The Common Good
January 2007

Russian Roulette

by Swanee Hunt | January 2007

The murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya ripples worldwide.

Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot point blank in the head with a pistol in the elevator outside her apartment last October. The gun was placed by her side, indicating yet another contract killing. Traveling to Russia immediately following her murder, I spoke with Politkovskaya’s friends, as well as high-level Western diplomats, who describe a pernicious cycle: Independent media is essential to fight corruption that is saturating government, security forces, and courts. But without clean government, security forces, and courts, there is no protection for independent journalists. Politkovskaya was the 12th reporter murdered since 2000.

Politkovskaya was considered untouchable. She had received the 2005 Civil Courage Prize, the 2004 Olof Palme Prize, the 2002 Courage in Journalism Award, the 2000 Golden Pen Award from the Russian Union of Journalists, as well as prizes from the Overseas Press Club of America, Amnesty International, and others. I knew her within the Initiative for Inclusive Security, incubated at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which brings women peace experts to the attention of policy makers at the U.S. State Department, World Bank, United Nations, and other powerful institutions. But, ultimately, international acclaim and high-level connections were not enough to protect her.

“Who’s next?” asked her colleagues. As wealth continues to grow in Russia—worldwide, Moscow is now the most expensive city in which to live—Politkovskaya’s death has spread a dense chill over the public space, where abuse and corruption should be exposed. Even more dangerous than formal censorship is protective self-censorship among Russian reporters and political analysts, say diplomats. Still, “Politkovskaya” has become a rallying whisper—code for the Putin administration’s swing toward fascism, according to another journalist, who adds, “Russia has forgotten the meaning of sin.”

IF RUSSIA IS LOCKED in a desperate struggle of darkness against light, Politkovskaya seemed literally on the side of the angels. At 48, she stood tall and slim, throwing her head back in a defiant laugh. But she wielded her pen like an archangel’s sword. Seven years ago she joined Novaya Gazeta, one of the few newspapers to take on the Kremlin. And her books Putin’s Russia and A Dirty War described the plight of Chechnya’s civilians under brutal assault by the Russian government.

Politkovskaya told me that because she was female, she could get behind the lines to report on abuses the army was perpetrating against Muslims under cover of “fighting terrorism” (a cover-all theme served up to Putin by President Bush). Once, she got past a military checkpoint by making her way down to a river, then trekking through deep snow all night. Arriving in a village, she continued to document the moral decay of 100,000 Russian security forces, including zachistka (“mop-up”), where young Chechen men are rounded up from their homes, sometimes tortured, and often executed. To leave, she rode out on a pile of hay in a wagon. Another time she was apprehended by Russian forces but was freed by a sympathetic major. Yet another time, the FSB (former KGB) confined her in a pit in Chechnya, without food or water, for three days.

I last saw Politkovskaya in December 2005. We were in a small group discussing women’s role in security sector reform, as protectors of human rights, journalists, politicians, and leaders of civil society. Politkovskaya spoke about the importance of NGOs challenging the government. Ten months later, key Russian NGOs tell me, government harassment is making that challenge almost impossible.

The death of Politkovskaya must galvanize women leaders, human rights activists, and democracy lovers around the world. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who met with the journalist’s son and colleagues in Moscow, is right to press the case, and international outcry should motivate Russia to come clean. As Rice said on ABC World News Tonight, “I would hope that the Russian government understands that everybody is watching.”

Swanee Hunt is the director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and chair of the Initiative for Inclusive Security. She is the author of This Was Not Our War and Half-Life of a Zealot.

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