Anna Politkovskaya was a journalist first. Born to Soviet parents serving as diplomats at the United Nations in New York City, she held dual American-Russian citizenship despite living most of her life in the Soviet Union and Russia, graduating from Moscow State’s journalism school, marrying another student, having her children in Russia. But she had an American passport, an escape hatch from the life she led that she never chose to use through all the years of threats that culminated in her assassination in the elevator of her apartment complex.
There is freedom of speech in Russia now, it’s just that there is also a freedom of violence, a liberty enjoyed by the powerful that guarantees that they may act with absolute impunity. A journalist in Russia is absolutely free to say whatever they want. The state will not arrest you. There will be no show trial and ten year sentence anymore. It’s just that anyone with power who does not like your words has a much more primal freedom. You have freedom so long as you are willing to only speak of the things that do not matter.
Politkovskaya made a career of speaking of those very dangerous things, of asking the sorts of questions that journalists are supposed to ask. Of speaking truth to power in a place where power has no interest in the truth.
Russia is the third most dangerous country in the world for journalists, ranking behind only Algeria and post-American Iraq. Over the last twenty years, over 200 journalists have been murdered, and at least 3/4 of those can directly be attributed to their work. The problem isn’t just the violence, its the unofficial encouragement of it. Of the murders of journalists unrelated to their work, ninety percent reach convictions. Of those that are connected to their work, only a handful have even resulted in arrests, and of those only half resulted in convictions.
There are still places in the world where men of violence issue orders for the blood of those who would be the conscience of the people. Where newspaper columnists anger the wrong oligarch and have their limbs broken with iron bars by thugs in the streets. Where television reporters are found stabbed to death in their apartments, with not an item out of place but their missing laptop. Where brakes are cut and the whole family dies the week after an article is published. Where asking what happened to a missing group of prisoners leads to it being your corpse found in the ditch outside of town.
Since the end of the Cold War, we in the West have made a sort of peace with the existence of dictators. We can rationalize it in terms of the horrors of the past. So the elections are rigged and money is leeched from the corpse of the state, but what of it? The concentration camps are gone, along with the famines that kill entire countries worth of the poor in a winter or two. Soft authoritarianism we call it, as a way to let us sleep easier and think that the world is better. It is better, but not because the evil men have been eradicated, but because they became craftier in this later age. Why kill a million to keep the people terrified of the truth, when you can kill the few dozen who would dare tell the truth while the rest adore you. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, and all that.
Politkovskaya’s story is the precise opposite of every movie we make about journalists in the West. We are used to the basic narrative: plucky reporter finds specific story, powerful interests try to suppress it. But there is an underlying assumption in that story that the truth is something unknown, and that it merely needs revealed to the people in order to achieve catharsis. Politkovskaya’s tale is one of a storyteller screaming into the abyss, not of revealing the one big story that will make a difference, but of telling the same story over and over again in a hundred different ways, pleading for the audience to acknowledge the truth, pleading that this time they will do something about it instead of just watching with apathy as the slow slide continues.
Her words echo like something out of the distant past. I’ve heard one writer say that she reads less like a journalist and more like one of the underground dissidents of Soviet times, screaming into the whirlwind and secretly knowing that no one is listening. Several of her books have been translated and are well worth the read. Putin’s Russia is perhaps the best known.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.