Joan Smith: Putin's Russia failed to protect this brave woman

Her death demonstrates the truth of what she wrote about his lawless state

Share

The news came in a phone call on Saturday afternoon: Anna Politkovskaya, Russia's most celebrated journalist, had been murdered in her apartment block in Moscow. This was a woman who had survived death threats, emerged alive from three days in a pit in Chechnya and recovered from an attempted poisoning on an aeroplane, only to be cornered at home. The assassin fired four times, leaving her body in the lift. Beside her lay his Makarov pistol, and four spent cartridges.

I cannot get the image out of my mind. This courageous, softly spoken woman, whom I last saw at a book launch in London, ended her life on the floor of a lift, executed at the home where she should have been safe.

Of course, I knew Anna was a marked woman but like everyone who met her, I hoped her international reputation would protect her. I was wrong. There is no protection for journalists who persist in trying to do their job in Russia, where the very idea of press freedom has become a joke.

What does exist in Russia is impunity, a climate which allows the thugs who target journalists to get away with murder. Forty-two journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992, many in similar circumstances: contract killings, carried out with ruthless efficiency, and for the most part unpunished by the Russian state.

Earlier this year, two men were acquitted of the murder of the American journalist Paul Klebnikov, editor of Forbes Russia, who was gunned down on a Moscow street in 2004. And it's not just journalists; last month, Andrei Kozlov, first deputy chairman of Russia's central bank, was murdered in Moscow.

Since Anna's assassination, there have been many statements expressing shock and outrage. Both Reporters sans Frontières and Amnesty International condemned the killing, as did the former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. But where is the statement from Russia's current President, Vladimir Putin, expressing horror and shame that his country failed to protect its most celebrated reporter? Putin's silence is resounding, and it has been suggested that he would not have been devastated, on his birthday on Saturday, to hear the news that his most trenchant critic had been silenced.

In a world where journalism often means writing about the latest celebrity divorce, Anna talked about things that matter: the murders and mind-boggling atrocities carried out in the Chechen conflict. She wasn't starry-eyed about the rebels, writing movingly about the Russian mothers denied the truth about the deaths of their sons, hapless conscripts in a brutal war.

In 2001, when I met her for the first time at the London conference of the writers' organisation PEN, Anna had been forced to flee Moscow after receiving death threats from a Russian officer she had accused of crimes against civilians. Anna made a huge impression and subsequently we did what we could to keep a watch over her. I remember an occasion in 2002 when she went back to Chechnya covertly to investigate new allegations of human rights abuses and was detained; frantic phone calls followed, and we were relieved to get a message that she had turned up safe in Ingushetia. Later that year, she acted as a mediator between Russian forces and Chechen terrorists who had taken hostages at a Moscow theatre.

Last time I saw her, she was still recovering from being poisoned on a flight to North Ossetia at the height of the Beslan siege. That attempt on her life remains unsolved, allegedly because blood samples were deliberately destroyed before the toxin could be identified. First reports suggest that her murder may be connected with the story she was writing for her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, about torture in Chechnya, but there is also no doubt that she had many enemies.

Russia is the third-deadliest country in the world for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, behind only Iraq and Algeria. This is happening now, on our doorstep, but a combination of circumstances - Putin's role in the so-called war against terror, and our dependence on Russian energy supplies - have inhibited western governments from the frank criticism his regime deserves.

That was left to people like Anna, whose tragically premature death - she was 48, and had two children - demonstrates the truth of what she wrote about Putin's corrupt, lawless state. It is too late to save her but everyone in this country who cares about press freedom should be up in arms. Her killers must be brought to justice, yes, but I also want to see the Russian state shamed into ending the climate of impunity which has allowed execution to become a daily hazard for the Russian media.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum