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from the September 2007 issue

Anna Politkovskaya’s “A Russian Diary”

Reviewed by Michelle Risley

Anna Politkovskaya's brutal murder reveals the incredible risks and the dangers she faced as a journalist reporting on the limitations of Russian democracy. A Russian Diary, her blow-by-blow catalogue of power abuses by and under Putin's government was being translated when, on October 6, 2006, she was shot pointblank in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building. Although the government has denied blame, suspicions against it remain high. Since Putin's 2000 election, independent reportage has withered as Russian journalists have been threatened, beaten, and murdered. Politkovskaya stood out as one of the few who continued to relentlessly investigate the government's human rights abuses, especially in its war against separatists in the mostly Muslim Chechen Republic.

Politkovskaya includes dismaying examples of these abuses into her diary, and ably folds intricate, complex histories into cogent and readable entries. In a section devoted to the murder of Aslam Maskhadov, Chechnya's former (and democratically elected) president who later led the resistance against the Russian Army, the details are gruesome. The FSB, successor to the Soviet KGB, announced that it paid $10 million for information on his whereabouts before he was killed. Afterwards, "(h)is stripped dead body was shown all day in close-up on television." Whatever his faults—and Politkovskya shines a more glowing light on Putin's opponents than they seem to deserve—Maskhadov restrained extremist factions who considered the Beslan murders of over 335 hostages, including 200 children, to be justified. His assassination at the hands of Russian special forces was praised by government officials.

Because her commentary is more screed than analysis, it would be a relief to credit the reportage to Politkovskaya. Her sweeping and reductive generalizations are meant not to transmit facts, but to convince readers that Russia and Russians are imperiled. "It's as simple as that" seems to sum up her explanation of how Putin's Russia reached its current array of political, social, and economic crises, but Yeltsin skips off scot-free. "Re-Stalinization is a reality," she asserts. Facets of it have undoubtedly resurfaced, yet the differences in how tyranny was wielded in Soviet Russia and today are as relevant as the similarities. Politkovskya glosses over these. She equates the battle against Chechnya, a war fought in a republic bordering Georgia, against non-ethnic Russians, and which Putin has used as a pretext to slowly consolidate power, with the Great Terror, a top-down, nationwide inquisition that led to the destruction of whatever civil society existed in 1937. Meanwhile, Europe overlooks Putin's authoritarian tendencies because it "unfortunately, is tired of hearing how evil Putin is," preferring instead "to be fooled by how good he is." More likely to be at the root of Europe's tolerance is its dependence on Russian oil.

Interspersed between these diatribes and her capricious assessments of what ails the Russians, who are in turn blighted, lazy, self-absorbed, and cynical, she sympathetically presents disturbing evidence that their lives are becoming ever more precarious. While Russia scaled to third place on this year's Forbes breakdown of billionaires-by-country, Politkovskaya reports that "(f)orty percent of the population live below even our dire official poverty line." (She goes to great lengths to stress that even oil oligarchs have had to toe Putin's political line.) The substantial benefits that swathes of Russians—the disabled, soldiers, retirees, victims of the gulag—were accustomed to, and which were possibly the Soviet Union's only positive legacy, have been virtually extinguished. Putin's administration sharpened this economic divide by revoking tax privileges for charitable giving in 2002. As a result, the giving halted. Conscripted teenage soldiers are often sent to Chechnya and return to their mothers either maimed or unstable. The government won't investigate the "suicides" among them, a classification many parents believe is a cover-up for manslaughter. In the Russian Army, hazing can be deadly.

A Russian Diary is wildly uneven and often exasperating. Yet it is also a terrifying, brave, and broad exposé of Putin's metastasizing grip on a people who don't seem to know how to react, or why they should endanger themselves by bothering. To Anna Politkovskaya, indifference was merely self-interest. For all of her cynicism, she genuinely believed that democracy was worth the risk, if not for her, or for her children, then for her grandchildren. Her murder will inspire few to follow suit.

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