It was at an event at Columbia University in late 2001 that I ran into an editor at Forbes magazine. He discussed the new war on terror, not from a standpoint of domestic civil liberties as most journalists do, but from a strategic perspective, as if we were two generals in the war itself. Just interesting speculation about what might come next. I mentioned something Paul Klebnikov once told me about Russia's future role in the war on terror, and the editor rolled his eyes, as if it were farfetched. 'Well, you know Paul...' he cheerily dismissed, implying that Paul's enthusiasm could lead him to some far—out views.
I told him not so fast. 'Paul is really, really good,' I reminded him, and I meant it. He looked at me, reconsidered his dismissal, and I think he agreed.
Since his murder by unknown assailants outside a Moscow subway a year ago, maybe it had been easy to dismiss Paul Klebnikov as overenthusiastic, reckless, and overreaching. There aren't many U.S. journalists to whom that happens. But it points to something important: Paul wasn't like other journalists. And he meant to clarify events in Russia enough to his readers to turn it into a normal country. He knew the risks, and he did it anyway. His murder remaining unsolved over this year is probably the sharpest sign that Russia has regressed on democracy. Paul knew what was wrong with Russia. That's why some killer in Moscow wanted to end his life.
But I will not forget him.
I worked with Paul a few years ago. I first met him when I was assigned the task of fact—checking one of his stories, something all Forbes reporters do, in what is the best system of preventing fraudulent reportING in the news business. As a fact—checker it's your job to question and verify every fact from every angle you can, consulting the reporter and all his sources (Forbes doesn't use anonymous ones) to make sure every detail is correct, even the most obvious and elementary little facts — which surprisingly, yield an occasional discrepancy. Not glamorous, but perfectly critical. Forbes doesn't make many errors.
On first impression, Paul was a piece of work. 'This is really biased and makes you look anti—business,' I recall telling him, pointing to a couple passages that looked heavy on the point of view. 'Leave 'em,' Paul said. 'And this passage here is a sensitive issue in the Far East — it might possibly offend Asian businessmen,' I said. 'I don't care,' he said. Not having looked at the Russian corporate world, ever, I questioned why he casually called Russia's businessmen 'oligarchs,' since Forbes had a rule against clich�s. 'It's because it's what they are called,' he replied. 'The word is technically not correct because they don't govern. How about 'plutocrats'?' I asked. 'No, it's oligarchs,' he insisted. 'Says who?' I asked. 'Me. Consult my book.' 'Your own book?' I asked. 'Yes,' and he showed me 'Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the looting of Russia.'
Although a fact—checker at Forbes has a right to veto anything before it goes to press, I thought that if he didn't mind the flak I warned him he was going to get for his story, if he really was willing to take it, I wouldn't stop him. He didn't, and so I didn't.
Based on the dangerous topic of his book, it was clear he'd risked much worse. And the 'point of view' I accused him of having expressed something essential about Paul: values mattered to him. There was good and evil. Paul was no computer or stenographer, but an authentic journalist who not only wrote well but who was unafraid to interpret well, even sharply, as great writers do. And he did it so that readers would care about Russia, as much as he did.
But Paul never bore grudges toward anyone who challenged him. Not in the slightest. He remained very engaged with me, despite our green—eyeshade introduction, and wanted to know why I was so inquisitive about Russia. I told him that in college, I was fascinated with Russian Studies, and studied Russian language for years, too. He told me he studied the same, in England. By coincidence, we found we were there at the same time, he at the London School of Economics, and I at Oxford for my junior year. Lectures in the narrow field sometimes overlapped the institutions. But we never met. 'It was the golden age of Soviet Studies,' I recalled.
My interest in Russia faded after the Cold War's end. Paul's, by contrast, grew incandescent. At Forbes, he loved emailing to Moscow at all hours, writing in Russian, using the Latin alphabet on his keyboard to spell out the Russian phonetically. He exuberantly exchanged views with sources in Moscow. He was always scoping out new and more advanced story ideas, outperforming from his New York office all other correspondents, including those in Moscow, and that is saying something. He was that good.
Paul's work spoke for itself. The zenith of his achievement was in his exposing the spectacular crime and corruption of the Russian oligarchs in the post—communist era. But his stories weren't just harshly lighted scrutiny of post—Soviet financial looting, a task as intellectually difficult as it is physically dangerous. Paul's writing emerged from a humanitarian taproot grounded in human nature and the historic experience of Russia, and this is evident even in his earliest work.
In those days, Paul wrote excellent pieces on Stolypin, Russia's great economics minister who was fatefully assassinated in 1911, paving the way for revolution. He focused on property rights, understanding their significance, even before Peru's Hernando de Soto published his first discoveries that eventually withered the Maoist Shining Path guerrilla movement there.
Paul interviewed brilliant people like Aleksandr Solzenitsyn at a time when he was condescendingly dismissed as 'archaic' by the Oxbridge and Ivy League intelligentsia, the people who in the end never understood his significance. Paul liked these issues because his love for Russia was evident to anyone who met him. He wanted to find some way, as a writer, to push Russia toward reclaiming its heritage as a part of Western civilization. Sounds idealistic, but I know it was true.
Paul had a reputation as a lone wolf at Forbes — he was the brilliant Russia guy and most of the people there let him have that role without comment. But he was so brimming with knowledge that I liked to talk to him. I told him I had once met some Russian bankers in the early 1990s who worked on Park Avenue near the Calvin Klein boutique. They told me about their T—bill operation in the years before the great Russian bond default. Old as that contact was, he asked me if he could meet them. He was interested in everything. I was bemused to give him their yellowing card I hadn't touched in years.
But Paul was give and take, and always gave more. Not many journalists are as generous. They are, after all, competitors. Paul shared not only his knowledge, but the sources of his work. For a journalist, to do this for another journalist is a lot.
One morning in October 2001 as the smell of the still—smoldering World Trade Center wafted through the Forbes Building, he came to my desk and asked me if I'd like to meet a real oligarch. Those oligarchs again! Mikhail Khodorkovsky was coming to the Forbes Building to meet the publishers, and Paul was invited, too. Given Paul's accomplishments, he certainly was suitable for an invitation.
But he wanted me to be there too. I was touched by his desire to share his intellectual wealth by showing me things I had first questioned him about as a fact—checker. It was wholly generous, and at the meeting, I was astonished that Paul, being Paul, was perfectly comfortable telling Khodorkovsky to his face that he'd done atrocious things during Russia's privatization period, challenging Khodorkovsky to prove he really meant it when he said he wanted to go straight as a businessman, stop acting like a gangster, and follow Western business practices. Khodorkovsky, if he was perturbed by Paul's frankness, didn't show it. The oligarch tried to convince Paul he'd changed.
After that dramatic introduction, I had three long and interesting conversations with Khodorkovsky over the next two days about the coming terror war, and Paul encouraged me. I wrote a piece on Khodorkovsky's take on how Russia could potentially fill a gap for the West if a disruption in Middle Eastern oil occurred, given the new war in Afghanistan. This story should have been Paul's, but he was happy to yield it to me and I am grateful.
Now, Khodorkovsky is in prison and Paul is in a grave. Russia, its history a permanent pendulum swinging from looking inward to reaching outward, seems to have ominously moved inward. Paul's murderers are probably still at large, with those apprehended — the politically unpopular Chechens — the only accused. I find this hard to believe Their culpability cannot be ruled out, but given the difficulty of pinning any charges on organized crime and the oligarchy, the oligarchy that Paul so brilliantly, painstakingly, exposed, one worries this is a lead the Russian investigators have not been willing, or even able, to pursue.
The price, after all, is high