Back in the Yeltsin era, reading the Russian press - particularly Novaya Gazeta, MK and Sovershenno Sekretno - gave you a rush like popping a spoon of phen... While the Western press and talking-head community churned out reams of calm lies and whitewashings about Yeltsin's Russia, the Russian press fed on the crossfire of oligarch wars and the epic stories of corruption that made it the most interesting place on the planet.
Since Putin's clampdown after taking power, Russia's press has gone from raw speed fuel to depressing has-been. But the coverage of the Nord-Ost hostage crisis restored my respect for the Russian press. I was amazed by NTV, its courage and open debate compared to the American press's reaction to 9/11, when they went from indirect to direct propaganda organ for the government. Even under Putin, even during one of the most horrible episodes in Moscow's recent past, the Russian press still showed a thousand times more courage and democratic principle than America's.
Last week, I decided to pick up a copy of Sovershenno Sekretno, the once wild muckraker's rag that had turned, after Artyom Borovik's suspicious death, into bland Hard Copy style scandal mongering, the kind of fake muckraking so popular in the US.
Let me just say: it's a great issue.
Governor or Unabomber Abramovich?
The most dangerous article deals with the murder last month of Magadan governor Valentin Tsvetkov. As expected, despite all the hue and cry from the Russian government, no one has been caught. The journalist, Iosif Galperin, asks the kinds of relevant questions that call into question the leads that most people are following, concluding, indirectly, that the most likely suspect is also just about the only person who could get away with murdering someone as powerful as Tsvetkov- the only person possibly more powerful than Putin himself.
Using an inside source, Galperin takes us through first the possible motives or the murder. First, what is at stake: a massive and highly criminalized trade in Kolyma gold, Okhotskoe Sea fish and massive amounts of untapped oil and gas reserves in the Magadan Oblast: up to 2.4 billion tons of oil and 2.4 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, resources that Tsvetkov had never allowed to be exploited. Over the past year, Tsvetkov allegedly tried to drag some of the gold business out of the shadow economy: two years ago only 14 tons of gold was officially mined and taxed, while last year that figure rose to 27, denying black marketers, including supposed criminal organizations from the Caucuses, part of the free ride.
Only someone incredibly wealthy and incredibly connected, almost or at the level of Putin, could possibly arrange this clean of a hit knowing in-advance that it would come off as smoothly as it did. Listing the requirements to carry out the operation, the number of people (8-15) the fee and the cash necessary to spirit the perpetrators out of Russia, Galperin estimates that the operation cost around 3-5 million dollars.
He discounts the general media and government line that the murder was a local Magadan hit carried out in Moscow because of Tsvetkov's many business connections. A Magadan gang wouldn't have the balls or the connections to pull off a murder on President Putin's route. He also discounts Putin as the suspect: if Putin wanted Tsvetkov killed, he or his people would have used the money to bribe and manipulate him out of power the way they did to another powerful Far East figure, Yevgeny Nazdratenko.
From here the trail leads, via an illegal precious metals transport and refining company called "Ingushzoloto", to Magadan's neighboring republic, Chukotka. Galperin is careful not to directly finger its present governor, Roman Abramovich, easily the scariest oligarch ever (scary to everyone but bought-off Western reporters like John Lloyd and Yuri Zarakhovich, who have published jaw-dropping blow-jobs about Abramovich in the Financial Times and Time Magazine respectively). Abramovich, as you'll recall, was so scary that no Russian media organ would dare even show his face until late 1999. He has been accused of everything from hijacking railway freight cars during the early 1990s to things we don't even want to publish if we can't attribute them to another media outlet.