Russian Roulette

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.”

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Sojourners Magazine January 2007
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