knew that come morning journalist organizations, human rights groups, and probably the State Department would appeal to the Russian government to find the people behind the brutal attack on Kashin. But come that morning none of those organizations would dare say the truth: the people behind the attack ARE the Russian government. It is the Kremlin that has long since declared open season on a number of Russian citizens — including me among many others, I’m afraid. Kashin and I are just one of many.

Editor’s note: President Dmitry Medvedev has condemned the attack on Kashin and said law enforcement agencies will bring those responsible to justice. Nashi and Molodaya Gvardiya have also condemned the attack and called for those behind it to be tracked down and prosecuted. Both groups have denied any link to the attack.

Masha Gessen is the editor of Snob, a Russian language media project for Global Russians.

Top photo: A man walks outside St. Basil’s Cathedral covered with fog in Moscow. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov

Bottom photo: A Bentley is reflected in the side mirror of a car in Moscow September. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov

(This post was updated to add an expanded editor’s note)

Update 2: This post was updated at the author’s request to delete the final sentence and add “– including me among many others, I’m afraid” to the prior sentence.

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