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The Assassination of a Dream

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To some of Klebnikov’s acquaintances in Moscow, there were signs that he wasn’t entirely comfortable. On June 20, freelance journalist Alyona Dushka visited him at home to discuss turning his doctoral thesis on Stolypin into a book. They sat in the kitchen of his home, a large, modestly renovated apartment in a Stalin-era tower overlooking the Moskva River. While she sipped tea and Klebnikov smoked his pipe, they discussed the success of Forbes. With his magazine turning out so well, she asked, shouldn’t he move his family to Russia? “I don’t know if it is safe for my family,” he told her. There was a pause, and then she changed the subject. “I was afraid of asking what he meant,” she remembers.

The next day, Klebnikov spoke to a crowd of 150 at a charity fund-raiser at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. He made a speech about the necessity of restoring old village churches to help rebuild the social life in Russia’s countryside. Elisabeth Apraxine, a White Russian descendant from Belgium, remembers him as cheerful, articulate, and anything but nervous.

At the Pushkin Café, housed in a new building reconstructed to look like it had in czarist times, Sunday Times of London correspondent Mark Franchetti met Paul and Musa, who was in town visiting, for dinner on July 5, four days before Paul’s murder. Franchetti spent much of the dinner arguing with Paul’s upbeat assessment of Russia. “The only thing we had 100 percent agreement on,” Franchetti said, was trying to convince Musa that Russia had become a safe place. “We were trying to reassure his wife that people now resort to courts rather than to contract killers.” Paul had stopped using a bodyguard, because, as Musa later told Franchetti, he thought it seemed “over-the-top.”

During their final days together, Musa and Paul walked through the narrow streets of historic Moscow, discussing ways they could help save Moscow’s architectural heritage from developers. After dropping Musa off at the airport on Wednesday, Paul began work on the next issue of Forbes, which was to feature the 50 most highly paid Russian sports stars.

Two days later, he was dead.

Interior ministry investigators arrived at the Forbes office first. They performed a quick search through Klebnikov’s computer and then removed it, along with all of his files and interview tapes. His apartment was also searched. The day after the murder, police reported that they found the Lada, abandoned in a courtyard a few kilometers from the scene of the murder.

Then the investigation lapsed into months of silence. Klebnikov’s family, with the help of friends in the Russian-American community, has been trying to keep the pressure on the Russian government, but to little avail. There is no shortage of senseless violence in Russia. The war in Chechnya, together with terrorist attacks like the one in Beslan, easily push the death of one enterprising American reporter off the news pages. His death is also far from unique. About 40 journalists have been killed since the Soviet Union collapsed, including about a dozen since Putin came to power.

Still, Russian news wires came alive September 28 with dramatic news. PAUL KLEBNIKOV’S MURDER SOLVED, the Interfax headline shouted. Two Chechens had been arrested in the course of a kidnapping investigation, the article reported, and Moscow police chief Vladimir Pronin claimed a pistol found in their possession had likely been the Klebnikov murder weapon. The brief announcement left a trail of unanswered questions—what kidnapping? Why Chechens?—but Police Chief Pronin projected an air of total certainty. Those following the case, like Forbes Russia publisher Bershidsky, expressed cautious hope that investigators were onto a hot lead.

Only hours later, the story began to unravel. The office of the Russian General Prosecutor issued a blanket condemnation of Pronin for speaking out of line. Journalists investigating the kidnapping angle found that the kidnap victim, a businessman, had apparently been held not by the Chechens but by officers of the FSB, the successor to the KGB. Instead of facts about Klebnikov, the following days spilled the ugly guts of a Moscow real-estate deal gone bad. The Chechens may have been just friends trying to negotiate the businessman’s release. And the connection between the Chechens and Klebnikov? Ballistic tests proved that none of the weapons found were used in the Klebnikov murder, the newspaper Gazeta reported.

While the General Prosecutor’s office, which maintains official control of the investigation, relapsed into silence, Pronin knew he had some explaining to do. So that’s what he did: On Friday, October 1, his spokesman issued a statement denying that Pronin had ever said anything about Klebnikov in the first place.

That left observers guessing at the true state of the investigation. “I don’t think there is any progress, which is why they’re saying such stupid things,” said Oleg Panfilov, the president of the the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a Russian advocacy group. “They either have no idea, which seems likely, or they may know everything and are trying to distract people from their central theory.”

I visited the Forbes Russia offices a few weeks after Klebnikov’s murder to speak with Maxim Kashulinsky, the managing editor. Klebnikov’s desk had already been cleared off, and the only sign of the former editor was a small memorial on a side table by the office entrance, which consisted of a framed portrait of Klebnikov, a bouquet of wilting carnations, and a candle in a glass jar. At the end of our conversation, I asked him whether Klebnikov’s murder meant anything for Russia. He shook his head, and then, as if embarrassed that a simple gesture could sum up Klebnikov’s legacy, he addressed the frustrating opacity of Russian public life. “The murder will mean a lot for Russia,” he said, “if they solve it.” He emphasized the if.

That is a painful epitaph for a Russia optimist. “If Paul were alive today,” said Serge Ossorguine, “he would be very disheartened by his murder.”


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