Two years without Anna

I met Anna Politkovskaya in person only once, in 2005. She was in New York to collect yet another journalism award, and stopped by CPJ one October afternoon.

I remember her crossing the lobby with an even, determined step. She had an urgency about her–that rare focus that comes only with absolute clarity about one’s mission in life. Politkovskaya’s passion was almost tangible–neither her low voice nor her poised delivery could camouflage it. It radiated from her whole being–her hand gestures; her steady gaze; the way she tossed back her strikingly gray hair. 

She was not one for small talk–she did not care about my ice-breaker about the weather. Neither did she wish to tell me about this new prize she was about to receive. She went straight to the point–the human rights crisis in Russia’s North Caucasus. She talked about the abuses she had witnessed and reported on for years; of the war in Chechnya, which she felt many Russians chose to pretend did not exist. 

She talked about the aftermath of the 2002 Moscow theater siege, in which 129 hostages died–all but two as a result of a botched rescue operation. She talked about the 2004 school hostage crisis in Beslan, where 330 people–mostly children–were killed when troops stormed the building. She spoke of the many questions that these tragedies had left unanswered–questions authorities hated her for asking. She lamented that the number of reporters who would ask those questions was diminishing. “There is so much to write about Beslan,” she told me, “but it gets more and more difficult when all the journalists are forced to leave.”

Politkovskaya did not talk about her own brushes with danger, the numerous cases of harassment and intimidation she had endured at the hands of federal and local security agents–the mock execution in detention, the three days she spent in a pit without food or water in Chechnya, the poisoning en route to Beslan …. She deflected all my attempts to shift the conversation to her own experience.

She had come to talk about her colleagues and their plight. She had come to be their voice. And so we talked about her friend at a small newspaper in North Ossetia, who struggled to report on the aftermath of Beslan but was refused access every step of the way. She talked of her colleague in Nizhny Novgorod, who had been charged with inciting ethnic hatred because he had printed a Chechen rebel’s statement in his publication. She talked about the soldiers’ mothers who had come to Novaya Gazeta to seek help because they had no one else to turn to.

In a first-person piece, one year before she was gunned down in the elevator of her Moscow apartment, Politkovskaya tried to make sense of the reasons why the Kremlin had branded her “a pariah.” She asked: “So what is the crime that has earned me this label of not being ‘one of us’? I have merely reported what I have witnessed, no more than that.” She continued: “I am not an investigating magistrate but somebody who describes the life around us for those who cannot see it for themselves, because what is shown on television and written about in the overwhelming majority of newspapers is emasculated and doused with ideology. People know very little about life in other parts of their own country, and sometimes even in their own region.

The Kremlin responds by trying to block my access to information, its ideologues supposing that this is the best way to make my writing ineffectual. It is impossible, however, to stop someone fanatically dedicated to this profession of reporting the world around us.”

Today, as our colleagues from Novaya Gazeta gather on Novopushkinsky Square in Moscow to honor Anna’s memory, we at CPJ stand with them in solidarity. We remember Anna for her courageous journalism, her compassion for those without voice, her dogged pursuit of truth, and the humanity she preserved against all odds.


Memories of Anna:

Dmitry Muratov, Novaya Gazeta editor-in-chief and 2007 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award:

About Politkovskaya one can talk without end. … Our mutual existence could be characterized as a constant conflict. Mind you, these conflicts were only professional, work-related. We never had any personal battles. Our relations were friendly and good-natured. But we constantly we had work-related conflicts. …

I’d tell her: “That would be all! You have to leave Chechnya already. Enough!” … And she’d tell me: “You know, you are probably right. But I cannot leave the weak without my help.” And this was the key quality about Politkovskaya–Politkovskaya was always on the side of the defenseless. And Politkovskaya always criticized those powerful with passion, fervor, and strong arguments. Thanks to her articles, many were released from prisons; some who had been abducted in Chechnya were recovered; elderly people were rescued from harm and given assistance. … She defended the weak with all her ferocity, and with all her mighty temperament. She heeded absolutely nothing–not a single warning.


Yevgeniya Albats, deputy editor of the independent newsweekly The New Times:

My memories are very personal: We were friends with Anya when we both studied at Moscow State University, in the journalism department. I won’t write about that here. I’ll just say one thing:

The last time Anya and I saw each other was at the first conference of the Other Russia [opposition coalition], in the summer of 2006, where we both spoke. We talked a lot between the sessions–about our kids, of course. Well, what else could two 48-year-old women who have known one another all their lives talk about? Anya told me that her daughter, Verochka, was to give her a granddaughter the next February. And I remembered Verochka when she was in a stroller. We talked about our problems with the kids, about how each of us managed those problems or–quite more often–didn’t.

We also talked about politics. And then she, just like that, half-jokingly, said: “I know it is not my fate to die in bed, of old age.” Just like that, out of the blue.

The next time I saw her was by the entrance of her apartment house; she was on a stretcher, covered with a white sheet.


Aleksei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation in Moscow:

Anna was a very beautiful woman. Even her gray hair made her look beautiful. She had an air of unattainability about her. And, one day, all that was shattered into pieces, smashed by some nasty, heavy boots.

To hell with her killers!


Sergei Buntman, deputy editor-in-chief of the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy. (This commentary first appeared on Ekho Moskvy’s Web site.)

Three months after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, Hrant Dink, editor of the Armenian newspaper Agos, was killed in Turkey. Turkey is a country that, like us, cannot come to peace with its past. Dink, by bringing up the painful topic of the 1915 genocide, had earned himself a conditional prison term on charges of insulting the Turkish people.

But right after he was murdered, the Turkish government did not wait for special invitations, for questions asked at press conferences abroad; it did not utter cynical formulations, but simply said that a bullet in Hrant Dink was a bullet in the heart of Turkey.

Tens of thousands of people came into the streets, wearing badges that said: “I am an Armenian.” Of course, not everyone agreed with that. But some of the biggest newspapers published headlines that said: “We are all Hrant Dinks,” and “Hrant Dink–this is Turkey.”All right, so perhaps Turks are southern people, emotional, prone to hyperbole. Can we say, like them, “We are all Anna Politkovskayas”? We can’t. We must do a hundred times more to even begin to accomplish all that she did for our society and our freedoms, for compassion and for justice. But we can say: “Anna Politkovskaya–this is Russia.” Particularly if we want our country to be as she was–one with the victims, not with their executioners. If we want this to be true, we must fight for it. We alone must do this. Because Anya is no longer here to do our job for us.