Safronov, 51, a former Russian Space Force colonel and a respected military correspondent who covered defense, army, and space issues for the independent business daily Kommersant, fell more than four stories from a staircase window in his apartment building. The following narrative is drawn from CPJ interviews with Safronov’s Kommersant colleagues and military experts, and from press reports.
On the day he died, Safronov talked to colleagues and family by phone and made plans with them for later in the day and for the following week. He visited a Moscow doctor for treatment of an ulcer, symptoms of which had recently abated. Safronov then went grocery shopping and took a trolley back home. Around 4 p.m., two university students living in a nearby apartment building heard a thud and saw Safronov on the ground and an open window in the building above. Safronov’s groceries were on the landing between the fourth and the fifth floor of his apartment building. He died before help arrived.
The Taganka prosecutor’s office in Moscow initially said the death was a suicide. Several days later, prosecutors opened an investigation into what they called “incitement to suicide,” a provision of the Russian penal code that is defined as someone provoking a suicide through threats or abusive treatment. In September, prosecutors returned to their initial theory and declared the killing a suicide.
CPJ research shows Safronov had worked on a number of sensitive issues:
• In late February, Safronov had returned from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where he had covered the annual International Defense Exhibition and Conference, a gathering of defense manufacturers. Colleagues said Safronov had called the newsroom from Abu Dhabi with information about a purported Russian sale of fighter jets and anti-aircraft missiles to Syria and Iran. The sale was said to be channeled through Belarus to conceal the origin. Safronov had planned to finish the story when he returned.
• Three days before his death, Safronov privately told colleagues at a news conference that he had information about an alleged Russian sale to Syria of the surface-to-air missile system Pantsir-S1, the fighter aircraft MiG-29, and the tactical missile Iskandar-E. He said he had been cautioned not to publish the information because of its international implications, but he did not say who had issued the warning.
• Safronov had been interrogated many times by state security agents for allegedly disclosing state secrets in his articles. He was never formally charged because he was able to demonstrate that he had relied solely on public sources. In December 2006, Safronov angered authorities when he wrote about the third consecutive launch failure of the Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile.
Relatives, friends, and colleagues said Safronov had no reason to commit suicide. He had no personal enemies, no debts, and no life-threatening disease. He had been married for many years, had two adult children, and was expecting his first grandchild. He did not leave a suicide note.