Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated in Moscow on October 7, 2006.
“The murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya leaves a terrible silence in Russia and an information void about a dark realm that we need to know more about. No one else reported as she did on the Russian north Caucasus and the abuse of human rights there. Her reports made for difficult reading—and Politkovskaya only got where she did by being one of life's difficult people.”—Thomas de Waal, Guardian
From the reviews of A Small Corner of Hell:
“A personal, unblinking stare at the casualties of war.”—Jonathan Kaplan, Los Angeles Times
“Anna Politkovskaya's scarifying book covers the latest act in a long tragedy.… Politkovskaya is a correspondent for the liberal Moscow paper Novaya Gazeta, and her courage and tenacity have earned her the distinction of being the only journalist to have stayed the course in Chechnya over the past ten years. Her account is studded with heart-stopping images.”—Michael Church, Financial Times
“In Chechnya, there is now just one lone Russian voice remaining to chronicle the lives of those embroiled in the killing and corruption that have become the hallmark of President Putin’s efforts to bring the province under the control of Moscow. Her name is Anna Politkovskaya, and she is not about to give up the fight … She is Russia’s least wanted journalist … Few Russians want to read about how 75,000 of their crack troops are mired in a conflict against 3,000 active rebel fighters. Still less do they want to hear of atrocities carried out in their name by their own army.”—David Hearst, The Guardian
“Anna Politkovskaya is not a name known outside Russia. If President Putin had his way, she would not be known inside the country either. Her searing accounts of the corruption, intimidation and brutalities perpetrated by Russian soldiers in Chechnya are now almost the only source of information about what is really happening there … Like Andrei Sakharov, Ms Politkovskaya has been drawn into a lone confrontation with the State by its refusal to admit abuse. She has no political agenda and has reported also on the extremism and criminal connections of the rebel leaders. But she has also exposed what the military command is desperate to hide: the conscripts’ lack of training, equipment and discipline, the collusion of Russian officials in the kidnappings and protection rackets, the extortion of bribes from civilians, targeting of their houses and property and the indiscriminate killings.”—The Times
“Often Anna Politkovskaya has been a solitary witness to a conflict in which there is no victory and no defeat, just a steady stream of misery and death, brutality and betrayal. Other reporters, mostly foreign, have been to Chechnya intermittently to write about the devastation in the capital, Grozny; the atrocities in villages where Russian troops have run amok; or about underpaid, untrained Russian soldiers. But the difference is that Ms. Politkovskaya is working for a Russian newspaper at a time when the Russian government has actively discouraged any independent reporting on the war. As a result, most other Russian reports are sporadic and tilted toward the official line. But she has gone back to Chechnya again and again, trying to perfect a method of war reporting that is difficult in the best of circumstances: getting both sides of the story.”—Celestine Bohlen, New York Times
Russia’s Secret Heroes
The essence of the ruling regime of a country is how it designates heroes. Who are the “Chechen” heroes? And what do we want in Chechnya? What are we doing there? What is our goal? Who are we rewarding for what? And what are we trying to achieve?
The tea got cold long ago. We’re drinking it in a café at Magas Airport in Ingushetia. I’m ashamed to look Colonel Mohammed Yandiev, an officer of the Ingush Ministry of the Interior, in the eye. It’s the third year in a row that I’m ashamed.
As a result of a criminal blunder of the Moscow bureaucracy during the storming of Grozny in December 1999, someone had to risk his life to save eighty-nine elderly people from a Grozny retirement home that was abandoned under the bombing. No one wanted to brave the firing for their sake. Colonel Yandiev was the only one of the hundreds of Russian colonels and generals gathered on this small area near Grozny to say “yes.” And with six of his officers whom he had personally asked about this, he crawled for three days—this was the only possible way—along the streets of Grozny to the neighborhood of Katayama, to Borodin Street, where the lonely, hungry elderly were dying in the care of a government that had forgotten its duty to them.
Yandiev rescued all these old people from Grozny. The losses turned out to be minimal. Only one old woman died along the way; her heart couldn’t take it. But the colonel was able to save all of the others from bullets and shells flying from both sides of the crazed battle, as if each of them were his own mother or father.
“To this day, they send me letters on holidays. I don’t even remember their names. But they remember me. And they write,” Yandiev says, very quietly. And I have to drag these words from him, otherwise he would have been silent. “They thank me, and that’s the best kind of gratitude,” Yandiev insists, continuing to stir the sugar he already stirred long ago in the cold tea. “I don’t need anything else.”
But I need for there to be something else. I am a citizen, and for this reason I want to know why the colonel still has not received the title of Hero of Russia that he was nominated for early in 2000 for his deed, for the true courage he showed in saving eighty-nine citizens of his country. What do you need to do in Russia, the way things are now, to not only be a hero, but to be officially acknowledged as one?
The path to answers to these questions turned out to be quite treacherous. The babbling of the high-ranking officers responsible for moving the applications higher and higher in the capital of our Motherland, toward the president’s signature, boiled down to two arguments against Colonel Yandiev’s candidacy as a Hero.
First of all, he is “one of them.” In translation from their Moscow bureaucratic language, that means that Yandiev is an Ingush, and Ingush in the army aren’t trusted much, like Chechens. Yandiev, I was told, is “practically a Chechen,” and “who knows just what was going on in Grozny then—he might have made arrangements with militants.”
And what if he did? For the sake of eighty-nine lives?
But there’s a second reason too, and this argument doesn’t only concern Vainakhs [Chechens and Ingush]. It turns out that we are only supposed to give the title of Hero if the person “killed a bandit.”
“And if they saved someone’s life?”
“That’s not quite what we’re looking for.”
“So do you give it for rescues or not?”
“Who would admit that they don’t?”
Alas, I gave my word that I would withhold the names of those who agreed to give inside information on this matter. These people, though they have big stars on their epaulettes and orders on their chests, are merely gofers in the grand scheme of things, obeying a higher authority. They know which documents the president won’t sign. And Putin won’t sign for rescues. Just a detail, you think? By no means. We’ve all observed how the word “mercy” has been swept out of the government vocabulary. The government relies on cruelty in relation to its citizens. Destruction is encouraged. The logic of murder is a logic that is understood by the government and propagated by it. The way things are, you need to kill to become a Hero.
This is Putin’s modern ideology. When capitalists can’t get it done, comrades take over again. We know very well that they never forget to line their own pockets. That’s how things stand: at the end of the seventh year of the war, and in the third year of the second campaign, Chechnya has been turned into a genuine cash cow. Here, military careers are speedily forged, long lists of awards are compiled, and ranks and titles are handed out ahead of time. And all you have to do is to kill a Chechen and submit the corpse.
So here I am, sitting across from Mohammed Yandiev. A normal hero in an abnormal country. He hasn’t robbed anyone, hasn’t raped anyone, and hasn’t stuffed any stolen women’s lingerie inside his camouflage jacket. He has simply saved lives. And therefore he’s not a general. And his Hero application is rotting in Moscow vaults.
A Perplexed Afterword
I called the Information Department of the Russian presidential administration. The head is Igor Porshnev, but it’s generally better known as the department of Sergei Yastrzhembsky, an assistant of Putin’s who is responsible for “information support for the antiterrorism operation.” I had two very simple questions. The first was, How many soldiers have received state awards for their participation in the second Chechen war? And the second was, How many of them earned the Hero of Russia title?
The Information Department sent me to the Putin administration’s Department of Government Awards, whose head is Nina Alekseevna Sivova.
“That information is classified,” the assistants firmly stated, categorically refusing me any chance to talk with the bosses of their departments. “It’s not subject to disclosure.”
“But that’s absurd!” I objected.
Finally, in Yastrzhembsky’s department, which is responsible for the formation of a “proper image of the war,” they took pity and at least agreed to “examine an official inquiry on this subject,” albeit without guaranteeing a positive answer (of two numbers!) or a date by which they’d examine it (and indeed, an answer never came!).
A conversation with Nina Sivova from the Award Department soon took place. And she affirmed: “This information is in fact confidential, for official use only.”
Maybe some people remember this term from Soviet times. Wherever you looked, everything was “for official use only.”
“Why are the Hero of Russia and other awards confidential?” I tried to find out from Nina Alekseevna.
“For the protection of those who receive these awards,” came yet another cryptic response.
“But I’m not even asking for their last names.”
“Call back …”
“Yes, tomorrow. Maybe …”
Or maybe not. A country in which the number of heroes is information for official use only of those bureaucrats who handed out the awards, and where real heroes don’t receive the Hero title, is hopeless. It will lose all wars. Because it never encourages the right people.