The Curious Case of Arkady Babchenko

by Alissa Ordabai

Two days ago the main news emerging out of Russia was Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike. The filmmaker was on the 15th day of his perilous fast, protesting Russia’s persecution of Ukrainian political prisoners. Human rights organizations, journalists, and volunteers were gathering momentum in their effort to publicize his deadlock with the Russian regime. But then in a flash something happened that obliterated Sentsov from the international headlines:  the deadly shooting in Kiev of Russia’s prominent war correspondent Arkady Babchenko. The world’s leading news outlets announced he was killed in his Kiev apartment, less than a year after fleeing Moscow following death threats.  


Babchenko was a brave, passionate reporter, a fearless critic of the Putin administration.  He went through the hell of two Chechen wars, emerged badly scathed, battled PTSD, but never gave up speaking the truth about war and about Russia’s domestic policies. He withstood years of harassment, threats, intimidation, and forced unemployment. Over the years his writing became intense, and at times callously brutal. He would refuse to mourn the deaths of musicians who flew to Syria to entertain the Russian troops and attacked the father whose children died in a shopping mall fire disaster for not being critical of the authorities. But despite his harsh and unforgiving stance against everyone who — even tacitly — supported the Putin regime, he always came through as a sincere, honest man, and someone deeply pained by Russia’s social and political decay.


An outpouring of grief in the Russian-speaking social media following the news of Babchenko’s death was immense.  Late at night his editor at ATR TV channel Ayder Muzhdabaev wrote in a Facebook post: “I was the one who persuaded him to remain in Kiev.  Damnation is what I deserve.”  A lot of others commented and sympathized — Babchenko had many friends and a lot of followers. 


So today, after the news of Babchenko’s death just began to sink in, another shock news grabbed the headlines:  Babchenko is alive.  Apparently, his killing was staged as a part of a Ukrainian security agency’s sting operation to expose Russian interference. And while this twist of the already baffling plot rang many alarms, what truly stupefied was the reaction of the Russian opposition and its leaders:  Babchenko is alive and it’s all that matters, no questions asked.  


I do not attribute this to naivety. Russian dissenters and opposition leaders have seen their hopes dashed too many times to remain guileless:  first by Gorbachev’s "restructuring" in the late 80s, then by Yeltsin’s empty promises of fair governance in the 90s, and then by seeing too many reform initiatives systematically quashed over the past 18 years — either by the regime itself, or by more mundane things such as their own infighting and rivalries.   


But what Russian opposition attained in knowingness of its own realities, it lacks in international awareness. The inability to see the world-wide repercussions of domestic events is its marked modern-day trait. How the West perceives deceit, how it judges Babchenko’s disregard for his own reputation and for the reputation of his fellow journalists are just some of the things neither Babchenko, nor his supporters take into account yet. 


The way Babchenko’s questionable adventure single-handedly diminished the degree of trust in anti-Putin reporters will take some time to sink in, but at the moment Russia’s liberals are oblivious to it.  I remember well how in 2015, a few hours after the murder of Boris Nemtsov in Moscow, watching various Russian commentators and journalists on CNN I was shocked by their rudimentary grasp of the English language.  A language barrier is always also a cultural one.  The next time there is a political murder in Russia or Ukraine, it will be much more difficult for dissenters to prove and explain what happened, and much easier for Putin’s supporters to question its mere fact, never mind the motifs and potential culprits.  


Western millennials already question the establishment’s news outlets such as the BBC, and an entire generation of under-35s in countries like Britain and Germany is exploring alternative news channels, Russia Today being one of them. The same Russia Today which tells them there is no connection between the Kremlin and the Skripal incident or the Kremlin and the shooting of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.  The same Russia Today which now welcomes Babchenko’s stunt as an example of how the Kremlin “unjustifiably" gets blamed for various crimes and espionage incidents across the world. 


None of it rings any bells to the Russian opposition just yet, which firmly believes that the Kremlin propaganda doesn’t work outside Russia. The sad news is that it does and plenty of young people on the West find themselves at a crossroads as we speak, choosing who to trust — their own mainstream media or the eloquent, strident presenters on Russia Today who tell them their own governments are conspiring against them. With many choosing Russia Today, the Babchenko affair is another small victory of the Kremlin propagandists.  

New York, May 2018