Murder in the Time of Putin
by Jeremy Putley
Original to La Russophobe
Murder is the most distinguishing aspect of Vladimir Putin’s time in high office. Murders carried out by agents of the government, by government-sponsored members of the siloviki, above all by the Russian military in Chechnya, and by Putin’s protégé Ramzan Kadyrov as Chechnya’s ruler, will surely come to be recognised by historians of the era as the feature which most distinguishes the leadership of Vladimir Putin from his predecessors. Murder has not been so common an occurrence in Russia since the days of Joseph Stalin. Murders certainly became more frequent during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin than they had been, but beginning with the assassination of Galina Starovoitova by agents of the Russian security services in 1998, when Putin was head of the KGB, the frequency of murder has been on the increase, while endemic corruption continues unchecked.
Putin’s rule began in blood. The 1999 apartment building bomb explosions in Moscow and other cities killed more than 300. These murders, carried out to provide a spurious justification for prime minister Putin’s war in Chechnya, are believed with good reason by historians to have been the work of agents of the Russian FSB – particularly because they were never properly investigated.
Murder victims since 1999 must be counted to include the massive number of citizens of Chechnya, both Russian and Chechen, who were murdered by the armed forces of the Russian Federation sent to Chechnya by Putin during the Second Chechnya War. The atrocities in Chechnya are well documented, and serious students of the subject are able to access an archive of more than 56,000 press reports and articles accumulated at Norbert Strade’s Chechnya List as well as several worthwhile books. Murders attributed to the “authorities” continue to be a very frequent occurrence in the Caucasus region.
One remembers without difficulty particularly the murdered heroine Anna Politkovskaya; politicians and journalists Sergei Yushenkov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Paul Klebnikov; and the dissident Alexander Litvinenko, murdered in London with Russian polonium. Less well known, but of interest as cases of other Russian murders abroad, the Chechen Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was murdered in 2004 in Qatar by Russian government agents; the Chechen Islam Dzhanibekov, described as a former separatist commander, was murdered in December 2008 in Istanbul; the Chechen refugee Umar Israilov was murdered on 13 January 2009 in Vienna, after he had made an application to the European Court of Human Rights in which he accused Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov of being personally involved in serious human rights violations, including torture.
And now, just a few days ago, we read that “on January 19, 2009, Russian human rights attorney Stanislav Markelov was shot in the back of the head with a silenced pistol as he left a press conference at which he announced his intention to sue the Russian government for its early release of the Col. Yuri Budanov, who murdered his 18-year-old client in Chechnya five years earlier. Also shot and killed was Anastasia Barburova, a young journalism student who was working for Novaya Gazeta and who had studied under Anna Politkovskaya, reporting on the Budanov proceedings.”
When I read the news that the rapist and murderer Colonel Yuri Budanov, Hero of Russia, formerly commander of a tank regiment in the brutal Second Chechnya War, was to be released in January, a year and a half early, I jokingly told friends that, if they should receive news of my assassination, they should not overlook a possible Russian trace arising out of the Budanov affair. Admittedly my influence in securing the rapist-murderer and Hero of Russia a much-deserved term of imprisonment could only have been minor at best. I had engaged in a brief correspondence with the ambassador in London, Grigory Karasin, who later became (and still is) deputy foreign minister in the regime of Vladimir Putin. The ambassador had written a letter to the Daily Telegraph, complaining of “blasphemy” in a story in that paper about the wartime record of the rapes committed in Berlin by the Russian army, and I had written to him saying that a failure to punish the rapist-murderer and HoR would stand as confirmation to the world that rape is still condoned by the Russian military. I would like to think that the ambassador reported to his minister that if Budanov was let off scot-free, as then seemed highly likely, considering that the rapist-murderer and HoR was sympathetically admired by such luminaries as defence minister Sergei Ivanov, it would not be well-received by British public opinion.
In passing I might add that Russian history does not acknowledge such undoubted facts as that, in Germany at the end of the Second World War, the achievements of the Russian military included, as the historian Antony Beevor has written, a vast number of rapes, estimated to be as many as two million. It is said that the Red Army War Memorial in Berlin was known to the wartime generation as the “tomb of the unknown rapist.” Reference to such facts of history tends to produce furious reactions from patriotic Russians, but it is an undoubted and much-commented fact that Russia has yet to come to terms with much of its past, and this is only one instance of that failure. No doubt it was very annoying of me, but I sent the ambassador my copy of “A Woman in Berlin” (published 1955) inscribed with the words, “Please remember Elsa Kungaeva, murdered in Chechnya on 27 March 2000 by Colonel Yuri Budanov of the Russian Army” – Mr Karasin did not write to thank me.
So when the news came out that Stanislav Markelov, the talented and heroic young lawyer, had been shot dead in Prechistenka Street in broad daylight in Moscow, on 19 January, just about a week after Budanov’s premature release from jail, it was a terrible shock, but not completely unexpected. Murder is one of the atrocities to which we are now so well accustomed in Putin’s Russia. Markelov was an attorney who, in the trial of Colonel Budanov, had represented the family of the 18-year-old victim, Elsa. Strangely, or perhaps not strangely, the charge of rape against Budanov had been dropped, notwithstanding the compelling forensic evidence.
It is not possible to conclude with any certainty that Budanov had a hand in the Markelov assassination. The cases in which Markelov had been engaged had frequently been against enemies of whom any number may be suspects in his murder. It is not without significance, though, that the message Markelov received on his mobile phone on January 14, five days before his death, read as follows: “You, brainless animal … again sticking your nose into Budanov’s case??!! Idiot, you couldn’t find a calmer method of suicide??? Go quickly to the centre of transplantology, and perhaps your innards will be useful there for somebody … at least you won’t die in vain then … and perhaps you will get some money … You really decided to improve this year by relieving us of your presence?”
Many commentators have written that a Russia in which murder is frequently, even normally, used against opponents of many different sorts is a product of the policies and political priorities of Vladimir Putin. People who remember the murder of Alexander Litvinenko will also understand that, after Putin’s promulgation of a law permitting the killing of “extremists” abroad, opponents of the rich and powerful, including the siloviki, who have fled abroad can easily become targets for assassination. More recently, as described above, targets among the Chechen diaspora have been assassinated in western countries by agents of the Russian state, or have been murdered by killers in the employ of Putin’s brutal protégé Ramzan Kadyrov. It would, therefore, be a normal reaction for any commentator taking up his or her pen to criticize the Putin regime to imagine – no matter how distant the country in which they live – that they too could become a target.
Murder Inc. is alive, prospering, and dwells in Moscow!
It is, inevitably, to experience a shock of cognitive dissonance when observing that, in spite of the amorality of his leadership, and the grave crimes which have defined and are continuing to define his period in office, people pay serious attention to prime minister Putin as he addresses the economic forum in Davos, or when he is reported as saying that “his biggest fault is that he is too trusting”, and reveals his love for ice-cream in large amounts ever since his childhood. What we learn of such a man is, to quote Shakespeare, that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.
My hope is that Putin will now be brought to understand that he should stand down. A well-merited retirement should become his ambition – an ambition he should be encouraged to pursue by a new, clear-sighted American administration which, unlike the benighted presidency of George W Bush, is able to assess the man and recognise his moral defects, and the blemished record which renders him unfit to retain credibility as the leader of a great nation.
Jeremy Putley is a frequent contributor to La Russophobe and one of this blog’s oldest and most respected friends. Previously, he has written for us on topics such as the Litvinenko investigation and the Beslan atrocity. After we published his letter to the editor of the Financial Times about the persecution of Svetlana Bakhmina when the paper itself failed to do so and noted the absence of a Wikipedia page on the dissident lawyer, the Wiki page was finally created.