Moscow CNN  — 

“Why does Russia never leak?” I asked the investigative journalist sitting opposite me in a dingy Moscow café.

He took gulp of espresso coffee, then after realizing I wasn’t joking, he told me.

“Because they kill you, of course,” he said.

It was a point well made in a country where journalists, campaigners and even opposition figures have met sticky ends.

For my contact, it was that risk of retribution that accounted for the drought of information in Russia about contacts between the Trump campaign or administration officials and the Kremlin.

Indeed, the lack of life-threatening consequences for leakers in the United States may partially explain why there has been such a deluge of information from there, albeit information that is sometimes flawed, factually, that is.

Compared with the United States, Russia often feels closed, its institutions opaque, and its decisions mysterious.

With a few notable exceptions, its news media is Kremlin-controlled and slavishly follows the official line on an entire spectrum of issues from national politics to international affairs.

If any outlet dares to break ranks, such as the independent Russian-language newspaper Novaya Gazeta did recently by reporting that gay men in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya are being rounded up and tortured, consequences often follow.

In the past, several of the newspaper’s journalistic staff have been assassinated in mafia-style hits.

Its main reporter on the Chechnya gay crackdown story, Elena Milashina, faced death threats and was forced to flee the country.

02:50 - Source: CNN
Gay men tell of brutality in Chechnya

With potential leakers and potential publishers of those leaks both facing intolerable threats, it is hardly surprising the whistleblower culture in Russia hasn’t, shall we say, really caught on.

The other issue, of course, is that Russia is essentially a one-man show.

Sure, there are elected lawmakers and appointed governors. There are judges and generals too.

But only one man in Russia’s “power vertical” makes the important decisions, only one man really matters.

That man, Vladimir Putin, keeps a small and tight inner circle around him, made up of advisers and ministers who appear unflinchingly loyal to him.

For a country this big, the world’s biggest, in fact, only a vanishingly small group know what is really going on.

And the members of that exclusive club rarely speak in public, except by issuing prepared statements or speeches.

They virtually never submit themselves to rigorous interview (although it occasionally happens) or brief journalists off the record.

For one fleeting moment, back in 2007, a few of my reporter colleagues in Moscow and I were treated to a rare glimpse inside Putin’s inner circle.

Sergei Ivanov was First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, a former defense minister and an old KGB hand who was by then vying to be selected as presidential successor to Putin, who was due to step down after serving two presidential terms.

Ivanov invited a dozen of us to a private dinner in a Moscow restaurant, where we could ask anything and he would answer, off the record, as best he could.

It was an enlightening evening that left every one of us impressed by his openness and hoping a new era of access to the Kremlin was upon us.

It wasn’t.

The other guy, Dmitry Medvedev, got picked and, needless to say, there were no more dinners.