A suspicious death in Russia
Oct 8th 2006
From The Economist Global Agenda
Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist, was shot dead on Saturday October 7th, aged 48
SHE was brave beyond belief, Anna Politkovskaya, reporting a gruesome war and a creeping dictatorship with a sharp pen and steel nerves. It may be a chilling coincidence that she was murdered on President 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 murder in the lift of her Moscow apartment block.
Ms Politkovskaya’s journalism was distinctive. Not for her the waffly, fawning and self-satisfied essays of the Moscow commentariat. Nor the well-paid advertorial now so pervasive as to be barely noticeable. 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 did not sentimentalise the Chechen rebels, nor did she demonise 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.
Chechens, and many Russians, adored her. Piles of post and incessant phone calls came, sometimes from people wanting to give her information, more often from those 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 those responsible for the war: 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 particularly despised the Chechen government installed by Russia, for what she termed their massive looting of reconstruction money, backed up by kidnapping.
The worst effect of the Chechen wars, she reckoned, was the corrosion of Russia itself. Her reporting from all over Russia made her see her native country 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.
The latest twists in Russia’s vindictive fury towards Georgia for wanting to join Nato make her pessimism seem less extreme. Russians with Georgian surnames are now experiencing the some of the sort of retribution from officialdom that their Chechen counterparts have suffered for the past ten years.
Ms Politkovskaya suffered death threats aplenty. On more than one occasion, Russian special forces threatened to rape and kill her, leaving her body in a ditch. Each time she talked them out of it. In 2001, she fled to Austria after receiving a direct warning to leave Russia or else. 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 military, she was poisoned, and nearly died.
But whoever got into her lift on Saturday October 7th was a professional, intending not to warn her, but to end the problem she presented. She was shot once in the body, once in the head; the pistol was a Makarov, the assassin’s favourite. It was left by her side: in that trade, weapons are used only once.
She was well aware that her murder would be a logical reaction from the authorities. In conversations with your obituarist, she brushed 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 no matter what—just as singers had to sing and doctors had to heal.
Ms Politkovskaya’s approachability did not mean that she was easy company. Her fondness for both sweeping statements and for the intricate details of the stories she covered sometimes made conversation heavy-going. She was both disorganised and single-minded; that could be unnerving too.
But she will go down as a martyr, in the beleaguered causes of free speech and public spirit. It would be nice to think that Russians will find her example inspiring. Sadly, they may well conclude that speaking out on unpopular topics is best avoided.
Saturday, October 07, 2006
A suspicious death in Russia