Echoes of a silenced voice

Legacy of murdered investigative journalist Paul Klebnikov ’81 lives on in memorial lecture series. 

Sarah Pruitt '95
April 24, 2024
Andrew Weiss lectures in the Goel Center

Andrew Weiss, a former White House, State Department and Pentagon official,  speaking with students, faculty and staff about the war in Ukraine.

"We are literally tonight at an inflection point," Andrew Weiss says. "This is a terrifying moment ... in U.S. policy towards Ukraine." 

Weiss, a former White House, State Department and Pentagon official during the presidential administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, now analyzes the region for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a global think tank. On this February evening, he is addressing not journalists or policymakers, but a group of Exeter students, faculty and staff gathered in the intimate black box theater inside The David E. and Stacey L. Goel Center for Theater and Dance.

The topic of Weiss’ lecture — “War in Ukraine: Can the United States and Europe Tackle the Near- and Long-Term Challenge?” — could not be more timely. Even as he speaks, U.S. Senate lawmakers are mired in contentious negotiations over legislation that would potentially send more than $60 billion in additional aid to Ukraine, where fighting has been raging since Russian forces invaded in February 2022.

Weiss speaks for more than an hour, pausing often to emphasize a point or invite questions from the audience. He argues that for Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, Ukraine represents “unfinished business” after popular uprisings thwarted Russian intervention in Ukrainian politics in 2004 and 2014. Putin’s relentless efforts to dominate Ukraine, Weiss says, is why the war in Ukraine will govern U.S. policy toward Russia for the foreseeable future.

“We need to avoid magical thinking about how we’re going to manage an adversarial relationship with a country like Russia,” he says, expanding on a theme he and a Carnegie colleague explored in an essay published in The Wall Street Journal last November. “So long as Putin is in power, we should expect the current status quo to prevail.”

This event is the second of three lectures by Weiss, who will also sit in on multiple history classes as the latest speaker in the Paul Klebnikov ’81 Memorial Lecture Series, established by the class of 1981.  An investigative journalist who had recently become editor in chief of the Russian edition of Forbes, Klebnikov was shot and killed outside his office in Moscow in July 2004. Though Russian authorities charged several men linked to a Chechen rebel leader with committing the murder for hire, they never definitively identified who had organized it. Almost 20 years later, no one has been brought to justice for Klebnikov’s killing.

Keith Moon ’81, a longtime teacher of Russian history and literature at The Hotchkiss School, introduced Weiss. Moon says he often thinks of Klebnikov when discussing the corruption and chaos of post-Soviet Russia with his students. “Paul was doing investigative journalism and studying people who were ruthless and brutal, and they caught up with him,” he says. “He understood that, but it was a tragic … price to pay.”



A descendant of Russian emigrés who escaped the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Paul Klebnikov was born in New York City, the youngest of four children. According to an article published in New York Magazine after his death, he attended private school in Manhattan and spent weekends and vacations at a family home in the Hamptons. Yet he also grew up steeped in the culture of his ancestral homeland, following Russian Orthodox religious traditions and learning the history of the czars. 

Andy Bernard ’81, who met Klebnikov when both were 6 years old, remembers their primary school teacher reprimanding Klebnikov for speaking Russian in class. Both boys later enrolled at Exeter, where they moved into opposite ends of Webster Hall. At the time, Exeter’s dress code required a tie, which Klebnikov would often replace with an ascot. “He was just someone who was definitely on his own path, much more so I think than many of us were at a very young age,” Bernard says.

Ashok Chandrasekhar ’81 forged a close friendship with Klebnikov through long conversations in the cramped quarters of a fourth-floor room in Webster North their prep year, when Klebnikov kept more than one book on great tank battles of World War II on his bookshelf. “Paul was one of the most politically and historically aware people that I knew back then,” Chandrasekhar says. “He very much cared about what was going on in the world, about being engaged with it and taking a position on things. He also enjoyed writing about what was going on, analyzing it and coming up with interpretations.”

Klebnikov and Chandrasekhar worked together on The Exonian, but Klebnikov left during his upper year when he ran for and was elected president of Student Council. “He felt that the school was full of so many smart, interesting people and so many great teachers and so much opportunity that it could be even better,” Chandrasekhar recalls.

After Exeter, Klebnikov studied political science at the University of California, Berkeley, and got his Ph.D. in Russian studies from the London School of Economics. He began working as a reporter for Forbes in 1989, and by the early ’90s was taking frequent reporting trips to Russia. He was optimistic about the possibility of what Russia could become, even as he reported with horror on the corruption that dominated the era of privatization of state property after the Soviet Union’s fall.

In 2000, Klebnikov published a book, Godfather of the Kremlin, based on reporting he did for Forbes on Boris Berezovsky, a businessman whose dealings in luxury cars, media, oil and other industries had made him one of the richest men in Russia. After the book’s publication, Bernard — a professor of international economics at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College — invited Klebnikov to give a guest lecture to his students about the Russian economy since the breakup of the Soviet Union and its prospects for the future.

Bernard recalls admiringly how Klebnikov used no notes or teaching aids but stood with his hands clasped behind his back, lecturing and answering the students’ questions. “It was just an amazing tour de force by someone who knows exactly what they’re talking about and was able to really reach a wide range of students,” he recalls. 

In late 2003, after enduring a lengthy legal battle with Berezovsky over claims made in his book (the case eventually settled), Klebnikov was offered the opportunity to move to Moscow and become editor in chief of a new Russian edition of Forbes. He left his wife, Musa, and their three children behind in New York, signing only a one-year contract for the new job. Forbes Russia drew attention from the beginning, with one of its first issues featuring a list of the 100 richest Russians, as well as their financial details. The list — which included 36 purported billionaires — made waves for exposing so clearly the divide between rich and poor in post-Soviet Russia.

On July 9, 2004, according to news reports, Klebnikov left his office after working late and headed toward the metro station in a nearby park. He hadn’t gone far when a car pulled up behind him and someone inside fired four bullets from a 9 mm Makarov pistol at Klebnikov before the car sped away. Hit multiple times, he was still alive when the local police showed up. They put him in an ambulance, but the vehicle lacked an oxygen tank. Slipping in and out of consciousness, he died at a Moscow hospital, where he had been loaded onto an elevator that stalled between floors.

In 2006, Russian authorities charged three men with supposed links to Chechen rebel leader Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev — the subject of Klebnikov’s 2003 book Conversation with a Barbarian — with carrying out Klebnikov’s murder. They were subsequently acquitted in a closed trial. That verdict was overturned, but the alleged triggerman disappeared before facing a retrial, and the case has remained inactive.

“Paul really believed that Russia was on a trajectory to become the kind of pluralistic society that he had hoped it would be, and he was super optimistic,” says Bernard, who last spoke to Klebnikov just a few days before he was killed. “To me, Paul’s death told me exactly how wrong he was.” 

At the time of Klebnikov’s death, about 40 journalists and media professionals had been killed since the Soviet collapse; that number now exceeds 80, according to the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists. Soon after Weiss visited Exeter, news broke that Alexei Navalny, the most prominent voice of opposition to Putin’s government, had died while imprisoned in a remote labor camp in the Arctic Circle. In March, Putin claimed victory — and another six years in power — in an effectively uncontested presidential election.

“Part of the problem with Russia is there’s no accountability,” Weiss says when asked about the mounting number of journalists, human rights workers, politicians and others who have been killed or died under mysterious circumstances. “There’s lots of conspiracy thinking and theorizing, but there’s no accountability.”

Weiss remembers sitting in the White House as a young policy adviser in 1999 when President Clinton got the news that Putin would become Russia’s next president. In Accidental Czar: The Life and Lies of Vladimir Putin, his 2022 graphic novel biography, Weiss draws on this experience to chart Putin’s rise from a midlevel KGB officer to an autocratic president and one of the most notorious figures on the world stage.

“The Russians created myths about Vladimir Putin to make him seem kind of superhuman and give him all this allure,” Weiss says. “It was important to me in this book to chip away at some of those myths, but also to explain why they’re really important. Because some of them connect back to core aspects of what the Russian state is … [as well as] the current moment and the policies that Russia pursues.”

During his visit, Weiss discussed Russia’s past, present and future with three history classes, including two sections of HIS508: Understanding Violence, War and Peace and HIS554: Revolutionary Russia. He also spoke with the students about his own experience: advanced Russian language studies at Columbia University, studying in the Soviet Union as a college student and making the transition in his career from supporting senior government policymakers to working at a think tank that analyzes Russian policy issues from various angles.

“He was really dynamic and elicited a lot of questions from the students,” says History Department Chair Kent A. McConnell, who teaches HIS508. “I think they respected his ideas greatly, but they were also willing to engage his ideas with questions that were not combative but explored more of his reasoning.”

Hunter Ryerson ’24, a two-year senior in McConnell’s class, admired the breadth and depth of Weiss’ experience in his field, as well as his openness to differing opinions and his ability to reveal a more complex reality behind the often simplified narratives presented in the media. “He obviously has some ideological stances … so to say that he showed up and lectured and then I changed my worldview would not necessarily be true,” Ryerson says. But “you want to test whatever belief you have … against a legitimate counterargument. To have quasi-debates and intellectual discussion towards a more productive future is always such a great thing.” 

For Sonia Soloviova ’24, a three-year senior born and raised in Kyiv, Ukraine, news of Weiss’ visit provoked some nervous anticipation. “I was a little worried before he came in … especially with the way Western media portrays the war in Russia and Ukraine,” Soloviova says. “But it was reassuring to hear Andrew Weiss talk about it in such a compelling, empathetic way.”

Compared with many outside speakers, Weiss spent an extended time on Exeter’s campus, including multiple nights of lecturing and repeated classroom visits. “He became kind of integrated into the classroom with this welcoming environment where it became an exchange of ideas,” Soloviova says. “That’s something that’s very common at Exeter between students, but rare when it comes to speakers and students.”  

For Bernard and Chandrasekhar, Weiss’ extended visit on campus and multifaceted engagement with students was exactly what the class of 1981 imagined when the speaker series was established in Klebnikov’s memory. “We wanted to bring to the students the kind of thing that would’ve excited Paul when he was a student,” Chandrasekhar says. “Someone from outside of the Academy who could address them about major issues of the day and spend time talking to them and engaging with them in the type of conversation that would’ve thrilled Paul, had he been there.”

In 1979, Klebnikov (then an upper) wrote an editorial in The Exonian lamenting the lack of interest and engagement in current events among his fellow students. As Bernard puts it, “He felt that most of us had a lot of privilege, and he thought that we should use our privilege to change the world.”

During Weiss’ visit, with momentous events unfolding on the national and international stage, current Exeter students clearly took Klebnikov’s message to heart. 

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2024 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.