When I started this blog back in September of 2006, things were pretty different then in Russia. It was about a year after I had been expelled from Russia under vague threat of arrest, back when most of us who were vocally opposed to the policies of the Kremlin leadership believed that there were certain limits to what the government would do, and still some semblance of basic rights. Various NGOs and civil society groups were still running, journalism was dying but was still much stronger, and there was a highly caffeinated intellectual energy among the new generation. During my time living in Moscow during the trial I knew Anna Politkovskaya, and I regret to say that one of my last memories of meeting her in person, along with Stanislav Markelov, occurred at the T.G.I. Friday’s on Tverskaya Street – I just wished I had picked a better restaurant for that final dinner, had I known the terrible future awaiting my friends.
Today of course is the fourth anniversary of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, and, coincidentally or not, the 58th birthday of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. After four anniversaries of this terrible death, hashing through the details, the memories, her work, and the political afterlife of the event, most readers are already familiar with the details of the story. Anna was returning home to her apartment on Lesnaya Street on Saturday around 4:00PM from the supermarket. Closed circuit cameras have her walking from her Lada to take several bags of groceries up to the apartment, before returning back down for the rest. When the elevator came to the ground floor, Anna was greeted by a single individual in a baseball cap, who fired three shots from a Makarov pistol into her body, followed by a final confirm shot to the head. Later, during one of the extremely flawed court proceedings, it would be revealed that Lt. Col. Pavel Ryaguzov of the FSB had passed intelligence on Politkovskaya’s whereabouts to the killers.
Four years on, there has been no real justice, no accountability, and no concerted official effort to convince society that there are consequences for threatening, attacking, or otherwise harming a journalist. About a month after Politkovskaya’s death, the press watchdog Committe to Protect Journalists published a scathing report condemning Russia for the unsolved deaths of 13 journalists (that number has gone up since).
However this anniversary there is some news: the newly empowered Investigative Committee of the procuracy, headed up by Alexander Bastrykin, invited a delegation from the CPJ to meet with the IC and debrief him all these unsolved cases. And just like that, with a snap of the fingers, Bastrykin announces the re-opening of about 19 investigations of murdered journalists. It’s tough to gauge the sincerity of Bastrykin, but he’s got a new mandate and did a good job impressing CPJ delegates with his tone at the meeting.
Andrew Roth has a good piece analyzing this sudden shift published on Russia Profile:
One theory is that the meetings between CPJ and the InvestigativeCommittee serve, at least in part, to counter Russia’s internationalreputation as a country that does not protect its journalists. “We seethis as a sign that the Kremlin cares how it is perceived abroad and howRussia’s image is being shaped abroad. Obviously journalist killingsare a smear on that image,” said Ognianova. The decision to reopen theprobes into the killings of journalists may also have had Russia’sinternational reputation in mind.
We can only hope that Bastrykin’s agenda goes beyond the PR to produce results, but past experience makes optimism very difficult at this point.
Having to witness yet another year passing by with the killers of Anna Politkovskaya still at large causes a reasonable amount of sadness and outrage, coupled with profound frustration that more could not be done. Her death is not an isolated event, as it is often argued by apologists of this government, but part of a larger pattern of impunity, crime, and violence which has become the feature of a political system which lacks the fundamental pillar of independent justice and real rule of law.
There is a problem with the exercise of power in Russia, and while in many of these cases it is not correct to blame the state, their behavior in reaction to this unchecked violence in abhorrent and grotesque (not one state official has attended any memorial service or anniversary relating to Politkovskaya – only Gorbachev has had the courage to present her book). Yes, there have been cases in which her name, and that of Markelov, Estemirova, and so many other victims have been brandished with carelessness by those opposed to the Kremlin, whose aims have nothing to do with simple justice for the grieving families. But to me, the idea that so many Putin supporters are willing to make the choice to be more angry about a clumsy appropriation of these events than they would be about the actual murders and impunity themselves, is a true measurement of the deplorable state of affairs in Russia.
I hope that on this particular anniversary for Anna, it is possible to reflect and remember the tremendous humanity and individual sacrifice of those who have had the courage to believe in something. Where is that courage and self-awareness now, and what are the beliefs and social ideas for the next generation of young Russians?
As Anna wrote in her posthumously published diaries, “People often tell me I am a pessimist; that I do not believe in the strength of the Russian people; that I am obsessive in my opposition to Putin and see nothing beyond that. I see everything, and that is the whole problem. I see both what is good and what is bad. I see that people would like life to change for the better but are incapable of making that happen, and that in order to conceal this truth they concentrate on the positive and pretend the negative isn’t there. To my way of thinking, a mushroom growing under a large leaf can’t just hope to sit it out. Almost certainly someone is going to spot it, cut it out and devour it. If you were born a human being, you cannot behave like a mushroom.”
Anna will be remembered for many things, but most certainly, we will remember that she went down fighting.