The Nation‘s Katriana Vanden Heuvel (and wife of Russia scholar Stephen Cohen) has addressed the murder of Natalya Estermirova. According to preliminary reports, Estermirova was abducted and stuffed in a van. Her corpse was later found murdered near a woodland area near Nazran in Ingushetia. Estermirova had a direct connection to the Nation. She wrote a chronicle of Anna Politkovskaya’s work in Chechnya for the magazine in 2007. About Politkovskaya, Estermirova wrote:
“There are those with a vested interest in keeping the Russian Abu Ghraib forgotten–so that they can once again kidnap and torture. Our task, however, is to uncover their deeds and to fight them. Anna was at the forefront of this work for many years.”
The final line of that article reads: “She is no more. Now it is up to us to continue her work.” Well, Estermirova did, and like Politkovskaya, paid the ultimate price, most likely at the hands of very people who have a “vested interest in keeping the Russian Abu Gharib forgotten.”
For Russian Live Journal reactions see Vilhelm Konnander’s summary on Global Voices.
While Estermirova was no journalist by trade, her personal friendship with Politkovskaya once again reminds one of the dangers of activist journalism in Russia. However, it is important to remember that most Russian journalists who’ve been killed or beaten don’t have high profile status or Western liberal friends. Most write for small papers. Most live far from Moscow where local power is much more immediate and violent and where baseball bats and metal pipes, not pistols, tend to be the weapon of choice. Most write not on Chechnya or oligarchs in Moscow, but on local political and business corruption. The most recent example of such a journalist was Vyacheslav Yaroshenko, the editor-in-chief of Rostov paper Corruption and Crime. He was beaten to death in April and died of his injuries in late June.
Vanden Heuvel says that more than thirty journalists have been killed since Yeltsin. I’ve read much higher numbers. It just depends how you categorize them. But one thing is for sure, this pattern unfortunately has continued with Putin and Medvedev at the helm.
Equally sad is the pessimism that these types of incidents induce. While I share Vaden Heuvel’s call to honor the courage of Natalya Estemirova, I’m afraid that even despite Medvedev’s expression of outrage, that her call for justice, however necessary, will ring hollow.
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- By Sean — 10 years ago
I was reading Amy Knight’s review of Letter to Anna: The Story of Journalist Politkovskaya’s Death and there were those two words again: “fierce critic.” This phrase has become a mantra; a verbal medal pinned on those who oppose the Russian government. For them, getting “fierce critic” following your name is like winning an Oscar for dissidence.
But where does this phrase come from? What is the history of its use?
Interestingly, the first use of “fierce critic” in regard to Russia occurred in the Economist in 1975. In “Poland: Gierek’s get well card,” “fierce critic” wasn’t even reserved for a Russian or a Soviet dissident. Olof Palme, the then Swedish Prime Minister, won the honor for being a “fierce critic of the present Czech regime.” Like so many fierce critics of Russia or their satellites, Palme was assassinated while exiting a movie theater in 1986. The murder was never solved.
The next notable fierce critic of the Soviet Union/Russia was none other than Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Stalin. In a short article in the Advertister in 1897, her biographical sketch included, “She defected from the USSR in 1967 and went to the US, where she became a fierce critic of the Soviet regime.”
The phrase, “fierce critic,” came into wider use in tempests of the revolutions in 1989-91. Fierce critics were coming out the proverbial woodwork. “Fierce critics of Lenin and communist ideology” were holding symposiums at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. All sorts of “fierce critics” were returning to Russia with wide-eyed and bushy tailed dreams of freedom and democracy. But the granddaddy “fierce critic” of the day was Boris Yeltsin. It is hard to find his name mentioned in 1990 without the title attached to him. Yeltsin was a “fierce critic of the lack of radical reforms” and a “fierce critic of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.”
By the next year, however, fierce critics took on a whole new face in the new Russia. Now the fierce critics were primarily those “hardliners” who opposed the economic shock therapy of Yegor Gaidar. However, after Yeltsin had tanks bombard the White House, Russia’s fierce critics seemed to all but disappear. Fierce critic now lacked a singular, unifying face. Granted, there were a few in the early days of the first Chechen War, where fierce critics lobbed critical verbiage at how Yeltsin prosecuted the war and for the conflict’s human rights abuses. But there was no one personage who personified the fierce critic that dazzled the West in the old communist days. True, the Chechen War may have irked the sensibilities of many Western liberals, but Yeltsin was their guy and elevating one Russian to that vaulted place seemed politically imprudent. Perhaps this is the reason so many of the fierce critics of the time faded into obscurity. General Alexander Lebed, Grigory Yavlinsky, Sergei Kovalyov, Lev Rokhlin, and Galina Starovoitova have all landed either literally or figuratively in the dustbin of history. I guess one should note that of the five listed, three of them are now dead.
The phrase “fierce critic” didn’t get a fully reanimated until Putin became president in 2000. His war against the oiligarchs spawned a whole new crop of fierce critics. Vladimir Gusinsky was the first. Gusinsky used his Media-Most to hammer the Kremlin in the hope of rattling the new president’s cage. Rattle it did. So much so that Gusinsky was suddenly arrested and imprisoned for fraud. The charges were eventually dropped but the message was clear. Upon his release, he hightailed it out of Russia to Israel. He was joined shortly thereafter by former Kremlin Godfather turned fierce critic, Boris Berezovsky. Perhaps both knew all too well the fate of some other fierce critics before them.
Nevertheless, the Western media seemed to have found their darling fierce critic in Berezovsky or one of his proxies like Ivan Rybkin. Berezovsky’s name was often bestowed with the title even when he faced extradition trial in London. In the end, Berezovsky was a difficult pill to swallow. Cunning, crooked, and clownish, BAB could never barricade all the skeletons in his closet. All his talk about democracy fell hollow as Berezovsky just couldn’t hide his true face. BAB needed a proxy. He found one in Ivan Rybkin.
Ironically, it was Rybkin, not Berezovsky, who would set the archetype for the fierce critic of the 21st century. With Rybkin, the fierce critic became a more heroic figure, a symbol of the liberal Russian looking to risk his or her life for the Cause. This fierce critic also contained some vestiges of Yeltsin. Namely, he or she was someone the West could identify with. This was something that the fierce critics of the 1990s, most of which being crusty Soviet dissidents and Russian nationalists, didn’t have. Moreover, the new fierce critic didn’t necessary earn the title by his words alone. No, the fierce critic of the Putin era would be one the state, i.e. Putin, struck against using his shadowy FSB agents. The fierce Putin critic was armed with the rhetoric of democracy and free speech and spoke it with sincerity. His foes deployed kidnapping, poison, assassins, and other James Bond props.
The fierce critic’s new life started in February 2004, when Rybkin, who was running for the Russian Presidency with Berezovsky’s backing, alleged that his five day disappearance was the result of being kidnapped and drugged by FSB agents. In a press conference held after his reemergence in Kiev, Rybkin told reporters that his captors informed him that he the target of a “special operation.” “Then they showed me a revolting videotape with my participation and they told me it was a plan to compromise me and force me to be co-operative,” he explained. “After what happened in Kiev, I am convinced that this election is a game without rules and it can end for me without ever beginning.” He dropped his bid for the presidency a month later. Fierce critic he was. He just didn’t have the necessary fortitude.
By 2006, the phrase “fierce critic” appeared to make another interesting discursive shift. No longer was it applied to living critics of Putin. Now only the dead were honored with fierce critic. For example, Anna Politkovskaya, who is probably the most undisputed fierce critic, was really only given the title after she was gunned down in December 2006. In fact, Politikovskaya’s murder was so heinous that being a mere fierce critic of the Kremlin no longer sufficed. To the Guardian and the Independent she was now Putin’s fiercest critic.
Politikovskaya being a genuine fierce critic is difficult to dispute. Perhaps this is why she got the superlative. Still, the fiercest critic was not the earliest example of the posthumous fierce critic. That honor was reserved for none other than Alexander Litivineko. This postmortem fierce critic was virtually unknown before he became an irradiated, decaying living corpse. There is no record of Litvinenko ever being referred to as a fierce critic or really a critic of any kind until he was poisoned. Here are some typical examples of how Litvinenko was referred to after his poisoning:
“Alexander Litvinenko, a former colonel in the Russian secret service and a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin, was seriously ill under armed guard at a London hospital last night.” The Sunday Telegraph, 11/19/2006.
“Mr Litvinenko, 43, a fierce critic of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, suffered a heart attack on Wednesday night and his condition had been deteriorating rapidly.” The Guardian, 11/24/2006.
“Mr. Litvinenko, a former K.G.B. officer, had fled Russia and became a fierce critic of Mr. Putin’s Kremlin.” The NY Times, 12/15/2006.
Even as late as a few days ago, the Courier Mail wrote: “Litvinenko, who was also a fierce critic of Mr Putin, died from polonium poisoning in a case which severely strained relations between Moscow and London.” 10/16/2008. The article was about the poisoning of Karinna Moskalenko.
Luckly for Moskalenko, her alleged poisoning didn’t get her honor of being called a “fierce critic.” So far she’s merely a critic. The Western media only reserves adjectives for the dead.
- By Sean — 11 years ago
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.
- By Sean — 4 years ago
Pavel Baev, a senior researcher at the International Peace Research Institute Oslo. He writes about contemporary Russia for the Eurasian Daily Monitor. His most recent article is Putin’s Disappearing Act May Be Sign of a Leadership Crisis.
Pietro Shakarian, graduate student at the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Michigan. He has written widely on Russia and the former Soviet space and maintains his own blog Reconsidering Russia and the Former Soviet Union. He is the editor of The Red Flag at Ararat by Aghavnie Yeghenian and two forthcoming republications Transcaucasia (1854) by Baron August von Haxthausen and Journey to Ararat (1846) by Friedrich Parrot.