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The Murder of Larissa Yudina. Chronicle of Events.

Killing the Messenger

The last interview with a murdered publisher

Columbia Journalism Review

September/October 1998

by Eve Conant

Eve Conant is a radio correspondent and television producer for Feature Story Productions in Moscow. She supplies reports for NPR and NBC, and produces for Fox News and various PBS programs.

Larisa Yudina, murdered in June, was the only consistent voice of opposition to the local leadership of Kalmykia, a southern Russian republic on the Caspian Sea. The Russian-language newspaper she published, Sovietskaya Kalmykia Segodnya (Soviet Kalmykia Today), was regularly harassed by government agents, causing Yudina to print the paper in a neighboring region. Visiting journalists often sought her out. She described the restrictions she faced during a talk with me in May -- the last interview she ever gave.

On the night of June 7, Yudina, 53, received a phone call from a man offering documents that would help in her latest investigation into government corruption in Kalmykia, which is ruled by a flamboyant 36-year-old millionaire, Kerson Ilyumzhinov. She walked down the stairs to the entrance of her building in her slippers, perhaps navigating the seven flights in pitch black, as I had done after my meeting with her a few weeks earlier. She got into a car. The next morning, her body was found in a pond, her skull fractured and her torso pierced with multiple stab wounds. Russian authorities in Moscow, doubtful that the local government would properly investigate, took over the case. So far, two former aides of President Ilyumzhinov have confessed to the killing, and two others are thought by the authorities to be involved as well.

Yudina's murder illustrates what "press freedom" has come to mean in Russia. Moscow boasts some semblance of Western-style press rights. Major papers and TV stations there cover all manner of scandals, though their owners are often quick to interfere with independent reporting. But in the far reaches of the former Soviet Union, in places like Kalmykia, the press is treated much as it was in communist times. Indeed, the danger to journalists may be even greater now, since the rules change almost daily. National Russian newspapers are available in Kalmykia, but on days that the liberal newspaper Argumenty and Fakty ran articles on Yudina, the paper was nowhere to be found.

Larisa Yudina never missed a chance to point out connections between poverty in Kalmykia and the ever-expanding fortune of its leader. The young president, who tolerates no genuine political opposition, is often seen driving around the capital city of Elista in one of his seven Rolls Royces. He makes extravagant promises to turn Kalmykia into a second Kuwait, with comparable riches for the people. Meanwhile, electricity, hot water, and even wages are luxuries for his constituents. Yudina tried to drive that point home, but most Kalmyks feared being interviewed. "If you speak against Ilyumzhinov today," she told me, "your husband or children will lose their jobs tomorrow."

An interview with Yudina required sneaking out of my hotel late at night for the rendezvous. She had been preparing a story on Kalmykia's special tax haven status, which she claimed allowed President Ilyumzhinov to pocket millions of dollars. She said Ilyumzhinov would do anything to maintain that cash flow.

"Ilyumzhinov was never deeply involved in the communist system," she said. "He claims he is a modern ruler. But democratic freedoms and rights are violated here more than anywhere in Russia."

Yudina was one of many Russian journalists who perished because of their reporting. In 1997 Reporter Sans Frontiers ranked Russia after Colombia as the world's most dangerous country for journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, sixty-six newspersons from the former Soviet Union have been killed since its breakup in 1991. Says Alexei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, which monitors press freedom: "Not a single case in which journalists were killed in direct connection with their journalistic activities has been solved in Russia."

That includes the well-known case of Dimitri Kholodov, who had been researching corruption in Russia's military. In 1994 he was blown up in his Moscow office when his booby-trapped briefcase exploded. By July of this year, according to the Glasnost Defense Foundation, six journalists had been killed in Russia. Two were stabbed, one shot, one beaten, one strangled with her scarf. In late June, the editor of an independent newspaper critical of local leaders in Kirov was hospitalized with skull and brain injuries.

Yudina had little contact with other local media, whom she considered government mouthpieces. She complained: "Russian journalists who come here from Moscow say they haven't seen such newspapers since Brezhnev's time. They sometimes publish fifteen pictures of the president in one issue."

Asked about Yudina a few weeks before her murder, Ilyumzhinov dismissed her as a communist -- after all, her paper was called Soviet Kalmykia Today. Yudina denied any communist leanings. She had been a reporter for the paper since Soviet times, and retained the title for continuity. She was also regional co-chairman of Russia's most pro-Western political party, Yabloko. The leader of that faction, former Russian presidential candidate Grigori Yavlinsky, calls the killing "political."

In my interview with her, Yudina described an attack on her newspaper office by security guards employed by a bank with links to the Kalmyk government. "I tried to call the prosecutors' office but the guards tore the receiver from my hands. Then I used mace against them. The head of the security service threatened to kill me and fired his gun."

But Yudina withstood all the harassment and continued her efforts to publish. Asked if she were afraid, she responded, "I'm tired of being afraid." Journalists from Russia's Novaya Gazeta newspaper, in Moscow, hope to continue publishing Soviet Kalmykia Today. But they're not optimistic. They know in this Russian version of David and Goliath, Goliath always wins.