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Fifteen Years After Her Assassination, Anna Politkovskaya Remains a Symbol of Journalistic Courage

The Putin critic was gunned down in October 2006.
October 8, 2021
Fifteen Years After Her Assassination, Anna Politkovskaya Remains a Symbol of Journalistic Courage
In this undated file photo, independent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a highly respected and tireless investigative reporter and author is pictured at work. Murdered in an execution-style slaying October 7, 2006, Politkovskaya devoted much of her career to shining a light on human rights abuses and other atrocities of the war in Chechnya as well as the plight of Chechen refugees. (Photo by Novaya Gazeta / Epsilon / Getty)

Fifteen years ago, a murder in Moscow shook Russia and the world. On October 7, 2006, Russian journalist, writer, and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya, who had gained international fame and won numerous awards for her coverage of Russia’s wars in Chechnya, was gunned down in the elevator of her apartment building. She was certainly not the first journalist to be murdered in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, not even among her colleagues at the independent triweekly Novaya Gazeta: One of its investigative reporters had been beaten to death with a hammer in 2001, another had died of a highly suspicious allergic reaction in 2004. But Politkovskaya’s death had the most resonance. At the time, Russia’s fragile post-Soviet freedom, including freedom of the press, was still alive but being slowly choked and battered to death; her murder was one of the most painful blows. The men and women who flocked to her funeral were also mourning their own fate.

Politkovskaya—who, in a little-known wrinkle in her biography, was born in New York as a child of Soviet diplomats, allowing her later on to acquire an American passport while also remaining a Russian citizen—was a remarkable woman whose fragile appearance and soft-spoken manner masked a will of steel. Born in 1958, she became a journalist in the early 1980s when the Soviet regime seemed to be a permanent fixture. But it was in the late 1990s that she rose to prominence, when her coverage of the plight of refugees from violence-plagued regions of the former USSR led her to the dangerous work of war correspondent in Chechnya.

Politkovskaya’s first book, “Journey Into Hell: A Chechen Diary” (translated into English as A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya) appeared in 2000; “The Second Chechen War” (translated as A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya) followed in 2003. She described kidnappings, extortion, torture, and murder by Russian security forces and pro-Russian Chechen troops, and while she also reported on abuses and cruelties by Chechen separatist rebels, her chief focus was on war crimes committed or sponsored by the Russian state—crimes she regarded as nothing less than a genocide of the Chechen people.

She did not shy away from danger. In 2001, she was detained by military officials while investigating reports of torture and rape; she said that her captors beat her, made threatening comments about her two children whose pictures she carried with her, and put her through a mock execution.

In Russia, where old-fashioned sexist norms remain prevalent, many were aghast at the idea of a woman—an attractive woman at that—facing such hazards in a hellish war zone. Among them was Politkovskaya’s estranged husband and fellow journalist Aleksandr Politkovsky, who told Russkiy Zhurnal (Russian Journal) in 2008 that he had asked Novaya Gazeta editor-in-chief Dmitry Muratov to stop assigning her to Chechnya. According to Politkovsky, Muratov had agreed—but Politkovskaya would go back anyway, assignment or no assignment, and simply call to report her location once she was there.

Some aspects of Politkovskaya’s career in the early 2000s evoke current American media-criticism debates on objective journalism versus advocacy. Politkovskaya came down strongly on the “advocacy” side, right down to making herself a part of the news. In 2002, when Chechen militants took hostages at the Nord-Ost theater in Moscow, Politkovskaya took part in negotiations and brought water to the captives.

Two years later, she flew out to the North Ossetian town of Beslan where a terrorist attack had turned into a school hostage crisis, hoping to help with the negotiations there too; aboard the flight, she was taken mysteriously ill after drinking tea, a familiar affliction among Putin critics. Taken to a hospital, she nearly died; the official story was an acute viral infection.

Detractors assailed Politkovskaya for publishing uncorroborated accounts of atrocities. Even some of her admiring colleagues have admitted that she did that at times, though Muratov has stressed that she tried as best she could to verify those reports while running up against a wall of official silence and denial. Fellow Novaya Gazeta writer Yulia Latynina insisted that while Politkovskaya occasionally messed up, “about 70 percent of what she wrote were things no one else had the nerve to write about.” At least two of her exposés of torture and abduction led to judicial verdicts against the perpetrators, one in a Russian criminal court and another in the European Court of Human Rights.

Remarkably, Politkovskaya managed to win even the respect of some Russian military men who had fought in Chechnya and saw her as someone on the side of the enemy. In a 2008 interview in the Russian weekly Argumenty i Fakty (Arguments and Facts), Russian officer-turned-author Vyacheslav Mironov (a pseudonym), whose memoirs had led Politkovskaya to call him a war criminal and demand his indictment by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, called Politkovskaya “a fascinating and worthy rival.” While he accused her of having “earned political and journalistic capital on the bones of Russian soldiers,” he also gave her credit for publicizing the case of Andrei Sychyov, a conscript so severely beaten in a hazing ritual that he was left permanently disabled.

Politkovskaya’s writings could not have failed to anger Putin—particularly after her 2003 book, Putin’s Russia, in which she offered a scathing and prescient assessment of his person and his regime:

Putin has, by chance, gotten hold of enormous power and has used it to catastrophic effect. I dislike him because he does not like people. He despises us. He sees us as a means to his ends, a means for the achievement and retention of personal power. Accordingly, he believes he can do anything he likes with us, play with us as he sees fit, destroy us if he wishes. We are nobody, while he whom chance has enabled to clamber to the top is today czar and God.

Politkovskaya also listed other reasons for disliking Putin, from fake simplicity to “cynicism” and “racism,” “endless wars and lies,” and “the bodies of murdered innocents that trails over the entirety of his first term.”

But whatever Putin thought of Politkovskaya, she was loathed in a much more personal way by Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen warlord who threw in his lot with the Kremlin and at the age of 30 became Chechnya’s president and autocrat, as well as Putin’s best buddy. (It’s a cozy arrangement: Kadyrov stays loyal to Russia and delivers 100 percent of the local vote to Putin and his ruling party, while Russia allows him to run Chechnya as a personal principality and de facto Islamic republic where polygamy and honor killings are tolerated and personal enemies of the prince are routinely disappeared and murdered.)

Politkovskaya’s first run-in with Kadyrov, then 27, happened in 2004 when she met him for an interview; at the time, he was first deputy premier of the Chechen Republic but already called himself Chechnya’s leader. It was a bizarre and revealing exchange in which Kadyrov bragged and bullied, talked about his desire to “destroy” and “exterminate” his enemies, fanboyed over Putin, and disputed rumors of conflicts between him and some other prominent Chechen public figures with an ominous comment: “You can’t be in conflict with me—it won’t end well for you.”

But that was only the beginning. The next day, Politkovskaya wrote, a Kadyrov aide asked her to come back to interview a captured rebel field commander. Brought back to Kadyrov’s “guesthouse,” she found him in an extremely hostile mood; he began to aggressively berate her, “actually screeching at times.” The prisoner turned out to be a man named Ibragim Garsiev, whom Politkovskaya had previously interviewed and who had accused Kadyrov of hands-on torture, and the point of the meeting was to get both Garsiev and Politkovskaya to retract those accusations. What followed, Politkovskaya wrote, was several hours of terrifying “mayhem” during which Kadyrov alternately bellowed at her, enthusiastically shook her hand, called her an “enemy” who “should be shot,” laughed uproariously (with his guards joining in the mirth), and shouted that he would force her to “take it back.” When she finally walked away, choking back tears, she fully expected to be shot in the back at any moment.

Politkovskaya concluded her report on Kadyrov with a devastating assessment of Russian policies that had elevated such a man to supreme rule in the Chechen Republic. (Underscoring his status as Russia’s man in Chechnya, she noted that he had received a phone call in her presence from Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s powerful deputy chief of staff.) “It’s a very old tale,” she wrote. “The Kremlin has raised a baby dragon and now has to constantly feed it to make sure it doesn’t breathe fire.”

There is little doubt that after that article, she was on Kadyrov’s enemies list. Yet, however terrified she was of the Chechen strongman during that surreal interview, she did not relent. When she was gunned down, Muratov said, she was planning to file an article about torture by Kadyrov’s security forces, the “kadyrovtsy”; the material for that article apparently disappeared when the police investigating the murder removed the hard drive of her computer.

Kadyrov officially deplored Politkovskaya’s murder, even pronouncing, apparently with a straight face, that “to attack a journalist is to interfere with freedom of speech, which is unacceptable in a democratic society.” Putin made his own comments three days later, during a press conference with Angela Merkel on his visit to Germany (where he was heckled as a murderer as he got out of his limousine in Dresden). He deplored the murder as a “repugnantly brutal crime” which “must not remain unpunished.” Then he went on to snub the victim, saying that, while Politkovskaya was indeed a very harsh critic of the Russian government, it was important to remember that “she had minimal influence on political life in Russia.” What’s more, Putin added, presumably in response to charges that Russian or Chechen authorities were behind Politkovskaya’s slaying, “This murder does much more harm to Russia and Chechnya than any of her publications.”

Thus, in one breath, the Russian president not only dismissed Politkovskaya’s work as insignificant but also branded it as harmful to her country—and suggested that of course the Kremlin had not murdered her because it would have been impractical.

While many slayings of journalists in Russia have remained unsolved and unpunished, this was not the case with Politkovskaya. Four Chechen men were eventually convicted of carrying out the hit, and were given sentences ranging from 12 years in a penal colony to life; two other men, a Moscow police lieutenant and a Chechen businessman, were also convicted as organizers of the murder. The person who ordered it, however, was never named. A Novaya Gazeta investigation makes it clear that the trail leading to that person’s identity was there; it simply wasn’t followed, for reasons that are blindingly obvious.

That person, most likely, is Kadyrov rather than Putin himself—though the possibility that Kadyrov saw Politkovskaya’s murder as a gift to Putin (on his birthday, no less!) certainly exists. In any case, Kadyrov as the murderer hardly gets Putin off the hook, given that the Kremlin regime has consistently protected its “baby dragon” in Chechnya.

Fifteen years after her slaying, Politkovskaya is still remembered as a fearless journalist and a fearless woman—by dissidents in Russia and by many others around the world. There are journalism prizes in her name. Tbilisi, Georgia and Ferrara, Italy have streets named after her; there is also an Anna Politkovskaya Park in Karlovy Vary, the Czech Republic, and an Anna Politkovskaya Garden in Milan, Italy. An unofficial Anna Politkovskaya Garden exists in Moscow as well—two flower beds in a lane next to the offices of Novaya Gazeta.

Yet, for all the honors, the world has not been kind to Politkovskaya’s ideals. Her worst fears of resurgent authoritarianism have come true in Russia. But even in the West, her passionate idealism about freedom and human rights now seems like a quaint relic. We have, after all, had a President of the United States who praised Putin as a strong leader on the campaign trail and famously whatabouted the murder of journalists under Putin’s rule with the comment that “our country does plenty of killing also.”

Politkovskaya was a true liberal—not in the American political sense but in the more fundamental philosophical one—trapped under an anti-liberal regime. Today, her legacy struggles to survive in an increasingly anti-liberal world.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.