New Internationalist

Who killed Maksim Maksimov?

Issue 408

Maria Yulikova tells the little known but scarcely mysterious tale of a disappeared journalist in Russia.

Rimma Vasilievna Maksimova, a retired professional interpreter who lives in a beautiful downtown district of Potsdam, Germany, is deeply depressed. She has no desire to live. Her depression started in the summer of 2004, when her only child disappeared. She believes he has been murdered, but no body has been found, there is no grave to visit and tend; little hope of bringing anyone to justice.

Maksimova’s son, Maksim Maksimov, was a well-known investigative reporter in St Petersburg. When he disappeared, in June 2004, he was working for Gorod magazine. Before joining Gorod, Maksimov had been a staff writer for the local newspaper Smena and also worked for the Agency for Journalistic Investigations (AJUR). He covered the high-profile murder cases of Galina Starovoitova, a deputy in the State Duma (the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament), and Ruslan Kolyak, a well-known entrepreneur. Maksimov also wrote about the murder of Mikhail Osherov, an advisor to the Speaker of the Russian Parliament, as well as other crimes.

When Maksimov disappeared, the police and colleagues from the AJUR probed many aspects of the case. At first they suspected the missing journalist might have been involved in some shady real-estate deal. Then they considered a car accident, or some serious problems with relatives or friends. However, after six months’ investigation, both the police and Maksimov’s colleagues came to the same conclusion – his disappearance was connected to his work.

High profile

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists – an independent international press freedom group – 14 journalists have been killed because of their work in Russia since Vladimir Putin took the Presidency in 2000. So far, in only one of the cases (the murder of Igor Domnikov) have the killers been found and charged. Even in this case, those who are said to have ordered the killing still walk free. Investigations into some high-profile cases, such as the murder of Novaya Gazeta reporter Anna Politkovskaya (killed in Moscow in October 2006), and of Paul Khlebnikov, editor of Russian Forbes magazine (killed in Moscow in July 2004) are ongoing. The rest are suspended.

Ivan Safronov, the defence correspondent of Kommersant, fell from the window of the Moscow apartment building where he lived in March 2007. Investigators opened a criminal case into ‘incitement to suicide’. Only when the journalist’s colleagues made a routine call to the prosecutor’s office did they learn that a few days earlier the investigation had been closed because of ‘an absence of foul play’. ‘I don’t know how we would have learned about it otherwise,’ the deputy editor of Kommersant, Iliya Bulavinov, says. ‘The prosecutors didn’t even contact Safronov’s family.’

In January 2006 the Russian Government, fearing a ‘colour revolution’ (a non-violent change of government from authoritarian to democratic in post-communist societies, such as in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, where NGOs took centre stage) adopted a new law, imposing restrictions on the work of local and Moscow branches of international NGOs. As a result, NGOs that have taken up such cases in Russia, and the foundations supporting them, have been plunged into excessive paperwork requiring them to provide proof to the authorities that their activities are not political or anti-Russian.

Contract killings

After the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya and then Alexander Litvinenko – a former KGB agent who became a dissident residing in Britain – the topic of contract-style murders in Russia became hot. As well as journalists, political activists, entrepreneurs and bankers were also being targeted. The exact number of contract-style killings in Russia is not known. Some sources say that around 500 are committed annually; others claim that there are thousands of them. According to the Russian daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta, during the previous six-and-a-half years over 90,000 murders had been left uninvestigated.

Last summer the Interior Minister ordered the creation of additional police departments to work on suspended criminal investigations all over the country. Meanwhile, investigators have a maximum of just two months to make preliminary investigations into each case. When this period expires, they must either pass the case to court or suspend the investigation. If prosecutors so decide, a suspended investigation may be re-opened only after much paper work and negotiations with controlling prosecutors and judges.

Private eyes

All 14 journalists murdered in Russia since 2000 were targeted for their coverage of sensitive issues. The corruption of the authorities at different levels is one of the most dangerous subjects for reporters to cover in Russia.

The authorities have a wide range of means to silence journalists and even shut down media companies, using recently adopted anti-extremism laws. Journalists and media companies can be severely punished or silenced for spreading information causing ‘national, racial, social, ideological or political hatred’. Such broad definitions provide the authorities with an open field for manipulation. In such conditions, journalists in Russia are forced to balance between legislative restrictions, the danger of touching sensitive political issues and professional or moral codes. Otherwise, there is no way to practise journalism and be safe.

What happened to Maksimov?

In December 2003, six months before he disappeared, Maksimov published an article on the activities and contacts of Mikhail Smirnov, a lieutenant colonel in the Russian Interior Ministry (MVD). Smirnov was the deputy head of the MVD division fighting corruption, but his working methods, Maksimov alleged, were crooked.

According to the local newspapers, the investigation into Maksimov’s disappearance led the police to Andrey Isayev. At the time he was the editor of a new magazine, Intellect, Tvorchestvo (‘Intellect, Creation’). It was reported that Isayev also assisted the police as an ‘agent’ and that one of his jobs was to help Smirnov ‘fight corruption’. However, the nature of his involvement was questionable. The papers said that Isayev had told investigators how Smirnov and his colleagues had murdered Maksimov.

According to the Russian daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta, during the previous six-and-a-half years over 90,000 murders had been left uninvestigated

Smirnov, it was reported, asked Isayev to bring Maksimov to an apartment in downtown St Petersburg. Isayev contacted Maksimov and asked for a meeting to discuss the journalist’s future articles in Isayev’s new magazine. When Maksimov arrived, Isayev suggested that they go to his office and took him to the apartment. Smirnov and his subordinates were said to be waiting for Maksimov there. Smirnov ordered Isayev to stay in another room, from which Isayev heard the men beating and choking Maksimov. The killers reportedly wrapped the journalist’s body in plastic, put it into Smirnov’s car trunk and went to the suburban town of Solnechnoye. There, Smirnov and one of his men drove the car into the forest, leaving the other two on the highway to keep watch.

In June 2005 the Interior Ministry issued a statement denying the involvement of three police investigators in Maksimov’s disappearance. No explanations or further information were presented. Nor was the body found.

In September 2005 Maksimova made an attempt to find her son’s body herself. ‘I hired a company of soldiers to search for the body in the forest, splitting expenses for the soldiers’ work and meals with the AJUR,’ Maksimova says. ‘Nevertheless, the soldiers found nothing.’

Then she started sending requests to the authorities, asking for a more effective investigation. She contacted the former and the present Russian General Prosecutor, the Internal Affairs Minister and the Chairman of the Federation Council for the Federal Assembly, as well as the Mayor and the Chief Prosecutor of St Petersburg. In April 2006, the daily newspaper Moskovskaya Pravda published Maksimova’s letter to President Putin, asking for his assistance.

The office of both the former and the present German Chancellor sent requests on behalf of Maksimov’s mother to the Putin Administration and to the Russian General Prosecutor’s deputy in St Petersburg. In response, there was either nothing or a formal acknowledgement of continuing investigations. Maksimova met with the mayor of St Petersburg, Valentina Matvienko, who gave an assurance that she would oversee the case.

‘I don’t know what else I can do,’ Maksimov’s mother says. ‘I am ready to go out and shout from the pain.’

In November 2006, Dzerzhinsky district court in St Petersburg classified Maksimov’s case as murder. However, no further developments in this investigation are known. In particular, it is not known whether the newspaper reports were correct in naming Smirnov or Isayev or whether they are even suspected by the investigators.

Today, newspapers in St Petersburg are making no attempt to remind the public about the unsolved disappearance of the once well-known, good investigative journalist Maksim Maksimov – he is just regarded as another name in a long list of Russian journalists who have disappeared or been killed for doing their job.

Maria Yulikova is the Moscow correspondent of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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