Great Lives: Mur­dered jour­nal­ist Anna Politkovskaya

The New European - - Agenda - BY CHAR­LIE CON­NELLY

AU­GUST 30, 1958 – OC­TO­BER 7, 2006

On the day she died Anna Politkovskaya, for once, had do­mes­tic mat­ters on her mind.

She was still com­ing to terms with the sud­den death a fort­night ear­lier of her fa­ther Ste­fan, who had col­lapsed from a heart at­tack as he left a Moscow metro sta­tion on his way to visit his can­cer­stricken wife Raisa in hospi­tal.

A week be­fore Politkovskaya died her mother had un­der­gone ma­jor surgery, af­ter which the jour­nal­ist and her sis­ter Elena had ro­tated bed­side shifts, keep­ing Raisa com­pany through her re­cu­per­a­tion and shar­ing their grief for a hus­band and fa­ther.

Anna was sup­posed to be at the hospi­tal that chilly, damp Satur­day at the be­gin­ning of Oc­to­ber 2006, but she’d had to switch with Elena as her preg­nant daugh­ter was mov­ing tem­po­rar­ily into her Moscow apart­ment that day while her own home was pre­pared for the new ar­rival.

So pre­oc­cu­pied was Politkovskaya with fam­ily mat­ters that when she went to the su­per­mar­ket that af­ter­noon she didn’t no­tice the tall man in the cap and his fe­male com­pan­ion fol­low­ing her at a dis­tance as she pushed her trol­ley around the shop. She drove home, parked out­side her apart­ment build­ing and lifted as many bags as she could carry out of the boot of the car. Tak­ing the lift up to her apart­ment, she left the bags out­side the door and de­scended to the ground floor to col­lect the rest of her gro­ceries.

When the lift door opened the tall man in the cap from the su­per­mar­ket was stand­ing there. He raised a pis­tol and shot three times, two bul­lets hit­ting Politkovskaya in the chest, the third hit­ting her in the shoul­der. She was prob­a­bly dead even be­fore she hit the floor but the as­sas­sin made sure with one last bul­let to her head be­fore drop­ping the gun next to her, walk­ing calmly out of the build­ing and dis­ap­pear­ing into a blus­tery, dark­en­ing af­ter­noon. It was Oc­to­ber 7, 2006, Vladimir Putin’s 54th birth­day.

“She was in­cred­i­bly brave,” wrote her news­pa­per No­vaya Gazeta in trib­ute.

“Much braver than any num­ber of ma­cho men in their ar­moured jeeps sur­rounded by body­guards. She re­garded any in­jus­tice, re­gard­less of whom it in­volved, as a per­sonal en­emy.”

On her lap­top at the time of her death was an un­fin­ished ar­ti­cle de­tail­ing the lat­est hu­man rights abuses she’d dis­cov­ered tak­ing place in Chech­nya, a topic to which Politkovskaya had de­voted her­self in the last years of her life that made her many pow­er­ful en­e­mies. In that fi­nal piece, pub­lished posthu­mously by No­vaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya wrote of the tor­ture of a Chechen man by se­cu­rity forces loyal to Ramzan Kady­rov, the pro-rus­sian prime min­is­ter of the Chechen re­pub­lic and a reg­u­lar tar­get of Politkovskaya’s pen.

The man who was tor­tured, she said, was an in­no­cent civil­ian forced into a false con­fes­sion in or­der that Kady­rov’s pro-putin regime looked as if it was cap­tur­ing rebel fight­ers. This lat­est man, she wrote, was one of a “con­veyor belt of or­gan­ised con­fes­sions”.

Politkovskaya had joined the in­de­pen­dent No­vaya Gazeta in 1999, the same year the sec­ond Chechen war be­gan, and for the rest of her life went af­ter Kady­rov and Vladimir Putin with re­lent­less zeal. As well as her jour­nal­ism she pro­duced two books on the Chechen con­flict, 2001’s A Dirty War: A Rus­sian Re­porter in Chech­nya and A Small Cor­ner of Hell: Dis­patches From Chech­nya.

In 2004, two years be­fore her death, she wrote Putin’s Rus­sia, a vis­ceral con­dem­na­tion of the man and his regime. Re­fer­ring to his time as a Soviet KGB agent be­fore en­ter­ing pol­i­tics, for ex­am­ple, she wrote of how “he per­sists in crush­ing lib­erty just as he did ear­lier in his ca­reer”. Such strong and open crit­i­cism left Politkovskaya un­der no il­lu­sions re­gard­ing the dan­ger in which she had placed her­self.

“I am a pariah,” she said a few months be­fore her mur­der. “That is the re­sult of my jour­nal­ism through the years of the sec­ond Chechen War and of pub­lish­ing books abroad about life in Rus­sia.”

Politkovskaya was the 13th jour­nal­ist to be mur­dered or die in mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances in Putin’s Rus­sia and even then it was far from the first at­tempt on her life. In 2001, tipped off that a Rus­sian mil­i­tary of­fi­cer named in a hu­man rights abuses story was on his way to find her, Politkovskaya took the threat se­ri­ously enough to move tem­po­rar­ily to Vi­enna.

Shortly af­ter her depar­ture a woman of sim­i­lar ap­pear­ance was shot and killed out­side her apart­ment build­ing. The same year she was de­tained by Rus­sian troops in Chech­nya and held for three days, dur­ing which she was sub­jected to threats and a mock ex­e­cu­tion.

In 2004 Politkovskaya be­came gravely ill af­ter drink­ing tea on a flight from Moscow to North Os­se­tia, where she had been asked to help ne­go­ti­ate with a Chechen na­tion­al­ist group who had taken more than 1,000 peo­ple hostage, most of them chil­dren, at a school in Bes­lan. She even­tu­ally re­cov­ered af­ter be­ing flown back to Moscow for treat­ment but all rel­e­vant test re­sults and med­i­cal records went miss­ing im­me­di­ately af­ter­wards.

Still she was not to be de­terred.

“As con­tem­po­raries of this war, we will be held re­spon­si­ble for it,” she wrote of her un­shak­able re­solve to ex­pose Rus­sian hu­man rights abuses in Chech­nya. “The classic Soviet ex­cuse of not be­ing there and not tak­ing part in any­thing per­son­ally won’t work. So I want you to know the truth, then you’ll be free of cyn­i­cism.”

Politkovskaya could have opted for a much eas­ier path. Both her par­ents had been diplo­mats at the United Na­tions in New York, mean­ing she was born not only into the Soviet elite but also qual­i­fied by birth for a US pass­port. The con­nec­tions gar­nered by the former could have led to a com­fort­able life and ca­reer, the lat­ter gave her a raft of op­tions out­side Rus­sia, but in­stead she chose the most dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous path pos­si­ble: in­de­pen­dent, cam­paign­ing jour­nal­ism inside Rus­sia.

On leaving school she earned a place on the pres­ti­gious jour­nal­ism de­gree course at the Moscow State Univer­sity, where she de­vel­oped the streak of fear­less in­de­pen­dence that would char­ac­terise her life by writ­ing her dis­ser­ta­tion on the ex­iled Rus­sian poet Ma­rina Tsve­taeva. On grad­u­a­tion Politkovskaya worked first for the na­tional daily Izves­tia, then spent most of the 1990s at Ob­shaya Gazeta un­der ed­i­tor and co-creator of Mikhail Gor­bachev’s glas­nost pol­icy Ye­gor Yakovlev.

It was when she joined No­vaya Gazeta that she truly earned her spurs as a hard­work­ing, in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and de­vel­oped the rep­u­ta­tion that cost her her life.

Per­haps the great­est trib­ute to her work came in­ad­ver­tently from Vladimir Putin him­self. Speak­ing three days af­ter Politkovskaya’s mur­der – for which five men are now in pri­son with­out any ac­knowl­edge­ment of who or­dered the hit – the Rus­sian pres­i­dent said: “The de­gree of her in­flu­ence over po­lit­i­cal life in Rus­sia was ex­tremely in­signif­i­cant. She was well­known in jour­nal­is­tic cir­cles and among hu­man rights ac­tivists in the West but I re­peat, her in­flu­ence over po­lit­i­cal life in Rus­sia was min­i­mal.”

Such a cack-handed at­tempted dis­missal be­trayed just what a thorn in his side Politkovskaya had been: in a na­tion of 140 mil­lion peo­ple she had been one of a hand­ful brave enough to raise their voice in pub­lic against the in­jus­tices of the Rus­sian regime. She knew the risks she was tak­ing and the dan­ger she faced but re­fused to be cowed.

In Oc­to­ber 2002 a group of 40 armed Chechen mil­i­tants with bomb vests strapped to their bod­ies took over the Dubovka The­atre in Moscow, hold­ing 850 peo­ple hostage. On the third day of the siege Anna Politkovskaya agreed to en­ter the the­atre alone and at­tempt to en­gage with the cap­tors.

“I am Politkovskaya,” she called out as she en­tered the lobby, walk­ing fear­lessly into mor­tal dan­ger. “Can anyone hear me? I am Politkovskaya!”

Photo: No­vaya Gazeta/ep­silon/ Getty Im­ages

FEAR­LESS: Rus­sian jour­nal­ist Anna Politkovskaya

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