Politkovskaya and Putin — Six and Sixty
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.
Sean Guillory is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition, he is an avid “Russia Watcher” and blogs about contemporary Russian politics and society at Sean’s Russia Blog (seansrussiablog.org/) and hosts the podcast New Books in Russian and Eurasian Studies (newbooksinrussianstudies.com/). You can follow him on Twitter @seansrussiablog.