Another Tragic Death of a Russian Opposition Journalist: Kirillova Remembers Alexander Shchetinin

Ukrainian authorities have launched a murder investigation into the death of a prominent Russian journalist found shot to death at his home in Kyiv over the weekend.

Alexander Shchetinin, founder and editor-in-chief of the “Novy Region” (New Region) online press agency was found with a gunshot wound to the head, seated in a chair on the balcony of his Podol district apartment in Kyiv on Saturday, August 28. A gun and spent cartridge were found near his body, which was discovered by two friends who came to celebrate his birthday.

Kyiv police chief Andrij Kryshchenko stated, “Until all the facts are established … and the forensic examination is complete, we are investigating it as a murder. The main lines of inquiry are suicide and connections with his professional activities.”

Mr. Shchetinin founded “Novy Region” (New Region) news agency in Russia’s Ural Mountains region in 1998. He left Russia and renounced his citizenship after Ukrainian Euromaidan Revolution in 2014, complaining of unacceptable pressure by the Russian government on the editors. His agency in Russia was subsequently targeted by authorities for supporting “terrorist” activities, that is, publishing articles condemning the war in Ukraine.

Shchetinin subsequently launched a new site “Novy Region 2” (New Region2) in Ukraine, based in Kyiv, which featured the same fiercely critical anti-war publications, including a particular focus on detailing features of Russia’s propaganda aimed at Russian and Ukrainian audiences. Mr. Shchetinin called Vladimir Putin a “personal enemy” who was running Russia as a “fascist dictatorship.”

Shchetinin’s is the second death of a prominent journalist to strike Kyiv in recent weeks. On July 20 Pavel Sheremet, the award-winning writer and seminal TV and radio broadcaster who had worked in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, was killed in a powerful bomb blast while driving his car in central Kyiv.

The violent deaths of two prominent journalists just weeks apart comes at a time of increased tensions between Russia and Ukraine, as Putin has escalated both his rhetoric and aggression against Ukraine. In recent weeks, thousands of Russian soldiers together with convoys of heavy military equipment have been amassing on Russia’s border with Ukraine. Putin has also blamed Ukraine for sabotage activities in Crimea, for which he has publicly promised retaliation. At the same time, Putin has now called off the next phase of the Minsk peace talks, stating they are pointless.

It is no wonder that many observers believe that Russia may be on the brink of a larger invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s economy is in crisis and Parliamentary elections are just a few weeks away. It seems like an opportune time for Putin to distract the population from domestic problems with fresh aggression. And Russia’s aggression seems always to be coupled with provocative acts, ratched-up propaganda. It is interesting to note that following Shchetinin’s death, the New Region website has been taken over by former employees, previously dismissed by Shchetinin.

Given all that we know about Putin’s criminal methods of silencing critics, it would be foolish not to suspect murder in the death of any vocal Russian critic, particularly a prominent journalist. Colleagues and friends of Mr. Shchetinin, shocked and saddened by news of his violent death, have reacted to rumors of suicide. Kseniya Kirillova writes that Sasha’s recent problems were not catastrophic and no different from previous problems he faced as a Russian independent journalist, and consequently, she doesn’t believe he had reason to take his own life. Below is a full translation of Kirillova’s obituary to Alexander Shchetinin.

Another tragedy has occurred in Kyiv. Alexander Shchetinin, the prominent Russian and Ukrainian journalist and unyielding critic of the Russian government, has died. On August 28, he was found in his Podol district apartment with a gunshot wound to the head, a gun lay under his chair. Kyiv authorities are now investigating the details of his death.

I find it difficult to talk about Sasha in the past tense. Alexander Shchetinin was my close friend, and we worked very closely together over the past two years. Of course living in the United States and not being on site in Ukraine, I cannot be absolutely certain whether his death was a murder or suicide. However, I believe that we shouldn’t dismiss that Sasha could indeed have been murdered.  And here is why.

Yes, Sasha had financial difficulties. He owed wages to the employees of his news agency. But this was nothing new or unusual. “New Region” has experienced such difficulties from the moment Alexander was forced to sever ties with the Russian edition of the site back in 2014. When the Russian edition of “New Region” was closed, the site lost a large number of readers and resources accumulated over the course of its 17 years of existence. Salaries weren’t always paid on time, but Sasha always managed to figure out a way to find money, and, importantly, he never lost heart. There was always something terribly adventurous about Sasha. He believed in the correctness of his decision to leave Russia, to continue his important work from Ukraine, and he knew that the majority of his employees, his friends and associates, would understand the difficulties such a decision entailed. And this gave him strength.

Yes, Sasha had personal problems too. But, again, similar problems have occurred not for the first time in his life. Alexander was a surprisingly cheerful person, he was resilient and an optimist, always confident that sooner or later things would work out – whether through his efforts or through a miracle. And that’s just how it turned out in the end.

None of these situations can be called catastrophic. Rather they are just the usual circumstances of life for Sasha as a Russian independent journalist and editor.

After Sasha began supporting Ukraine’s Maidan protests and subsequent revolution, he faced immense pressure from the Russian authorities. From the moment the war started, pressure on the Russian edition of “New Region” had increased tremendously. As a result, Alexander was forced to separate from the Russian edition of his own media outlet. From what was a huge news agency, only the Kyiv and Baltic subsidiaries remained. But Sasha was not discouraged – he joked with his remaining reporters that “there’s only ten of them left,” and he was glad that the most steadfast ones stayed with him. Instead of being afraid and bowing to the pressure, he publicly renounced his Russian citizenship, and called Putin his personal enemy.

He would occasionally travel to Russia, and once was nearly detained by police, in his native Yekaterinburg. He continued to take risks, boldly and sometimes playfully and boyishly. He famously was photographed in front of the KGB headquarters at Lubyanka with the teddy bear Stepan – the unofficial mascot of “New Region.”

In November 2014 Sasha’s bank accounts in Moscow’s “Citibank” were blocked by a new anti-terrorism law “against the legalization of proceeds from criminal activity and terrorist financing.” Russia considered the publication of articles condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine as included in the definition of the term “terrorism.” At that time, he also had difficulties in paying the salaries of employees. But this was not shocking news, and these problems didn’t cause Alexander to have suicidal thoughts. On the contrary, Sasha made fun of the accusations of terrorism, and he laughed them off, writing a post: “How I became the Bin Laden of Russia.” His financial difficulties, just as had happened before, were soon resolved.

In January 2015, the Supreme Court granted the petition of Russia’s Roskomnadzor to terminate the activities of “New Region,” alleging the site engaged in terrorism and extremism. Sasha and I just laughed at the Russian court trying to stop the activities of Ukrainian media. Alexander called those attempts a form of voodoo magic, and he really got a kick out of this metaphor. After the court ruled, the “New Region” site was completely blocked in Russia.

In April 2015, Sasha had received confidential information that Russian authorities were going to bring charges of treason against him and other members of “New Region” who were Russian citizens. It was he who warned me that neither of us could return to Russia. But even that did not break him. When I learned in November 2015 that my grandmother in Yekaterinburg had died, and I could not even say goodbye to her, Sasha told me: “This is what I’m most afraid of, that someone in my family will die, and I won’t be able to go.” It was the only thing that he really feared.

At the end of February 2016, “New Region” was attacked by hackers, but we were able to restore the missing texts and joked that that was the reason that February had an extra 29th day that year. Sasha again repeated what he always said: “We’ll figure it out, we’ve always figured out a way before.”

Sasha loved Ukraine and felt that loyalty to her was worth any sacrifice. He could not support an aggressive war and tried to protect the country which he considered to be his new, and now only, homeland. However, he did not even have Ukrainian citizenship – but was very proud and happy to have received a permanent residence permit in Ukraine.

It is really difficult for me to believe that Sasha could have committed suicide. Yes, he faced challenges, but his history reveals that he previously faced even more grave matters and was able to overcome them. He was a decisive, cheerful, and sometimes an audaciously bold man. And another important point: Sasha has repeatedly said that he was an Orthodox Christian. He criticized the UOC-MP to the extent that they justified obscurantism and war under the guise of Christianity. Yet even this criticism didn’t move him to give up Christianity, where suicide is widely considered to be a mortal sin.

Of course, theoretically it’s conceivable that the load of problems, bullying, financial troubles and personal mood are able to overwhelm even the strongest of men, but once again, I’ll repeat that it just doesn’t fit with the Sasha whom we all knew. That’s why I’d like this case to be thoroughly investigated. It’s worth remembering that Sasha worked on very serious subjects. He not only opposed Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and fiercely denounced Russian propaganda. He also exposed the names of oligarchs and politicians with ties to Russia, Russian businesses and those in Yanukovych’s former circle. He fearlessly published important information, including insider information, which garnered him many enemies not only in Moscow but also in Kyiv.

And another important point. Even if we accept Sasha’s death as a suicide (with all the unanswered questions), it is still clear that this tragedy is the direct result of dictatorship and the repression of dissidents. It is because of Putin that Sasha was forced to choose between Russia and Ukraine, between the news agency that was the light of his entire life and his conscience. It was because of this forced choice that he had financial difficulties. Because of the persecution, the accusations of terrorism and treason, he could not even come home and see his family, including his own daughters.

At the end of December last year, Sasha commented on the obituary I had written on the death of opposition leader Vlad Kolesnikov, driven to suicide for supporting Ukraine. Sasha wrote at the time: “We should call a spade a spade: he was killed by Putin’s regime and by Putin personally. It is Putin who ushered in a system of persecution and terror, slander and reprisals against undesirables. He is the head of this system. Therefore, he killed Vlad – his followers, his creation. And we will never forget and will not forgive the death of this boy, as well as all the other deaths.”

I don’t know what the findings of the investigation into Sasha’s death will conclude, but here I can only repeat Sasha’s own words …




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