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Death Under the Tsar


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.


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.”

  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.

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