Thursday, April 05, 2007

book review: Anna Politkovskaya's diaries

Anna Politkovskaya review


A slice of death
Apr 4th 2007
From The Economist print edition

A Russian Diary
By Anna Politkovskaya

BEFORE she was murdered, Anna Politkovskaya was one of President Vladimir Putin's most outspoken critics. On October 7th 2006, when she was shot by a contract killer in the stairwell of her home, she became the best-known victim of the Russia he has created.

Not that there is any proof that the Russian authorities ordered her shooting: indeed the Kremlin line is that it was a cynical move by Mr Putin's enemies abroad. Others believe that the murder was ordered by one of the factions in Chechnya, whose brutality and larceny she passionately chronicled.

Ms Politkovskaya's diaries are both gripping and flawed. Her great gift is for telling with unsentimental sympathy the stories of people caught up in the Russian state's mincing machines: the relatives of those who disappear to torture and death in Chechnya; the Russian veterans of the conflict, neglected and unemployably traumatised; the drunken, decaying squalor of life in the Russian boondocks.

She also captures the political atmosphere of modern Russia, including the obfuscation and pomposity, the shameless mendacity, the hopeless squabbles and wishful thinking of the opposition. Her two central characters are Mr Putin himself, whose cloyingly insincere public utterances and occasional mistakes she describes with savage glee; and Ramzan Kadyrov, a thuggish and volatile pro-Kremlin Chechen warlord (now the republic's president), whom she describes repeatedly—and bravely—as a “lunatic”.

But her judgments are so sweeping and harsh that the fair-minded reader may flinch a bit. Is it really fair to compare Mr Putin with Stalin? The war in Chechnya does have awful similarities to Stalin's campaigns against Baltic and Ukrainian partisans after 1945, but has not so far been accompanied by wholesale deportations to Siberia. Ms Politkovskaya's biggest struggle was with indifference, not censorship. She was kept off the air, her articles published in a small-circulation weekly. But in the truly totalitarian state in which she grew up, such articles would not have appeared at all, and circulating even blurred carbon copies would have risked the gulag.

Yet overstatement, like inconsistency, is a diarist's privilege. Read with the volume turned down a notch, the book is a valuable, if unhappy, account of the last years of her life. It is worth reading just for her report on the terrorist seizure of a school in Beslan, the extraordinarily bungled and bloody military operation that ended it and the cynical official cover-up that continues to this day.

Anyone hoping to learn about Ms Politkovskaya as a person, though, will be disappointed. Her life outside journalism and politics does not feature, even as a backdrop. That is a welcome contrast to the self-important style of many lesser journalists' books about great events. If Ms Politkovskaya experienced discomfort, amusement or boredom, she did not bother to write it down: it was her subjects' story that mattered, not hers.

A good biographer may one day plug that gap. But nothing will fill the void left by her murder.

A Russian Diary
By Anna Politkovskaya

Harvill Secker; 272 pages; £17.99. To be published in America by Random House next month

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