Death Under the Tsar

1.

You used to be able to view Russia optimistically as an emerging democracy with a lot of rough edges. Now it seems to be all rough edges and no democracy to speak of. It is disconcerting to find how accurate a guide Mussolini’s “Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism” can offer to the mood of the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin:

The Fascist State organises the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone.

It is scarcely possible, of course, for Russia to acknowledge fascism as even a distant influence. Russia has defined itself as the world’s preeminent anti-fascist power since its victory over Hitler, at terrible cost, sixty years ago. Last year the Kremlin tried out the term “sovereign democracy” as an alias for Putinism. This choice of words was credited to Vladislav Surkov, a former public-relations man who defected from private industry to emerge as the Kremlin’s chief political fixer. Surkov has attributed the original coinage to Che Guevara. Whatever its pedigree, sovereign democracy seems to be much more about sovereignty—meaning, here, state power—than it is about democracy. As Anna Politkovskaya writes in A Russian Diary, her brilliant and now posthumously published portrayal of Russian life during the middle years of Putin’s rule:

Our people have been exhausted by having political and economic experiments conducted on them. They want very much to live better lives, but do not want to have to fight for that. They expect everything to come down to them from above, and if what comes down from above is repression, they resign themselves to it.

The precise nature of the darkening of Russian politics under President Putin has been too little noticed in the West, and too little understood. The West has worried too little, in part because the Russian economy has been doing so well thanks to high oil prices. The assumption has been that rising living standards and foreign investment will encourage a more liberal political order, though there is no sign of this yet. The West has also had other things to worry about—such as the Iraq war and the rest of the Middle East, global warming, and the rise of China. Its governments hesitate to speak badly of Russian policy when they need Russia’s cooperation in the “war on terror,” as an ally against nuclear proliferation, and as an exporter of energy. And, crucially, there have been few domestic critics of Putin equipped with the authenticity and charisma needed to hold the world’s attention. One of that small number was Anna Politkovskaya, an American-born journalist who was a special correspondent for an independent Russian newspaper called Novaya Gazeta. She was a dogged critic of Putin and of the antiliberal political system he favored. And she was shot dead in the entrance to her apartment building, seemingly by a professional assassin, on October 7, 2006.

In an earlier book, Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy, Politkovskaya had written of Putin:

I dislike him for a matter-of-factness worse than felony, for his cynicism, for his racism, for his lies, for the gas he used in the Nord-Ost siege, for the massacre of the innocents [in Chechnya]…. I dislike him because he does not like people. He despises us. He sees us as a means to his ends, a means for the achievement and retention of personal power, no more than that.

I wrote at the time that, with Putin’s Russia, Politkovskaya might have pulled off the unusual feat of writing a book that was “too hard on Putin,” holding him personally responsible for defects in the Russian system that had existed long before him or were outside his capacity to control.1 Now I have more respect for her instincts, and less for my own. The day of her murder was Vladimir Putin’s birthday. Politkovskaya’s corpse was, perhaps, some well-wisher’s gift. If so, Putin did not welcome the present, but nor did he spurn it as forcefully as one might have wished. He said that the killing was “horrible,” but that Politkovskaya’s influence on Russian political life was “extremely insignificant.”

We can agree through gritted teeth with President Putin. Anna Politkovskaya’s influence on Russian political life was extremely insignificant. She was obsessed with the horror of Russia’s war in Chechnya, and with the brutal condition to which it had reduced Chechen society, but she could do nothing to mitigate its cruelty or futility. At most she could expose one or two flagrant crimes capable of prosecution. Last year, for example, a Russian soldier called Sergei Lapin was imprisoned for the torture and murder of a twenty-six-year-old Chechen called Zelimkhan Murdalov in Grozny in 2001, only because Politkovskaya had publicized Murdalov’s fate. According to The Guardian, Lapin “tried to slice off Murdalov’s ear, beat him and submitted him to electric shocks in an attempt to force him to become an informer. Murdalov disappeared the day after his detention.” It has since been suggested that an angry fellow officer of Lapin’s may have been responsible for Politkovskaya’s murder.

On the other hand, Politkovskaya was highly significant in the world outside Russia, where she was known for her combination of boldness, honesty, and intelligence. To call her Russia’s finest investigative reporter would have been inadequate praise, since the breed was almost extinct locally by the time she was doing her best work. It would be fairer to call her one of the finest investigative reporters in the world, and one of the bravest, working often in conditions of extreme physical danger, and always in a climate of fierce political intimidation.

2.

With A Russian Diary Politkovskaya finds in Arch Tait the optimal translator for her light, sharp, often aphoristic style. The book, which has yet to be published in Russia, is more an irregular notebook than a diary, covering a period from December 2003 to August 2005. It begins with a parliamentary election giving Putin’s United Russia Party an overwhelming majority in the Duma, the Russian parliament. It ends with the conviction and imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose Yukos oil company was being expropriated by the state. The intervening events include the reelection of Putin to a second term in March 2004; the death of at least 344 people, more than half of them small children, when Chechen terrorists seized a school at Beslan in North Ossetia in September 2004; the Orange Revolution in Ukraine at the turn of 2004–2005; and the death of Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen separatist leader, in March 2005.

Throughout the book the Chechen conflict runs like an open wound. Politkovskaya challenges the Kremlin’s frequent claims that order and normality are at last returning to Chechnya, a province in the Caucasus where the Russian army has fought two wars in thirteen years against increasingly radicalized Muslim separatists, razing towns and villages, and killing or displacing civilian populations in doing so. Politkovskaya reports that the truth is just the opposite—that Russian forces go on terrorizing the populace, rivaled now in their cruelty by militia answering to the new local pro-Russian leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. She calls Kadyrov “virtually brain-dead, and in his element only where there is war, terror, and chaos.” A revenge killing on behalf of Kadyrov is commonly advanced as another explanation of Politkovskaya’s death. Again, a birthday factor weighed in the speculation: Kadyrov turned thirty two days before.

Politkovskaya is well known as a writer on Chechnya. A Russian Diary shows her keen ear for mainstream politics too. In her notes on the 2003 parliamentary election she gives generous space to the comments of Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal party Yabloko, who was struggling to keep a foothold for his party in parliament, and who knew all too well how the regime suppressed dissent. According to Yavlinsky:

It is a peculiarity of the present regime that it doesn’t just brutishly crush opposition, as was done in the era of totalitarianism. Then the system simply destroyed democratic institutions. Now all manner of civil and public institutions are being adapted by the state authorities to their own purposes. If anyone tries to resist, they are simply replaced. If they don’t want to be replaced, they’d better look out. Ninety-five percent of all problems are resolved using these techniques of adaptation or substitution. If we don’t like the Union of Journalists, we will create Mediasoyuz. If we don’t like NTV with this owner, we will reinvent NTV with a different owner.2

When the votes were counted—if not when they were cast—Yabloko got enough for just four seats in the Duma, out of 450. The one other liberal party, the Union of Right Forces, got three seats. Pro-Putin parties, led by United Russia, have an unassailable majority. In Politkovskaya’s analysis:

Were we seeing a crisis of Russian parliamentary democracy in the Putin era? No, we were witnessing its death…[and] the Russian people gave its consent. Nobody stood up. There were no demonstrations, mass protests, acts of civil disobedience. The electorate took it lying down and agreed to live, not only without Yavlinsky, but without democracy. It agreed to be treated like an idiot.

Politkovskaya has little time for opposition leaders like Boris Berezovsky, the exiled Russian billionaire, who has declared his desire to overthrow the Putin government; and Boris Nemtsov, a founder of the Union of the Right Forces, a liberal-democratic coalition. She says that “Berezovsky is a mere gambler, not a fighter…. Nemtsov is just playing games, and Yavlinsky always looks as if something has offended him.” On Putin himself she is as sharp as you might expect, nailing here his main method of seduction, in an account of a meeting he held with Russian human rights campaigners:

On Cattle Breeder’s Day [Putin] is our most illustrious cattle breeder; on Builder’s Day he is our foremost brickie. It is bizarre, of course, but Stalin played the same game.

Today, as luck would have it, is international human rights day, so Putin summoned our foremost champions of human rights…. For the most part, Putin listened to what was being said and, when he did speak, presented himself as being on their side. He mimicked being a human rights campaigner…. He is an excellent imitator. When need be, he is one of you; when that is not necessary, he is your enemy.

I sense in Politkovskaya’s treatment of Putin here a grudging respect. For utter contempt, look to her portrayal of Ramzan Kadyrov, whose father, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, was president of Chechnya until he was assassinated with explosives on May 9, 2004. Putin named Ramzan Kadyrov, at the time twenty-seven years old, as deputy prime minister of Chechnya that same evening. Politkovskaya notes thus in her diary: “On the evening of May 9 the murdered president’s psychopathic and extremely stupid younger son, Ramzan Kadyrov, was illogically elevated to prominence in Chechnya.”

Three months later she is interviewing Kadyrov at his home in the Chechen town of Tsentoroy. By this time Kadyrov is clearly the central figure in the Kremlin’s strategy for Chechnya. (At the end of 2005 he would become prime minister and, in 2007, president of Chechnya.) The strategy is to shift responsibility for the republic’s problems onto a pro-Russian local government led by Kadyrov, thereby “Chechenizing” not only the government but also the fighting. At best the consequence might be some improvement in public order as Chechens came to arrangements among themselves. Alternatively, Chechnya’s struggle for independence from Russia would be dragged down to the level of local gang warfare. Politkovskaya sees the second trend prevailing:

Kadyrov’s men…hold people prisoner in their cellars in Tsentoroy and torture them like gangsters….

Tsentoroy is above the law, by Putin’s will. The rules that apply to other people do not apply to Ramzan. He can do as he pleases because he is said to be fighting terrorists using his own methods. In fact he’s fighting nobody. He is in the business of robbery and extortion, disguised as “the fight against terrorism.”

At Kadyrov’s house, Politkovskaya sees “massive, dark, oppressive furniture, all with the price tags in full view…. There is a price tag on the mirror in the bathroom, on the toilet pedestal, on the towel holder.” Kadyrov “sprawls in an armchair crossing his legs, his foot in a sock, almost level with my face. He doesn’t appear to notice. He is taking it easy.” Kadyrov tells her that his greatest pleasure is “fighting,” and that “those who do not surrender we shall exterminate.” As the evening progresses, she finds that he “behaves more and more oddly…. He laughs at inappropriate moments. He scratches himself. He orders his bodyguards to scratch his back. He arches himself, wriggling, and keeps making irritating, inane remarks.” When she leaves, she sheds “tears of despair that someone like this can exist, that the vagaries of history should have raised up, of all people, Ramzan Kadyrov.”

Politkovskaya has previously devoted two books to the bloodbath of Chechnya, filled to the brim by the Russians and by the Chechens themselves. A Dirty War was published in English in 20013 ; A Small Corner of Hell, first published in English in 2003, has just been reissued in a new American paperback edition.4 Read them and weep. They are catalogs of massacres, tortures, rapes, and starving babies. Chechnya emerges from their pages as a place of medieval barbarity and anarchy where pillaging has become an end in itself for a Russian army made up of conscripts and convicts, and where a generation of Chechens has been raised in madness and hatred.

Politkovskaya has sympathy for victims on all sides of the conflict. Her contempt is reserved for those who directed it, whether Russians or Chechens—though I see in A Russian Diary a bizarre willingness to think well of the monstrous Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev—who claimed responsibility for the Beslan massacre—merely because he represented a rare challenge to Putinism (Basayev was killed by an explosion in July 2006). A similar indulgence is extended to Eduard Limonov, a seedy if smart writer whose National Bolshevik Party venerates Stalin.

Politkovskaya was not present during the terrible three-day siege at the school in Beslan, North Ossetia, in which pro-Chechen rebels took hostage more than 1,200 schoolchildren and adults while the school was surrounded by Russian security forces, leading to the deaths of 344 people. She had tried to get down there but became ill, seemingly from poisoning, after drinking tea on a plane. (The incident is not discussed in A Russian Diary, oddly.) But she goes later to the village and collects parents’ tales of terrified tiny children drinking urine and eating leaves as the siege drags on; of a father shot for refusing to lay explosives that would kill his children; of a deranged mother waiting each day for her dead child to come home.

She reminds us, too, that the cruelty shown by the Russian army in Chechnya grows out of a culture of cruelty within the army itself. She tells of Private Yevgeny Fomovsky, who died horribly because his feet were size 13 and the army could only find him size 10 1/2 boots. When he could scarcely walk for pain, he demanded boots that would fit him properly. He was tortured to death by older soldiers who wanted “to teach him a lesson so that he didn’t try to get above himself.” Politkovskaya points out that the shock of such an incident is twofold. First, that it can happen at all. Second, that it causes no public outcry even when the facts become known. The savagery of the army is taken for granted.

It follows, too, that a savage army fighting a savage war is liable to demobilize large numbers of dysfunctional veterans into civilian society afterward. This supplies another of Politkovskaya’s regular themes, which she pursues in A Russian Diary. She talks to Sergei Domrachev, a twenty-eight-year-old veteran who has returned to Yekaterinburg with a hole in his lung and a metal plate in his head, but still manages to pursue a successful business career. He says that “of all the people I know who took part in combat operations [in Chechnya], only one in ten got back on their feet after the war. The rest of them drink, or do nothing.”

Many go back for another tour, he says. Politkovskaya asks why. “It’s perfectly clear why,” says Domrachev. “You can do whatever you please. You shoot whoever you want to. There are no laws. That’s what they like.” On the way back from Yekaterinburg she stops off at a smaller town where the local ex-servicemen’s association runs a protection racket. “Nobody gives us work,” says one veteran. “A lot of us have head injuries, we are unpredictable. People are scared of us…. Seventy percent have become alcoholics.” Politkovskaya asks the association to find her one sober veteran to interview. Impossible. There are many veterans, but none of them are sober.

3.

The murder of Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006 was followed in November by the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a defector from the Russian security service, the FSB, in London. Litvinenko was the coauthor of a book accusing the FSB of organizing the blowing-up of apartment blocks in Moscow in 1999 to turn public opinion in favor of a renewed Chechen war. The book, Blowing Up Russia, which Litvinenko wrote four years ago with an academic called Yuri Felshtinsky, was sponsored by Berezovsky, who kept Litvinenko on a retainer. It made a modest splash at the end of 2003 when five thousand copies of a Russian-language edition were smuggled into Moscow from Latvia and confiscated by the FSB. The fresh interest provoked by Litvinenko’s death has led to an English-language edition, just published in England and the US.5 If only the book were half as thrilling as the legend that has grown up around it. It is a dense and conspiratorial text likely to defy all but specialists in the matter. As for its plausibility, the authors’ intentions are defeated at every turn by the impossibility of proving conclusively almost anything at all in Russia, let alone dark secrets of state.

Litvinenko was poisoned with a radioactive substance probably put into his tea by a friend who came visiting from Moscow. It is hard to believe we will ever get a final explanation of either Litvinenko’s or Politkovskaya’s killing, let alone a satisfactory conviction. But presumably Ramzan Kadyrov and many others must be well pleased with Politkovskaya’s death. The FSB must be well pleased with Litvinenko’s death. The Kremlin is surely happy if its friends are happy, and the more so if the effect is to intimidate other Russians who might be tempted to set up shop against Putin. Who in the Russian prosecutor’s office would want to meddle with that most welcome set of outcomes?

In some ways, the surprising thing was not that Anna Politkovskaya was murdered, but that she lived and wrote for as long as she did. I can see several people in A Russian Diary who might have been moved to have her killed for this book alone. Short of that, why did the Kremlin not have her arrested, or have Novaya Gazeta closed down on some trumped-up charge? Part of the answer, perhaps, was that the Kremlin recognized some merit in leaving at least one radical critic in business, to deflect accusations of blanket censorship. Grigory Yavlinsky suggests just this in a conversation with Politkovskaya which she reports here:

There are rumors about your own newspaper too. No other paper is allowed to write about Chechnya, but you are not shut down for doing so. The rumor is that they give you that leeway so they can go to Strasbourg and wave your newspaper about to show what a free press we have.

Politkovskaya, by the way, had just provoked Yavlinsky by suggesting that he had done a deal with the Kremlin not to make too much fuss about the Chechen war, if the Kremlin would guarantee his party Yabloko seats in parliament. Dictatorship erodes trust even among decent people: to function at all implies a sort of complicity.

Deprived now of Politkovskaya’s reporting, we are going to know even less than we did before about Russia in general, and Chechnya in particular. The Kremlin’s chokehold on information is not quite complete: Lilia Shevtsova has stuck to her guns as an independent analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, and Andrei Illarionov has emerged as a telling critic of Putinism since he was forced out of his job as Putin’s economic adviser. In March Illarionov joined a rare Moscow street protest organized by Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion, with help from Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister. But where, save in the streets, can such critics stand? They are taking Russia to task for failing to implement a Western model of democracy: but the point of sovereign democracy is to deny the relevance of that model.

We can see sovereign democracy now as Russia’s answer to the Orange Revolution, which succeeded in Ukraine thanks to a strong Western-funded NGO community, a cluster of local business tycoons with their own political strategies, some free broadcast stations, and diplomatic pressure from the West. To forestall any risk of repetition in Russia, the Kremlin has all but criminalized foreign-funded NGOs on Russian soil, imprisoned Khodorkovsky, the country’s top businessman, for nine years, and told the West to get lost.6 This has freed Putin to pursue a public discourse of fairly muscular nationalism and selective hostility to the West which accords with his own baser instincts and with the mood of his country.

That mood has been getting downright ugly in recent weeks. The removal of a Soviet-era war memorial in neighboring Estonia—admittedly a stupid act on the Estonians’ part—was followed in the opening days of May by riots in Estonia probably encouraged from Moscow, and a siege of the Estonian embassy in Moscow by a thuggish pro-Putin youth movement called Nashi (“Our Guys”). On May 3 a pro-Putin mass-circulation Russian newspaper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, published a lyric calling for an invasion of Estonia:

The Pskov division is not far off,
A short quick march and Tallinn falls.
Some may say that publicopinion will be against it
Now that Estonia is in NATO.
So what? Who in NATO cares?
I will not hang on their every word.
So what if they call it an occupation?
They will grumble and grind their teeth
Saying the light of freedom has been extinguished again.
But in the end we will strike a deal with those greedy pigs
Who would sell their mother for gas.
I will tell you now Estonians,
The EU will not be able to help you.

And here is the rub. The great assumption about Russia in its sixteen years of post-communism has been that, whatever the country’s other faults, its imperial ambitions were spent. It could be trusted to keep its problems to itself. Now, politically if not yet militarily, the Russian state is moving in a direction which is terrifying for its neighbors and dismaying for its friends—much as if Putin were preparing the ground for a crisis or a confrontation which would justify his staying in power beyond the end of his second presidential term next year. For the moment Putin continues to talk as though he will leave office, and commentators commonly identify two potential successors, both of them deputy prime ministers in the current government. Sergei Ivanov is a hawkish ex-KGB man; Dmitry Medvedev is a somewhat sleeker ex-lawyer. Of the two, Ivanov probably has the edge—but Putin is juggling them, more in the manner of a man trying to avoid naming a successor than a man trying to find one. Read A Russian Diary, or any of Politkovskaya’s earlier books, and the thought that Putin’s Russia might someday spill back over into Estonia, or Georgia, or Ukraine, or Latvia, becomes a touch more plausible and many times more terrifying. Politkovskaya died far too soon; but not before she gave fair warning, in her writing from Chechnya and elsewhere, of the Russian state at its worst.

  1. 1

    See my review in these pages, “The Emperor Vladimir,” February 9, 2006.

  2. 2

    Mediasoyuz was set up as a more pliant rival to the Union of Journalists. NTV was a private television network taken over by Gazprom, a state-controlled company, when its programming remained too independent of the Kremlin.

  3. 3

    Translated by John Crowfoot (Harvill).

  4. 4

    Translated by Alexander Burry and Tatiana Tulchinsky, with an introduction by Georgi M. Derluguian (University of Chicago Press, 2007).

  5. 5

    Encounter Books, 2007.

  6. 6

    Witness Russia’s more aggressive approach to foreign oil companies, forcing Shell out of one big project in the Russian Far East last year and threatening British Petroleum’s grip on another in Siberia since then; and its recent abrogation of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, which restricted movements of conventional forces within Russia. And in Munich in February, Putin launched a public attack on the United States which, despite its diplomatic cadences, amounted to the harshest language from a top Russian leader since the cold war:

    We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?