Sunday, February 20, 2011

"A Bacchanalia of (Russian) Indifference"

Tony Wood reviewed Anna Politkovskaya's Nothing but the Truth: Selected Dispatches in the 24 June 2010 issue of the London Review of Books. Politkovskaya was killed by an unknown assailant or assailants on 7 October 2006 but wrote over 500 articles or editorials in Novaya Gazeta and other journals between 1999 and her death. Most, but not all, of these articles focused on the Russian assault on Chechnya, which she believed had killed countless innocent civilians and poisoned the Russian state. As we know, Politkovskaya was a tenacious reporter whose brave criticism put her life in danger on more than one occasion. She regularly received death threats and was probably poisoned in 2004 according to Tony Wood. The book, Nothing But the Truth, is part of a much larger work that was published in Russia back in 2007. It was filled with tribute articles, reports, testimony, and lots and lots of pieces about Chechnya. In Politkovskaya's opinion, Chechnya was a national disgrace that dishonored the country "from top to bottom."

Who was Polikovskaya? Tony Wood briefly describes her life story. Born in New York in 1968 as a result of her Ukrainian father's translator assignment in the UN, Polikovskaya grew up comfortably in Moscow and eventually studied journalism at Moscow State University. But, in her own words, she became a woman "who observed the Soviet Union as its most disgraceful in the 1970s and 1980s."

Politkovskaya's first job was at Izvestia. Her husband, also a journalist, was another intrepid reporter and, as Wood tells us, was among the first journalists to arrive at the scene of Chernobyl. The two eventually divorced because, in her laconic telling of it, "he partied a lot. Then he left." Of course, Polikovskaya's incorruptible, humane approach to journalism soon brought her some measure of national and even international fame and indeed made her one of Putin's main opponents.

Politkovskaya's reputation as a writer was made by Chechnya. Her stories were profoundly humane, often focusing of the impact of the war on its most vulnerable victims. She was, said one observer quoted by Wood, "like a person without skin, receiving all the signals of misery from everyone." If this heroic woman had blind spots, Wood suggests these were related to Yeltin's grotesque flaws--he bombed the Duma, invaded Chechnya before Putin ever did, chanelled money into the hands of friends, and sold out the country to oligarchs for instance--and the first war in Chechnya, which she failed to condemn.

Of course, Russians as well as Chechnya were suffering mightily during the period in which Politkovskaya wrote. The country had a ruinous social welfare and healthcare system and Wood says that 40 percent of the population was living in poverty. The murder rate was many, many times higher than it was in Western countries such as France and Germany. Fifty-two journalists were killed since 1992 and 80 or 90 of them are assaulted each year. Their vulnerability stemmed from the country's runaway corruption and lack of any other checks to this corruption save independent journalism. So Politkovskaya, martyr of a more humane Russia, had a terrifying job but certainly no lack of materials to write about.

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