Carl Gershman is president of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Ten years ago Friday , Anna Politkovskaya, Russia’s most famous journalist, was murdered in Moscow. Her death serves as a window to Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin autocrat whom many Americans are looking at for the first time — his name now in U.S. election headlines as a result of alleged hacking of Democratic National Committee servers by Russian actors and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s praise of Putin’s strongman rule.
Politkovskaya was known throughout the world for her reporting on the second Chechen war, a conflict Putin pursued with the same ruthless brutality that he is using today in Syria, an approach U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power described as “barbarism.”
Only an utterly fearless journalist such as Politkovskaya would dare to visit war-torn Chechnya in the North Caucasus. Showing astounding bravery, she brought the lesser-known war to the world’s attention, documenting murders, kidnappings, torture and the destruction of whole villages. Her investigative reports even resulted in the initiation of more than 20 criminal cases in Chechnya.
Politkovskaya repeatedly received death threats as a result of her reporting. She was threatened with rape and was subjected to a mock execution after being arrested by the Russian military. In 2004, while traveling to the North Ossetian town of Beslan in the hope of trying to mediate the school hostage crisis, she was poisoned — and nearly died.
After the Beslan poisoning, Politkovskaya wrote, “We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum that spells death from our own ignorance.” She thought that by reporting the truth and standing up to terror, she might be able to prevent Russia from becoming a danger to itself and to the world.
She survived until she came up against Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen warlord who was installed by Putin to run the republic with iron-fisted impunity. The relationship between Putin and Kadyrov is notoriously close; Putin has said that the Chechen is like a son to him, while Kadyrov has professed his great love for Putin, saying, “Those who criticize Putin are not human, they are my personal enemies.”
Politkovskaya was such an enemy. When she interviewed Kadyrov in 2004, he angrily said, “You have come between Chechens. You are an enemy.” Being called an enemy of Kadyrov was the equivalent of a death sentence, but she didn’t back down. On Oct. 5, 2006, she gave an interview to Radio Liberty in which she said that Kadyrov was a “coward armed to the teeth” and the “Stalin of our days.” She also said that her objective was to make sure that a criminal case was opened against him. The article she was working on at the time — which turned out to be her last investigative report — documented the torture and killing of two people by a law-enforcement body controlled by Kadyrov.
Politkovskaya was murdered two days later in a contract-style killing, her body dumped in the elevator by her apartment along with the Makarov pistol used to kill her. It was Oct. 7, which just happened to be Putin’s 54th birthday.
Since her assassination, Russia’s descent into the abyss has continued and is gaining momentum. Other Russians labeled as enemies by Kadyrov have also been assassinated, among them the human rights activist Natalya Estemirova and the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Today, Russia occupies 20 percent of Georgia’s territory. It has annexed Crimea, invaded eastern Ukraine and threatened its Baltic and Nordic neighbors. It uses email hackers, information trolls and open funding of political parties to sow discord in Europe, weaken the European Union and NATO, and undermine confidence in Western institutions. In league with the Iranian and Syrian regimes, it is expanding its influence in the Middle East, and it is even intervening in the U.S. presidential election.
Politkovskaya understood that there was a connection between Putin’s sudden rise to power in 1999 by inflaming anti-Chechen passions and the horrible violence that followed. In her book “A Small Corner of Hell,” she wrote about “Westernizers” in Chechnya who looked toward Europe and with whom one could make peace. But Putin saw otherwise. He used the Chechen issue to seize and consolidate his power and then to extend it. Politkovskaya saw the danger, but she and other liberals in Russia were not strong enough to stop it.
The United States has the power to contain and defeat this danger. The issue is whether we can summon the will to do so. Remembering Politkovskaya can help us rise to this challenge.