In October 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist and dissident, was murdered in her apartment complex by multiple gunshot wounds. Specifically, she was assassinated on October 7 — which happens to be the birthday of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Many pundits have jumped to the conclusion that this is evidence of Russia’s intolerance of a free press and former-KGB agent Putin’s involvement in fascist political practice. In the face of these conspiracy theories, I would like to bring some mathematics to bear on the discussion and perhaps arrive at a more informed conclusion.
The Baltimore Stockbroker
In order for us to understand Moscow, we must first look to Baltimore. There is a story of the Baltimore Stockbroker, maybe true and maybe apocryphal. A man received mail from this Stockbroker claiming that he was infallible when it comes to predicting the stock market. To prove his claims, the Stockbroker included predictions about whether certain top stocks would rise or fall over the next week.
The Stockbroker’s predictions all came true, and a week later another letter came, with more predictions—which also came to pass. This went on for ten weeks, with this guru sending reliably valid predictions each time. At the end of ten weeks, he solicited a $10,000 fee to enlist his service in picking stocks for the next week.
What was the recipient to make of this business?
It seems at first blush that this Stockbroker knows the behavior of the market. After all, empirically verified predictions are key to science, knowledge, and understanding in this world, and what better proof could have been given of his expertise?
But what the recipient might not have been counting on were the millions of other people across the country who were also receiving mail from this Stockbroker, each prediction unique and different from the rest. For every recipient whose predictions failed, they never heard from the Stockbroker again. One lucky man would, it turns out, be on the receiving end of the accurate predictions for ten straight weeks. It might never occur to that individual that he was one among many and only by chance received all the right guesses.
The Mass of Ill-Fated Russian Dissidents
With the Baltimore Stockbroker in mind, I suggest that you can only come to conspiracy-theory conclusions about Mrs. Politkovskaya’s untimely demise if you ignore the mass of data about other ill-fated Russian dissidents.
What, after all, of Maksim Maksimov, a reporter investigating government corruption who disappeared one June while heading to meet a source?
Or Yuri Shchekochikhin, an editor who succumbed to illness one July and whose medical records have since been declared a state secret?
What about Valery Ivanov and Aleksei Sidorov, editors of the same paper who were shot and stabbed in April 2002 and October (9, not 7) 2003, respectively?
We could include, but pass over, in this list, Paul Klebnikov, Eduard Markevich, Pavel Makeev, Ivan Safronov, Magomed Yevloyev, Natalya Skryl, Vagif Kochetkov, Vladimir Yatsina, Magomedzagid Varisov, Telman Alishayev, Natalya Estemirova, Vyacheslav Yaroshenko, and many others—enough to merit a thoroughgoing, international report on the subject.
If exactly one Putin opponent bites the dust, and does so on his birthday, then one could speculate that some ambitious go-getters looking to get ahead rid the President of a troublesome writer, or even that Putin was indulging himself. In a country that is rated as third deadliest in the world for its press, it should be no surprise that sooner or later some agitating reporter would die under mysterious circumstances on Putin’s birthday.
In terms of hard numbers—some Russians say that, as of 2007, 220 journalists have been killed since the Soviet Union fell in 1991. If one journalist was killed randomly, then there is only a 1/365 chance that he or she died on Putin’s birthday (ignoring leap years for the moment, because no one wants to deal with fractions like 4/1461). This slim chance means that, if such a thing does occur, we are inclined to believe that it is no accident.
If 220 journalists are killed, then the probability rises that at least one does happen to die one Putin’s birthday. Because of the celebrated axiom of probability that the chance of something happening plus the chance of something not happening = 1, we see that the probability that no journalist dies on Putin’s birthday plus the probability that at least 1 journalist dies on Putin’s birthday = 1. Therefore, 1 minus (the probability that no journalist dies on Putin’s birthday) = (the probability that at least 1 journalist dies on Putin’s birthday).
Now, to find the probability that no journalist dies on Putin’s birthday, we use probability’s multiplication principle, which states that the chances of two independent things both happening are given by the product of the one event’s probability times the other event’s probability. (Thus, two coin tosses result in two heads with a probability of ¼, since each head’s chance of happening is ½, and ½ * ½ = ¼.) Therefore, for each journalist’s death, he or she does not die on Putin’s birthday with a (rough) probability of 364/365. (This is virtually certain, since, after all, Putin’s birthday only happens one day a year, just like the rest of us.)
So in order for two hundred and twenty journalists to avoid that birthday, we multiply 364/365 by itself 220 times. When we do this, we yield ≈0.547, which means that there’s a 54.7% chance that none dies on his birthday. Or, subtracting this from 1, as our above equation dictates, this means that there is a 45.3% chance that at least one journalist dies on his birthday.
A Hapless Victim of Chance
Is this a sort of “bound-to-happen-sooner-or-later” certainty? Not exactly. But it means that the chances of at least one journalist dying on President Putin’s were only slightly less bad than a coin flip. Those are pretty thin grounds for the serious accusations of having journalists assassinated, which, after all, are one of the most unforgivable crimes a government can commit. We must take care when we level such charges.
Besides, when recent history has reminded us that even events with a 28% chance or 10% chance of happening (or, depending on whom you’re talking with, less than a 1% chance), then this shouldn’t strike us as all that incredible.
Then you remember that all of these computations aren’t even taking into account the various political rivals and generic dissidents that Mother Russia has brought forth, which are much harder to tabulate, Ms. Politkovskaya’s death shouldn’t surprise us at all.
Taking into account the wider field of evidence and basic lessons from probability, we are forced to conclude that the zealous and mean-spirited conclusions of Americans towards President Putin are ill-founded. When you are unlucky enough for so many political enemies, dissidents, and nuisances to drop dead all around you—so much that your country has its own Wikipedia page entitled “list of journalists killed here”—it’s only to be expected that one of them deceases on your birthday. Our only option is to feel sorry for President Putin, the hapless victim of chance.