Putin’s Russia

Remembering Anna Politkovskaya

Rebanta Gupta

On October 7, 2006, a woman returning to her modest home in Central Moscow after grocery hunting in the market was gunned down by assassins. Four bullets perforated the body of the premier Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was internationally renowned for being a harsh critic of the Vladimir Putin regime of Russia and for opposing the conflict tearing Chechnya to pieces. The murder sent shockwaves across the country, and created international headlines. The day, which was incidentally the birthday of the Russia’s dictator Putin, marked not only the death of a firebrand journalist who let the world know about the denudation of civil liberties in Russia and the pathogen of corruption that had seeped into the judiciary, but also the demise of independent journalism in Russia.

Though the Soviet Union disintegrated way back in 1991, the tendency of revisiting the red old days seems to be omnipresent in the Russian administrative atmosphere; the government routinely persecutes, incarcerates, and exterminates its critics and the campaigners of freedom. One can recall the names of Alexei Navalny, Boris Nemtsov, or Alexander Litvinenko, who had incurred the wrath of the Putin administration in one way or the other. The condition of journalism in Russia has been palpably obnoxious; since 2006, murders of more than twenty journalists have been recorded by the Committee to Protect Journalists, and nearly sixty-three attacks on reporters have been calculated by the Freedom House. The current crisis in Ukraine is once again underscoring the marionette-like condition of the Russian media, as the government has threatened to shut down independent media houses and it has been installing propaganda filters to distort the horrifying picture of the war that is ravaging Russia’s neighbour. At this hour of media decrepitude, it is important to revisit the saga of Politkovskaya, who had almost single-handedly challenged the Kremlin ecosystem.

Despite facing several death threats, Politkovskaya, who was associated with Novaya Gazeta, an investigative newspaper, remained unfazed in the face of fear and death. The book Putin’s Russia (2004), written by this New York-born Moscow State University graduate, sounded the death knell of independent journalism in Russia: “We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum that spells death from our own ignorance…. For the rest, if you want to go on working as a journalist, it's total servility to Putin. Otherwise, it can be death, the bullet, poison, or trial—whatever our special services, Putin's guard dogs, see fit”.

She is perhaps best remembered for covering the bloody war in Chechnya. The Second Chechen War, triggered by the invasion of the Russian Republic of Dagestan by the Chechen fighters and the 1999 Russian apartment bombings (which is claimed by many to have been staged by the Federal Security Service of Russia or the FSB to install the then-prime minister Putin as the president), has gained notoriety for the terrible war crimes perpetrated by the Russian forces. Her award-winning journalistic activities informed the world about the human rights abuses conducted in the name of war against the Chechens. Her mighty pen spawned the celebrated trilogy on the Chechen crisis: A Dirty War (2001), A Small Corner of Hell (2003), and of course, Putin’s Russia (2004). Her investigative journalism put a spotlight on the massive human rights abuse, torture, extortion prevalent in North Caucasus, and the nefarious activities against humanity spearheaded by the Russian-backed warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. These activities obviously irked the Russian military, and Politkovskaya had to endure an episode of mock execution in Chechnya after being arrested. The perennial stream of death and rape threats added more pages to her portfolio of humiliation.

Her Putin’s Russia fired a volley of charges against President Putin, she even accused the Federal Security Service of asphyxiating civil liberties in Russia in order to establish a dictatorial police state. The deplorable condition of the judiciary, where judges are removed from positions for not being able to comply with the authority’s instructions, the ominous regime of the oligarchs, kidnappings, murders, and rapes of the Chechen citizens by the Russian forces, the torture of the conscripts in the armed forces-all these made their way into Politkovskaya’s political commentary, which caused a furore in the West. While narrating the saga of a collapsing democracy, she not only lambasts the administration, but also the people, whose mandate made the meteoric rise of Putin possible, “It is we who are responsible for Putin’s policies…. Society has shown limitless apathy, and this what has given Putin the indulgence he requires … The KGB [the predecessor of FSB] respects only the strong. The weak it devours. We of all people ought to know that” (Politkovskaya 273).

The tirade continued in her A Russian Diary, which is an anthology of extracts from her notebooks. It signals that the spectre of the Soviet Union continues to haunt modern-day Russia from beyond its grave. She portrays the dawn of a petro-state that is being propelled by surging oil prices, gives insights into Putin’s satanic circle, the decline of the liberal Gregory Yavlinsky, and the rise of the maniac warlord Kadyrov, the omnipotent potentate of Chechnya. She even describes a scene captured on a videotape, the surrender of some Chechen rebels which eventually metamorphosed to become a “mountain of corpses,” thanks to you-know-who. Politkovskaya records her frustration in the pages of the book, “What happened when the frames from this record of our own Abu Ghraib were published? …..Nothing. Nobody turned a hair, neither the public, nor the media, nor the procurator’s office. Many foreign journalists borrowed the video from me,” but “in Russia there was silence”.

The Beslan school hostage crisis of 2004, which claimed the lives of nearly three hundred and thirty-three people, including one hundred and eighty-six children, could have witnessed Politkovskaya’s intervention and her resolving the issue peacefully. But she was allegedly poisoned on board the aircraft carrying her from Moscow via Rostov on Don and had to be brought back for receiving medical attention. Fingers were raised at the erstwhile poison laboratory of the Soviets, which supposedly orchestrated the event to prevent her from reporting. The tireless attempts made by Novaya Gazeta, however, yielded a number of news reports, which suggested that the explosives planted by the Russian elite forces to put an end to the Beslan siege resulted in the massive number of deaths. It, therefore, becomes conceivable, why Politkovskaya was poisoned en route to Beslan.

Two months before her assassination, Politkovskaya wrote an essay for an anthology titled Another Sky, where she imagined her own death. She begins the article in an unusual manner, stating “I am a pariah,” and goes on to describe her ordeal at the hands of the government, how she remained uninvited to the press conferences of the Kremlin officials, how she would contact sympathetic government officials and informants clandestinely to put a spotlight on the genocide and human rights violations in Chechnya by the Russian forces. She quotes Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, who had explained the difference between two types of enemies: on the one hand, there is the one who could be brought to sense by talking, and on the other, there are enemies who need to be “cleansed” to prevent further nuisance. Politkovskaya nonchalantly writes, “So they are trying to cleanse it of me and others like me.” One might wonder, could a person like her have been intimidated by any kind of force in the world, even if it had been the Orwellian Room 101? She embodied the definition of patriotism. Instead of defecting to the West and living a comfortable life, she did not leave the Russian soil, and continued her fight for human rights against the Kremlin propagandists. Like a Russian Joan of Arc, she laid down her life articulating her dissent against the machinery of anarchy.

Even after her death, Politkovskaya remains a role model for many journalists, her death has given birth to a string of protégés. One of them is Natasha Zotova, who was studying in ninth grade, when the forty-eight-year-old Politkovskaya was murdered. The assassination made her subscribe to Novaya Gazeta, which opened her eyes to rampant corruption, violation of civil rights, and falsified elections, which were slowly mutilating Russia’s democratic structure. She later emerged as a journalist with Novaya Gazeta. The Putin administration has been tightening its grip over the media circle ever since; independent journalists have been branded as “foreign agents,” they have been driven abroad and their offices shut down. However, the struggle against governmental repression is not showing signs of abating, journalists are still trying their best to articulate their concern, but the undeniable fact is that Politkovskaya was perhaps the last one of the journalistic Mohicans who could contest governmental hegemony with unshakable confidence and bravado.

The identity of the person who had paid the contract killers to liquidate Politkovskaya still remains shrouded in mist. Rustom Makh-madov, along with his brothers in arms Dzhabrail and Ibragim has received incarceration, but no further advancements in this case have been made, and though her relatives and Novaya Gazeta have been raising demands for a thorough investigation to nab the mastermind behind the killing, the Kremlin is wearing a mask of nonchalance and indifference. A week after the assassination, Russian defector and ex-FSB personnel Alexander Litvinenko accused Putin of sanctioning the assassination, and shortly after this, he was poisoned with Polonium 210. The last words of Litvinenko might have been uttered by Politkovskaya herself, if she had had a chance, “You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people” (Litvinenko).

Perhaps the same words would be uttered from the lips of the dying soldiers lying in the sunflower fields of Ukraine, as the Russian missiles illuminate the sky with the ominous colour of death.

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Vol 54, No. 38, March 20 - 26, 2022