What to Do When Russia's Top Cop Threatens to Behead You

What if the director of the FBI threatened to decapitate a journalist and the threat became public? The result would be scandal, resignation and possibly criminal proceedings.

Not so in Russia. When Alexander Bastrykin, who runs the FBI's local equivalent, the SKR, made such a threat to an investigative reporter, he got off with an apology. Many journalists, including the recipient of the threat and his editor-in-chief, considered the apology sufficient. Case closed.

The episode provides a rare glimpse into the soul of the people running Russia under President Vladimir Putin, and an illustration of the very real dangers of trying to cover an increasingly paranoid and isolated ruling elite.

The journalist -- Sergei Sokolov, investigations editor for the hard-hitting newspaper Novaya Gazeta -- had attracted Bastrykin's attention with an article about authorities' handling of a high-profile murder case: The killing of 12 people, including children, by a local gang in the southern village of Kushchevskaya in November 2010. The gang had been terrorizing the area for years with impunity, thanks in large part to its close ties to local officials.

The article lamented the mild sentence given to Sergei Tsepovyaz, a local legislator convicted of destroying evidence demonstrating that members of the gang had purchased gasoline used to burn down the victims' home. In a decision that provoked widespread outrage, the court ordered Tsepovyaz -- whose brother, Vyacheslav, had been a member of the gang -- to pay a fine of 150,000 rubles ($5,000).

"It's obvious that either the gangsters, the cops and the prosecutors have merely wiped their feet on everyone, or all of this was a cover-up from the start,” wrote Sokolov, calling Bastrykin and Putin the "servants" of criminal gangs.

When the article hit newsstands on June 4, Sokolov received a phone call from Bastrykin at 8:35 a.m. The SKR head invited the journalist to attend a conference in the North Caucasus city of Nalchik, where the investigator in charge of the Kushchevskaya case was scheduled to speak. The journalist decided not to pass up the chance to see the senior investigator.

At the conference, Bastrykin gave Sokolov an earful. "In tsarist times one could be challenged to a duel for something like this!” according to an audio recording that was made public.

The more crucial moment came later, after the two returned to Moscow on Bastrykin's government-supplied jet. Here's how Novaya Gazeta editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov described what happened, in an open letter to Bastrykin: “Sokolov was placed in a car by your bodyguards. He was taken without any explanation to a forest near Moscow. There, you asked the bodyguards to leave you and remained face to face with Sokolov.... The hard truth is that, in your emotional state, you rudely threatened the life of my journalist. And you joked that you would investigate the murder case personally.” Russian media further reported that Sokolov, who quickly fled the country, had recounted to a colleague how Bastrykin had threatened to cut off his head and legs.

Bastrykin was initially evasive. In an interview with the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia, he said he “had not been in a forest for years.” A number of journalists who picketed the SKR building were detained.

On June 14, Bastrykin's attitude suddenly changed. He invited the editors of Moscow media to an off-the record meeting. Participants shed some light on what transpired: Bastrykin formally apologized to Muratov for being overly emotional, and the two men shook hands. When asked whether the conversation in the woods had really taken place, the SKR head said that it had been “by the side of the road,” according to participant and newspaper editor Pavel Gusev.

Columnist Valery Panyushkin, in the online magazine Snob, congratulated Bastrykin for saying he was sorry. “I consider his apology a courageous, reasonable and worthy act that should in any case be treated with respect,” he wrote. Others were less generous. “It is now forbidden to take Sergei Sokolov out in the woods and threaten to do away with him,” Masha Gessen, editor of the travel magazine Vokrug Sveta, wrote on Facebook. “But it's OK to do that to other journalists. Because as of today it's not even a crime, just a bit of rudeness. That is Dmitry Muratov's gift to the journalistic community that only yesterday took to the streets for him.”

Why did Bastrykin decide to apologize and meet with editors? He didn't have to. The Kremlin had kept silent throughout. “I think he had a conversation with Putin, and Putin told him something like, 'Deal with the situation yourself,'" said Alexei Venediktov, the editor of Echo Moscow radio station and one of the meeting's organizers.

Sokolov returned to Moscow on June 19. He refused to say publicly what exactly Bastrykin has told him “by the roadside.” He said that he had not recorded the conversation, and that in any case Bastrykin had apologized to him personally.

Bastrykin went back to work. His operatives have arrested 13 activists accused of instigating the street disturbances that preceded Putin's May 7 inauguration. The SKR also conducted brutal searches in the apartments of several opposition leaders on June 11, on the eve of a major anti-Putin rally.

All is normal in Moscow again.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)



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