Anna Politkovskaya, the 48-year-old woman shot dead in the elevator of her apartment building in Moscow on October 7, was not a public official, a member of parliament, or a leader of an opposition party. But in the eyes of many people, the murder of this fearless journalist has become a symbol of the slow death of freedom in Russia—a death evidenced by many other events large and small.
For the past several years, the Russian state under Vladimir Putin has been steadily working to bring the media to heel. In this stifling and intimidating atmosphere, Politkovskaya, a correspondent for the semiweekly Novaya Gazeta, remained an outspoken critic of the Putin government. Much of her reporting focused on the war in Chechnya and the atrocities committed by the Russian military and the Russian-backed puppet regime of Chechen premier Ramzan Kadyrov. She had won numerous awards for her journalism, including the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism in 2001; her book, Putin's Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy, was published in 2004.
At the time of her death, Politkovskaya was about to file a story about torture practices by Kadyrov's security forces in Chechnya. It is unclear whether this article will ever see the light of day. It has been seized by the police along with her computer and her research materials.
Whoever was behind the murder (widely expected to remain unsolved, like the murders of more than a dozen other Russian journalists on Putin's watch), the government's reaction was revealing. Amidst an outpouring of grief from journalists, human-rights activists, and concerned citizens, no high-level government official attended Politkovskaya's funeral. Putin waited several days to speak about the murder—and when he finally spoke, it was not to the Russian public or to the victim's family or her colleagues, but to foreign leaders whose friendship he wants to retain, promising President Bush a thorough investigation of the crime.
"That alone," human-rights activist Elena Bonner told Ekho Mosvky, Russia's only remaining independent radio station, "is a slap in the face to all of Russia." A few days later, on a visit to Germany, apparently under pressure from chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin made another statement—this time, a slap in the face to the dead woman herself. While he called her murder "a dreadful and unacceptable crime," Putin also said that "she had minimal influence on political life in Russia" and added, "This murder does much more harm to Russia and Chechnya than any of her publications." Thus, in one breath, the Russian president not only dismissed Politkovskaya's work as insignificant but also branded it as harmful to her country.
Politkovskaya's murder took place among many other alarming developments. As a result of tensions with the republic of Georgia, Russian authorities have launched retaliatory measures against ethnic Georgians living in Russia. There have been mass deportations of non-citizens—including many with valid residency permits—and schools have been reportedly asked to turn over lists of students with Georgian last names.
Other authoritarian encroachments take place quietly. A well-documented article published on the website of Democratic Union, one of the oldest independent political parties in Russia, described a sustained campaign to harass and silence critics of the government on Russian Internet forums. This campaign, the article charges, is conducted by organized groups of Putin supporters who sometimes seem to have mysterious access to personal data about their online opponents. Ominously, the article, posted nearly a month before Politkovskaya's murder, mentioned her as a target of especially virulent hatred by these "brigades."
A review of Politkovskaya's book on Putin's Russia in Publisher's Weekly ended with the quibble that "she never adequately explains why, if life under Putin is so awful, 70 percent of Russian voters chose him for their president in 2004." There is no simple answer to this question. Many people credit Putin with Russia's relative economic stability in recent years. For many others, the strong paternalistic state has an appeal. But one should not underestimate the Russian government's successful effort to intimidate and isolate all meaningful political opposition.
Today's Russia is not the dictatorship it was under communism: protesters at Politkovskaya's funeral could still hold up signs denouncing "the Kremlin scum" they held responsible for her death, without being hauled off to jail. But the climate of fear is back. Increasingly, it seems that freedom in Russia will be only a short window between communist totalitarianism and a new nationalist authoritarian state.