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Russian death, European stain

Jorge Edwards
15 October 2006

In old Europe, even in the Hispanic corner, one has the impression - so unlike the Chilean finisterre - of a constant bombardment of news. Every day has its enthusiasm and its surprise, and often the surprise is bad, terrible.

In 2003, in Berlin, I was part of a jury awarding the Ulysses prize for international reportage. The prize's organisers Lettre International, with whom I had collaborated a couple of times, had invited me. I read manuscripts translated from Chinese and other languages, written in English, French and Spanish.

The winning text, for which I voted without the slightest doubt, was a report by a Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, on the war in Chechnya. It was a description of a sinister war seen from the inside, told with tremendous courage in the spare, direct style that is appropriate to the genre but that hardly exists in the Russian literary tradition.

I remember the reporter's verbal confrontations with officers guilty of atrocities. Reading them I thought that one of those soldiers was going to draw a pistol and eliminate this tiresome interlocutor with a couple of shots. The media in the United States says that Politkovskaya was sometimes a little confused and that she lacked experience. Even if these judgments are true, it should be asked: what possibilities did she have of acquiring professional journalistic experience in a country where press freedom had been crushed and the genre of free reporting came into being only in her adulthood?

Jorge Edwards is a Chilean writer, novelist, journalist and critic. Among his many books are Persona non grata (1973), El museo de cera (The Wax Museum, 1981), and El sueño de la historia (The Dream of History, 2000). His award include the 1999 the Premio Cervantes (1999)

Also in openDemocracy on and by Anna Politkovskaya:

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

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

Tanya Lokshina, "Putin, Chechnya…and Politkovskaya"
(12 October 2006)

At one point in the discussions I spoke of a novel by Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murat, and of its condition as precursor and prophetic tale. When Tolstoy did his military service in southern Russia in the mid-19th century, he was a witness to and even a participant in a separatist war (led by the legendary fighter Imam Shamil) very similar to today's.

In the novel, Tolstoy uses a metaphor that I still recall very clearly. The narrator compares Chechnya to a kind of thistle called a "tartar thistle". If you try to uproot it, he explains, and you get deep wounds in your hands, they get worse, you sweat and the thistle resists. It was a Russian perspective, of course, but also the result of a painful, unique experience. It's probable that Tolstoy's vision was marked for the rest of his life by those places, by the characters of a national resistance as fierce, as complex, as enigmatic as Hadji Murat, a guerrilla fighter who had become a legend.

The authoritarian reflex

Now we know the dramatic end to Anna Politkovskaya's story. She returned many times to Chechnya, she never lowered her guard in the denunciation of the horrors of that war and was on 7 October 2006 assassinated in Moscow by a professional gunman, in the elevator-block of her apartment-building. She was 48 years old.

Anna had been threatened many times and we know where all the clues point. There has been a long series of unexplained assassinations in Russia in recent years, undertaken by paid killers. The victims are journalists, professionals and businessmen who have come into conflict in one way or another with official policy.

For three days following this new crime, Vladimir Putin did not even bother to refer to it. Then, after a long conversation with Angela Merkel during his visit to Germany, he said that the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya did more damage to the Russian government than her denunciation of the war. He insisted, what's more, on a point very characteristic of post-Soviet Russia: that the influence of journalism, no matter how combative, on the real actions of the government is slight, perfectly marginal.

In other words, Putin would have us believe that the murder was probably the work of his political enemies rather than his secret minions. But the fact is that Russia, dominated by mafias, blessed with negligible rule of law, tends to resort to methods comparable to those of Lavrenti Beria and other heads of Stalin's secret police. It is not insignificant here that Putin himself made his own career in the security services.

If we look at this panorama without prejudice, without illusions, the conclusions are worrying. Will we ever know anything about the assassination of Politkovskaya apart from those sinister images of her murderer minutes before the crime? We in Chile have come to know a great deal and each day learn more about the murders of Orlando Letelier, General Carlos Prats, Carmelo Soria and so many more of our tortured and disappeared. Often we feel the temptation to ask for a full stop, but today's reality tells us it is better to know, to exorcise the ghosts and demons of collective memory, than to elevate silence and ignorance into a system.

After the murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt in Washington on 21 September 1976, the spokesmen of the dictatorship insisted that the crime was damaging to the Pinochet regime and only benefited its enemies. In other words, authoritarian regimes have the same reflexes everywhere and in different epochs. What is more, they lie about their essential objectives: with every crime, dictatorships do not simply wish to destroy one more or less dangerous individual enemy, but also to terrorise, to produce a general effect of collective fear.

The Russian desert

20th-century style communism is finished all over the world, with a few marginal exceptions, but the fundamental issues of post-communism have still not been examined. In today's Russia there are signs of an incipient attachment, low-level and in some ways pathetic, to western liberties. If we think of figures such as Isaac Babel, Osip Mandelstam, Mikhail Bulgakov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, or of a disillusioned man of science turned dissident like Andrei Sakharov, we reach the disturbing conclusion that the actual situation is probably worse. The great dissidents, above all in the years following the death of Stalin, were able to become critical intellectuals and at the same time use the legal system to defend themselves.

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 Schőpflin, "Putin's anti-globalisation strategy"
(10 July 2006)

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

Boris Pasternak, for example, could not travel to Stockholm to receive his Nobel literature prize in 1958, but he could survive and exercise an extraordinary influence in his own country, as a poet, a man of ideas, a translator. I once visited his dacha and I had the impression of a force under surveillance, in chains, but one that was felt the length and breadth of the land.

We can draw a paradoxical conclusion: Stalin did not succeed in, and to some extent did not seek, to destroy his country's cultural traditions. It is probable, also, that the enormous effort of the war pushed him to rescue values that could in some way be connected to what we call the Russian spirit.

When I hear a symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich, a Sergei Prokofiev cantata, when I read a poem by Boris Pasternak or Anna Akhmatova, I feel that this spirit, this profoundly creative attitude could exist even despite Stalin. And Stalin, an astute, intuitive dictator who knew his country well, handled these forces with evident prudence. The history of the period is full of curious encounters of the "father of the people" with the great personalities of cinema, theatre, music, and poetry. It might be that he would congratulate the director Sergei Eisenstein after a screening of Ivan the Terrible, then immediately ban the film. The most recent book to read on this is Koba the Dread, by the English writer Martin Amis.

All this gives the impression that in Vladimir Putin's Russia, there is not the slightest complexity, the most minimal respect for these intangible realities. The heritage of Russia's impressive cultural past, always threatened and frequently suffocated, survived even the hardest years of Stalinism. Now, in contrast, in a caricature of democracy, it seems as though Russia has become a desert. And there is something worse: it all happens with the hypocritical complicity of Europe and the west.

This article was translated from Spanish by Isabel Hilton

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