MOSCOW -- On Nov. 6, 2010, two men beat a prominent Russian journalist, Oleg Kashin, within an inch of his life. He was hit 56 times in the head, arms and legs with a steel pipe, left hospitalized in an induced coma with a fractured skull, and had one finger partially amputated. He survived and eventually recovered.
The brutal attack in a downtown Moscow courtyard shocked Russian society. Then-President Dmitry Medvedev vowed the killers would be found, but after nearly five years, the case remained unsolved, similar to attacks against other journalists here.
In early September, Kashin suddenly named everyone connected with his attack in an online article [in Russian] and said the case was solved. Now comes the part that he calls "politics": compelling the government to prosecute the people he says ordered the attack, including a sitting regional governor, Andrei Turchak.
Kashin's accusations are largely based on court documents, including depositions from several men who said they were paid more than $100,000 to commit the crime, and have been formally accused in court.
Washington Post: Why were you attacked according to your investigation?
Oleg Kashin: It makes me sound a little less heroic. I called the governor of Pskov region, [Andrei] Turchak, an impolite phrase in a blog. It translates to “sh**ty Turchak.” And that phrase offended him. He threatened me publicly, and I thought that since it was public, it gave me a guarantee that he would not actually touch me. It turns out that was not true.
According to statements given by the attackers, Turchak met with Alexander Gorbunov (a political ally and businessman) and some of his firm's security guards (the accused attackers). The person who actually beat me is a master at mixed martial arts. They were paid to cripple me either so that I could not write again, or in order to kill me.
It’s a strong response to a single phrase.
Yes. It’s something that I think many people do not understand.
I think that all the murders in Russia, the political murders, even the murder of [opposition politician] Boris Nemtsov, are reactions to personal insults.
As a journalist, you could even reveal that Turchak has a villa in Nice, he actually has one, and it wouldn't bother him. Because he does not answer to the people of his region, but to Putin, and Putin decides if he will be governor.
But if you offend a person, well, in the prison worldview, that person has to get revenge or else his friends won't understand. It is like gangsters in power.
You write that the case is "solved," but clearly there is a big difference between that and those responsible being punished.
De facto the case is solved, the names of the attackers and those who likely ordered it have been made public. De jure, the people accused directly of attacking me are only under a travel ban. Gorbunov is just a witness in the case, he is not one of the accused. And Turchak is not being touched at all.
I knew what was happening in the case. I was quiet about this for a long time so that the investigators could not say I had interfered with the investigation. But when I found out that Gorbunov was being released from jail [as part of an unrelated investigation], I released the names in order to create a public sensation because there was nothing else I could do.
Your case is often tied with attacks against other journalists, like the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, as instances of state-sponsored violence. Do you agree with the comparison?
It would not be modest of me to say but I think that my case goes beyond my personal fate, and has meaning for the relationship between the Russian people and the law. It’s a representative case of how much the government in Russia can do to people without fear of punishment. And insofar as I am alive, I can prove who did this, and I will try to do that.
Many, especially in the West, believe that if a journalist here is beaten, it is in one way or another connected to Putin. Do you agree or disagree with that in your case?
I do agree. Not so much for why I was attacked, but that the atmosphere in society here makes everything permissible. It’s like a prison mentality, and if someone said something about you, then you have to be ready to kill. That’s a norm for Russian rhetoric. Any politician will tell you that you have to answer for your words. And I indeed believe that the real reason for that atmosphere, the criminalization of society, it comes from Putin, as everything flows from the top down.
But you thanked Medvedev [in your recent blog post], who in the end “kept his word” to find your killers.
I would divide my thanks in two parts. My gratefulness to Medvedev is real, he really promised to help me and he did support the investigation, as well as my treatment after the attack. So I am grateful to Medvedev.
The other is to the Investigative Committee. It comes with a dose of irony, because in the two weeks since I made the names public, they have not made any official public statement and they are trying to cover up information about the case's progress.
It is only when I find out something through my own sources, I ask my journalist contacts from St. Petersburg to go to the court and make the information there public.
Who are the sources for your investigation?
Dozens of people from the Investigative Committee, the F.S.B. (Federal Security Service), and courts are involved in the case.
These are people with whom making contact is a normal part of journalism. I would compare them to Deepthroat in the Watergate scandal.
I had a goal, to follow up on Gorbunov, and by doing that, I uncovered all the other information.
What do you know about the Kremlin's attitude toward your case?
The only source of information is Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov, who is regularly asked about my case. On the day that I released the names, Peskov said that we will do everything to arrest those guilty for the attack. But then he began saying "no, we don't know" and not to believe what you read on the Internet. Today [Wednesday], he said that Putin does not know and is not planning to get involved in Turchak's case, let the courts make the decision.
But once again, the court in this case is Putin. No one else can pass judgement on Turchak.
What do you think needs to happen for Turchak to go to prison?
There would need to be a revolution in Russia for something to happen to Turchak. I don't very much believe in that right now.
Five years later, could the same kind of attack against you happen again?
I am still afraid for my safety. The release of Gorbunov and absence of Turchak among the accused are a kind of mandate for impunity. They have been shown that they can act with impunity. Nemtsov was killed in February right near the Kremlin. So these kinds of things can happen again. Nemtsov is more famous than I am and they killed him too. Successfully.
- Three people directly connected with the attack have been accused (two have appeared in court, one is on the run). Gorbunov, the owner the company where all the men worked, is a witness in the case. Turchak has no formal connection to the investigation.
- On Tuesday, the Russian daily Kommersant printed an interview with the wife of the man accused of beating Kashin with the steel pipe. She said that she has an audio recording of Turchak and Gorbunov discussing how the attack should take place, but has held it as an insurance policy to protect her husband's life. Her husband implicated Gorbunov and Turchak in his deposition.
- Meduza, a Riga-based news Web site that publishes in Russian and English, released a good explainer about the case on Wednesday.