Inspiring Thursday: Anna Politkovskaya
“How we react to the tragedy of one small person accurately reflects our attitude towards a whole nationality, and increasing the numbers doesn’t change much” ― Anna Politkovskaya
Anna Politkovskaya was a famous and important Russian journalist known for her investigative reports on human rights abuses and alleged atrocities committed by the Russian military in Chechnya. Covering the second Chechen war for seven years, Anna’s reporting repeatedly drew the wrath of Russian authorities. Anna was no stranger to threats, violence, bullets or poison. During her career, she was threatened, jailed, forced into exile, and poisoned.
Anna Stepanovna Mazepa was the daughter of two Soviet diplomats of Ukrainian heritage, posted at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, where she was born on August 30, 1958. Anna graduated in journalism from the Moscow State University, where she met her future husband, Alexander Politkovsky, a TV reporter. After graduating in 1980, she became a reporter for the official newspaper Izvestiya, and later she worked for Aeroflot, the state-owned airline of the Soviet Union. In 1999, she joined the staff of Novaya Gazeta, where she worked for 7 years until her murder, and where she reported on the war in Chechnya. This region in the North Caucasus had a long history of hostility with its Russian overlords.
In the early years of post-Soviet Russia, there had been a war for independence that put Chechen rebels against Russian federal troops. The public pressure on Russian president Boris Yeltsin, fuelled by the new press freedoms available to media outlets like Obshchaya gazeta, led to a withdrawal of Russia’s troops and a 1997 peace agreement that recognized Chechnya as an independent republic. Putin, Yeltsin’s successor in 1999, ordered the deployment of more troops to sedate internal disorder within Chechnya between the government and Islamic extremists. There had also been a series of Moscow bombings in 1999 that were blamed on Chechen terrorists, but journalists like Anna Politkovskaya began to suspect that the tragedy had been instigated by hard-line Russian conservatives as an excuse to subdue Chechnya for good.
Anna exposed human rights abuses carried out by both Russians and Chechen separatists during the second Chechen war. From 2000, she travelled continuously in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, where she visited the hospitals and refugee camps, getting in touch with victims’ families, interviewing people involved in the conflict, extremists fighters and Russian troops, reporting on the atrocities committed such as kidnappings, torture, rape, attacks, mass poisoning, mass killings, extrajudicial execution and other awful abuses, and strongly criticizing the pro-Russian Chechen administration. She was aware of the danger of her job, but she felt that her only commitment as a journalist was writing what she saw to let the whole world know the hidden truth of the war and government policy.
Her stories were critical of human rights violations on both sides, including the mystery surrounding a mass grave discovered near a Russian military base; the bodies were possibly civilian casualties, and land mines had been planted to prevent their retrieval. Anna had already made some prominent enemies, but in this case she was taken into custody and accused of spying on behalf of Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord. For three days in February of 2001, she was kept in a pit with no food or water. Later that year, she was forced to flee Russia for some time, when rumours reached her saying that a police captain, accused of human rights abuses in her stories, wanted her dead.
She had many enemies on both sides of the conflict, including Vladimir Putin and his Chechen ally, Ramzan Kadyrov (the prime minister of Chechnya and later its president). She often spoke about these men and their personal corruption, and once described Kadyrov as “a puppet, a coward armed to the teeth and surrounded by security guards”.
In 2001, while investigating allegations that pro-Russian forces had abducted and tortured civilians in the small Chechen village of Khattuni, she was detained by Russian troops, interrogated, beaten and kept in a pit for three days; she was also forced to undergo a mock execution, which she described in her book A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya:
“A lieutenant colonel with a swarthy face and dull dark bulging eyes said in a business like tone: ‘Let’s go. I’m going to shoot you.’ He led me out of the tent into complete darkness. The nights here are impenetrable. After we walked for a while, he said, “Ready or not, here I come.” Something burst with pulsating fire around me, screeching, roaring, and growling. The lieutenant colonel was very happy when I crouched in fright. It turned out that he had led me right under the ‘Grad’ rocket launcher at the moment it was fired”.
In September 2004, another group of Chechen rebels took an elementary school hostage in the southern Russian town of Beslan. The children had been assembled for a ceremony in the schoolyard, marking the first day of class for the year, when 32 masked men arrived and began herding the teachers, parents, and children into the gymnasium. On the third day, a battle erupted between Russian military forces and the hostage-takers, and more than 300 of the 1,200 hostages died. Upon hearing of the crisis, Anna immediately boarded a flight to Beslan in order to help negotiate a safer outcome. During the flight, after drinking a tea, she called the air stewardess as she was rapidly losing consciousness. She woke up in a hospital and found out that she had been poisoned. Anna issued frequent warnings about the threat posed to free expression by Putin’s increasing power. A week after the regime’s disastrous handling of the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis (which had seen over 187 children die as Russian security forces used battlefield weapons against Chechen separatists hiding inside a school), she wrote about information blackouts and journalists parroting the government line on the siege: “We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum that spells death from our own ignorance. All we have left is the internet, where information is still freely available. For the rest, if you want to go on working as a journalist, it’s total servility to Putin. Otherwise, it can be death, the bullet, poison, or trial – whatever our special services, Putin’s guard dogs, see fit”.
On October 5, 2006, Anna was interviewed by Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (RFERL) about the ongoing human rights abuses in Chechnya, and particularly the increase in torture and disappearances under Kadyrov (whom she called a “Stalin for our times”). During the interview, she said: “I only have one dream for Kadyrov’s birthday: I dream of him someday sitting in the dock in a trial that meets the strictest legal standards, with all of his crimes listed and investigated.” She discussed an upcoming story for Novaya gazeta, an exposé on torture practices linked to a militia unit controlled by Chechnya’s Putin-friendly prime minister, Ramzan Kadyrov, planning to file the story on Saturday, October 7.
That was the last interview she gave. Two days later, on October 7, 2006, Anna Politkovskaya was found shot to death in her apartment building in Moscow. She had been shot four times at close range in what was clearly a contract killing. She was 48 years old.
Her murder prompted consternation on an international level. It was condemned by press freedom organisations and governments around the world; there were demonstrations on Moscow’s streets calling for justice. Heads of state from Europe issued official statements questioning her untimely death. Human rights activists around the world, called it a political assassination. Even the New York Times editorial page weighed in, remarking that she was one of a long line of recent suspicious deaths of Putin’s foes, and the newspaper ventured that “it would be hard to imagine that Mr. Putin’s Kremlin, swollen with oil riches and power, could not find those who ordered her murder or so many others.” All this was ignored by the Russian authorities, who made no comment on the killing until Putin travelled to Germany on October 10, the day of her funeral. When asked at a press conference about the journalist’s death, he said that Anna Politkovskaya was a “sharp critic” whose “influence over political life in Russia was extremely insignificant”. If this was the truth, Anna would not have been killed.
Justice for Anna Politkovskaya was a long time coming; and when it arrived, it was not entirely satisfactory. After trials, acquittals and retrials, six men were eventually convicted of the journalist’s murder: one was sentenced to 11 years in a penal colony in 2012; the remaining five were handed life sentences in 2014. Those who ordered the killing have not been identified.
Anna never wanted to leave her country. Her loyalty for Russia was of such importance that she sacrificed her reputation, freedom and, in the end, her life for the truth. She never gave up. Anna was a brave and genuine reporter, always ready to help out people in need and victims of abuses. Her weapon was her pen and her hunger for the truth together with her great honesty were more dangerous than a bullet.
Anna was the recipient of many prizes, including the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism in 2001, the Index on Censorship Award for the Defence of Free Expression and the PEN American Center Freedom to Write Award in 2002. She was a recipient of the 2004 Olof Palme Award “for her courage and strength when reporting in difficult and dangerous circumstances.” and (posthumously) the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2007. The Committee to Protect Journalists had named Anna Politkovskaya one of the world’s top press freedom figures of the past 25 years in the fall 2006 edition of its magazine, Dangerous Assignments.
By Chiara Paganelli, WAVE Intern