I haven't met many heroes. Maybe Yury Schekochikhin was the only one. Indefatigable journalist, stalwart democratic activist, principled humanitarian, good-natured and selfless friend -- Yura died five years ago today under mysterious circumstances that colleagues don't hesitate to label "murder."
I met Yura in the early 1990s, when he was already a beloved national figure, head of the investigations department at the prestigious "Literaturnaya gazeta." He had a national reputation for unmasking official corruption, organized crime, and the ties between them. Yura wrote a few heartfelt essays for "The Moscow Times"
-- pieces that now seem morbidly prophetic -- and I was his translator.
"Instead of moving toward a system in which elected leaders serve the people, we have a leadership that is chosen to serve itself," he wrote in 1996.
In 1995, he summed up a poignant reflection about a reporting trip to the fighting in Grozny with words that I haven't forgotten since I first read his typescript: "Maybe war is a mirror in which a man looks and cannot recognize his own face."
The same year he wrote about how he'd been forced to hire a bodyguard because of death threats prompted by his investigation into the murder of journalist Vladislav Listev. According to friends, he'd taken the same precaution shortly before his death. He was working on 10 major corruption investigations.
Yura died on July 3, 2003, after a torturous 12 days in a Moscow hospital, surrounded by doctors whose loyalties can be inferred by the fact that they have refused to release his death certificate and have been silent to this day. His hair fell out and his skin peeled from his body layer by layer, in what has officially been described as "an acute allergic reaction."
One more prophetic quotation from 1996: "I have not seen any sign in the country of what is most essential to the development of democracy -- that those in authority are also subject to the law." That's the only thing Yura was allergic to.
-- Robert Coalson