• 'I don't know why this happened,' a U.S. journalist said as he lay dying in Russia. Was it for what he'd written, or was about to write?
By Kim Murphy, Times Staff Writer
MOSCOW — It was late when he left the office, but Paul Klebnikov was the kind of journalist who always had more stories than time, and always worked late. On this night, someone was waiting.
A small, dark car pulled up as Klebnikov made his way down the street. The barrel of a gun appeared. Within moments, the 41-year-old New Yorker was dead. He left few clues about his killers as he lay bleeding on the pavement. "Have you had any contacts or meetings or visits, telephone calls that could have led to this?" Alexander Gordeyev, a fellow journalist, asked as he crouched at his side. "He said, 'No, I don't know why this happened.'
"He said it was a Russian, and he was wearing black clothes; his hair was black too. And then he asked me to get in touch with his family, his wife and brother. I don't think he realized he was dying."
On Wednesday, two alleged Chechen gangsters and their purported cohort in a gun-for-hire mob will go on trial in a Moscow courtroom for murder in Klebnikov's death almost two years ago. But the trial, which began last month but had to be halted when the judge fell ill, already seems to have raised as many questions as it has answered about who would have wanted to kill the editor of the newly launched Forbes Russia magazine.
Was he killed, as the prosecution believes, on the orders of Chechen warlord-businessman Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev, who was said to be incensed over Klebnikov's less-than-flattering book about him, "Conversations With a Barbarian"?
Or did he die because of something he was preparing to write, targeted by someone from the murky shadow land of big business, organized crime and politics in post-Soviet Russia?
It is a testament to Klebnikov's energy, curiosity and tenacity that the range of figures who may have wanted to silence him is huge. The editor-writer had written about bandit capitalists and corrupt mullahs; he published the first Forbes "Golden Hundred" list of the richest Russians, in a country where billionaire fat cats tend to scurry for cover like roaches in the kitchen when the lights are turned on.
Since his death in July 2004, sources have come forward hinting at the array of stories on which Klebnikov was amassing material — including corruption in the automotive industry, money laundering, links between politics and big money, and the disappearance of millions of dollars in Chechnya.
With 11 journalists killed in contract-style slayings in Russia since 2000, any one of the stories could have made Klebnikov the first American journalist executed by assassins here.
"It is all too clear that he was in the way of some people, people that grew to hate him," Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident and Nobel Prize-winning novelist, wrote shortly after Klebnikov's death. "He gave his life for the truth — and for Russia, which he earnestly loved."
Klebnikov was born to Russian immigrants in the U.S. and grew up American, but journeyed all over the world in his reporting and remained fascinated with the land of his heritage. He earned his doctorate at the London School of Economics, writing on the Soviet Communist Party and rural development in early 20th century Russia, and traveled to Russia through the explosive years of early capitalism in the 1990s for the U.S. edition of Forbes. He made his home in Moscow from early 2004, leaving his family behind in the U.S., knowing he would be putting in long hours to get the new magazine off the ground.
Klebnikov was classically handsome with a mop of dark hair and intense eyes. Colleagues described him as both romantic about Russia and unforgiving of its shortcomings. Russians, who are often standoffish with strangers and deeply warm with intimates, seemed to find in Klebnikov an American they could both like and trust. He was invited into kitchens and corporate suites alike, neither of them easy entree for U.S. reporters.
"He got to know the way things worked in Russia. Along with perhaps a few journalists, and there were really not more than a handful, he had a superb sense of what was going on," said his brother, Michael Klebnikov, who lives in New York.
"He really understood the intrigues — to use Churchill's phrase, all the fighting that was going on under the carpet," he said, referring to Churchill's remark that observing Russian politics was "like watching two dogs fighting under a carpet."
"When the privatization process started, he was very quick to recognize it for the wholesale thievery that it was, while at the same time acknowledging that he understood the rationale behind it," he said.
Prosecutors have offered no evidence for why they believe that Nukhayev, a wealthy businessman and organized crime figure who became increasingly sympathetic to Islamic insurgents battling Russia, ordered Klebnikov's killing. Under Russian law, the government doesn't have to make public this evidence until Nukhayev is brought to trial. But Nukhayev has not been heard from recently, and some believe he may have died four months before Klebnikov did, in a gun battle with Chechen militants.
Did he order Klebnikov killed before then?
"It's too convenient a hypothesis to believe," Gordeyev, deputy editor of Russian Newsweek, said of the prosecution's theory. "I'm not exactly clear as to why the guy would get so [angry] as to order a hit. It's definitely not over the book. It was published a year and a half before he was killed, for one thing. And I understand Nukhayev had been looking for somebody who could write a book in response to it — which means he was intent on solving their differences in literary form, not by murder."
The other immediate question that arises about the government's case is that all those charged are Chechens, though Klebnikov had identified his attacker as a Russian.
Klebnikov may simply have been mistaken — many Chechens resemble ethnic Russians — but some insiders point out that Chechens make easy fall guys in today's Russia.
Three men are on trial — only two of them charged in the slaying of Klebnikov, as well as the killing 13 days earlier of the former deputy prime minister of Chechnya, Yan Sergunin.
The two men, Kazbek Dukuzov and Musa Vakhayev, are also charged with a number of other acts of extortion and racketeering committed by a gang originating in the Chechen town of Urus-Martan. A third defendant, Moscow notary public Fail Sadretdinov, is accused of being involved with the gang. All three have pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors have drawn no connection between the killing of Klebnikov and that of Sergunin, except to say both were committed by the same culprits.
But a possible connection between the two victims raises even further questions about blaming it on Nukhayev. Two Russian newspapers reported that Sergunin had acted as a consultant to Klebnikov shortly before his death on a story about money laundering in Chechnya.
"He never mentioned Klebnikov, but after he was murdered, at least two of my friends told me that supposedly in recent times, shortly before the murder, the two of them [her husband and Klebnikov] had communicated about something," Sergunin's widow, Kamilla, said in an interview.
The trial is closed at the request of prosecutors, who have invoked state secrets protection. Lawyers who have reviewed the evidence say it appears that investigators have a compelling case.
Witnesses linked the gun used in the killing to Dukuzov and Vakhayev, along with cellphone conversations and an intimate of one of the men who overheard discussions of a "big job" and a payment of about $105,000 coming from London, according to sources familiar with the evidence.
A vehicle thought to have been used in the drive-by shooting had a fingerprint from Vakhayev's left middle finger, these sources said.
Dukuzov's lawyer, Lyomi Umarov, has acknowledged that his client provided a certain level of professional "protection" for businesses in Moscow but said he never committed any of the crimes with which he is charged.
"Sometimes, a man's word is worth much more than anything else, and people who break their word pay for it with their health or their lives…. He reached agreements with people that they wouldn't be attacked, that their health wouldn't be compromised," Umarov said. "In order to get ahead in Moscow, you need to have a certain measure of boldness."
But the lawyer said his client insisted that in the Klebnikov case, he had been caught up in "a fateful confluence of circumstances, and as a lawyer, I can't contradict his position."
He declined to discuss the case in detail because of a gag order. "Without listing any of them, I can simply say that the defense has a huge number of arguments in favor of the defendants' innocence," he said.
The defendants have alleged the case was fabricated to cover up the government's inability or unwillingness to find the real culprits.
In a letter to the Klebnikov family, Sadretdinov, the third man on trial, said that "any Chechen in Russia is an easy target for prosecutors."
He said investigators ignored others linked to Klebnikov's investigations, including exiled billionaire Boris Berezovsky, about whom the journalist had written a book, "Godfather of the Kremlin," and the billionaire wife of Moscow's mayor.
He quoted an FBI communique contained in the case files as saying that "although Paul usually kept quiet about his journalistic investigations, we were nonetheless told that he had recently spoken of a project that he had been working on, describing it as 'huge and frightening,' and 'very big,' adding that he had 'compromising materials' on [the mayor's wife]. His other projects were described as 'small stuff' by comparison."
Sources familiar with the case said the FBI had merely been reporting the Klebnikov family's unsubstantiated speculation to the prosecutor general's office. In reality, one said, the family has "no idea" who ordered the killing.
But plenty of others have come forward with leads. Among them is Karen Nersisyan, a Moscow attorney who has spent years investigating the killings of two other journalists in Togliatti, about 500 miles southeast of Moscow. He said that Klebnikov, who had visited the town several times, had been poking into the killings shortly before his death.
Togliatti is Russia's Detroit, an auto manufacturing center that is home to the huge and scandal-plagued maker of the Lada and Zhiguli cars, and also home to a highly dangerous network of politics, money and organized crime.
Valery Ivanov, the editor of Togliatti's only independent newspaper, had named the leaders in a long-running gang war — initially over control of the automaker and later the spare-parts business — that had left the city hemorrhaging money and a trail of as many as 500 bodies. Ivanov was shot to death as he sat in a car in 2002, the fifth journalist killed in Togliatti since 1995.
His successor and friend, Alexei Sidorov, was determined to press on with the paper's reporting. Eighteen months later, he was stabbed to death on the street with an ice pick. Police charged a man with attacking him in a drunken act of hooliganism, but the man was acquitted, in part thanks to Moscow attorney Nersisyan's efforts to show that the editor was killed because of his investigative work. The police inquiry is officially stalled.
"I communicated with [Klebnikov] on the phone a week before his murder," Nersisyan said. "He was trying to find out about the Togliatti case, and he called me. We spoke for 10 or 15 minutes. I said that I possess all the copies of the materials of the journalists. I said the trail is reaching its end. We agreed that I would come [to Moscow] and bring all the copies of all the case materials."
Nersisyan said it was possible that Klebnikov's inquiry into the case led to his killing.
"He was interested in the phenomenon that all the journalists who died there died after they tried to dig deep into the economy of the place. And in reality none of the cases was solved. Not one," he said. "So of course he was interested in the role of the authorities in this.
"I specialize in the murders of journalists," he added. "And I can tell you that journalists, if they're killed, they're killed not after they write something. They are usually killed for an intent to write something. I came to this conclusion after 10 years of working on such cases."
An international committee of journalists has been set up in New York, dubbed Project Klebnikov, to follow the trails of Klebnikov's work and his death to see where they lead.
The murder trial is just a start, said project director Richard Behar, a longtime investigative journalist for Fortune, Time and Forbes.
The Nukhayev theory "is certainly possible," he said. "But there needs to be evidence. And we haven't seen anything. We don't know if [Nukhayev] is alive, we don't know if he's dead, and if they don't ever find him, this case may just evaporate into the netherworld, and we'll never hear of it again."