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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

1 Killing, Many Stories

`I don't know why this happened,' a U.S. journalist said as he lay dying in Russia. Was it for what he'd written, or was about to write?

February 14, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — It was late when he left the office, but Paul Klebnikov was the kind of journalist who always had more stories than time, and always worked late. On this night, someone was waiting.

A small, dark car pulled up as Klebnikov made his way down the street. The barrel of a gun appeared. Within moments, the 41-year-old New Yorker was dead.

He left few clues about his killers as he lay bleeding on the pavement. "Have you had any contacts or meetings or visits, telephone calls that could have led to this?" Alexander Gordeyev, a fellow journalist, asked as he crouched at his side. "He said, 'No, I don't know why this happened.'

"He said it was a Russian, and he was wearing black clothes; his hair was black too. And then he asked me to get in touch with his family, his wife and brother. I don't think he realized he was dying."

On Wednesday, two alleged Chechen gangsters and their purported cohort in a gun-for-hire mob will go on trial in a Moscow courtroom for murder in Klebnikov's death almost two years ago. But the trial, which began last month but had to be halted when the judge fell ill, already seems to have raised as many questions as it has answered about who would have wanted to kill the editor of the newly launched Forbes Russia magazine.

Was he killed, as the prosecution believes, on the orders of Chechen warlord-businessman Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev, who was said to be incensed over Klebnikov's less-than-flattering book about him, "Conversations With a Barbarian"?

Or did he die because of something he was preparing to write, targeted by someone from the murky shadow land of big business, organized crime and politics in post-Soviet Russia?

It is a testament to Klebnikov's energy, curiosity and tenacity that the range of figures who may have wanted to silence him is huge. The editor-writer had written about bandit capitalists and corrupt mullahs; he published the first Forbes "Golden Hundred" list of the richest Russians, in a country where billionaire fat cats tend to scurry for cover like roaches in the kitchen when the lights are turned on.

Since his death in July 2004, sources have come forward hinting at the array of stories on which Klebnikov was amassing material -- including corruption in the automotive industry, money laundering, links between politics and big money, and the disappearance of millions of dollars in Chechnya.

With 11 journalists killed in contract-style slayings in Russia since 2000, any one of the stories could have made Klebnikov the first American journalist executed by assassins here.

"It is all too clear that he was in the way of some people, people that grew to hate him," Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident and Nobel Prize-winning novelist, wrote shortly after Klebnikov's death. "He gave his life for the truth -- and for Russia, which he earnestly loved."

Klebnikov was born to Russian immigrants in the U.S. and grew up American, but journeyed all over the world in his reporting and remained fascinated with the land of his heritage. He earned his doctorate at the London School of Economics, writing on the Soviet Communist Party and rural development in early 20th century Russia, and traveled to Russia through the explosive years of early capitalism in the 1990s for the U.S. edition of Forbes. He made his home in Moscow from early 2004, leaving his family behind in the U.S., knowing he would be putting in long hours to get the new magazine off the ground.

Klebnikov was classically handsome with a mop of dark hair and intense eyes. Colleagues described him as both romantic about Russia and unforgiving of its shortcomings. Russians, who are often standoffish with strangers and deeply warm with intimates, seemed to find in Klebnikov an American they could both like and trust. He was invited into kitchens and corporate suites alike, neither of them easy entree for U.S. reporters.

"He got to know the way things worked in Russia. Along with perhaps a few journalists, and there were really not more than a handful, he had a superb sense of what was going on," said his brother, Michael Klebnikov, who lives in New York.

"He really understood the intrigues -- to use Churchill's phrase, all the fighting that was going on under the carpet," he said, referring to Churchill's remark that observing Russian politics was "like watching two dogs fighting under a carpet."

"When the privatization process started, he was very quick to recognize it for the wholesale thievery that it was, while at the same time acknowledging that he understood the rationale behind it," he said.

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