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The Moscow Times, July 2, 2004

Russian Saint

By Alexander Osipovich

Yury Shchekochikhin portrait stood behind a glass of vodka and crust of bread at a recent evening devoted to his memory

One year after Yury Shchekochikhin's sudden death, friends paint the outspoken journalist and politician as a holy man 'without the slightest hint of a halo.'

Death threats were a fact of life for Yury Shchekochikhin. As an investigative journalist who had been exposing high-level corruption since the 1980s, Shchekochikhin often received sinister, anonymous notes and calls; he usually brushed them off with idealistic bravado and a flippant sense of humor. So when he died under mysterious circumstances on July 3 -- one year ago this Saturday -- his friends suspected the worst. The hospital's diagnosis was severe allergic reaction. But his friends, colleagues and family believe he was poisoned.

The approaching one-year anniversary has led to a flurry of activity among Shchekochikhin's friends, who are determined to preserve the memory of the late journalist, playwright and State Duma deputy. Many of them have offered their personal tributes in a new book titled "With Love: Works of Yury Shchekochikhin, Reminiscences and Essays on Him." With essays by figures like Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky and filmmaker Alexei German Sr., the book portrays him as a larger-than-life hero. In fact, the final entry, an ode by poet Andrei Voznesensky, calls Shchekochikhin "the last Russian saint."

While some observers might balk at elevating Shchekochikhin to sainthood, writer Leonid Zhukhovitsky, a close personal friend, stands by the term. "Yurka was already a saint in his youth," he writes in his essay. "But this wasn't noticeable, because, as Andrei Voznesensky formulates it so precisely, he was a Russian saint: drinking, slovenly, jovial, with a broken destiny and without the slightest hint of a halo."

Shchekochikhin's career began early; he was 14 years old when he started free-lancing for Moskovsky Komsomolets. Moving to Komsomolskaya Pravda to write for its youth-oriented section, Aly Parus, in the early 1970s, he made a name for himself there by writing about troubled youth, drugs and black marketeering -- subjects rarely discussed in the Soviet press. At the same time, he began writing plays. His plays were based on the same material as his journalism; one of them, "Trap Number 46 Size 2," was about a gang of teenage black marketeers.

According to Nadezhda Azhgikhina, Shchekochikhin's former wife and a secretary of the Russian Journalists' Union, the writer was always drawn to social problems. "His main uniqueness as a journalist wasn't that he wrote better than everyone else," she said in a recent interview. "What he had was an instinctual flair for finding the material of a story -- for finding out where, at that exact moment, society was hurting."

Azhgikhina and Shchekochikhin married in 1984 and divorced seven years later. A successful journalist herself, Azhgikhina describes her former husband as a gregarious man with an enormous network of friends. During their marriage, guests came over almost every night.

In the 1980s, Shchekochikhin went to work for Literaturnaya Gazeta, traditionally the most liberal Soviet newspaper, where he devoted himself to exposing corruption in the Party and upper ranks of the government. When the death threats began coming in, Azhgikhina said, Shchekochikhin was unperturbed.

"Personal threats and danger could never scare him or force him to change his way of life," she recalled. "He was somehow built differently from the rest of us ... Like many of his contemporaries, he always used to say that he would die young. But this was a kind of romanticism that was characteristic of men of his generation."

Shchekochikhin's political career started in 1990, when he was nominated and elected to the Supreme Soviet by voters from the Voroshilovgrad region of Ukraine, who knew him only from his newspaper articles. Propelled into the first (and the last) democratically elected Soviet parliament, Shchekochikhin found himself among colleagues like poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov.

Azhgikhina had doubts about her husband's decision to enter politics. "It seemed to me that this wasn't right for him," she said. "In my personal opinion ... he was more of a journalist than a politician. Politics is a completely separate profession. But changing his mind was completely impossible."

The cracks in their marriage eventually led to divorce. In 1995, Shchekochikhin returned to parliamentary politics as a Yabloko deputy in the Duma. His career in the Duma was distinguished by a series of high-profile investigations. He wrote a series of stories exposing an alleged tax evasion scheme at the Tri Kita furniture store, accusing government officials of helping cover it up; he also raised questions about FSB involvement in the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings. Threats against his life were common -- at one point, he requested a bodyguard to protect his and Azhgikhina's son, a medical student.

Shchekochikhin continued his journalistic career even while serving in the Duma, becoming the deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta in 1997. According to Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, journalism and politics had become indivisible for the writer.

"He didn't separate them," Muratov said. "It's not like he wrote about one thing in the newspaper and spoke about another thing in the Duma. For him, one job was a continuation of the other, and they intersected. It's no coincidence that the reporters he worked with at the newspaper were simultaneously his helpers in the Duma."

One of Shchekochikhin's most daring achievements was a campaign to free kidnapped Russian servicemen in Chechnya. Working with Novaya Gazeta colleague Vyacheslav Izmailov, he convinced prosecutors around the country to release ethnic Chechens being held for minor crimes in Russian jails, on the condition that they help secure the release of Russians in Chechnya. Over 170 Russian prisoners were freed in this way.

According to Muratov, Shchekochikhin succeeded because of his immense moral authority. "Nobody could accuse Yura of doing what he did out of selfish considerations," Muratov said. "Even bandits respected him as a very strong opponent, because they knew he wasn't doing anything to advance his personal interests."

Shchekochikhin died at the age of 53. Witnesses who saw his body said that his hair had fallen out, a symptom consistent with thallium poisoning. In the December elections that followed his death, Yabloko lost its representation in the Duma, and investigations he was pursuing were never resumed.

"It's frightening to think that he's gone," Azhgikhina said. "But it's probably good that he didn't see how these elections went, and how the situation has developed in general. I don't just mean what happened to Yabloko and SPS ... It's almost as if, with his death, an era ended -- the era when romantics went into politics. Now is a very different time. We live in a pragmatic, and much more vicious, era."


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Freedom of Speech and Media Law in Russia

The Moscow Times, July 2, 2004

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