If you want to understand just how far back Vladimir Putin’s reign of terror by means of internal security services goes, it is important to study the life and fate of an early Ukrainian post-independence journalist by the name of Georgiy Gongadze. Gongadze was an early journalist and political activist in the late Soviet era, being born of Ukrainian parents in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1967 and participating in a number of movements advocating political freedom and openness in the late Soviet Union period. He had participated in the first Soviet Union music festival in Chernivtsi in southwestern Ukraine in 1989, and he was declared an enemy of the state by post-independence Georgia’s first post-independence President, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, himself a controversial Georgian nationalist, whose government was soon overthrown by Georgian warlords; he later fought against Abkhazian troops in the ensuing Georgian civil war in 1992 and was injured. He moved to Kyiv in 1992 as Georgia descended into chaos, and moved into the field of free journalism.
He was profoundly critical of corruption in Leonid Kuchma’s Ukraine, that Gongadze considered undemocratic and run by criminal gangs and warlords. He watched with dismay the unbridled rise of the Oligarchs in the 1990’s under Kuchma’s rule from 1994, as criminals stole the Ukrainian state’s assets and stripped them of worth to line their own pockets. He observed the murder of Ukrainian opposition politician Viacheslav Chornovil in March 1999 who was in a car that mysteriously had a collision with a truck when Chornovil was campaigning to be President to prevent Kuchma from gaining a second term. Kuchma was then Russian FSB Director Vladimir Putin’s preferred choice as President of Ukraine, and Chornovil is widely believed to have been murdered on the orders of Vladimir Putin.
Kuchma won the 1999 Presidential election but Gongadze continued to work to expose corruption in the Kuchma regime and on the part of Leonid Kuchma personally. Gongadze travelled around the world complaining of the decline of civil liberties and media freedoms under Kuchma’s regime, and in April 2000 he founded a news website, Ukrainska Pravda (“Ukrainian Truth”), that existed to provide uncensored news via the relatively new medium of widespread internet use. Previously he had been working for STB, the dominant Ukrainian television network whose content had been heavily supervised by officials of the Kuchma regime and this was in large part the source of his complaints that there was no press freedom in Ukraine. Ukrainska Pravda is regarded by many as the true beginnings of the free media in Ukraine. It undertook extensive investigations into the business dealings of Leonid Kuchma and the Oligarchs, and for this reason Gongadze found himself making a number of powerful enemies.
It is not entirely clear how Gongadze died after not returning home from an evening out in Kyiv in September 2000, but the best available information seems to suggest that something along the following lines happened. He was arrested on a pretext or abducted by some police officers or members of the Ukrainian internal security service, who then accidentally shot him while he was in the back of the car. They then decapitated his corpse to avoid the police / security force bullet being associated with any particular assassin or with an agent of the state, and they buried his headless corpse in a field outside Kyiv, disfiguring the corpse with some sort of battery acid to try to prevent identification of the body. (Accurate identification was ultimately achieved by finding pieces of artillery shell in Gongadze’s body that had been there since his injuries in Georgia in 1992.) The head itself was never found.
There were various investigations and lawsuits and a massive flurry of disinformation about how Gongadze had died but to this day nobody really knows. In November 2000, in the so-called “Cassettes Scandal”, some audio recordings of Leonid Kuchma discussing with various internal security officials in his government the need to “silence’ Gongadze emerged, and before his death Gongadze had vocally complained that the Ukrainian security services had been harassing and threatening him. Suspicion therefore naturally fell upon Kuchma himself, to the effect that he personally had ordered Gongadze’s murder or at least his abduction. However it seems unlikely that Kuchma actually ordered Gongadze’s murder; the net result of these events was massively to discredit Kuchma and his pro-Russian murky Oligarch-backed regime and to expose the dirty relationships Kuchma had with now Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kuchma’s Ukraine became notorious as an extremely corrupt and unfree place and it seems unlikely that Kuchma himself could have wanted this.
Various police officers were tried and convicted for the murder of Gongadze and sentenced to extensive terms of imprisonment. Although Kuchma himself engaged a foreign private detective agency, Kroll, to prepare a report concluding that Kuchma had nothing to do with it all (something that damaged Kroll’s reputation for impartiality), it seems surely likely that the orders came from the top to detain Gongadze. Even if the agenda was just to rough him up or to detain him arbitrarily for a while, to intimidate him, something went wrong and whether by gross negligence or intent of an errant internal security agent, Gongadze was shot in the head and then the whole affair was ingloriously covered up in crude and unsophisticated terms that horrified the public and the world. This was the moment at which the globe came to understand that all was not right in post-independence Ukraine and under the tenure of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. The Orange Revolution, installing a pro-western democrat, would come soon after, in 2004, and that began the gradual process towards Ukrainian political extraction from the clutches of the Russian Federation and her security services, that ultimately led to the Russian invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and then again in 2022.
Ukrainska Pravda remained and remains a respectable source of more objective news and political commentary in Ukraine but it is no longer the radical, path-breaking voice of anti-establishment free speech that it was under Georgiy Gongadze. In 2021 it was bought by Dragon Capital, an international conglomerate owned by British investor Dominic Scriven whose principal business interests are in Vietnam. Under Scriven’s ownership Ukrainska Pravda remains one of the more reliable, objective and independent sources of media and news, and contributes to Ukraine’s current reputation for freedom of speech. Gongadze’s fate may have been grizzly and appalling, but standards of freedom of speech have moved on significantly since then.