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The Assassination of a Dream


By 2000, Klebnikov’s reporting for Forbes began to reflect his growing confidence that Putin’s tough love—which included bullying people like Berezovsky—was just what Russia needed. Describing Putin’s reign as a fresh “Act II” to Yeltsin’s sloppy and corrupt “Act I” in an October 2001 Forbes article, Klebnikov outlined his renewed optimism for Russia. “Corruption, while still rife, is receding,” he writes. “Though Russia remains a dangerous place for investors, some of its corporations have finally decided that it is in their best interest to respect the rights of minority shareholders.”

If Klebnikov was impressed by the corporate order that Putin managed to impose, he also understood that the plundering he had witnessed was by no means finished. Russia remained the biggest storehouse of raw materials in a world of ever-increasing demand, and with the price of oil soaring after 9/11, the government was flush, creating ever more opportunities for graft, corruption, and outright theft. It was an incredible boom time, and when the chance to edit Forbes Russia came along, Klebnikov saw it as his front-row seat.

Forbes Russia is owned by the German publishing company Axel Springer, which, eager to enter the Russian magazine market, negotiated the rights to the Russian editions of both Forbes and Newsweek. The market has been booming for years, and dozens of licensed foreign titles have begun to crowd the newsstand rack. Although there are already many Russian business magazines, there were no other licensed editions of international ones; Axel Springer hoped that Klebnikov would help Forbes Russia set a new standard for independent business journalism.

Despite his sometimes militant idealism, Klebnikov did not believe in austerity, either in his own life or in his magazine. He took pride in Forbes’s coverage of exotic travel and expensive French restaurants, believing these to be the just rewards of an honest business community. “You remind me of me in the early nineties,” Boris Jordan told Klebnikov at a dinner about two weeks before his death. “I came here with such a romantic view of Russia. I’m still an optimist, but more focused on the realities.” Jordan remembers Klebnikov answering, “I’m tired of all the negative stuff being written about Russia. I want to do more of the positive stuff.”

“We were trying to reassure his wife that people now resort to courts rather than to contract killers,” says a friend who had dinner with them just days before Paul was killed. Paul had stopped using a bodyguard. He thought it seemed “over-the-top.”

Klebnikov very much wanted his magazine to be a commercial success, and worked hard to publicize it. On April 22, a day once held holy for being Lenin’s birthday, Klebnikov invited more than 300 people to the luxurious Hotel Baltschug Kempinski, near the Kremlin, to drink champagne and celebrate the magazine’s launch. “The fact that the Russian market is ready for this kind of publication,” Klebnikov wrote in the magazine he was handing out at the party, “is one of the signs that Russian business is emerging to a new, more civilized stage of development.”

By all accounts, preparing for the magazine’s launch and overseeing the magazine’s staff of twenty left Klebnikov little spare time. Although he shared an office with two editors in Moscow for months, neither of them really came to know Klebnikov personally, and they never saw him in social settings. “He had no other passions but his work,” said Kirill Vishnepolsky, a deputy editor. It is unclear whether Klebnikov was doing any investigative reporting. Forbes Russia publisher Leonid Bershidsky insists that Klebnikov was too busy editing the magazine to work as a reporter. But friends, including James Michaels, Klebnikov’s longtime editor in New York, doubt that Klebnikov was solely concentrating on being an editor. “I’m sure he was working on several things,” said Michaels. “It wouldn’t be Paul if he wasn’t.”

Present-day Moscow is a muckraker’s fantasyland. Potential conspiracies are everywhere. When the Manezh, a historic building located just outside the Kremlin walls, burned down in March, many suspected that it had been done intentionally, to clear the site for development. A few articles were published suggesting arson, and then the story vanished. Shortly after Leonid Reiman became the minister of Communications, cellular-phone companies competitive with MegaFon, which was partially owned by Reiman’s former company, suddenly began having problems with their licenses. While there has been no proof that either of these cases involved illegal activity, both have been mentioned as possible stories that Klebnikov was pursuing. Neither would seem to have put him in a life-threatening situation, but you can never be sure who’s behind what in Russia.

In one of its first issues, Forbes Russia had published a list of the richest Russians, which some observers speculate could have inspired a publicity-shy billionaire to seek revenge. But the Russian magazine Finans had published a very similar list just two months earlier, containing many of the same names; the Forbes list contained little new information. And experienced Russia observers contend that contract killings are usually more pragmatic than that, anyway. “Russian businessmen don’t kill for vengeance,” Venediktov said. “They kill to stop information.”

According to one source, Klebnikov received a file in early July that contained extremely sensitive information. He called several people for advice, describing it as “the worst thing” he had ever seen—quite a statement from someone who had spent years exploring the darkest recesses of Russian crime. What was contained in that file, or what happened to it, is unclear. The fact that he received it just days before his murder makes a link seem plausible. And yet, if this is true, why, then, did he not retain a bodyguard, as he had done in the past, and why did he not mention the file to Fishman, the Newsweek reporter, after he’d been shot? The Klebnikov family said they have no knowledge of any such file.

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