Brian Boyd: They shot my friend four times for writing about what matters
A few days after he wrote about the 100 wealthiest people in Russia someone in a Lada with tinted windows shot Paul Klebnikov dead
Paul Klebnikov: This week the US Department of State (Paul was a New Yorker of Russian lineage) called for an end to “the culture of impunity” seemingly afforded those responsible for his death. File photograph: Misha Japaridze/AP
I was horrified by those pictures of cheering Tories as Theresa May became British prime minister on Monday. Not horrified because in among them was someone I know and like. Someone, who, in his youth, was a supporter of the Revolutionary Communist Party and was always good for belting out the International Brigade anthem El Valle del Jarama at closing time in the pub.
I was horrified because someone I know to be clever, funny, charming and intelligent had been so disastrously misled. I can’t believe that he, of all people, had been taken in by the “natural looking results” claim on the box of black hair dye that he is so obviously applying to his now greying hair.
We had met while students together at the London School of Economics in our youth. That someone who used to bore me rigid over pints in the student union bar talking about “the limitations of reformism in building a new working class leadership” is now a Tory who wants to abolish the minimum wage is something I’ve come to accept. But black hair dye the colour of shoe polish I can never accept.
I see him on television from time to time, as I do others from our gang back then but now the caption tells me they’re a senior Whitehall adviser or an ambassador or a BBC correspondent or the chief executive of a company with more employees than the population of Belgium.
Once bosom pals, we are scattered around the world now and mostly out of touch. But this week in July, from an office in the City of London to the boardroom of an internet company in Palo Alto we always pause for a few minutes together to remember the leader of our pack.
Gun attackOn July 9th, 2004, Paul Klebnikov left his desk at the office of Forbes magazine in Moscow at 10pm. As he walked to the subway, a Lada with tinted windows pulled up beside him. The driver rolled down his window and shot Paul four times. It was to get worse: he had survived the gun attack and was conscious and talking. In the ambulance taking him to the hospital, he cried out for oxygen. The ambulance didn’t have any; another one had to be summoned. Paul was losing consciousness as they eventually arrived at the hospital. He was put into a lift to take him to the operating room but the lift broke down. As people tried prising open the lift doors with their hands, a nurse stopping pushing the lift’s alarm button saying “there it is, that’s his fate”. Fifteen minutes later a workman arrived and managed to open the lift. It was too late, Paul was dead.
This week the US Department of State (Paul was a New Yorker of Russian lineage) called for an end to “the culture of impunity” seemingly afforded those responsible for his death.
Paul was our leader because he was the charismatic, lovable editor of the LSE’s weekly student newspaper where we all first met. My first conversation with him began and ended with him making me arts editor. My second was when he promoted me to news editor.
My rapid rise in student journalism was because I was the only person in our cramped office not affiliated to either the Socialist Workers Party or the Revolutionary Communist Party and as such could not be accused of being either “counter-revolutionary” or “bourgeois” as others news editors had been.
Together we conducted a reign of terror on the LSE’s governing body – organising occupations, walk-outs and boycotts on even the slightest suspicion of “student oppression”. Such was Paul’s passion and zeal we rechristened him Paul Kalashnikov and given his proud Russian background, we named his politically charged editorials “Red Square proclamations”.
After the LSE, Paul went on to launch the first Russian language edition of Forbes magazine. We all laughed in recognition when in his first Forbes editorial he wrote that money wasn’t everything (in Forbes) and that “moral values and a sense of citizenship” were what mattered most. He made powerful enemies in Moscow – his articles often focused on the synergy of Russian business and organized crime; he believed in the power of the press to stop a new class of Russian oligarchs from ransacking the country for personal gain.
The issue of Forbes immediately before his death drew particular ire: Paul had noted how Moscow had more billionaires than any other city in the world; he listed the 100 wealthiest people in Russia, detailing what assets they held and how they had made their money. A few days later someone in a Lada with tinted windows shot him dead.The investigation into his murder continues. A global media alliance (projectklebnikov.org) continues to exert pressure on the Kremlin.
Freedom of the pressAs with Veronica Guerin and Martin O’Hagan, Paul’s life and death is a depressing reminder of our self-indulgent, whiny response to what freedom of the press really means. That journalists have had bullets pumped into them for writing what really matters, puts into context the facile finger-pointing and puerile name-calling over writing that really doesn’t matter.
In February last year, I arrived at Moscow airport at 2am. As we pulled up to our hotel an hour later, the taxi driver pointed out the window to indicate the majestic sight of snow falling over nearby Red Square.
Racing to my room, I liberated a small bottle of vodka from the mini-bar, and walked through the snow to Red Square to drink a toast to a great friend and mentor and his Red Square proclamations in a dingy student newspaper office in London.
Paul Klebnikov changed my life. He made me a journalist and I was only in Moscow because I was working on a story.
Look at me Kalashnikov – toasting you with vodka in Red Square at 3am. You taught me how to write a story up so I wrote this one for you.