“Every time we publish an investigation that speaks truth to power, we do so thinking of Paul.” —Randall Lane, Editor, Forbes magazine
Word-playing on Mark Twain’s famous misquote, the rumors about Project Klebnikov’s demise are greatly exaggerated. I know because I started them.
Readers are forgiven if they have no clue what I’m talking about, given the passage of time and the rapid-fire information saturation of this epoch. But on July 9, 2005, the first of 16 anniversaries of the nine-bullet assassination of Forbes Russia Editor Paul Klebnikov near his Moscow office, I launched Project Klebnikov—a global media alliance with two aims. We were committed to developing new information on the murder of my friend and colleague, and to furthering some of the investigative work Paul began. Founding members of “Project K,” as it was called internally, included several media entities—Bloomberg, The Economist, Forbes and Vanity Fair—as well as some of the world’s best investigative reporters.
Klebnikov, born and raised in New York City, and deeply connected to his family’s Russian heritage, was the first American journalist contract-murdered in Russia. With his death in 2004 (at age 41), the world lost one of its foremost journalistic experts on the murky crossroads of Russian organized crime, politics, law enforcement and big business—experts that anyone following the news would agree we desperately need. As expressed in the mission statement, the tenacious Klebnikov was a walking database of information on the oligarchs, the Chechen terrorists, the Kremlin and Russian intelligence agencies, and the spread of mafia conglomerates around the globe—data that he could often retrieve from memory, data which he rarely shared with anyone.
Paul’s slaying was “a sickening punch to the gut,” said then-Secretary of State John Kerry. Echoed Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the legendary author, historian and Soviet-era dissident: “He died for the Truth, and for Russia.”
While investigative reporting started flowering under Gorbachev, by the time of Paul’s murder (not even five years into Putin’s reign), the number of honest, courageous and seasoned investigative reporters in Russia had, by most accounts, dwindled to maybe a dozen. In part for that reason, Project K ebbed and flowed through the years, but mostly ebbed. And with Putin now fully entrenched over what his predecessor Yeltsin back as 1995 called “the superstate of organized crime,” the effort to advance the ball today on who took out Paul is all-but-impossible.
He’s hardly alone. Twenty-five journalists have been contract-murdered in Russia since Putin came to power in 2000—with only three of those cases having led to partial justice (meaning: convictions of immediate killers and/or lower-level accomplices). In only one case of the 25 has a mastermind been brought to trial and punishment, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Put bluntly, this does not happen in a real state. Putin once promised to bring a “dictatorship of law” to Russia. Instead he has brought Russia the law of dictatorship.
“I don’t think the Russian government has dealt in good faith with us,” Peter Klebnikov, one of Paul’s brothers, said six years ago—the 12th anniversary of his brother’s murder. “As the years have gone by, we’ve [the Klebnikov family] gradually lost faith in the people in power’s desire to solve this crime and bring the mastermind to justice.”
[For many details about the Russian government’s on-again, off-again Klebnikov murder investigations, see “Open Letter to Russia’s Putin On Tenth Anniversary of Forbes’ Editor Paul Klebnikov’s Murder: Why Haven’t You Solved It?” It features a reconstruction from sources of a kangaroo-court trial that was sealed from the press and public—topped off by a man who prosecutors identified as the triggerman being allowed to vanish.]
“I think Forbes should write that we may not know who killed Paul and who stifled the investigation,” a former U.S. government official with knowledge of the case said in 2014, “we know what killed Paul and what has stifled the investigation: A corrupt system in which law enforcement and organized crime are inextricably intertwined… The Klebnikov murder is obviously a symptom of a very diseased system that’s rotten to its core. His killing, and, even more, the lack of progress in the investigation, says everything about contemporary Russia. It was over long ago. It’s going completely totalitarian.”
By last week’s July 9th anniversary, Project K was buried in six feet of dust. (The website looks like a sunken galleon that once sailed proudly, and the captain takes the rap for that.) And with Putin’s victory in a possibly-rigged referendum on July 1st that allows him to stay in power until 2036, I decided to pick up the proverbial shovel and bury it. I notified members—some emails (not surprisingly) unanswered, and some bouncing back as undeliverable—with the caveat that perhaps someday we’ll be back. Who knows, publishing a story about its closure might even spark a fresh tip?
My plan was also to thank the many members/partners by name (which I do below), and to keep the website up for another month—with only its homepage visible, and darkened so that Paul’s image and a just few words could be barely seen. “Sorry that Project K is being wound down with its ambitions unfulfilled,” wrote back Kenneth Cukier, a London-based senior editor at The Economist who was instrumental in getting the magazine to join in ’05. “Sadly, it all seems to have gotten even worse.”
Not long ago, I asked Paul’s brother Peter about the status of the case and he was glummer than ever. “We keep getting sporadic notifications from the Russian government that its investigation is ongoing, and sometimes we have to prod them for the notifications. But we have various indications that the case has effectively been closed down by the authorities, which is what they’ve been trying to do for years now. The culture of impunity that cost my brother his life has only worsened.”
He adds: “We’re deeply disappointed that after Putin’s promises, they’re not honoring his promises and they are not doing even basic steps to bring these people to justice. And we want to know why. They could make an effort and pursue the shooters, at the very least. Their whereabouts are known, and they haven’t done so.”
Putin’s promises were made in a meeting with the family at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York in 2005. He told them he himself would personally oversee the murder case, that a fugitive Chechen warlord named Khozh-Akhmed Nukhaev was the mastermind, and that he would be captured. But Russia’s President never delivered (and some reports said Nukhaev was killed months before Paul was). Putin also told the family that journalists in Russia should be able to work without fear of violence. When Paul’s widow, Musa—not missing a beat—asked if he would say that publicly, Russia’s president paused for a long time before saying that he would “take that under consideration.”
While no serious Russian journalist thinks Putin orders up the murders of reporters like scoops of pistachio ice cream (his favorite treat), it’s indisputable that he has created and continues to nurse a system that allows them to happen.
Seeking some quotes for my Project K obituary about the depressing state of media freedom and unsolved murders, last week I rang up two of Russia’s best and bravest investigative reporters—Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov. (It was only afterward that I sheepishly told them Project K was shutting down.) But hours later I started marinating on something they both had said that offers a glimmer of hope: The emergence of small, independent “teams” of Russian reporters who are now chipping away at corruption in Russia by publishing exposés on the Internet.
“I remember Irina and I were sitting at a conference in 2012 trying to count how many investigative journalists were left in Moscow, and it was like maybe ten,” recalls Soldatov. “About two guys at Forbes, maybe five at Novaya Gazeta, and three at Vedomosti, that’s it. Five years ago it was still horrible. Now there are all these teams, this new generation of political journalists, so I’m optimistic. Small but important media are having a really big impact on what’s happening here.”
Soldatov and Borogan estimate that there are at least a half-dozen teams, each comprising upwards of ten reporters, conducting Russia-related probes from their bases in Moscow, the Baltics, and elsewhere. “In terms of investigations, it’s really flourishing in Russia,” says Borogan. “They don’t describe themselves as mass media, so they don’t need a license [which the government requires for mass media outlets], they publish their results online, people know them, and they are a trusted source.”
The teams are focused largely on political corruption, but is there now a possibility they can solve the Klebnikov case, or the cases of many other murdered reporters, while Putin is in power? “No, I don’t think so, I don’t see any chance for that,” says Soldatov. I think the problem is not only about Putin but about the people he has been surrounded by. They are from the security services, and they tend to see the world in terms of ‘threats.’ And since 1999 they always believed that journalists are some sort of threat to political stability. The problem is, if you do that for many years, finally everybody got the message and nobody is interested to find out what actually happened.”
Nor is Borogan sanguine on the subject. “Really we don’t believe that any crime against journalists could be investigated properly by Russian security services or law enforcement agencies,” she says, “because the scheme they adopted 15 years ago look like this: They start an investigation, they produce a lot of information in the first stage, and they arrest some people who very often are executors, killers, or people who help them, and then after one, two or three years, the public is just not interested in results and forget what’s going on. The investigators usually stop really investigating the case and they never try to find the masterminds.” [That sounds like the Klebnikov case as a pre-written script.]
Nonetheless, while the new generation of investigative reporters are unable to break ground on those cases, Soldatov feels that eventually the teams may be able to start chipping away at it—discovering a new crumb or clue here and there. So I decided to keep Project K alive for now. Moreover, Soldatov and Borogan have joined it, and their bios are up at the site.
Project Klebnikov’s birth was inspired by what is probably the most impressive example of collective journalism in American history: the “Arizona Project.” In 1976, a Phoenix-based investigative reporter named Don Bolles was dynamited to death in his car. Journalists from dozens of news outlets descended on the city, joining hands (and pens) to pick up where Bolles had left off in his probes of organized crime and dirty politicians. Led by Newsday’s investigative legend, Bob Greene, the “Desert Rats,” (as they were dubbed) created a 23-part series that was proposed for a special Pulitzer, and led to major reforms in the state. The project was “the finest hour in American journalism,” concluded the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
Before he died in 2008, Greene joined Project K as a partner/advisor. We were never under illusions that our alliance could look anything like the Arizona Project. [See “Project K Meets Project A”] For one thing, the Arizona venture was expensive, while the Klebnikov initiative neither sought nor received any funding. Moreover, Phoenix is not Moscow, and the investigative spirit of the 1970s that created Project A was but a faint memory inside newsrooms.
Nonetheless, Greene laid out the importance of what we were attempting to do. “Nothing is insurmountable,” he said. “Put the word out to the people on whom you’re working: ‘Your corrupt facet of the Russian society represents the kind of people who killed Klebnikov. We will continue to broadcast his work and expand it and multiply it and we don’t care what crooks fall into our net. And we won’t let up until those in your society who think it’s okay to kill a reporter get the message loud and clear: Never again! You tried to stop his work and that’s why we’re here.’ That’s what we did in Arizona.”
Greene added that the Desert Rats were trying to put enormous pressure on corrupt aspects of Arizona society with two thoughts in mind: “First, we wanted to deliver an object lesson that you don’t fuck around with the lives of reporters, because everyone with dirty hands will suffer—including the mob. If you kill a reporter, the work will multiply. In this way, the project was also an insurance policy for other investigative reporters. Second, if all this pressure is put on, maybe something will pop up out of it—some major revelation or reform.”
Groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists have never had the resources to do deep drilling into the murders of reporters. CPJ typically gathers information from various sources on the front lines in the countries where the killings happen, and fires off letters to those country’s leaders demanding full justice in the cases. With all due respect to CPJ, that has long struck me as too ‘20th century.’ In 2010, I was invited to give an update on Project K and Paul’s murder case at a CPJ “Summit on Solving Journalists’ Murders.” I tossed out an idea that came to us from a government investigator who felt there was “only one sure way” to reduce the numbers of contract murders.
His idea was this: The investigative reporter on a potentially dangerous project must make it widely known that his/her files and information have been shared with several other people, and that murder won’t stop the story. How could such a thing be communicated, and without letting competitors know what you’re working on? I proposed to the group that perhaps a sub-unit of CPJ could provide member-reporters with a Good-Housekeeping-type seal that they would display on their websites and email signatures. Over time, the meaning of such a seal would become known to the public. The seal would mean that the reporter places key notes/materials on certain projects into a safe, secure, encrypted place that is ultimately accessible by other reporters if he/she is removed from the picture.
After all, one of the key reasons that reporters are murdered is not for revenge, but because the masterminds fear what the reporter will be publishing/airing in the future. With revenge, the risks outweigh the benefits for killers, while preventing future harm to their financial or political activities is often what matters most.
Tragically, investigative reporters (especially someone like Klebnikov) habitually keep what they are doing too close to the vest. Even their editors are often unaware of what they are uncovering or who they are meeting. If a potential killer could be made aware that killing a reporter will not solve their problem—in that it won’t prevent other reporters from picking up the torch—wouldn’t that make the potential killer think twice? There is also safety in numbers: If hundreds of investigative reporters carry ‘the seal,’ it couldn’t be said they are just daring potential killers to act.
(As I recall, the idea was met with total silence in the CPJ room—so either it was an scheme ahead of its time, or one that was, and perhaps remains, dumb or undoable.)
Project K once narrowed the field of masterminds to five candidates. They included the corrupt oligarch Boris Berezovsky (found hanging in 2013, likely suicide), who once sued Paul and Forbes for libel over a 1996 exposé slugged “The Godfather of the Kremlin?” The fearless journalist struck back with a book in 2000—same title, minus the question mark. (The suit was withdrawn in 2003 after Forbes issued a clarification.) “I have testimony that Berezovsky put a contract out on Klebnikov—from a person to whom Berezovsky spoke,” the chief Russian case investigator, Petros Garibyan, told me in 2014. “I have a lot of stuff.” But there’s not been a word from him since.
Another suspect: Nukhaev, the Chechen fugitive who Putin had fingered, and who Paul had also written a book about. Yet another candidate: Razman Kadyrov, the much-feared and violent ruler of the Chechen Republic, who for years has said that Putin should be Russia’s President-for-Life (and who recently got his wish). He strongly denies involvement with Paul’s murder. At the time of his death, Paul was apparently working on a third book that would financially link Berezovsky to Nukhaev and other Chechen warlords.
Early on, we realized we’d need a parallel team of Russian reporters in order to make any real progress. At an event in New York in 2005 that honored her, Russian-American journalist Anna Politkovskaya—a fierce critic of the Kremlin’s tactics in breakaway Chechnya— said she was willing to assist. But she told me she could count on the fingers of one hand the number of her fellow Russian investigative reporters who we could trust and who wouldn’t be afraid to join. A year later she was dead—a Makarov pistol left beside her body in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building. (Some links have been found between the Politkovskaya and Klebnikov killings. Moreover, a source close to the Russian government’s investigation of Paul’s murder believes that progress could be made on the case inside Chechnya. But that’s not a place right now for reporters today to stick out their necks.)
The U.S. government has at times been helpful. We once learned that in 2005—within days of Russia declaring that Nukhaev was the mastermind—the U.S. convened a secret inter-agency group to monitor the progress of the Russian investigation. The State Department-led unit included the CIA, FBI, Justice, and the National Security Council. Among other things, they explored whether there was any basis for opening a parallel U.S. criminal investigation of Paul’s murder as a “terrorist act,” given that Putin had publicly labeled Nukhaev a terrorist. But that road was never taken, and it’s not unreasonable to conclude that the Bush Administration simply did not want to antagonize the Kremlin and risk harming U.S.-Russia relations for the sake of one dead American journalist.
As for the FBI, in 2009, after five years of constantly offering its help, Russia finally permitted its agents to join the case. But it was largely for show, as the Bureau was kept at a distance. In the Obama Administrations, nothing notable was done, and the inter-agency task forces had long ceased to exist.
And Trump? To his credit, his State Dept. in 2018 and 2019 continued the annual tradition of honoring Paul with brief press releases on the July anniversaries of his murder. (No statement was issued last week; reason unknown.) “Mr. Klebnikov was a resounding voice of conscience in the fight against corruption,” noted last year’s statement by the U.S. Embassy in Russia. His murder “dealt a serious blow to investigative journalism in Russia. It is deeply disappointing that neither the perpetrators nor those who might have ordered his killing have been brought to justice….The United States honors Paul Klebnikov’s memory by calling on the government of Russia to bring an end to the culture of impunity for violence against journalists, and to live up to its commitments to respect fundamental freedoms of expression in accordance with international law.”
Sounds good. Unfortunately, Trump’s relentless attacks on American mainstream media—“fake news… corrupt…the enemy of the people”—make it hard for his Administration to be taken seriously in its prior statements about Klebnikov. For decades, one of the activities of U.S. embassies in developing countries was to actively promote the importance of a courageous, independent press by holding up America’s system as the shining example. Trump’s multi-year blitzkrieg against major U.S. media outlets sanctions the bullying (or worse) of investigative reporters in authoritarian countries. When things go wrong in Russia, says Soldatov, “the public needs to have some explanation, so the government blames the journalists—‘they are corrupt, they are puppets, they undermine out political stability.’” Just like Trump? “It’s exactly the same thing.”
Of course, the buck stops with Russian citizens, who, generally speaking, are not insisting that the unsolved cases be solved and the impunity cease. My personal view has long been that people get the governments they deserve–from ancient Romans to modern Americans, from Palestinians to the Rohingya, from Germany under Hitler, Brits under Churchill, or anyone else. According to a 2011 survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, only three in ten Russians chose democracy over having a leader with a strong hand. “As I’ve seen, just my feeling and I can’t prove it statistically,” says Borogan, “is that Russians prefer prosperity to human rights and freedom of the press. It’s not about stability or a strong state. Prosperity is much more important for them.”
Until and unless Russian citizens demand real action, when it comes to their murdered colleagues, investigative reporters in the country can’t move the dial much. “It’s not easy to investigate a [murder] case when you don’t have information from real investigators,” she says. “As a journalist I can’t have any access to a lot of things. I can’t investigate it properly without the help of the [law enforcement and secret service] agencies.”
Hark! There is a kernel of a new development, maybe. In 2017, Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office announced that it had asked Ukrainian authorities to detain and extradite a Chechen man named Magomed Dukuzov who may have played a role in Paul’s murder. Indeed, he was one of the initial suspects in the case (playing a very minor role), but disappeared in 2004 before he could be arrested and has been on Interpol’s “wanted list” ever since.
Magomed is the brother of Kazbek Dukuzov, who Russian prosecutors long ago tagged as Paul’s triggerman. However, at one stage of the case (read: charade), Kazbek was allowed to disappear and wound up in the UAE, where he was convicted and imprisoned for unrelated crimes. Some reports have him in Chechnya today, moving about freely.
As for brother Magomed, Ukraine’s government in 2019 agreed to extradite him to Russia, but not before being tried by its own prosecutors—on charges that are unclear but may include involvement with a criminal group that extorts businesses and/or associating with the ISIS terror group. On behalf of Forbes and Project K, a Kiev-based investigative reporter reached out to that country’s General Prosecutor’s Office for any available status update, and on Friday a GPO spokesperson confirmed that the transfer of Magomed to Russia “is postponed until a final decision in [Ukraine] criminal proceedings is made, and the sentence is served on the basis of a court sentence or release from punishment. Currently, criminal proceedings are ongoing in the trial [or judicial examination] in connection with which it is not possible to determine the date of the actual transfer.”
Any specifics about the alleged crimes? “The prosecutor has provided all the information that is possible.”
So we’ll grasp on to that straw for now, and keep Project K’s flag sailing, nibbling at whatever iotas may come our way—while continuing to salute the brave reporters on Russian soil who are doing the hard and dangerous work on all kinds of investigative projects there. Sadly, for the 16th anniversary of Paul’s murder five days ago, Forbes could find only two news outlets that even noted it: The today-in-history sections at the North Texas e-News, as well as KLFD Radio of Litchfield, Minnesota.
“It’s been such a long time since there has been useful activity on the project that I’ve almost forgotten how to spell Klebnikov,” wrote Project K member Knut Royce, one of the world’s foremost investigative reporters for a half century, in an email to me last week. “But I can understand why you want to close us down. I really wish we could nail all those involved in the murder (I suspect it’s a lot more than one), but even Don Quixote came to an end. Let me know if you want to rekindle our imagination.”
Consider it rekindled.
A nod to the 2005 founding members of Project K:
Media outlet members: Bloomberg [Matt Winkler; John McCorry; Charles Glasser]; The Economist [Kenn Cukier; Andrew Miller]; Forbes [Steve Forbes; Bill Baldwin]; Vanity Fair [Graydon Carter; Doug Stumpf]
Investigative reporters, editors and producers: Scott Armstrong, Rich Bonin; Will Bourne; Allan Frank; Sasha Gurevich; Mike Isikoff; Andrew Meier; Knut Royce; Nick Stein; John Sweeney; Gary Weiss
Partners/advisors: Gotham Media Ventures [Gordon Platt]; Bob Greene (d. 2008); Dan Honigman; JohnCompanies; Olga Kalinina; Dan Keeler; Chuck Lewis; Charles Marvin; Anne Mintz; NYU’s Business and Economic Reporting Program [Steve Solomon]; Rostov State University School of Philogy and Journalism (Russia); Rebecca Sanhueza; Anastasia Serdyukova; Stern & Co. [Dick Stern]