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Anna: five years on

Five years ago today, on 7 October 2006, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s was found murdered in her apartment block. Colleague Yelena Milashina remembers that fateful day.

Yelena Milashina
7 October 2011

7 October was a Saturday. Novaya Gazeta journalists always work on Saturdays — it’s the day the Monday issue of the paper is put to bed. That Saturday, however, is a day that I can never forget, imprinted in my mind the same way that people remember their wedding day. 

This was the day Anna Politkovskaya was murdered.

The editor’s office at Novaya Gazeta is a familiar environment for those outside the paper, as it is where NG journalists give interviews. On the wall, you can see our “iconostasis” — six beautiful black-and-white photographs of the eleven people who have been killed in connection to their work at the paper over the past eleven years: Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Anastasia Baburova, Natalia Estemirova, Stanislav Markelov (he was Novaya Gazeta's legal adviser, and a friend of Anna Politkovskaya and Natasha Estemirova, with whom he had worked in Chechnya). 

Every day, as I stare at these beautiful photographs, I try in vain to come to terms with this maths: the loss seems too great for a single newspaper. We're not at war, after all. Or are we? 

"The initial reaction to Anna's murder was enormous. Political elites from Brasil to Italy, from Japan to America sent a strong signal to Vladimir Putin: the killing of Politkovskaya and people like her is not just an internal Russian affair. Unfortunately, however, Politikovskaya's murder hasn't cost Russia a single cent in oil or gas contracts. "

It was in this office, at 6pm that Saturday, that the paper’s editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov brought together all the staff for a meeting. He said he’d received a call from colleagues at the Russian News Agency saying that Anna had been murdered. I didn't believe him at first. “If she'd really been killed”, I said, “it wouldn't be our colleagues calling us. It would have been the police. Or her relatives once they had been contacted by the police.”

I don't think anyone believed the terrible news immediately or definitively. Even though the office had only just lived through two other deaths. Even though Anna had been almost poisoned to death and continued to receive death threats against her in our mail. Even though for a long time she had been guarded by security officers assigned to protect her. 

We all knew that Anna had been balancing on the edge of a precipice, but she had somehow managed to keep up this balancing act for a very long time... So long, in fact, that we had all got used to living with the threat. Not long before she died Anna told me she was going to be a grandmother soon and might not continue working at such intensity. Because grandchildren are what make life worth living. 

Alas, she did not live to see her first granddaughter, who was born in February 2007 and was given the name Anna.  A very strange tradition has developed in Novaya Gazeta, that of giving grandchildren the names of their slain grandfathers and grandmothers. Only this September in the family of my friend and Novaya Gazeta section chief Igor Domnikov his grandson and complete namesake was born: Igor Aleksandrovich Domnikov. .. Some might say it's destiny. Just like it’s destiny to be born and to live in Russia in the transitional era under Putin.  I disagree. Anna Politkovskaya only did her journalistic duty.  

On that Saturday, after learning of her murder, we pulled all the articles from the forthcoming issue of Novaya Gazeta. The main theme for us, as well as for the whole country and the whole world was Politkovskaya's murder. I was in charge of putting this issue together, and, like the rest of my colleagues, I worked through the night from Saturday to Sunday. I browsed Novaya Gazeta's archives, starting with 1999, when Anna joined the newspaper. I searched all her texts, in an effort to identify her most important stories. The problem was that every one of Anna’s articles was important, each one speaking of the pain and sorrow of the people, and containing ruthless critiques of the authorities. Altogether Anna wrote 500 articles for Novaya Gazeta. And that is why she was killed. 

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Despite the high-profile nature of Politkovskaya's death, no one has been punished for her murder (Picture: Demotix/ Yury Goldenshteyn)

October 7 is not a day of mourning in Russia. On this day the lickspittle part of the country, which for some reason has christened itself the elite, celebrates Vladimir Putin's birthday. It is he, and not the Belarussian President Lukashenka, who is Europe's last dictator. Europe ought to recognize that. I believe it will happen one day but how many more of my colleagues will have to perish before then?

On 24 September, when the world received the obvious answer to the question about who would be Russia's next president, the Obama administration was among the first to announce: “We are prepared to cooperate with any president elected by the Russian people. We are not dismayed by Putin's candidacy. We believe the 'reset' has brought positive results in our relations with Russia.”

I’m not exactly clear what Obama meant by “results”. Do they mean the fact that the murderers of Anna Politkovskaya, a US citizen by birth (she was born in New York in a Soviet diplomat family) have not yet been found, let alone tried and punished?  Or the fact that since Anna Politikovskaya's murder, the number of murdered or badly-beaten critics of the regime has swollen to several dozen?  Or the fact that Russian corruption, and hydrocarbon-fuelled cynicism have overflowed the banks of Russia, flooding Germany, France, Norway and America?

And what kind of choice for the Russian people does the Obama administration have in mind if even the European Court for Human Rights keeps passing verdicts indicating that my people have no choice whatsoever, only the right to start a fresh revolution?

In Russia we speak of two sides of a coin. It seems that the West has placed a Russian coin into its pocket.  The heads shows Anna Politkovskaya while the tails show Vladimir Putin. And the coin's tails has ended up closer to the West's chest and to its heart, closer to the conscience and principles of Western civilization, so often invoked as a example for us to follow.

You may say that the democratic values that Anna Politkovskaya had fearlessly defended and died for are just a noble ideal. Let me ask you a very straightforward question: Why, in the case of Belarus, has the West separated the country into a dictator and the people while in the case of Russia it has identified the people with the dictator? 

Is it simply because Russia has a larger market than Belorussia, and because it has oil and gas?

Russia is certainly larger. It is so huge it can survive terrible times, including a historical grain of sand such as Vladimir Putin and his coterie. 

However, it will be very long before Russia has democracy. It might never have it. Democracy requires faith. But when those who have faith are murdered and those who murder them get a handshake, that is not a model to follow.

The initial reaction to Anna's murder was enormous. Political elites from Brasil to Italy, from Japan to America sent a strong signal to Vladimir Putin: the killing of Politkovskaya and people like her is not just an internal Russian affair. Unfortunately, however, Politikovskaya's murder hasn't cost Russia a single cent in oil or gas contracts. Sympathetic words have not been followed by any deeds. 

Five years have passed since 7 October 2006. The only people for whom the situation in Russia has improved  are the murderers. Their impunity sows fear in people living in Russia, paralyzing their will and forcing them to leave their country.

We live in very difficult times and in very difficult circumstances.  We are not hoping for a miracle and cannot expect help from anyone. 

We do, however, have heroes. People like Anna. In this respect she hasn't died and will never die. Understanding that these heroes do exist makes it easier to live in Russia. Although it doesn't make life any less dangerous.  

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This piece was commissioned as part of the "Voices without borders" project of the Norwegian weekly news magazine Ny Tid , ("New Time", English site). The project was founded in memory of Anna Politkovskaya (1958-2006), who contributed exclusive columns to the magazine until her death. Every week since her death Ny Tid has published columns from leading writers in freedom of speech-threatened countries around the world, including Iran, Egypt, Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Burma, Tibet, Zimbabwe, and Cuba. 

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