Who Killed Anna Politkovskaya?


In 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:

‘People 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:

‘People 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:

‘Politkovskaya? Never heard of her.’

Politkovskaya 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 her.

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,

‘In 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,

‘It 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.

Politkovskaya’s 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 row.

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,

Politkovskaya’s 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 beneficiary.

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?

October 19, 2006