By Arkady Ostrovsky
The bells of Notre Dame de Paris rang for Anna Politkovskaya and actress Catherine Deneuve read extracts from the books of the murdered Russian journalist. French philosophers, politicians, actors and journalists queued to lay flowers and light candles in front of a blown-up photograph of Russia’s bravest reporter and the Kremlin’s fierce critic.
In London, a memorial service was held in front of Westminster Abbey, the actress Vanessa Redgrave and members of parliament paying their tribute. Around the world front pages and top television news slots were taken up by the story of her death. CNN showed a live broadcast from her funeral in Moscow.
But the Russian audience did not see any of this. The reaction inside the country was muted and depressing. Russia’s infamous intelligentsia – now mostly converted into celebrities – did not come out on to Moscow ‘s streets. There was a small demonstration in Pushkin Square the day after her death – but it was mainly attended by its organisers. Russian actresses did not read extracts from Politkovskaya’s articles and the country’s ruling elite did not attend the funeral.
To be sure, all television channels – largely controlled by the Kremlin – put the murder of Politkovskaya at the top of their news bulletins. But this spontaneous reaction to her death quickly fizzled out. Her funeral, three days later, was well down the news lists and by the end of that week her name disappeared from state-controlled media almost without a trace.
Channel One’s week-in-review programme did not even mention her funeral: its anchorman, Petr Tolstoi, was too busy demonising Georgia, which he compared to North Korea, and waxing – lyrically and lovingly – about Vladimir Putin’s past as a KGB officer in Dresden. I asked Konstantin Ernst, the head of Channel One, and Mr Tolstoi, to comment on Politkovskaya’s death. Both declined.
This muted reaction to her death spoke volumes about the state of Russian society and its state controlled media. Instead of bringing journalists together, her death exposed the yawning gap between a small group of journalists who see Politkovskaya as their hero and a vast majority of those who call themselves journalists but are in fact propagandists.
Vladimir Pozner, Russia’s seasoned broadcaster, said: “The reaction [to her death] showed that there was no solidarity in the journalistic community, let alone in Russian society. Many of her colleagues were very defensive because, deep down, they understood that they did not have the courage and principles that she had. The fact she stuck to her guns was a source of envy and shame and a kind of repudiation of what she did.”
Mr Pozner hosts a Sunday night political talk show – the Times – on Channel One. The day after Politkovskaya was killed Mr Pozner focused his (pre-recorded) programme on Russia-Georgia relations. The programme which came out a few days after she was buried was about the dangers of smoking. At the end of both programmes, in a personal postscript, he spoke about Politkovskaya, lamenting that her death did not shake up Russian society. “Such are the times,” Mr Pozner concluded in a sign-off.
It was not always like this. In 1995, when two assassins shot dead Vladislav Listyev, a popular TV presenter and the new executive director of Channel One, the country was in shock. TV channels suspended all broadcasting, leaving a still photograph of Listyev on the screen with a chilling caption: Vlad Listyev is killed. There was an outpouring of grief. Boris Yeltsin, the first Russian president, went to the television centre to denounce the “cowardly and evil murder of a very talented world television journalist”.
Mr Putin, his successor, kept silent for three days after Politkovskaya’s death while world leaders condemned the murder. When he finally spoke in public on a state visit to Germany, his words were both insensitive and discouragingly candid: “I must say that her political influence was insignificant inside the country and she was more noticeable in human rights and media circles in the West. In this regard – as one of newspapers rightly stated today – the killing of Politkovskaya was more damaging for [the Russian] authorities and the Chechen authorities in particular, than her publications.”
The Western media was shocked by his callousness. Few people noticed that Mr Putin was taking his prompts from Russian journalists themselves. Maxim Sokolov, a columnist for the pro-Kremlin Izvestia, wrote on the day of Politkovskaya’s funeral: “[...] Politkovskaya has been on a periphery of public consciousness for more than two years. The index of her citations was close to zero. Why kill a journalist who poses no threat…”
Was the tail wagging the dog?
Even before Politkovskaya was buried, Izvestia and several other Kremlin-friendly newspapers were quick to point the finger at Mr Putin’s foreign-based enemies – a euphemism for self-exiled oligarchs. In their conspiracy-inflamed minds, the worst aspect of Politkovskaya’s death was that it cast a shadow over Mr Putin’s regime. Vitaly Tretyakov, the editor of Moscow News – a veteran of Perestroika-era journalism – highlighted in his column that Politkovskaya had a US passport, as if it undermined her integrity or credibility.
It is not surprising that Politkovskaya’s death made many Russian journalists uncomfortable. By writing about corruption in the Kremlin and torture in Chechnya, she exposed the compliance of much of Russian media, which has readily converted itself into a propaganda machine.
Mr Putin’s reaction to Politkovskaya’s death was also unsurprising: there was no love lost between the president and the reporter. The most disturbing thing of all is that Mr Putin was in fact right when he said that Politkovskaya’s influence in Russia was minimal. But the reason for this was not what she wrote, but that Russian society and its media refused to listen to it – lacking both the courage and compassion. Mr Putin’s words were the worst possible indictment of his country.
Even in its darkest years, Russia produced writers, poets and scientists brave enough to speak the truth. The biggest problem the country had was getting people to hear it. The Kremlin worked hard to shelter the Russian public from Politkovskaya’s work and to render her life irrelevant: she was barred from appearing on Russian television and quoting from her articles could land a reporter or a publication in trouble.
But the Russian media also bears enormous responsibility for making people deaf to Politkovskaya’s voice, just as it bears responsibility for fanning the xenophobia and intolerance which makes the Kremlin’s cold war against Georgia so accepted.
A few days after Politkovskaya’s death, Valery Panyushkin, one of Russia’s most gifted political journalists, left Kommersant, one of Russia’s leading daily papers – not because he was scared, he says, but because his work was of no use. “Don Quixote was a great guy, of course, but fighting with windmills does not do them any harm and does not make me feel better.”