Maksim Borodin, 32, a Yekaterinburg-based investigative correspondent for the independent news website Novy Den, died April 15, 2018, after falling on April 12, 2018 from the balcony of his fifth-floor apartment, local media and his employer reported.
Borodin’s neighbors found the journalist’s unconscious body on the ground outside the apartment building, according to a report on the news website Kommersant. He was taken to a city hospital with serious injuries and died without regaining consciousness, the report stated.
The journalist reported on corruption and crime in his native region of Sverdlovsk, according to the Guardian. In the few months prior to his death, Borodin reported on several sensitive subjects.
He gained national attention for his reporting on the deaths in Syria of Russian private military contractors fighting on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, the Guardian reported. In February and March 2018, Borodin reported from the town of Asbest, home to several men who left to fight in Syria with Wagner Group, a paramilitary organization with alleged ties to the Kremlin that suffered dozens of fatalities in February following an attack by United States-backed forces in Syria. Borodin interviewed relatives and the contractors’ superiors, and attended their funerals in Asbest. The Kremlin denies any connection with Russian contractors fighting in Syria.
In February 2018, the Borodin reported on Russian opposition candidate and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny’s expose of Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin, who Navalny has alleged funneled illicit profits into offshore accounts. In August 2017, Borodin wrote about the Russian film “Matilda,” which was lambasted by the Russian Orthodox Church for its portrayal of the late Tsar Nicholas II’s personal life.
On April 16, 2018, an unnamed spokesperson for Yekaterinburg’s branch of Russia’s Investigative Committee, the agency tasked with probing serious crimes, told the state news agency TASS that Borodin’s apartment was locked from the inside and "there is no evidence of foul play." The spokesperson also said investigators did not find a suicide note in the journalist’s apartment and that the journalist was sober when he fell.
On April 23, 2018, the Investigative Committee told Novy Den that they will not open a criminal investigation since there was “no evidence of a crime,” and the journalist’s death will likely be treated as a “tragic accident.”
CPJ’s calls to the Yekaterinburg branch of the Investigative Committee went unanswered.
Yekaterina Norseyeva, a Novy Den correspondent in Yekaterinburg, told CPJ on April 16, 2018, that it was "very unlikely" that Borodin had committed suicide. "He was going to be transferred to our Moscow bureau; he was full of plans," she said.
A Yekaterinburg-based civil rights defender and Borodin’s friend, Vyacheslav Bashkov, on April 15 wrote on his Facebook page that Borodin contacted him at 5 a.m. on April 11 and said that "security forces" wearing camouflage and face masks were on his balcony and in the interior staircase of his building. Borodin told Bashkov that he thought the security forces were waiting for a court order to search his apartment and asked Bashkov to help him find a lawyer, according to the Facebook post.
Bashkov wrote on Facebook that Borodin called him back an hour later and said he was mistaken and the security officers were conducting a drill.
In his Facebook post, Bashkov said that he went to local police after he found out about Borodin’s death, but police seemed uninterested and "did not question [him] about much."
Bashkov told CPJ that he was not aware of Borodin’s whereabouts between the telephone call and the time of the journalist’s fall, which he said likely happened during the afternoon of April 12, 2018. Bashkov also said it had become a “regular practice” for law enforcement to conduct drills in Yekaterinburg ahead of the World Cup.
On April 17, 2018, Novy Den Editor-in-Chief Polina Rumyantseva told the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta that three days prior to his death, Borodin had told her he had been under surveillance. “I warned the building security. I also advised [Borodin] to report this to the police,” she said, and added that Borodin did not go to the police.
Novy Den issued a statement on April 19, 2018, saying they had no reason to disbelieve the Investigative Committee’s conclusions calling Borodin’s death “tragic event.”
CPJ research shows that Borodin’s demise fits a pattern of journalists in Russia dying as they cover sensitive issues with potential repercussions for authorities, under circumstances that are not fully explained or investigated.