Politkovskaya, Immortal

The Observer reviews a new collection (buy it here) of the reporting of Anna Politkovskaya (hat tip:  reader “Robert”):

The bravery is endlessly invoked, the “fanatical courage” hymned with an almost religious fervour. Anna Politkovskaya, nearly four years after her murder, is not forgotten. She is one reporter whose words will long be “held in awe”, as Helena Kennedy says in her introduction. She is the voice of conscience faced with brutal inhumanity and the peril that goes with it. But this superb collection of the pieces she wrote for Novaya gazeta adds another dimension. It measures her as a journalist against other journalists round the world. It reveals a superb original technician.

How do you best write a print story these days? American academics, as usual, debate technique as though it were holy writ. Who, what, when, and where all in the first paragraph, a trail of relevance slowly diminishing towards a tedious close: that’s the way our newspaper forefathers who worked in lead type deemed best. Just give us the facts up top. And make sure we can cut lumps of type from the end if we need to. But does this matter in an era of digital setting where anything comes and goes at the press of a button?

Anna’s way is conversational, direct. “These are appalling stories,” she begins her files from Chechnya. And they are. “An amnesty is a good thing and hope is always better than no hope, but how is the ‘2006 Amnesty’ for resistance fighters proceeding in the North Caucasus?” she starts one of her longest, most damning stories, and at once we’re in the thick of it. “I hate battle pieces,” she explains in one throat-catching opening. “In paintings, as in life, detail is what matters most. How we react to the tragedy of one small person accurately reflects our attitude towards a whole nationality”: and here is a bewildered orphan girl surrounded by slaughter.

Politkovskaya never relents, never holds back. Her revulsion for the wild men of the Red Army as they rape and kill, for the corrupt warlords who take over in Grozny, for Vladimir Putin and his value-free Russia, for fellow journalists who play fellow travellers, is constant and corrosive. The BBC Trust would have a “fairness and balance” collywobble if she’d put any of this on air. She almost pleads not to be believed because she is so close to the quagmires of bias. But you also trust what she says, because fact piles unquenchably on fact, name on name, grisly deed on deed.

Anna Politkovskaya was the reporter as human being. Because we knew her, because we trusted her vision, revered her energy, we needed no denials of this or corrections of that. We were immersed in a land of terror where standard checks and balances were simply beside the point, because what Anna saw was all that mattered.

This brilliance, this passion, is one reason why, years later, a collection of old newspaper articles can still make you stop, choke, pause to wipe away a tear. How can it be that Chechen women turned suicide bombers? “They chose to die rather than go on living, unable to defend their sons, brothers, or husbands.” They saw their neighbours lured home from hiding, and killed. They were immersed in a war on terror that was also their war.

If you want to comprehend terror beyond the glib mantras of politicians – or its al-Qaida videos – then Anna is your guide. And if you want to go further, and do something yourself? Then perhaps we have the ultimate Politkovskaya tragedy. “Is journalism worth the loss of a life?” she asked in 2003, and answered, of course, that it was. “Every successive attack on a journalist in Russia – and by tradition nobody ever gets caught – relentlessly reduces the number working because they want to fight for justice.”

So she herself died, and the trail of murders and beatings and inquiries goes on, so that irony builds on irony to complete another sort of tragedy. For Anna also saw something beyond words on a page. She wanted much more than a prize for this or a citation for that. She didn’t want to be some totem for freedom of expression. She wanted to make a real difference. She wanted deeds more than flattering words. And it is hard to pretend, at the end of this haunting compilation, her death unsolved, her warnings unheeded, that words alone are enough. She had the courage, but whatever became of it?

8 responses to “Politkovskaya, Immortal

  1. Anna wrote for her country what ever she thought shall be written to open the eyes of her compatriots. Russians are not heartless, their hearts break (are being broken) easily one after another, since they just get born into a poor, lazy society of liars and such Annas among them become exceptional heroes because it’s hard to grow up and stay like her in such a different society soaked with lies from the top to the bottom. Glad to see her mission respected here and everythere.

  2. The BBC Trust would have a “fairness and balance” collywobble if she’d put any of this on air. She almost pleads not to be believed because she is so close to the quagmires of bias. But you also trust what she says, because fact piles unquenchably on fact, name on name, grisly deed on deed.

    Oh, indeed, the Western polite smilers can’t believe or/and can’t admit that Anna does not lie, that she does not exaggerate for fun of it, that she says what she sees. They won’t see such things in the smiling West, not such things going on for centuries, not such shameless reactions of those in power, not such percieved helplessness and despair of unorganized masses completely disrespected by those in power, nothing like that. Therefore the Western smilers can be such ignorant (or rather pretending that they don’t know – don’t see – don’t believe) Russophiles so easily.

  3. Ivan Alekseyevich Gorbenko

    Jurate, I kind of agree with you on some points. But on the other hand, Russians are heartless anyway because they allow this to be done with them. Also regarding “western” smilers, I also agree that it happens sometimes. But please don’t forget that Politkovskaya was recently published ONLY in the West. So, she actually got money from western publishers and western buyers of her books. In Russia she was bullied. And I did not notice that many Russians tried to protect her. Politically, she was actually killed in Russia much more earlier than actual crime took place.
    Western civilization is actually very humane and very kind. People smile because it makes life easier. I wonder how many people died in Russia because of grim faces? Everything is bleak and grim there almost everywhere where humans are. You actually want to do something terrible sometimes only by looking at these terrible things. Like Dostoyevskiy described in “Crime and Punishment”.

  4. I hate Russian bastards

  5. I agree, Ivan. I don’t believe the present Westerners would keep smiling if they’d have to live in Russia without a hope to leave it, in the Russian conditions from their birthday to their death-day. The Russian faces were formed by their lives and I disagree that additional smacking would help them. Rather a try and succeeding not to smack the poor them would prove that the smiles are not fake. The Westerners developed their own societies to the smiling level (they worked for centuries on that) and I am glad and happy that they did – respect. I’m just unhappy that those smilers defend Russia so much withouthaving experienced it (often comparing the incomparable wrongs in their own countries with the Russian wrongs as eqauls) and dismiss the bad things said about Russia as an “incredible slander by some paranoiac”. They naively trust the worst people and their lies in and about Russia, just because lies sound nicer.

  6. last time i was in moscow, in oct—i looked for her books at dom knigi on arbat: nothing.

  7. We have almost never seen journalism at its best. Journalism at its worst is what we see all the time – the slimy pseudery of the BBC, the ranting and rabble-rousing dishonesty of the Murdoch press, the suburban self-righteousness of The Guardian and the NYT. Btu journalism at its best is the engagement of a free man’s mind with the event that surround him/her: Russell on the Crimean war, Mencken on the Scopes trial, Indro Montanelli in Hungary in 1956, Edgar Mowrer and Leopold Schwarzschild on Germany on its way to Nazism, Woodward and Bernstein on Watergate. That is why, even though their writings were made to be used in a morning and forgotten when the crisis had passed, they are still read today and will be read as long as human beings can read a page of text. It is not even necessary that they should be wholly in the right: it could be argued (following Stephen Jay Gould) that Mencken missed some important features of the Scopes trial, or that Woodward and Bernstein were being used by factions in the FBI in its struggle against Nixon appointees. But that is secondary: as long as an honest man or woman records on the page his or her honest reaction to something honestly observed and taken in without fear or favour, honesty will live in the writing and encourage others to live and act accordingly. And now Polikovskaya has joined this company of the elect.

  8. Activists detained ahead of U2’s Moscow concert

    Today at 11:38 | Associated Press

    Moscow police say they detained five activists from rights group Amnesty International who were handing out leaflets to the audience before a concert by Irish band U2.

    Police spokeswoman Zhanna Ozhimina said Thursday the activists were detained because they did not have the necessary authorization. They were released after a few hours.

    The activists were handing out leaflets and urging concert-goers to sign petitions pressing Russian authorities to bring to justice the murderers of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and rights activist Natalya Estemirova.

    Read more: http://www.kyivpost.com/news/russia/detail/79912/#ixzz0xkOOMZ2z

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