The Price of Truth: Anna Politkovskaya
Anna Politkovskaya was a fearless reporter – an emblem of the media’s vital role as fourth estate. Her murder on 7 October 2006 shocked the world and ended a brilliant career. Zoya Sheftalovich interviewed Anna Politkovskaya during her visit to Australia as part of the Sydney Writers Festival earlier this year.
Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was seemingly fearless. She was on the hate (and hit) list of some of the most powerful and frightening people in Russia, including president Vladmir Putin, whose government was the focus of much of her recent investigative journalism.
She was poisoned, held captive in a pit without food or water for three days, threatened with rape and death by Russia’s secret service FSB. Yet in spite of this, of perhaps because of it, she remained scathingly critical of her dangerous enemies.
Politkovskaya paid the ultimate price for her perseverance. On October 7, 2006 she was found dead in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building. A bullet to the head and three more to the body – a typical contract killing.
I was one of the last people to interview her before she was murdered.
Politkovskaya was in Australia promoting her book “Putin’s Russia”, an exposé detailing the corruption of the current Russian regime. I arranged to see her between appearances at the Sydney Writer’s Festival.
It’s no wonder that with the extreme challenges she faced, Politkovskaya was prickly, abrasive. And impatient with newcomers to journalism. “I know student journalism,” she had sneered. “No thanks.”
For the first half of our interview she stonewalled me spectacularly, her severe grey bob and no-nonsense spectacles as intimidating as her abrupt manner.
“With all the pressure, have you ever seriously considered leaving Russia?” I asked. She looked at me as if I had spilled something unspeakable on her sensible sneakers.
“Yes,” she said.
“Why haven’t you?” I prompted.
What did I do to deserve her contempt? It had taken me ten minutes to find her in the labyrinth of Sydney’s Intercontinental Hotel, but she was a busy woman and ten minutes may as well have been a decade too late.
After a while she warmed up – I am fluent in Russian and it was the first time in weeks she could speak directly to a captive audience without an interpreter getting in the way.
Politkovskaya spoke fondly of covering social problems early on in her career. “The great tradition of Russian journalism – tell the people about all the things they don’t have and about all the people who have them,” she joked. “It was a natural progression to go from writing about the sad state of mental institutions to the sad state of refugees.”
The refugees Politkovskaya described are from the Federal Republic of Chechnya, which briefly gained independence from Russia after the First Chechen War in 1996, but was recaptured by Putin in the Second Chechen War in 1999. Separatist rebels are still battling Russian troops for independence.
While Boris Yeltzin, president at the time of the First War, signed a peace treaty to end the violence, Putin was determined to keep the oil-rich land. He blamed the loss in the First War on media negativity, and ploughed ruthlessly through all opposition. “Where he cannot buy silence, Putin forces it with fear and guns,” Politkovskaya said. “It is very easy to frighten people away when you live in a pseudo-democracy like Russia.”
The government tried to frighten Politkovskaya into submission too. In February 2000, she was arrested by the FSB in Chechnya. Deprived of food and water, she was tortured in an interrogation pit for three days. But she refused to bow to pressure. Politkovskaya couldn’t stay on the sidelines. “There are practically no journalists left. I know hypothetically it is not my personal responsibility, but I could not abandon people who needed me.”
Because of this perseverance while most journalists left the region, Politkovskaya was seen by Chechens as their last chance of being heard. As a result, she was constantly forced beyond the boundaries of journalism.
In 2002, terrorists took 900 hostages in Moscow theatre Nord-Ost. They demanded Politkovskaya participate in negotiations. “They chose me because I have been there from the beginning. I am not sympathetic to their means, but I am an objective person telling their story.”
When rebels in 2004 stormed a school in the Russian town of Beslan, Politkovskaya spoke to their leader before anyone else could. She believed this conversation annoyed Putin and embarrassed the FSB. So they, and she had no doubt it was the FSB, tried to intimidate her again. They almost killed her by slipping poison into tea she drank on the plane to Beslan. “They wanted me bullied into silence, or worse.” This, she said, only made her more determined.
Novaya Gazetta, the independent newspaper Politkovskaya worked for, felt the pressure of her determination. In a country where almost all media is either nationalised or intimidated into toeing the government line, Politkovskaya wasn’t optimistic about the future. “If things continue as they are, of course Novaya will go. The trick is to make sure I do as much damage as I can now.”
Though passionate on the topic of Chechnya, Politkovskaya pulled back on the personal. She spoke briefly of her two children’s fear about her work. “They worry every day… They ask me every day to give up and take a comfortable position at some overseas university. But they’re grown up now, so they can handle it.”
Despite her children’s constant pleas for her to retire, she believed herself impervious to assassination. She claimed to no longer fear Putin. “What more can they do to me? They’ve tried to kill me, but they couldn’t. I gambled on a bluff. In Russia, you can become too famous for assassination. Now if I am found dead one morning, people around the world are going to ask why, and that is something Putin does not want.”
Chillingly, Politkovskaya was prophetic in imagining the aftermath of her own death. People around the world did take notice. Putin himself spoke out about the damaging effect of this on his public image, claiming that her murder harmed his government more than her articles.
Finally, it seems, she has hit the president hard. Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of Novaya Gazetta, wrote in an editorial, “The president, it appears, understands that it [the murder] is a blow not only to Anna’s children, sister, mother [and] family — to us [the newspaper] — but also to him.”