Is Journalism in Russia Worth Dying For?
Anna Politkovskaya’s final work is now in English — and impossible to ignore
4:30 PM, Apr 20, 2011 • By SETH MANDEL
On October 7, 2006 investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead near her home in Moscow. Five days later, Politkovskaya’s newspaper published her last complete article, a thorough dissection of the utter collapse of “Chechenization”—the Kremlin’s policy of turning over the administration of Chechnya to handpicked local warlords in the hope of de-federalizing the problem.
Now that article has been translated into English as part of the final anthology of Politkovskaya’s work. The story, along with one other that was only partially complete at the time of her death, presents a stinging indictment of Chechenization, and offers strong evidence that Vladimir Putin personally ordered the torture of Chechen dissidents.
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has overseen the brutal repression of Chechnya and the escalation of Russia’s war with the Caucasus Emirate—the breakaway Islamist authority in the North Caucasus run by Dokka Umarov. Kadyrov was a common target of Politkovskaya’s investigative journalism. According to one of the cables released by WikiLeaks, American officials in Moscow said among all the intimidation directed at Politkovskaya, the “most frequent threats” came from “Kadyrov’s people.” There was much speculation that Politkovskaya’s murder was a preemptive strike; she announced on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty two days before her death that she was compiling evidence and testimony related to state-ordered torture of Chechens.
The book, released last month, contains this material and much more. Though it had already been released in Russian, and the revelatory nature of the material is muted, the articles are no less valuable to their new English-speaking audience. The narration of the torture scenes are chilling, and her explanation of the failure of Chechenization may be the single best article on the subject.
It also contains a transcript of a video Politkovskaya was sent. The video shows two men who are dressed like Chechen security services and speaking a Chechen dialect (Melkhi) torturing two men. The torturers are filming the episode, and while most of the conversation is too explicit to be reproduced here, it does include one of the torturers saying the following: “Putin said it. ‘View it from every angle,’ he said.”
It’s easy to imagine Putin’s unease at hearing that Politkovskaya had the tape, though Putin’s involvement was actually downplayed at the time. Instead, in her interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Politkovskaya pointed the finger at Kadyrov: “Right now I have two photographs on my desk. I am conducting an investigation about torture today in Kadyrov’s prisons. These are people who were abducted by Kadyrovsty [Kadyrov’s security services] for completely inexplicable reasons and who died. These are bodies absolutely disfigured by torture.”
Politkovskaya had been abducted, beaten, and poisoned in the years before her murder, yet continued her quixotic quest to rid Russia of its abusive leaders. The book is appropriately titled Is Journalism Worth Dying For? It should be required reading at the White House and State Department.
Seth Mandel is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.