Russia lost one of its best known and most controversial journalists on 7 October 2006, when Anna Politkovskaya was murdered at her home in Moscow. Politkovskaya won plaudits at home and abroad for her uncompromising writing on torture, abuse and corruption in the north Caucasus - especially Chechnya. They included the Lettre Ulysses award (2003) and inclusion in the New Statesman's list of "fifty heroes of our time" (2006).
But while the murder caused a great deal of grief and anger, it did not come as a great surprise. Politkovskaya's writing earned her almost as many enemies as it did admirers - the protagonists of her exposès were often powerful people not used to having journalists prying into their affairs. She had previously been arrested, and fell mysteriously ill when flying to the north Caucasus to cover the Beslan school siege in September 2004, almost dying. Most of her friends and colleagues were certain it was a poisoning attempt.
The 9 October edition of Novaya Gazeta, the bi-weekly newspaper where Politkovskaya worked, was dedicated to her, with the frontpage headlined simply "Anya". In a tribute, the paper's staff wrote that she had never stopped battling to write the truth. "Anna looked evil straight in the eye. And maybe that is why she came out of so many difficult situations as the victor; why she survived where those who turned their eyes away might not have done."
This time, however, Politkovskaya did not survive, being shot in her own apartment building in the middle of the day, in what was undoubtedly a contract killing. Politkovskaya had been told before that she should have her own bodyguards, but had declared it to be unbecoming of a journalist to do so.
Shaun Walker is a journalist based in Moscow, where he writes for RussiaProfile.org
His recent articles there include:"An Unsurprising Tragedy"
(8 October 2006)
"She was a professional. I don't think there's anything more you can add. She was simply a professional," said Sergei Tobol, a Russian journalist who knew Politkovskaya, and made his own name when taken hostage by warlord Shamil Basayev's men in the Budyonnovsk hospital siege in June 1995. "Any pain suffered by her fellow citizens, by the people around her, she felt in her own heart," said Tobol. "She was one of very few investigative journalists in our country; the most dangerous form of journalism," said Alexei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy radio station, which first broke the news of Politkovskaya's death on Saturday. "She was one of the most uncompromising, courageous and honest journalists," he added.
Tributes also poured in from newspapers, political leaders and NGOs abroad. It was perhaps her fame and high reputation in the west that was partially responsible for the criticism she received at home, where some denounced her work as biased and Russophobic. Her writing fed into what is sometimes an unjustifiably critical line on Russia among many western media outlets, and indeed her name was probably more widely known abroad than within Russia.
It is true that her writing was highly emotional and often polemical. "She was not so much a reporter who tried to cover both sides of the story, as a journalist with a viewpoint who tried to get that view across," said Vladimir Pozner, president of the Russian Television Academy and one of Russia's most respected journalists. People frequently came to her office to ask for help, and she made no secret of trying to help many of the people she wrote about. During the October 2002 siege of the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow, Politkovskaya was one of the negotiators, who entered the theatre and spoke with the rebels holding the audience hostage.
But while at times she may have strayed from the role of journalist to activist, there is no doubt among her friends and colleagues that every word she wrote was born from an overwhelming desire to tell the truth. "In a very difficult situation, she was courageous, honest and fearless," added Pozner. "Whether you think her articles are good or bad, it is impossible to deny that she wrote them from the heart and with a clear conscience," said Topol.
The world of Russian journalism is still plagued by paid-for articles - from the sinister (political figures paying for positive coverage) to the mundane (a friend of mine told me recently that her magazine, a well-respected weekly, had been paid a large sum by an alcohol company to advertise its product in the guise of a feature article). In this context, if Politkovskaya's worst flaw as a journalist was that the horrors she had witnessed in Chechnya led her to take a passionate and polemical approach, it is hardly something that should be rebuked. Indeed, it is a shame that there are not more journalists like her.
In addition to her investigative reporting for Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya also wrote books. A Small Corner of Hell was largely compiled from first-hand experience of the war in Chechnya, and her most recent book was Putin's Russia, which has not been published in Russian, a visceral attack on what she saw as a broad malaise in Russian society.
That Politkovskaya was able to write her trademark articles at all was mainly due to the relative insignificance of print media as compared to television in Russia. This is what makes suggestions in some western media outlets that the Kremlin, or even Putin himself, may have ordered the killing unlikely. "The powers that be have the ability to control whatever newspaper or TV network they want; they're not afraid of any concrete journalist," said Pozner.
Novaya Gazeta - and even the respected business daily Kommersant - both have circulation figures of around 100,000, a miniscule number compared to the millions who garner their news solely from state-controlled television. In any town outside of Moscow and St Petersburg, it is near-impossible to find a decent newspaper, but step into any Russian home from Dagestan to Vladivostok and the First Channel news will more than likely be watched at some point each evening. A recent survey by the VTsIOM polling agency found that 72% of Russians, across all age groups and regions, said that they watched television every day.
Politkovskaya's death was the first item on the First Channel's news bulletins on Saturday evening, which was probably the first time that most of its viewers had heard of her. It mentioned that she had controversial opinions and had written about "events in Chechnya", but did not go into specifics, preferring instead to infer that "if this kind of journalist exists in Russia, it means we must have civil society." It might have been more pertinent to ask what kind of society it is where such people are killed.
The Chechnya factor
The highest degree of suspicion for the killing is likely to fall on Ramzan Kadyrov, who having turned 30 last week is now eligible to run Chechnya formally, rather than in the de facto way he has been doing since his father Ahmed's assassination in May 2004. Kadyrov was the villain of many of Politkovskaya's articles, and she had written at length about beatings and torture meted out by the Kadyrovtsy, Ramzan's thugs in uniform. Indeed, she had been working on a piece on torture in Kadyrov's jails due for publication this week.In her last interview, given on Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe two days before she died, Politkovskaya described Kadyrov as a "coward armed to the teeth", and also explained how three criminal cases were being brought for kidnapping as a result of articles published in Novaya Gazeta, one of which she would give evidence in. "Maybe somebody decided that they didn't want her to be a witness," said Topol.
Also on Russian politics and media in openDemocracy:
Mary Dejevsky, "The west gets Putin wrong" (2 March 2005)
Artemi Troitsky, "Alice-in-Wonderland Russia"
(14 March 2005)
Geoffrey Hosking, "Russians in the Soviet Union: rulers and victims" (22 June 2006)
George Schõpflin, "Putin's anti-globalisation strategy"
(10 July 2006)
Tanya Lokshina, "Russian civil society: the G8 and after"
(19 July 2006)
It is certainly implausible that Ramzan Kadyrov will be shedding any tears over the murder. But the timing, so close to his coming of presidential age, seems rather suspicious. Novaya Gazeta itself suggests that the murder may have been carried out by someone wishing to set him up. Or, it could have been one of the many people that Politkovskaya has accused of corruption, incompetence or criminal acts over the years.
The Russian prosecutor-general, Yury Chaika, has said he will take personal charge over the inquiry into Politkovskaya's death, and a reward has been offered by one of the paper's owners for information leading to the conviction of those behind the crime. But the chances of the culprits ever being brought to book remain slim. Indeed, Chaika is also investigating the killing - presumably for his anti-corruption work - of central bank deputy chairman Andrei Kozlov on 14 September, so far with few results. Likewise previous journalistic murders in Russia - such as those of Dmitry Kholodov and Vladislav Listyev in 1994-95 - have remained unsolved.
Even if the perpetrators are brought to justice, the fact remains that Anna Politkovskaya is gone. She was one of a very few people who risked her life for her work in journalism - not for plaudits, and not for a danger-seeking thrill, but because she believed deeply that what she had to say needed to be heard. And for that, she paid with her life.
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