KIEV — The people who blew up journalist Pavel Sheremet in the center of Ukraine’s capital this morning knew exactly what they were doing. His death stabbed at the hearts of independent journalists in countries all over the former Soviet Union—countries where the press is under siege.
For them, the 44-year-old Sheremet was not just a reporter, he was a journalistic institution, and the founder, not least, of a school in Kiev for young reporters. He published newspaper articles, spoke on Radio Vesti, and expressed his strong opinions on blogs and social networks.
For two decades Sheremet’s sharp reports attacked dictators and dictatorial regimes. He was fearless, much like his old friend Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who also was a victim of assassination.
At about 7:45 Wednesday morning Sheremet was driving his girlfriend’s Subaru to work at Radio Vesti when the vehicle exploded at the corner of Bagdan Khmelnitsky Avenue near a popular McDonald’s. The journalist’s legs were just … gone. Bleeding massively, he struggled to crawl out of the car. Several people rushed to the burning vehicle, but there was no hope.
Sheremet’s assassins had been skillful. They planted an explosive device equivalent to 400 to 600 grams of TNT beneath the driver’s position, according to the Ukrainian interior ministry. By noon the news traveled from mouth to mouth in cafes, taxis and shops of Ukraine.
The assassination was another example of Ukraine’s slide toward the abyss. The country’s leadership is losing support day by day; the economy is deteriorating; the security services are mired in international scandals. Seemingly random attacks are growing more commonplace. The illegal market for deadly weapons is growing.
Almost every week new, random attacks are reported, while in the east, the war with the breakaway republics is growing hotter. The night before Sheremet’s murder local media recorded seven Ukrainian soldiers killed and 14 wounded in one day.
The nightmarish assassination of Sheremet shook up the country, heightening the profound distrust of government that exists already. To avoid manipulation or interference with investigation by different political powers, President Petro Poroshenko asked the American FBI to get involved helping Ukraine to find out the truth about Sheremet’s death.
Sheremet will be remembered as somebody who was always ready to help on a story, a man with a wicked sense of humor, and a flair for colorful language.
“From my first steps in journalism in Kiev in 2014, he took me by the hand and took me everywhere, introducing me to people and to the profession,” says Ekaterina Segatskova, now a journalist with Hramadske TV. “His girlfriend, Olena Prytula, a journalist from Ukrainskaya Pravda and Pavel had received multiple threats on their life for their reporting. They complained that somebody began to follow them about a year ago.”
Tragically, Sheremet was not the only journalist who fell prey to violence this week. On Tuesday, somebody stabbed the editor of Ukrainian Forbes, Maria Rydvan, injuring her face and arm, local media reported.
In these former Soviet countries assassins target the brave, the famous, the people whose deaths would leave us speechless, breathless. Dozens of strong voices have been silenced in the last decade, including Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, human rights activist Natalia Estemirova, lawyer Stanislav Markelov in Russia, Belarusian journalist Dmitry Zlavadsky in Belarus, and Ukrainian journalist Georgy Gangadze.
Sheremet had plenty of enemies, and not only in Kiev but in Moscow and in Minsk, in his native Belarus. Death threats had followed the journalist since the early 1990s, when he began to cover news first out of his own garage in Minsk, then on his website, Belorussian Partisan. “I am [Belarusian] dictator [Alexander] Lukashenko’s personal enemy,” Sheremet liked to say. He openly blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for dictatorial methods and violations of the constitution. “In Russia we are going to see a short term but severe dictatorship,” Sheremet warned in 2012.
Five years ago the journalist moved from Moscow, where he was already a well-known television anchor, to work and live in Ukraine. Almost every day Sheremet’s posts attacked Ukrainian nationalists, corrupt bureaucrats and the military. Sheremet told The Daily Beast earlier this year that Renat Akhmetov, the Ukrainian tycoon blamed by investigative reporters for his cooperation with rebel leaders in the east, “should be put on trial for the war in Ukraine.”
Sheremet’s close friend, Pavel Marinish, remembers that Belarusian President Lukashenko “locked him in jail several times; the Belorussian KGB threatened his life; they blacklisted him out of Ukraine; but he still returned back to his home country.” This week the journalist will travel back to his hometown of Minsk for the last time, his mother said.
And in Kiev? On Wednesday afternoon, even before police at the scene had finished their forensic investigations they were suggesting “those interested in destabilization” were behind Sheremet’s tragic death: the kind of vague charge that rarely leads to real justice.
A group of about a dozen street sweepers were cleaning the crime scene. “That’s all!” A man in uniform waved to them hurriedly. People started hosing down the road.
An older woman at the McDonald’s watching the scene, could be heard telling a friend: “Look, of course, it’s always the same, they dig his grave, put a monument, and wash their hands.”