Anna Politkovskaya

Acclaimed investigative journalist whose work included searing critiques of Putin's Russia


Anna Politkovskaya, journalist: born New York 1958; married (one son, one daughter); died Moscow 7 October 2006.

If ever any proof were needed that Russia is still haunted by its Soviet demons, it has been provided by the assassination on Saturday in Moscow of Anna Politkovskaya, the acclaimed investigative journalist.

Her killing, in the lift of her own apartment block, is the latest in a series of murders to target prominent campaigners which have besmirched the democratic credentials of the state. For those of us who worked in Moscow in the Soviet era, it is a chilling reminder of a time gone by, when murders went unsolved and people disappeared from view for speaking their mind.

It is hard to disagree with Politkovskaya's own diagnosis, that the hallmarks of the Soviet era have made a comeback with the authoritarian "managed democracy" of Vladimir Putin. Critics have been jailed, opposition television stations muzzled, non- government organisations shut and surrogate parties formed under the umbrella of the Kremlin to give the semblance of democracy.

These are tough times for the defenders of human rights in Russia, with the oil price just below $60 per barrel. Like China, Russia can swat away the criticism, knowing that the West now needs Russia more than Russia needs the West. Russia currently even holds the presidency of the Council of Europe, the European-wide human rights watchdog.

Yet, only a few weeks ago, Andrei Kozlov, the deputy chairman of the central bank, was shot dead by two gunmen in Moscow after launching a crusade against money-laundering which had resulted in the closure of a number of banks. Other victims of still unsolved murders include Paul Klebnikov, the American-born editor of Forbes Russia who had written about organised crime and Chechnya, and who was killed in a drive-by shooting outside his Moscow office in 2004.

While Politkovskaya was the fourth prominent journalist to be murdered in post-Soviet Russia, her death was all the more shocking because she was a woman, a 48-year-old mother of two children. Her murder is reminiscent of that of the reformist deputy Galina Starovoitova, also a prominent human rights campaigner, who was shot to death at the entrance to her apartment building in November 1998 in St Petersburg, the home town of Putin.

Anna Politkovskaya was born in 1958 in New York into the privileged background of a family of UN diplomats, but she was educated in Soviet Russia. In recent years she knew that she was a marked woman because of her journalistic work, which included searing critiques of Putin, a KGB agent turned president, and his wars in Chechnya. In her 2004 book Putin's Russia, which lifted the lid on the subversion of Russia's nascent civil institutions by Putin, she assailed the West for turning a blind eye to what was going on. "Why is it difficult to sustain the rosy point of view when you are faced with reality in Russia?" she wrote.

Because Putin, a product of the country's murkiest intelligence service, has failed to transcend his origins and stop behaving like a lieutenant-colonel in the Soviet KGB. He is still busy sorting out his freedom-loving fellow countrymen; he persists in crushing liberty just as he did earlier in his career.

The book was not published in Moscow.

Politkovskaya was a graduate of the journalism school of Moscow State University, and wrote for the daily newspaper Izvestiya during the heady days of perestroika, the reform movement launched by Mikhail Gorbachev.

In 1999 she joined the Novaya Gazeta, known for its tough criticism of the Kremlin, and began reporting on Chechnya during Russia's second military campaign there. She focused fearlessly on the human rights abuses against the civilian population in the independence-seeking republic. In 2001, she fled to Vienna, where she remained for several months after receiving death threats from a Russian police officer said to be bent on revenge.

In 2002, she mediated in the hostage-taking at a Moscow theatre when Chechen guerrillas took control of the building during a performance, seizing 900 people. She later wrote about the aftermath to the hostage-taking which ended with Russian special forces using poison gas inside the theatre, leaving 129 people dead. According to Politkovskaya, Putin himself selected the secret military gas.

In 2004, when travelling to Beslan to cover the school hostage-taking by suspected Chechen militants, she became seriously ill with symptoms of food poisoning after drinking tea on the flight from Moscow. Colleagues had no doubt that the incident was an attempt on her life.

Last March, she wrote of the mysterious illness affecting schoolchildren and their teachers in Chechnya which was dismissed as "mass hysteria" by the Kremlin but which could have been mass poisoning.

She was also an outspoken critic of Chechnya's Moscow-backed Prime Minister, Ramzan Kadyrov, given a free hand by the Kremlin to unleash a reign of terror in the republic. She accused the militia under his control of being responsible for abductions and torture, charges which Kadyrov has denied.

Politkovskaya, whose shock of grey hair and glasses were well known in Russia, was acclaimed in the West where she won more than 10 awards for her writing, including the Olof Palme Prize for human rights in 2005 and an Amnesty International prize.

Condemnation rang out yesterday around the world in response to the killing of Anna Politkovskaya. Yet the Kremlin's silence was chilling. As of yesterday evening, Putin had not commented on the journalist's death. One is reminded of his reaction to the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine with 118 on board in August 2000, which reflected the Communist apparatchik's callous disregard for human life. Speaking from the Black Sea resort where he was on holiday, he simply said: "It sank."

Politkovskaya always took a different view. She said: "My heroes are those people who want to be individuals, but are being forced to be cogs again. In an empire there are only cogs."

Anne Penketh

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