Twenty-five years ago, young Russian journalists created an independent newspaper to tell the truth about the past and present without censorship or fear. Since then, Novaya Gazeta has remained the chief outpost of freedom of speech, courageous investigations, and protection of human rights in Russia.
The terrible fire in a Kemerovo mall in March that took dozens of lives, half of them children, stunned the nation. The disaster, which happened almost immediately after the presidential elections, the cynicism of officials who had more sympathy for the leadership of the Siberian region and the country than for the victims’ families, and the belated reaction from Moscow brought people out into the streets of Kemerovo and dozens of other cities in Russia. The demonstrations of solidarity with the mall-fire victims in Kemerovo blended with the protests against toxic dumps in the Moscow region and in Yekaterinburg with the rallies against the decision to abolish mayoral elections.
State propaganda immediately accused the protesters of “using blood for PR” and supporting destructive forces and criticized the independent journalists writing about the protests for destabilizing the state. Parliamentarians proposed legislation to limit reporting on the tragedy. Novaya Gazeta published an analysis of the practice of consistent “tightening of the screws” after every fatal calamity—be it the sunken Kursk submarine, the hostage taking in the Moscow theater on Dubrovka or the school in Beslan, or the flooding in Krymsk, in the Krasnodar region. Novaya’s investigations report on what the official press overlooks, see every incident in context, and show the hidden springs of events. They are the evidence of the astonishing fearlessness to tell the truth about everything and everyone, including the highest leaders of the land and their closest circles.
Six journalists paid with their lives. Igor Domnikov, head of the special-projects department, was killed in 2000. Yuri Shchekochikhin, a famous investigative reporter who was first to write about the mafia in the USSR back in 1988, in Gorbachev’s time, died under mysterious circumstances in 2003 in the midst of his series on money laundering by the Russian elite. Anna Politkovskaya, who revealed the truth about events in Chechnya to the country and the world, was shot to death in 2006. In 2009, Natalya Estemirova, Stanislav Markelov, and Anastasia Baburova were killed. Even for Russia, six killed at the same newspaper is a horrible record. Even more horribly, fewer than half of the killings are solved. The killers of Markelov and Baburova have been sentenced. Politkovskaya’s family and colleagues believe that the people who committed her murder were only pawns and the contractor has not been not named. The rest of the deaths have not been investigated fully. The people who regularly threaten journalists and declared a fatwa against Novaya for its publications in spring 2017 about the persecution of gays in Chechnya have not been punished. Many Western analysts place the responsibility for these crimes on Putin. But the cause is more likely the system of mutual responsibility and the culture of impunity that began to form before Putin, in the late 1990s, and has become universal in recent years in Russia.