It’s been ten years since an assassin put four bullets in Anna Politkovskaya—three in her chest, one in her head, the hallmark of a contract hit. And what can be said on this macabre anniversary?
We can recall her career and her drive to cover the horrors of Chechnya in ways few would. It was her unrelenting courage that drew the assassin’s bullets.
We can quote her many articles and books for their continued relevance. For example, many would still find veracity in this passage from her Russian Diary: “Our society isn’t a society anymore. It is a collection of windowless, isolated concrete cells…There are thousands who together might add up to the Russian people, but the walls of our cells are impermeable.”
We could also once again lament of the death of Russia’s independent media and recount its constriction. Over the last few years, media outlets like Gazeta.ru, Lenta.ru, and RBK have been bought by Kremlin proxies and/or have had their editorial boards purged. Lawsuits for libel remain a constant feature. Then there’s the issue of funding. Novaya gazeta always appears on the financial brink. Journalists’ income remains poor. Freelance is a way of life and independence and conviction come with monetary sacrifices. As Novaya gazeta reporter Elena Kostyuchenko told the Guardian, “I was offered $10,000 a month to work on television, and at Novaya Gazeta I earn the same as my sister earns selling jeans in Yaroslavl. But we [at the newspaper] have no censorship, and that’s important.”
We could also recount how journalism in Russia is still risky business. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists 80 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992, the majority in the 1990s, and most in Politkovskaya’s beat, the North Caucasus. By CPJ’s count it’s been three years since a journalist has been murdered in Russia. However, it’s worth noting that the criteria for who is counted is important. The Glasnost Defense Foundation has documented the murders of 16 journalists since 2013, and perhaps more telling of Russia’s media climate, 245 attacks. The vast majority of these journalists don’t work for federal media. They write for local publications most of us have never heard of. That said, it’s difficult to tell from the information GDF provides if a journalist is killed for his or her professional activities or were mere victims of crime. But I guess that’s the thing. Like so many things concerning Russia, we just don’t know.
Yes, we could do all these things and we would be right to do them.
But it seems to me that if we really want to commemorate Anna Politkovskaya’s life and dedication ten years after her murder, then we should recognize that despite the many, many limits, Russian journalists still do good work. This work isn’t just by reporters at Novaya gazeta and the New Times. Nor is this work just about uncovering the malfeasance of the Kremlin and its minions. Much of it is local and beyond our radar. There are certainly outliers like Lev Shlosberg who wrote about the funerals of Russian soldiers killed in the Donbas in his local paper Pskovskaya guberniya. That story went global. Shlosberg won international acclaim, was awarded the Nemtsov Prize but was also beaten and expelled from his regional parliament seat. This, however, is the exception. Most good local media deal with local affairs, and more importantly local corruption, politics and the trials of everyday life, and judging by the number of attacks GDF they suffer the most with little recognition.
Even the tamed federal media remains an important source. Again, the dwindling political space to do thorough investigative journalism is tragic, but Russian journalists continue to paint a picture of Russian politics, high and low, and Russian society, high and low, that Western correspondents are unable or uninterested in doing. The daily news Russia’s print media provides is vital. As is its political reporting. Who among us doesn’t rely on outfits like Kommersant for its connections to Russian high political officials? Was it not Kommersant that reported on the Kremlin plans to recreate the KGB? RBK still remains an indispensable source despite its new bosses warning its reporters, “If you drive over the solid double line, they take away your license… Unfortunately, nobody knows where the solid double line is.” And what of Moskovskii komsomolets—an undoubtedly pro-government tabloid—which routinely publishes Nikolai Mironov’s social-economic broadsides? Not even more neutral outfits publish such socially scathing op-eds. Even the more propagandistic, security service connected Life News is at times an important window. Also, isn’t it Rosbalt that has consistently kept covering the Nemtsov murder investigation while most have moved on? Russia’s hamstrung media still have access to things most foreign correspondents don’t: the connections to Kremlin officials, insiders and police willing to talk “on the condition of anonymity.”
Russian journalists also snap important pictures of Russian society. Just look at the Society and Happenings sections of Kommersant, Gazeta.ru, RBK, and Znak.com. In them you will find stories about local politics, labor and other social economic struggles, and other key forms of society reporting. Fragmented these pictures may be, but when pieced together they portray a complex landscape.
There’s also some wonderful new sites spearheaded by Russia’s young journalists like Takie dela and Mediazona. Or the journalism of Meduza, which is housed in Lativa but whose journalists still reside and work in Russia.
Indeed, journalism in Russia remains a dangerous business, especially if you drive over the ever shifting double line. Nevertheless, Russian journalists continue to do valuable and necessary work. So on this tenth anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya’s assassination rather than once again lament the death of Russia’s free media, I’d rather celebrate the Russian media we have and give appreciation to those serious journalists who despite all the constraints continue to do some pretty damn good work.