I dream of him some day sitting in the dock

Tony Wood

  • Nothing but the Truth: Selected Dispatches by Anna Politkovskaya
    Harvill Secker, 468 pp, £18.99, January 2010, ISBN 978 1 84655 239 7

She is recognisable even in the grey, pixellated CCTV images: a tall, slender woman with grey hair, her oval glasses perched on an aquiline nose. She is looking to her right, a stern expression on her face, as she carries her shopping towards the door of her apartment building. She enters, disappearing from view; the time-stamp reads 16:01. It is the last time she will be seen alive. She will go upstairs, drop off the bags she is carrying and then get in the lift to go back for the rest, still in her car. When the lift door opens on the ground floor, she will be shot four times, the last bullet fired at her head from close range in what Russians call a kontrolnyi vystrel, a ‘control shot’.

With the killing of Anna Politkovskaya on 7 October 2006, the world lost one of its most courageous reporters, and Russia its most principled voice of opposition to Putin and the ongoing war in Chechnya. Between 1999 and her death, Politkovskaya filed more than 500 pieces for the liberal paper Novaya gazeta. The vast majority focused on the horrors unfolding in the North Caucasus, bringing them to the attention of a public that was otherwise largely insulated from them by Russia’s domesticated media. Yet though a journalist by profession, Politkovskaya became known as much for her public role as for her writings: in 2002, she went into the Dubrovka Theatre to negotiate with the hostage-takers; in 2004, while on her way to Beslan to try to prevent what turned into the tragedy of School No. 1, she lost consciousness and fell seriously ill after drinking some tea on the plane, indicating that she had probably been poisoned.

At a press conference in Dresden three days after her death, Putin claimed that her murder did the Russian authorities more harm than any of her articles ever could. It is true that Novaya gazeta’s public resonance is small by the standards of Russian print media – the paper’s circulation in April was 130,000, more than half of which was in Moscow, as against print runs of more than a million for the main national tabloids – and still smaller when compared with the great reach and influence of television. Her writings had a large international audience: only two of her books are available in Russian, whereas six have been translated into Italian, five into French, four into Spanish and three into German. Two collections of her reports from Chechnya have been published in English – A Dirty War (2001) and A Small Corner of Hell (2003); they were followed by Putin’s Russia (2004) and A Russian Diary (2007), which give an acerbic account of Russia’s domestic scene (though here too the war in Chechnya is never far from the surface). Nothing but the Truth is based on a much longer book which appeared in Russia as Za chto? (‘For What?’) in 2007; it collects previously untranslated reports from Chechnya, Russia and elsewhere, as well as other unpublished writings, concluding with posthumous testimony and tributes from friends and colleagues.

Politkovskaya herself was painfully aware of the lone figure she cut in her own country: in a piece found on her computer after her death, reproduced at the beginning of Nothing but the Truth, she observes that ‘today a journalist who is not on side is an outcast,’ and describes most other Russian journalists as kovyornye, ‘carpet clowns’ whose job is ‘to keep the audience laughing’ between acts. The media’s willingness to bend the knee to the authorities has contributed mightily to the climate of passivity Politkovskaya describes elsewhere. In A Russian Diary, for example, she notes time and again the lack of public response to the carnage in Chechnya, and to killings, corruption or official incompetence in Russia – an apathy so generalised that she calls it a ‘bacchanalia of indifference’. No one in Russia has written anything comparable for the strength and vigour of its criticism over so long a period.

She was born Anna Mazepa in New York in 1958 – her Ukrainian father was a translator at the UN from 1957 to 1962 – and grew up in Moscow, in the relative comfort of an official Foreign Ministry flat. Her formative years were passed under the sign of a stagnant Brezhnevism, an experience that clearly left its mark: in 2004 she was to describe herself as ‘a 45-year-old Muscovite who observed the Soviet Union at its most disgraceful in the 1970s and 1980s’. After studying journalism at Moscow State University and graduating in 1980, she started her first job at Izvestia two years later. But it was her husband, Aleksandr Politkovsky, whom she had married while still a student, whose career took off first. He was among the first reporters to visit Chernobyl, only nine days after the disaster (Anna had to dispose of his radioactive boots on his return), and later became one of the main presenters on the popular and influential magazine show Vzgliad (‘Outlook’).

In 1990 the filmmaker Marina Goldovskaya made a documentary, entitled A Taste of Freedom, portraying the couple’s home life at the peak of perestroika. We see Politkovsky reporting from Baku, scene of ethnic riots that winter, or from the contamination zone around Chernobyl, while Anna and the children watch him on TV in their flat on Herzen Street. Her restlessness is palpable, as is her frustration at being left ‘cooking this stupid borsch’, her professional aspirations sacrificed to her husband’s. Strangers leave threatening messages on their answerphone, advising Politkovsky to stop his work; Anna tells Goldovskaya she feels no fear on that score, she has grown used to it. But she is clearly nervous about what will happen if perestroika comes to an end, raising the spectre of dictatorship or even civil war.

She was later to describe the fall of the USSR as a moment when ‘everything vanished in an instant’ – for better and worse. The outcome was neither the revanchist catastrophe she and others feared, nor a resounding liberation, but rather a delivery into uncertainty. Like countless other Russians, she shuttled between various jobs in the early 1990s, reporting and editing at a number of papers, magazines and publishing houses. In her own description of the 1990s, ‘everybody was terribly busy just surviving.’ Her husband’s career seems to have reached a turning-point of sorts in 1993: after opposing Yeltsin’s bombardment of the parliament building that October, Politkovsky was, according to his own account, ‘no longer allowed to broadcast’. In March 1995, his sometime colleague Vladislav Listev was gunned down on the stairs of his apartment building. It is sobering to contrast Politkovskaya’s death with that one: when Listev died, several TV stations shut down for the day, and Yeltsin immediately made an official announcement; thousands attended Listev’s funeral. There is also a bleak similarity: that crime, too, remains unsolved.

Politkovskaya joined the staff of the liberal paper Obshchaya gazeta in 1994, editing the ‘emergencies’ section. But it was only after she became a correspondent for Novaya gazeta in 1999 that she had the chance to write regularly, and found her own voice. At the end of that summer, an incursion into Dagestan led by the Chechen Islamist Shamil Basaev provided Russia with the pretext for launching the second Chechen war, which in turn propelled the previously little known Putin into the presidency. The conjunction of the two – the war and the president responsible for it – was to define the writer she became. She went to Dagestan to report on the situation of people forced from their homes by the fighting, but these were minor misfortunes compared with the massive aerial bombardments that followed in Chechnya, taking thousands of civilian lives and destroying what was left of the country’s infrastructure. That in turn was followed by a vicious counterinsurgency in which Chechen males aged between ten and 60 were sent to ‘filtration camps’, from which many never emerged. In 2000, the Kremlin set in place a pro-Moscow Chechen regime, and gave it a licence to kill and torture its countrymen in the name of ‘stability’. Headed first by Akhmad Kadyrov, then by his son Ramzan, the regime still holds the territory in its grip.

From 1999 until her death, Politkovskaya continued to travel to the North Caucasus, filing report after report on the consequences of Russia’s assault on the Chechen population. She was not a war reporter in any conventional sense: there are no accounts of battles or troop movements, no bullet-dodging journeys along the front line. What her dispatches evoke is the reality of warfare from the perspective of those who have to bear its consequences: the shock and confusion, the arbitrary power of armed men at checkpoints, the grief and impotent rage. Perhaps the great quality of her writing is its immediate empathy for the displaced, the bereaved, the survivors. The following passage from September 2001 is typical:

Imagine that a group of strangers in uniform bursts into your house and takes away your loved one. And that is it, the end. First there was a man. Now he doesn’t exist. He is wiped out of life, like a stick figure from a school blackboard. You can rush around, go mad, beg for a piece of information. But the person who is supposed to search simply advises you to forget about it.

This was a report about ‘disappearances’ in Chechnya, but Politkovskaya’s sympathies extended far beyond the theatre of combat. She follows the attempts of mothers to learn the truth about their sons’ deaths, or to save their living sons from the brutalities of dedovshchina, the Russian army’s often fatal version of hazing. Elsewhere she describes the lonely death of an old man in Irkutsk, and evokes the plight of displaced old women forced to live in fetid storerooms, or of the starving family of a submarine captain in Kamchatka, loyally manning a forgotten outpost of empire. The human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina has described Politkovskaya as ‘like a person without skin, receiving all the signals of misery from everywhere’. It was doubtless this quality, allied to her skills as a reporter, that made her both the first resort and the last hope for scores of families in the ever expanding warzone of the North Caucasus. A diary entry for 6 April 2004 records ‘a knock at my door. I am in a hotel in Nazran. Outside is a queue of old people. These are the mothers and fathers of the disappeared of Ingushetia. They tell me that people are being slaughtered like poultry.’

Politkovskaya’s reports are full of personal stories, told with meticulous attention to detail. In July 2000, she meets a 20-year-old Russian soldier, eight of whose comrades have died in quick succession; she notices that his hair has turned prematurely grey, and sees this as ‘the most vivid symbol of the regime that is taking shape’. In 2003, she observes the walk of a 36-year-old Chechen: ‘He limps clumsily, his weight falling heavily first on one leg then on the other, a common sign here of someone beaten on the kidneys.’ Her sharp eye was not only an instrument of compassion: it was also a weapon. Her careful reconstructions of events led to many criminal cases being filed against the perpetrators of atrocities in Chechnya, and contributed centrally to several high-profile convictions: most notably those of Yuri Budanov, an army colonel eventually jailed for raping and murdering an 18-year-old Chechen woman, and of Sergei Lapin, aka the Cadet, found guilty of torturing and killing an unarmed Chechen man.

She wasn’t afraid to name names. In one of her reports on the Budanov case, for example, she lists all six of the psychologists who had conveniently certified the colonel unfit to stand trial. In Putin’s Russia, she describes the dense web of connections between organised crime and Ekaterinburg’s political and judicial elite, linking a string of officials – including the then governor Eduard Rossel – to the local kingpin, Pashka Fedulev. Nothing but the Truth contains damning portraits of Kadyrov père et fils, detailing the scale of their corruption and their probable complicity in torture, as well as capturing the squalid atmosphere of their ‘court’. A celebratory dinner follows a beauty contest in Gudermes; at the dinner Ramzan Kadyrov commands the winners to dance for him, then orders his bodyguards to shower the women with $100 bills, which they crawl on the floor to collect. ‘How will they live with themselves?’ Politkovskaya asks. She could be scathing in her judgments: after an audience with Ramzan Kadyrov, she cries ‘tears of despair that someone like this can exist’; elsewhere she lists the main features of what she calls the ‘Kadyrov syndrome’: ‘insolence, loutishness and brutality masquerading as courage’.

Though Chechnya gradually dropped out of Russian news bulletins, sliding to the margins of public consciousness, it remained central to Politkovskaya’s picture of the country as a whole. This is very apparent in her Russian Diary, where dispatches from the North Caucasus – night-time abductions, car bombings – repeatedly force their way into her account of domestic politics. For her, the war in Chechnya was not a distant event, but a direct, distorting influence on the Russian state. ‘The war we are waging in the Caucasus dishonours our nation from top to bottom,’ she wrote in 2000. In another piece she referred to the ‘pathologies’ spreading through the system as a consequence of Putin’s ‘anti-terrorist operation’. Those accused of war crimes not only went unpunished, but were rewarded with medals, while Interior Ministry troops serving in Chechnya returned home to police the streets using methods learned in that lawless zone.

For Politkovskaya, the figure who is responsible for all this is, of course, Putin. At the end of Putin’s Russia, she labels him ‘Akaky Akakievich Putin II’ – after the protagonist of Gogol’s The Overcoat – and derides his ‘narrow, provincial’ outlook and his vindictiveness. She lists the reasons for her dislike of him: ‘For a matter-of-factness worse than felony, for his cynicism, for his racism, for his lies, for the gas he used in the Dubrovka siege, for the massacre of the innocents which went on throughout his first term as president.’ Or still more simply: ‘Why do I so dislike Putin? Because the years are passing.’ The problem was not just Putin, however, but what she saw as an ongoing, wholesale restoration of the Soviet system, evident in attempts to rehabilitate Stalin or in the judiciary’s willingness to hand down verdicts dictated by the authorities – a process known as ‘telephone justice’. A ‘political winter’ threatened to blanket the country once more. In all this, Russians had only themselves to blame: ‘It is we who are responsible for Putin’s policies, we first and foremost … Society has shown limitless apathy, and this is what has given Putin the indulgence he requires’ (and it ‘happened’, she added, ‘to choruses of encouragement from the West’).

These judgments might seem to align her with critics of Putinism in Russia’s liberal circles. But Politkovskaya was equally unforgiving towards the liberal politicians, who had held sway in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse and imposed a punishing programme of economic ‘shock therapy’. In the wake of the 2004 election she described them as ‘political sleepwalkers’ with ‘no positive ideas’, who ‘attend protest meetings, but behave as if they are doing everyone a favour’. They had ‘no interest in establishing contact’ with the 40 per cent of the population that lived below the poverty line, focusing instead on the rich and the so-called new middle class. She spoke out against the ‘disgraceful neglect of healthcare provision’, the ‘humiliating social welfare system … which barely allows a person to survive’, and applauded working-class Russians as ‘potentially the most dynamic revolutionary force’ in the country – not words one can imagine being uttered by free-market apologists such as Grigory Yavlinsky or the late Yegor Gaidar.

Her stance on Chechnya, meanwhile, is curiously like and unlike that of Russia’s liberal intelligentsia. She shares with them a tendency to avoid the political core of the conflict – the question of Chechen sovereignty – in favour of generalised criticism of all the parties involved, as if they were to a similar extent responsible, or indeed equally well armed. At times her analysis is surprisingly naive: in 2004, she proposed that a ‘Russian governor’ be appointed by the Russian president to lead an interim administration – overlooking the fact that Chechnya had declared independence from Moscow 13 years earlier precisely in order to elect its own leaders. She was similarly out of step with respect to the first Chechen war. Where many liberals had spoken out against Yeltsin’s invasion of Chechnya in December 1994, but largely acquiesced in Putin’s assault, she seems to have done the reverse: though she spoke out bravely against the ‘anti-terrorist operation’ that began in 1999, her opposition to its ruinous predecessor seems to have been rather more muted. Indeed, it is striking when reading her books on the second Chechen war how rarely the first is mentioned: as if the humiliation of Russia’s withdrawal in 1996 had played no role in the bid to avenge it three years later, and as if the destruction of Grozny on Yeltsin’s orders were of little account now that Putin had flattened the city for a second time.

Yeltsin has only a minor role, too, in her writings on Russia, appearing as a benign spirit who ‘did everything he could’ to promote legal reforms. This is a baffling characterisation of a man who repeatedly flouted the constitution, bombed his own parliament into submission in 1993 and effectively sold control of the country to its oligarchs in 1996; not to speak of his murderous colonial war and the millions he salted away into private bank accounts. The indulgence shown to Yeltsin seems puzzling given how unsparing Politkovskaya was in her criticism of contemporary bureaucrats and politicians. But it is less surprising in the light of her aversion to the USSR in its senescent phase – ‘at its most disgraceful’, in her words. As the destroyer of that system, Yeltsin could clearly be forgiven much by the liberal intelligentsia. The rise of Putin, on the other hand, was taken as a sign that the historic unravelling they had greeted with such enthusiasm might somehow be reversed.

Yet there is a historical irony here. For the same liberals suffered a great deal under Yeltsin, losing not only income and social status, but also their institutional supports, and even the coherence of their worldview, as the system they opposed disintegrated. Putin, by contrast, presided over an oil-fuelled economic recovery that brought many of them improved incomes, but represented a style of government with which they were profoundly uneasy. The sections of the intelligentsia that survived the turbulent ‘transition’ to capitalism re-emerged into a changed country, with which their moral and political instincts were now at odds. Many of them chose to fall in with the new Putinite dispensation, but a handful opted for the lonely road of opposition. Politkovskaya was in the latter camp, her work a manifestation of the persistence into the 21st century of the outlook of the Soviet critical intelligentsia. Not simply an outcast from the Kremlin’s charmed circle, she was also an anachronism: uncorruptible in the age of rampant free-market capitalism, humane amid the furies of the ‘anti-terrorist operation’.

Images of isolation recur throughout her work. Yet they are shadowed by a sense that common ground lies somewhere just out of reach. In A Russian Diary, for example, she describes Russian society as ‘a collection of windowless … concrete cells’; there are, she writes, ‘thousands who together might add up to be the Russian people, but the walls of our cells are impermeable’. The barriers between the cells collapse ‘only when the negative emotions within them are ungovernable’ – in the extremes of revolution or war. It is perhaps for this reason that she could more easily reach a tacit understanding with those whose trajectories had also been reshaped by the Chechen war. In a report from October 2001, she tells a colonel she meets on a journey to Vladikavkaz that she is ‘thankful for this war’, since ‘it has purified me of everything that was superfluous, unnecessary’. (She had separated from her husband soon after the war began; in her breezy summary, ‘he drank and partied a lot, and then he left.’) The colonel ‘silently agreed’. But it is telling that the sliver of common ground quickly turns out to be a dead end:

We shared the same blood that had been poured into our veins by the war. It rushed inside our bodies like hormones, all too often taking us nowhere, into a dark room without doors. When it let us go at the very last moment, we realised how lonely we were. Our fate was to look for people who were similar to us in this world, who knew something about life that most people would never experience. Perhaps we would like to share this secret with them, but they didn’t want to know and didn’t care.

Who killed Anna Politkovskaya? An image bearing the time-stamp 16:04 from the same security camera that captured the last images of her alive shows a dark-haired man in a baseball cap emerging from her building and walking away down Lesnaya Ulitsa, near the busy Belorussky train station in central Moscow. As yet, this man has not been identified; nor has the person who paid him to carry out the murder. Politkovskaya was not short of enemies, among military personnel accused of war crimes, for example; in 2001 she was forced to live abroad for a time after receiving death threats from Lapin. When she died, she was working on a piece about torture by members of Ramzan Kadyrov’s militia. Two days earlier, she had told Radio Liberty: ‘I dream of him some day sitting in the dock, in a trial that meets the strictest legal standards, with all of his crimes listed and investigated.’ Should her murder be added to the list? Kadyrov, of course, protests his innocence, but enough of his other adversaries have been assassinated, both in Chechnya and beyond, for this to seem plausible.[*]

Vyacheslav Izmailov, a former colleague of Politkovskaya’s at Novaya gazeta, claims to have discovered as a result of his own investigations that someone in Kadyrov’s entourage, rather than Ramzan himself, ordered the killing. Others believe Putin bears the responsibility, on the grounds that such a high-profile victim could not have been disposed of without his approval. In the wake of her death, Putin himself claimed that her killing was in fact ‘directed against our country’; Russia’s prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika, parroted this self-serving line in August 2007, announcing that the assassination had been organised from abroad by forces seeking to destabilise Russia (code for Boris Berezovsky). Another Byzantine theory holds that rogue elements in the FSB carried out the killing, as part of a plan to create enough disorder to push Putin into suspending the constitution and agreeing to a third presidential term.

It doesn’t seem likely that we will ever know for certain – not because too many people had the motives, but because those who did are powerful enough to ensure that they will never be brought to account. It is hard, for instance, to imagine any Russian prosecutor being allowed to follow the trail of the Politkovskaya case if it led to Kadyrov’s lair in Tsentoroi. What there has been instead is judicial shadow-puppetry. Four men – two Chechens, a former Moscow policeman and a Russian FSB agent – were officially charged in connection with the crime and put on trial in November 2008, but in the course of the hearings the prosecution’s unconvincing, if not incoherent, case fell apart. They were acquitted in February 2009, only for the Russian Supreme Court to overturn the verdicts in June and order a retrial – justice here consisting simply in finding the right people on whom to pin the crime.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 52 journalists have been killed in Russia in connection with their work since 1992. Journalists have been targeted in Moscow – Listev in 1995, Yuri Shchekochikhin in 2003, Paul Klebnikov in 2004, Anastasia Baburova in 2009 – and the North Caucasus: Natalia Estemirova’s abduction and murder in 2009 was only one of many. In 1996, Viktor Mikhailov, a crime reporter for Zabaikalsky rabochy, was beaten to death in broad daylight in Chita; in 1998, Larisa Yudina of Sovietskaya Kalmykia segodnia was found dead in Elista; in 2002, Natalia Skryl, a business reporter for the Rostov-on-Don paper Nashe vremia, was murdered in Taganrog, and Valery Ivanov of Togliattinskoe obozrenie was shot – his death followed in 2003 by that of his colleague Aleksei Sidorov. The list goes on, city by city.

Then there are those who managed to escape with their lives. The Centre for Journalism in Extreme Situations, a Moscow-based NGO, estimates that 80-90 journalists are physically assaulted every year in incidents relating to their professional activities. Again, there are many examples from the North Caucasus, prominent among them Fatima Tlisova, who was badly beaten in 2002, had her fingers burned with cigarettes by North Ossetian police in 2004, and was poisoned in 2006. But once more the bulk of the violence comes outside the warzone: in Khimki, for example, on the north-western edge of Moscow, where in 2008 Mikhail Beketov, a local newspaper editor, was so severely beaten that he was left in a coma; one of his legs and several fingers had to be amputated, and he is now in a wheelchair.

Why is this happening? Part of the explanation is simple: Russia as a whole is beset by remarkably high levels of violence, and journalists are among its many victims. According to WHO data from 2006, the rate of ‘intentional homicides’ was 20.2 per 100,000 – higher than Mozambique, and only fractionally lower than Kenya. This is down from a peak of 30 per 100,000 in the mid-1990s, but still more than 20 times higher than France, Germany or Italy. The reasons for this appalling record are many and complex, but must relate directly to the dissolution of the Soviet order – not just its law enforcement agencies, but its social structure and moral fabric – and above all to the bewildering array of new opportunities for profit opened up by its disappearance. This in turn may be the key to why journalists have so often been targeted. For in the bulk of cases, what was at stake was not the truth of a conflict or murky state secrets, but seemingly more mundane business dealings: property developments, control of a company, factory takeovers – in other words, the initial stages of what one commentator has complacently called Russia’s ‘brutal and cheerful capitalism’. In the midst of this upheaval, journalists occupy a crucial position: they have both access to the public and a unique capacity to incriminate the powerful, the greedy, the incompetent, the cold killers. They shed at least a meagre light on the encompassing darkness and confusion in which the new Russia is being forged. Though she may have felt she was witnessing the re-emergence of the USSR, Politkovskaya too was a witness to the continuing process of market-based mutation.

[*] Tony Wood wrote about the killings of Ramzan Kadyrov’s enemies in the LRB of 14 May 2009.