While any Politkovskaya book is an emotionally intense experience, this one is particularly wrenching: it begins with articles she wrote during the final years of her life, including the articles that may have led to her murder, and ends with tributes–some heartfelt, some grudging–paid to her after her death by her friends, admirers, and enemies (Ramzan Kadyrov and Vladimir Putin’s official statements are both included). The final impression is one of a person of superhuman forthrightness and integrity, who had the courage of her convictions and paid the ultimate price for them.
Politkovskaya’s writing is, as always, distinctive. She was not a flowery writer, although she was not afraid to use strong phrases when the occasion called for them, nor did she turn out carefully polished pieces of prose. Instead, her writing style is workmanlike and journalistic, aimed at drawing attention to the story she was covering, not her own artistic flourishes. It is vigorous and straightforward while also infused with an emotional sensitivity that can only be categorized as feminine. While, as I have discussed elsewhere, Politkovskaya was more sui generis, or in some cases an upholder of overt gender stereotypes, than a representative of the current American conception of feminism, she insists, loudly and repeatedly, that her, female, voice, and the voices of the women she interviews, are all important and must be heard. In fact, in a delightfully unexpected section of this book, she muses on the delights of the tango and how Russian women should demand more romance and passion in their lives.
But this is just a sweet side note to the main business of the book, which of course is the war in Chechnya. More than half the book, and the bulk of her actual writing, is devoted to a series of blistering accounts of corruption and atrocities in Chechnya, including several articles about Russian officers, and one officer in particular, accused of the abduction, torture, and murder of Chechen civilians. These articles caused the officer in question to send death threats to Novaya gazeta, Politkovskaya’s newspaper; instead of retracting her article and ending her investigation, the paper printed the threats and carried on covering the matter until the officer chiefly responsible was arrested and, in an unusual turn of events, convicted, it is assumed in part because of Novaya gazeta’s coverage. Although Politkovskaya said herself in a questionnaire that is included at the beginning of this book that her professional credo was “What matters is the information, not what you think about it,” she and her editors were crusaders who had no hesitation about jumping in the ring, instead of sitting on the sidelines.
Western readers may find Politkovskaya’s approach unusual, even at times off-putting–in fact, lots of Russian readers found her aggressive stance and unyielding commitment to the truth off-putting too–but I would say it is impossible to understand what is going on right now in Russia without reading a little Politkovskaya. It is fashionable these days to lament the decline of Russian literature and the hack-work of many contemporary Russian writers: a profession that was once the conscience of the nation and source for world-famous works of art has become just another cheap, low-brow commodity in the new, “freer” market-based economy. However, the real deal is that good writers are rare and those who are willing and able to swim against the current and insist on timeless truths rather than cheap, sweet-tasting lies are rarer still. Russia isn’t any poorer in serious writers than it has ever been; it’s just that these days, a lot of them are writing non-fiction. After all, when the truth is this urgent and this surreal, why would you need to make up stories? “Is Journalism Worth Dying For?” is not, as can be guessed from the title, a light read, but it is the account, often in her own words, of a real-life, modern-day hero.