Reading Politkovskaya is always a draining experience, and this, the last complete book of her writings and released after her death, is particularly challenging. It is organized in the form of a diary, with daily entries compiled of Politkovskaya’s notes, many of which later became articles–it includes, for example, the infamous interview with Ramzan Kadyrov, although missing the death threats made by him and his entourage, which are presented in the article itself published in Novaya Gazeta–and chronicles both her research and her growing despair over the state of Russia and its inability to change in the face of overwhelming evidence of corruption and human rights abuses. In response to allegations of vote-rigging in Ingushetia, brought by the parents of people who had been “disappeared,” Politkovskaya states, half-furiously, half in resignation:
“This whole system of thieving judges, rigged elections, presidents who have only contempt for the needs of their people, can operate only if nobody protests. That is the Kremlin’s secret weapon and the most striking feature of life in Russia today. That is the secret of spin doctor Surkov’s genius: apathy, rooted in an almost universal certainty among the populace that the state authorities will fix everything, including elections, to their own advantage. It is a vicious circle. People react only when something affects them personally: old Judge Boris Ozdoev when his son Rashid was abducted, the same as the Mutsolgovs. Until then, if my hut is out of harm’s way, why worry? We have emerged from socialism as thoroughly self-centered people” (124-5).
People looking for a light, upbeat read should probably keep looking, but Politkovskaya was the voice of conscience, and then the martyr, of her generation for a reason. These diary entries are not quite as “polished” on some levels as her articles, but they are an honest and compelling portrait of her own thoughts, as well as an insightful look into the Russia of the early 2000s, as she shreds both the growing authoritarianism of Putin and United Russia, and the dithering and self-centered jockeying for position amongst the liberal opposition. Bizarrely, she ends up sympathizing with the National Bolsheviks, the left-wing nationalist party, as being one of the few groups capable of producing an organized and vigorous resistance. What she would make of Russia today…can probably be guessed, but it wouldn’t be pretty. I can’t say it’s good that she’s not here to see it, because her voice is sorely missed, but it most likely would have confirmed all her most pessimistic speculations.
Tellingly, the last entry is called “Am I Afraid?”, in which she responds to accusations that she is indeed a pessimist with the words:
“I see everything, and that is the whole problem. I see both what is good and what is bad. I see that people would like life to change for the better but are incapable of making that happen, and that in order to conceal this truth they concentrate on the positive and pretend the negative isn’t there” (341). She ends with the warning that this is “a death sentence for our grandchildren” (342).
Politkovskaya’s warnings were often startlingly prescient, and could be applied not just to Russia but to the rest of the world. A keen observer of human nature, she was capable of facing what so many people could not, both when it came to grim conclusions and when it came to physical danger. It is tragic that her courage led, fairly directly, to her death, but she would not have been Anna Politkovskaya if she had taken the easy, safe way out.
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