A brave journalist shot to death in Russia
The Economist holds no punches:
She did not sentimentalise the Chechen rebels, nor did she demonise the Russian conscripts—ill-armed, ill-fed, and ill-led—who have crushed the Chechens’ half-baked independence. She talked to soldiers’ mothers trying to find their sons’ corpses in military morgues where mangled bodies lay unnamed and unclaimed—the result of the Russian army’s unique mixture of callousness and incompetence. And she talked to Chechens whose friends and relatives had disappeared into the notorious “filtration camps” to suffer torture, mutilation, rape and death.
Few journalists, from any country, did that. The second Chechen war, which started in 1999 and still fizzles on now, made that mountainous sliver of territory in the northern Caucasus the most dangerous place on the planet for a journalist. Most Moscow-based reporters went seldom, if at all, and then only in daylight and well-guarded. Ms Politkovskaya was unfazed, making around 50 trips there, often for days at a time.
Chechens, and many Russians, adored her. Piles of post and incessant phone calls came, sometimes from people wanting to give her information, more often from those wanting her help. Could she intercede with a kidnapper? Trace a loved one? She always tried, she said, to do what she could.
She loathed those responsible for the war: the warlords who had misruled Chechnya during its brief spells of semi-independence, the Islamic extremists who exploited the conflict, the Russian goons and generals, and their local collaborators. She particularly despised the Chechen government installed by Russia, for what she termed their massive looting of reconstruction money, backed up by kidnapping.
The worst effect of the Chechen wars, she reckoned, was the corrosion of Russia itself. Her reporting from all over Russia made her see her native country in what many regarded as an unfairly bleak light. Mr Putin’s regime was utterly brutal and corrupt, she would say in her soft, matter-of-fact voice. He represented the worst demons of the Soviet past, revived in modern form. Hundreds had died to bring him to power, and that was just a foretaste of the fascism and war that was to come.
Ms Politkovskaya suffered death threats aplenty. On more than one occasion, Russian special forces threatened to rape and kill her, leaving her body in a ditch. Each time she talked them out of it. In 2001, she fled to Austria after receiving a direct warning to leave Russia or else. In 2004, on her way to the siege of a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan, where she hoped to mediate between the Chechen hostage-takers and the Russian military, she was poisoned, and nearly died.
But whoever got into her lift on Saturday October 7th was a professional, intending not to warn her, but to end the problem she presented. She was shot once in the body, once in the head; the pistol was a Makarov, the assassin’s favourite. It was left by her side: in that trade, weapons are used only once.
She was well aware that her murder would be a logical reaction from the authorities. In conversations with your obituarist [the Economist author], she brushed this aside, saying that her sources were in much more danger than she was. Journalists had a duty to report on the subject that mattered, she said no matter what—just as singers had to sing and doctors had to heal.
Ms Politkovskaya’s approachability did not mean that she was easy company. Her fondness for both sweeping statements and for the intricate details of the stories she covered sometimes made conversation heavy-going. She was both disorganised and single-minded; that could be unnerving too.
But she will go down as a martyr, in the beleaguered causes of free speech and public spirit. It would be nice to think that Russians will find her example inspiring. Sadly, they may well conclude that speaking out on unpopular topics is best avoided.