Nothing But The Truth - Anna Politkovskaya

The truth hurts

In 2006, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered near her home. Brian Donaldson reads a collection of her articles and wonders whether justice will ever be served.

In a world where the worst atrocities some journalists might face are their copy being ravaged by unscrupulous subeditors and unreasonable deadlines being imposed by cold-hearted commissioning editors, the fate of our kin abroad make such concerns seem horribly petty. At the start of the year, Siberian reporter Konstantin Popov was found dead in a police cell having suffered severe internal injuries. Friends allege that he was subjected to a prolonged and sadistic beating by officers, including being raped with a broom handle. In December, 27 journalists were massacred during an ambush in the Philippines. Tales of kidnapping and death threats are almost routine in Guatemala, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The case of Anna Politkovskaya haunts the profession. The arch critic of the Russian war in Chechnya and an outspoken voice of anti-Putin dissent, she was gunned down in the lift of her Moscow apartment block on 7 October 2006 – a pistol with a silencer was later found at the scene of the crime. Vladimir Putin was celebrating his birthday that day, but emerged three days later to describe Politkovskaya as ‘insignificant’ and ‘well-known only in the west’. One year on, Russia’s prosecutor general Yury Chaika gravely announced that the blame rested with a Moscow criminal gang but that ‘operational support’ for the assassination had been given by the police and officers of the FSB (the spy division formerly known as the KGB). A month later, Chaika was removed from the case and a catalogue of acts, varying from bungled to obscene, are then committed in the course of the investigation as key suspects are released or allowed to flee the country; the judge announces the trial of four defendants will take place in a closed session, falsely claiming this to be the wishes of the jury; the lawyer for the Politkovskaya family suggests that the defendants (who are later acquitted) are victims of an elaborate set-up. Crucial evidence such as photographs of suspects and video footage of the likely assassin entering her apartment block have somewhat conveniently gone missing. Whether Politkovskaya’s real killer will ever be tracked down is open to conjecture.

Someone somewhere clearly felt that Politkovskaya, whose reports appeared in the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was not quite so minor a figure as Putin had claimed. Just what threat did she pose to those dark forces at play in an increasingly corrupt Russia and in Chechnya, where a Kremlin-backed warlord Ramzan Kadyrov rules with violent impunity? Portraits of that leader line the streets, Saddam Hussein-style, while he barely hides his murderous intentions, having once told Natalia Estemirova, another now dead human rights journalist, ‘yes, my hands are up to the elbows in blood … I will kill and kill bad people.’

In Nothing But The Truth, a visceral and now poignant collection of her writings for Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya does what she aimed to do best: simply relay her observations and let the reader decide. She is unfailingly caustic about her fellow journalists in Russia who she views as lackeys of the Kremlin, deliberately ignoring the pain and anguish inflicted by Putin, and Boris Yeltsin before him. Campaigning journalism has lost many of its most strident practitioners down the years, but the loss of Anna Politkovskaya leaves a stain on Russia and its friends across Europe.

Nothing But The Truth is out now published by Harvill Secker.

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