Harvill Secker £18.99 (462pp) £17.09 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Nothing But The Truth, By Anna Politkovskaya trans Arch Tait
Friday 22 January 2010
Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in the stairwell of her Moscow flat on 7 October 2006. Her murder shocked, but did not entirely surprise, those who had followed her reporting and recent developments in Russia. It called forth a multitude of tributes from around the world in the spirit of the epigraph to this volume, which describes her as the "honour and conscience of Russia". It also prompted one of the most notoriously ill-judged comments ever uttered by President Vladimir Putin. She was, he said, a full three days after her death, someone whose influence on political life in Russia was "minimal".
While Putin's successor at the Kremlin has mastered more delicacy and decorum when speaking of the deceased – adversaries included – Russia's then leader was not entirely wrong. And more's the pity. As a campaigning journalist, Politkovskaya was admired, even lionised, around the world, piling up awards which – as a friend and colleague notes in her tribute – she treated with cool indifference.
To her, so her friend says, they represented "support for a journalist, not for what she is doing". And, as this volume suggests, she was eternally frustrated at the mismatch between the power of her words and her power to change Russia – first of all in its attitude to the warrior Chechens in the wild lands of its southern frontier.
The greater part of Nothing but the Truth comprises Politkovskaya's reporting from and about Chechnya, or more accurately, about Chechens, the people whose cause and plight she adopted as her own. The reporting is fastidious. When writing about her journalism, she insists that her sole purpose as a journalist is to discover and convey information.
Much of her work does just that. It is a cool compilation of detail reminiscent, in its style and its effect, of the Soviet-era dissidents' Chronicle of Current Events, or of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. The imperative is to record the facts or the testimony of witnesses, and let them speak for themselves.
It is not long, though, before Politkovskaya is writing not just as a witness, but as someone who regarded being at the scene as a privilege that imposed a grave responsibility – a duty of advocacy. During what is known as the second Chechen war (from 1999 to around 2007), she gives the Chechens a voice, and in so doing finds her own.
The dispatches selected for this volume, which come less from the frontline than from the ruined hearths and homes of Chechen men and women, make for a compelling body of work. It ensures that the suffering of Chechnya at the hands of the Russian military – with a few honourable exceptions, as Politkovskaya grants – is recorded for posterity. And, it is to be hoped, not just recorded, but to stand as a lesson writ large in what not to do.
The rest of the book collects some of Politkovskaya's reporting and thinking about Russia - though much of this, such as an affecting account of meeting elderly refugees, has a Chechen theme - as well as a sprinkling of dispatches from around the world. A final section brings together reminiscences and tributes published after her death.
Missing, conspicuously so I feel, is much of her more acerbic polemic about the state of Russia, media freedom and her very personal detestation of Putin, which has already appeared in English as Putin's Russia and A Russian Diary.
This is the English translation of a book published by her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, in Russian the year after her death. It was intended as a tribute volume, and as such verges on the hagiographic. But while the Chechnya reporting undoubtedly cements her reputation as the outstanding chronicler of Chechnya and a fiercely effective writer-campaigner, the foreign dispatches are for the most part disappointingly lacking in similar insight, at times embarrassingly superficial.
Occasionally evident in her later, more polemical, work there is also an element of self-centrednesss and self-absorption. This allows her to speak of the peace she enjoyed in Paris: "No one was yelling at me, goading me, telling me I was a traitor... Everybody admired me. May you enjoy the same experience." Between some of the lines, and not only between the lines, can also be detected a high self-regard that comes with a degree of contempt for her fellow journalists in Russia. This sense of intellectual and moral superiority continues a long-standing cultural tradition in which the intelligentsia saw itself as apart from the ill-informed masses, who needed to be educated and led.
The final section of obituaries and reminiscences seems implicitly to reflect concern that Politkovskaya should be seen "in the round", not just as the journalist with a cause, but as wife, mother, colleague and humanitarian. One of the more interesting contributions comes from her husband – by the time of her death estranged but, as he notes, not divorced because they did not want to attract the scandal-sheets. She emerges as both focused and very self-contained, while admirable in many ways. A lively piece of reportage about a Brazilian tango show in London seems also intended to balance what might otherwise have seemed a rather joyless character. Then again, popularity as clearly not her problem.
"For seven years," a colleague from another paper writes, "Novaya Gazeta's editor, Dmitriy Muratov, printed everything his bloody-minded and unaccommodating columnist wrote. Colleagues in the journalistic guild spat behind her back, poured filth over her... They didn't like her style, her turns of phrase were questionable, and there was a certain lack of humour."
That this volume is the translation of Novaya Gazeta's published tribute to its star writer – a translation mostly, but not always, felicitously accomplished by Arch Tait – helps to explain one of its defects. The brief glossary at the end is a help, but the Chechen articles assume a depth of familiarity with the geography, history and the individuals that many of those reading in English simply will not have. There are also a few careless mistakes. In all, though, Politkovskaya's work deserves the wider audience this book should attract. And the last word belongs to her.
"The Brezhnev era," she writes of the Russia she knew, "was typified by cynical dementia; under Yeltsin it was think big, take big. Under Putin we live in an age of cowardice." Anna Politkovskaya was a one-woman exception to her own generalisation – an exception, just perhaps, that will inspire Russian journalists to come.
A career in brief
Anna Politkovskaya made her name by reporting in Chechnya. An ardent opponent of the conflict, she worked for Izvestia from 1982 to 1993 as a reporter on 'emergencies' before taking a job as assistant editor on Obshchaya Gazeta where she wrote about the plight of refugees. From 1999 to 2006 she wrote bi-weekly columns for the Novaya Gazeta on Chechnya. She received a clutch of international awards for this work and, in 2004, wrote Putin's Russia. She was assassinated in Moscow in 2006.
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