What can I say about Politkovskaya that I haven’t already said? Maybe that this book, written specifically for publication abroad, is perhaps the most foreigner-friendly of her works. Unlike “A Dirty War,” which is a compilation of her early articles on the second Chechen war, or later books such as “A Russian Diary,” which are presented more or less as diary entries, “Putin’s Russia” is a collection of essays about different facets of the post-Soviet experience. There are several essays on Chechnya and the army, of course, and a particularly harrowing/tearjerking one about the Nord-Ost crisis, but there are also essays on other social issues, one of the best being “Tanya, Misha, Lena, and Rinat: Where Are They Now?” In it Politkovskaya catches up with old friends whose fortunes have changed significantly under Yeltsin: Tanya was once a miserable engineer from the provinces, looked down on by her husband’s Muscovite intelligentsia family, but after the fall of the USSR she took up market-trading and became first the support of the whole family, and then a wealthy New Russian, complete with bribery and a much younger lover; Misha was a rising translation star whose career derailed, sending him to drink, religion, and violent threats against his wife, Lena; and Rinat, a decorated special forces officer who is contemplating becoming a contract killer in order to support his family. In the essay Politkovskaya paints a picture of a society turned upside down, giving opportunities to those who before had few, true, but also wrecking people’s lives and forcing people to abandon all considerations of honor and morality in order to survive, as families are torn apart and crime becomes the most common form of earning a living. Politkovskaya was critical of Putin, especially later, but here she also demonstrates an understanding of why people might prefer his brand of authoritarianism to the criminal free-for-all that was the ’90s.
These essays are not only full of social interest, but, written as they as essays or extended pieces of investigative journalism aimed at a Western audience, rather than short newspaper articles or diary entries, they have more of a narrative arc than much of Politkovskaya’s other work, and are especially easy to read and follow. Her trademark brand of high moral outrage and blistering invective leveled at the corrupt, callous, or merely incompetent, however, is still in full force, and Western readers who have not read Politkovskaya before are in for a treat of a very definite and mindblowing kind.
I would like to say that, for all the serious issues that Politkovskaya covered, there was some light at the end of the tunnel and the book ends on a happy note, but alas, that is not case. Between when she first wrote the book and when it went to press, the Beslan crisis happened, and the book ends with a Postscript dedicated to that. Ten+ years later, the main resolution to the issue has been, not justice for all the victims whom Politkovskaya wrote about, but the murder of Politkovskaya herself, and while the person who allegedly pulled the trigger is now behind bars, the person who paid him to do so is still at large. Which makes it all the more important for Politkovskaya’s words to be read.