Politkovskaya Ten Years On

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?

Six and Sixty

This post was also published at Warscapes.

Sunday, October 7, marks six years since Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in her apartment elevator. The assailant shot her four times, three in the chest, and once in the head, the trademark of a contract hit. Also on Sunday, incidentally, Vladimir Putin will turn sixty years old. Six and sixty. There’s symmetry in the numbers, the one marking a death, the other a birth. But Putin and Politkovskaya have been linked for a while now. That is, at least since the former became (acting) President of Russia in December 1999. Only six months prior had Politkovskaya begun writing for Novaya gazeta, where she spent the rest of her career covering the gruesomeness of Putin’s war in Chechnya. Her murder on Putin’s birthday (which many think was a perverse present to the leader) formally cemented the link between the two rivals, perhaps forever.

Sunday will be a reminder of that bond, if only because no one has been convicted of Politkovskaya’s murder. This is not to say that Putin is to blame for it, but the lack of conviction has occurred under his watch, first as President and then under his stand-in, DmitryMedvedev. Three suspects, Dzhabrail Makhmudov, Ibragim Makhmudov, and Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, were tried and acquitted in February 2009. By that summer, the Russian Supreme Court overturned their not-guilty verdicts, and the three will be retried. As it stands now, investigators have completed their inquiry, and six suspects will eventually stand in the docket: Rustam Makhmudov, the alleged gunman, his brothers Dzhabrail and Ibragim, Lom-Ali Gaitukayev, and two former police officers, Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov and Sergei Kadzhikurbanov. As for the persons who hired these alleged proxies, the search for them appears to have grounded to a halt, assuming it was ever started.

The link between Putin and Politkovskaya will be recalled in the divergence of scale and tone in the planned commemorations for each figure. The state channel NTV will run a documentary giving the public a “never-before-seen” peek into the life of their dear leader. Other Putinoids will hold everything from rallies to poetry readings, while towns like Rostov and Chelyabinsk will drape their thoroughfares in Putin banners. And just so you don’t think Putin has lost his virility, the Levada Center has conducted a poll that puts the sex into the sexagenarian Putin. According to the survey, 20 percent of women would “would jump at the chance” to wed Russia’s President. How fitting it all is. But make no mistake; such events are not at the behest of the Kremlin. Or so we are told. “I already said that Vladimir Putin is not a supporter of marking his birthday in public,” his press secretary, Dmitrii Peskov told reporters. “He spends his birthday among close friends and family.” Then he added, “We definitely do not encourage any kind of on air celebrations. Although some special celebration was initiated by the channels themselves, we will not approve of it.” As Jan Plamper noted in his study of the Stalin cult, such acts of disavowal amount to “immodest modesty” or “flamboyant modesty.” The leader wants his cult, but doesn’t want to appear to want it. I suspect Putin is no different in this regard.

Plans to observe Anna Politkovskaya’s murder are in stark contrast. Supporters, friends, and family will stage a small and likely solemn picket on Novopushkinskaya Square. The organizers originally wanted to have it at Pushkin Square in the center of town, but the authorities rejected the idea, saying the site will be occupied. This is not to say that Politkovskaya’s murder doesn’t have its own objects of memory. A human rights award has been named after her, two posthumous books have been published—her diary A Russian Diary (2007) and a collection of her final articles in Nothing but the Truth (2010) (published in the United States as Is Journalism Worth Dying For? (2011)—and a few films and documentaries have been produced about her work, murder, and its investigation. New memory objects are in the works.  Just this week, officials in the Czech town Karlovy Vary renamed a park in her honor. And further celluloid immortalizations are in store with a new Hollywood film about the journalist in the planning stages.

There was no love lost between Politkovskaya and Putin. In Putin’s Russia, Politkovskaya called Putin the “soul brother” of Gogol’s Akaky Akakievich on the eve of his inauguration for his second term in 2004:

“[Putin’s] outlook is narrow, provincial one his rank would suggest; he has the unprepossessing personality of a lieutenant colonel who never made it to colonel, the manner of a Soviet secret policeman who habitually snoops on his colleagues. And he is vindictive: not a single political opponent has been invited to the inauguration ceremony, nor a single political party that is in any way out of step. Tomorrow . . . Akaky Akakievich Putin will strut down the red carpet of the Kremlin throne room as if he really where the boss there. Around him the polished tsarist gold will gleam, the servants will smile submissively, his comrades in arms, a choice selection from the lower ranks of the KGB who could have risen to important posts only under Putin, will swell with self-importance.”

In contrast to Politkovskaya’s hyperbole, Putin was cold, dismissive, and exact when it came to his critic. When asked for a comment on Politkovskaya’s murder, Putin said, “Yes indeed, this journalist was a harsh critic of the present authorities in Russia, but I think that journalists should know this, at least experts are well aware of this, the extent of her influence on political life in the country, in Russia, was extremely insignificant. She was known in journalistic circles, in human rights circles, in the West. I repeat, her influence on political life in Russia was minimal.” For him, Politkovskaya was merely a “woman” and a “mother,” and as far as who was the real victim of this crime, it was “Russia,” its “current government authorities,” and if that wasn’t ironic enough, those of the “Chechen Republic.” Her murder, Putin continued, “inflicts on the current authorities a far greater loss and damage than her publications.”

Politkovskaya would have hardly been surprised by Putin’s response. Yet I wonder what she would have thought about the last two years of Putin’s second term, the Medvedev interlude, and Putin’s return for a third tour. She would have likely been among those who called Medvedev a sham, and would have been unmoved by Putin’s hat-trick, or that the vast majority of Russian society passively accepted it. After all, her general assessment of Russia was incredibly dark, and she showed little hope that it would change. “Our society isn’t a society anymore,” she wrote in Russian Diary. “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.” Her prophesies about “revolution” in Russia were similarly laden with dread. “Our revolution, if it comes, will be red, because the Communists are almost the most democratic force in the country, and because it will be bloody.”

She minced few words when it came to the opposition too. In February 2004, she rhetorically asked, “Why is it so easy in Russia to put down democratic opposition? It is something in the opposition themselves. It is not that what they are confronting is too strong, although of course that is a factor. The main thing is that the opposition lacks an unflinching determination to oppose.”  A month before her murder, her diagnosis of Russia’s democratic opposition had hardly changed: “To put it bluntly, I do not believe their democratic convictions run that deep. I don’t trust any of them, other than Kasparov, and I doubt that he will be able to move mountains on his own.”

Her assessment of her colleagues in journalism was no less caustic. In an article found on her computer after her death, presumptuously titled, “So What Am I Guilty Of?” Politkovskaya compared her peers to “koverny,” Russian circus clowns who entertained the crowd between acts. “Almost the entire generation of Russian journalists, and those sections of the mass media which have survived to date, are clowns of this kind, a Big Top of kovernys whose job it is to keep the public entertained and, if they do have to write about anything serious, then merely to tell everyone how wonderful the Pyramid of Power is in all manifestations.” She, on the other hand, refused to play the clown, and accepted the fate of pariah. “What am I guilty of? I have merely reported what I witnessed, nothing but the truth.”

This begs the question of what she might have thought about the Russia of 2012. It’s widely maintained that Russia has changed. Would Politkovskaya have changed with it? What would she have made of the New Decembrists and some of the Young Turks at their head, like Alexey Navalny and Sergei Uldaltsov? Of the protests against Putin, which during her life were never more than a few hundred people, at best, and now number in the tens of thousands? Of the political vibrancy of Runet, the centrality of blogs and Twitter, and the new crop of activist-journalists? Would she write them off as clowns? And what of Russian society? Would Politkovskaya look at all this and still see it as a tetragon of windowless, impenetrable concrete cells? Is there still even a place for Politkovskaya in today’s Russia? Where would her role be, when Chechnya and the North Caucasus in general are literally out of the Russian sight and out of the Russian mind? Sadly, thanks to three shots to the chest, and one to the head, we’ll never know.

Three Years–No Killer, No Justice

Three years ago, Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in the vestibule of her apartment building as she returned from grocery shopping.  She was murdered for her long standing and acclaimed reporting on Chechnya. Three years and no killer has been found.  Nor has anyone tied to the crime been convicted. There is not much to say about this case that hasn’t already been said.  Human rights groups in and outside Russia have repeatedly called for the Russian government to step up and do something.  Commentators, even some as unlikely as Princeton philosopher K. Anthony Appiah, have held the murder up as a testament to the lack of democracy in Russia.  Either we are all fooling ourselves in thinking that the Kremlin could actually do something; or all the pleas are falling on deaf ears.  Time is probably better spent barking at the moon than trying to penetrate the seemingly sound proof Kremlin walls.

What is clear from some of the reports marking Politkovskaya’s murder is that hope that the killer(s) will be found is quickly fading.  And you can’t blame anyone, especially the Politkovskaya family, for the despair.  “Our family is starting to lose hope that all those involved in this crime will be found and brought to justice,” Vera Politkovskaya, daughter of Anna Politkovskaya told Russia Today. “Time is passing by and, with it, our chances of finding those responsible.”

Not a single murderer has been brought to justice in the long list of slain Russian journalists.  In regard to the Politkovskaya case, the only new information (and I use “new” very liberally since nothing really new has come to light in a long time) is a sick version of Where’s Waldo?  As Sergei Sokolov, the editor-in-chief at Novaya gazeta, told the Moscow Times the investigation has turned up “new people whose names haven’t been published” (the Politkovskaya family denies this) and Rustam Makhmudov, the suspected killer, is believed to be country hopping in the European Union.  He “could have been arrested in April, but he has managed to disappear again,” says Sokolov.  But as to which countries, the Novaya editor doesn’t know or is keeping the information close to the chest. When pressed, he said that he “certainly has some ideas regarding this issue, but wouldn’t disclose them.”  It would have been better for him to just say nothing.

In fact, giving vague comments has been a mantra when talking of this case.  Who knows that the authorities know. What we do know, we don’t really know.  And what we think we know only fuels more speculation about things we don’t, can’t and probably never will know.

There will always be time for barking at the moon.  But on this day, perhaps the appropriate action is to remain silent and remember another remarkable figure tragically snuffed out by the nefarious dark forces that operate with impunity in Russia.

Another Casualty of the “Russian Abu Ghraib”

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.

Politkovskaya Defendents Go Back to Court

It’s back to court for Pavel Ryaguzov, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov and brothers Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov.  Today, the Russian Supreme Court overturned their acquittal in the Anna Politkovskaya murder case.  Reports the NY Times:

The court said the four men, who were accused of assisting the killer of Ms. Politkovskaya, should be tried on the same charges in the same military court in Moscow. In ordering the retrial, the court sided with the prosecution, which argued that there had been procedural violations by the judges and the defense during the original trial, a court spokesman, Pavel Odintsov, said. Other critics, however, including President Dmitri A. Medvedev, cited the prosecution’s errors and unfamiliarity with the jury system, which is relatively new in Russia, in the acquittal.

A statement issued by the Politkovskaya family on Novaya gazeta‘s website said the following the about the Court’s ruling:

We recognize that the trial of every one of the accused was a fiasco.  A fiasco from the standpoint of the evidence which was presented to the court.

But we think they are accessories in the case because we have yet to received an answer about what [they] were doing near the building at the time of the murder.

Therefore, the verdict, which the jury decided was just because there not enough evidence was presented.

We, as before, think that there is one possible option in the progress of the case–its transfer to a supplementary examination.  We, as before, are sure that the case was not investigated and not transparent, and our main demand to the investigation which has yet to clarify who ordered the murder and the rest of the participants in the crime.

We only want the case to be investigated as it should be, and hold accountable all those persons responsible including the [murder’s] client.

For an excellent article on the first trials proceedings, I highly recommend Keith Gessen’s ‘The Accused”  Hopefully this time the prosecution will present a better case.

Politkovskaya Juror Denies Barring Media

Evgenii Kolesov, one of the jurors in the Politkovskaya murder trial, was on Ekho Moskvy today and said the following about the sudden closing of the trial to the media:

“I can’t say that the initiative originated from us.  In no way did any of us demand this,” the juror emphasized.  According to him, the court secretary came to the jury room before the trial and asked them to sign a request to conduct the trial without the press, but “yesterday no one signed this request.” Today, the jurors for the Politkovskaya case addressed the court with a request to allow the print media into the trial.

It appears that the plot is thickening.

The Open Trial that Wasn’t

On Tuesday, it looked as if the Anna Politkovskaya trial would be open to journalists.  Today, the judge Yevgeny Zubov, decided at the last moment that it would be closed.  The reason he gave was that the jury refused to participate if the trial was open to the media.  Zubkov had already warned that he would close the proceedings if “a juror made a single request.”

Nevertheless, there are those that smell something rotten in the Moscow Military District Court.  Karinna Moskalenko, the non-poisoned lawyer for the Politikovskaya family, was disappointed, but not surprised. Is anyone? He says that the Zubkov had “not offered convincing evidence of the need to bar the public for the safety of the jury.”  “I could expect this is there were a threat to the jury,” she told reporters.  Novaya gazeta noted that,

It’s notable that a day earlier when the jurors were sworn in, not a single one spoke out about their safety or suspicions regarding concern for future pressure or threats.  Moreover, none of the 12 jurors said anything about having facts on that nature.

The procecution deined that the closing of the court had anything to do with government pressure from above.  After all, its representatives, Vera Pashkovskaya and Iuliia Safina were all prepared to address the media, which had been assembled for a press conference a mere forty minutes before the trial opened.

So who knows?  The truth of the matter is that some will believe that someone above intervened, others will say that there is a real possibility that jurors could be threatened.  Both are possible, though I have the say the latter is more probable given the nature of the case and the type of people involved.  The funny thing is that the same people who think there is a government hand in the court’s closing are the very same people who would blame the government if a juror was threatened, or worse, ended up dead.  Either way, a conspiracy will be conjured. Given this and the amount of international attention this case is getting, if I was Zubkov I would probably play it safe too.

The Politkovskaya trial is not the only incident hitting the Russian media world. This week, Moscow prosecutors sent a warning to Newsweek Russia over the possibility that its September 29-October 5 issue might incite interethnic and religious strife between Christians and Muslims.  The articles is question are “Who Goes to Mosque with Us” and “Mosque Carriers.”  The complaint was filed by the Russian Mufti Council because the issue contained a reprint of the cartoon of Mohammed which sparked proetsts in 2005.
One wouldn’t think that ethnic strife is a real problem given the results of Levada Center’s recent poll on multi-ethnic tension in Russia.  According to its findings, 26 perecent rarely and 58 percent never feel any ethnic hostility woward others.  Similar percentages were given for the question: Do you at the present moment feel any hostility toward people of a different nationality?”
Still, the visage of the Prophet Mohammad is not the only thing the Russian media has to be careful reporting about.  Apparently, so is the economic crisis.  In Sverdlovsk, the prosecutor began a check of their local media for disseminating information that might “destabilize the [economic] situation in the region.”  Namely, according to Timma Bobina, the head assistant to the prosecutors office, “We were assigned to check information about media attacks via the Internet on credit organizations in Yekaterinburg.  If we establish evidence that the law was broken, we can follow up with disciplinary measures, and even criminal punishment against the perpetrators.”

Sverdlovsk isn’t the only region going through such a “check.” Kommersant reports that all of Russia’s regions will look into how local media is reporting on local banks. According to prosecutors, customers in the Far East received an SMS saying that Dalkombank and Vladivostok banks were going bankrupt.  In three days, clients withdrew $2.4 million rubles. In Yekaterinburg local media started a panic when it reported that Severnaya Bank, Bank 24.ru, and Ural Bank were to undergo “reconstruction and development.” Apparently the economic crisis has sent many Russians into a panic to withdrawal their savings from banks.

Something must be up because there has been a rash of muggings of people carrying large sums of cash in Moscow.  The Moscow Times reports,

City police on Tuesday alone registered four separate thefts from car drivers of amounts ranging from 300,000 rubles ($10,900) to 3 million rubles ($109,000), state-run Vesti-24 said in a report posted on its web site.

“Police have noted that since the start of the crisis, such crimes have become more common,” Vesti-24 reported. “This is because people are carrying large amounts of cash. Criminals are taking advantage of this.”

Four people attacked the driver of a Jeep Grand Cherokee that had stopped at a traffic light at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday on Aviamotornaya Ulitsa in southeastern Moscow, injuring him with a hammer and baseball bats before taking a bag containing 300,000 rubles, police said.

At about the same time, three men grabbed a bag with 3 million rubles in it from a 32-year-old sitting in a car on Denisovsky Pereulok, near Baumanskaya metro station in central Moscow, before making off in a getaway car, according to police.

On Tuesday evening, three men stopped a car on Slavyansky Bulvar in central Moscow and snatched a bag containing 500,000 rubles from the 45-year-old driver.

Finally, the near death beating of Mikhail Beketov is hitting the international press, as it well should. Provincial reporters bear the brunt of the violence against journalists in Russia. They’re easy targets because they have few resources, little notoriety, and most importantly, less of an international spotlight. A glance at the Defense of Glasnost’s list of attacks on and killings of Russian journalists shows that the vast majority occur in the provinces.

Beketov has had his legs amputated and now lies in a coma with peices of his skull stuck in his brain.  According to a friends Beketov had been recieving threats weeks before his beating.  “He told us about a week before he was attacked that he had been informed that an order to kill him had been taken out,” says Lyudmila Fedotova, a close friend. The hospital doesn’t seem to be a safe place for him either.  Fedotova also said that despite being in a coma, “he was receiving telephone threats even as he was being operated on.”  Callers promised that they would eventually kill Beketov.

If there is anything good out of this, it’s that the brutal attack on Beketov has woken up the Public Chamber.  In response to the attack, the body plans to create a center for the defense of journalists.  Whether this will actually do anything to protect journalsists or even raise Russia’s low standing among international organizations that monitor media freedom remains to be seen.  Given the lackadaisical manner the Russian government tends to have toward violence against journalists, we should be happy that at least this time they took some notice, and perhaps even some action.

Moskalenko’s Mercury Mirage

When I blogged on the “poisoning” of Karinna Moskalenko last week, I asked, “Was this a murder attempt, a warning, or just paranoia?”  Well now we definitively know: It was paranoia.  The French newspaper La Figaro reports that an investigation into the mercury that made Moskalenko ill was not planted there by a nefarious Putinite agent to sully another potential “fierce critic.”  Strasbourg authorities now say that the mercury came from a broken barometer left by the previous owner.  Moskalenko bought the car in August 2008 and just didn’t clean it.

One hopes that Moskalenko will now retract her statement “People do not put mercury in your car to improve your health.”  No people don’t, but it doesn’t help that when they do, they don’t clean it up.

I’m afraid that no matter what corrective Moskalenko provides, the damage as been done.  The articles echoing another Alexander Litivinenko scandal have already circulated through the culture industry circuitry.  Just a few days ago, Time called Moskalenko “a very high profile target.”  Yeah, apparently a high profile target of her own negligence.  Yesterday, the Washington Post used the poison paranoia to lambaste Russia (again).  Here is what WaPo had to say,

“Perhaps this was an unfortunate accident; the police in Strasbourg say they are still investigating. But history suggests otherwise.”

So what is the lesson to be learned?  Well, there is obvious lesson that Westerners should be more cautious in making Russia’s “fierce critics'” every word sacrosanct.  We might recognize that some of these people are victims of their own paranoia and self-deluded sense of importance.  They are not martyrs, saints, or saviors. No matter how much they want us to think they are.

Shout out to frequent SRB commentator Chrisius [Insert Title Here] for bringing attention to it and Eugene Ivanov, who discovered the story.

Russia’s “Fierce Critics”

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.

Politkovskaya Trial Opens Behind Closed Doors

The Anna Politkovskaya murder trial opened today and it’s already being marred by secrecy, conspiracy theories, and suspicion.  Despite efforts by Politkovskaya’s newspaper, Novaya gazeta, the trial of Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov, and Sergei Khadzhikurbanov will not be open to the public.  The trial will be a military one because, officials say, the case involved many classified documents, particularly documents referring to Pavel Ryagunov, a former FSB officer tied to the murder.

A closed trial is not the only thing that has raised eyebrows.  Yesterday, Karinna Moskalenko, the lawyer for Politkovskaya’s family, suddenly fell ill before leaving for Moscow to attend the trial.  She’s suggesting that someone tried to poison her with mercury pellets found in her car. “People do not put mercury in your car to improve your health,” Moskalenko told Ekho Moskvy. “I am very concerned because there were children in that car.” She also added that she believes that the attempt was more of a warning.  “I think it may have been a demonstration because there was lots of it. How could you not notice it?”  As for who might have done this, she has no clue.  Was this a murder attempt, a warning, or just paranoia?  Results from toxicology tests are still pending.

The trial’s opening comes on the heels of the second anniversary of Politkovskaya’s murder.  There were several commemorations around the world marking it.   In Helsinki, Amnesty International activists  with 350 others held a small ceremony outside the Russian embassy.  In France, a series of actions to remember Politkovskaya will take place over a two week period.  In Moscow, a few hundred people came out in the pouring rain.  OMON officers were there for security and didn’t interfere with the gathering. A number of memories and thoughts about Politkovskaya can be read on Global Voices.

As for the big question of where is Rustam Makhmudov, the alleged trigger man, and who is the person or persons who ordered the hit, here is what Petros Garibyan said in a recent interview with Novaya gazeta:

Q: As for the supposed killer Rustam Makhmudov. His photo it is possible to see on the Interpol’s site. Does it mean he is hiding in abroad?

A: I can’t say for sure whether he is hiding in abroad or on the Russian territory. Even if I knew that, I wouldn’t say, as this is the secret of investigation. Wherever he was, he is looked for everywhere. He has been put on the federal and international wanted file on two criminal counts. There a sanction for his arrest wherever he were found.

Q: And what about organizer or organizers? Have you managed to narrow the circle of those suspected?

A: Well, we have suppositions about possible involvements, which is not bad in such a hard case. I cannot narrow this circle and so I check everyone. And the circle itself is not so big to be narrowed – that’s about 2-4 people. Now we are working exactly about the supposed organizers. Everyone must be checked and proved guilty or not guilty, and only then they must go to court and get sentenced.

So the trial made be starting behind closed doors, but the search continues and will so for some time.

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