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Opinion: It should not be a crime to criticize in Putin's Russia

Police officers and the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) servicemen patrol on Red Square in central Moscow on January 25, 2021.
AFP via Getty Images
Police officers and the Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) servicemen patrol on Red Square in central Moscow on January 25, 2021.

Ravil Maganov died this week. He was 67, and chairman of Lukoil, the Russian oil company. Lukoil released a statement that he "passed away following a severe illness."

Tass, the state-owned Russian news agency, says Mr. Maganov fell out of a 6th floor hospital window. They called it a suicide.

It may be pertinent to mention that shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, the board of Lukoil called for the "soonest possible end" to the conflict.

Ravil Maganov is one of several Russian energy oligarchs who have died this year under murky circumstances. Their demise may remind you of previous epidemics of "accidents. Being a critic of Russia's government can be hazardous to your health.

In May of 2020, as coronavirus cases surged, two Russian doctors and a medic, according to local media, fell from hospital windows. The doctors died.

The Committee to Protect Journalists says dozens of Russian reporters have been killed since 2000, while investigating corruption. A number of them inexplicably fell from windows. Their deaths have been ruled accidents or suicides.

"These 'accidents' are no accident," Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told us. "Nor are these 'suicides' suicides. They are a tool of the state to silence critics and intimidate would-be critics."

Alexei Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition leader, sent a series of tweets this week through his lawyers following the death Mikhail Gorbachev, who famously released Soviet political prisoners:

"The fact that today people like me find out about his death through loudspeakers in their prison cells perfectly characterizes the transformation of my country," he said.

When Mr. Gorbachev resigned as the last president of the USSR in 1991, he might have been more popular overseas than at home. But he didn't invade Ukraine and other republics when they voted to be free of the Soviet Union. He survived a failed coup attempt, and had its leaders arrested--not thrown out of windows.

"He stepped down peacefully and voluntarily," Alexi Navalny reminded us this week, "respecting the will of his constituents."

President Putin did not attend Mikhail Gorbahev's funeral.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.