MOSCOW—Maksim Borodin, a handsome and hard-working 32-year-old journalist, plunged from the balcony of his fifth-floor apartment on Thursday. Three days later, on Sunday morning, Borodin died at a hospital in Yekaterinburg, his hometown in the Ural Mountains. Maksim lived by himself, without parents, siblings, or a partner, and his friends and colleagues struggled to understand his tragic death. Was he killed by loneliness, or—in this country where so many journalists have been murdered—by someone who hated his reporting?
Borodin’s colleagues at New Day (Novy Den) news agency were quick to dismiss the theory of suicide. Just recently Borodin was promoted: New Day asked him to move from Yekaterinburg to the agency’s bureau in Moscow. “I have worked with Maksim for five years; I am sure that he did not have a single reason to commit suicide,” Borodin’s colleague at New Day, Yekaterina Norseyeva, told The Daily Beast. “Any media outlet would have been lucky to have him. He was talented, devoted, and very professional. Maksim was famous for his investigative reports about state corruption and about the Wagner group’s soldiers dying in Syria.”
And it is precisely his fame for some of those reports that make many people suspicious about the circumstances of his death.
In February, Borodin published several articles in New Day about Wagner, Russia’s secretive private military force that is fighting in eastern Ukraine and in Syria—and about Wagner’s recruits dying. Wagner’s operations and especially its losses in Syria are sensitive topics for Russian journalists, since authorities deny the existence of the private force sometimes called “Russia’s Blackwater.”
“It is more dangerous for provincial reporters to cover Wagner, a private army sponsored by [Yevgeny] Prigozhin, Putin’s friend; it’s safer for us, journalists based in Moscow, where civil groups and free media can always make noise,” Ruslan Leviyev, the leader of the Conflict Intelligence Team investigating Wagner, told The Daily Beast. “In any provincial town journalists can be quietly killed for their reports on the way home in some dark courtyard, without any big coverage.”
In one of his articles published in February, Borodin broke the news about at least 30 of Wagner’s soldiers going to fight in Syria from Asbest, a Ural city famous for mining asbestos. He also mentioned that earlier this year Wagner lost from 200 to 600 fighters in heavy U.S. airstrikes. On Feb. 7, the U.S. military fired artillery at forces attacking a Kurdish-held oil field in eastern Syria. But the Kremlin denied significant losses of regular Defense Ministry soldiers.
Borodin’s interview with one of the Wagner widows, Yelena, provoked widespread reaction. Yelena’s husband, Stanislav Matveyev, and his friend Kocoturov were both Cossacks from Asbest, veterans of the war in Ukraine. It was a sensitive subject for Russian journalists, as the Kremlin denied Defense Ministry cooperation with Wagner, but Cossacks and other militia confirmed their participation.
Unlike Russian officials, members of nationalist militia, Cossacks, organizations in Donbas (eastern Ukraine), and Afghanistan war veterans confirm that Wagner exists, and that recruits from all over Russia join its forces of at least 2,000 soldiers based in Syria. Last week the “ataman” of the St. Petersburg Cossack organization, Andrei Poliakov confirmed the existence of this Russian private army in an interview with The Daily Beast. “Authorities should legalize Wagner, so Cossacks could legally join and make money,” Poliakov told The Daily Beast.
Last month the Russian Federation Council rejected new legislation to legalize private military forces, as contradicting the constitution of the Russian Federation.
Russian journalists reporting the truth about the secret military operation in Syria often receive threats. “Our haters write to us that we should not walk in the streets in the dark,” Leviyev told The Daily Beast. “But since 2015, when we started covering Wagner news exclusively, we have not received a single threat from the Kremlin or security services.”
Despite the politically fraught circumstances, many in Yekaterinburg doubt that Borodin fell victim to violence, mainly because the door of the journalist’s apartment reportedly was locked from the inside. A Moscow opposition activist, Leonid Volkov, who knew Borodin well, insisted that there was no murder and that conspiracy theories about assassination are false.
But every year Russia witnesses attacks on independent reporters and never do investigators present any details explaining who set out to silence journalists or why.
Certainly the state does not protect reporters. Neither does it show them respect. The editor in chief of New Day, Polina Rumianceva, told Echo of Moscow radio that the head of the Yekaterinburg press council had refused to provide a room in the Sverdlovsk Journalist Union for Borodin’s funeral ceremony. Why? Journalists wondered if the reason was the topic Borodin had covered this year.