Authors: Anna Politkovskaya
a dirty war: a russian reporter in chechnya
putin's russia: life in a failing democracy
a small corner of hell: dispatches from chechnya
ANNA POLITKOVSKAYA COULD HAVE LEFT RUSSIA–REMEMBER THAT as you read these journals. She was born in 1958 in New York, where her Ukrainian parents were Soviet diplomats at the United Nations. The U.S. embassy in Moscow considered her a citizen. She was entitled to an American passport.
With all of the resourcefulness that Anna Politkovskaya had relied on to survive in Chechnya and Ingushetia, she might have pulled a scarf over her short, soft gray hair, doffed the simple oval glasses by which she was so easily identified, left her apartment building by a back door, met a friend to guide her, and gone to the U.S. embassy. Or visited her sister, Elena Kudimova, in London (Russian officials were glad to see her go, knowing that next to nothing she said or wrote outside of Russia would ever be heard or read there), and just stayed. She could have flown to Berlin or New York to accept one more award for heroism. She could have gone to a conference on the Caucasus in Paris or Vienna, told stirring stories of her indisputable courage to astounded students at Columbia, Stanford, or Iowa State, signed up with a think tank in Washington or Cambridge, and never have to go back to Moscow.
Anna Politkovskaya could have lived in Manhattan, Palo Alto, or Santa Monica, with a car service waiting downstairs to whisk her away to expound on Russia's corruptions and treacheries from the safe confines of a television studio or college campus. She would have risked leaving her mother, who was battling cancer, and her twenty-six-year-old daughter and first grandchild. But she would be alive—surely what they would have preferred.
Family and friends had urged her to leave. Russian soldiers, police, oligarchs, criminal gangs, and the highest-ranking Russian politicians had explicitly threatened her life. When she grew violently ill after sipping a cup of tea on a flight into Beslan to negotiate during the school hostage crisis in 2004, she saw it was an attempt to silence her there and then. Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB man who became a critic of Vladimir Putin, told her to leave Russia.
But Anna told David Hearst of Britain's
newspaper in 2002, “The more I think about it, the more I would be betraying these people if I walked away. The only thing to do is to take this to the bitter end, so that no one can say that when things became difficult, I ran away.”
Those words would sound sanctimonious from almost anyone else.
AS THE DAUGHTER OF SOVIET DIPLOMATS, Anna grew up with books, magazines, and access to news that was banned for ordinary citizens; in fact, her parents, impressed by the free flow of ideas in the West, smuggled books in for her. When she studied journalism at Moscow State University, she risked writing her dissertation about the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who had been banned by Stalin and eventually hanged herself.
She went to work for
the official house organ of the Supreme Soviet Central Committee.
the other best-known official daily (but in no sense a competitor) was the official voice of the Communist Party.
means “news,” and the joke among Russians was, “There is no news in
and no truth in
Within a few years Anna was able to meet the criteria for a job at the in-house magazine of Aeroflot, the state airline of the USSR. The journalism was probably trickier than what Americans associate with airline monthlies (creating a favorable impression of the grimy and treacherous Aeroflot fleet in the early 1980s would have tested Dostoevsky's imagination). But she also qualified for free plane tickets, which she used to explore the breadth of her own vast, dazzling country. She fell in love with the majestic immensity of Russia's variety and soul. She was appalled by the depth of its poverty and cruelty.
When the era of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika began to bloom, Anna saw opportunities to do the kind of journalism she had known in the West. She became part of the founding group of
(New Newspaper). It was that newspaper that first sent her to Chechnya, where she would return thirty-nine times. At the heart of these journals is the anger and revulsion Anna Politkovskaya felt over what she witnessed there, over and over, and what that brutality disclosed about the system that ruled her country.
Americans may see the Russian war in Chechnya as a prolonged conflict stretching on for more than a decade, like the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan (or America's in Vietnam). But for Russians, there are two distinct wars. The first was declared by Boris Yeltsin, after local leaders split the Chechen-Ingush republic in two as the Soviet Union spun apart in 1991. Ingushetia joined the Russian Federation. Chechnya refused. Russian forces rolled in to Chechnya in 1994 (Czechoslovakia 1968 style, one is tempted to say) when Russia said that instability and civil war threatened peace in the region.
But by 1996, the ill-equipped Russian Army, which rained down expensive explosives on Chechens, but could not feed or shoe its soldiers, had to withdraw. Russian public opinion, appalled by the uselessness, cost, and visible brutality of the war, called on Yeltsin to sue for peace. Many in his government openly blamed the press for informing and inflaming the public. Anna Politkovskaya was prominent among those reporters who sent back vivid and infuriating stories of Russia's scorched-earth campaign of kidnappings, rapes, massacres, and the bombing of innocents. If such coverage caused the public to shut down the war in Chechnya, Anna believed it was an example of what a free press and an informed public in a democratic society should have the power to do.
Anna Politkovskaya strongly believed that Vladimir Putin and Russian security services had allowed the self-proclaimed Chechen terrorist Shamil Basaev to stage raids in Dagestan in 1999. This permitted Vladimir Putin to cite chaos and instability as a reason to send Russian forces back into Chechnya. I am less certain of that, and will leave Anna to make her own argument in these journals. But Putin had manifestly drawn lessons from the first failed Russian campaign in Chechnya: keep out reporters, and have no mercy. The killings, rapes, indiscriminate shellings, and torture of Chechens became more intense—and went almost unreported.
In October 2002, heavily armed terrorists professing allegiance to Chechen separatists (Shamil Basaev claimed credit for the plan) seized the Dubrovka theater in Moscow during a performance of
a Russian musical. They took 912 people hostage. The terrorists said that all of the captured theatergoers would be killed unless the Russian government withdrew its forces from Chechnya.
Anna Politkovskaya, whose reporting from Chechnya had made her name known among the terrorists, was called in to try to negotiate some kind of agreement that would save the lives of the hostages. No agreement was reached. The Russian government quickly concluded, if it had ever thought otherwise, that none was possible. After just two and a half days, Russian special forces stormed the building. But first they laid down a cloud of what is still an unidentified gas.
Thirty-three terrorists were killed—some might have escaped—but so were at least 130 of the hostages. No Russian special forces died.
Important questions persist: How did any of the hostages die when a gas was laid down to render their captors unconscious? Why was there no medical assistance on-site for the hostages? Why were terrorists shot if they were stunned and inert? Was there something that government forces didn't want anyone to have the chance to say?
Anna Politkovskaya came away convinced that the terrorists (and she called them that; no stylebook euphemisms for Anna, like
never would have killed the hostages, and that the Russian government never would have permitted a peaceful solution: it wanted to shed blood. I am less sure of the former than I am of the latter. She was there, I was not, and I honor her experience and judgment. I just am not convinced that the kind of people who use guns to capture innocents in the first act wouldn't use them to kill before the curtain fell. From my own experience I can imagine gasping, coughing terrorists shooting hostages as they grasp that Russian special forces are preparing to storm in.
But indisputably, the Russian government used the siege to squelch the last gasps of a free and independent press. It closed one television station during the siege and censored radio and television coverage. Then the Putin government used the siege to persuade the lower house of the Duma to pass broad, blunt new restrictions on what the press can report and how. And the Duma pointedly refused to form a commission to investigate the government's handling of the theater siege. Questions about how and why the gas was used, and the effect inside, will never be fully explored.
(Anna saw Basaev as the almost predictable creation of the savagery of Russia's assault on Chechnya. In fact, a Russian air attack on Basaev's hometown of Dyshne-Vedeno in 1995 had killed eleven members of his family, including his wife and children. But I cringe at seeing this as any grounds for the siege of the school in Beslan, for which Basaev also claimed credit with no apparent regret. More than 344 civilians were slaughtered, including 186 school children.)
During this period, Anna was angry at America and Western Europe, which continued to support Vladimir Putin. She did not expect or want the West to sally forth. She had already had enough Western “help,” thank you, and said, “Those in Russia who hope for help from the West need finally to recognize that winning back our democratic freedoms is up to us.”
But she was aghast when the West turned a blind eye toward Putin's crushing of Chechnya, his stranglehold on power, and his suppression of opposition, just as it had once overlooked Stalin's starvations, hangings, gu-lags, and massacres. The sad truth is that a lot of Western democracies like dealing with dictators. Tyrants can be tidy and reliable business partners.
She also became frustrated with opponents of Putin's rule almost as much as she was with Putin's own regime, and the criminal gangs and oligarchs who ran wild with his indulgence. She thought that the tyrants and thieves had no conscience, while the reformers were elitists with little conviction, or courage for confrontation.
“Our society isn't a society anymore,” she wrote. “It is a collection of windowless, isolated concrete cells… The authorities do everything they can to make the cells even more impermeable, sowing dissent, inciting some against others, dividing and ruling. And the people fall for it.
That is the real problem. That is why revolution in Russia, when it comes, is always so extreme. The barrier between the cells collapses only when the negative emotions within them are ungovernable.”
And to be sure, in some of her lowest moments, some of them revealed in this book, Anna Politkovskaya wondered if Russians really wanted a free press—or a free country. And indeed a 2005 poll conducted by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center showed that 82 percent of the public wanted censorship. That figure might have represented the great number of Russians who were aghast at the coarse sex and violence that has become common on television in particular. But it certainly gives the government popular support for laws that stifle the press and political opposition.
At about that time, Anna wrote approvingly of a group of people who organized a series of hunger strikes:
There is much you can no longer say, but you can still go on hunger strike to show that you have been silenced. Sounding off at protest meetings has become virtually useless, mere preaching to the converted; those who share your views already know the situation, so why keep telling them about it? Standing in picket lines is pointless, unless it is to salve your conscience. At least you'll be able to tell your granddaughter that you did more than vent your spleen in your own kitchen. Even writing books that don't get published in Russia because they are off-message doesn't have much impact. They are read only by people living abroad.