The Murder of a Crusading Journalist in Moscow

Date: 11/17/2021

Author: Kent Moors, Ph.D.

A while back, I indicated “mother” and I had reached an agreement that significantly expanded what I could write about in the Classified Intelligence Brief Spy Tale series. Well, that was before what has transpired during the past week over a piece I intend to release.

I am in the midst of negotiating what may be my most explosive Spy Tale yet. This one will ruffle more than a few feathers and call some Agency practices into question. There will be some fallout once we agree on a version that will see the light of day. But it has also initiated a further round of conversations.

In the interim, I am providing you with another missive from the Russian front.

Response to the last three Classified Intelligence Brief Spy Tale entries has been staggering. Hardly unexpected, however, since I have known Marina’s personal effect for more than thirty-two years.

The last month has recounted her experiences during the fateful early October 1993 conflict between then Russian President Boris Yeltsin and an opposition-controlled parliament holed up in the Russian White House. That culminated in Yeltsin’s tanks shelling the legislature and bodies in the streets.

I mentioned last time that the final installments of Marina’s syndicated column filed during that period appeared in over 300 Western newspapers and were voted by the French major newspaper Le Monde as among the top columns written in the last decade of the twentieth century.

But there was one more writing she released a year after – at the end of October 1994 – that had even greater impact.  This one had a larger syndication and visibility. It also occasioned her some trouble in Moscow (where she was once again), prompted the government to pull her papers (preventing her exit from the country), and resulted in the largest network of newspapers carrying her work in the history of the Diary.

For the only time, it also resulted in The New York Times and The Guardian in the UK picking it up. What further distinguished the column from ones written earlier was the fact that the two highest circulation Moscow newspapers carried it in translation (on the front page, no less). That was certain to attract the attention of the Kremlin and put Marina in the public crosshairs, initiating a cat-and-mouse standoff. I’ll tell you how Marina extricated herself from the situation after I provide below the column in question.

Once again, I was editing this abroad while Marina ducked the consequences in Moscow. She was almost (but not quite) an American citizen at the time. That meant the US Embassy in Moscow could not provide much overt support, despite some pressure being brought to bear from several sources in the West. This eventually included the BBC in London that reported on what was going on and marshalled support from the European press.

From my position, the US intel community provided what support they could. That included some protective surveillance while Marina went about Moscow. Unfortunately, it is a losing proposition to attempt anything too proactive. The Russian FSB (the post-Soviet domestic intelligence successor to the Second Chief Directorate of the KGB) is simply too good in their own backyard.

So, Marina was largely on her own. Once again, somebody underestimated her ability to extricate herself from some unpleasantness. The column in question follows. I have added photos to Marina’s text.


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Moscow Diary

Diary Entry for October 30, 1994: “Why Grachev Assassinated a Moscow Reporter”

He never trusted anybody. Impulsive and difficult to live with, his marriage dissolved almost as soon as it happened. My husband Kent and I stood as witnesses at his wedding, where he got into a loud political disagreement before making it out the door. We numbered ourselves among his few friends; nonetheless we would all keep our distance.

Possessing an abrasive personality, he quickly developed enemies in high places. The bigger they were, the more he took after them.

But he was a brilliant writer in a society that is in desperate need of them. He became a journalist because it was the only outlet for his impatience and his anger. For eight years, he authored one major investigative report after another. Until somebody caught up with him.

It was inevitable. Once confiding to my husband that he expected a short life, “Dima” (as he was known to everybody) added with a smile: “Journalists must worry more about the truth than who get angry about it.”

Dmitri Kholodov was killed on October 17. His death is now unleashing a crisis for the Yeltsin government, with charges and countercharges about official involvement in his murder. Even in death, he continues to play the gadfly in the corridors of power. It parallels the way he lived.

Dmitri Kholodov shortly before his death photo:

Dima began his career in 1986 at Moskovskii Novosti, the first newspaper to test the opening of the press. Its editor, Yegor Yakovlev, developed a sterling cadre of hungry young reporters. Today, most of the major Russian investigative writers come from that experiment.

Even then, however, Dima was not your usual reporter. He lied about his age – saying he was 21 when he actually was 19 – to get in the front door. One there, he made an immediate impact.

His unconventional style, his ability to put himself in the situation he was reporting, and his uncompromising attack upon authority singled him out as a marked man.

He took after government corruption, exposed the administrators responsible, attacked political parties, the military, and every important official in the Kremlin. His government press pass was suspended last year. So, he wrote from the outside, developed his own informants, and continued playing the role of rebel.

From his base at Moskovskii Komsomolets, now the best-selling Moscow daily, his articles would often command front page headlines. It was Dima who first reported about Russian government support for both sides fighting the civil war in Chechnya.

He brought to light the massive exodus of funds to foreign bank accounts controlled by government officials. Ethnic fighting in the Russian army, accidents at chemical weapons factories, corruption in the Russian space program, the plight of Afghan war veterans, and exportation of raw materials for illegal profit, were among the many other targets of his cutting style.

But it was the military that most attracted his wrath. At the time of his death, he was preparing a multi-part series on corruption in the army. Dima claimed that the number 2 man at the Defense Ministry – Colonel General Matvie Burlakov – plus other members of the military high command had been selling armaments for private profit.

Acting on a tip from an asset in the counterintelligence arm of the GRU (Russian military intelligence), Dima had retrieved a briefcase from a Moscow train station. In it were, supposedly, documents detailing the illegal sales. He returned to the paper’s newsroom. A bomb in the briefcase killed him instantly, injured another reporter, and severely damaged the building.

Dima’s body, Moskovskii Komsomolets newsroom, October 17, 1994 photo:

I was in the crowd of over 10,000 attending his funeral on October 20, which turned into a national day of mourning. All three Russian TV networks interrupted normal programming to broadcast the funeral live.

Dima’s gravestone, Troyekurovskoye (also known as Novo-Kuntsevo) Cemetery, Moscow photo:

The crowd shouted Yeltsin’s press secretary from the platform. Gary Kasparov, chess champion and political activist, told those assembled: “This is, in fact, the funeral of the hopes we pinned to the present regime.”

The Russian Union of Journalists holds the government responsible for the assassination. Dima’s editor, Pavel Gusev, has charged Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, as well as GRU heads, with complicity.

In response, Grachev has filed a libel action against Moskovskii Komsomolets, while the newspaper continues to print additional revelations, most from Dima’s research and increasingly appearing in other city newspapers (to avoid government court actions). This week it charges that Grachev purchased two Mercedes with proceeds from the arms sales, having exchanged 75 army vehicles and 8,000 tons of metal for the cars.

Yeltsin has defended Grachev but called upon the chief prosecutor to take personal charge of the investigation. Opposition parties in the Parliament have promised their own inquiry.

Aleksandr Mindkin, another prominent Moskovskii Komsomolets reporter, wrote this week (once again, in another newspaper) that the government has no interest in finding Dima’s killers. “Too many have  blood on their hands,” he declared.

More newspapers are in the hunt. Several claim that the briefcase contained a copy of Presidential Security Council proceedings in which Yeltsin was told of the extent of military corruption.

Meanwhile, Dima’s research is surfacing elsewhere. Zavtra published what it maintains would have been entries in the ongoing Kholodov series:

  • General Boris Gromov [editorial note from Kent; Gromov will be the subject of one of my upcoming Spy Tales] forming a commercial enterprise to sell arms and technology to Armenia, (former Soviet) Georgia, and both sides of the civil war in Chechnya.
  • General Georgi Kondatiev accepting gifts from the Georgian Defense Ministry.
  • General Konstantin Kobets burying bodies after the attack on the Russian White House in October 1993 to deflate the body count, embezzling money when he was commander of the Far Eastern Military District, and amassing a fortune in business speculation with army funds.
  • Defense Minister Grachev using money meant for army housing to finance his trading ventures, spending army funds on his nephew’s lavish wedding; transporting valuables purchase in Germany for his personal use; and receiving expensive gifts from the Armenian Ministry of Defense.

The most damaging Zavtra revelation took place the day after Dima’s funeral. According to a “high-placed source” in Russian intelligence, the bomb triggering mechanism was identical to those used only by Russian army special forces [editorial note from Kent: the CIA subsequently confirmed this report from our own sources. The bomb was detonated by a mercury pressure switch used only by Russian spetsnaz troops].

The corruption charges were reinforced by Yuri Boldyrev, a parliamentary deputy and former Russian chief state inspector, at a press conference in St. Petersburg held last Monday. He claims to have given Yeltsin a verbal report last November of illegal activities by the Russian general staff.

Such charges against the military are hardly new. Dima had previously (and recently) published a number of pieces attacking the command. On September 27 he reported that 16.500 Russian tanks were transferred from forward Russian forces in Germany to Turkey for $800 million. The money never appeared on any books. Earlier that month, he reported Burlakov’s German bank balance at over 200 million Deutsche marks.

On August 31 he was the first to report the arrest of two intelligence officers attempting to sell enriched uranium abroad. His front-page article on August 16 claimed that Grachev insisted that Burlakov be given authority to oversee resettlement of all returning troops from Germany and have the exclusive power to inventory all equipment repatriated.

Dima’s pieces in June of this year charged that the army was developing  a “mafia-style criminal network” and revealed the strange case of one Colonel Kolyaskin.

Kolyaskin headed up the Department of (Military) Field Institutions at the Russian Central Bank. Dima charged that he forged documents to return from Germany with army equipment for personal use.

The army did not pursue the case and Kolyaskin was recommended for promotion to general. His department later received 14 Volvo limousines from the Russian command in Germany.

On March 31, Dima reported that 10 high-ranking Defense Ministry officials had been charged with embezzlement by the army’s prosecutor general’s office. Hundreds of military equipment private sales had also been initiated. No action was taken on any of the charges.

Despite their varied political leanings, all Moscow newspapers are united in their commitment to carry on Dima’s work. Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported this week that Dima was to have appeared before the Parliamentary Defense Committee to provide evidence of corruption “in high places,” something the paper adds “would hardly have been acceptable to the military.”

Dima is not the first to be eliminated so brutally. To date, at least 11 journalists have been killed in Russia over less than 18 months. Earlier this year, Dima wrote: “The Defense Ministry gets rid of those who know too much.”

I prefer to believe, however, that the pen remains mightier than the sword, even in Moscow.

Yet, as I write this in a city once again on edge, I ask the obvious question. Is this still a place where a defense minister can assassinate a journalist and walk the streets a free man?

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OK, the title of the column and the last line did not help Marina’s position in Moscow any. That the piece ended up on the front page of both Moskovskii Komsomolets and Komsomolskaya Pravda, the two largest circulation newspapers in Moscow, intensified the problems. Both provided Marina’s Russian translation of her original column.

Moskovskii Komsomolets by this point was enjoined by a Russian court from writing anything deemed (by the government of course) libelous against any official. On the other hand, that prohibition did not include reprinting anything from someplace else. Komsomolskaya Pravda happened to be published by a personal friend of Yeltsin and would have some additional leverage because of that connection. It may also have figured into what was to happen shortly, as described below.

Less than two days after the Moscow Diary entry had appeared initially in the West, it had been widely picked up, including by both Moscow newspapers. By Thursday of that week (November 3, 1994), Marina’s papers had been pulled, effectively preventing her from leaving the country.

She was already residing in the US on a green card, in the final stages of her citizenship application, and married to an American citizen (me). But as far as the authorities were concerned, the Russian passport she traveled on (replacing her Soviet passport and issued to her by the new Russian consulate in Washington after the USSR dissolved) was still state property and subject to state control.

I finally reached her by phone and asked what she planned to do. By this point, the BBC in London had already taken up her cause, as had the US Embassy (with a little “encouragement” from my intel colleagues). Nothing in all of this was helping the Russian government’s position any. With each passing day, the matter was creating some increasingly bad PR.

Marina simply told me she had it in hand. Oh boy, I thought, the proverbial material is about to hit the rotary oscillator.

On Saturday, November 5, Marina published another column in Russian (although this one was not part of the Diary series) appearing on the front page of Komsomolskaya Pravda. It was entitled “Should Foreign Visitors to Moscow Worry If Their Papers Can Be Pulled?”

In the piece, Marina recounted the Dima situation as the death of a friend, avoided charging anybody for murder (probably a good move this time around), and even managed to incorporate mention of her son pensively awaiting his mother back home. I was, on the other hand, noticeably absent from the tear inducing penmanship. The column ended with a sentence incorporating a phrase well known to Russians: “When it comes to standing up for what is right, better late than never.” These final four comprise the punch line in several thousand Russian jokes.

Marina’s passport and other identifications were returned some 48 hours later without comment and she booked a flight out.

Once again, the folks on the other side of the situation had no idea who they were dealing with.

Dr. Kent Moors

This is an installment of Classified Intelligence Brief, your guide to what’s really happening behind the headlines… and how to profit from it. Dr. Kent Moors served the United States for 30 years as one of the most highly decorated intelligence operatives alive today (including THREE Presidential commendations).

After moving through the inner circles of royalty, oligarchs, billionaires, and the uber-rich, he discovered some of the most important secrets regarding finance, geo-politics, and business. As a result, he built one of the most impressive rolodexes in the world. His insights and network of contacts took him from a Vietnam veteran to becoming one of the globe’s most sought after consultants, with clients including six of the largest energy companies and the United States government.

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