Heidi Hoogerbeets, a graduate student at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, traveled to Moscow last week to participate in memorial events for the courageous Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Heidi’s vivid dispatch from Moscow is a reminder that Politkovskaya’s work and human rights advocacy remains alive in Russian journalistic and political life.
Anna Politkovskaya’s Memory Cannot Be Extinguished
MOSCOW, Russia, October 7, 2007 — One year ago today, Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in a contract-style killing near the elevator of her Moscow apartment. Today, Muscovites had the opportunity to pay homage to this dynamic Russian journalist, who felt a moral duty to illuminate the truth behind the Russian government’s agenda in the Chechen war.
Though Politkovskaya’s death had profound international resonance, there has been relatively little reaction inside Putin’s Russia. Nonetheless, a handful of Russian citizens continue to campaign against impunity and to fight the crackdown on press freedom that has plagued Russia. Their determination echoed throughout the day’s events commemorating the first anniversary of her death.
Approximately 2,000 people gathered under a gray sky at Pushkin Square for a dissident rally in Politkovskaya’s honor. An excessive amount of Police lined the square. The rally was peaceful, and no problems were reported.
Apart from those who attended the rally, was a smaller crowd of Muscovites who preferred to separate Politkovskaya’s death from Kremlin politics. Human rights activists and the journalist’s family ardently expressed that speeches could present a platform to politicians who would exploit the opportunity to advance their own agendas.
Through the collective effort of local human rights activists and journalists, an outdoor photo exhibition in Politkovskaya’s memory was held between 11am and 5pm on Bolotnaya Square. The exhibition featured works by outstanding photographers from England and Russia, who captured images of Beslan and Chechnya, places that were close to Politkovskaya’s heart.
The personalities depicted in the exhibition are the heroic citizens of the North Caucasus who experienced the tragedy of war. The photographers captured children’s faces revealing childhoods lost, their eyes showing a maturity beyond their years, and families devastated by war. Additionally, Novaya Gazeta and Amnesty International contributed pictures of Politkovskaya.
The organizing committee included representatives from the human rights center “Memorial,” the “Civil Assistance Committee,” “Glasnost Defense Foundation,” “DEMOS” Center, “Coalition for Democratic Alternative Civil Service” (an anti-war organization), and Novaya Gazeta, where Politkovskaya worked.
Permission for the outdoor exhibition had been obtained from city officials. The required process to organize and carry out the commemorative activities for Politkovskaya in Moscow was a process which epitomized the complex state of Putin’s Russia today. The process included the heavy involvement of government authorities each step of the way, including obtaining and carrying out all details regarding the events.
Alek Mnatsakanyan, one of the committee organizers, was bewildered by a police officer’s reaction to hold the exhibition on October 7, the day of Politkovskaya’s death. “The officer asked why we chose this particular day to hold the exhibition. I told him the day wasn’t our choice, but the choice of those who killed Anna Politkovsaya,” he said. “After all, October 7 is Putin’s birthday, and it is as though the officer was suggesting that such an event would spoil the day for the president.”
In the early afternoon, family, friends, and colleagues visited Troyekurovskoe cemetery to pay their respects to Politkovskaya in a small graveside service. Her grave was covered in a blanket of vibrant flowers glistening under the rainy sky.
Several people huddled tightly together under umbrellas, while reporters hastily circled the grave, snapping multiple pictures.
Novaya Gazeta’s book, “For What,” was placed by her colleagues beside a framed picture of Politkovskaya at the grave site. The large book was released last summer, and features Politkovskaya’s articles and a collection of memories from those who knew her well.
Russian tradition commonly calls for wait of a year before relatives erect a monument at the grave site. Ilya Politkovsky, the journalist’s son, says that the family is planning to put up a monument after the end of winter. “At the moment, we have different ideas for the monument. One thing is for sure, though: The monument will not be dark. Many people in Russia like to have dark monuments, but my mother was a bright person, and she loved bright colors.” he said.
A crowd gathered outside Politkovskaya’s apartment on Lesnaya Street for a silent vigil at 4pm, the time of her murder. On behalf of Garry Kasparov’s “Other Russia,” a plaque was placed above the apartment building’s mailbox, saying, “Anna Politkovskaya lived here and was maliciously killed on October 7, 2006.”
In the evening, Politkovskaya’s car was parked outside Novaya Gazeta for passers-by to observe. Red and white roses adorned the windows. Beside the car, was a life-size poster of her getting into the driver’s seat with a charismatic smile on her face.
Today the halls of Novaya Gazeta are abuzz with talk of deadlines, as work in one of the few remaining independent papers in Russia continues. It is impossible to pass room 307, Politkovskaya’s old office, without stopping by for a few moments of reflection.Though subtle changes were made in the office since October 2006, there are still plenty of visual reminders of Politkovskaya. Flowers and pictures of her sit on her old desk, and her books, awards, and greeting cards still line the window sill that divides her work space from the neighboring office. The office seems frozen in a time vacuum, free from the ever-present traces of cigarette smoke that characteristically permeate Russian work spaces.
Last Monday’s issue of Novaya Gazeta featured Politkovskaya’s old telephone number on the front page. A heartrending picture of her on the phone, her eyes energetic, lips showing a sincere smile, took up half the page. In anticipation of the October 7 anniversary, her old telephone number was reactivated for a week, so that people could voice their opinions about their lives, politics, and of course, about Politkovskaya.
Remembering Politkovskaya, Dmitry Muratov, Novaya Gazeta’s Editor-in Chief, said that she was no ordinary reporter who simply reported on Chechnya. After writing about the people she interviewed, she went back to help them any way she could.
“At Anya’s request, people regularly brought books, clothing, pampers, and food products – right here, to Novaya Gazeta,” Muratov said, tapping his desk for emphasis. “Then all these things were sent to people who lost their homes in Chechnya.”
Aware of the danger awaiting Politkovskaya, Muratov constantly tried to convince her to write about other things. “I told her that there are other countries and other themes she can write about,” he said. “But it was impossible to argue with her. And Anna did have a very strong point. People had nowhere else to go – Moscow wouldn’t help them, and Kadirov wouldn’t help them.” Indeed, Politkovskaya never abandoned war victims who had no voice of their own, and nowhere else to turn.
“The last time Anya went to Chechnya, it was without my permission, when I was on vacation. I saved a text message she sent me,” Muratov said, his eyes reflecting a blend of pride and sadness.
Muratov reached across his desk for his cell phone, and displayed her final rebellious message: “I am in Chechnya. Call if you need anything.”
Politkovskaya is remembered not only as a courageous journalist and citizen who cared deeply about the fate of her country, but also as a devoted mother.
Ilya Politkovsaky said that on the anniversary of his mother’s death, the family would visit his mother’s grave early in the morning and then have their own quiet gathering.
“For me she is not a diplomat or war correspondent. She’s just my mother,” Politkovsky said. “My sister and I agreed with my mother’s political position about the situation in Russia and in Chechnya, and we understood why she was going on with her work, but we couldn’t accept it. We never wanted our mother to be the one writing about those things.”
How would Ilya Politkovsky like his mother to be remembered? Politkovsky contemplatively sipped some tea before giving an answer. “I would like for my mother’s articles to continue to be read and published, and for people to truly understand that she was an outstanding investigative journalist, not only for Chechnya, but for Russia. I want her to be a paragon in the world of investigative journalism,” he finally said.
And she is.
She was virtually alone in the campaign to reveal the grotesque civilian casualties and the ruthless abuse of Russian soldiers by senior officers during the Chechen War.
Viacheslav Ismailov, Politkovskaya’s close colleague at Novaya Gazeta, said she was a voice for those families who were abandoned by the justice system designed to protect them. “No journalist, either in Russia or abroad, dedicated so much time to recording specific cases of kidnappings, disappearances and torture. This set her apart from other journalists,” Ismailov said. “Anna felt that no one understood her. And many people didn’t – even her colleagues here at Novaya Gazeta.”
The unpopular and controversial topic of Chechnya contributed to sense of isolation. Many Russians displayed indifference toward the Second Chechen war to which she devoted her pen. Nevertheless, Politkovskaya fought to enlighten a misinformed Russian audience, whose priority lay in securing newfound personal economic prosperity.
Perhaps it will take the life of Anna Politkovskaya to demonstrate to Vladimir Putin and the rest of the world that, in order for a great power to survive and prosper in the world, recognition and respect for human rights and freedoms are requirements for all democratic societies.
Politkovskaya’s words continue to haunt the authorities she challenged. Her daring articles showcased the country’s systematic disregard for human rights and the evaporation of the most basic tenets of modern democratic societies – freedom of speech and a sound, independent legal system. She unmasked the cruel reality of the Chechen wars, raising chilling questions that could no longer be ignored in Russia, or abroad.
And today was a peaceful reminder that even after her death, Anna Politkovskaya remains alive, transcending cultural boundaries throughout the world, serving as a symbol of the emergence of the truth embodied in journalism.