By Nancy Chan
Oct. 7, 2006 is a significant date for modern investigative journalism and Russian journalism. It’s the day Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated outside her apartment elevator.
Politkovskaya, or Anya as she was known among her friends, wasn’t the first journalist in Russia who died as a result of her career. According to the Glasnost Defense Foundation, that list would include another 210 Russian journalists who were murdered from 2000 to 2016.
Yet, I believe Politkovskaya was exceptional. She was relentlessly determined about raising her voice for abused Chechen and Russian citizens throughout the second Chechen war.
Her honest writing truly helped make her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, a new gazette. When coupled with her fearlessness, she became the rare Russian reporter known outside of Russia who received accolades from many international organizations including International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders.
But as former Guardian writer David Hearst said in an obituary, she “had used up several lives of her nine lives as a reporter.” She experienced many eye-opening attempts on her biological one.
According to IWMF, Politkovskaya was kept inside a pit for three days by Russian soldiers for supposedly entering Chechnya without proper press credentials in February 2001. It was extremely unlikely, since she was chronicling the civilian rapes, beatings and murders committed by Russian soldiers there.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that from Oct. 23-24, 2002, Politkovskaya tried mediating between armed Chechen fighters and Russian soldiers during the Moscow theater siege. Unfortunately, more Russian soldiers arrived later to gas the theater and 129 people died.
She survived poisoning during a plane flight in September 2004, which prevented her from covering the Beslan school siege. According to the CPJ, the medical staff was ordered to destroy related blood tests, preventing anyone from figuring out the toxin or opening an investigation.
Politkovskaya never quit. She once said, “We live now in an era where normal values have been displaced. The good is called bad, the bad—good.”
Elena Kudimova, Politkovskaya’s mother’s sister, told the New Yorker “We all begged her to stop… But she always answered the same way: ‘How could I live with myself if I didn’t write the truth?’”
Hence, when she was killed after a grocery shopping trip, before a deadline, it chilled her fellow reporters. She was at once too well-known to be killed and too well-known to be safe.
In the Los Angeles Times article “Acclaimed Reporter Killed in Russia,” liberal broadcast journalist Alexei Venediktov mentioned that his friends told him to hire bodyguards. He believed the killer’s motive was primarily Politkovskaya as a journalist; any menacing effect to journalists was secondary.
Five men were eventually found guilty in 2012, but the case remains largely unsolved. Three brothers, a former police officer and an underground Chechen leader have been convicted, but the individual who gave them orders is no longer a concern for the Russian government.
It’s moving to know Ilya, her son, continues looking for closure on his own. He observed the anniversary of her death this year with a ceremony at the offices of Novaya Gazeta.
I personally knew almost nothing about Russian journalism’s current state prior to reading about Politkovskaya. For one thing, I didn’t know Vladimir Putin, her country’s president and a frequent target of her most deep-seated criticisms, wields an iron fist to press down the press.
My first impression of Putin’s (memetic) reputation was that he can ride astride everything from American eagles to Ritz crackers.
Of course, Putin’s presence is no laughing matter. In Politkovskaya’s Los Angeles Times op-ed “Caucasus Conundrum,” Politkovskaya identified Putin as someone who “has publicly hushed and rebuked everybody” while putting on an image as “he who tries to prove to the world that he is such a strong and dashing guy.”
Her final opinion piece “So what am I guilty of?” was found on her computer after her death. She addressed it to her readers overseas.
Politkovskaya drew parallels between the majority of modern Russian journalists and kovernys, or Russian clowns that kept audiences entertained during circus intermissions. If a koverny wasn’t funny, audience members would boo and the management would fire them.
Switch Putin’s administration with the management and the public with the audience. The picture paints itself; she didn’t belong or perform for the “Big Top.”
“I have never sought my present pariah status and it makes me feel like a beached dolphin. I am no political infighter,” she wrote.
She never intended to create unfavorable unrest, as Putin implied posthumously by saying her murder had a greater impact on authorities than her reporting ever did.
His comment was clinical; overly logical, even. He should understand his country will continue clamoring for change, because change is likewise logical.
Elena Kostyuchenko, a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, felt inspired enough by Politkovskaya’s work to join her field. She became the paper’s youngest ever staff member at 17.
“When Politkovskaya was killed, I realized I had never told her she was my idol,” Kostyuchenko told The Guardian. Nowadays she praises colleagues directly, knowing their time together could be cut short.
Politkovskaya’s time as a heroine was cut short. However, as Babe Ruth said in the film “The Sandlot,” heroes get remembered but legends never die.