Yuri Shchekochikhin seemed to have few worries about his own safety. He was the deputy editor of the democratic newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and a representative of the Yabloko opposition party in the federal parliament.
Shchekochikhin was known across Russia for his courageous and radical publications on corruption and organised crime during the perestroika years of the late 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev's (restructuring) policy. His reputation was unimpeachable. During the first Chechen war, he helped to rescue Russian prisoners-of-war.
At the time of Vladimir Putin's elevation to the presidency in December 2000, Shchekochikhin was busy investigating a huge corruption scandal involving a furniture store. According to his own sources, members of the president's inner circle appeared to have been involved in the scam. Their high-level connections in the security and customs services helped the store to avoid paying taxes. Losses to the state budget were huge.
Somebody thought that Shchekochikhin had gone too far. He was warned. In summer 2003, he travelled to the city of Ryazan, only a few hours on a commuter train from Moscow. During his stay in Ryazan he fell ill. At first it was thought that he had suffered some sort of allergic reaction. Only later, in hospital back in Moscow, did it become obvious that he had been poisoned.More than three years after his death on the night of 2-3 June 2003, no one has been found responsible for Yuri Shchekochikhin's death. In life, he and Anna Politkovskaya shared the same boss: Dmitri Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta. Muratov has few doubts that both his journalists were killed to order.
Also on Russia in openDemocracy:
Geoffrey Hosking, "Russians in the Soviet Union: rulers and victims"
(22 June 2006)
George Schőpflin, "Putin's anti-globalisation strategy"
(10 July 2006)
Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: the G8 and after"
(19 July 2006)
Shaun Walker, "Anna Politkovskaya: death of a professional"
(9 October 2006)
Tanya Lokshina, "Putin, Chechnya
(12 October 2006)
A pattern of impunity
Over the twenty years since the first announcement of glasnost and perestroika, thousands of contract murders have taken place in Russia. Many have been of businessmen killed by competitors. But there have been a host of other victims: journalists, politicians, priests, government officials and foreigners - men and women alike.
The killers use Kalashnikovs and other guns. Sometimes they are fitted with silencers, sometimes they are not. Other victims have been killed with knives, axes, explosives and pre-planned car accidents.
One of the most spectacular killings took place in November 1996 in Moscow's Kotliakovski cemetery. Veterans of the Afghan war had gathered to pay tribute to the late head of their handicapped veterans fund. A bomb exploded during the ceremony, killing thirteen people and wounding nearly twenty.
Under Vladimir Putin's predecessor Boris Yeltsin, Afghan war veterans enjoyed special business privileges. As rivalry between different factions grew, business deals were sorted out using hitmen, guns and explosives.
Russian contract killings have a characteristic style. Assassins ensure that their victim is dead with a final bullet to the head. The gun is usually left at the crime scene. The weapons tend to be untraceable, even using the most sophisticated arms identification technology.
Even with every precaution, the killers themselves are often in danger. Sometimes their masters ensure their security by having their own hired assassins killed.
Alexander Solonik, a thug from the Moscow suburbs, was Russia's top assassin in the 1990s. He confessed to killing several influential businessmen and gangsters. His services did not come cheap. It cost a minimum of $50,000 for Solonik to eliminate on request.
After his arrest and sentencing to a long prison term on 10 August 1995, Solonik managed to escape. In an interview with the Moscow tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, he said that his former clients had assisted his flight. He did not mention any names, but they were worried enough to take revenge for the indiscretion: Solonik, along with his girlfriend Svetlana Kotova, was tracked to Athens and shot dead on 31 January 1997.
On a few such occasions the Russian militia has managed to arrest the assassin. But cases when they were able to find the people who actually ordered any killings can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Suspects who do make it to court often seem to have no problems in being declared innocent or in other circumstances walking free. Here are two examples from many:
Galina Starovoitova, veteran of the Russian democratic movement and deputy in the Duma, was killed on 20 November 1998. The St Petersburg trial of suspects accused of involvement in the murder ended inconclusively; the true story remains a mystery.
Paul Khlebnikov, editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, was killed on 9 July 2004. The trial of the three men accused of the murder lasted several months in 2006, after which a jury acquitted them.
Blood on the stones
The peak of the Russian contract killing orgy came in the Yeltsin era. At that time Russia was being described as the "wild east". The world looked on in shock as vicious wars erupted over the privatisation of Russian industry. In the fight for property, wealth and power, Russian businessmen soon learned that asking the legal system to sort out their disputes was futile.
Paul Tatum, an American entrepreneur, invested a large amount of money in Moscow's Radisson-Slavianskaya hotel. For years he struggled to find a peaceful solution in disputes with his partners. In the end the problem was solved when he was shot dead on 3 November 1996 in the underground street crossing next to Kievskaya railway station. Neither his killers, nor those who masterminded the murder, have ever been found.
Assassins have targeted bankers and oilmen. In Russia's far east, their favourite targets were businessmen involved in lumber and fishing. But no other Russian industry has proved as dangerous to be involved in as aluminium production. In the mid-1990s the wave of contract killings hit managers of Russian smelters in cities from Krasnoyarsk to Sayanagorsk to Bratsk.
On 1 March 1995 a particular killing left Russia in even deeper shock than after Anna Politkovskaya's murder. The victim was a popular TV journalist, Vladislav Listyev. It is believed that he was a victim of shadowy dealings in the country's then-emerging advertising industry.
Government officials were also in danger if they crossed the paths of the powerful. St Petersburg's deputy governor responsible for privatisation, Mikhail Manevich, was shot on 19 August 1997. A marksman waited for him on the top of a building at the junction of Nevski Prospect and Rubinstein Street. He pulled out his gun just as the young economist's limousine slowed down at traffic lights.
In another spectacular St Petersburg contract killing of a well-known businessman, the killer simply left a plastic bag full of explosives on the roof of his car while stuck in a traffic-jam.
Journalists, priests and politicians joined the victims of contract killings. Victor Yushenkov, like Galina Starovoitova, was a prominent democratic politician shot dead by an unknown assailant. Alexander Mien was born into a Jewish family, but became a popular Orthodox priest who helped to revive the Orthodox faith after decades of official state atheism. His killing in September 1990 has remained a mystery.
The tabloid journalist Dmitri Kholodov, of Moskovski Komsomolets, lost his life on 17 October 1994 when he tried to open a booby-trapped briefcase. He thought the case contained documents relating to a high-level military corruption case that he had been investigating. Instead, it was stuffed with explosives.Larissa Yudina was another journalist who, on 8 June 1998, fell victim to contract killers. She worked in Kalmykia, the fiefdom of the chess-obsessed dictator and businessman Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. Yudina was stabbed to death after publishing several articles about corruption in his administration.
Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist and writer who has reported on Russia for leading German, Swiss and Polish newspapers since 1989. He is the author of Planet Russia, published in Poland in 2005.
Also by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski on openDemocracy:
"Mikhail Khodorkovsky's shadow"
(3 April 2006)
"Russia: racism on the rise"
(26 April 2006)
"Russia's corruption dance"
(15 June 2006)
"Kinoeye: Russia's reviving film industry"
(11 July 2006)
"Russia and the middle east: post-Soviet flux"
(14 August 2006)
"Roman Abramovich's Chukotka project"
(14 September 2006)
The Chechnya effect
When Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia began to enjoy the first signs of financial stability. It might have been expected that the days of using contract killings to sort out otherwise insoluble political and business conflicts were at an end. But amid energy-fuelled growth, a modicum of prosperity and Putin's own popularity, violence in public life has continued.
Russia's image of a land where some are always ready to resort to extreme methods to solve problems has persisted.
In the six years of the Putin presidency, thirteen journalists who are critical of the way things are run have lost their lives. They are joined by other prominent figures, including the governor of Magadan, Valentin Tsvetkov on 18 October 2002, and the central bank's deputy chairman, Andrei Kozlov, on 14 September 2006.
Under President Putin, the law-enforcement agencies, militia, secret services, courts, prosecutor's office, army and customs agency have all remained in the grip of corruption. With public opinion and democratic mechanisms marginalised, Russian soil remains as fertile as before for warfare between different lobbies.
Clans, groups, regional elites and businessmen continue to fight for influence, money and power. Decisions are taken in back-rooms, the result of complex games and intrigues. There is no shortage of those who see the use of a Kalashnikov or silenced Makarov pistol as an efficient shortcut to solving their problems. Finding a professional willing to pull the trigger for a fee is also easy.
There are around 30,000 murders annually in Russia. Most are routine crimes involving alcohol abuse, domestic abuse or everyday violence; more than 60% of the cases are solved and the perpetrators punished. A further 30,000 people disappear without trace every year. This statistic makes the estimate of the annual number of contract killings a rough one, but the best guess is 500-700.
There is a larger dimension behind the prevalence of violence in Russia. Russia has now been at war in Chechnya for most of the last twelve years. An estimated 1.5 million men have served there in the Russian army. The experience has exposed them to violence, a lack of respect for human life and a brutal struggle for survival.
Leonid Kesselman, a sociologist from St Petersburg, believes that the eagerness with which Russians use violence to solve problems is one by-product of the cruel fighting in Chechnya.
Russians in their post-Soviet world also have long memories. A popular saying from communist days was attributed to Joseph Stalin: "Death solves all problems - no man, no problem".
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