The killing of Anna Politkovskaya October 7 has rallied her colleagues and fellow citizens in a way few recent events have. “We must all change the situation after this tragedy and stop the passivity of civil groups and the journalistic community,” a Russian journalist friend told me just hours before 3,000 people gathered in the heart of Moscow to mourn her death and demand the government conduct an immediate investigation.
Politkovskaya’s murder was shocking, but for anyone who follows Russian political life today not surprising. As Oleg Panfilov, who runs Moscow’s Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said upon learning of her murder, “I always thought something would happen to Anya, first of all because of Chechnya.”
I met Politkovskaya a few times, in Moscow and in New York. Her demeanor–quiet, even shy–belied her role as a journalist enraged by the injustice and corruption she believed were strangling her country. Since 1999 her unflinching investigative reporting on the brutality and corruption of the Chechen war had made her the target of numerous death threats, but she never slowed down. In fact, when she was killed, Politkovskaya, 48, was at work on an article claiming torture of Chechen civilians by security forces loyal to the region’s pro-Moscow prime minister. Her reporting appeared in Russia’s leading opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, one of the few independent outlets left in the increasingly state- or oligarch-controlled media.
Some have blamed President Vladimir Putin for her killing. Among them is the Washington Post, which pointed to “the climate of brutality that has flourished under Mr. Putin, a former KGB agent himself.” But that is far from a satisfactory or full explanation. Since 1992 forty-two journalists have been killed in post-Soviet Russia–most in unsolved contract executions. Thirty of them occurred under Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s predecessor. Indeed, Politkovskaya lies in the same cemetery where Dmitry Kholodov, who was killed during the Yeltsin years while investigating military financial corruption, is buried.
Lost amid so much of the coverage is a sad irony: Politkovskaya was murdered on the twentieth anniversary of the unfolding of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policy–which quickly led to an increasingly free press. Perhaps reacting to the human costs of glasnost‘s rollback, the former Soviet president (who recently became a shareholder in Novaya Gazeta), called Politkovskaya’s murder “a grave crime against the country, against all of us… [and] a blow to the entire democratic, independent press.”