Yuri Shchekochikhin: A Tribute

Article excerpt

Yuri Petrovich Shchekochikhin, who passed away prematurely under mysterious circumstances in early July 2003, was a towering figure in the democratization of the USSR and Russia and a part of Demokratizatsiya since its first issue.

A modest and accessible man whose vocabulary did not include the words intimidation or fear, Yuri somehow managed to combine an active legislative role with a very successful journalistic career. He was Russia's most renowned investigative reporter, specializing in abuse and corruption by a system that could produce little else. He made "mafiya" a household word when he and Aleksandr Gurov wrote an article in Literaturnaya gazeta during the early glasnost period. "As if the light had been turned on after a period of darkness," he recounts in Demokratizatsiya, "people started seeing it everywhere." After several years at Literaturnaya gazeta, he founded and headed Novaya gazeta, a pioneering paper read by nearly the entire thinking class. His colleagues often would boast that Yuri was the best known person inside Russia, and perhaps they were right. More than once I would turn on the television in Russia and see Yuri being interviewed, giving his opinions, and facing down cynical government officials. The last time that happened, Yuri was speaking about the as yet unsolved murder of his fellow democrat and Duma member Sergei Yushchenkov.

Yuri's politics were incidental, almost reluctant. In 1989, a district in Ukraine elected Yuri to the USSR Congress of People's Deputies, and there he joined the fateful Interregional Group, alongside figures such as Andrei Sakharov, Galina Starovoitova, Yuri Afanasyev, Gavriil Popov, Anatoly Sobchak, Sergei Stankevich, and Boris Yeltsin--in the very eye of the perestroika storm. Shortly after Russia's independence, Yuri led the charge to annul an attempt to merge the KGB with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in what would have amounted to a NKVD-style super-ministry--a decree that Yeltsin signed on his lap while boarding an airplane. He was later a member of the Duma, being first in the Yabloko party list. That party, liberal but critical of the vlast, was probably the perfect party for him. At the Duma, he was active in the security committee, and was one of the loudest voices against the Chechnya invasions, often travelling there himself on fact-finding missions. His office at the Duma had pictures of him in a military uniform, mingling with soldiers and civilians.

I met him accidentally, by way of a common friend, Jonathan Halperin. Even before the first issue of this journal came out, those of us who were forming it were also busy organizing conferences on post-Soviet developments. The main conference, in early 1992, was on the KGB. Yuri happened to be in Washington, D.C., at that time and participated in that panel, plus another one we organized later in Moscow. There, former CIA director William Colby and other panelists acknowledged Yuri's contribution to embarrassing Yeltsin into rescinding his police super-ministry plans. Yuri just shrugged away any compliments. Reading the transcripts of those panels, which also brought J. Michael Waller, Victor Yasmann, Sergei Grigoryants, Father Gleb Yakunin, Lev Ponomarev, Vadim Bakatin, and other renowned specialists and figures in contact with the journal, it is readily apparent that they quite clearly foresaw the consequences to Russia of leaving the KGB intact.

Fascinating, offbeat, thoroughly laid back, and always generous with his time and company, Yuri gave the impression of not taking his achievements seriously. …