What all the rabid verbiage about Arkady Babchenko’s “stunt” boils down to is that a good number Russians and, surprisingly, non-Russians (e.g., Reporters without Borders, the BBC, etc.) believe that, when you are confronted by a much more powerful or cunning enemy, such as the Putinist state, the noble thing is to roll over and let yourself be killed.
Everyone loves a martyr for a cause, even when an endless series of martyrs jeopardizes any real cause, if only because at some point the people who believe in the cause will eventually surrender if the cause is so needlessly dangerous, and its leading lights forbid its lesser lights from defending themselves when attacked by the enemy, much more from going on the offensive against the same enemy.
That would be unthinkable!
No, it is better to roll over and bite the bullet in the back of the head. Your friends will relish laying flowers on your grave for years to come, and if you are famous they might even hold annual memorial rallies or marches for you. The regime does not find such powwows threatening in the least, because they make the opposition to their rule look weak and pathologically attracted to victimhood.
Besides, even ordinary Russian law enforcement and judicial practice tends to frown on people who defend themselves too vigorously, often prosecuting and punishing them instead of their assailants.
When the assailants are police officers, this is triply true, as we saw during the infamous Bolotnaya Square Case, in which over thirty people were charged with “rioting” and “violence against police officers” for the mildest acts of self-defense or even their entire absence, after a small army of police attacked a peaceable, authorized opposition march in Moscow on May 6, 2012, without provocation.
It is remarkable, then, how many Russians have internalized and made their peace with a quasi-doctrine of passive non-resistance that has been coupled with a total reluctance to come to the defense of others set upon by criminals or the police, whose actions and intentions are often indistinguishable.
What is surprising is that this madness is also endorsed by seemingly respectable foreign organizations like the BBC, who have been pushing the “this discredits Ukraine forever” line for the last forty-eight hours as if their lives depended on it, and Reporters without Borders, who in their statement also came close to suggesting that if Babchenko had been an honorable journalist he would have let himself be iced by the Kremlin’s assassins.
The real back story is that there are considerable forces in western society who find it awfully irritating and inconvenient for their big picture that Ukraine and its defenders have not just given up the ghost, but have continued to put up a fight, however ineffective and puny when matched against the ostensible might of the Putinist empire.
For some reason, the resistance against this murderous empire mounted the other day by Babchenko and his defenders in the SBU has caused more offense and tongue wagging than the actual armed resistance, often quite bloody and indiscriminate and crawling with unsavory characters, we have seen in Eastern Ukraine over the last four years.
Putting it as crudely as possible, Babchenko and his SBU collaborators figured out a way to fight back and win a small victory against the Putinist empire without spilling a single drop of blood, and now lots of high-minded people are hopping mad at them, including John Simpson of the BBC (who this morning attempted, hilariously, to make up for yesterday’s tirade by remarking that if Anna Politkovskaya had pulled off the same escapade, he would have been happy) and the now utterly discredited Reporters without Borders, which has implicitly endorsed the murder of dissident journalists by the Kremlin.
At times like this I wish the fictional Harry Pearce, head of counter-terrorism at MI5 in Spooks, really were a defender of the realm, because, as he himself says at the end of the excellent Spooks movie (Spooks: The Greater Good), only people like him are ruthless enough to get the job done and actually defend the realm. If you have ever seen the show, you will realize defending the realm does not consist of running around running up a high body count, but of being able to distinguish at the right time between friend and foe, a job that is infinitely harder than it sounds.
How is that a screwed-up but otherwise peaceable country that was invaded unprovoked by its much more powerful neighbor and a dissident journalist who fled to that country are seen as enemies by half the Russian intelligentsia and half the journalistic organizations in Europe?
If Harry Pearce were real, and I were his boss, I would want him delicately probing into why exactly the BBC has mounted such a vicious attack against Babchenko and the Ukrainian authorities in the last two days. I would be especially interested in investigating the motives of the avuncular John Simpson, whose tirade against Babchenko live on the air yesterday on Radio 4 was so unseemly and vehement I felt I must be hallucinating. (After listening to the tirade, I was not surprised to find he had filed this crypto-Putinist copy from occupied Crimea in March 2015.)
The Babchenko affair has nothing to do with fake news. It has to do with whether smaller, less powerful countries and essentially powerless individuals who oppose more powerful countries have the right to defend themselves at all.
The implication is the SBU should have waited in ambush for Babchenko’s killer with a squad of fifty armed men and then lit him up like a Roman candle when he arrived rather than plan and enact the much subtler and more effective counter-attack they claim to have carried out.
Ukraine’s political life has been shaken by the car-bomb killing of Pavel Sheremet, the Belarussian journalist, in Kyiv on Wednesday – a brazen, brutal murder in broad daylight in the city centre.
Sheremet was an extraordinarily talented and honest reporter, which is why many people with power and money hated him. He was jailed, beaten and harassed by the authorities in Belarus; worked on Russian state television and then quit in protest at its one-sided coverage of Ukraine; and moved to Ukraine where he worked on television and on Ukrainska Pravda, the largest news web site.
Sheremet graduated from a prestigious university of international economic relations, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. “My classmates became oligarchs, ministers, diplomats – and, true, some of them ended up in jail. When I moved from a bank job to work on TV, everyone said I was mad, but I never regretted it”, Sheremet said in an article, published by his colleagues this morning, entitled “Every Day As If It’s the Last: Rules for Living”.
The early 1990s was a golden era for journalism in the former Soviet Union. Sheremet hosted a popular news analysis programme on Belarussian state TV that was banned by president Aleksandr Lukashenko in 1995. Sheremet switched to Russia’s main state channel, ORT, as the head of its bureau in Minsk.
As Lukashenko’s regime descended into authoritarianism, Sheremet became a prominent dissident and spokesman for the Charter 97 human rights organisation. In 1997 his classic reportage on smuggling across the Belarussian-Lithuanian border earned him a two-year prison sentence. After serving three months he moved to Moscow.
The spirit of media freedom was still alive and kicking in Russia. Sheremet investigated the disappearances of Belarussian dissidents, some of them his close friends, and made cutting-edge documentaries, including one about the Chechen war. He set up Belaruspartizan.org, the most effective Belarus-focused dissident web resource. He won the International Press Freedom Award in 1998, the first of a string of such prizes.
“Pavel was a really rare bird among post-Soviet journalists”, wrote the Russian journalist Konstantin Eggert in one of a host of tributes. “He very well understood Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and maybe because of that he was a European – and not a Russian, Ukrainian or Belarussian – journalist.”
From 2010, Sheremet began to spend more time in Ukraine, and then moved to Kyiv, continuing to work for the main Russian state TV channel (ORT, later renamed Channel One). But in July 2014, four months after the overthrow of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich by the Maidan movement, Sheremet resigned from the station, complaining that those who contradict Kremlin propaganda were “hounded”.
“The TV still gives the impression that nothing has happened. That irritates people”, Sheremet wrote in the article published today. “The life people actually live is one thing, and then they turn on the TV and see a completely different picture. I quit [Channel One] because it became impossible to work there and preserve my reputation and good name.”
The news web site Ukrainska Pravda, where Sheremet worked for the last couple of years, along with broadcasting commitments, was his natural home. The site was set up in 2000 by Gyorgy Gongadze, another fearless child of the post-Soviet boom in free speech.
In September 2000, Gongadze was kidnapped and murdered by three police officers, who were many years later jailed for their part in the crime. The killers were clearly acting on the orders of elements in Ukraine’s political elite – although the connections beyond the internal affairs minister of the time, Yuri Kravchenko, who also died violently, were never completely clear.
The Gongadze case became a watchword for democratic rights in Ukraine. Rising to the challenge of censorship by thuggery, Gongadze’s colleagues turned Ukrainska Pravda from a penniless blog into the country’s prime web-based news resource, a position it enjoys to this day. Its news output is underpinned by comprehensive reporting on Ukraine’s oligarchs and the corruption that surrounds them. After the Maidan events two Ukrainska Pravda journalists, Sergei Leshchenko and Mustafa Nayyem, entered parliament on an anti-corruption platform.
Sheremet fitted in well in this company. The car he was driving when killed belonged to Aliona Prytula, Ukrainska Pravda’s co-founder and owner. The police at first suspected she may have been the intended victim, although on Thursday it was reported that investigating officers now thought the attack was most likely targeted at Sheremet himself.
There is no guarantee that we will ever know who killed Pavel Sheremet, and who ordered the killing. In the cases of many of the journalists murdered in former Soviet countries in the past 25 years, the trail of infamy that led to their deaths has been successfully covered up, often with the help of law enforcement agencies.
All we can be sure of is that the military conflict unleashed in eastern Ukraine over the past two years makes murders such as Sheremet’s more likely.
The complex clashes in eastern Ukraine that followed from Yanukovich’s removal were turned into war by the influx of huge quantities of military hardware and volunteer fighters from Russia, an influx for which the Russian state bears the main responsibility. Human life has been cheapened; more than 9400 people have died; human rights organisations now routinely issue reports (the most recent from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on 21 July) of torture, disappearances and arbitrary detentions.
All this has ratcheted up the danger to people like Pavel Sheremet, who so well understand the dynamics of such conflicts, and could explain them with frankness and good humour to their fellow citizens who don’t believe most of what the media tells them. (Pavel’s recent blog posts ladled sarcasm and wit on Russian war propagandists, Ukrainian business oligarchs and Ukrainian “volunteers”-turned-criminals alike, leaving us none the wiser about which of his enemies might have been involved in his killing.)
I have been travelling to Russia and Ukraine for the past 25 years as a journalist and a researcher. It’s easy for me: I have a British passport in my pocket and can leave at any time. For many like Sheremet, who in recent years I counted not just as a colleague but as a good friend, there is no such protection.
My thanks to Simon Pirani for his permission to reproduce this obituary here. TRR