Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya (1958–2006) joined a long list of dissidents who died because of their outspoken criticism of their country's regime. A war reporter who chronicled Russian attempts to subdue extremists in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, she remained objective in describing the ghastly atrocities committed by both sides. Politkovskaya further warned that Russia seemed to be reverting to a Soviet-style climate of fear under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, a former spy. "I have no hope left in my soul," she told Andrew Osborn in Britain's Independent newspaper. "Only a change of leadership would allow me to have hope but it's a political winter." Less than two years later, she became the victim of what appeared to be an assassination.
Politkovskaya was the daughter of two diplomats of Ukrainian heritage whose loyalty to Soviet Russia and the Communist Party was deemed secure enough to give them a highly coveted foreign mission in the West. In the strict, one-party authoritarian rule back in the Soviet era, only party members who did not appear to be candidates for defection were granted permission to travel or live in the West. Politkovskaya's parents were posted to the United Nations headquarters in New York City, where she was born on August 30, 1958. Her privileged background was a vastly different one from that of the man who would become her greatest foe, Russian president Vladimir Putin (born 1952). Putin's autobiography recounted a St. Petersburg childhood in a vermin-infested communal apartment before he rose through the ranks of the KGB, the Soviet Union's secret police and intelligence agency. Politkovskaya, by contrast, "was part of the elite," noted the Guardian's David Hearst. "For her family, Vladimir Putin is not a distant object of fear and veneration, but a former KGB staffer rather too lowly for them to have come across socially."
Worked for Aeroflot
Politkovskaya studied journalism at Moscow State University, and went to work for the national daily newspaper Izvestia when she graduated in 1980. She later worked for Aeroflot, the state-owned airline of the Soviet Union, and her position with its company newspaper came with an all-access airline pass, good for free domestic travel anywhere Aeroflot touched down. Politkovskaya put it to good use, and the experience transformed her from a member of the privileged class familiar with only the main urban centers and summer resort areas of the Soviet sphere to a well-informed journalist. "Thanks to this I saw the whole of our huge country," she said in an interview with the Guardian's James Meek. "I was a girl from a diplomatic family, a reader, a bit of a swot [nerd]; I didn't know life at all."
Energized by the era of reform ushered in after 1985 by new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (born 1931), Politkovskaya eagerly returned to daily journalism once press censorship began to abate, taking a job with a pro-democracy newspaper Obshchaya gazeta. Founded in August of 1991—the same month that the Soviet communist regime finally crumbled—the weekly newspaper was an ideal forum for Politkovskaya, and she made her name as a journalist in the late 1990s when she began reporting from Chechnya. This mountainous region in the North Caucasus had a long history of enmity with its Russian overlords dating back to the early nineteenth century. In the early years of post-Soviet Russia, there had been a small war for independence that pitted Chechen rebels against Russian federal troops. But public pressure on Russian president Boris Yeltsin (born 1931), fueled by the new press freedoms available to media outlets like Obshchaya gazeta, resulted in a withdrawal of Russia's troops and a 1997 peace agreement that recognized Chechnya as an independent republic. Succeeding Yeltsin in late 1999, Putin ordered the deployment of more troops to quell internal disorder within Chechnya between the government and Islamic extremists; there had also been a series of Moscow bombings in 1999 that were blamed on Chechen terrorists, but journalists like Politkovskaya began to suspect that the tragedy had been instigated by hardline Russian conservatives as an excuse to subdue Chechnya for good. This renewal of hostilities came to be known as the Second Chechen War.
By then Politkovskaya was a columnist for Novaya gazeta, another liberal newspaper, and continued her reporting from Chechnya. Her stories were critical of human rights excesses on both sides, including one gripping tale about the mystery surrounding a mass grave discovered near a Russian military base; the bodies were possibly civilian casualties, and land mines had been planted to prevent their retrieval. Politkovskaya already had made some prominent enemies because of her journalistic exposés, but for this one she was taken into custody and accused of spying on behalf of Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord. For three days in February of 2001 she was kept in a pit with no food or water. Later that year she was forced to flee Russia for a time when rumors reached her that one police captain, accused of human rights abuses in her stories, wanted her dead. Her aptly titled first book, A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya, appeared in English translation that same year.
Trusted Negotiator at Moscow Hostage Scene
In October of 2002 Politkovskaya became a participant in a news story herself, when a group of heavily armed Chechen rebels stormed a Moscow theater and took 850 hostages. They demanded a pullout of Russian troops from Chechnya. Politkovskaya asked to meet with the hostage-takers, hoping to secure food and water for the actors, musicians, and theatergoers being held. As she wrote in a report filed for Novaya gazeta, she waited long minutes before being allowed to meet with a senior commando, and feared for her life. "Masks come and go, the time fading away grips the heart with foreboding, and the senior still doesn't come. Maybe they'll just shoot us now?" Finally, she met with a leader of the group, who apologized to her for the semi-automatic weapon he was carrying. "Even without these explanations, I can see it all already—he's from the generation of Chechens that has been fighting for its entire life," she wrote. She was given permission to bring in juice and water, but as the standoff neared the three-day mark, a special forces unit of the Russian Army stormed the building with the help of a powerful gas that was probably a nerve agent; all 42 hostage-takers died, along with 129 civilians.
Worse incidents ensued after the Moscow theater siege. In September of 2004 another group of Chechen rebels took an elementary school hostage in the southern Russian town of Beslan. The children had been assembled for a ceremony in the schoolyard, marking the first day of class for the year, when 32 masked men arrived and began herding the teachers, parents, and children into the gymnasium. On the third day, a battle erupted between Russian military forces and the hostage-takers, and more than 300 of the 1,200 hostages died. Upon hearing of the crisis, Politkovskaya immediately boarded a flight to Beslan in order to help negotiate a safer outcome, but became violently ill after drinking a cup of tea en route. She believed she was poisoned.
By 2005 Novaya gazeta—one of whose owners was Gorbachev—remained among the few independent media outlets that had not been forced out of business by Putin's government. Politkovskaya's third book, Putin's Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy, had not even been published in Russia in 2004, though it was appreciatively reviewed when it appeared in English translation in 2006. In it, she chronicled Putin's rise to national political power, and analyzed his strategy for courting Western powers—he counted British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush among his allies—while cracking down on hard-won civil liberties at home in the name of fighting terrorism at home and abroad. Much of the text reiterated what she had already written in articles about him, asserted Osborn. "Politkovskaya does what few other Russian commentators dare and steps over an invisible line, mocking Mr. Putin in an intensely personal way; comparing him to Soviet leader Josef Stalin … and to a bland, over-promoted spy who should never have been elevated to the dizzy Kremlin heights."
Death Prompted Outrage
On October 5, 2006, Politkovskaya gave a radio interview in which she discussed an upcoming story for Novaya gazeta, an exposé on torture practices linked to a militia unit controlled by Chechnya's Putin-friendly prime minister, Ramzan Kadyrov. She planned to file the story on Saturday, October 7, but was found shot to death in her apartment building in central Moscow just before 5 p.m. A Makarov pistol, which in Russia is often used for contract killings, and four shell casings were found near her body; the four bullets to her head also pointed to evidence that it had been an assassination rather than a random act of violence. Police seized her computer, and though a fragment of her story was published several days later that included stills from a grainy video depicting Kadyrovite militia personnel torturing suspects, other important photographs were lost.
News of Politkovskaya's death prompted consternation on an international level. Heads of state from Europe, as well as Blair and Bush, issued official statements questioning her untimely death. Her supporters, as well as human-rights activists around the world, called it a political assassination. Even the New York Times editorial page weighed in, remarking that she was one of a long line of recent suspicious deaths of Putin's foes, and the newspaper ventured that "it would be hard to imagine that Mr. Putin's Kremlin, swollen with oil riches and power, could not find those who ordered her murder or so many others."
Putin did promise a full investigation of her death, but commented also that she was a figure of "minor" importance. The number of mourners who turned out for her funeral on October 10 seemed to contradict that claim. Nearly a thousand paid their respects on a rainy Tuesday, among them Western diplomats, fellow journalists, and ordinary Muscovites. One of those in attendance was Time International's Moscow correspondent Yuri Zarakhovich, who explained in his report that funerals were one expression of dissidence in the repressive Soviet era. "Moscow had not, until last week, seen a mass dissident demonstration for years," wrote Zarakhovich. "Nor had cities like St. Petersburg, or Yekaterinburg in the Urals, where rallies all paid homage to Politkovskaya." The Time journalist also commented that that few mourners at Politkovskaya's burial "would have expected that, 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they would have occasion to once again feel like dissidents in the face of a too-powerful state."
Linked to Litvinenko
Politkovskaya left two adult children, the product of a marriage that had ended because of her frequent travels to Chechnya and the danger it posed to her. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (born 1954) met with her son 10 days later on visit to Moscow, and also met with the editor of Novaya gazeta, Dmitry Muratov. Several weeks later, with her death still under investigation, a former KGB agent and critic of Putin gave a statement from his London hospital bed. Near death, Alexander Litvinenko (1962–2006) blamed Putin for the mysterious illness that had caused him to become deathly ill within a matter of days. Politkovskaya had met with Litvinenko in London not long after her own suspicious illness in 2004, and Litvinenko had reportedly been investigating whether or not she had been poisoned. Shortly before he fell ill, Litvinenko told a Chechen website that he had come into possession of documents that linked officers of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), the successor to the KGB, to Politkovskaya's murder.
Guardian (London, England), March 16, 2002; October 15, 2004; March 1, 2006; October 23, 2006.
Independent (London, England), October 15, 2004.
New York Times, October 10, 2006.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), October 15, 2006.
Time International (Europe Edition), October 23, 2006.
Times (London, England), October 13, 2006; November 21, 2006.
"My Hours Inside the Moscow Theatre," Institute for War & Peace Reporting, http://www.iwpr.net/?p=crs&s=f&o=159401&apc_state=henfcrs159398 (December 1, 2006).