Anna Politkovskaya, A Russian Diary: A Journalist’s Final Account of Life, Corruption, and Death in Putin’s Russia, trans. Arch Tait, Forward Scott Simon, Random House, New York, 2007.
I’m told that when you begin reading a book you should always start with the title. It’s a small window into the tales between its covers. This is especially the case for Anna Politkovskaya’s posthumous Russian Diary. The title of this English translation pretty much says its all. Anna will tell you stories about how life is slowing becoming paralyzed by a creeping and sinister despotism. She will spin you stories of a State and society rotted out by corruption. And then there is death. It’s a showcase of political gore, depression, and misery. (Interestingly the Russian version’s title lacks such promotional edge. It is simply titled What For (Za Chto).
Political gore is what English speaking readers should expect from Politkovskaya. Her previous three works, A Dirty War, A Small Corner in Hell, and Putin’s Russia all propounded the same thesis. Russian democracy is a façade spun to cover the emergence of despotism. There is a creeping counterrevolution going on in Russia headed by Putin and his chekists.
Some would call Politkovskaya paranoid. But even if she was, it’s hard to completely write off her theory. She was victim of it. In A Small Corner in Hell, she wrote about how in 2001 she was detained, humiliated and taunted by Russian troops. En route to help with negotiations in Beslan she was poisoned. And finally, she was gunned down in her apartment building last year. To a certain extent all of this suggests that perhaps she was on to something.
In Russian Dairy, that “something” is spelled out in dated entries that begin in the frigid months of December 2003 and end in the Fall of August 2005. The end of Politkovskaya’s tale is already foreshadowed in the book’s first entry. It was 7 December 2004. The day Duma elections were held. After voting, Mrs. Putina remarked that the President was worried and needed to hurry home. What was the urgency? The Putins’ Labrador Connie gave birth to puppies the night before. The President of Russia said nothing to the fact that that morning thirteen victims of a terrorist attack in Yessentuki were being buried. Politikovskaya’s friends announced that Putin’s silence meant political suicide of United Russia in the elections. But she wasn’t swayed. “By morning,” she writes with little surprise, “there was no more incredulity. Russia, rejecting the lies and arrogance of the democrats, had mutely surrendered herself to Putin. A majority had voted for the phantom United Russia Party, whole sole political program was to support Putin.”
This is the main theme of Russian Diary: a manipulative, emotionless, cynical yet all powerful Tsar in the form of Putin, a withering, delusional, or worse self-seeking liberal opposition, and an apathetic and fooled public who willingly embraces the opiates the State feeds them. There are few heroes in Russian Diary. When they appear they tend to be individuals or families that risk name, property, and person to survive the brutalities in Chechnya, stand up against its horrors, or risk all to form political organizations—like the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers—that use their moral authority to make political change. But besides these token examples of power from below, Politkovskaya’s Russia is filled to the brim with villainy.
The misery in the book is so thick that it is difficult to isolate what Anna Politkovskaya stands for. Surely she is an advocate for human rights. At times it’s with fervorous and unshakable naiveté. She is a partisan for democracy, but what that buzz word means to her is unclear. She not only takes pride in speaking truth to power, she is willing to take the risks to do so. She possesses a will that is not fueled by fame or fortune (had she wanted those, she would have taken up one of the many offers to move to the West) but by the energy exhibited by the small peoples she interviews in the war torn regions of the North Caucuses. All of this in the end fails to give the reader a clear picture of Politkovskaya politics, but rather forces him to wade through what she is against to discern what she advocates.
It is this ambiguity that makes Russian Diary frustrating at times and turns the myriad of sorrowful tales of human survival in Putin’s Russia into trivia. The book is void of any self-reflexivity, not just on a personal level, but also on a political level. This is strange considering that the book is a diary or at least written in a diary format. But this lack of self reflection suggests that Politkovskaya wrote her diary with the intention of publication from its inception. Those seeking to delve into her soul would be surely disappointed. That is unless they are willing to construct it by peeling away all of the death and corruption that mediates her self and the reader.
The only explicit statement of why Anna Politkovskaya risked her life for her profession is found in the short “Am I Afraid?” that occupies the book’s final two pages. There she denies charges of pessimism, obsession with Putin, and disdain for the Russian people. Her problem, she says, is that “I see everything, and that is the whole problem. I see both what is good and what bad.” The reason why the latter overwhelms the former is because it represents a “mushroom” that can’t be ignored. This is what makes her “want to do something about changing the situation in Russia right now.” And what is that situation? “Our state authorities today,” she writes, “are only interested in making money. That is literally all they are interested in.”
Anna Politkovskaya was the daughter of Soviet diplomats. It was a social position that bequeathed a life of a Soviet elite—access to a good Russian middle class living, education, travel, and intellectual circles. Being from a family of diplomats gave her access to Western books, ideas, and idealism. Not unlike the sons (and some daughters) of Tsarist nobility a century before, Politkovskaya’s class position showered her in benefits of a system she despised. Such is the internal contradiction of the Russian middle class intellectual. Either he or she reconciles themselves to the system, as so many liberals in Politkovskaya’s text have done and continue to do, or embrace the nagging sense of justice that pervades their soul. One can say what they want about Politkovskaya’s brand of “yellow journalism,” but she sincerely chose the latter path. And like so many Russian intellectuals of the past that path ultimately led to her destruction.
Russian Diary is at its best when talking about the small peoples Politkovskaya encounters in her search for a just Russia. You get a sense of how they are caught in the whirlwind of power, corruption, but also hope and the discovery of their agency. Take for example, her conversations with parents of two radicalized youths. One a National Bolshevik, the other a follower of Basaev. According to their parents, neither idolized the NPB’s Eduard Limonov or the Islamism of Shamil Basaev. Both were rather pushed to these extremes by the hopelessness of the political situation. “It is Limonov and Basaev who keep the hope alive in our children that someday they will be able to feel they are decent human beings. It is appalling, but that is how things stand,” Politkovskaya wrote.
This is really the essence of Putin’s Russia in Politkovskaya’s eyes. It’s not so much the corruption, the torture, the disregard for human life, or even the cynicism of Russia’s political elites. The essence for her is the fact that so many people hide their “eyes to reality until it hits us like a typhoon.” For her, Putin’s Russia is approaching what Leopold Haimson called “dual polarization.” The Russian political center has dropped out, civil society has been crushed, and there is a wide disconnect between the intransigent state and the hungry people. Russian politics is increasingly pushed to the margins, with despotism on the one side and radical revolution on the other. This is what the young National Bolshevik and Islamist represent to Politkovskaya. What appalls her is that the Russian state has learned nothing from its torrid history. “Are they suicidal?” She asks. “Are they calmly waiting for the appearance of new terrorist Kalyaevs, Zasuliches, and Savinkovs like the tsars conjured up? Or are they simply mindless, living for the moment? . . . I think they are mindless.”
Yet despite the Kremlin’s mindlessness, Putin and his circle appear to display a political adeptness that almost turns them into a superhuman omnipresent evil. Putin is everywhere in the text, and despite the scorn she heaps on his person, he is still elevated to master villain that has his hands firmly wrapped around the puppet strings. So much so that a reader might walk away with the sense that Russia is merely a victim of a mass conspiracy.
This is perhaps the main fault of Russian Diary. Politkovskaya’s world is one inhabited by individuals with Putin as its alpha and omega. It’s a kind of reverse monarchism really. Instead of thinking that everything would be right if the Tsar knew about the machinations of his nobles, we have the autocrat at the helm, in full control of steamship Russia. Why Putin possesses this authoritarian impulse is more assumed than explained. His career in the Company overshadows all else. And Politkovskaya’s fetishism of the individual leaves no room for any kind of wider analysis of the social, political, and economic forces that Russia finds itself in, whether those conditions are of its own making or not. One gets the sense from Russian Diary that if Putin had a sudden conversion and saw the liberal light, all that is bad in Russia would be magically swept away.
In his introduction to A Small Corner of Hell, Georgi Derluguian wrote that “this book represents a political position in a struggle where the stakes are exceedingly high. The author wants us to appreciate this because she hopes to enlist out support in her cause.” The same can be said of Russian Diary as well as all her books. Politkovskaya had an agenda, and she wasn’t ashamed to arm it with an arsenal of hyperbole. Though she has been repeatedly condemned as more a partisan than a journalist, her lack of objectivity is refreshing in a time when journalists more and more often strip themselves of their passions.
The fact that Politkovskaya threw self-censorship to history’s dustbin is what makes Russian Diary an important text. With that said, that passion drives the narrative to suspension at points. It leaves the reader thinking, “Okay, I get the point” far too often and left wondering if there is anything novel within its remaining pages. But I place the blame for this not on Politkovskaya herself, but on the Random House editors that felt the compulsion to publish every entry she wrote in those two years. After all, posthumous works are never really about the author making a mark for themselves. It’s about turning the author’s every word into something sacred as if their greater meaning would be loss with a single edit.
For better or worse, if Politkovskaya diagnosis for Russia is even a quarter right, what is emerging before us is neither Soviet nor Tsarist (though she makes rather crude allusions to both systems throughout). Putin’s Russia is something far more sinister; a quality, at least she hoped, would hasten its implosion.