An inconvenient truth
Harper’s Bazaar – April Edition, 2007
Anna Politkovskaya, murdered by a hitman outside her Moscow flat last October, was someone who always seemed more alive than everyone else. Tall and wiry, with short but chic, greying hair, she crackled with wit and determination. Like a strict but fair headmistress, Russia’s bravest journalist had no qualms about hectoring people into listening to uncomfortable truths. Even if she was brusque or caustic, you’d be won over by the kooky smile on her often-sad face as she made her point. She could pack 36 hours into 24, but always had time, with a sharp but accommodating ‘I’m in a hurry, but what’s it about?’ to take on more phone calls, more causes, and more quiet kindnesses.
In 2002, she helped to negotiate in the hostage crisis in Moscow, when Chechen gunmen took over a theatre. One of the hostages was a friend’s son. She also helped a London friend of mine deal with a bullying boss. Unlike many journalists, she helped some of her interviewees in Chechnya get away, kept in touch with the lucky few who made it south to other ex-Soviet republics or north to Scandinavia, and even sent money.
But it was her writing that won the world over. Politkovskaya articulated the worry felt by many in Russia: that her country, under President Putin, had again fallen under the in?uence of authoritarians and secret police; and that freedom of speech was under threat from state-sponsored bullies and killers.
Born in New York in 1958, to a diplomat father posted to the United Nations, she wrote on social affairs in Russia for most of her working life. It was only after Putin came to power in 1999 and she became a special correspondent for the liberal paper Novaya Gazeta this work, and her taste for truth at any price, came to seem dangerous.
Putin soon put most of the Russian media under state control. TV stars who had been independent and outspoken in the 1990s now became smiling disseminators of government- approved factoids. But Novaya Gazeta, with its small circulation of 500,000 chattering-class liberals, was owned by its reporters, and is now part-owned by Mikhail Gorbachev. It was left to do its own thing and it became the small voice of liberal dissent.
Politkovskaya was asked to cover the war being waged in Chechnya, a rebellious province in the Russian south. She took issue with the macho, murderous pro-Moscow Chechens under Prime Minister Kadyrov. She campaigned against Putin’s man in Chechnya, and interviewed people who’d been interrogated by him, who said he was a sadistic torturer who enjoyed stripping the skin off his victims’ backs.
But she was even-handed, too. Her targets also included the macho, murderous anti- Moscow separatists led by the late Shamil Basayev, whose extremism plunged Chechnya into war in 1999, bringing disaster to his own people. And she was suspicious of Putin for creating a moral climate in which cruelty flourished and freedom was suppressed. She believed he had ‘failed to transcend his origins and stop behaving like a KGB of?cer’. A brave point of view to take when 13 journalists have been killed during Putin’s presidency.
People who read Politkovskaya’s writing (or who, like me, knew her personally) were inspired by her fearless pursuit of the truth long before she became a victim of violence. Journalists don’t often get cast as heroes these days, and a woman who was brave, elegant, principled, intelligent, amusing and idealistic too, was a role model that took some beating.
Abroad, she was a human-rights heroine; her books were published to international acclaim. (A Russian Diary was ?nished shortly before her death and deals with Putin’s midperiod in office, up to the tragedy of the Beslan school siege in September 2004).
Yet, at home, she only made enemies. Her life was threatened. Hate mail poured in. In 2001, a woman who looked like her was shot dead outside her house, while Politkovskaya was in Vienna waiting for the heat to go out of an especially vicious series of death threats. She lived through a mock trial by Russian soldiers in Chechnya, and what she said was a poison attempt by ex-KGB secret services. In 2006, she told friends that Kadyrov, the pro- Moscow Chechen leader she’d called a psychopath in print, was telling people in the south that she was a dead woman walking.
Her family begged her to stop writing – her marriage had broken up over the trips to Chechnya. But the most she would agree to was to get the American passport that her birth entitled her to. She carried on working.
She was killed on 7 October, a busy Saturday that she’d expected to be a family day. Politkovskaya was rushing to finish an article detailing more of Kadyrov’s misdeeds in Chechnya, and planning to meet Vera, her pregnant daughter, at the supermarket in the afternoon. Vera was late, so Politkovskaya did her shopping alone and took the first two bags of food up in the lift to her flat on the seventh floor. She went back down for more bags. But as she got out of the lift on the ground floor, she was shot five times. The killer left behind a pistol whose serial number had been fled away.
The hit, on Putin’s birthday, made Politkovskaya the third journalist from Novaya Gazeta to die in mysterious, violent circumstances. The paper has a memorial to her on its website, as well as one for Igor Domnikov, murdered in 2000, and another for deputy editor Yuri Shchekochikhin, who died in 2003 of what was officially recorded as an allergy after a trip to investigate corruption in the intelligence services – the former KGB. His colleagues believe he was poisoned.
In an affectionate obituary, Novaya Gazeta recalls how even readers found Politkovskaya’s writing uncomfortable. One wrote in, wincing: ‘your Politkovskaya is really a bit much’. ‘But she wasn’t a bit much!’ the obituary says proudly. ‘It’s just that the truth she wrote was so terrible that people often just couldn’t bear it. Facing up to what is frightening is probably the hardest thing for an ordinary person to do. But if you look evil in the eye, it loses its power and fades away. And Anna always looked evil straight in the eye.’