It’s a warm evening in the summer of 2010. I am leaving a cafe in the very center of Moscow when I notice my car is missing its license plate. I know what this means: I am being followed.
Because the senior officers in the F.S.B. (the main successor to the Soviet K.G.B.) don’t trust their agents, they demand not only an account of the subject’s movements but additional proof, in the form of a license plate, that the observation is being carried out, that the report is not made up, that the target is indeed being followed. It would be silly to pretend that I am not afraid. I am afraid.
I call my friend Marina Litvinovich, an editor who has had many years of experience dealing with the Russian security services. More than once she has been attacked on the street. When this happens they call you by name, beat you half to death, then leave you, taking no money or valuables, thereby ensuring that you never, even for a moment, think you have just been mugged.
“Marinka, what do I do if my license plate has been unscrewed from my car?”
“Look through the car,” Marina answers gravely. “They could have planted a gun, drugs or extremist literature. But I wouldn’t particularly worry about explosives. They don’t usually blow up journalists.”
In conversations like these, “they” always means the same thing: the security services, the government, the ones in power.
I look over the car, first the outside, then the inside, at once anxious and amused. No guns, no drugs, no literature, besides the copy of the Declaration of Children’s Rights I’d left there that morning. It is especially peculiar to turn the ignition key. God forgive me! I turn the key, and there is no explosion. Am I paranoid? Perhaps. Alas, as in the old axiom, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.
I have been advised that it is best not to inform the police that my license plate has been removed, or that I suspect it is tied to my activities as a journalist. If I do, an investigation will commence. But the police will not want to question the security services. They will simply impound my car for a few months, maybe a year. What would I do without a car? Tomorrow I have to drive to the Vladimir region northeast of Moscow for a work assignment. By car, it will take a few hours, but without one, the trip involves a train and two buses and takes two days. And so, in order to get a new license plate, I explain to the police that the old one fell off all by itself.
But perhaps I can complain to the security services directly. I say to my editor: “Let’s file a formal query with the F.S.B. Why are they following me?”
He fires back: “And what exactly will we say? That they took your license plate?”
He understands exactly what the unscrewed plate means. And I understand exactly what he means by refusing to get involved: businesses won’t advertise in a newspaper that has provoked the government.
A few days later, I am detained at a train station. A policeman stops me as I am about to board, demanding to see my documents. I demand to see a warrant, and he displays a creased fax. I can’t make anything of it; it shows neither my name nor any cause of complaint.
Ten minutes later he lets me go, just in time to make the train. Now I am angry. I call into the radio station Echo of Moscow and tell the host what has happened. One minute later I hear: “The well-known journalist Valery Panyushkin has been detained for questioning by the F.S.B.” The radio station calls the security services’ press representative, wanting to know what I am suspected of, but the representative says there is no information. Still, I feel better: now everything is public, exposed, and this is preferable to being the silent victim of concealed forces.
I try to make out what might have aroused the government’s interest. Was it my article about the shortage of medicine for people with H.I.V., or the one on how the police protect a studio that produces child pornography? Was it my report that the F.S.B. has forbidden the export of blood samples from Russia to protect the profits it makes from the market in donated bone marrow? Could it be because I once juxtaposed Barack Obama at his inauguration, striding through a crowd of supporters lining Pennsylvania Avenue, with Dmitri Medvedev, riding toward his swearing-in in a bulletproof car through streets emptied for the occasion?
It must have been something I wrote a few years ago. I no longer write about politics because it increasingly feels pointless to do so in a country with no real public involvement in political life. But whatever it was that angered the government, as with many things in Russia, there is no way of knowing.
We do not know who ordered the killing of Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist and human rights activist, nor why. She accused the president of Chechnya of kidnapping and murder. Was this the cause?
We do not know who savagely attacked the journalist Oleg Kashin, nor why. He criticized a highway that municipal authorities planned to build through the middle of a forest, angering those who stood to gain by it. Was this the cause?
We do not know because the crimes were not fully investigated. In crimes like these, the hired killers can sometimes be found, but never the people who paid them. Journalists covering the cases know only one thing for sure: that they are in danger as well. But these threats are not the worst of it.
Imagine that Bob Woodward reports on Watergate, and the next day there is only silence; no one responds, no one investigates. Anna Politkovskaya reported dozens of Watergates, but none of her revelations have been seriously pursued; the prosecutors, the Parliament, her colleagues at the official newspapers have remained silent. No one has fully investigated Oleg Kashin’s disclosures. An investigation did result from my reporting on child pornography, but someone tipped off those involved, and all the suspects disappeared.
In Russia today, journalists are murdered like Anna Politkovskaya, beaten like Oleg Kashin and intimidated like me, but — as terrible as this will sound — that is not the real problem. The real problem is that journalists are ignored. The risks they take in challenging Vladimir Putin and the Russian oligarchy have ceased to have meaning. One is valued only for telling a harmless story, an amusing anecdote that can exist, side by side, with ad space.
By Valery Panyushkin, the author of the forthcoming 12 Who Don’t Agree: The Battle for Freedom in Putin’s Russia. This essay was translated by Yevgeniya Traps from the Russian.