Standing Up to Death Threats
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
Yevgenia Albats, the Russian journalist now with Moscow-based Izvestia who risked her life investigating the actions of the former KGB, studied in the United States as a Nieman Fellow and is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University. She once worked at the Chicago Tribune for six months on a fellowship. She returned to practice journalism in Russia, she says, "because I am like E.T. I had to go home."
ýrash, with flashing eyes and a last name that clearly marks her as Jewish, Albats, 37, wears the distinction of being the first Russian journalist to penetrate the murky innards of the KGB and chronicle her findings both in major newspaper articles and a book, "A State Within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia Past, Present and Future," that has been translated into English, French and German. More recently, her exposés have touched on government corruption and atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Chechnya.
After the book was published, an anonymous caller threatened that she would pay for the exposé with her daughter's life. Albats cursed at him and slammed down the phone.
"I have a policy. Whenever I receive threats, I immediately make them public. I believe my book on the KGB was – and is – the best protection for me," Albats says. When she first began receiving death threats in the late 1980s, the reporter turned the tables and used the bug on her phone to warn would-be tormentors.
"I talked a lot with foreign journalists and told them that I did not plan to commit suicide, was in good health and had no mental problems. I wanted them to know that if something happened to me, it was not my doing. I also wanted the idiots listening in to know that others on the outside were aware."
Albats relishes the memory of confronting master torturers Alexander Khvat and Vladimir Boyarsky. For Khvat she was armed with questions about a world-renowned geneticist who decades ago had been imprisoned as a spy and brutalized under Khvat's command.
"Do you recall being in charge of the Nikolail Vavilov case in 1940 – the academician?"
"Of course I remember," Khvat shot back. That quick admission left Albats tongue-tied. "This was the last thing I expected," the reporter says. "Looking back, I realize that he had never been confronted by a journalist before. In his day, the KGB never had to worry about being investigated by the press. They were in total command."
Albats notes that when she contacted the KGB Press Center to ask about Khvat's whereabouts, she was told that he had died a long time ago. Her instincts led her to the Moscow City Information Bureau, a kind of AT&T directory assistance run via street kiosks.
"Why did they talk to me? For two reasons. First, they never expected the stories to be published, and second, it was a new experience. A journalist had never approached them before."
When an editor suggested that as a precaution she should publish under her husband's non-Jewish name, she refused. The reporter, who has won Russia's highest journalism honor, the Golden Pen, for exposing horrid conditions in maternity wards, notes, "I have my last name to preserve and fight for. It is part of my struggle."
Albats knows that caving in to fear could be her undoing. "No one forces us to cover the kinds of subjects that could get us killed. It is our decision. We could write about flowers and be safe," she says on a phone that remains bugged. "I truly believe that I am stronger – that intellectuals are stronger – than people with guns."