After Berkeley, Klebnikov pressed on with his studies, going to the London School of Economics, where he wrote his Russian-history dissertation on Pyotr Stolypin, a controversial figure who served as a minister under the last czar. Klebnikov worshipped Stolypin, often boring his friends with extended monologues about the minister’s early efforts at privatization. “He was fascinated by Stolypin,” recalls Tania Pouschine, a New York Russian-American formerly related to Klebnikov by marriage, “because Stolypin was one individual whose sheer competence might have changed Russian history if he had been allowed to live. He admired him on a personal level to a huge extent. To Paul, it was an example of the best Russia could produce.”
That Stolypin also led a violent suppression of political dissent, executing so many Russians that the hangman’s noose became known as a “Stolypin necktie,” did not, apparently, dampen Klebnikov’s enthusiasm.
After finishing his dissertation, Klebnikov returned to New York and found work as a researcher at Forbes. By the early nineties, he was taking regular trips to Russia on assignment for the magazine. Klebnikov’s optimism about Russia rarely wavered, but his reporting from those years chronicles his horror at what was unfolding there, the outright thievery and corruption that accompanied the transition to capitalism. “For the Russian people, the Yeltsin era was the biggest disaster,” he later wrote, “since the Nazi invasion of 1941.” Nonetheless, he was convinced he could help by exposing the insider deals and giveaways. “He had this messianic belief that he was going to be part of the transition of Russia from a gangster country to a civilized country,” said William Baldwin, one of his editors.
In 1991, he married Musa Train, whom he had known since childhood (they have the same godfather). He married well, and certainly wealthy: Musa’s father, John Train, was a major Wall Street banker. Musa and Paul moved into an apartment on the Upper West Side. At a housewarming party there, guests discussed the day’s news—Boris Yeltsin had climbed onto a tank and defied the putsch against Gorbachev—and they all toasted the occasion with vodka shots.
Eventually, Paul and Musa had three children together. Paul could have led a very comfortable life in New York, but he was never content with just that. His reporting trips to Russia became more frequent. Finally, given the chance to be the founding editor of Forbes Russia, he moved there full-time at the end of 2003, leaving his wife and family in New York. Musa didn’t want to move to Russia—“For her, going to Russia was like going to the moon to live,” said the financier Boris Jordan, a family friend—so Klebnikov had agreed to serve as editor for only a year. In the meantime, he returned to New York for a week out of every month.
As Musa wrote in an article published in the International Herald Tribune after his death, “Throughout our marriage, Russia was the other woman.”
In spite of their long-cherished dream, relatively few of the diaspora Russians ever moved back. Most of those who did went for financial gain, like Jordan, who left Wall Street in the early nineties to take advantage of what he saw as the investment bonanza of a lifetime. Jordan finagled his way into virtually every big attempt to reform the Russian economy. He helped conceive the privatization program together with Anatoly Chubais, the controversial loans-for shares program with Vladimir Potanin, and Putin’s takeover of the independent television channel NTV.
These are precisely the sort of deals that might have attracted the interest of a crusading young reporter, but Klebnikov always went easy on his friend Jordan, saving his vitriol for other self-styled Russian capitalists.
In the years leading up to his move to Moscow, Klebnikov took a particularly hard line on the car-dealer magnate Boris Berezovsky, culminating in a December 1996 Forbes cover article headlined “Godfather of the Kremlin?” (which he later turned into a book). Although the original article was published without a byline, the identity of the author was no secret. Among other things, the story suggested Berezovsky’s complicity in murder and other strong-arm tactics. Klebnikov subsequently received death threats and decided to take a break from reporting about Russia. He and his family lived in Paris, where Klebnikov wrote several articles on other topics. Meanwhile, Berezovsky sued Forbes, and Klebnikov spent much of the coming years fighting the case, which was settled in 2003, with both sides claiming victory (the magazine had to back down from the murder implications). Klebnikov eventually resumed his work in Russia, but when he went there, he began traveling with a bodyguard.
Klebnikov’s journalism wasn’t always held in the highest regard by his peers. The New York Times published a positive review of Godfather of the Kremlin, but some Russian journalists said Klebnikov compromised himself by relying too heavily on ex-KGB sources. The case that Klebnikov assembled against Berezovsky is widely assumed to have been provided in large part by Aleksandr Korzhakov, the head of security for Boris Yeltsin; Korzhakov’s first deputy, Valery Streletsky, published the Russian edition of Klebnikov’s book. “When you use information given to you by the special services, you become their hostage,” said Alexei Venediktov, a popular radio journalist. Investigative reporter Yevgenia Albats, who has also written about Berezovsky, considers Klebnikov’s book little more than a “collection of gossip.”