By Atharva Pandit
Edite by Liz Maria Kuriakose, Associate Editor, The I8ndian Economist
Anna Politkovskaya’s murderers, the brutal killers of a beautiful and brave voice of the Russian freedom of speech were convicted and sentenced to a life in prison on 9th June 2014, eight years after her assassination. Anna, an investigative journalist who worked for an obscure but now infamous daily, Novya Gazeta, was gunned down as she exited from the lift of her residential building. Three bullets lodged into her chest, one, a “controlled shot”, into her head. She was a daring crusader for justice for those who suffered the atrocities of Chechnya, and who showed how the Russia under Putin was like the former USSR, a combination of the “worst of both worlds”, combining Mafia capitalism with KGB policing, in a book titled Putin’s Russia.
Journalism in today’s Russia is a dangerous job to do, and especially if you find yourself conveniently on the wrong side of the ruler, who hates critics and likes to silence them in any way possible (he also likes to pose bare-chested, a la James Bond, but that’s flour for another sack). Thus, Putin comes about as someone in whose court democratic rights are ignored and dictatorial. That’s no surprise, considering that Putin was- is a KGB guy, albeit of no real importance, posted in Dresden during the Cold War era, far removed from action, and not even working undercover. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was called back to St. Petersburg and not to Moscow, thus highlighting that he was of no significance in the spy service. But that changed. And it changed because Boris Yeltsin decided that this obscure spy agent, who once denied taking a bribe from an influential oligarch and attended the very same oligarch’s wife’s birthday party when everybody of any importance decided to shun it, should succeed him! And so, a campaign to make this less-than-obscure agent into a sly, popular leader was launched. It worked, as Putin began to climb up the ladders, then unflatteringly displaying his true colors, now that he is pulling Russia back to the Soviet times- or even worse, as far as the control on media and curtailing of human rights is concerned.
The journalists being targeted for their work in Russia is overwhelming. Another high-profile case which went nowhere was that of Paul Klebnikov, the editor-in-chief of Forbes Russia, when he went on to proclaim that Boris Berezovsky, the multi-millionaire oligarch of Russia, was also the Godfather of Kremlin. Berezovsky was, indeed, the oligarch from whom Putin had refused the bribe, and of whose wife’s birthday party he attended. So when Klebnikov wrote against Berezovsky, and began investigating into his corruption scandals, the state had to do something. So they gunned him down with a 9-millimeter Makarov pistol on 9th of July, 2004. Four bullets lodged into the emerging journalist’s stomach- the guy obviously knew too much. Yuri Petrovich Shchekochikhin, another investigative journalist working for Novya Gazeta, was poisoned for his investigations into the apartment bombings, which he suspected, like so many others, were carried out by the Russian authorities as a pretext to start the Chechen War. He wrote on the atrocities in Chechnya, corruption, Russian military and everything wrong with Putin’s Russia- so Putin decided to straighten Shchekochikhin right. After a sixteen day illness, Shchekochikhin succumbed to death on 3rd July 2003. There was a wide-spread belief that this was an assassination, a murder. Investigations into the death led nowhere. When the authorities are not busy murdering off their liberal intellectuals, they are busy firing them from their posts. For example, the chief editor of the Russian web newspaper Lenta.ru, Galina Timchenko was fired from her post for publishing material which was tagged as “extremist”. This ‘extremist material’ was an interview with Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist group, Right Sector, which, the authorities alleged, incited ethnic hatred. Another blow to the journalism in Russia, where in order to sustain, you need to either keep quiet or ally yourself with the authorities or both!
And Anna Politkovskaya was trying to keep herself free from both. She visited the war-torn Chechnya more than any other journalist did, and sent her dispatches from the devastated parts: those of mothers mourning for their lost sons, the descriptions of war and those of torture. She wrote of the atrocities, and she wrote of the lack of human rights in Chechnya, for which she was threatened countless times by those in authority and everybody agreed that Anna was one hell of a thick-skinned reporter, brave and recklessly courageous. She made her way to Beslan in order to negotiate with the hostage-takers holding captive over 1,100 students and teachers. She had played a significant role in the negotiations during the Nord-Ost hostage taking though she was poisoned on the flight offered to her at a short notice. She observed that something was fishy. Initially she was told that no flight was available to Beslan and then dramatically an airhostess offered her a seat on the flight scheduled to the destination. The illness crept through her once she sipped the midflight tea. Even then, the poisoning attempt was a failure, since Politkovskaya recovered, and was back to kicking the hornet’s nest again. She knew the consequences. They would get to her eventually, but she did not fear, all that mattered to her was the truth. The truth of Russian corruption and inhumanity, the truth of the Russian politics; the price of revelation was going to be heavy.
And the price, as we all know, was the bullets. Nearly a year after her assassination on 7th October 2006, it was revealed in a news conference in Moscow that 10 suspects were taken into custody in connection with the murder. Three of them who now stand convicted were acquitted earlier, but were investigated again upon retrial. Although the man who pulled the trigger, whom we see in the CCTV footage, shooting Anna dead and then tossing the gun beside her body, Rustam Makhmudov was given a life sentence along with his uncle Ali Gaitukayev, who organized the murder. The mastermind behind the assassination is still out there, unknown.
But is this the end? Not really. As mentioned, the mastermind is still roaming free; those put on trial and convicted were the pawns who were being directed around. Rightly, many activists and even Politkovskaya’s own family suggest that they would fight on until all the culprits behind the murder are brought before law. Anna’s newspaper is running a personal investigation into the assassination, and its spokesperson, Nadezhda Prusenkova stated that the sentencing was important, but only a step towards the truth. “Those sentenced are the lowest level in this criminal chain, which must be revealed and punished,” she said in a statement. Punished, and punished to the core.
Freedom of speech and expression in Russia is an important issue before its citizens. Vladimir Putin doesn’t like the media nor does he like the liberal thinkers of Russian intelligentsia. Those who he doesn’t like, he shoves away. It is debatable that he played a role in every high-profile murder of Russian intellectuals and journalists in the past decade or so, but in the case of Anna’s brutal murder, almost everyone suspects the role of the Russian leader. She was, after all, the staunchest critic of Putin’s working in Russia- and what would have Putin liked more as a birthday gift than to put an end to one of his harshest critics?