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A Little Learning: To cover up a cover-up

Published: October 2, 2009
Section: Opinions

In September 1999, much of the Russian populace lay in a state of terror. That month a series of seemingly random bombings rocked the country. The first bomb, on Sept. 4, went off at a military barracks in the Buymaksk. The dead numbered 64. Five days latter a second bomb went off in a working class neighborhood of Moscow, killing 94. The third bomb, detonated during the early hours of Sept. 13, leveled a Moscow apartment building. One-hundred twenty-one people died. The fourth and final bombing occurred three days later, in a city south of Moscow, resulting in an additional seventeen casualties.

So what? Why should we care about decade old bombings in Russia?

One reason has to do with the identity of the then newly appointed Russian Prime Minister: Vladimir Putin. In response to the bombings, Putin pushed for Russia to retaliate against Chechnya, the object of official suspicion concerning the explosions. Under Putin’s leadership, Russia followed up the bombings by inaugurating a second war with Chechnya. Perceived as someone willing to get tough in the face of terror, Putin’s popularity soared, and he subsequently assumed the Presidency following the resignation of President Boris Yeltsin.

And yet, why should we care?

To answer that question, I offer Scott Anderson, whose article concerning these very bombings appeared in this month’s newsstand issue of GQ. “It is a riddle that lies at the very heart of the modern Russian state, one that remains unsolved to this day,” Mr. Anderson writes. “In the awful events of September 1999, did Russia find its avenging angel in Vladimir Putin, the proverbial man of action who crushed his nation’s attackers and let his people out of a time of crisis? Or was that crisis actually manufactured to benefit Putin, a scheme by Russia’s secret police to bring one of their own to power? What makes this question important is that absent the bombings of September 1999 and all that transpired as a result, it is hard to conceive of any scenario whereby Putin would hold the position he enjoys today: a player on the global stage, the ruler of one of the most powerful nations on earth.”

Anderson’s article details certain inconsistencies and unanswered questions concerning the bombings: how a bomb could go off in a building inspected by the FSB (Federal Security Bureau, the successor to the KGB) three hours earlier, how the initial sketches made by witnesses after one of the bombings match the identity of a known FSB operative, how a Russian politician with FSB connections could misidentify a city where a bomb went off, only to have a bomb go off in that city three days later.

“Immediately after the bombings a broad spectrum of Russian society publically cast doubt on the government’s version of events,” Anderson explains, but “Those voices have now gone silent one by one. In recent years a number of journalists who investigated the incidents have been murdered – or have died under suspicious circumstances – as have two members of Parliament who sat on the commission of inquiry.” Perhaps the most famous of these deaths occurred in 2006, when former KGB agent and Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko was killed with a dose of the radioactive isotope Polonium 210, delivered by two intelligence agents with whom he was meeting in a London café.

And yet, remarkable as Anderson’s story is, in getting it to print Anderson discovered that the ruthlessness of the Russians was matched by the perfidy of his publisher. GQ is a subsidiary of Conde Nast Publications, the company responsible for Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker. Conde Nast, worried about its Russian circulation (it has Russian language editions of GQ, Vogue, Glamour, and Tatler) and possible retaliation by the Russian government, opted to bury Anderson’s article in the pages of American GQ, literally. A search of GQ’s website yields nary a reference to Anderson’s story, which ran six pages in the print issue.

But this article isn’t so much about Russian politics or Conde Nast’s cover-up as it is about good journalism, the kind NPR practiced in pursuing this story. I freely admit that I am not a GQ reader. I would never have heard of this story had it not been for the superb investigative work of National Public Radio. In a story that ran September 4th, NPR interviewed Anderson about his story, and proceeded to investigate Conde Nast’s suppression of it. NPR obtained a memo from one of the firm’s lawyers, Jerry Birenz, stating in part, “Conde Nast management has decided that the September issue of U.S. GQ Magazine containing Scott Anderson’s article ‘Vladimir Putin’s Dark Rise to Power’ should not be distributed in Russia.” Complying with its legal advice, the story was not posted online, nor was it run in any of Conde Nast’s foreign editions – in effect, Conde Nast sought to both publish and bury the story at the same time.

Perhaps this decision makes business sense. And given the conditions for journalists in Russia – of seventeen journalists murdered in the last decade, sixteen of the cases remain unsolved – it would be understandable if Conde Nast feared for Mr. Anderson’s safety. “But Conde Nast’s Birenz did not raise security issues in his memo,” NPR’s David Folkenflik reported, “And Anderson says he was not told of any safety matters by the company, just concerns of lawyers.”

Conde Nast’s shameful conduct deserves the widest exposure. Under Putin’s leadership the Russian press has been cowed or killed, making foreign sources of information all the more valuable. The fact that the mere fear of Russian retaliation can drive a company as large as Conde Nast to bury an unfavorable story testifies to the true condition of Russian society. And it ought to help us appreciate, in this age of politicized news and corporate cutbacks, the value of a free press.