Oct 12th 2006
From The Economist print edition
Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist, was shot dead on October 7th, aged 48
SHE was brave beyond belief, reporting a gruesome war and a creeping dictatorship with a sharp pen and steel nerves. It may be a chilling coincidence that Anna Politkovskaya was murdered on Vladimir Putin's birthday, but her friends and supporters are in little doubt that her dogged, gloomy reporting of the sinister turn Russia has taken under what she called his “bloody” leadership was what led to her body being dumped in the lift of her Moscow apartment block.
Miss Politkovskaya's journalism was distinctive. Not for her the waffly, fawning and self-satisfied essays of the Moscow commentariat, nor the pervasive well-paid advertorials. Austere and a touch obsessive, she reported from the wrecked villages and shattered towns of Chechnya, talking to those on all sides and none, with endless patience and gritty determination.
She neither sentimentalised the Chechen rebels nor demonised the Russian conscripts—ill-armed, ill-fed and ill-led—who have crushed the Chechens' half-baked independence. She talked to soldiers' mothers trying to find their sons' corpses in military morgues where mangled bodies lay unnamed and unclaimed—the result of the Russian army's unique mixture of callousness and incompetence. And she talked to Chechens whose friends and relatives had disappeared into the notorious “filtration camps” to suffer torture, mutilation, rape and death.
Few journalists, from any country, did that. The second Chechen war, which started in 1999 and still fizzles on now, made that mountainous sliver of territory in the northern Caucasus the most dangerous place on the planet for a journalist. Most Moscow-based reporters went seldom, if at all, and then only in daylight and well-guarded. Ms Politkovskaya was unfazed, making around 50 trips there, often for days at a time.
Ordinary Chechens, and many Russians, adored her. Piles of post and incessant phone calls came, some offering information, more often wanting her help. Could she intercede with a kidnapper? Trace a loved one? She always tried, she said, to do what she could.
She loathed the warlords who had misruled Chechnya during its brief spells of semi-independence; the Islamic extremists who exploited the conflict; the Russian goons and generals, and their local collaborators. She despised the Chechen leaders installed by Russia: they looted reconstruction money, she said, using torture and kidnapping as a weapon. She was due to file a story on this the day she died.
The worst effect of the Chechen wars, she reckoned, was on Russia itself. Her reporting from all over her native country made her see it in what many regarded as an unfairly bleak light. Mr Putin's regime was utterly brutal and corrupt, she would say in her soft, matter-of-fact voice. He represented the worst demons of the Soviet past, revived in modern form. Hundreds had died to bring him to power, and that was just a foretaste of the fascism and war that was to come. Now her pessimism seems less extreme.
A duty to tell
Mr Putin, condemning her murder four days late, said she had “minimal influence”. Yet Miss Politkovskaya was often threatened with death. Once Russian special forces held her captive and threatened to leave her dead body in a ditch. She talked them out of it. In 2001, she fled briefly to Austria after a particularly vivid death threat scared not her, but her editors at Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia's few remaining independent papers. In 2004, on her way to the siege of a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan, where she hoped to mediate between the Chechen hostage-takers and the Russian army, she was poisoned and nearly died.
This time there was no mistake. She was shot in the body and the head. A pistol was left by her side—the blatant hallmark of a contract killing. She was well aware that the authorities might have her murdered, but in conversation she would brush this aside, saying that her sources were in much more danger than she was. Journalists had a duty to report on the subject that mattered, she said, just as singers had to sing and doctors had to heal.
Much of her life mirrored the changes in her country. She was born in New York, the child of Soviet diplomats. That gilded upbringing gave her access to a world of ideas and knowledge denied to most Soviet citizens. Her university dissertation was on Marina Tsvetaeva, a poet then in deep official disfavour. She had good jobs too, first on Izvestia, the government paper, then on Aeroflot's in-flight magazine.
Having discovered democracy and the free press as Soviet power collapsed, her faith was uncompromising and sometimes uncomfortable. Nor was she always easy company. A fondness for both sweeping statements and intricate details sometimes made conversation heavy-going. She was both disorganised and single-minded; that could be unnerving, too. But she enjoyed life. She often said that with a KGB officer as president, the least you could do was to smile sometimes, to show the difference between him and you.
It would be nice to think that Russians will find her example inspiring. Sadly, they may conclude that brave work on hot topics is a bad idea.
Thursday, October 12, 2006