Writing in the Moscow Times Gregory Feifer, Moscow bureau chief for National Public Radio, reviews Anna Politkovsakya’s missive from beyond the grave:
Such was Anna Politkovskaya’s courage and determination in recording killings, torture and abductions in Chechnya that failing to read her articles in Novaya Gazeta — the country’s most progressive newspaper — meant risking ignorance of what Russia’s chattering classes were saying each week about the government’s latest outrage.
The 48-year-old mother of two adult children was shot dead by an unknown assassin in the elevator of her apartment building last October shortly after she’d completed her last book, commissioned by Random House for publication in English. “A Russian Diary” is an account of the country’s major political events from December 2003 to August 2005. It catalogs a year-and-a-half of President Vladimir Putin’s relentless drive to, in effect, transform his country from a bankrupt would-be democracy into a corrupt authoritarian state in which opposition figures are jailed and Kremlin cronies run the crown jewels of a newly resurrected state-controlled economy.The book opens shortly after the arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, whose Yukos oil company would be broken up and sold to state-controlled companies in shady closed auctions. Khodorkovsky’s arrest in October 2003 was a wake-up call to the West, where many Russia observers had shut their eyes to Putin’s attacks on democracy, free-market capitalism and above all, his rivals. When the president visited British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London several months earlier, the Times called him Russia’s best leader since Tsar Alexander II, who abolished serfdom in 1861. The book ends with the aftermath of the Beslan school siege, which Putin used as justification to abolish elections of regional governors in favor of Kremlin appointments.
Politkovskaya’s indictment records some of the Putin administration’s worst official corruption and criminal negligence, beginning with the parliamentary elections of December 2003. The Kremlin’s manipulation of the voting was a major step toward Putin’s evisceration of Russia’s liberal opposition parties: None of them won enough votes to make it into the legislature. Politkovskaya describes some of the numerous violations: the beatings and intimidation of regional opposition candidates — one of whom had plastic bags containing human body parts thrown through his window — as well as pervasive evidence of ballot stuffing and the state-controlled media’s refusal to cover the campaigns of Kremlin rivals. Her account belies the weak complaints of observers from the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, whose failure to properly condemn such abuses amounted to an endorsement of Putin’s victory.
In short, Politkovskaya describes a country in which violent crime trumps rule of law. Some of her most moving passages retell the experiences of Beslan’s victims. She also chronicles the aftermath of other terrorist attacks, the grisly hazing deaths of army conscripts and brutal episodes from the second war in Chechnya that Putin launched in 1999. Here she documents one of its many unpunished atrocities:
Beslan Arapkhanov, a tractor driver, was beaten up in front of his wife and seven small children before being shot dead. By mistake. The security forces were attempting to arrest the fighter Ruslan Khuchbarov. According to highly secret intelligence, Khuchbarov was sleeping that night at No. 11 Partizanskaya Street.
For some reason, however, the soldiers came and shot the guiltless Arapkhanov at No. 1 Partizanskaya Street. Immediately after the murder, an officer entered the Arapkhanovs’ house, introducing himself to the shocked wife as FSB [Federal Security Service] Investigator Kostenko, and presented a warrant to search ‘No. 11 Partizanskaya Street.’ At this point the error became evident, but Kostenko did not so much as apologize to the grieving widow.
That is the reality of our ‘antiterrorist operation.’ What are the seven children of Beslan Arapkhanov going to make of this? What chance is there that they will forgive and forget?
Politkovskaya tells about Putin’s systematic attack against the free press and civil society with his officially sanctioned “Russian Orthodox” understanding of human rights. She describes Putin’s sublime acting skills during a meeting with some of the country’s top human rights defenders: “When need be, he is one of you; when that is not necessary, he is your enemy. He is adept at wearing other people’s clothes, and many are taken in by this performance. The assembly of human rights campaigners also melted in the face of Putin’s impersonating of them and, despite a fundamentally different take on reality, they poured out their hearts to him.”
The Kremlin has managed to resurrect a Soviet-style system of rule, Politkovskaya writes, thanks to popular apathy, “rooted in an almost universal certainty among the populace that the state authorities will fix everything, including elections, to their own advantage.” She asks if the authorities realize the ruinous effect their actions are having on Russia: “Or are they simply mindless, living for the moment? … Does being in power in Russia really mean no more than having a place at the trough?”
This loosely structured and repetitive book is not a personal diary. Politkovskaya’s account would have benefited from including more of her own experiences, such as her alleged poisoning during a plane flight to Beslan, ostensibly to stop her from covering the crisis. Giving voice to the Kremlin’s marginalized victims, she sometimes fails to explain the significance of the figures and events she mentions, which will be known only to dedicated Russia observers. And although Arch Tait’s translation is perfectly readable, one suspects it’s too faithful to the original text and would have improved from finessing.
The book’s major faults are common in Russian journalism. Much of it reads like a sermon, an extended op-ed piece that doesn’t provide the kind of documentation and structure to which Western readers are accustomed. Politkovskaya condemns most Putin opponents as fiercely for their inaction as she criticizes the Kremlin for its crimes. Rightly so, perhaps, but her unrelieved moral outrage and her patronizing tone become tiring, and leave the reader wondering what makes the writer right and pretty much everyone else wrong.
Nevertheless, “A Russian Diary” is an important book. A critical failing of the West’s understanding of Russia is interpreting Moscow’s actions through the prism of Western rationalism, which often makes them appear inexplicable. Much of the country’s real political culture is hidden behind a facade of Western forms. The Kremlin creates fake opposition parties and NGOs, Putin speaks of democracy and justice as overarching values, and the Energy Minister says with a straight face that Russia’s state-controlled oil and gas companies operate as independently as private Western ones.
But there’s no hiding behind Politkovskaya’s blow-by-blow relating of events; the actions speak for themselves. “A Russian Diary” provides a crucial record of the country’s slide toward an isolated, angry reincarnation of its former Soviet self, seen through the eyes of a sensitive and perceptive observer.
Politkovskaya excoriates the Russian public for failing to protest Putin’s transgressions. Her death, like her publications, also passed unmentioned by most Russians. Her mission was to record the regime’s crimes, partly in the hope that their perpetrators would one day be held to account. She died for that aim, and her death become a landmark tragedy in the Russia of Vladimir Putin against which she so bravely campaigned.