Slain Russian journalist’s unsolved death speaks to Kremlin’s enduring grip

MOSCOW — Perhaps 200 people, more elderly than not, gathered Thursday in the late afternoon sunlight near a busy Moscow metro station to challenge the authorities and to remember a dead journalist.

The authorities were watching. They had dispatched three bus loads of young men — and a few young women, too — special police in black leather jackets and black berets. An ambulance stood by.

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Four years ago Thursday, at 4:03 p.m., Anna Politkovskaya, a 48-year-old reporter, was fatally shot in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building. She is one of 52 journalists killed in Russia since 1992. The cause of her death has not been solved, though the investigation continues.

Her reporting about the war in Chechnya had angered the authorities as she traveled fearlessly in the war zone, investigating Chechen complaints of abuse at the hands of Russian soldiers and describing widespread destruction. She was critical of authority as other journalists grew silent and was admired by the political opposition, which is carefully monitored here.

Using sections of fence painted red and green, the police had cordoned off the officially permitted space in front of a statue to Alexander Griboyedov, a 19th-century writer. Two metal detectors were set up, as the rules require, and plugged into a generator with a long extension cord. The small crowd passed through and stood before a low platform. Some passersby stopped to listen, and though they did not go through the metal detectors, were just as much part of the crowd.

Writers, actors, a gulag survivor and others castigated the government, and especially Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, demanding to know why Politkovskaya and so many others had died, with the killers so rarely found and officials unresponsive.

“Four years have passed and nothing has changed,” said Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster and who has formed an anti-Putin political movement. “Russian journalists are being killed because the most awful word for the authorities now is truth. This regime is based on lies. Anna was looking for the truth, and she paid for it with her life.”

A streetcar clanged, the only bell that would toll. A steady stream of people hurried by toward the Chistie Prudy metro, bearing modish briefcases, pushing expensive strollers, carrying smart shopping bags.

“The only thing left for us now is to recite poems,” said Tatyana Lokshina of Human Rights Watch, one of several speakers to remember Politkovskaya with verse.

“The authorities are guilty in all possible ways,” said Sergei A. Kovalyov, 80, who served seven years in labor camps for publishing an underground magazine in the 1970s. “But we cannot demand an end to this arbitrariness. We have no strength. It is our shame.”

They knew they were too few, that more should care, but that did not diminish them. “Of course we are not thousands,” said Genrikh Borovik, a Soviet-era journalist, “but it is important you have come here. Without journalists we cannot have a democratic country. We have already lost too many.”

They dispersed to a Profokiev violin concerto and Shostakovich’s Fifth symphony, the music Politkovskaya was listening to just before she died.

“My generation was part of the first wave of democrats,” said Anatoly Manokhin, 63, an official during the Yeltsin years who came to mourn the journalist and an era. “We read Solzhenitsyn in samizdat, and we were hauled in by the KGB.

“Now look at us, a few hundred gray-haired people. Why not let them gather?”

His own daughter, like so many others, has no time for protest. She’s trying to earn money, he said, and build a career.

“Now there is no democracy,” he said, “and there is no second wave.”