By Anna Politkovskaya
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Anna Politkovskaya imagined her own death long before it arrived. For years, she was Russia's most fearless journalist, reporting for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta from the killing fields of Chechnya and exposing the brutality of the Kremlin's war under President Vladimir Putin. She received one death threat after another, and was detained and beaten by Russian troops who threw her into a pit, threatened to rape her and performed a mock execution. "If it were up to me," an officer told her, "I'd shoot you."
Someone finally decided it was up to him. Politkovskaya's body was discovered in her Moscow apartment building last weekend with bullets in her head and chest, a Makarov pistol tossed at her feet. Her killing at age 48 came two months after she wrote this previously unpublished essay for "Another Sky," an English PEN book forthcoming from Profile Books in 2007.
I am a pariah.
That is the result of my journalism throughout the years of the Second Chechen War, and of publishing books abroad about life in Russia and the Chechen War. In Moscow, I am not invited to press conferences or gatherings that Kremlin officials might attend, in case the organizers are suspected of harboring sympathies toward me. Despite this, all the top officials talk to me, at my request, when I am writing articles or conducting investigations -- but only in secret, where they can't be observed, in the open air, in squares, in secret houses that we approach by different routes, like spies.
You don't get used to this, but you learn to live with it.
It is the way I have had to work throughout the Second War in Chechnya. First I was hiding from the Russian federal troops, but always able to make contact clandestinely with individuals through trusted intermediaries, so that my informants would not be denounced to the top generals. When President Vladimir Putin's plan of Chechenization succeeded (setting "good" Chechens loyal to the Kremlin to kill "bad" Chechens who opposed it), the same subterfuge extended to talking to "good" Chechen officials, many of whom, before they were "good" officials, had sheltered me in their homes in the most trying months of the war. Now we can meet only in secret because I am an incorrigible enemy, not amenable to re-education.
I'm not joking. Some time ago, Vladislav Surkov, Putin's deputy chief of staff, explained that there were people who were enemies but whom you could talk sense into, and there were incorrigible enemies who simply needed to be "cleansed" from the political arena.
So they are trying to cleanse it of me and others like me.
A few days ago, on Aug. 5, I was standing in a crowd of women in the central square of Kurchaloi, a dusty village in Chechnya. I was wearing a headscarf folded and tied in the manner favored by many women my age in Chechnya, not covering the head completely, but not leaving it uncovered, either. This was essential if I was not to be identified, in which case nobody could say what might happen.
To one side of the crowd a man's track suit pants were draped over the gas pipeline that runs the length of Kurchaloi. They were caked with blood. His severed head had been taken away.
During the night of July 27-28, two Chechen fighters had been ambushed on the outskirts of Kurchaloi by units of the Kremlin's anointed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov. One, Adam Badaev, was captured and the other, Hoj-Ahmed Dushaev, a native of Kurchaloi, was killed. Toward dawn, no fewer than 20 Zhiguli cars, full of armed people, drove into the center of the village and up to the district police station. They had Dushaev's head with them. Two of the men suspended it in the center of the village from the pipeline, and beneath it they hung the bloodstained pants I was now seeing.
This display of medieval barbarity was orchestrated by Kadyrov's vice premier, Idris Gaibov, who was heard phoning Kadyrov to report that they had killed "Devil No. 1," and hung his head up as a warning to the rest of the village.
The armed men spent the next two hours photographing the head with their mobile phones.
The head remained there for 24 hours, after which militiamen removed it. Agents of the prosecutor general's office began investigating the scene, and local people heard one officer ask a subordinate, "Have they finished sewing the head back on yet?" Dushaev's body, with its head now sewn back on, was later brought back to the scene of the ambush.
I wrote about this in my newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. Gaibov, a Chechen state official, had given orders to members of the Russian security forces who were not subordinate to him to decapitate a body. Kadyrov, the premier, had been informed, but did not intervene. Those carrying out the decapitation were also agents of the state and had desecrated a dead body, which is a criminal act. The agents of the prosecutor general's office, which is charged with ensuring observance of the law, merely told those who had carried out the order to hurry up sewing the head back on. And all this in full view of the adults and children who live in Kurchaloi.
I reached Chechnya at exactly the same time as the issue of our newspaper with the article. The women in the crowd tried to conceal me because they were sure the Kadyrov people would shoot me on the spot if they knew I was there. They reminded me that Kadyrov has publicly vowed to murder me. He said during a meeting of his government that he had had enough, and that Politkovskaya was a condemned woman. I was told about it by members of the government.
What for? For not writing the way Kadyrov wanted? "Anybody who is not one of us is an enemy." Surkov said so, and Surkov is Ramzan Kadyrov's main supporter in Putin's entourage.
"Ramzan told me, 'She is so stupid she doesn't know the value of money. I offered her money but she didn't take it,' " my old acquaintance Buvadi Dakiev told me that same day. He is the deputy commanding officer of the pro-Kremlin Chechen OMON, a militia special purposes force.
I met Buvadi secretly. He would face difficulties if we were caught conferring. When it was time for me to leave it was already evening, and Buvadi urged me to stay in this secure location. He was afraid I would be killed.
"You mustn't go out," he told me. "Ramzan is very angry with you."
I decided to leave nevertheless. Someone was waiting for me in Grozny and we needed to talk through the night, also in secret. Buvadi offered to have me taken there in an OMON car, but that struck me as even more risky. I would be a target for Chechen fighters.
"Do they at least have guns in the house you are going to?" he asked. During the whole war I have been caught in the middle. When some threaten to kill you, you are protected by their enemies, but tomorrow the threat will come from somebody else.
Why am I going on at such length about Buvadi? Only to explain that people in Chechnya are afraid for me, and I find that very touching. They fear for me more than I fear for myself, and that is how I survive.
Why has Ramzan vowed to kill me? I once interviewed him, and printed the interview just as he gave it, complete with all his characteristic moronic stupidity, ignorance and satanic inclinations. Ramzan was sure I would completely rewrite the interview, and present him as intelligent and honorable. That is, after all, how the majority of journalists behave now, those who are "on our side."
Is that enough to make someone vow to kill you? The answer is as simple as the morality encouraged by Putin. "We are merciless to enemies of the Reich." "Who is not with us is against us." "Those who are against us must be destroyed."
"Why have you got such a bee in your bonnet about this severed head?" Vasily Panchenkov asks me back in Moscow. He is the director of the press office of the troops of the Interior Ministry, but a decent man. "Have you nothing better to worry about?" I am asking him to comment on the events in Kurchaloi. "Just forget it. Pretend it never happened. I'm asking you for your own good!"
But how can I forget it, when it did happen?
I loathe the Kremlin's line, elaborated by Surkov, dividing people into those who are "on our side," "not on our side," or even "on the other side." If a journalist is "on our side," he or she will get awards, respect, perhaps be invited to become a deputy in the Duma.
If a journalist is "not on our side," however, he or she will be deemed a supporter of the European democracies, of European values, and automatically become a pariah. That is the fate of all who oppose our "sovereign democracy," our "traditional Russian democracy." (What on Earth that is supposed to be, nobody knows; but they swear allegiance to it nevertheless: "We are for sovereign democracy!") I am not really a political animal. I have never joined any party and would consider it a mistake for a journalist, in Russia at least, to do so. I have never felt the urge to stand for the Duma, although there were years when I was invited to.
So what is the crime that has earned me this label of not being "one of us"? I have merely reported what I have witnessed, no more than that. I have written and, less frequently, I have spoken. I am even reluctant to comment, because it reminds me too much of the imposed opinions of my Soviet childhood and youth. It seems to me that our readers are capable of interpreting what they read for themselves. That is why my principal genre is reportage, sometimes, admittedly, with my own interjections. I am not an investigating magistrate but somebody who describes the life around us for those who cannot see it for themselves, because what is shown on television and written about in the overwhelming majority of newspapers is emasculated and doused with ideology. People know very little about life in other parts of their own country, and sometimes even in their own region.
The Kremlin responds by trying to block my access to information, its ideologists supposing that this is the best way to make my writing ineffectual. It is impossible, however, to stop someone fanatically dedicated to this profession of reporting the world around us. My life can be difficult; more often, humiliating. I am not, after all, that young at 47 to keep encountering rejection and having my own pariah status rubbed in my face. But I can live with it.
I will not go into the other joys of the path I have chosen, the poisoning, the arrests, the threats in letters and over the Internet, the telephoned death threats, the weekly summons to the prosecutor general's office to sign statements about practically every article I write (the first question being, "How and where did you obtain this information?"). Of course I don't like the constant derisive articles about me that appear in other newspapers and on Internet sites presenting me as the madwoman of Moscow. I find it disgusting to live this way. I would like a bit more understanding.
The main thing, however, is to get on with my job, to describe the life I see, to receive visitors every day in our editorial office who have nowhere else to bring their troubles, because the Kremlin finds their stories off-message, so that the only place they can be aired is in our newspaper, Novaya Gazeta.
Translated from the Russian by Arch Tait.