On the night of Nov. 6, I was attacked by two young men armed with steel rods. The assault occurred a few feet from the entrance to my house, which is just a 10-minute walk from the Kremlin.
A month later, I am still in the hospital. One of my fingers has been amputated, one of my legs and both halves of my jaw have been broken, and I have several cranial wounds. According to my doctors, I won’t be able to go back to my job as a reporter and columnist at Kommersant, an independent newspaper, until spring.
A few hours after the attack, President Dmitri Medvedev went on Twitter to declare his outrage, and he instructed Russia’s law enforcement agencies to make every effort to investigate this crime. But no one has been apprehended, and I do not expect that the two young men will ever be identified or caught.
Three theories quickly emerged about who was behind the attack — which was, I believe, an assassination attempt. The first holds that it was the municipal authorities of Khimki, a town between Moscow and St. Petersburg. I had written several articles criticizing a proposed highway between the two cities that would run through the town, something the local authorities want but many residents oppose.
The second theory is that it was Andrei Turchak, the governor of the Pskov region, who was upset by a blog posting of mine arguing that he had his position only because of his ties to the Kremlin.
And the third theory is that the perpetrators came from Nashi, a youth movement I have criticized. The group’s appearance on the public scene has accompanied a new level, and acceptance, of violence in Russian politics; members are called “Nashists” by their opponents, as a pun on “fascists,” for good reason.
Nashi is closely tied to the Kremlin, which founded the group five years ago in response to fears that Ukraine’s Orange Revolution could inspire similar uprisings in Russia. When newspapers reported that Vasily Yakemenko, its former leader and now the minister for youth affairs, might have been involved in the attack on me, he was granted an unscheduled meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Was this meant to show that the authorities didn’t share such a suspicion — or that they didn’t care whether the accusation was true?
What strikes me about the theories is that, in each case, the ultimate perpetrator is the state. And for some reason that seems acceptable to most Russians: practically no one here has questioned the right of the state to resort to extra-legal violence to maintain power, even against journalists.
I don’t mean to compare myself to Anna Politkovskaya or Paul Klebnikov, journalists who were killed probably because of their investigative work. But in a way the attack against me is more disturbing. Unlike most of the reporters who have been attacked in Russia in recent years, I have not engaged in any serious investigations into corruption or human rights abuses. I have not revealed any secret documents or irritated influential figures with embarrassing material.
What I have done, though, is criticize Nashi. Indeed, all this year I have called attention to the violence that accompanies the group’s every public activity. Even at their legally sanctioned events the members trample — and this is no exaggeration; they literally stomp with their feet — portraits of Russia’s “enemies,” including human rights activists, politicians and journalists.
I also believe they were the organizers of anonymous acts aimed at the opposition: fabricated video clips, hacker attacks and physical assaults. Some of them were symbolic; for example, an unidentified man once hit Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion who is an opposition leader, on the head with a chess board.
But even when there is strong evidence of official Nashi involvement, members have gone unpunished. In the summer of 2005 a group of hooligans with baseball bats invaded an opposition meeting and savagely beat the participants. The police detained the attackers, and a list of their names, including some “Nashists,” appeared in the papers. But all of the detainees were immediately released, and the case has never gone to court.
Nobody knows for certain whether there is a direct link between the flourishing of Nashi and the increased violence against critics of the state. But it seems indubitable that the atmosphere of hatred and aggression, artificially fomented by the Kremlin, has become the dominant fact in Russian politics, the “reset” in relations with the United States and talk of economic modernization notwithstanding.
A man with a steel rod is standing behind the smiling politicians who speak of democracy. That man is the real defender of the Kremlin and its order. I got to feel that man with my own head.
Oleg Kashin, a reporter for the Russian newspaper Kommersant. This article was translated from the Russian by Steven Seymour