When the history of Vladimir Putin’s first decade in national politics is written, it will read like pulp fiction.
One moment in the spring of 1997 he’s an unknown KGB spy plagiarizing his thesis at an obscure institute; the next he’s deputy chief of staff to Boris Yeltsin, and soon after that boss of the entire KGB. Within months of reaching that pinnacle, Russia’s leading human rights activist, legislator Galina Starovoitova, is shot dead, and a prosecutorial investigation into Kremlin corruption has been squashed by the revelation of the prosecutor, Yuri Skuratov, on secret sex tapes. No sooner has this happened than Putin has been named prime minister of the country. What do they call it in the mafia? Making your bones?
Then the trouble really begins.
Instantly upon taking office as PM, Putin launches a furious crackdown in the breakaway region of Chechnya (which Yeltsin had proved unable to quell despite years of trying) with massive civilian casualties and widespread international condemnation. Just as popular opinion began to turn solidly against the war, in September 1999, over 200 Russians are killed in Moscow when two apartment blocks are brought down by explosives. Within days, after quickly razing the sites, Putin declares the local government in Chechnya responsible (many find that just a little bit too convenient) and he invades with a massive military onslaught to oust it from power. Within weeks, Boris Yeltsin has resigned the presidency and named Putin to replace him.
But the war turns into a two-part nightmare for Putin’s Kremlin. First, Russian forces were once again stymied on the ground by the resourceful and dedicated Chechen fighters, and brutal bloody conflict drags on month after month with no end in sight. Second, although an official investigation into the convenience of the apartment bombings was quickly sidetracked by Putin, a valiant group of experts assembled to conduct their own inquiry. In April 2003 a key member of the group, Sergei Yushenkov, was shot and killed. Three months later a second key member, Yuri Shchekochikhin, was fatally poisoned. Three months after that the group’s attorney, Mikhail Trepashkin, was sent to prison on patently spurious charges of espionage following a secret trial. Other members faced beatings and ejection from their seats in parliament.
It was a breathtakingly determined effort to keep the lid on. But Russia’s press was still relatively free, and despite the Kremlin’s best efforts word was getting out that Chechnya was going badly and Putin was acting scary. In the spring of 2003, for the first time, Putin’s public opinion numbers slipped below 50%, and talk began to circulate of a challenge to his reelection by oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky, widely touted as a Westernizer who had brought amazing transparency to his oil firm, Yukos. On October 25, 2003, Khodorkovsky was arrested, convicted of tax fraud in what has widely been condemned as a neo-Soviet show trial, and sentenced to years in a Siberian prison. Less than six months later, Putin was reelected president with more than 70% of the vote. Perhaps not surprisingly, he faced no credible opposition candidate.
Then the Kremlin’s enemies began dropping like flies. Human Rights activist Nikolai Girenko. Anti-Russian Ukrainian leader Viktor Yushchenko. Corruption prosecutor Andrei Kozlov.
But most of all, the journalists. It started in July with Paul Klebnikov, editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine. His employer says Paul was believed to have been investigating a complex web of money laundering involving a Chechen reconstruction fund, reaching into the centers of power in the Kremlin and involving elements of organized crime and the FSB (the former KGB).
And then finally, one year ago today, on October 7, 2006, it was Anna Politkovskaya’s turn.
Politkovskaya watched all the horror described above unfold, and rather than being cowed she was energized. Fearlessly, unflinchingly, the way Russian soldiers faced invading Nazis during World War II, the way Sakharov faced Brezhnev, she chronicled the Chechnya-related outrage in her valiant newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. She pointed her finger directly at the Putin administration and accused it of recreating a version of the Soviet Union. In her book Putin’s Russia, Politkovskaya wrote: “I have wondered a great deal why I have so got it in for Putin. What is it that makes me dislike him so much as to feel moved to write a book about him? I am not one of his political opponents or rivals, just a woman living in Russia. Quite simply, I am a 45-year-old Muscovite who observed the Soviet Union at its most disgraceful in the 1970s and ’80s. I really don’t want to find myself back there again.”
Anna was dismissed by some as a paranoid crackpot when she sounded the clarion call of warning as Putin rose to power. Now, she’s conventional wisdom.
Her murder has still not been solved, and Putin’s war on the press has escalated. Since Putin came to power, the press rights group Reporters Without Borders says, more than a dozen high-profile, anti-Kremlin journalists have been assassinated. The Internet, too, has come under vigorous attack (just days after taking office as “president,” Putin signed into law a measure known as SORM which gave the Kremlin unfettered access to ISP information). Six days after Politkovskaya was killed, the Kremlin silenced the website of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, one of the few remaining voices calling for justice in Chechnya, and initiated legal action to put the group out of commission. Next came the killing of KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko, the last high-profile person in the world still talking about the Moscow apartment bombings and asking whether Putin’s KGB had planted the bombs to whip up support for Putin’s war in Chechnya. Even ordinary bloggers have faced arrest for daring to challenge the Kremlin’s status quo.
In an attempt to cover up these deeds, the Kremlin has established its own English-language TV network to issue its propaganda, known as “Russia Today” (it routinely manages to places its “news stories” into the Google News engine) and it has its own offshoot blog, “Russia Profile.” It has bought itself the former Chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schroeder, as a public relations mouthpiece, and it has created a sort of summer camp, known as the Valdai Discussion Club, for Western journalists and academics to imbibe its heady brew of lies. The Kremlin’s standards of “journalism” would be funny if they were not so appalling. State-owned TV has attempted to pass off scenes from the movie Titanic as images of Russian science expeditions (fooling Reuters) and it has photoshopped a false headline on a major British newspaper to attack dissident oligarch Boris Berezovsky.
And it’s moving to make oppression legal and opposition a crime. In the summer of 2006, a bill rapidly moved through the Russian legislature and became the “Law on Extremism.” Though ostensibly aimed at terrorism, many predicted it would actually be used to silence peaceful Kremlin opposition forces. They were proved right. There have been many such instances, culminated only weeks ago when the Kremlin began the trial of political writer Andrei Piontovsky, a scholarly and widely respected Kremlin critic both in Russian and in English, for violating the law in an indictment that beggars credulity.
After watching the Kremlin literally crush the life out of the movement to report the truth about its involvement in Chechnya, largely unobstructed by Western opposition, it was hardly even surprising to see, as we’ve recently documented, the New York Times “report” on how the region is becoming some sort of paradise.
All this would be far more painful for Politkovskaya to witness than any suffering a bullet might inflict. It’s her crazy fantasy, then nightmare, then premonition, then scholarly prediction, coming horribly to life.
Throughout her career, Politkovskaya warned us that all of this was coming, and she warned the people of Russia. Many, in turn, warned that her life hung by a thread if she continued to challenge Putin’s Kremlin. But most ignored her. With her killing, Putin’s career in national government came full circle; she was to the world of journalism what Starovoitova had been to the world of politics, and she met the same fate — indeed, the same fate that has greeted so many Russian patriots, from Alexander Pushkin to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who have tried to raise the call for reform. More than any of her words or any historical events, her killing proves that she was right.
There are those who dare to honor Politkovskaya’s memory in the only way it truly can be honored, by carrying on her work. People like Lidia Yusupova, Marina Litvinovich, Svetlana Gannushkina, Yevgenia Albats, Yulia Latynina and Andrei Piontovsky. If you’ve never heard of them, ask yourself whether you’re a victim of the neo-Soviet crackdown. In fact, ask yourself whether you’d heard of Politkovskaya . . . before she was gunned down. Yusupova, who risks her life daily struggling for justice in Chechnya, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year, but lost out to an economist who arranges micro loans. Go figure.
Russia is a failed society in nearly every way. Its population is dying off at an alarming rate, and repeated surveys by international experts have placed the quality of its government on a par with Africa. China will surely begin to take over Russia’s territory in the Far East, Russia can do nothing to stop that. But Russian tactics of repression and propaganda, just as in Soviet times, remain devastatingly effective, as long as they are backed up by the will to terminate human life, a flow of ready cash from the oil markets, and above all a craven Russian population unwilling to stand up for human rights and democratic values. To be sure, such tactics are the clearest possible sign of a failed nation not long for this world, bound to collapse just as did the USSR, but in the meantime there will be untold suffering both within Russia and beyond its borders (particularly as Russia learns how to weaponize its energy resources, as it is trying to do to block democracy in Ukraine, and as it provides military, technical and diplomatic support to rogue regimes like those in Burma, Iran and Venezuela). The longer the West, distracted by radical Islam, waits to deal with this threat, the more difficult it will be to do so.
This is the suffering Politkovskaya struggled so heroically to prevent. If there is any consolation for those who loved and admired her, it can only be that perhaps she understood that only by being killed could she send a message strong enough to break through our widespread self-absorption and cowardice, to jolt us out of our complacency and force us to confront the depressing reality that the threat posed by the USSR is not ended. Or perhaps she simply could not bear watching the nation she loved slip back into bleak dictatorship. Either way, she invited death in the same way that Martin Luther King did, and her “I may not get there with you” is just as surely heard, even if she never said it.
Will we get there? That’s up to us. Remember, Politkovskaya is up there watching.
Kim Zigfeld is a New York City-based writer who blogs at the Pajamas Media Network blog Publius Pundit and publishes her own Russia specialty blog, La Russophobe. She also writes for Russia! magazine and is researching a book on the rise of dictatorship in Putin’s Russia.