Red October: Killing the Truth in Moscow



Early October can be dismal in Moscow. The short, harsh summer is over, the brief and beautiful refreshment of September has passed, yet the snow — in which the city has its deepest life — has not yet come. Instead there is often miasma: gray days pocked with rain or fog, vague and ragged days, neither autumn nor winter but suspended in a limbo state.

They say last Saturday was just such a day in Moscow: tepid, damp, fog through the morning, clouds all afternoon, a limp breeze pushing at the torpor. The muffled sunlight would have just begun draining toward night when a young man — dressed in black, carrying a 9mm Makarov pistol — approached the non-descript apartment building at 18/13 Lesnaya Street. His target was in sight: a woman, early middle age, laden with groceries, walking toward the door. A few stray lines of the setting sun might have split the clouds as he moved toward her — or perhaps it stayed dim, miasmic. He wouldn’t have noticed in any case: the door was open, they were inside, the pistol was out, he fired — a few shots to the body, one to the head; the woman fell. Her life was gone; the job was done. He dropped the pistol, as he’d been taught to do, and left the scene. It was, they say, about 4:30 in the afternoon.

That’s how Russia’s leading journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, came to die last week. Many details of the death are still unclear — and as the Russian authorities launch their usual "thorough investigation" of yet another reporter’s murder, no doubt the details will grow more and more muddled, more vague and ragged, until the chain of accountability leading back to the real culprits, the instigators of the hit, is lost in the murk. All we will be left with is this stark, basic fact: one of the world’s most fearless voices for truth and human decency has been silenced forever.


Who was Anna Politkovskaya? Although her death generated a spate of headlines in the Western media — usually some variant of "Fierce Putin Critic Slain" — neither her name nor her work was widely known outside Russia. She occasionally had a column in the Washington Post — usually whenever the prevailing political winds from the White House turned temporarily cool toward the Kremlin leader whose "soul" George W. Bush had mystically seen into and embraced in 2001. Her devastating book-length critique — Putin’s Russia — was first published in the UK in 2004 but didn’t appear in the U.S. until late last year, to little effect.

Yet inside Russia, Politkovskaya — a 48-year-old reporter working for Novaya Gazeta, one of the last genuinely independent papers in the country — had come to be regarded by many as "the conscience of the nation." This is a role that Russian society has long required in its public life, from the time of the Tsars through the Soviet period to the oil-state authoritarianism of today: some prominent figure to serve — in the absence of viable civic structures — as a moral counterbalance to the ruthless machinations and arbitrary will of the ruling cliques. It has been filled by such people as Lev Tolstoy, Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner.

Politkovskaya was thrust into this ever-dangerous role by the simple expedient of reporting truthfully about what she saw and heard: in the killing fields of Chechnya; in the drab kitchens of families broken by torture, kidnappings, beatings, murders; in the anguished, fearful voices of the Russian Army’s own young recruits, brutalized, robbed and abused by their own officers; in the courtrooms and command posts and corridors of power, where death-dealing corruption flows like a river of raw sewage overtopping its banks in all directions.

Like so many of Russia’s "consciences," Politkovskaya came from a relatively privileged background. She was actually born in New York City, the daughter of Soviet diplomats posted to the UN, although she returned to Russia at the age of five. As the daughter of diplomats, she had access to banned books, was sent to the best Soviet schools, later worked as a writer for top Soviet institutions: the national newspaper Izvestiya, then the in-house paper of Aeroflot, the Soviet airline. It was the latter job that opened her eyes to the reality of her native land, she told the Guardian in 2004:

"Every [Aeroflot] journalist got a free ticket all year round; you could go on any plane and fly wherever you wanted. Thanks to this I saw the whole of our huge country. I was a girl from a diplomatic family, a reader, a bit of a swot; I didn’t know life at all."

When Mikhail Gorbachev began his momentous reforms in 1985, Politkovskaya took her newly-acquired knowledge of Russia’s depth and breadth to the independent papers then blossoming, as the Guardian reports. There she documented the world-shaking collapse of the Soviet Union, and the tumultuous casino of the Yeltsin years, with its volatile mix of new personal and political freedoms, extreme social turmoil, rampant criminality and clueless drifting at the center of power. She was there for the first Chechen War, Yeltsin’s botched and furiously brutal campaign that ended in ignominious defeat.

She was there too for the sudden and perplexing rise of the bland-faced former KGB apparatchik, Vladimir Putin. Anointed, out of nowhere, as Yeltsin’s successor, Putin put an end to Kremlin drift, steadied the social turmoil somewhat, curbed some of the rampant criminality, and curtailed, often severely, the political freedoms that flourished briefly — and ineffectually — in the post-Soviet era. But above all, Putin was determined to renew the attack on Chechnya and eradicate the results of the earlier debacle. Indeed, as Politkovskaya reported, this unrelenting and ruthless new war would be the basis upon which Putin would establish his presidential dictatorship and the overwhelming dominance of his political faction.

Politkovskaya once said the First Chechen War was "the Russian media’s greatest achievement." Dozens of brave reporters waded into the conflict, reporting from the front lines — and from behind the lines — documenting atrocities on both sides, bearing witness to the homicidal frenzy that razed Grozny to the ground, and to the murderous incompetence and brutality of the Russian military leaders. They brought the war into Russia’s living rooms, and as in Vietnam, the folks back home were shocked to see what was being done in their names.

But the Second Chechen War — Putin’s war — was the Russian media’s greatest shame, said Politkovskaya. Putin was determined to control the media presentation. Independent reporting was virtually banned, although approved "embeds" could join Russian forces and report back gritty but ultimately uplifting reports of the "battle against the terrorists." Those few reporters who went their own way, like Politkovskaya, found themselves balked at nearly every turn, and in danger from both Russian forces and Chechen freebooters, as the war drove extremism on both sides to new levels of virulence. But again and again, she brought back the goods — the facts — and laid them out before the people. And she kept going back to Chechnya in the war’s aftermath, recording the new crimes and atrocities of the thuggish regime of Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, installed as the local boss-man by the Kremlin.

In fact, Politkovskaya’s last story for Novaya Gazeta — which she was finishing on the day she was murdered — was another carefully documented piece about torture under the Kadyrov regime. The story will probably not appear now, the paper’s editors said. Russian police have confiscated her computer and all her files as part of the murder investigation, while key bits of photographic evidence backing up the story have mysteriously disappeared, the Moscow Times reports.


That’s who Anna Politkovskaya was: a reporter, a mother (of two grown children), a bearer of national conscience. But why was she killed? Who sent the "tall young man wearing dark clothing and a black baseball cap" captured on cameras in the foyer of the building, as the Moscow Times reports?

Early suspicion in the West has fallen heavily on Putin; that was the clear implication of the many headlines and stories that identified Politkovskaya largely (and sometimes solely) as a "Putin critic." But whatever else you can say about this inscrutable little man, he is not stupid. And Politkovskaya’s murder would be a stupid move indeed for Putin to make; it would bring him little or no benefit, and a great deal of unwelcome heat at a critical moment.

Politkovskaya had been criticizing Putin for years — to no avail, in practical, political terms. For example, this summer — long after her book had been published — Putin played genial host to the G-8 leaders in yet another of their grandiose, meaningless confabs. They were glad to come wine and dine with Vlad, to grip and grin with him for cozy photos, to accord him all the respect due to the leader of a great power — i.e., one with nukes and oodles of oil. Politkovskaya’s years of revelations about the depredations of his rule had obviously cut no ice with the great and good. Anyway, she was known mostly for writing about Chechnya; and to Bush, Blair and other leaders of the "developed" world, Chechnya is now considered just another front in the "war on terror," with Vlad fighting the good fight against "worldwide Islamofascism" (or whatever the term of propaganda art is these days). If he has to play a little rough with those evildoers, well, that’s just what a Commander-in-Chief has to do sometimes to defend national security, right?

Given the West’s tacit countenancing of atrocities in Chechnya, and its indifference to Politkovskaya’s revelations — not to mention her increasing marginalization in the Kremlin-dominated Russian media itself — her life posed no real threat to Putin. But her death makes her a martyr, and is already dredging up some of her long-ignored attacks on his regime. And this comes at a time when Putin is making a major play to secure a prominent — if not dominant — role for Russia in Europe’s energy market, as well as playing hardball in "renegotiations" of deals with Western oil giants. Why make trouble for yourself by having the "national conscience" bumped off in such a conspicuous way?

Kadyrov is also a prime suspect, and a somewhat more likely one, although here again, with the Kremlin backing him he was unlikely to suffer any serious damage from Politkovskaya’s stories, and ordering a hit would have been a stupid move on his part too. Then again, thuggish warlords who collaborate in the repression of their own people are not exactly immune from stupidity. Other suspects include the ever-corrupt Russian Army, which has often benefited from the sudden demise of reporters who were looking too closely at its operations; or one of the nation’s criminal clans; or the ultranationalist groups which had placed Politkovskaya on a death list for her "anti-Russian" attacks on the nation’s leader, as the Moscow Times reports.

Speculation can even extend to forces trying to make Putin look bad — agents of Georgia or Ukraine, perhaps, both now being pressured heavily by Moscow; or those Western oil giants, looking for leverage against Putin’s hardball, or maybe a CIA black op to bring him into line on a Security Council squeeze play against Iran. Such is the murk that envelops not only the Russian state but the entire grand chessboard of geopolitics today that anything is possible, and most of it is plausible. When "developed" democracies officially embrace torture and aggressive war, flouting the very notion of law while their leaders, like Dick Cheney, talk openly of "going to the dark side," is it any wonder that conspiracy theories flourish at every turn?

And in this new world order of "dark siders" ruling by fear, force and lies, is it any wonder that an unarmed teller of unwanted truths would be gunned down in the miasma of a Moscow October?

Anyone who craves light in this universal darkness, who prefers hard fact to the blood-soaked fantasies of presidential dictators, anyone who honors courage in the service of knowledge and compassion should mourn the death of Anna Politkovskaya — and take inspiration from her remarkable life.