Who Killed Anna Politkovskaya?

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C. S. Lewis’ science fiction dystopia, That
Hideous Strength
, the secretive organization which controls
the state has its agents writing in newspapers on all sides of the
political spectrum, in order to disguise its power with the appearance
of plurality. In today’s West, by contrast, even the appearance
of plurality seems to have been discarded.

The murder
on 7th October of the Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, was
greeted with the monolithic unanimity which has now become the hallmark
of the so-called free press in the West. The right-wing Daily
Telegraph devoted a leader to her murder on 9th October, the
first sentence of which was:

sometimes pay with their lives for saying out loud what they think,’
Anna Politkovskaya said last year of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The same day,
the left-wing Guardian also published a leader about her
murder. Its first sentence read:

sometimes pay with their lives for saying out loud what they think,’
Anna Politkovskaya told a conference on press freedom last December.

The whole of
the British, American and West European press extolled Politkovskaya
as ‘one of Russia’s bravest and most brilliant journalists’
(The Guardian), ‘one of the few voices that dared contradict
the party line’ (The Daily Telegraph), ‘a firebrand
for freedom’ (The Independent), ‘the most famous
investigative journalist in Russia’ (The Times), ‘one
of the bravest journalists [in Russia]’ (The New York Times);
‘a victim of rare courage’ (The Washington Post).
All these quotes are from the leader articles which each paper thought
worth devoting to her death. In reality, Politkovskaya was virtually
unknown in Russia. The reaction of a wealthy Russian businessman
dining in Brussels on the night of her murder was typical:

Never heard of her.’

in this respect resembles another murdered Russian-speaking journalist
with connections in the Caucasus, Georgiy Gongadze, the Ukrainian
citizen with a Georgian surname whose murder in 2000 was instrumentalized
by the United States in an attempt to implicate the then Ukrainian
president, Leonid Kuchma. Politkvskaya was not quite as obscure
as Gongadze: he ran a mere web site (although this meant that when
he traveled to Washington DC he was received by the Secretary of
State, Madeleine Albright) while the newspaper where she worked,
Novaya Gazeta, had a circulation of 250,000. Still, that
is not much in a country of nearly 150 million inhabitants and certainly
not enough to merit the exaggerated praise heaped posthumously upon

The media in
Britain and America also competed with one another to lay the blame
for the murder squarely at President Putin’s door. The Financial
Times announced that,

a broad sense, Mr. Putin bears responsibility for creating, through
the Kremlin’s long-standing assault on the independent media,
an atmosphere in which such killings can happen.’

The Washington
Post asserted pompously that,

is quite possible, without performing any detective work, to say
what is ultimately responsible for these deaths: It is the climate
of brutality that has flourished under Mr. Putin.’

All papers
implied that Mrs. Politkovskaya had been killed by allies of the
Russian President for reporting the truth about the war in Chechnya.
According to them, Russia is a quasi-dictatorship in which the government
brooks no dissent, and they illustrated this by referring back –
albeit in strangely vague terms – to the number of other journalists
who have been victims of similar contract killings.

It is here
that we can put our fingers firmly on the page and shout, ‘Liars!’
Some of these articles contained glancing references to the last
journalist to have been killed in Moscow, the American editor of
Forbes magazine, Paul Klebnikov, but none of them bothered
to add the key rider that no one has ever suggested that
the Russian government had Klebnikov murdered. On the contrary:

whereas Politkovskaya
was an anti-Putin militant, Klebnikov was an anti-oligarch militant.
He wrote a brilliant book about Boris Berezovsky – one of
the most informative books about Russia’s ‘transition’
in the 1990s, in which he accused Berezovsky of murder and of
being hand in glove with Chechen drug lords and gangsters –
and he published a series of interviews with one of the Chechen
separatist leaders, which he undiplomatically entitled ‘Conversations
with a barbarian’. He was rewarded for his efforts with a
bullet in the head. When he died, there were no paeans of praise
for his bravery or courage in the Western press, even though he
was an American, for Klebnikov had devoted his life to arguing
that the West’s policy in Russia is based on an alliance
with very serious criminals, and that the ‘businessmen’
whom the West champions as freedom fighters – Berezovsky
has political asylum in Britain – are in fact a bunch of
ruthless murderers.

In contrast
to both Klebnikov and Politkovskaya, the one murdered Russian journalist
whom all Russians had heard of when he died – and whose name
is virtually unknown in the West – was Vlad Listyev.

When he fell
under the assassin’s bullets on the night of 1st March 1995,
Listyev was Russia’s most popular talk show host and one of
the most trusted people in the country – a genuine TV superstar.
He had just become director of Russia’s main TV channel, ORT
(now First Channel). In spite of Listyev’s immense fame, the
Western media never cited his murder as an example of the lawlessness
or intolerance of the then president, Boris Yeltsin, in the way
that they now attack Putin. This is doubtless because – to
use the charming euphemisms of Wikipedia – ‘When
Listyev put the middlemen advertising agencies out of business,
he deprived many corrupt businessmen of a source for enormous profits.’
In plain English, this means that most Russians believe that Listyev
was murdered either by Boris Berezovsky – who took control
of ORT immediately after Listyev’s murder, and in large measure
because of it – or by Vladimir Guzinski, a rival TV magnate
who, like Berezovsky, is a Yeltsin-era oligarch now in exile. The
only journalist from the West who did discuss openly whether the
contract to kill Listyev had come from Berezovsky, Guzinsky or Berezovsky’s
ally, the advertising mogul, Sergei Lisovsky, was, oddly enough,
Paul Klebnikov.

colleagues on Novaya Gazeta include notorious pro-American
commentators like the ‘independent Moscow-based defense analyst,’
Pavel Felgenhauer, whose also works as a columnist for the Jamestown
Foundation: the Director of that body, Glen Howard, is Executive
Director of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, a neo-con
outfit which campaigns for a ‘political settlement’ with
the terrorists in that North Caucasus province of the Russian federation.
This may explain why you can find only one opinion about Politkovskaya
in the Western media. At the same time, by contrast, there is a
huge variety of opinions about her murder in supposedly dictatorial
Russia itself. The theories now circulating in Moscow about Politkovskaya’s
murder include (apart from the claim that the Russian government
or the Chechen authorities were responsible):

  • revenge
    by corrupt police who found themselves wanted or in prison as
    a result of her sensationalist journalism;
  • a conspiracy
    by opponents of the Russian president and the Chechen Prime Minister,
    Ramzan Kadyrov, to discredit them;
  • revenge
    by former Chechen militants;
  • a murder
    carried out by Russian nationalist opponents of Putin (her name
    was on the death-lists of various neo-Nazi groups);
  • a political
    provocation designed to discredit the Chechen authorities or trigger
    some movement in that troublesome province;
  • or a conspiracy
    by opponents of Russia from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia
    with which Moscow is currently engaged in a fierce diplomatic

Take your pick
– but the sheer variety of points of view gives the lie to
the claim that Politkovskaya was fighting a monolithic media machine
controlled by the government.

Among the many
points of view expressed, few were pithier than this one from a
commentator for Lentacom.ru,

murder spells unambiguous benefits for the West. The past month
saw massive unofficial clampdown on Russia. Take the attempts
to pull Ukraine into NATO. Take the alliance’s “intensive
dialogue” with Georgia. Take Saakashvili’s behavior
[the President of Georgia], very humiliating for Russia, which
has been certainly agreed with the West. Theoretically, Politkovskaya’s
murder diverts attention from Georgia and builds up western pressures
on Russia, something today’s Georgia can only benefit from.
Yet, I believe that those who had ordered the crime are more global.
There is no immediate evidence somebody in the West issued direct
instructions. It is beyond doubt, though, that the West is a direct

One does not
have to believe this conspiracy theory, or any of the others. But
at least if one is Russian, the consumer of news has a large number
of different points of view to consider, all of which are easily
accessible to the ordinary Russian by buying the newspaper or looking
at the Internet. In the West, by contrast, even the most assiduous
conspiracy theorist will have great difficulty finding anything
other than the party line that Mr. Putin did it. Now, what does
that tell you about the state of political and media pluralism in
the West?

19, 2006

Laughland [send him
] is a trustee of the British
Helsinki Human Rights Group
and an associate of Sanders
. Reprinted from Sanders
Research Associates
with permission.

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