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.
An even more devastating act of terrorism took place in September 2004 in the North Ossetian town of Beslan. Just as children were returning to classes, a group of between thirty and fifty masked terrorists armed with guns and explosives entered the elementary school and took more than a thousand hostages. The Kremlin responded by sending the same FSB general—Vladimir Pronichev—who had mismanaged the crisis at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theater. Rather than pursuing negotiations with the hostage-takers, Pronichev immediately made plans to storm the school. Predictably, the attack, which took place on the third day of the standoff, ended in disaster: 333 hostages—children, parents, and their teachers—died. Instead of being fired, Pronichev was promoted to army general, the highest military rank.
As with the Dubrovka siege, there were many strange circumstances surrounding the Beslan crisis. No one could explain how such a large, heavily armed group of terrorists managed to enter the town and get into the school unnoticed, or why the authorities insisted that they had killed all but one hostage-taker, who was captured, when eyewitnesses saw several escape. Also disturbing was what happened to Politkovskaya after she decided to fly to Beslan and intervene in the crisis. She was trying to reach Chechen resistance leader and former president of Chechnya Aslan Maskhadov—whom she had interviewed in the past—and urge him to come to Beslan so that he could persuade the hostage-takers to give up their siege.
But just minutes after she took off in a plane from Moscow, she was offered a cup of tea. After drinking it, she fell ill, went into a coma, and hovered between life and death in a hospital for several days. (According to several sources, she never fully recovered her health after this happened.) Politkovskaya assumed that she had been poisoned by the FSB officers whom she had seen on the plane with her. The FSB, it seemed, did not want her interfering in the Beslan crisis especially given her efforts to enlist Maskhadov, whom the Kremlin had denounced as a terrorist.
Not surprisingly, Politkovskaya’s experiences hardened her attitude toward the Kremlin. She believed Putin was manipulating the Chechen problem to justify his campaign against terrorism and that he was using that campaign to clamp down on democratic rights in Russia. In her book Putin’s Russia (published abroad in 2004 but not in Russia until after her death, when it appeared on Novaya Gazeta’s Web site), she wrote:
Why do I so dislike Putin? This is precisely why. 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 [Dubrovka] siege, for the massacre of the innocents which went on throughout his first term as President.
Politkovskaya was a shrewd observer of Russian politics, chronicling the death of parliamentary democracy as the Russian Duma increasingly came under Kremlin control. She saw Putin’s reelection in 2004 as a farce because the Kremlin had managed, through its control of the media and its introduction of undemocratic election laws, to render opposition parties completely ineffective. In Putin’s Russia she compared Putin to Stalin and mocked the cult of personality he had built around himself:
In a few hours Putin, a typical lieutenant-colonel of the Soviet KGB…will ascend the throne of Russia once again. His outlook is the 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 own colleagues.
Another target of Politkovskaya’s journalism was Ramzan Kadyrov, the violent and corrupt young Chechen whom Putin and the FSB installed in the Chechen government—he eventually became president in early 2007 after reaching the requisite age of thirty—following the assassination of his father, the Chechen president Akhmed Kadyrov, in 2004. In that year pro-Moscow Chechen paramilitary forces began taking over the war against Chechen separatists, while Russian forces provided logistical support. As Politkovskaya reported, Kadyrov’s militia, the so-called kadyrovtsy, was (and still is) notoriously brutal against the resistance, kidnapping, torturing, and killing innocent civilians by the hundreds.4
When Politkovskaya interviewed the Chechen leader in June 2004, her meeting with him ended badly. Her questions were too probing, especially when she asked him about other Chechen warlords and resistance fighters, who were his enemies. Surrounded by his bodyguards, Kadyrov lost his temper, accusing her of being an enemy of Chechens and threatening her: “I am not a criminal. I will hold you here. I won’t let you go.” Politkovskaya was shaken: “I couldn’t bear it anymore. I stood up and walked away. My tears choked me. Of course I expected a bullet in my back.” She concluded from her meeting with Kadyrov that “a little dragon has been raised by the Kremlin. Now they need to feed it. Otherwise it will spit fire.”
Just two days before her murder, Politkovskaya was interviewed on Radio Liberty about her ongoing investigation of Kadyrov and the crimes committed by his militia, which she had documented with videotapes and photographs given to her by eyewitnesses. The date of the interview, October 5, was also Kadyrov’s thirtieth birthday. Politkovskaya told Radio Liberty: “Personally, I only have one dream for Kadyrov’s birthday: I dream of him someday sitting in the dock, in a trial that meets the strictest legal standards, with all of his crimes listed and investigated.” Politkovskaya was courting danger. Her editor was so worried about her that he had even forbidden her to go to Chechnya. But she had her own agenda.
Politkovskaya was killed on Vladimir Putin’s birthday, October 7. The President said nothing publicly about the killing until October 10, when, just before leaving for a visit to Germany, he told the German paper Süddeutsche Zeitung that his government would do everything to bring her assassins to justice. But he insisted that Politkovskaya’s influence inside Russia was no more than “negligible” and that “Politkovskaya’s murder has caused much more damage to the current authorities [in Moscow], and to the Chechen authorities in particular, than her reporting did.” Later that day he repeated the same views at a press conference in Dresden with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Putin’s apparent purpose in making these comments was to show that neither the Kremlin, nor its puppet regime in Chechnya, had any motive for killing Politkovskaya. Why would his government or the Chechen leadership risk their reputations by murdering a journalist who was insignificant? To deflect any speculation about Kremlin involvement, Putin implied that the killer must have been an enemy of the government.
There was an official silence on the Politkovskaya investigation until late August 2007, when Russian Prosecutor General Yury Chaika, whose office investigates most major crimes, held a press conference on the murder. It was remarkable for its sheer audacity, if nothing else. In the press conference, which is shown in Bergkraut’s film, Chaika announced that ten people had been arrested for taking part in the murder and that they would soon be brought to trial. The actual killers, he said, were Chechen thugs, members of a Moscow criminal group that specialized in contract murders. But Chaika added that “unfortunately,” officers from the FSB and the regular police had provided the killers with operational support, which included surveillance of the victim, with two groups tailing her alternately. As for who masterminded the crime, Chaika said, “The investigations have revealed that only people from outside the Russian Federation [to which Chechnya belongs] could have had any interest in eliminating Politkovskaya.” The murder was useful, he said, to people who were “out to destabilize the situation in Russia…those who are trying to stir up a crisis and want, not only to return to the old system, where money and oligarchs ruled, but also who want to discredit Russian leaders.”
Although Chaika did not make a direct accusation, he was clearly referring to Putin’s archenemy, Boris Berezovsky, the exiled Russian tycoon and former oligarch now living in London. Kremlin sources had already hinted strongly that Berezovsky was behind the fatal radiation poisoning of London-based exile and former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, which had occurred a month after the Politkovskaya murder.
By the time of Chaika’s announcement—over ten months after the murder—the investigation of the Politkovskaya killing was falling apart. The names of the suspects had already been leaked to the press, thus hampering efforts to successfully prosecute them. More importantly, Chaika himself was no longer in charge of the case; it had been handed over to a new “investigative committee,” which was part of the prosecutor’s office, but not under Chaika’s jurisdiction. The committee had been formed as the result of a bitter feud between Putin’s two main security chiefs, FSB director Nikolai Patrushev and Viktor Cherkesov, the head of the Drug Control Agency.
Both men were Putin loyalists from the St. Petersurg KGB, but competition for power and Kremlin riches, as well as the uncertainty over what would happen when Putin stepped down as president, fueled a conflict involving these and other powerful Putin deputies. Putin reportedly had long been trying to balance the powers of the two security chiefs, to prevent either from prevailing, but the conflict became more intense. The feud emerged publicly just around the time of Politkovskaya’s murder in the fall of 2006, when, with Chaika’s approval, a group of Patrushev’s FSB officers were arrested on corruption charges by agents from Cherkesov’s Drug Control Agency. In retaliation, Patrushev and his Kremlin allies managed later to undercut the Cherkesov–Chaika group by establishing the investigative committee, with their handpicked candidate, a prosecutor named Aleksander Bastrykin, as its head.
With the support of the Patrushev group, Bastrykin’s investigative committee wrested control of the Politkovskaya case (along with the Klebnikov, Kozlov, and Litvinenko cases) from Prosecutor General Chaika. In early September 2007, Chaika’s main investigator on the Politkovskaya case was demoted, and several new investigators were brought in. Nine months later, in June 2008, a representative from the investigative committee announced that the case was ready to go to court. But after numerous arrests and reports that a large group of criminals were involved in various aspects of the murder, the government ended up with only four men still in custody. Three were charged as accomplices to the killing: a former MVD officer and two brothers of Chechen nationality. The fourth detainee, FSB Lieutenant Colonel Pavel Ryaguzov, was being held on lesser charges—abuse of office and extortion in connection with the case. A brother of the two Chechens in custody, Rustam Makhmudov, said to have been the one who shot Politkovskaya, was still at large. In early July, Bastrykin announced that the killer was somewhere in Western Europe but gave no explanation about how he had managed to escape Russia.
As for who gave the order to have Politkovskaya killed—the most important question—the investigative committee offered no answers, leaving others to speculate. Ramzan Kadyrov, the ruthless warlord of Chechnya—shown in Berkgraut’s film celebrating his birthday last year with elaborate fanfare like a mini-Stalin—might seem an obvious suspect. In an apparent effort to end speculation about his involvement in the murder, Kadyrov boasted that “if she [Politkovskaya] had bothered us, we would have done it long ago.” But because he rules under the command of the Kremlin, he would never have dared to embark on such a bold venture on his own, either in Chechnya or Moscow. As a Chechen who now lives in exile told me, Kadyrov is authorized to kill only his own people. It is unlikely that Moscow would have given Kadyrov approval to murder Politkovskaya, or to have enlisted his assistance in the crime, because Putin and his colleagues view him as reckless and untrustworthy. (That doesn’t exclude the possibility that some of Kadyrov’s henchmen were involved, however.5)
Russian exiles in the West, including Berezovsky, insist that President Putin was the mastermind. Putin certainly had reason to want Politkovskaya silenced. She was his most persistent and outspoken critic, even insulting him personally in her writings, which she must have known would arouse his anger. Despite Putin’s claim that Politkovskaya had little influence on political life in Russia, we can be sure that what she wrote, even in the English-language press, caused a huge stir in the Kremlin.6 But even if Putin wanted Politkovskaya killed, it is unlikely that he, as president of Russia, would have given direct orders for the murder. He would probably have left the initiative to the FSB, only to find out about it afterward.
Dmitry Medvedev’s assumption of the Russian presidency in May of this year has done nothing to change the atmosphere of violence and lawlessness that prevails in Russia, especially since Putin, as prime minister, is still in charge. Putin’s close friend Patrushev—who was head of the FSB during many of the mysterious recent killings—has stepped down. But his replacement, Alexander Bortnikov, worked for many years with both Patrushev and Putin in the KGB and is closely allied to them. The security services, for all their internal rivalries and corruption, are deeply entrenched at all levels of the government and make up what amounts to a new ruling class.
Under these conditions, Russian journalists have been under more pressure than ever to follow the official line. Since the beginning of September, two journalists who have reported critically on government actions in the Caucasus have been murdered. In the North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia, Magomed Yevloyev, who owned an influential opposition Web site that was strongly critical of Ingushetia’s Kremlin-backed governor, was shot in the head after being arrested by the police; in Dagestan, Telman Alishayev, a television reporter, was killed by unidentified gunmen. And a third journalist was left with a fractured skull after an assault outside his home in the city of Nalchik, also in the North Caucasus.
Elena Tregubova, a former correspondent for the Moscow paper Kommersant who has written a book about her investigative reporting on the Kremlin, was forced to seek asylum in Britain because of death threats against her. In Bergkraut’s film she observes: “To be honest, when things are like this, none of us can blame [journalists] for either lying or keeping quiet.” But Politkovskaya’s former colleagues at Novaya Gazeta refuse to be intimidated. As Letter to Anna recounts, just after her death, the editor, Dmitry Muratov, decided to shut down the paper, saying “no newspaper was worth such sacrifices.” He was overruled by his staff, which has continued ever since to pursue the courageous reporting for which it has become known.
With the help of Politkovskaya’s son, Ilya Politkovsky, Novaya Gazeta’s staff has been conducting its own investigation into her murder.7 Politkovsky, who has been given access to the forty-eight volumes of court documents in the case, told me that the trial, which could begin quite soon, will likely be held behind closed doors in a military court, with the family present but prohibited from speaking about the proceedings publicly. This constraint will make it even more difficult for Novaya Gazeta’s journalists to uncover the truth about the killing. Nonetheless, Anna would have wanted them to try.
—October 8, 2008
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
A recent example of such brutality is the campaign (reportedly condoned by Kadyrov) to stamp out Chechen resistance by burning the homes of families of rebels. See C.J. Chivers, “To Smother Rebels, Arson Campaign in Chechnya,” The New York Times, September 28, 2008. ↩
There has been speculation in the Russian press that Kadyrov’s men were behind the murder in Moscow on September 24, 2008, of former Duma deputy Ruslan Yamadaev, a wealthy Chechen who is said to have been an enemy of Kadyrov. Yamadaev was shot to death in his Mercedes as it stopped for a red light on a major Moscow street. ↩
Putin implied that Politkovskaya was not well known in Russia. But, according to a poll conducted by Moscow’s Levada Center two weeks after the murder, almost half of the respondents knew who Politkovskaya was before she was killed and over a third said they had either read Politkovskaya’s articles or heard her speak on radio and television (www.levada.ru/press/2006101901.html). ↩
Dmitry Muratov and the staff at Novaya Gazeta were unhappy with the results of the official investigation. In Muratov’s words: “You cannot say the case is closed when the zakazchik [the person who ordered the murder] is unknown and the killer has not been caught.” ↩