> Columns > Boston
Globe > Russia's slow death of freedom
Russia's slow death of freedom
By Cathy Young | October 16, 2006
ANNA POLITKOVSKAYA, the 48-year-old woman shot dead in the elevator
of her apartment building in Moscow Oct. 7, was not a public official,
a member of parliament, or a leader of an opposition party. But in
the eyes of many people, the murder of this fearless journalist has
become a symbol of the slow death of freedom in Russia -- a death
evidenced by many other events large and small.
For the past several years, the Russian state under Vladimir Putin
has been steadily working to bring the media to heel. In this stifling
and intimidating atmosphere, Politkovskaya, a correspondent for the
semiweekly Novaya Gazeta, remained an outspoken critic of the Putin
government. Much of her reporting focused on the war in Chechnya
and the atrocities committed by the Russian military and the Russian-backed
puppet regime of Chechen premier Ramzan Kadyrov. She had won numerous
awards for her journalism, including the Amnesty International Global
Award for Human Rights Journalism in 2001; her book, ``Putin's Russia:
Life in a Failing Democracy," was published in 2004.
At the time of her death, Politkovskaya was about to file a story
about torture practices by Kadyrov's security forces in Chechnya.
It is unclear whether this article will ever see the light of day.
It has been seized by the police along with her computer and her
Whoever was behind the murder (widely expected to remain unsolved,
like the murders of more than a dozen other Russian journalists on
Putin's watch), the government's reaction was revealing. Amidst an
outpouring of grief from journalists, human-rights activists, and
concerned citizens, no high-level government official attended Politkovskaya's
funeral. Putin waited several days to speak about the murder -- and
when he finally spoke, it was not to the Russian public or to the
victim's family or her colleagues, but to foreign leaders whose friendship
he wants to retain, promising President Bush a thorough investigation
of the crime.
``That alone," human-rights activist Elena Bonner told Ekho Mosvky,
Russia's only remaining independent radio station, ``is a slap in
the face to all of Russia." A few days later, on a visit to Germany,
apparently under pressure from chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin made
another statement -- this time, a slap in the face to the dead woman
herself. While he called her murder ``a dreadful and unacceptable
crime," Putin also said that ``she had minimal influence on political
life in Russia" and added, ``This murder does much more harm to Russia
and Chechnya than any of her publications." Thus, in one breath,
the Russian president not only dismissed Politkovskaya's work as
insignificant but also branded it as harmful to her country.
Politkovskaya's murder took place among many other alarming developments.
As a result of tensions with the republic of Georgia, Russian authorities
have launched retaliatory measures against ethnic Georgians living
in Russia. There have been mass deportations of non-citizens -- including
many with valid residency permits -- and schools have been reportedly
asked to turn over lists of students with Georgian last names.
Other authoritarian encroachments take place quietly. A well-documented
article published on the website of Democratic Union, one of the
oldest independent political parties in Russia, described a sustained
campaign to harass and silence critics of the government on Russian
Internet forums. This campaign, the article charges, is conducted
by organized groups of Putin supporters who sometimes seem to have
mysterious access to personal data about their online opponents.
Ominously, the article, posted nearly a month before Politkovskaya's
murder, mentioned her as a target of especially virulent hatred by
A review of Politkovskaya's book on Putin's Russia in Publisher's
Weekly ended with the quibble that ``she never adequately explains
why, if life under Putin is so awful, 70 percent of Russian voters
chose him for their president in 2004." There is no simple answer
to this question. Many people credit Putin with Russia's relative
economic stability in recent years. For many others, the strong paternalistic
state has an appeal. But one should not underestimate the Russian
government's successful effort to intimidate and isolate all meaningful
Today's Russia is not the dictatorship it was under communism: protesters
at Politkovskaya's funeral could still hold up signs denouncing ``the
Kremlin scum" they held responsible for her death, without being
hauled off to jail. But the climate of fear is back. Increasingly,
it seems that freedom in Russia will be only a short window between
communist totalitarianism and a new nationalist authoritarian state.