Sun, Apr 01, 2007 - Page 19 News List

Was Anna Politkovskaya afraid?

On the six-month anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya's murder, the controversial journalist's diary hits book shelves and her voice speaks from the grave

By Viv Groskop  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Publication notes: A Russian DiaryBR>
By Anna Politkovskaya
272 pages
Harvill Secker

The diary of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya ensures that her questing, questioning voice cannot be silenced

This month marks the six-month anniversary of the murder of campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya. This book is the diary she was preparing for publication shortly before her death. It covers Russia's presidential elections of 2004 and the aftermath of Putin's re-election — a "great political depression," as Politkovskaya describes it — culminating in the Beslan tragedy in September 2004. The last section of the book follows the Yukos affair (which resulted in the jailing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the richest man in Russia), the political fallout from Beslan and hundreds of forgotten show trials, disappearances and violent events all over Russia.

Even though the last entry was written more than two years ago, the benefit of hindsight makes this a particularly difficult read. You would have to be fairly stony-hearted to get through the short afterword, "Am I Afraid?," without choking up. "People often tell me I'm a pessimist; that I do not believe in the strength of the Russian people; that I am obsessive in my opposition to Putin and see nothing beyond that. I see everything and that is the whole problem." And she never does answer — was she never afraid?

Her insistence on remaining in Russia answers this question: she was the target of repeated death threats and an attempting poisoning. A woman who resembled her had already been killed near her home in 2001. There was a sickening inevitability to the four bullets to the head at point-blank range last October. But Politkovskaya did not have much time to be afraid. She was too busy doing what she considered, in her gut, to be her duty: to report on Russia as she found it.

It is not what you could call a conventional diary: there is virtually no personal detail. This is less of a journal and more a chronicle of what was happening in Russian political life over a three-year period: observations on televised debates, overheard conversations, strained interviews. Politkovskaya is largely silent, filling her pages with the voices of a forgotten Russia instead: the war widows living on pensions of US$19.50 a month, the families under bombardment in Ingushetia who phone her in the night.

Often, stories finish abruptly: unexplained events are a given in post-Soviet life. A human-rights campaigner is abducted in Chechnya and never mentioned again. The widow of a Chechen fighter is kidnapped and vanishes without trace. Many events need no comment and can have no rational explanation. The entry for Sept. 3, 2004, simply reads: "There are 331 fatalities as a result of the hostage-taking in Beslan."

A Russian Diary is by turns depressing and illuminating. It occasionally has a surreal black humor. It is less moving and immediate than Politkovskaya's other works, Putin's Russia and A Dirty War, which focus less on politics and more on the suffering of ordinary people. It is told from a distance from the point of view of a cynical and exasperated observer who cannot believe that things can get any worse — but sees that plainly they have.

The hallmark of Politkovskaya's reporting is that she states verbatim what is going on, scrutinizing soundbites. She picks apart inconsistencies in interviews and occasionally gets involved, often recklessly: when she is interviewing Ramzan Kadyrov, now President of Chechnya, she complains that his interpreter is making up his own answers. The translator, "like a dog breaking free from its chain, attacks and insults me." As she is driven away after the interview, she breaks down as she realizes she is probably going to be killed. (Some kind of Kadyrov connection is still cited as the most likely explanation for her shooting.)

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