In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko spoke his last words just before he succumbed to Polonium-210 poison: “I think, therefore, that this may be the time to say one or two things to the person responsible for my present condition. You may succeed in silencing me but that silence comes at a price … The howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people.” Litvinenko, a former officer in the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, was not the first nor the last critic of Putin to die or fall ill from unnatural causes. Reporter and historian Anna Politkovskaya, who covered the second Chechen War and the rise of then KGB officer Putin, was non-fatally poisoned in 2004 en route to a hostage situation at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia. With Politkovskaya unable to mediate, President Putin’s military forces instead stormed the school with tanks, vacuum bombs and machine guns. Three hundred thirty-four people died, 186 of them children on their first day of school. Politkovskaya fared no better and was murdered in her apartment two years later, on Putin’s birthday.
Investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin died in 2003 from a sudden strange illness similar to Litvinenko’s. Former Putin co-worker Roman Tsepov died from an acute dose of radioactive material after having tea with a FSB agent. Journalist and ex-KGB agent Viktor Kalashnikov and his wife survived mercury poisoning in 2010. In 2015, journalist Vladimir Vladimirovich Kara-Murza survived a sudden mysterious illness which he suspected was due to poisoning. In 2018, ex-FSB colonel Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia survived a dose of the Soviet-developed organophosphate nerve agent Novichok. Most recently, Russian anti-corruption figure Alexei Navalny survived a poisoning by the chemical agent Novichok on Aug. 20, 2020.
When they are not being poisoned by extremely rare radioactive substances or state-owned nerve agents, journalists critical of the Kremlin find themselves falling out of windows at a high rate. In fact, journalists in Russia are killed at a rate 12 times higher than journalists in the United States.
This points to two equally important truths: Those in power are scared of courageous, critical reporting, and the killings are not about that particular person but about trying to scare reporters away from covering the crimes and corruption of their leaders. In the ideal world of autocrats and kleptocrats, journalists exist, but they are so scared to say anything that might attract ire that they say nothing, or worse, only sing the praises of corrupt governments that murder their citizens. Worse than a “useful idiot,” these cowards legitimize the regimes of child-killers and totalitarians.
This weeding out of any heterodox views regarding the ruling party is called a “chilling effect,” and it is tried by governments everywhere, to differing degrees. President Trump threatening to sue for the sake of bankrupting his enemies is a local, though not particularly pernicious, example. The Obama administration’s use of the 1917 Espionage Act against Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning is another modern U.S. example, one that displays the bipartisan nature of suppressing inconvenient truths. The trial of Daniel Ellsberg for leaking the Pentagon Papers and his subsequent set-up by Nixon’s leak-plugging team “the plumbers” show that even nations with strong journalistic protections struggle with safeguarding those that speak truth to power.
Countries without such strong protections have fared worse. In 2016, Germany threatened to imprison a comedian for a poem. In 2018, Saudi Arabian officials killed and dismembered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. 2018 saw the Chinese government disappear four high-level members of the Xinjiang Daily for being “two-faced.”
The urge to eliminate journalists is not a unique phenomenon, and it has a common source among all governments: insecurity. As more and more Putin critics survive poisonings, it is hard not to see him as an archetype—a man trying his best to cling on to power, afraid at every turn of being revealed for what he really is. Poisoning one’s enemies, even on foreign soil, is not a sign of strength but of weakness. Vladimir Putin is an ex-KGB commander and has destabilized the axis of power in the Western world. Even with all of that, his nerve agents, his nuclear weapons and his ability to influence elections the world over, he is a man scared of a pen and a pad and the truth.