Moment that mattered: Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko comes back from the dead
On 29th May 2018 reports surfaced that dissident Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko had been found shot dead at his apartment in Kyiv. The following day he appeared, none the worse for wear, revealing that his murder had been staged in cahoots with Ukrainian security services. In DG #31 Jonah Fisher, the BBC's Ukraine correspondent, gave us the inside story on Babchenko’s dramatic resurrection
30th May 2018 (Taken from: #31)
“With the benefit of hindsight it was a pretty strange murder scene. There were no police, just a token piece of red and white tape cordoning off the stairwell, but considering what was supposed to have happened there the day before – a Russian dissident journalist being shot dead as he entered his own flat – it was strange that nobody was stopping people from going in to the building. I remember commenting to colleagues at the time that it was a bit odd, but when the police tell you somebody has died here you believe them.
“I first found out that Arkady Babchenko had been murdered shortly after it had supposedly happened. We had been out for dinner near my home in Kyiv and when I got back Facebook was full of the news that a journalist had been killed. I checked some sources, filed a story to the BBC News office in London telling them the little we knew and went to bed. By the next morning it was clear we were in the middle of a major news story.
“After visiting the flat, and having seen the leaked photos of Babchenko lying in a pool of blood, I reported that the killing had all the hallmarks of being a Russian-backed assassination. Babchenko clearly had some pretty powerful enemies in Moscow and Kyiv is not a particularly safe place for people who are opponents of the Kremlin regime to come to. We’ve seen several Russian dissidents murdered here in recent years.
I typed ‘Babchenko is alive’ and hit send thinking, ‘If this isn’t true my reputation is absolutely finished’”
“Following in the wake of the Skripal case in Salisbury, Babchenko’s murder was headline news around the world. We put together a longer report, featuring tributes to Babchenko and interviews with Russians in Ukraine questioning their safety there. We were just starting to edit that material when there came this gasp from across the office, which I share with the Ukrainian language service of the BBC. My producer said to me, ‘He’s back!’ All the TVs in the office were showing a press conference where Arkady Babchenko was being presented by the SBU, the Ukrainian security service. There was a round of applause from the journalists watching. I just thought, ‘Oh my God, what is going on?’
“For a moment I didn’t know quite what to do. My first instinct was to inform the BBC mothership, but equally I didn’t want to be made to look like a fool. I had to ask a couple of other people whether this was really happening before filing my update. Normally our initial copy is quite dry and reserved, just a couple of lines about what’s happening, but this time I typed ‘BREAKING: Unbelievable. Arkady Babchenko who was believed assassinated has just appeared on Ukrainian TV alive and well!’
“I hit send, terrified, thinking, ‘If this isn’t true my reputation is absolutely finished.’ Then the madness really began. It was rolling news on the BBC. We suddenly had huge demand and, at the same time, I was trying to grapple with the fundamentals of why this had been done. It became clear that the murder had been faked by the SBU as part of an elaborate sting operation.
“At the press conference he gave, Babchenko went out of his way to apologise to his wife, Olga, and that was quickly misread as meaning that she didn’t know the murder had been faked. It wasn’t until I interviewed Babchenko the next day that it was made clear that she had known all along. I later interviewed Olga and she said that Arkady had it easy. All he had to do was lie on the floor, get taken away in the ambulance and then sit in the morgue watching the coverage. While all that was happening, she was lying to grieving friends and family, trying to act like a widow whose husband has just been brutally murdered.
We have credible evidence that there is a plot to kill you. Money has been handed over. This is how we plan to save your life”
“I can understand why Arkady agreed to go along with the SBU’s plan. The security agency came to him and said, ‘We have credible evidence that there is an active plot to kill you. Money has been handed over to pay for your assassination. This is how we plan to save your life.’ I would defy anyone in that situation to turn around and say, ‘I’m not going to do this. I prefer to take my chances, thank you very much.’ He’s a journalist who projects himself as a truth-teller, but he would effectively be signing his own death warrant if he refused the SBU’s offer.
“The fact that Babchenko is alive is down to Oleksiy Tsymbaliuk, the man who was paid to kill him. In early April 2018, Tsymbaliuk was approached by arms manufacturer Borys Herman who offered him money to kill Babchenko and other opponents of the Kremlin. Tsymbaliuk accepted the job, but then went to the SBU, which hatched the sting operation.
“The SBU hoped that faking Babchenko’s death would lead them to Herman’s handlers in Russia. The logic was that Herman would communicate that the mission had succeeded and that by monitoring his communications the SBU would gain evidence proving Russia was behind the attack. They would also gather information on who else might be a target. The plan unravelled pretty quickly. The SBU would have liked Babchenko to stay ‘dead’ for longer, but I don’t think they expected the assassination to be such a big news story. Possibly as a result of this, Borys Herman made plans to try to leave the country. The SBU then had to arrest him on his way to the airport. After that there was no need to continue with the charade.
“What the Ukrainians would really have liked to come out of this is a clear link to the Russian security agencies or the Russian government, but in the months since the faked murder it has not been able to prove one. The SBU has talked about exposing a link back to Russia through a man called Vyacheslav Pivovarnik, who they say may have connections to a foundation that Putin is involved in. After months of silence Pivovarnik surfaced in early September with a message posted on YouTube, in which he claimed to have been connected to the Ukrainian security services. The middleman Herman has since accepted a plea bargain with the Ukrainian authorities and will serve a four-and-a-half-year jail sentence. Without a trial, we may never really get to the bottom of exactly what evidence was gathered by staging Babchenko’s murder.
This was his chance, as he told it, to give a kind of ‘fuck off’ to Putin”
“The SBU still believes this is a victory; they claim they saved Babchenko’s life, which I can accept is probably true, although there were probably other ways of doing this. They also claim to have recovered a list from Herman’s flat revealing 47 other targets. This list has become hotly contested and people who are on it have told me they don’t believe that it’s completely authentic. They think that perhaps 30 of the names on that list are Russian targets and that perhaps the SBU added 17 to that list because they either wanted to scare them or to put them under closer surveillance by having a security officer with them at all times.
“Today, Herman is in prison, Arkady Babchenko and his wife are still under protective custody and Tsymbaliuk is enjoying his moment in the spotlight. Of the key players, he is the only one with the attitude that ‘this won’t change my life and if people come and try to get me, so be it’. This was his chance, as he told it, to give a kind of ‘fuck off’ to Putin.
“It may be that a lack of trust in authority is the key legacy of this case. Ukraine is a poor country which still needs a lot of help from western countries to keep its economy going and to try to develop. This will have shaken those relationships. I think quite a few of the international players who leapt to Ukraine’s defence and were quick to look accusingly towards Russia may not be so ready to do the same next time around. In August we saw the murder in Donetsk of a rebel leader called Alexander Zakharchenko. It’s been variously blamed on the Russians and on the Ukrainian security agencies, but almost immediately people were saying, ‘Well, if it was the Ukrainian security services, we should be on standby for him popping up in Kyiv any day.’
“On a broader level this has had a corrosive effect on the way people regard authority figures telling them things as facts. If you can’t trust a politician or a senior figure on something as black and white as if somebody is dead or alive, then that plays right into the hands of conspiracy theorists who want to cast doubts on everything we’re told. It all contributes to the increasing muddiness of how we regard news and facts.
“As for me, I don’t feel a personal sense of grievance about being misled. I was annoyed up to a point but then in a kind of a very journalistic way I just thought, ‘Wow, this is a really great story now.’”
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.