In September 2004, the Kremlin had its forces storm a school in Beslan that was occupied by Chechen terrorists. But Milashina found information suggesting that the terrorists did not set off the bomb they had installed. Rather, ricochets coming from the guns of the Russian special forces apparently triggered the catastrophe. In addition to 31 terrorists, 334 schoolchildren, parents, teachers and soldiers died in the Beslan incident.
After the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in August 2000, Milashina spoke with 53 officers and experts, including 27 admirals and rear admirals with the Russian fleet, until, as she says, she "could have led a tour through that nuclear submarine with my eyes closed." In the end, she was able to prove that a few of the 118 sailors trapped in the submarine 108 meters (354 feet) below sea level were alive for three to four days -- not just a few hours, as the government had insisted in an effort to justify its claim that a rescue mission was impossible.
Milashina was 22 at the time. "Novaya is the only place where I can truly practice journalism," she says today. "We help people in very specific ways." The paper's editors seek to change reality, instead of merely describing it. For that reason, some of the journalists occasionally abandon the role of observer and make themselves into part of their stories. This was one of the criticisms of slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya, both in Russia and in the West. She evacuated retirees from the embattled city of Grozny and placed them in Russian retirement homes.
Politkovskaya was no isolated case. Her colleague Vyacheslav Izmailov, a veteran of the Chechen war and an expert on the Caucasus region, helped liberate more than 170 hostages from the Chechens. He uncovered evidence linking despotic Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov to torture, and he is convinced that the trail in Politkovskaya's murder leads to Kadyrov and his cohorts.
But Izmailov's story hasn't been printed yet, perhaps because the supporting evidence is not yet conclusive enough. Of perhaps, as Muratov says, "no story is worth another life."
Muratov, Lebedev and Gorbachev make up the triumvirate that protected Novaya in bad times, when the newspaper almost went out of business, or when inaccurate reporting shook the credibility of its editorial team. In a famous blunder, the paper ran a story on the head of the Russian nuclear program, who had apparently been accused of embezzling international aid money and seeking US citizenship. The only problem was that the story wasn't true, having been concocted by a Moscow-based English-language satirical publication.
Such fiascos are all the more painful to the trio because the three men have known each other for the past two decades. Twenty years ago, Gorbachev was still president and the general secretary of the Communist Party. One evening, during a visit to London to attend a summit of industrialized nations, where he was fighting for a loan worth billions, he was unwinding at the embassy. Everyone praised Gorbachev who, in his typical manner, asked the guests for their criticism. A slim embassy secretary stood up and explained that the loan would lead the country into a debt trap and was more beneficial to the lenders than to Moscow. The man was Lebedev.
"The rest of us held our breath. A young diplomat was contradicting the leader of the Soviet Union," says Lebedev's former KGB colleague.