• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Who Killed Anna Politkovskaya?

Letter to Anna: The Story of Journalist Politkovskaya’s Death

a film directed by Eric Bergkraut, with English narration by Susan Sarandon
Zurich: p.s.72 productions, DVD $35.00
Available for purchase at www.ps-72.com/films/lettertoanna/order.php.

On the afternoon of October 7, 2006, forty-eight-year-old Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was at the Ramstor Shopping Center on Frunze Embankment in Moscow. In addition to her usual groceries, she was buying special food for her daughter, Vera, who was expecting her first child. Anna and Vera had been talking with each other on their cell phones throughout the day. The baby would be called Anna, after her grandmother, but Politkovskaya would not live to see her.

As the shopping center’s hidden video camera later revealed, Politkovskaya was not alone. She was being followed by a man in jeans and a white turtleneck and a light-haired woman in black. They were part of a larger group of people who had been tailing her for several days. At 3:30 PM, Politkovskaya called her son, Ilya, to tell him she was on her way home. She never made it. At approximately 4 PM, she was fatally shot in the stairwell of her apartment building on Lesnaya Street. Her killer, disguising himself only with a baseball cap and apparently unconcerned by the posted warning of a security camera inside, knew the code needed to enter the building only moments before. Like many contract murderers in Moscow, he left the weapon, an Izh pistol with a silencer, at the scene of the crime.

As Eric Bergkraut’s moving and forceful film, Letter to Anna: The Story of Journalist Politkovskaya’s Death, makes clear, Politkovskaya, a fierce critic of the Kremlin and its policy toward Chechnya, had long been aware that her life was in danger. Bergkraut, a prominent Swiss filmmaker, had interviewed Politkovskaya numerous times while working on Coca: The Dove from Chechnya, his 2005 documentary about the conflict in Chechnya. Letter to Anna uses footage from those interviews to great effect. When she first appears in the film, Anna stares into the camera and says: “Why am I still alive? If I speak seriously about this I would understand it as a miracle. It really is a miracle.”

Politkovskaya was a correspondent for one of Russia’s last independent papers, the biweekly Novaya Gazeta, where she published over five hundred articles, and the author of several books. An American citizen by birth (her father was a Soviet diplomat at the UN), she had received numerous awards and honors, including an OSCE prize for journalism and democracy and an Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. But all this did not protect her in Russia. She had survived one attempt to kill her and had received death threats.

Several other journalists who offended the Kremlin had lost their lives. These included two colleagues from Anna’s paper—Igor Domnikov, who was brutally beaten by a hired thug and later died (the killer is in prison, but his sponsor was never identified); and Yury Shchekochikhin, who died in July 2003 of a sudden, mysterious illness, apparently the result of poisoning.1 Paul Klebnikov, editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, who wrote about corruption in Russia and Chechnya—and published a list of the richest Russians, which some of them deplored—was gunned down outside his Moscow office in July 2004. Journalists had not been the only victims. Just a month before Politkovskaya was killed, Andrei Kozlov, first deputy chief of the Russian Central Bank and a leading force in attempts to stop money laundering, was murdered as he left a soccer match in Moscow.

Politkovskaya faced the possibility of death with her characteristic stoicism: “They say that if you talk about a disaster you can cause it to happen. That is why I never say aloud what I am most afraid of. Just so it won’t happen,” she says in the film. She believed that she had a mission to report on the “dirty war” in Chechnya that the Putin regime had launched in the autumn of 1999. By the time of her death, Politkovskaya had made at least fifty trips to Chechnya, a savage and dangerous place that most other Russian journalists avoided. Her subjects were the innocent victims of the war—ordinary civilians, whether Russian or Chechen, whose lives had been ruined by the conflict. She described maimed bodies, burned corpses, the destruction of entire villages. She also wrote about hapless Russian soldiers, conscripted into the army and sent off to Chechnya, where they were often treated like slaves by their commanders. They witnessed cruelties that went beyond the bounds of normal warfare and were themselves treated cruelly by the Chechens when captured.

In early 2000, she wrote in Novaya Gazeta:

I thought that maybe I should not write about everything I see. Maybe I should spare you all…so that you can continue to enjoy your life thinking that the army and the new government are doing the right thing in Northern Caucasus. Maybe. But I know for sure that when we wake up it will be too late.

Although Politkovskaya was passionate in her conviction that the Russians were committing a grave crime, one she even called genocide, she never romanticized the Chechen rebels or apologized for their own many acts of brutality. She chronicled the abuses committed on both sides. As her former husband, Alexander Politkovsky, himself a famous television journalist during the perestroika and early Yeltsin years, explained in the film:

Her sense of justice was the focal point of her life. Lying was forbidden. One must always tell the truth. This was the principle she always lived by. And it was precisely what took her to Chechnya.

(Politkovskaya and her husband, who met and married when they were young journalism students, separated in 2001.)

Politkovskaya campaigned relentlessly to bring to justice those responsible for human rights violations in Chechnya. In an article published by Novaya Gazeta in March 2000, she documented cases of rapes and mass killings, including that of an entire Chechen family, by a Russian military unit. The piece prompted Russian prosecutors to open an investigation into alleged abuses by Russian soldiers. Although in the end no one was prosecuted, the case later went to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which pronounced the Russian government responsible for the crimes—a decision that the Kremlin ignored.

In another dispatch, published in September 2001, Politkovskaya described the alarming number of abductions of Chechen civilians by Russian forces. Russian troops would conduct “cleansing” operations in the villages and arrest Chechen men. Most of them would never be heard of again. As Politkovskaya described it:

Imagine that a group of strangers in uniform bursts into your house and takes away your loved one. And that is it, the end. First there was a man. Now he doesn’t exist. He is wiped out of life, like a stick-figure from a school blackboard. You rage, you go mad. You beg for a piece of information. The ones who are supposed to search advise you to forget about it…. The most awful tragedy of current Chechnya is people disappearing without a trace.

It was in this article that Politkovskaya reported on a case of torture by an officer of the Russian Interior Ministry (MVD), whose victim later disappeared. Before the officer was finally arrested and sentenced to prison, he sent Politkovskaya death threats, forcing her to flee temporarily to Vienna for her safety.

Politkovskaya’s reporting on the conflict took its toll on her. According to her friend the human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina, “the more Anna got involved in Chechnya, the more her personality changed.”2 In the documentary, the editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta, Dmitry Muratov, observes that Anna became different after she began going to Chechnya in 1999:

Not that she was any less beautiful. But…the naiveté and cheerfulness disappeared…. She used to be full of laughter and good humor. But the laughter diminished with every passing year.

In early 2001, Politkovskaya flew to Chechnya to investigate claims made to her paper by Chechen families that their relatives were being captured by Russian forces, tortured, and held for ransom in small underground pits at a detention camp in southern Chechnya. When Politkovskaya approached Russian officers at the camp, the FSB arrested her and accused her of spying for Chechen separatists. She was held for several days in a bunker. Her FSB captors interrogated her repeatedly, threatened her with rape, and told her that they were going to shoot her. Only when the press started to report on her disappearance was she released. Politkovskaya said later, in an interview with Bergkraut, that her ordeal was worth it because she had finally been able to experience firsthand what Chechen prisoners went through.3

Politkovskaya was widely respected in Chechnya. So when Chechen rebels took over nine hundred hostages at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater on October 23, 2002, they asked through Novaya Gazeta for Politkovskaya to serve as a mediator. At the time, Politkovskaya was in California to accept an award for her journalism. In her book A Small Corner of Hell, she recalls that her son called her from Moscow to persuade her not to return: “Please don’t do this! We can’t take it anymore!” But she flew to Moscow immediately, entering the theater, with the reluctant permission of Russian authorities, on the afternoon of October 25.

As Politkovskaya later wrote, her efforts to persuade the Chechen terrorists to release more of the hostages (some women and children had been let out earlier) were futile. The guerrillas were demanding an immediate pull-out of Russian troops from Chechnya—which the Russian government would never have agreed to—and nothing less. They assured Politkovskaya that they were ready to die for their cause. Politkovskaya succeeded only in getting juice and water to the hostages before she left the scene. In the early hours of October 26, the authorities pumped a highly potent opium-like substance (intended for animal use only) into the theater, killing 125 hostages, along with many of the terrorists. (The others were shot by FSB special forces.)

Politkovskaya pointed out in Novaya Gazeta that the deaths in the theater left many questions unanswered. Why was there no effort to keep at least some of the terrorists alive in order to ascertain who was behind the plot and how it was organized? Why did the security police not reveal the substance they pumped into the theater so that doctors could better treat the victims? Why were there not adequate medical emergency preparations?

As part of her own investigation, Politkovskaya discovered a Chechen journalist named Khanpash Terkibaev, whose name had appeared on a list of the terrorists at the theater that was published in a Moscow newspaper some time after the attack. Politkovskaya managed to interview Terkibaev, who was living in Moscow. He admitted to her that he had entered the theater with the hostage-takers, and said that he had managed to escape before the gas was pumped in. He claimed to have special connections with the Kremlin and the FSB, which led Politkovskaya to conclude that he was a provocateur and that the FSB had known that a terrorist act was being planned. Terkibaev later denied what he told Politkovskaya. He was killed in mysterious circumstances in a car crash in Baku in December 2003.

  1. 1

    At the time of his death, Shchekochikhin was investigating allegations that the FSB (successor to the KGB) was behind the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia, in which more than three hundred people were killed. Blamed on Chechens, the bombings served as a pretext for the Kremlin to invade Chechnya.

  2. 2

    As quoted in a film entitled Anna: sem’ let na linii fronta (Anna: Seven Years on the Front Line), directed by Masha Novikova, 2008. The film, in Russian with English subtitles, received an award from Amnesty International.

  3. 3

    Politkovskaya recounted this experience in “How the Heroes of Russia Turned into the Tormentors of Chechnya,” an article that appeared in English in The Guardian, February 27, 2001.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print