Russia’s bright star and clouded facts
By Edward Lucas
The murder of my friend Anna Politkovskaya, a gutsy Russian journalist who exposed the abominable mistreatment of the civilian population during the Kremlin’s war in Chechnya, has brought not just rage and sorrow, but also put western attitudes to Russia into sharp focus. Most of the reaction has been rather predictable: “Heinous crime…press freedom…black day in Russian history…perpetrators must be punished.”
That rather annoys me. People are so willing to praise Anna when she is dead, yet they were so deaf to her doom-laden warnings when she was alive. When I discussed Russia with her, we always came to the same conclusion: the outside world just wasn’t interested in bad news about Putin and his thuggish, kleptocratic sidekicks, because it would be bad for business.
What annoys me even more though is the ‘hurrah chorus’. The pack of sleazeballs, useful idiots and nutters who insist that everything in Russia is not just profitable but lovely too are now claiming that Anna’s murder was just one of those things. After all, don’t journalists get killed in other countries? Nobody’s perfect. Why pick on Russia?
Take, for example, a slick Russia-related email service called Quick Takes. I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in Russia and the neighbourhood, although I disagree with every word in it. Its publisher, Mike Averko, describes himself as a “New-York based independent foreign policy analyst”.
Here’s what he had to say about Anna’s death. I have corrected one spelling mistake, but otherwise it’s verbatim:
“There has been a rush to judgment by many in a manner reflective of an ongoing hypocritically applied set of standards.
“In addition to the slain Denver area talk radio host Alan Berg (killed by a right-wing extremist), there’ve been the experiences of Victor Riesel and Yuri Brohkin. Riesel was a not so smooth investigative reporter, who was blinded after writing a series of critical articles about organized crime. Brohkin was a Soviet Jewish émigré journalist who was found murdered. A police investigation ruled Brohkin’s death to be possibly linked with his ties to the so-called Russian mafia.
“Politkovskaya’s murder re-ignites an ongoing theme of a supposed lack of press freedom in Russia. Previous QTs note what views are understood to be worthy for employment at Anglo-American mass media outlets. Politkovskaya’s flaws as a journalist have been covered up in conjunction with that understated censorship.”
To someone who doesn’t know America, that might sound like a reasonable bit of context. Victor Riesel was indeed blinded, probably in retaliation for his trenchant journalism. What Averko doesn’t mention was that this happened in 1956. Yuri Brokhin, a colourful Russian émigré, was murdered, perhaps because of his writing. But it was in 1982. Alan Berg was a provocative talkshow host murdered by neo-Nazis – in 1984. None of them remotely matches Anna in importance or stature.
This oddly forgetful approach to important facts may undermine in some eyes Averko’s argument about “censorship” in “Anglo-American mass media”. Citing “Politkovskaya’s flaws as a journalist”, right now sounds a bit tasteless to me. True, she wasn’t perfect. She never claimed to be. I hope it is not really necessary to point out that over-detailed writing and overly sweeping generalisations are flimsy grounds for a death sentence.
It may have been the clouded skies of Russia’s miserably bribed and bullied media that made Anna seem such a bright star. But whose fault is that? Were I Russian, I would be mourning one of my country’s greatest modern martyrs, not spitting on her grave.
# Edward Lucas is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist.
Friday, October 13, 2006
Russia’s bright star and clouded facts