A Moscow Murder Story

She wasn’t charismatic, she didn’t fill lecture halls and she wasn’t much good at talk shows either. Nevertheless, at the time of her murder in Moscow Saturday, Anna Politkovskaya was at the pinnacle of her influence. One of the best-known journalists in Russia and one of the best-known Russian journalists in the world, she was proof — and more is always needed — that there is still nothing quite so powerful as the written word.

The subject of Politkovskaya’s writing was Russia itself, and in particular what she called Russia’s “dirty war ” in Chechnya. Long after the rest of the international press corps had abandoned Chechnya — it was too dangerous for most of us, too complicated, too obscure — she kept telling heartbreaking Chechen stories: The Russian army colonel who pulled 89 elderly people from the ruins of Grozny but received no medals, or the Chechen schoolboy who was ill from the aftereffects of torture but could get no compensation. A hallmark of her books and articles was the laborious descriptions of how she tried, and invariably failed, to get explanations from hostile and evasive Russian authorities. At the same time, she had no patience for the fanatical fringe of the Chechen independence movement either.

Over the years Politkovskaya won scores of international prizes. At home she was threatened, arrested and once nearly poisoned by the same Russian authorities who refused to respond to her questions. The only official acknowledgment of her status was backhanded: In 2002, when Chechen rebels stormed a Moscow theater, she was called upon to help negotiate the release of hostages. She failed to keep them alive, and now she is dead too.

Politkovskaya was not, it is true, the first Russian journalist to be murdered in murky circumstances since 2000, when President Vladimir Putin came to power. Among the worst crimes — all, of course, unsolved — were the murders of two provincial journalists from the city of Togliatti, probably for investigating local mafia; of Paul Klebnikov , the American editor of Forbes magazine’s Russian edition, probably for knowing too much about Russia’s oligarchs; and of a Murmansk television reporter who was critical of local politicians.

Nevertheless, Politkovskaya’s murder marks a distinct turning point. There was no attempt to disguise the murder as a theft or an accident: Her assassin not only shot her in broad daylight, but he left her body in the elevator of her apartment building alongside the gun he used to kill her — standard practice for Moscow’s arrogant hit men. Nor can her murder be easily attributed to distant provincial authorities or the criminal mafia: Local businessmen had no motivation to kill her — but officials of the army, the police and even the Kremlin did. Whereas local thieves might have tried to cover their tracks, Politkovskaya’s assassin, like so many Russian assassins, did not seem to fear the law.

Of course if this murder follows the usual pattern in Russia, no suspect will ever be found and no assassin will ever come to trial. But in the longer term, the criminal investigation isn’t what matters most. After all, whoever pulled the trigger — or paid someone to pay someone to pull the trigger — has already won a major victory. As Russian (and Eastern European) history well demonstrates, it isn’t always necessary to kill millions of people to frighten all the others: A few choice assassinations, in the right time and place, usually suffice. Since the arrest of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky in 2003, no other Russian oligarchs have attempted even to sound politically independent. After the assassination of Politkovskaya on Saturday, it’s hard to imagine many Russian journalists following in her footsteps to Grozny either.

There are jitters already: A few hours after news of Politkovskaya’s death became public, a worried friend sent me a link to an eerie Russian Web site that displays photographs of “enemies of the people” — all Russian journalists and human rights activists, some quite well known. Above the pictures is each person’s birth date and a blank space where, it is implied, the dates of their deaths will soon be marked. That sort of thing will make many, and probably most, Russians think twice before criticizing the Kremlin about anything.

And there is, at the moment, a lot to criticize. With crises brewing in Iran, Iraq and North Korea, few have had time to notice the recent escalation of the political dispute between Russia and Georgia, or to ponder the political consequences of Europe’s increasing reliance on Russian gas, or to worry much about minor matters such as the deterioration of press freedom in Russia.

Critics of Anna Politkovskaya’s writing did complain, on occasion, that her gloom could be overbearing: She was one of those journalists who saw harbingers of catastrophe in every story. Still, it is hard for me not to write about her murder in the same foreboding tone that she herself would have used. It is so much like one of the stories she would have written herself.

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