On October 7, 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, was gunned down in the entry of her building in Moscow. She belonged to a generation that started out on its journalistic path as perestroika began, a group that actively built the new journalism. During the first war in Chechnyam, she reported deeply on the suffering and fate of ordinary people, soldiers and their mothers, Chechen women, children, and old people. She showed the human dimension of war, a quality that some, to this day, wrongly consider a distinction of women’s reporting from hot or war spots. Moreover, she sometimes participated in helping the people she wrote about—she helped residents of a nursing home evacuate from Chechnya.
Her reports were largely based on information from the human rights organizations of the Caucasus, primarily Memorial, and through her work Russia learned about the torture, the disappeared people, and the cruelty of that unnecessary war.
Politkovskaya’s writing had tremendous resonance outside her country as well. Her book Putin’s Russia, published in the UK in 2004, was a great success and revealed the issues she cared deeply about—she interpreted contemporary Russia for Western readers.
Politkovskaya’s funeral in 2006 drew enormous crowds. Soon after, women journalists organized a march through the center of Moscow, many with their children, carrying posters reading, “Don’t Shoot My Mother.” The march ended at Pushkin Square, where the list of the 211 journalists who perished in 1990, prepared by Moscow’s Glasnost Foundation, was read aloud.
Her killing stunned the international community, and that same year, 2007, the International Federation of Journalists embarked on a multiyear project to overcome impunity in Russia, creating a database of the violations of the rights of journalists; there were conferences and seminars on safety, and handbooks were written. The Russian journalistic community, once rather atomized and passive, began to exhibit solidarity.
Anna became a symbol of unflinching devotion to her profession and to the belief that a honest word can improve life. A square in the business center of Milan and one in Rome not far from the Villa Borghese have been named for her; films and operas have been made about her. Her name is heard at rallies and forums in defense of peace and freedom of speech around the world.
Unfortunately, there is no street named for her in Russia. The staff of Novaya Gazeta named a small garden in their building for Politkovskaya as well as the Kamerton (“Tuning Fork”) journalism prize established by the newspaper, honors bestowed in a ceremony attended by her family and Russian musicians. Last year, the prize was awarded to Elena Kostyuchenko for her reporting on Covid and the environmental catastrophe in the Arctic. She became a journalist following the example of Politkovskaya, whose articles she read while still in school. This year’s winner is Natalya Sindeyeva, the creator and general director of the independent cable station Dozhd (Rain TV). The state recently designated Dozhd a “foreign agent”—adding the station to a register that already includes dozens of independent media outlets and individual journalists.
The list of murdered journalists, under Boris Yeltsin and Putin, has now exceeded 350. The majority of cases remain unsolved, including Anna’s. The investigation into Politkovskaya’s death has lasted several years, and in 2014 two men were sentenced to life in prison, while three other men were given jail sentences of 12 to 20 years. But Anna’s newspaper and her family believe the people who commissioned the murder have not yet been identified. Anna’s family and friends continue to hope those responsible will be punished.
The 15 years since Politkovskaya’s death have shown the fragility of freedom of speech and the importance of independent journalism and solidarity. Russian lawyers point out that over those years more than 30 new laws and acts have been passed restricting the rights of journalists and the media. This year set a record in limitations and in selective application of repressive legislation against independent voices. “At the same time,” says Galina Arapova, director of the Media Rights Protection Center, “it is in the last few years that independent journalism has flourished on new platforms.” A new generation of journalists is here. They are continuing the work of Anna Politkovskaya. It is important that their readers are aware of the job they do.
Translated by Antonina W. Bouis