I have this week’s edition of Novaya gazeta in front of me. The cover is all black with a center photo of Anna Politkovskaya. Above the photo it simply says “Anya.” There is a short editorial at the bottom of the page. It begins, “She was beautiful. She only became more beautiful with age. Do you know why? At first we receive our face from God unfinished, and then we make it ourselves. That is how we live. Still they say, in maturity the soul begins to appear on the face. Her soul was beautiful.”
Anna Politkovskaya’s murder has sent shockwaves not only across the Russian body politic, but the world. Almost every newspaper in Moscow had her murder as their cover story. Many of Russia’s state owned television channels heaped praise on Politkovskaya. They may have ignored her in life, but her tragic death couldn’t be so easily swept under the rug. Even NTV quickly reported the murder as political. Its evening Sunday talk show Voskresenyi vecher devoted a half an hour of its programming to discuss the murder, speculated on who committed it, and the threat it poses to the Russian press. Suggestions ranged from the Putin administration, nationalists and fascists, and Razman Kadyrov, the young Prime Minister of Chechnya and Putin proxy.
It is difficult to capture the Politkovskaya’s courage in words. She was a rare breed of journalist in Russia, who braved and eventually gave her own life to report on human rights violations in Chechnya and her native Russia. Internationally known, she has three books in English: A Small Corner in Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya (2003), A Dirty War (2004), and Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy (2005). The latter was not published in Russia because of its harsh criticism of the Putin’s rule. What separates her books from most journalistic accounts is not the acerbic words she uses to condemn those who don’t hesitate to stomp on humanity; it is the deep humanism that pervades her prose. While violence may dehumanize her subjects, often to a bloody pulp, she resurrects them to their full humanity. This is an art in any language let alone in Russian journalism where the cost for telling the truth has now become the lives of 42 journalists since 1992.
Details of her murder are brutal. On Saturday afternoon Politkovskaya was returning from Ramstore, a Moscow supermarket chain. She brought up two bags of groceries to her apartment and went down to fetch the remaining three bags. As she stepped out the elevator, the killer shot her four times. Twice in the heart. Once in the shoulder. Though the first two killed her instantly, the shooter let one final bullet into her head.
Her neighbors didn’t hear anything because the killer used an Izh pistol with a silencer. He dropped the pistol at the scene. The weapon had its serial number filed off. A neighbor discovered Politkovskaya’s body five minutes later at 4:15 pm. Needless to say, the murder was a professional hit.
The apartment building surveillance cameras captured the shooter but only from the back. It is being compared to video from the Ramstore cameras in hopes to getting his identity. The killer was a male, 180 cm tall in dark clothes. Police were able to compose a sketch from witnesses from a nearby pharmacy. There is talk that he was aided by a female.
There is no doubt that Politkovskaya’s work was the reason for her death. More than anyone she exposed Russian terror, either direct or by proxy, in Chechnya. She dared to speak when everyone else was silent. She was an opera singer among the tone deaf. Her bravery poured out of the last letters she wrote. The last article she published in Novaya gazeta was titled “Vindictive Collusion” (No. 74, 28 September) she wrote, according to Kommersant,
“Most of the followers of Kadyrov, Yamadaev and Kakiev are fighting on the side of the federal forces to avoid blood vengeance or to take vengeance,” she wrote. “Members of those divisions are involved in the same kidnappings and commit torture and murder. Their cruelty has long been comparable to the death squads’ of Russian officers in the special services, but their activities are more selective.” Specific cases of kidnapping, with the names of those she considered their perpetrators—fighters and heads of the law enforcement structures controlled by Ramzan Kadyrov, were given in the article.
It is this type of reporting that makes many think that Politkovskaya’s murder is connected to, if not was directly ordered by, Ramzan Kadyrov. The Chechen Prime Minister, of course, denied any connection to the murder stating, “Despite not always objective character of Anna Politkovskaya’s materials about Chechnya, I sincerely and humanly feel sorry for the journalist,” adding “to suppose [Chechen involvement] without any reason and serious proof means to argue at the level of rumors and gossips; it does not adorn neither the press nor politicians.” Kadyrov’s 30th birthday this past weekend was met with much fanfare. He opened the new Chechen airport, though it hasn’t been cleared for commercial travel. According to Novaya gazeta, he also used Chechen police paychecks to buy a $450,000 Ferrari. Many newspapers are also declaring that turning 30 has opened his path to the Chechen presidency.
Putin remained silent until the pressure for him to speak became too much. In a televised statement made today (some say three days too late), he promised that “all necessary efforts will be made for an objective investigation into the tragic death,” calling the murder “an unacceptable crime that cannot go unpunished.” Hopefully this statement is enough to stir the Russian police out of complacency.
Politkovskaya’s enemies were many. Kommersant and Izvestiia are now reporting there are three main theories to her murder. One is a conspiracy by opponents of Kadyrov and Putin. The idea is that Politkovskaya’s murder would undermine both Putin’s and Kadyrov’s authority. The conspiracy involves Boris Berezovsky as the mastermind. The second is that corrupt police officers from the Siberian city of Nizhnvartovsk had the journalist murdered because her investigation of their brutality in 2001 led to their imprisonment. Finally, there is the theory that influential Chechens, most likely connected to Kadyrov, had her killed in revenge from her reporting on Chechnya. Lesser theories include the involvement of fascists, nationalists, and others who have been angered by her muckraking reporting and polemical positions. Given the Russian propensity for conspiracy theories, I’m sure the Jews will surface as potential culprits at some point. As for real progress on the killing, the business daily reports that little headway has been made.
Anna Politkovskaya was buried today in Troekurovskoe Cemetery. Two thousand people attended. Her reporting angered many but that’s what good journalism is supposed to do. Many loved her and her work despite her detractors. Hundreds of people have left flowers at her Moscow apartment. Others are demanding that the Russian government make the case a priority. Her newspaper, Novaya gazeta has offered a $1 million reward for information leading to the killer’s capture.
In her final interview with Radio Svobodna on September 28, Politkovskaya had one wish: “Personally I only have one dream for Kadyrov’s birthday: I dream of him someday sitting in the dock, in a trial that meets the strictest legal standards, with all of his crimes listed and investigated.”
If that day ever comes, it will because of all the work she did. Rest well, Anya.