A bullet for your thoughts: The murder of Anna Politkovkaya reconsidered

These photos, which ran with Politkovskaya’s last article in Novaya Gazeta on October 12th, are apparently stills from a video shot by a member of Chechnya’s security services, showing how the agents kidnapped and tortured two young men. One of the alleged victims sits in a car, a knife visibly protruding from the area of his ear. The other alleged victim, judging by the circumstances, has been dragged from the car onto the street. The executioners themselves are not visible, but their voices – speaking the Melikhansk dialect of Chechen, and laced with curses - were recorded by the camera’s microphone. Photo: Chechen Security Forces
Novaya Gazeta

Publish date: November 2, 2006

Written by: Charles Digges

In the minutes following the brutal and senseless assassination of Anna Politkovskaya last month, my phone and email were abuzz with the shock and outrage of my former colleagues in the Moscow foreign press corps. Many of them were already busily typing away, collecting theories and interviewing one another about our recollections of the iron lady of Russian journalism. The words on the lips of my western colleagues and me were: “It could have been any one of us.”

But I have been mulling that over for the past few days, asking myself: could it really have been any one of us?

I concluded that – except for special cirmcumstances – I don’t really think so. Such an assertion is really more a statement of solidarity by western journalists with Politkovskaya, as none of us – restricted by our chimerical western journalistic vows to not draw our own conclusions – ever went as far as Politkovskaya did by stating outright in our own publications that President Vladimir Putin is a cynical, racist liar who is directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people, something the old school western press frowns on as “editorialising.”

Instead, we western journalists ignored the fact at hand that Putin is a genocidal and smug dictator, and have relied on a somewhat disingenuous collection of dial-a-quotes that can be ventriloquated to state the obvious unpleasant truth for us – thus avoiding getting poisoned ourselves, as Politkovskaya was in 2004.

The difference between her and the rest of us went beyond that, though. Politkovskaya didn’t just report. She was on the front lines demanding the Russian government put a stop to the horror she witnessed on a daily basis.

She gave lie to the old adage that we western journalists seek refuge in when we are confronted first hand by unspeakable atrocities and do nothing to respond but take out cameras and notebooks: We are here – we tell ourselves – only to get the story, not become part of it.

Such perceived safeguards of “objectivity” did not resonate with Politkovskaya. She constantly crossed the chalk-drawn line between reporter and participant by shuttling messages between Chechens and their relatives in Moscow; by being one of the few Russians – and certainly the only reporter – who tried to negotiate with the Chechen rebels who stormed Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater in 2002, taking the audience hostage; and by negotiating with Russian troops – who were busy bombing Grozny back into the Pleistocene epoch – a safe passage for elderly residents who were pinned down by the ceaseless mortar fire, dropping bombs and roving bands of drunken Russian-uniformed rapists.

In other words, she took the ideal that had pushed us all into reporting in the first place – to make the world a better place – one step further, relying not only on the eloquence of her words, but her willingness to get her hands dirty in the trenches along side her subjects.

By so doing, she dispelled the myth of objectivity that western journalists are taught to hold so dear: The most important canon a reporter should live by – her actions taught us – is not objectivity, but responsibility.

The moral obligation of reporting, regardless of the dangers, is to bear witness – especially when the evidence before your eyes steers you toward a clear bias. You cannot recuse yourself of the truth, because the truth always encompasses more than pure fact.

Reporters are not just purveyors of the facts surrounding events – they are men and women who see these events through their own eyes and react to them. And bias – which is as much a part of the truth as who, what, where, when and why – always slips into the copy of an honest reporter.

I have come to believe that in every story there are NOT always two separate but equally reasonable points of view, especially in Russia, where there are clear villains and thugs and clear victims who have been unremittingly brutalized and desecrated by the Kremlin for 12 years. The ones who hold the power certainly cannot justify, in any reasonable human sense, their documented policy of dictatorial, genocidal slaughter and repression.

Politkovskaya was an example of that principle, and she put it into practice every day, and against all odds, in a country that is now so pervaded by racism, corruption, xenophobia, official hatred of the press and cruelty that it has become a perfect reflection of Putin himself.

She knew this, she wrote about it, and she was shot dead.

Yet, she had the last word in her posthumous article of Thursday October 12th, when her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, published the story she had been completing on the day she was gunned down. The story documents, with letters and photos, the sanctioned torture of civilians under the regime of Kremlin-backed Chechen Premier Razman Kadyrov. One possible motive for her killing was to prevent that story from seeing the light of day.

Another rumor, set aloft by the Kremlin itself, was a that enemies of Kadyrov carried out the killing to besmirch the reputation of the Kremlin and its ultimate good will toward the people of Chechnya. If the Kremlin and its KGB-inspired murderous lot had a good reputation to sully, that would almost be convincing. But its history of corruption, blood lust and, above all, its proven policy to annihilate an entire people make me, for one, call bullshit on Russia’s officialdom and its unending march of euphemisms and outright lies about its plans for the future of Chechnya. Putin needs Chechnya as Big Brother needed popular hatred toward Eurasia (or was it Eastasia) in George Orwell’s”1984.”

It gives Putin an excuse to “wage the war on terror” against a bunch of rag-tag militants and guerillas who have seen their sisters raped, their parents beaten to death with gun stocks, and their homes burned. But Putin knows such excuses are nothing but the racist predispositions of the former KGB spy in his blood – and the melee ongoing in Chechnya is kept off the air by state controlled television, whose coverage the Kremlin dictates line by telepromter line.

But the Chechens have had enough. All that needs to witness that account is the repeated appeals by Chechen leaders for peace talks with Moscow. As Politkovskaya’s final report proved, these talks with Moscow were not forthcoming – only more senseless bloodshed at the Kremlin’s behest, and more and more lies.

Only someone of Politkovskaya’s stature could have leveled these dark, disturbing and thoroughly documented accusations against Russian officialdom from beyond the grave. So one can only greet with a belly laugh – or, better yet, a glob of spit in the Russian president’s eye – that Putin’s assertion to a German newspaper that Politkovskaya’s role in Russia’s political life was “insignificant.”

(This piece, which has formerly published as a blog, has received international attention and has been moved to the main articles section by editorial decision. Readers are invited to write in with their opinions to All respondents will be addressed by the author.)

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