Politkovskaya: A Hero for Our Time

A Hero for Our Time

by Jeremy Putley

Russia is a country without many heroes. It had a good many, once. But under Vladimir Putin, president since 2000, most of the heroes are in prison, exiled or dead. The bravest and best of them was Anna Politkovskaya, assassinated a year ago today.

In her four published books and her journalism Anna Politkovskaya reported and commented fearlessly on the injustices and the corruption, the crimes and the lies she found wherever she went. In so doing she wrote the history of the Putin era. The importance of her contribution to the record of what really happened at events such as the Dubrovka theatre siege lies in the efforts of Russia’s sinister regime of siloviki to falsify history. As a minor, but significant, example, the number of the hostages killed by the rescuers at the siege was officially 139, but in reality, as accurately recorded by Politkovskaya, 200.

Attempts by the Russian government at falsification of the historical record, or disguising what really happened, are a trademark of Putinism. The suppression of the truth of the Chechnya war was deliberate policy, intended to hide the lawless anarchy created in Chechnya, the war crimes committed by the Russian military, and the mass murder of the civilian population. In A Dirty War, published in 2001, and A Small Corner of Hell, in 2003, Politkovskaya wrote about what was really happening there. On the blanket of secrecy she commented: “The time of Putin is the time of silence about what’s most important in this country.”

Putin’s Russia, in 2004, is about a man who, as the book’s blurb says, had marketed himself as an open, enlightened leader eager to engage with the West. Unlike many European and American journalists and politicians, Anna distrusted Putin’s press image, and set about dismantling it, arguing that he is a product of his own history, and so is unable to prevent himself from stifling civil liberties at every turn. The following passage from the book discloses the sense of moral outrage that was the inspiration for the best of her journalism. She relates how a missile bombardment on a farmstead, in April 2004, killed everyone there – a mother and her five children – and writes:

Why do I so dislike Putin? Because the years are passing. This summer it will be five since the second Chechen War was instigated. It shows no sign of ending. At the time the babies [killed in the bombardment] were yet unborn, but all the murders of children since 1999 in bombardments and purges remain unsolved, uninvestigated by the institutions of law and order. The infanticides have never had to stand where they belong, in the dock; Putin, that great “friend of all children”, has never demanded that they should. The Army continues to rampage in Chechnya as it was allowed to at the beginning of the war, as if its operations were being conducted on a training ground empty of people.

This massacre of the innocents did not raise a storm in Russia. Not one television station in Russia broadcast images of the five little Chechens who had been slaughtered. The Minister of Defence did not resign. He is a personal friend of Putin and is even seen as a possible successor in 2008. The head of the Air Force was not sacked. The Commander-in-Chief himself made no speech of condolence…and in Russia all was quiet.

Why do I so dislike Putin? This is precisely why. I dislike him for a matter-of-factness worse than felony, for his cynicism, for his racism, for his lies, for the gas he used in the Nord-Ost siege, for the massacre of the innocents which went on throughout his first term as President.

This is how I see it.

It was passion and honesty, as well as Anna Politkovskaya’s undoubted courage, which made her Russia’s greatest journalist in her lifetime. I once so described her on an internet forum; a Russian wrote to inform me that she was not well regarded in her own country, and moreover my opinion was in bad taste. I had not intended to praise the quality of her journalism so much as the indomitable spirit which informed it, the shining courage which made her so necessary to her profession in the time in which she lived. Russian people in general are still unaware, no doubt, that they lost a truly heroic figure in October 2006. Her books remain unpublished in Russia, I believe.

Her last book, published posthumously in February this year, is entitled A Russian Diary. In the foreword the broadcaster Jon Snow writes: “For many of us who continue to aspire to the highest standards of journalism, Anna Politkovskaya will remain a beacon burning bright, a yardstick by which integrity, courage and commitment will be measured.”

Politkovskaya’s bravery was remarkable. There were many recorded instances, of which one is referred to by Matthew Evangelista, in his 2002 book, The Chechen Wars:

In February 2001 she travelled to Chechnya to investigate stories of mass detentions in underground pits, torture, and summary executions. Not only did she verify the stories, but she herself was arrested by the FSB and threatened with rape and “execution”. Unbowed, she continued to issue critical reports about the behaviour of Russian forces in Chechnya.

Evangelista continues:

In October 2001 Politkovskaya had to flee the country after receiving threats on her life. She had published more controversial articles on the Chechen War, including the interview with [the Russian war criminal, General Vladimir] Shamanov. In September she wrote about alleged summary executions and torture committed by a unit of Interior Ministry troops in Grozny. The report contained detailed accusations of torture by Sergei Lapin; an officer who allegedly shaved his nickname “Kadet” on the back of the head of Zelimkhan Murdalov, a 26-year-old Chechen man in custody before breaking his arm and thorax and cutting off his right ear. Supposedly transferred to the hospital, Murdalov was never seen again.

Anna did not remain abroad for long, and in spite of information that her life was in danger she returned to Moscow. In October 2002 she was involved in the Dubrovka theatre siege as an intermediary between the Chechen hostage-takers and the would-be liberators. And in September 2004 she was poisoned, almost certainly by the FSB, and hospitalised, en route to Beslan, to prevent her reporting on the events of the school siege and massacre.

After an unconscionably lengthy delay, a parliamentary commission reported on the Beslan tragedy. The report by the Torshin commission was a work of cynical mendacity intended to whitewash the Russian government and its agencies. It was interesting only in showing that the heirs to the Soviet Union’s praesidium, or central committee, are capable of lies intended to falsify, to the Russian people and the world, the historical record of what really happened, and to hide the crimes of the officials who ordered the assault on the school knowing that hostage deaths would be the inevitable consequence.

It was therefore with a sense of being lied to yet again that, at the end of August, I watched on the Russia Today TV channel the hour-long press conference given by the Russian prosecutor-general, Yuri Chaika, in which he announced that the investigation into the murder of Anna Politkovskaya was complete, that the guilty were under arrest, that there was a Chechen trail, and that an unnamed person living abroad was identified as having ordered the murder.

I don’t think so. The person who ordered the murder had a motive, and that person is to be found in Russia or in Chechnya. It is unlikely that he will be named by the unconvincing Mr Chaika, since he doesn’t know who it is – or, if he does, is not going to tell us for fear of a bullet or two.

The Hero of Russia title and medal replaced the Soviet equivalent in 1992, since when an unknown number of persons have received the honour. In her book, A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya, Anna Politkovskaya wrote of “Russia’s secret heroes”:

I had two very simple questions. The first was, How many soldiers have received state awards for their participation in the Second Chechen War? And the second was, How many of them earned the Hero of Russia title?

The Information Department sent me to the Putin administration’s Department of Government Awards. “That information is classified,” the assistants firmly stated, categorically refusing me any chance to talk with the bosses of their departments. “It’s not subject to disclosure.”

“But that’s absurd!” I objected. “Why are the Hero of Russia and other awards confidential?”

“For the protection of those who receive these awards,” came yet another cryptic response.

Anna Politkovskaya was not nominated to receive the Hero of Russia award. In any case she would have declined the title, which has been much dishonoured by being awarded to unworthy men.

Her lasting contribution and her title to greatness are in this ironic truth: that her record of what really happened in her country under President Putin will stand. The falsehoods and secrecy promulgated by the corrupt men who now rule in Russia will not stand. The eventual verdict of history on the Putin presidency will be as it was recorded by the courageous, lone woman journalist who died a martyr to the truth, one year ago.

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