The Russian journalist who faked his own death just gave Putin more ammo — not less

The Russian journalist who faked his own death just gave Putin more ammo — not less
© Getty Images

The sleuths, a hastily organized team of amateur detectives, jumped into action even as the puddles of blood were still wet on the hallway floor. A friend had been murdered and — the implicit purpose of the assassination — the very life they lived had been threatened. Worse, it was all too familiar: Seven journalists, according to the grim body count, had been killed in Ukraine over the last four years. In these savage times, speaking truth to power had become a dangerous line of work.

Arkady was just killed” — that was the first chilling alert sent last week to members of a Facebook Messenger group for reporters in Ukraine. The details, even a macabre photo, swiftly followed: Arkady Babchenko, 41, an exiled Russian journalist who had been relentless in his criticism of the Kremlin, was shot dead as he returned to his apartment. Lying face down, a tattoo of bullet holes in his back, he’d been found by his wife; as an ambulance rushed him to the hospital, he died.

ADVERTISEMENT

This time, the helpless mourning that followed previous attacks was pushed aside. Enough was suddenly too much! In the aftermath of Babchenko’s death, a decision was made not to rely on the police; they would take it upon themselves to track down whoever was responsible.

 

The “Babchenko URGENT group,” as the 20 or so reporters called themselves, fanned out. Using Google maps, they divided the Kiev neighborhood surrounding Babchenko’s apartment into color-coded quadrants. They knocked on doors; security-camera footage was retrieved; taxi drivers in the area were contacted.

As three Babchenko URGENT team members interviewed a resident of the apartment building where the killing took place, a seemingly impossible message went out on Facebook: “Arkady lives!”

The terse message was as bewildering, cryptic and dramatic as the one — “Recalled to life” — that a fictive horseman delivered on a foggy night in Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities.”

Yet, this recall-to-life was not the stuff of novels. Just 20 hours after the report of his death, at a crowded press conference ostensibly called by Ukrainian police to document the investigation’s progress, a hulking Arkady Babchenko — living, breathing, albeit a bit sheepishly — walked in front of cameras.

There were gasps. Then there was applause. And as the almost palpable shock wore off, there was among the many reeling journalists — some in the room, some still on the streets of Kiev, others in newsroom across the world — the distinct, unnerving feeling that they had been conned. Even betrayed.

Pig’s blood, Babchenko glibly explained; the bullets holes in his shirt was the handiwork of a makeup artist. But the real credit, he went on, was owed to the Ukrainian secret service (SBU). The SBU wrote and directed the entire elaborate plot; more than a month had been spent in its planning. And he went along willingly, he confided to colleagues; he complacently posed face-down as the bullet-riddled corpse, then watched with fascination on a television in the morgue as he starred in the worldwide story of his death.

I was thinking about my survival,” Babchenko conceded bluntly. He didn’t worry “too much about professional ethics.” His decision was pragmatic: he’d cooperate with the SBU to catch his assassins.  

In the days that followed, as Babchenko’s complicity and unwavering certainty were challenged, he snapped back with ferocity. He was, after all, the same reporter who shed no tears for the victims of the Kemerovo shopping center fire earlier this year: “If the only way to force your empire-loving Russia to think about the value of human life,” he had written on Facebook, “is through fire and death, well, burn, burn.” Rather than giving into any hand-wringing introspection, Babchenko shrugged off criticism that “people (will) stop believing the media. These people saved my life.”

I can see his point.

It’s easy for me, sitting at my desk on my bucolic hilltop in Connecticut, to pontificate about “journalistic integrity.” I’m not in the line of fire; I don’t hold my breath whenever I turn the key to start my car.

Still, I’m not buying into what went down.

For one thing, all my instincts are honing in on the sloppiness, if not the sheer implausibility, of the plot the SBU maintains it uncovered. Only one piece of evidence proved that the Russian foreign intelligence service, the FSB, pulled the strings: The alleged hitman was provided with a 25-year-old internal passport photo of Babchenko. Therefore, the SBU deduced, only the Russian security service could access government files. But if the FSB was truly behind this operation, couldn’t its operatives have pulled a more recent official photo? Or lifted one off the internet?

Then there’s the bumbling double-chinned middle-man, Borys Herman, who Ukrainian authorities claim paid $15,000 to a still-unidentified hitman. Herman, however, insisted in court, “We knew perfectly well that there would be no killing.” Huh?

But maybe I’m being unfair, even callous. Perhaps, despite the amateurishness of the tradecraft, it was a genuine FSB hit. If that was indeed the case, I still don’t understand how Babchenko’s playing dead for a mere 20 hours changes anything. Now that he has been so publicly recalled to life, he’s in the same predicament as when he started.

Ultimately, though, there is something else: The consequences are profoundly dangerous at a time when “fake news!” is the battle cry in an all-out war against a free press.

Babchenko’s collusion is fundamentally wrong. It’s the business of journalists to report on the secret intelligence services, not to work hand-in-hand with them. It’s our job to police the spies, not scheme with them.

An even more disconcerting consequence of Babchenko’s faked death is how it has reinforced the Kremlin’s hand; it is the ace-up-the-sleeve that can be thrown on the table whenever they need to win a pot. Moscow’s operational strategy has been to act aggressively and then deny, deny, and deny again. It was a defense that grew increasingly shaky under the weight of all the accumulated evidence. But now the Babchenko affair — a patently false murder blamed on the Russians — has given a reinvigorated plausibility to future denials. Next time, the Russians can, literally, get away with murder.

I’m glad Babchenko is alive and well. At the same time, it is no contradiction to feel that things are best served when reporters chase after Pulitzers, not Oscars.

Howard Blum is a writer and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, a former reporter for The Village Voice and The New York Times, and the best-selling author of more than a dozen nonfiction books. His most recent is “In the Enemy’s House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies” (HarperCollins).