Tributes and obituaries had poured in for Arkady Babchenko after news that the Russian journalist had been shot and killed Tuesday in the Ukrainian capital. Babchenko had fled Russia in February 2017 fearing for his safety as he became one of the most prominent critics of the Russian government. So as soon as authorities said Babchenko had been killed—allegedly shot in the back three times as he left his apartment to buy bread—suspicion immediately fell on the Kremlin. Turns out though, Babchenko wasn’t killed at all.
In a plot twist seemingly no one saw coming, Babchenko showed up at a news conference Wednesday where journalists were expecting to get an update on the investigation of the journalist’s murder. Amid gasps and applause from those gathered at the news conference, officials explained Babchenko staged his own death in a highly coordinated effort with Ukrainian law enforcement as part of an investigation into threats made against his life. Babchenko apologized to his friends and wife, who was apparently unaware of the whole operation. “I have buried many friends and colleagues many times and I know the sickening feeling,” he said. “I am sorry you had to experience it. But there was no other way.”
It seems the ruse required a highly skilled level of acting from Babchenko who apparently played dead in front of his wife. The whole staging took place in Babchenko’s apartment in Kiev. His wife allegedly heard gunshots and saw him lying on the floor, covered in what she thought was blood. She called the police and an ambulance and officials later said Babchenko died en route to the hospital. “Olechka, I am terribly sorry,” he said, addressing his wife, “but there were no other options.”
It is far from clear how the faked assassination helped authorities catch perpetrators but police say they have made one arrest. Vasyl Hrystak, head of the Ukrainian security service, said Kremlin officials had recruited a former fighter in east Ukraine and offered him $40,000 for the murder. The assassination “was ordered by Russia’s security forces,” Hrytsak said. “The organizer was talking about killing another 30 people in Ukraine. We know some names but I won’t name them.”
Needless to say, this movie-plot twist won’t do anything to improve relations between Kiev and Moscow. The Russian foreign ministry issued a statement saying it was happy that Babchenko was alive. “It is a shame that Babchenko participated in the Ukrainian security services’ provocation. I include this staging in the series of nonsensical actions on the Russian track carried out by the Ukrainian authorities,” Konstantin Kosachyov, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Russian Senate, told Interfax.
Amid the joy of seeing Babchenko alive, many were quick to criticize Kiev for a stunt that some are saying will only increase skepticism about both the media and the government. “Whatever was gained by this stunt, I fear far more was lost. Triumph of hall-of-mirrors, fake-newsification of everything, which by definition can only harm trust in media, police, everybody,” wrote The New Yorker’s Joshua Yaffa. Some said the Kremlin was the real winner of this high-profile stunt. “The Kremlin has been fighting for a long time to undermine the idea of truth and reality,” wrote BuzzFeed editor Miriam Elder. “Ukraine just helped them along.” The Financial Times’ Max Seddon couldn’t quite make up his mind about what to think: “I can’t decide if this is the most brilliant or spectacularly moronic thing I’ve ever heard. I think it’s both.” Others had a bit less trouble coming to a conclusion: “My first reaction to the Babchenko stunt was that it was a stupid idea. After further reflection, I now think it was a really stupid idea.”