By faking Babchenko’s murder, Ukraine has smeared itself


Arkady Babchenko. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sophie Pinkham* – The Guardian

This irresponsible stunt has severely undermined both Ukraine’s credibility and that of honest journalism

On Tuesday, the news spread quickly: Russian dissident journalist Arkady Babchenko had been shot three times just outside his apartment in Kiev, as he went out to buy bread. His wife had been in the bathroom; when she rushed out at the sound of gunshots, she found her husband bleeding to death. He died in the ambulance on his way to the hospital. On Facebook, Ukraine’s prime minister blamed Russia.

No one had trouble believing this story; no one even considered questioning it. It was gruesomely familiar, similar to the many horrifying stories we’d already heard from Russia, Ukraine, and other countries where journalists are killed for their reporting. The examples that sprang first to my mind were the 2006 assassination of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot four times after she entered her Moscow apartment building, her groceries in hand; and the 2016 murder of Pavel Sheremet, a Belarusian journalist killed by a car bomb in central Kiev. The masterminds behind Politkovskaya’s murder were never identified, but it was revealed that she had been under surveillance by the FSB, the Russian security service, for at least two months before her murder. The Ukrainian government still hasn’t arrested or prosecuted anyone for Sheremet’s assassination, but investigative journalists discovered that an agent of the SBU, Ukraine’s security service, had been sitting outside Sheremet’s building the night the bomb was planted on his car. Ukraine blamed Russia, predictably, for Sheremet’s death, but some Ukrainians suspected a cover-up. Despite the rift in Russian-Ukrainian relations in recent years, the two countries often behave in strikingly similar ways.

A friend from Kiev happened to be staying with me on Tuesday, and I arrived home to find him in tears. He had been friendly with Babchenko and with many other journalists, including Russians who moved to Kiev after years of harassment and persecution. He spoke about his affection and admiration for Babchenko, and about the fear he felt for his other journalist friends. Would they be killed, too? We agreed that it was unlikely that the Ukrainian government would find Babchenko’s killer. If anyone would discover the truth, it would be journalists. And by investigating the killing, they might very well be risking their own lives.

Meanwhile, Facebook and Twitter were surging with anguish. Babchenko had been known for his refusal to express sorrow over the deaths of people who supported Putin and his administration. Most notoriously, when a plane crash killed Russia’s Red Army choir en route to Syria, Babchenko proclaimed his lack of sympathy, given Russia’s military aggression; the backlash (including from the government) led to his flight to Ukraine. But most of the social media posts I saw after the announcement of his death forgave him his trespasses and remembered only his better qualities (which appear to be numerous). It was particularly agonising to read the statements of Babchenko’s fellow journalists, who had already seen too many colleagues killed, and who must have been reminded of the threat to their own lives. People started making plans to honour his memory, to help his widow and adopted children, and to pressure the Ukrainian government to find his killer.

The next morning, I began to see comments on social media that said Babchenko was alive: “Babchenko lives”. This phrase is often used metaphorically, for example in graffiti celebrating dead Russian rock stars, and I assumed this was the case here as well. But then I saw footage from an SBU press conference, with a reveal worthy of reality TV: Babchenko sauntered in unexpectedly, to the astonishment and applause of the audience. The murder had been staged, supposedly as a way of catching Russian operatives plotting Babchenko’s assassination. Someone is reportedly in custody, though it has not yet been explained how this was accomplished or why exactly it was necessary to fake the murder. In his remarks, Babchenko apologised to his wife.

For me, for my visiting friend, and for many others, relief soon gave way to doubts about the ethics and the wisdom of this “special operation”. On Facebook, the Ukrainian MP Anton Herashchenko tried to explain why it had been necessary to disseminate an artist’s sketch of a supposed killer “with a Caucasian appearance”. (Some Russian assassinations have been connected with Chechens, but immigrants from the Caucasus are also subject to brutal discrimination; Ukraine has an increasingly serious problem of ultranationalist attacks on ethnic and other minorities, as well as journalists.) Herashchenko admitted that the hoax caused pain to many – but after all, he wrote, Sherlock Holmes often staged his own death in order to solve crimes, causing pain to his loved ones and to Doctor Watson. The line between truth and fiction had become hopelessly blurred; it was all just stories. The literary reference reminded me of one of the more ludicrous Russian conspiracy theories about the attack on flight MH17: that the passengers were dead before the plane took off, as seen in the BBC series Sherlock.

In its endless one-upmanship against Russia, Ukraine has once again cut off its nose to spite its face, severely undermining its own credibility and that of journalists. This stunt also seems a gratuitous blow to what is left of public sincerity, compassion, and trust. Next time a journalist is killed in Ukraine (and, unfortunately, it seems certain that there will be a next time), even the least cynical observers, the kinds of people who wept all night over Babchenko’s supposed death, will likely wonder whether they should believe in a tragic death until they’ve inspected the corpse themselves. Conspiracy theories thrive on this kind of corrosive scepticism. Some Ukrainian commentators have been crowing that no one will be able to smear the Ukrainian security services after this brilliant victory. In fact, the Ukrainian authorities have done a magnificent job of smearing themselves.

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*Sophie Pinkham is the author of Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine. She has written about Russian and Ukrainian culture and politics for The New Yorker, The Nation, The New Republic, and other publications. From 2005-2011 she worked in international public health, focusing on HIV and drug policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.