Putin, Chechnya, and Politkovskaya

Tanya Lokshina
6 October 2008

Among those few Russian journalists who dared write the truth about the second Chechen war, Anna Politkovskaya is number one. That is, she was number one. It's still almost impossible to fully understand and accept that Anna is no more. She was travelling to the armed conflict-zone for so many years, wrote about such burning issues, took such tremendous risks that at some point many of us thought that she had already transcended the danger.

Certainly, back in 2001, when she published a series of articles on how Russian policeman Sergei Lapin tortured to death a Chechen young man, Zelimkhan Murdalov, the perpetrator started threatening her, and the threats were so serious that she even had to leave the country. At that time, some people thought that Politkovskaya would never return to Russia, and that even if she did, she'd never go to Chechnya again. But she did return several months later, continued her work on that case - and returned to the region again and again, published more striking stories about lawless violence and human suffering. In September 2004, she was allegedly poisoned on the plane to prevent her from going to Beslan, North Ossetia, to investigate the school siege which had ended in the deaths of hundreds of people.

Anna was ill for a long time after this incident, but she survived and kept working. Her hard-edged publications made such a name for her that she became an icon of a sort to her readers in Chechnya, Russia and the west. In recent years it seemed inconceivable that she could be simply, cynically killed. After all, President Putin and his team could not possibly afford such a terrible ugly scandal. Apparently, they can. Anna is dead - four gunshots were certainly more than enough.

Whenever I traveled to Chechnya, some local residents, having found out I came from Moscow, would always ask: "Have you met Politkovskaya? Are you personally acquainted? Really? Could you then pass these documents to her. Please ask her to write a piece on this case. And on this one, too. If it had not been for her, no one would've known of our pain, we would've been all killed in silence, all of us. Please thank her for us."

Tanya Lokshina is head of the Russian human-rights think-tank Demos

Also by Tanya Lokshina in open Democracy:

"Russian civil society: the G8 and after"
(19 July 2006)

Also in openDemocracy:

Anna Politkovskaya, "Chechnya: Russia's shame"
(9 October 2006)

Shaun Walker, "Anna Politkovskaya: death of a professional"
(9 October 2006)

A fighter for truth

For the Chechens she was, first and foremost, the woman who cared, who tried to change something. She was respected by friends and enemies. Even Chechen officials, including those from the security agencies who knew that Politkovskaya was working against them and condemned her for it, sometimes praised Anna for her tenacity and courage ("she's brave, that woman, you can't frighten her").

Anna was a fighter for truth, more than anything else. And she was certainly no saint. Strong-willed, unyielding and forceful, she would attack even her colleagues and supporters. She always felt no one was doing enough to help those in need and to save the world. She was convinced that no compromises were possible and seemed to believe that if all the honest people fearlessly upheld truth and together beat their heads against the wall, the wall would crumble from their pressure.

Anna doggedly uncovered the crimes of the military and the security services. In the past three years, she wrote a lot about Ramzan Kadyrov and his men, and about the abductions, executions and torture perpetrated by them. She openly declared that she dreamed of seeing the Chechen leader behind bars and was systematically working to achieve that objective.

Anna frequently walked on the very edge, risking not only her own life and safety but also the life and safety of those who helped her get the information. There were people living in Chechnya in permanent danger, who shared facts and leads with her, drove her around, hid her in their homes for the night. When one tried to reason with Anna, her reaction was always dramatic. She screamed that someone had to do this, someone had to speak despite all danger and not be a chicken. She stressed that if some people hadn't been too careful - "yes, people like you!" - the overall situation would not be so desperate.

Today, several scenarios of Politkovskaya's murder are proposed: it was organised by Ramzan Kadyrov himself; planned by someone who wanted to paint Kadyrov black and ruin his chance to acquire the presidency of Chechnya; perpetrated by a figure from the military or the security services whose crimes Anna had exposed; or, more personally, was an act of revenge by a mate of that policeman Lapin who, thanks to Anna and a few others, ended up in prison for eleven years. Politkovskaya's enemies were numerous and came in different guises.

The most disturbing and absurd aspect of the situation is that each of those narratives seems quite plausible. This would be conceivable in a normal democratic society, but in our country there are too many people, forces and agencies likely to seek to get rid of an uncompromising, relentless journalist. No one doubts that the motive for Anna's murder was political.

Voices and silence

Several hours after the killing, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, Terry Davis, issued a brief statement. The American president and the French president paid their tributes, as too did various Russian politicians. Diplomats, ambassadors, heads of international organisations all spoke to condemn the crime and express their hopes for a speedy and effective investigation. It seemed that not only Russia but the entire world awaited President Putin's response. But the Russian leader remained dead silent.

Finally, three days later, he grew tired of the media debates on the meaning of his silence and told a German newspaper: "murder is a very grave crime before the society and before God. The criminals should be found." Putin could have left it there but chose to add: "Politkovskaya's political influence inside the country was of little significance. She was more known in human-rights circles and to the western media. And I think that Politkovskaya's murder caused more harm to the Russian and Chechen authorities than her publications."

So, according to the president, Anna's efforts had next to no impact. In other words, she wasted her life. At the same time, there is a certain paradox in his utterance: if the president says her publications were somewhat harmful to the state, then she must have had some influence... One way or another, Putin's line of thinking implies that Anna was a problem when alive and remains an even worse problem for Russia once dead. The Russian president is probably a very honest person - he cannot help but speak his mind. However, speaking ill of the deceased is inappropriate for any layperson, not to mention a state leader.

Today, western reporters and politicians are all asking the same question: will Russian journalists and human-rights defenders stop speaking of Chechnya and exposing human-rights violations altogether? Certainly, they have very good reasons to quit.

Anna Politkovskaya was a household name, but her fame did not protect her from a horrible, brutal death. This clearly shows how absolutely, frighteningly vulnerable everyone involved in this area of work is. At the same time, to keep silent now, after Anna's murder, amounts to becoming complicit with her killers. This would be to bury her for the second time, and wipe out the results and the very meaning of her work - the work for which she paid with her very life. People who understand this will not remain mute.

Anna Politkovskaya was born in New York in 1958 to a family of Soviet diplomats. She studied at Moscow State University, and earned a diploma in journalism before working for several Russian newspapers and broadcasters.

She visited Chechnya for the first time in 1998 (on assignment with Obshchaya Gazeta ) to conduct an interview with the president, Aslan Maskhadov. By the time of the second Chechen war in 1999, she was working for the independent democratic newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. She reported the war extensively and visited Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia dozens of times.

In 2001, she received the Golden Quill Award for a series of reportages from Chechnya. Many of these were collected into her books, among them A Small Corner of Hell (University of Chicago Press, 2003) and Putin's Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy (Metropolitan Books, 2006)

Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment building. The killer dropped his gun next to her dead body and fled


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