On Wednesday, BBC News reported that Russian investigators have charged three Chechen men over the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya who was shot dead in Moscow in October 2006. The motive for the murder was not discussed but the investigative committee assured that the case continues. After having recently read Politkovskaya’s books where she details the unimaginable horrors of the Chechen wars – did you even know there were two? – and the utter lawlessness of Putin’s Russia, it’s not Chechens who you suspect first for killing the obviously fearless woman who must’ve known that by writing so openly about the corruption and abuses of office on every level of the Russian system, she was putting her life on line.
We’re so used to complain and criticize Bush and his hawks curbing civil liberties and not respecting human rights, but reading Politkovskaya’s Putin’s Russia (2004, Harvill Press) gives a rogue nation a totally new dimension. Then you start wondering, why don’t we hear about the human rights violations in Russia in any media at all? We’re all aware of and outraged about the torture in Guantanamo but we have no idea that similar stuff is going on in Russia. At least in the US there is some and you can set up independent critical media, but forget that in Russia. Programs like the Democracy Now! would not live longer than a week in Russia. If you don’t take the warnings like threats and beatings seriously and shut up, you’re simply done in. And whoever is behind it can almost guarantee impunity. Politkovskaya is not the only journalist killed in Russia. In 2006 when she was shot, three other journalists were murdered. Some years ago the editor-in-chief of the Russian editor of Forbes Magazine was also killed in Moscow. He used to write about the Russian ‘gangster capitalism.’
I hear that there are some Russian websites posting critical stuff. On the other hand one must wonder about news according to which most Russians don’t seem to mind the limitations to the free press and media (also recently in the news, just can’t remember where). The BBC news about Politkovskaya murder charges being laid also mentions that while her murder caused an uproar internationally, it didn’t register widely in Russia. Again, you wonder why. Did the media not report it?
The relations between Russia and Europe haven’t been rosy lately – there certainly are some tensions but nevertheless one hears nothing about the systematic human rights violations and the state of lawlessness that Russia has become under Putin. The self-congratulatory European leaders do make some critical remarks time to time but they all know too well that they depend on Russian’s energy. And Russia has already flexed its muscles – as a warning to the rest of Europe? – with Georgia: if you don’t behave, we turn the pipes off, even in the heart of coldest winter. (Listen to the BBC Documentary here.)
What makes Politkovskaya’s books so compelling is because she tells the story of the corrupt and totalitarian system through the eyes of individuals who have fallen victim to Putin’s policies and political machinery. There are war criminals who go unpunished no matter what they’ve done, there are Chechen victims of hostage crisis during the musical Nord-Ost in 2002 who are blamed for the crisis. There are armed goons who bust into boardrooms to take over companies with fabricated allegations and place them under government control or close them down. There is a commander of the nuclear hunter-killer submarine, a part of the Kamchatka Flotilla of the Pacific Fleet who hasn’t been paid for months but instead receives a monthly ration that hardly feeds his unemployed wife and daughter.
What stands out and horrifies perhaps most is the crashing lawless state of the country. There is no independent judicial system, only a system that does what the politicians want them to do. There are endless fabrications and delays without explanation, show trials and indifference. Often cases simply disappear. It’s so Kafkaesque that when you’ve finished reading, you’re plain flabbergasted. This is happening in Russia today? Russia that’s just a couple of hundred kilometers away and we know nothing about it? And now that Politkovskaya is dead, who will tell us about the puppet rule of the newly ‘elected’ (read: hand-picked) president Medvedev under the iron control of prime minister Putin?
Make sure the next book you borrow or buy is by her. Here’s an excerpt from the Postscript of Putin’s Russia: “Yes, stability has come to Russia. It is a monstrous stability under which nobody seeks justice in lawcourts which flaunt their subservience and partisanship. Nobody in his or her right mind seeks protection from the institutions entrusted with maintaining law and order, because they are totally corrupt. Lynch law is the order of the day, bot in people’s minds and in their actions. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The President [Putin] himself has set an example by wrecking our major oil company, Yukos, after having jailed its chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Putin considered Khodorkovsky to have slighted him personally, so he retaliated. He not only retaliated against Khodorkovsky but went on to seek the total destruction of the goose that laid golden eggs for the coffers of the Russian State. Khodorkovsky and his partners have offered to surrender their shares in Yukos to the government, begging it not to destroy the company. The government has said, ‘No. We want our pound of flesh.'”
PS: You can read a recent article on Life in Putin’s Russia by journalist Julia Latynina in the Washington Post here.