It is 10 years since Russia and the world lost a great and courageous journalist. The killing of Anna Politkovskaya on October 7, 2006, was horrifying and shocking, but not unexpected. As Oleg Panfilov, head of Moscow’s Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said upon learning of her murder, “There are journalists who have this fate hanging over them. I always thought something would happen to Anya, first of all because of Chechnya.” It was “a savage crime,” said former Russian president—and the father of glasnost—Mikhail Gorbachev. “It is a grave crime against the country, against all of us.” Politkovskaya was just 48 years old when she was found in the foyer of her apartment building, shot in the head with a pistol. Her unflinching reporting for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta on the Chechen War’s human-rights abuses, corruption, and brutality made her one of Russia’s bravest journalists.
I met Politkovskaya a few times, in Moscow and in New York. (The Nation and her newspaper Novaya Gazeta have long had good ties—my husband, Stephen Cohen, and I befriended Novaya’s brave editor Dmitri Muratov in 1993 a few weeks before he founded the paper.) Anna’s manner–quiet, unassuming, even shy–belied her role as a journalist enraged by the injustice and corruption that she believed were strangling her country. Her investigative reporting had made her the target of numerous death threats. On one of her many reporting trips to Chechnya, Politkovskayawas detained and beaten by Russian troops who threw her into a pit, threatened to rape her, and performed a mock execution. “If it were up to me,” an officer told her, “I’d shoot you.” Yet numerous death threats never slowed or stopped her. In fact, when she was killed, Politkovskaya was at work on an article revealing torture of Chechen civilians by security forces loyal to the region’s pro-Moscow prime minister.1
Some have blamed President Vladimir Putin for her killing (though her newspaper’s editor and colleagues have not). But that is far from a satisfactory or full explanation. Since 1992, 54 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.2
Lost amid so much of the coverage is a sad irony: Politkovskaya was murdered on the 20th 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 is a shareholder in Novaya Gazeta) called Politkovskaya’s murder “a blow to the entire democratic, independent press.”3
This week I asked Muratov what the paper planned to do to mark this grim and sad anniversary. “On the anniversary of Anna’s murder we will publish a special issue of the paper dedicated to her—an investigation of the ongoing human rights abuses and corruption in Chechnya.”4