But under Putin, a career intelligence officer and head of the FSB from 1998 to 1999, those fears subsided and “the FSB just decided to forget about this filter,” Soldatov said. Today, the FSB gives out an annual award for the best book or film about the security services and has been behind the production of at least one major movie, Countdown, that was little more than propaganda. According to Soldatov and others, the FSB’s Center for Public Communications refuses to answer media queries, despite a 2006 law that says they must.
Soldatov, who covered Beslan and the Nord-Ost theater siege for various Moscow papers, confesses that over the last couple of years he has found only a few new sources within the FSB. At the end of our interview, in a noisy café not far from the offices of Novaya Gazeta, where he once worked, Soldatov takes out a copy of James Bamford’s The Shadow Factory, a 400-page history of the U.S. National Security Agency from 9/11 to the present. When he reads books like this, based on a rich archive of documents and sources, he says, it makes him jealous. Nonetheless, Soldatov and his colleague Irina Borogan are working on a book about the Russian security services to be published (in English) this year, titled The New Nobility, a phrase coined by former FSB director Nikolai Patrushev to describe leaders of the newly empowered security service after Putin came to power.
In the years since Patrushev spoke of a new nobility, several high-profile journalists have been murdered in spectacular contract killings, none of which have been successfully prosecuted. In 2004, just three months after the first issue of Forbes Russia was published, its founding editor, Paul Klebnikov, was shot on a quiet street outside of the magazine’s editorial offices. Two years later Anna Politkovskaya, the reporter for Novaya Gazeta who wrote about war crimes and human rights abuses in Chechnya, was shot in the elevator of her apartment building. During her trial, human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, a twenty-five-year-old Novaya Gazeta freelancer, were gunned down in broad daylight on a busy Moscow street (in November two suspects, alleged to be members of an ultranationalist group, were apprehended in the killing).
And those are only the most well-known cases. The Committee to Protect Journalists, whose estimates tend to be somewhat conservative, has identified seventeen journalists killed because of their work in the last nine years across Russia. In only one of those cases have the killers been convicted, and the masterminds remain at large. In that same period, at least forty journalists have been deported or refused entry to the country. According to the committee, Russia is the third most dangerous country in the world for journalists, trailing only Iraq and Algeria. And it is somewhat unique. Executive Director Joel Simon says that in most countries where press freedom is deeply compromised, it is usually the result of state repression (China) or violence and impunity (Mexico). Rarely do the two merge as they have in Russia.
Yet lately the faint outlines of a new paradigm seem to be emerging. Several independent magazines and newspapers, including Newsweek, Forbes, The New Times, Vedomosti, and Novaya Gazeta, have survived longer than might have been expected given the circumstances. And they usually publish what they want, free of interference from the state. At the same time, Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, has made a point of reaching out to critics, even granting Novaya Gazeta the first full-length interview of his presidency, an unimaginable gesture under Putin.
“We live on islands in Russia,” Maxim Trudolyubov, the opinion-page editor of Vedomostitells me in a quiet café not far from the subway entrance where Markelov and Baburova were shot last January. He’s referring to the large body of state-controlled media—what he calls a continent—and the small handful of independent newspapers and magazines that publish freely. Last June, Vedomostilaunched an investigative desk, headed by Irina Reznik, a leading expert on Gazprom, who writes frequently about Putin’s circle of friends. “If you do it the right way, usually you can do it and get away with it,” Trudolyubov says.