Anna Politkovskaya Tried to Warn Us About Putin
A tribute to her sacrifice and to the heroic courage of Russian journalists today defending the truth about Putin's unprovoked war on Ukraine
Because this year’s Women’s History Month has overlapped the start of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and his crackdown on the press in Russia, I’d like to dedicate this newsletter to the memory of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated in Moscow on Putin’s birthday in 2006.
I first met Anna in 2001 while working with PEN International, an organization dedicated to defending endangered writers worldwide. My colleague Deborah Jones and I wrote the following tribute after Anna’s murder.
I believe it’s more urgent than ever now to remember Politkovskaya’s legacy, not just because she gave her life in service of truth and justice, but even more because she wrote to warn us all of the danger that Putin represented to freedom and democracy. Her reports from Chechnya previewed the atrocities and war crimes that have since become Putin’s signature tactics and that we’re seeing on full display in Ukraine. The world should have paid closer attention to Anna’s warnings before it was too late for Georgia, for Aleppo, for Crimea, and now, perhaps, for all of Ukraine.
Thank you for remembering Anna Politkovskaya’s bravery and for sharing her story.
By Aimee Liu & Deborah Jones, 2006
Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya did not have to die. The child of diplomats in the Brezhnev era, she could have made a career of ease. The mother of two, she could have stayed home without questioning the war her government was fighting in her name. Even within her chosen profession, she could have stayed safe by reporting the news approved by Putin’s administration. If she had taken the easy way she likely would not have been gunned down at age 48 in 2006. But she also would not be the Anna Politkovskaya we still mourn today.
A seasoned journalist covering the war in Chechnya, Politkovskaya had been receiving death threats since 1999 as a result of her reports on human rights abuses committed by Russian armed forces. In 2004 she survived an attempted poisoning. The following year her car was attacked.
But Anna refused to be intimidated. With her cropped gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses this small, fiercely intelligent woman looked more like a young grandmother than a firebrand. Her diminutive appearance helped her slip across borders as few others dared, to the heart of a vicious conflict. Politkovskaya’s primary concern was for Chechen civilians who were being killed, maimed, raped, and traumatized by fighting that served no discernable purpose or end.
Anna was riveting when she spoke about the desperate situation in Chechnya. The power and penetration of her conviction was evident even from afar. Up close, however, she seemed fragile and luminous. Her wry smile belied the danger that stalked her.
In 2002 Los Angeles-based PEN USA honored Politkovskaya at an awards dinner at the Biltmore Hotel. As we sat at the hotel bar before the ceremony, we asked Anna about her children. Her face softened and she thanked us for asking about them. “My son is getting used to checking with a mirror under our car for bombs.” Her voice broke with sadness. But in the next quiet breath it became clear why Anna knowingly accepted such risks.
She told us that Chechen terrorists had seized a Moscow theater a few hours earlier. Her daughter’s boyfriend, a musician in the theater orchestra, was among the hundreds of hostages. Anna fervently believed that the only way to save those innocent lives was through negotiation. Since she was the only Russian the Chechens trusted, she had volunteered to act as mediator. And so, she apologized, she would have to leave immediately following her speech that evening to return to Moscow – to try to prevent the crisis from turning into a bloodbath.
The next day, Putin’s government agreed to allow her into the standoff. She was in the theater attempting to negotiate when Russian commandos released the deadly gas that killed 129 hostages along with all the Chechens. Anna and her young friend survived the attack. Later, she told us she was scared witless during the whole ordeal.
Her intention was never to “defend terrorists,” as her detractors often claimed. Politkovskaya believed that all hostage taking and acts of violence lead only to more of the same. She wanted readers, specifically world leaders, to understand the devastation that results when warfare preempts diplomacy and negotiation. This stand won Anna admiration and respect internationally -- and deadly adversaries in her mother country.
At a PEN meeting on Macedonia’s Lake Ohrid in 2002 Anna showed us the twisted piece of shrapnel she always carried in her purse. In spite of the hassle of passing this gunmetal shard through airport screeners and the countless questions it always prompted from security officers, she was determined to show the unknowing what a piece of shrapnel looks like. She told us that many people refused to look at this jagged fragment even when she held it in front of their eyes. To see it, she said, was to acknowledge that the “collateral damage”of war consists of shredded human faces, bodies, limbs, and hearts.
The last time we saw Anna, at a 2003 PEN meeting in Barcelona, she opened her arms to us, smiling broadly, and said, “My L.A. girls!” Anna’s openness and compassion transcended what most of us recognize as conscience. She understood that her passion for reporting injustice would define both her life and her fate. And she knew that journalists who dare to speak truth to power are being assassinated today throughout the world at an appalling rate. But Anna’s was one of the rare voices to defend the true principle of peace and reconciliation.
Her own words, from a 2004 interview in The Guardian, express this principle best: "I want to be able to live the life of a human being, where every individual is respected, in my lifetime."
On October 7, 2006, hired killers lay in wait for Anna to return home from grocery shopping. When she stepped into the elevator of her apartment building, they opened fire, then fled.
Historian Yuri Felshtinsky and political scientist Vladimir Pribylovsky noted in their 2008 book The Age of Assassins. The Rise and Rise of Vladimir Putin that none of the official suspects had any personal motivation to kill Politkovskaya. This led them to suggest that the murder was an attempt to curry favor with "the central leadership of the secret service - as a birthday present for Putin."
An excerpt from
A Small Corner of Hell:
Dispatches from Chechnya
by Anna Politkovskaya
The tea got cold long ago. We’re drinking it in a café at Magas Airport in Ingushetia. I’m ashamed to look Colonel Mohammed Yandiev, an officer of the Ingush Ministry of the Interior, in the eye. It’s the third year in a row that I’m ashamed.
As a result of a criminal blunder of the Moscow bureaucracy during the storming of Grozny in December 1999, someone had to risk his life to save eighty-nine elderly people from a Grozny retirement home that was abandoned under the bombing. No one wanted to brave the firing for their sake. Colonel Yandiev was the only one of the hundreds of Russian colonels and generals gathered on this small area near Grozny to say “yes.” And with six of his officers whom he had personally asked about this, he crawled for three days—this was the only possible way—along the streets of Grozny to the neighborhood of Katayama, to Borodin Street, where the lonely, hungry elderly were dying in the care of a government that had forgotten its duty to them.
Yandiev rescued all these old people from Grozny. The losses turned out to be minimal. Only one old woman died along the way; her heart couldn’t take it. But the colonel was able to save all of the others from bullets and shells flying from both sides of the crazed battle, as if each of them were his own mother or father.
“To this day, they send me letters on holidays. I don’t even remember their names. But they remember me. And they write,” Yandiev says, very quietly. And I have to drag these words from him, otherwise he would have been silent. “They thank me, and that’s the best kind of gratitude,” Yandiev insists, continuing to stir the sugar he already stirred long ago in the cold tea. “I don’t need anything else.”
But I need for there to be something else. I am a citizen, and for this reason I want to know why the colonel still has not received the title of Hero of Russia that he was nominated for early in 2000 for his deed, for the true courage he showed in saving eighty-nine citizens of his country. What do you need to do in Russia, the way things are now, to not only be a hero, but to be officially acknowledged as one?
Anna wrote for Russia's Nobel-winning newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Her colleagues there have carried on her work and “continue to call war war” even in the face of Putin’s terrifying new threats to truth-telling in Russia. Read the latest interview with Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov in the New Yorker HERE .