“I am a pariah,” wrote the Russian journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya. “You don’t get used to this, but you learn to live with it.” Politkovskaya was, and still remains, a controversial figure in Russia and the world at large: her fearless journalism and passionate desire to protect the truth took her from the battlefields of Chechnya to the shadows of Moscow’s seamy underbelly.
Politkovskaya was indeed a pariah in Putin’s Russia. She was a pariah because she wrote about massacres, assassinations, and war crimes. She was a pariah because she wrote about the conduct of the pro-Moscow forces in the bloody farrago of the Second Chechen War. She was a pariah because she wrote about her suspicions that the Kremlin was gassing Chechen schoolchildren. She was a pariah because she interviewed the Russian cat’s-paw dictator Ramzan Kadyrov and “printed the interview just as he gave it, complete with all his characteristic moronic stupidity, ignorance and satanic inclinations.”
In short, she was a pariah because she told the truth.
Because of her propensity for telling the truth, without regard how it was perceived in the halls of the Kremlin, Politkovskaya was assassinated on October 7th, 2006. Though five have been convicted of her murder, it is acknowledged that they were simply hired thugs. No legal action has been successful in seeking justice from the perpetrators who actually ordered Politkovskaya’s death; perhaps this is because the Moscow City Police are understandably reluctant to serve an arrest warrant at the Kremlin’s Spasskaya Gate.
It is widely acknowledged among the Russian journalism and human rights communities that Anna’s blood indelibly stains the hands of Vladimir Putin, whether by his direct order or tacit approval given to his Chechen henchman, Kadyrov. In what is almost certainly no macabre coincidence, October 7th, 2006 was Putin’s fifty-fourth birthday.
This is certainly not an isolated case of the Russian government silencing those who vocally question its policies—the Committee to Protect Journalists rated Russia at number ten on its 2015 Global Impunity Index, a ranked list of the countries in which you are most likely to get away scot-free after murdering a journalist.
Journalists aren’t the only foes to fall afoul of the Kremlin: liberal politicians, human rights advocates, rock bands, and defectors are all firmly in the government’s crosshairs. The opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was brazenly gunned down in the heart of Moscow. Ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London with polonium, a substance so radioactive that “a millionth of a gram is enough to destroy a person’s bodily organs.” The long and sordid history of Soviet political assassination was resumed quite speedily by their post-1991 successors.
“It is impossible, however, to stop someone fanatically dedicated to this profession of reporting the world around us,” wrote Politkovskaya in an essay just two months before her murder. “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.”
In a way she did not (or, perhaps, did) foresee, Politkovskaya was right. Even a decade after her death, her spirit and work live on to inspire new generations of young citizen-journalists and outspoken dissidents in Russia and elsewhere. To the Kremlin, Politkovskaya is still a pariah, even in death—but to the free world and those of us who value the sanctity of truth in the face of danger, Politkovskaya lives on as a hero.