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'Atmosphere Of Hate' Or 'Psycho' Attack? Russian Journalist's Stabbing Triggers Debate Over Vilification Of Critical Voices

Russian journalist Tatyana Felgengauer was stabbed at Ekho Moskvy's headquarters on October 23.
Russian journalist Tatyana Felgengauer was stabbed at Ekho Moskvy's headquarters on October 23.

Two weeks before an assailant burst into the office of Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy in central Moscow on October 23 and stabbed Deputy Editor in Chief Tatyana Felgengauer in the neck, state television had portrayed the journalist and the broadcaster as nefarious Western agents.

The report by the Rossia-24 network accused Ekho Moskvy, which regularly gives airtime to Kremlin critics, of trading in "information weapons" by selling content to Western media, and criticized Felgengauer and two other of the station's journalists for attending a forum involving Western NGOs.

"Essentially, these are genuine foreign agents who aren't even hiding what they're doing," the anchor said.

The segment was one of numerous reports on state-controlled and Kremlin-loyal television during President Vladimir Putin's third term painting the liberal opposition and other government critics as Western tools scheming to destabilize the government.

Those reports have repeatedly triggered accusations that state media is whipping up an "atmosphere of hate" against those who disagree with the government. This atmosphere, critics say, can have deadly consequences, including the 2015 slaying of Boris Nemtsov, a prominent Putin foe.

The October 23 knife attack on Felgengauer, who survived and is recovering in a Moscow hospital, has stirred fresh debate in Russia over what, if any, role state media has played in attacks on government critics.

Prominent Russian journalists and Kremlin critics have specifically linked the attack to what they call attempts to smear dissenting voices. That argument, however, has been met with pushback -- including from the Kremlin -- after revelations about the purported mental state of Felgengauer's alleged assailant.

'Work Of A Madman'

Russian investigators have identified the suspected attacker as Boris Grits, 48, a dual Russian-Israeli citizen who claimed to have been in "telepathic contact" with Felgengauer for several years and that the journalist had "sexually harassed" him telepathically.

Asked whether media reports like the Rossia-24 segment about Ekho Moskvy could play a role in attacks on journalists, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was "illogical" to draw broad conclusions about the work of "a madman."

"The actions of a madman are the actions of a madman," Peskov was quoted by the state-run TASS news agency as saying. "Trying to link this to something or paint this in a certain way is absolutely illogical and wrongheaded."

Ekho Moskvy Editor in Chief Aleksei Venediktov said during the broadcaster's morning program on October 24, however, that, whatever the suspect's mental state, "people don't live in a vacuum."

"I believe that, for example, Boris Nemtsov was killed not only by the scumbag who fired the gun, but also by the atmosphere of hate and instigation," Venediktov said.

Assault At Ekho Moskvy – What Happened
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A Moscow court in July convicted five men from Russia's North Caucasus region of Chechnya of Nemtsov's slaying and sentenced them to prison, though relatives and associates believe his murder was ordered at a higher level.

Allies of Nemtsov have previously asked the United States to impose sanctions on Russian media personalities they accuse of a demonization campaign that helped lead to his killing.

Venediktov added that this atmosphere is "undoubtedly" relevant in the case of Felgengauer and other journalists who have faced attacks and harassment in Russia.

'They're Not Being Caught'

Numerous pro-government voices have accused government opponents of trying to generate political capital from the attack on Felgengauer.

Noting the suspect's bizarre claims about telepathy, Ilya Remeslo, who sits on a largely symbolic Kremlin advisory council, wrote on Facebook that Kremlin opponents "wanted so badly to blame everything on 'the regime,' but using their colleague's misfortune for political purposes didn't work out."

Remeslo, a vocal critic of Russia's liberal opposition, was quoted in the Rossia-24 segment as saying Ekho Moskvy maintains a "deeply antigovernment line."

After reports emerged about Grits's purported mental-health problems, prominent state-television journalist Vladimir Solovyov -- whom Nemtsov's allies accuse of stoking hatred against the slain politician -- suggested that "everyone who libeled" Rossia-24 should "apologize."

Even journalists who believe the government is indeed fomenting hatred against critics have voiced skepticism that the attack may have been anything other than a random act of a mentally unstable person.

"Maybe he was just f***ed up," Roman Badanin, editor in chief of the independent Dozhd TV wrote.

Venediktov, however, said that while there are "a lot of psychos, when psychos attack journalists there's not a great effort to catch them."

Journalist Yulia Latynina fled Russia after a suspected arson attack on her car. (file photo)
Journalist Yulia Latynina fled Russia after a suspected arson attack on her car. (file photo)

He cited the case of Ekho Moskvy talk-show host Yulia Latynina, who fled Russia in September after a suspected arson attack on her car. Last year, an unidentified assailant dumped feces on Latynina as she was walking to work in central Moscow. A militant pro-Kremlin group hinted it was behind that attack, for which no one has ever been charged.

Independent journalists and opposition politicians have long accused authorities of emboldening those who commit acts of violence against government critics by failing to properly investigate the incidents.

"They don't even really try to catch those who kill," Venediktov told Current Time TV, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "That's why [such assailants] have gotten out of hand, because they're not being caught."

Igor Yakovenko, an ex-lawmaker and former head of the Russian Union of Journalists, said in a blog post that the "atmosphere of hate, amplified by television, can kill."

"The tragedy of Boris Nemtsov proves this. Tatyana Felgengauer, thank god, is alive," Yakovenko wrote.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.