Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

If ever a death arrived foretold, it was hers. Anna Politkovskaya, not merely a great and brave reporter but a hugely gifted writer of non-fiction narrative, was shot at her Moscow apartment block on Saturday. The victim of a contract taken out by one of many powerful and corrupt enemies, she was killed with a service-issue pistol in what the police - superfluously - deemed "a professional job". We don't as yet know which specific set of Russian gangsters murdered her: the wild fringes of the state, the forces, the mob, or maybe a thug from the grey zones where they converge.

Now the guilty parties need to learn one lesson about her fate, and theirs. They have eliminated not just an investigative irritant who unmasked atrocities in Chechnya and wrongdoing in the highest places. That crime would be quite execrable enough; dozens of Russian journalists have suffered it through the post-Soviet years.

But they have also silenced a writer whose vision and authority ranked her with the literary forebears who paid the same, terminal price in the Tsarist and Stalinist periods. And in Russia, where authors have often acted as the haunting conscience of a morally neutered state, that matters. So her assassins will tread the circle of historical hell reserved for the slayers of a Babel or a Mandelstam. Unfair, perhaps, but true: kill a notable Russian writer and win endless infamy.

If you haven't done so yet, read Politkovskaya's books: A Dirty War and Putin's Russia. Both are published here by Harvill - that precious window on the world. And, as it happens, this month we have the chance to support other writers who share her commitment to freedom without fear.

Glas, the Moscow periodical that showcases new Russian writing in translation, has issued a remarkable anthology of stories, War & Peace (edited by Natasha Perova and Joanna Turnbull, £12.99; distributed by Inpress: 020-8832 7464; www.inpressbooks.co.uk). Its 10 contributors offer pieces of fiction rather than reportage, but many would admit that the boundary often blurs.

Their drive to bear witness and tell forbidden truths makes them cousins of Politkovskaya - cousins, and even colleagues. Arkady Babchenko, who in "Argun" (translated by Nicholas Allen) delivers his riveting, semi-autobiographical soldier's tale of brutality and boredom in the Chechen war, also works on Politkovskaya's opposition journal, Novaya Gazeta. The "War" section collects rawly compelling stories of chaos and carnage, mostly in occupied Chechnya. Their writers, such as Denis Butov in "How Dreams Don't Come True" (translated by Ben Hoosen), lay bare the ways that savage counter-insurgency and the corrosive lies it breeds destroy Russian conscripts just as surely as Chechen civilians.

"Peace" rounds up stories by women writers about life on Russia's domestic battlefields. They range from Maria Rybakova's touchingly elegiac monologue "A Sting in the Flesh" (translated by Andrew Bromfield) to Marina Kulakova's harrowing "faction" of a rape and its aftermath, "Alive Again" (translated by Lucy Watts).

Next week you will be able to see some of these Glas warriors. Babchenko and Rybakova, along with fellow contributor Olga Slavnikova, are touring Britain as part of a New Writing North initiative. They will be appearing at the Ilkley literary festival on Saturday 14 October, at Sheffield's Off the Shelf festival on Monday 16, at Darlington Arts Centre on Tuesday 17, at the Scottish Arts Club, Edinburgh, on Wednesday 18, and at Durham LitFest on Thursday 19. Now, as much as ever, Russia's free spirits need foreign solidarity. They bring tales to trust from a place where literary truth-telling remains - tragically, and shamefully - a matter of life and death.

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