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The Assassination of a Dream

Like many of the Russian-Americans he grew up among in Manhattan, the journalist Paul Klebnikov hoped to return to his ancestral land and help restore it to great ness. Unlike most of those people, he actually got there. But last summer, on a Moscow street, his life was tragically and mysteriously cut short.


The week before last, Paul Klebnikov was memorialized by his family and friends at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. It was a subdued service, and many of the several hundred mourners stayed behind afterward to tell stories on an open microphone. An uncle played piano; a woman sang a song in Russian. Klebnikov had died in his prime, and he was remembered as a hero. By the time he was 41, he had realized part of a lifelong dream—he had left New York and gone to Russia as a reformer, an investigative reporter committed to using the power of the press to stop a new class of oligarchs from ransacking the country under the guise of capitalism.

That dream ended on a Friday night in July. It was 10 P.M., still light out, and Klebnikov was leaving his Moscow office, where he was the editor of the fledgling Forbes Russia magazine. There had been four issues so far, one of them about the 100 richest Russians, and the future looked promising.

He crossed the street and headed toward a footpath that led to the subway. A dark Lada with tinted windows—stolen, it later turned out—pulled out of a parking lot and drove toward Klebnikov. The driver rolled down his window. Shots were fired; four hit Klebnikov. As the car backed up and then drove off, Klebnikov tried to turn around, swayed, cried for help, and fell down. He got up again, staggered back in the direction of his office about twenty yards, and then fell again, on his back, on the rucksack he was still wearing. An eyewitness flagged down an ambulance. Everyone from Forbes had gone home, but a few staff members of the Russian edition of Newsweek, which shares offices with Forbes, were still there. By the time Newsweek editor Alexander Gordeyev reached the scene, about fifteen minutes later, both police and the ambulance had arrived.

Gordeyev remembers Klebnikov looking very tired. “Do you know what happened?” he asked Klebnikov in English, thinking that it would be easier for Klebnikov to speak English at this point. “Nyet,” Klebnikov answered in Russian, “somebody was shooting.” “You don’t know who?” “No.” Gordeyev asked whether there had been any meetings, contacts, or visits that could have led to this. Again, Gordeyev claims, Klebnikov said no.

Klebnikov asked for oxygen, but the ambulance didn’t have any. Another one was called and arrived within a few minutes. Klebnikov was placed on a stretcher and given an IV while the driver radioed to find out which hospital he should take him to. It took a quarter of an hour before he received a response. As they began driving, Klebnikov was already losing consciousness. At the hospital, the elevator taking Klebnikov to the operating room got stuck between floors. A nurse, still outside, began to push the elevator call button, then stopped. “There it is,” she said. “That’s his fate.”

Friends remember the Klebnikovs’ Upper East Side apartment as a time capsule, full of gilded icons and lively Russian Orthodox celebrations. “One person would be playing Tchaikovsky, drink ing vodka, and in the next room pe ople arguing vociferously about art. Everyone was eating blini.”

Mikhail Fishman, a Newsweek reporter who had gone to the hospital in the ambulance, began running around trying to find out how to get the lift operating again. He found a group of indifferent doctors and nurses sitting in a waiting room. He tried to pry apart the elevator doors with a chair leg. Ten minutes later, a workman appeared with tools and managed to open the lift. But Klebnikov could not be saved.

Among the many distinctive subcultures of Manhattan, there is the small circle of White Russians, descendants of the czarists, landed gentry, and intelligentsia who began to flee the advancing communists in 1917. Most of them scattered across Europe, but many came to New York. While they waited for their triumphant return to Mother Russia, they taught their native language to their children and told them theatrical stories of birch forests and gallant cossacks. Eventually, they got on with the business of rebuilding life in a foreign country. Generations passed.

Born in 1963, Paul grew up in a house that echoed with myths and traditions. In the garden of the family’s weekend home in Sagaponac, he was christened in a galvanized washtub covered with a sheet and garlands of field flowers. A Russian priest, dressed in traditional vestments, threw Paul in the air and immersed him into the water three times.

As a boy, Paul learned about his great-grandfather, an admiral in the Imperial Navy, and his great-great-great-grandfather, Ivan Pouschine, a friend of Alexander Pushkin’s who was exiled to Siberia for his role in the Decembrist uprising against the czar in 1825. His father’s side, the Klebnikovs, was a family of military officers. Paul’s grandfather, Ross Nebolsine, had moved to New York and become a successful civil engineer and a leading figure in the Russian émigré community, providing jobs and support to the aristocrats fleeing the Bolsheviks. Life in New York was good, but the community kept to its Old World customs, too. The social scene revolved around a series of elaborate balls.

In many ways, Paul was a typical Manhattan kid. He went to Saint Bernard’s on 98th Street and spent vacations in Sagaponac. But he also eagerly learned the history of the czars. Friends and family remember the Klebnikovs’ Upper East Side apartment as something of a time capsule, with its gilded icons and lively Russian Orthodox celebrations. “One person would be playing Tchaikovsky on the piano, drinking vodka, and in the next room there were people arguing vociferously about art, and everyone was eating blini,” is how Ronald Bailey, a friend of Paul’s from his first years at Forbes, remembers Easter. Even to an outsider like Bailey, the strong Klebnikov-family desire, even duty, to one day return and help Russia was clear. “The family heritage had a very strong belief that it was possible to help Russia,” he said. “It was completely built into the belief system of the family. A lingering historical regret had come down through the generations that the grandfather had been chased out and that they would like to help the country repair itself.”

Paul, like his sister and two brothers, was taught by their grandparents to carry themselves with aristocratic bearing. As a young man, Paul took to smoking a pipe and loved nothing better than commandeering dinner parties and forcing everyone to state opinions on the weighty issues of the moment.

Paul was also obsessed with testing himself. After graduating in 1984 with a B.A. in political science from Berkeley, he took the unusual step of spending a summer at the Marines’ Officer Candidates School. He had no intention of a career in the military; he simply wished to subject himself to the physical and emotional demands of boot camp. Later, he ran the New York City marathon with two friends, all of them wearing T-shirts with the double-headed Russian eagle. One of the men, Serge Ossorguine, remembers Paul leading them through Russian military songs to keep them going (“We’re fighting for Mother Russia and the czar!”).

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