Russia: A Journalist's Murder

I am not a person given to superlatives, but Anna Politkovskaya must have been one of the bravest people I have ever known. She was killed in Moscow on Saturday by unknown assailants. Her murderer shot her with a pistol in the elevator of her apartment building, and then, in a characteristic Russian mafia flourish, left the gun behind next to her body. She may well have looked her killer in the eyes. If so, I bet she didn't blink.

Politkovskaya's passion was Chechnya. She covered the warfare and turmoil that have cursed that tiny republic in the North Caucasus since 1994, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin decided, with negligent nonchalance, to show a thing or two to a bunch of stroppy Muslims who were professing the desire to secede from the Russian Federation. That first war ended in 1996 with Moscow's defeat. A humiliated Kremlin pulled out its forces and abandoned the war-ravaged region to Islamist insurgents whose only economic-development strategy involved the industrial-scale kidnapping of anyone whose family might be able to afford a ransom. And then, in 1999, the war started again, ordered by a tough-minded then-prime minister Vladimir Putin, who vowed to restore Russia's honor by wiping out the rebel threat. In the years since he has managed to restore a kind of shaky rule over Chechnya, but only at the cost of establishing a Moscow-sponsored dictatorship that rules by terror in ways not unlike those used by the Islamic fundamentalists who ruled the place before them.

Who could love a place like that? Politkovskaya did—with a fierce obstinacy that often defied level-headed calculation. She covered both wars as well as the period of chaos between them, all with mind-boggling fearlessness and fairness. Politkovskaya named names, in a conflict where doing that often marked you for death. She was equally open in her contempt for Putin's reborn KGB and the Islamist terrorists. The Russian government propaganda machine invariably scolded her for sympathizing with the terrorists—and yet she described the Chechens' most ruthless rebel leader, Shamil Basayev, as "a man who will do literally anything for money." She accused a Russian officer of torture, and soon after received a flurry of death threats that forced her to leave Russia for a time in 2001. The last time I met her, in May 2002, she told me that she had just completed her 42nd trip to Chechnya. She won countless international awards for her reporting—including the International Women's Media Foundation courage award in 2002—and she earned every one of them. But somehow I doubt that they meant as much to her as the fate of the innocents she identified with most strongly.

I recall a conversation I once had with one of NEWSWEEK's leading correspondents, a man who has covered countless conflicts from the Lebanese civil war to the breakup of Yugoslavia. He has been assaulted, shot at, shelled, nearly taken hostage. So I decided to ask him: What's the scariest war you've ever covered? He didn't hesitate for a second: Chechnya, 1995, for its incendiary combination of exceedingly dirty guerilla warfare, the fanaticism of the Chechens' Islamist radicals, and the use, by the Russians, of the kind of heavy weaponry originally designed for use in all-out war with NATO. "A total nightmare," he said. "Hard to describe."

Politkovskaya did her best. Tens of thousands of civilians have died in Chechnya's wars; so, too, have dozens of journalists. Many of those who did an admirable job of covering the first war opted out of the second, understandably intimidated by the ruthlessness of both sides in the conflict. Yet Anna kept at it, often pushing hard at the thin line that separates impassioned reporting from outright advocacy. By the end, as the others were bullied into silence, she stuck to the story. She testified about the war to international human rights organizations and vowed to bring alleged Russian war crimes to trial. During the theater hostage crisis in Moscow in 2002 she entered the building and attempted to negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff. In 2004 she tried to intervene during the equally horrific hostage-taking episode at the school in Beslan . Her attempts at peacemaking failed, and both events ended with the massive deaths of innocents under profoundly questionable circumstances. But in both cases Politkovskaya is still remembered by the survivors, with reverence, as the one who tried to prevent the killing. Neither effort, to be sure, endeared her to Russian officialdom or the rebels.

Killings like Politkovskaya's are rarely solved in modern-day Russia. In this respect, President Putin's vows to put an end to the mafia-ridden chaos of the Yeltsin years remain unfulfilled, six years into his presidency. Under Putin the freedom of the Russian media to report on issues of vital importance to every Russian citizen (including those in Chechnya, it should be said) remains vastly curtailed—yet even today Russian ultranationalists can publish, with impunity, a Web site that posts the names and addresses of liberal intellectuals and calls openly for their murder. We cannot say who killed Politkovskaya, and we may never know. But one thing is for sure. Among the politicians, the terrorists, the mafia bosses, and the secret policemen, there are many who will breathe a quiet sigh of relief at the news of her death. It is the victims, the ordinary civilians, the ones caught in the middle who will mourn Anna Politkovskaya and treasure her memory. She wouldn't have wanted it any other way: she knew, from the start, which side she preferred to be on.