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Revisiting: Anna Politkovskaya

Anna Politkovskaya: Read Her Books to Understand Today’s Russia

Anna Politkovskaya: Read Her Books to Understand Today’s Russia

This is an article I wrote for the old Yahoo! 360 back in 2008. Currently, I am reading Is Journalism Worth Dying For? Final Dispatches.

I have just had a harrowing experience, having finished reading Anna Politkovskaya’s A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya. We don’t hear much about Chechnya these days: Vladimir Putin has succeeded in muddying the waters by getting us all to regard the entire civilian population of the province as Muslim terrorists. Based on Politkovskaya’s reportage, there are actually four groups of terrorists in Chechnya:

  1. The actual terrorist bands themselves, highly mobile groups widely dispersed in the mountains of Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Daghestan.
  2. The Chechen civilian government under the Russians, which cynically exploits the suffering of the local population for financial gain.
  3. Contract soldiers, the Russian equivalent of Blackwater, which is a force on its own. They maintain pseudo-checkpoints which are simply an excuse for mayhem.
  4. The Russian Army itself, which authorizes local “cleansing” operations, consisting of robbery, torture, rape, and murder without being held responsible to anyone. Also, Russian soldiers themselves are frequently the victims of other units which have a bone to pick with them.

Running through the book are a series of stories about the Grozny Old Peoples’ Home. Most of the sick, elderly tenants are Russians, not Chechens; Russian Orthodox, not Islamic. Yet the residents are treated by all parties as the enemy. Politkovskaya (photograph above) wrote several articles explaining their plight, checking back with them every few months. They had no food or medical care, and were afraid to venture outside for fear of running afoul of armed parties of any description.

The only hospital in bombed-out Grozny had a few volunteer doctors, but no medicines. Such medications as were sent from Moscow were intercepted by the Chechen [pro-Russian] civilian government and sold on the black market.

When there were too many casualties in a Russian army operation, it was not unusual for the wounded to be taken not to a nearby military hospital, but to a more distant civilian hospital where there was no electricity, no medications, and only a skeleton staff. Whether they live or die, they are considered as deserters and therefore do not adversely affect any Russian officer’s military reputation. Many of the wounded soldiers die without identification, leading their families to spend years and a small fortune trying to find out what happened to their sons. (I wonder if this sort of thing was also going on [during the Soviet occupation of] Afghanistan.)

If you leave your apartment in Grozny, be very careful. You might find well-hidden anti-personnel mines at your doorstep or even within the apartment. This is a common cause of death throughout Chechnya.

When Politkovskaya encountered particularly obnoxious politicians or generals, she would publish their cell phone numbers in the Novaya Gazeta, for whom she worked at that time, and urge people to say to their face what they thought of them.

As one could expect, a woman like this makes lots of powerful enemies. On October 7, 2006, the crusading journalist was shot to death in the elevator on the way to her apartment in Moscow. After an “investigation” of sorts, no guilty party was found. Vladimir Putin, who most likely ordered the assassination, points the finger at some unnamed gunman from the West. After all, he says, she had no influence in Russia: Her audience were mostly liberals in Europe and America.

Politkovskaya was a singularly brave journalist and paid the ultimate price for it. Compare them to American journalists who were supinely complicit in the atrocities of the Bush-Cheney administration. No awards for courage there.