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.

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