Two years without Anna

By Nina Ognianova/Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator on October 7, 2008 2:58 PM ET

Anna Politkovskaya (Novaya Gazeta)

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.

(Novaya Gazeta)

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. 


We worked with Anna in Obschaya gazeta then in Novaya gazeta. But first time I met her in person in Muratov's office in spring 2004. At that time she was already a star and also a victim of many attacks. A few weeks before our meeting she was poisoned on her way to Beslan. And my first question when I saw her was about her health. She said she is good now. But most of my memory about that first meeting is her brightness. I remember that I jumped up when she entered and almost lost speaking ability. Never before I could imaging how beautiful she was. It was not about her face or body there was something above it all. I saw a lot of photos of Anna but they never give you any ideas about her real appearance. she carried special light - indescribable and unforgettable. Two months ago my friend gave me a video tape - it was a documentary about sweet russian family living in Moscow in very difficult times of crisis of the USSR. He was a very famous and brave TV journalist, who risked his life every day. She was a housewife always cooking always worrying about her husband and spending her time with their two children - a boy and a guy. She used the say in that film - they are going to kill him, I'm so afraid they will kill him. She was a young Anna Politkovskaya.
Every one has to take responsibility one day for what he or she has done and her murderers will too, if not here then somewhere higher - it's waiting for them.

God bless her children and her granddaughter. I can imagine what a grandma Anna could be.

We in the Sheffield, England, we planted a tree by the Sheffield Lord Mayor Mrs Jane Bird and Sheffield amnesty group in Sheffield Botanical Gardens, in remembrance of Anna Politkovskaya a Russian journalist.

She was very great person very brave.

On the second anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya's murder I feel like speaking up on those who are still alive. This year I felt more inclined to commemorate her on her birthday and to raise other people's fates on her death day.

Anna Politkovskaya's assassins have failed to erase her voice, her views and her deeds as well as her charm from her friends' memory.

For me personally Anna is one of those few who will never cease to exist. She is still alive as she is with us in her articles, in her small granddaughter who was named after her. Even the hatred of those who are hiding their shadows behind statements on Anna's "insignificance" and "damaging Putin's Russia's positive image" can't destroy the voice of Anna.

At the same time, I can't accept this kind of post-mortal symbolism of the person who often felt too lonely and even marginalized being called "too passionate", "too radical", "too much involved" and not very "diplomatic" unlike a huge crowd of those who prefer to balance the circumstances rather than call on their changing.

She was often listened to without being heard. And it is also the responsibility of those who could have done a lot more to stop Russia's sliding first to autocracy and now to despotism by just calling the developments in Putin's Russia by their real names…

Anna wanted to live, to enjoy life as fully as such a bright person could, to continue her often desperate attempts to help out those who didn't have public recognition of the level she had.

Their number is increasing rapidly. More and more people are being killed without any hope that their deaths would be ever investigated and the guilty would be ever brought to account. People are being taken into custody under falsified charges. They are more and more often subjected to enforced psychiatric treatment. They are being labeled as supporters of terrorism and traitors of Russian like it happened to terrorism survivors from the Voice of Beslan and Nord-Ost public associations.
Magomed Evloev, the owner of an independent Ingush website, was killed while in police custody on 31 August 2008. The murder is crying for impartial investigation, to ensure that the circumstances under which he died are brought to light and that those who are responsible for his death are charged and tried in accordance with the law. Nevertheless, the outrageous extrajudicial execution perpetrated at day light is declared to be "a death caused by accident". On October 6, life of another Ingush opposition leader was attempted. The car in which Akhmed Kotiev was driving was fired at. Fortunately, the bullets have missed this time.

On 25 July 2008, human rights defender Zurab Tsechoev, working for the human rights organization MASHR (peace) in Ingushetia, was taken away from his home in Troitskaia, Ingushetia by armed men, thought to be federal law enforcement officials. A couple of hours later he was found on a roadside near Magas, the capital of Ingushetia, with serious injuries. He had to be hospitalized. Is there any hope that the perpetrators of this act against Zurab Tsechoev would be ever identified and brought to justice? Much depends on what kind of response the authorities of Russia will get from the international community and whether this response would be limited to some mild rhetoric and expressions of concerns.
Late on 1 August 2008, an arson attack was allegedly made on the flat of human rights defender Dmitrii Kraiukhin from the town of Orel in the Central Russian Federal District. The arsonists had also allegedly tried to block the entrance door. Luckily, Dmitrii Kraiukhin was reportedly not in the flat, but his relatives who were, were able to alert the fire brigade in time. So far, to Amnesty International's knowledge, no criminal investigation into this case has been undertaken, as the authorities allegedly considered the damage too insignificant to warrant a criminal investigation. However, this is not an isolated incident as far as threats to Dmitrii Kraiukhin are concerned.
On 14 August 2008, unknown assailants threw a brick through the window of the flat in Nizhnii Novgorod where human rights activist Stanislav Dmitrievskii lives. Luckily, nobody was hurt. At the same time, the entrance of his apartment building was covered with abusive language and threats against Stanislav Dmitrievskii. Actually, it was all painted with swastikas. A criminal investigation into this attack has been opened. However, I don't believe that it would bring any results. There have been several cases initiated into death threats that both Stanislav and I have received in the last three years. All to no avail. I have heard various investigators telling me, "You do understand… the circumstances. We would not be able to identify those who are behind the threats".

They won't be able because they don't want to. Because they are afraid to get their own voice. Because they are not masters of themselves, in their words. Because they are ready to implement whatever kind of order as they are just loyal serfs of their master.
And it is in your hands to influence them. They should be under moral pressure from all people of good will. They should know that they will never be accepted and welcome outside Russia for their readiness and willingness to be on orders.

They should know that even their property bought in Finland, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, Montenegro or Czech Republic and Slovakia would not make them your neighbors. They should know that not everything could be purchased, no matter how wealthy they are. They should be aware that you have honour and dignity and that you are ready to stand up for them. They should be denounced and put to shame.

Oksana Chelysheva

Oksana Chelysheva October 9, 2008 2:58:24 AM ET

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