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?