This week marks the 23rd anniversary of what may be Vladimir Putin’s first assassination.
On the evening of 21 August 1998, Anatoly Levin-Utkin—deputy editor of a weekly St. Petersburg newspaper—left his office and arrived to his apartment building as usual. In the lobby, he checked his mailbox and rifled through the typically dull stack of letters. Just then two unidentified men surprised the journalist, beat him so severely they shattered his skull, and stole his briefcase. The bag carried approximately 1,000 rubles (€150) and his notes for an upcoming article.
The editor was found by a neighbor and rushed to the hospital. Surgeons operated on him twice over three days but the damage to his skull and trauma to his brain were too great. Levin-Utkin died from his injuries on 24 August at the age of 41.
In the days following his brutal murder, Levin-Utkin’s friends and colleagues attempted to make sense of so senseless a crime. Who would want him dead? Who would benefit? Why?
Clues to the murder could be in the bag that was stolen. The research and notes were for an exposé on Russian banking and political corruption. The newspaper Levin-Utkin worked for, ‘Yuridichesky Peterburg Segodnya,’ was only three weeks old at the time of the crime. Yet it had already drawn the ire of political and financial officials in Russia after publishing a series of investigative stories in its first two issues. In the days leading up to his death, Levin-Utkin received several threatening calls from authorities demanding he reveal his writers’ sources. He refused.
One story in particular placed Levin-Utkin directly in the sites of the Kremlin, and there were murmurs that someone in high office of the security services was especially annoyed. The article concerned a middle-aged bureaucrat who enjoyed a recent but meteoric rise in Russian politics. Only a month before the editor’s death, President Boris Yeltsin summoned that bureaucrat and offered him a full return to active service as Head of the FSB. The man refused, and insisted a civilian run the service. A backroom deal resulted in his being named Director, but as a civilian, and so with more political latitude to eventually pursue even higher office.
The title of that article? “Vladimir Putin Became the Head of the FSB Unlawfully.”
The rest is history, as today we mark what may be Putin’s first known assassination; it was certainly not his last. The dictator has grown more emboldened over the years, expanding his criminal enterprise and unflinchingly silencing critics throughout Europe, ignoring the sanctity of borders, laws and human rights.
Levin-Utkin may not be a household name, but this week we remember him for his refusal to give in to the Kremlin’s bullying, and for his willingness to pay the ultimate price to stand up to the tyrant. Today, he should be an example for all Europeans. If only more had the courage the editor displayed in 1998. We would like commemorate not only the man Levin-Utkin, but also his work. Yet we cannot find his old newspaper, or their articles. If anyone knows of this paper, or how to find the article on Putin referenced above, please contact us and let us know.