Sister of Murdered Russian Journalist: “She didn’t Stop, She Couldn’t Stop!”
The sister of Anna Politkovskaya, Elena Kudimova, tells why the Russian writer’s crusading journalism cost her her life.
Even as a schoolgirl, Anna Politkovskaya questioned authority and exposed oppression of the vulnerable.
“Since she was very young, she was quite a determined person, she always wanted to protect people,” recalls her sister, Elena Kudimova. “At school, she was a kind of leader in her class. When she thought that the teacher wasn’t being fair to somebody, she would stand up and say so.”
It was a determination that drove Politkovskaya to become one of the most respected and feared journalists in the world, as she shone a light on the horrors of the Chechen wars, voiced her opposition to President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime, and exposed the dark side of politics, big business and state corruption in the dawning era of 21st-century Russia.
But that same doggedness in pursuit of the truth almost certainly led to her murder in October 2006, when, aged 48, she was shot dead in the lift of her apartment block in Moscow.
“Of course we were worried about her for many years. Her life was in constant danger and I always knew it was a risk, but nothing prepares you for your sister’s death,” says Mrs Kudimova, as she gazes up to the photograph of her younger sister on a cabinet in her west London apartment.
“Anna always wanted to be a journalist,” she continues. “Don’t forget, we lived in the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain so people didn’t go abroad, they mostly stayed where they were born, but she thought being a journalist you could go around different places to meet people. Anna wanted to look around.” Some of her best stories have now been collected into a new book, Nothing But the Truth: Selected Dispatches, which includes her award-winning accounts of the Chechen conflicts, the Moscow theatre siege siege of 2002, during which she was invited by the terrorists to act as a negotiator, and her encounters and interviews with world leaders including Tony Blair and George W. Bush.
After graduating from Moscow State University’s school of journalism in 1980, Politkovskaya, by then a mother of two, started her career at the Aeroflot airline newspaper, before joining the Soviet paper Izvestiya in 1982. From 1994 to 1999, she worked on the progressive national newspaper Obshchaya Gazeta as crime correspondent, then editor-in-chief, before joining Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’a only independent newspapers, where she worked until her death.
Politkovskaya became a household name in Russia with her reports from Chechnya during the late 1990s, where despite numerous death threats, she defied state intimidation with her despatches which probed the true nature of the occupation of Chechnya, and documented countless examples of atrocities perpetrated against the Chechen people.
“She was just completely shocked when she first went there, because you didn’t expect to see such hardships of war in our country,” says Mrs Kudimova. “Most of the newspapers in Russia didn’t want to tell what was happening there to the full extent, because they were mainly state-owned and the state didn’t want it out — that’s why Anna was determined to keep covering it.
“It did affect her deeply. I think it had an effect on her character in the end. I think she became more gloomy because she was investigating too many difficult cases, most of them were about deaths or disappearances of people, not very pleasant stuff.
“She was so persistent because she felt she only had power as a journalist, and the authorities had to deal with it if she wrote it. So there were people who didn’t like her writing about it. The Russian special police forces threatened to kill her and sent letters to her and her editor, because she was writing about what they were doing in Chechnya, which was extremely cruel.”
In 2001, after interviewing a Chechen grandmother who had endured 12 days of beatings, electric shocks and confinement in a pit by federal forces, Politkovskaya was detained by Russian troops in the southern mountain village of Khottuni, and tortured before being subjected to a mock execution. “She was afraid, of course,” says Mrs Kudimova. “But it did not stop her.”
Politkovskaya was world-renowned for her war reporting by the time President Putin took office, a fact the Russian government was none too keen on. Her books, including A Dirty War: A Russian reporter in Chechnya, published in 2001, and Putin’s Russia which followed three years later, were bitterly critical of the Russian government, earning her pariah status as Putin’s regime tried to muffle her voice.
“She was very famous by then, but when Putin came to power, they decided not to cover what went on in Chechnya, to try and keep it quiet from the rest of the country,” says Mrs Kudimova. “That’s why Anna probably wasn’t in a good relationship with the government, because she was doing quite the opposite — she was trying to attract the attention of people in Russia but also of people abroad, about what was happening.
“So the state tried to protect society from her and what she was saying.
“People stopped inviting her to events, when before she had always been on television talking about issues. It was much better for democracy under Yeltsin’s time than under Putin, for sure.”
In her foreword to Nothing But the Truth, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC recalls speaking to Politkovskaya about her homeland after presenting her with an award in 2005. “Anna painted a haunting portrait of Putin’s Russia, a country governed by an administration which bore many of the hallmarks of Stalin’s,” she says. “Here was a land whose own secret service suppressed civil liberties, and where fear stalked universities, newsrooms and every corridor in which democracy might have flourished.”
During the Moscow theatre siege, when a group of armed Chechens demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from their territory, took 850 people hostage, Politkovskaya was called up to act as negotiator.
“She had just arrived in LA to receive an award, and then had to rush back because the Chechens had asked her to help,” says Mrs Kudimova. “She was scared, she didn’t know who these terrorists were, but they trusted her because of her writing. She promised she would talk to the authorities, but I don’t think anybody wanted to listen to her.” The two-day siege ended in the death of more than 120 hostages when the Russian special forces pumped a poisonous chemical into the theatre’s ventilation system before raiding the building.
In 2004, as Anna made her way to Beslan, where armed terrorists were holding more than 1,000 school children and adults captive, she had one of her most serious “wake-up calls”. After boarding the plane bound for Rostov-on-Don, she asked for a cup of black tea. Moments after drinking it, she collapsed unconscious and woke up in hospital, poisoned, according to doctors, by an “unknown substance”.
When her editor at Novaya Gazeta asked the hospital for the medical results, he was told that everything related to her case had been destroyed.
“Anna told me that there were two men on the plane who boarded without tickets, and she suspected they were FSB [Federal Security Service, a successor to the KGB],” says her sister. “It was a wake-up call, but there were many wake up-calls.
“After this, when she got better, we just tried to convince her to accept one of the many grants she was offered, to go abroad for a while write a book, to write about something else, but she didn’t stop, she couldn’t stop.
She had such strong principles, so what her family wanted, she couldn’t give them.”
I ask Mrs Kudimova if she thinks her sister could have been happy writing about less weighty issues, perhaps gardening or fashion?
She smiles, rolling her eyes. “No, I don’t think so, but it would have brought her character back, which was quite changed by writing about war and corruption. She was quite a bubbly person before. But it was like a heavy weight on her, thinking about other peoples lives all the time, helping people to investigate their cases of missing relatives. She became gloomy. She didn’t want to write about easier things, but everyone insisted because she became too involved, it wasn’t good for her.”
Politkovskaya finally agreed to think about other subject matters when her daughter, Vera, announced she was pregnant. “She thought that if she continued writing about conflict and wars it won’t be good for the grandchild, so she promised that as soon as the baby is born, she would change and would just write about something more pleasant,” says Mrs Kudimova.
Politkovskaya never had the chance. She was murdered when Vera was four months pregnant.
Her killer remains at large. Three men who were charged with directly aiding her murderer — two Chechen brothers and a former policemen — were acquitted last year. A lieutenant colonel in the FSB, who was also suspected of a leading role in her murder, was cleared in another trial. Many people in Russia believe that her murder was ordered at the very highest levels of government.
“I have no idea who killed her,” says Mrs Kudimova. “There were people put in jail after investigations because of her articles, and there were so many people who didn’t like her writing about the conflicts and corruption that when the investigation started, they had at least six people who could have killed her.”
The Supreme Court of Russia recently ordered a new investigation in Politkovskaya’s murder, but does her sister believe that there is the will in her homeland to bring the killer to justice? “I don’t feel it,” she says, shaking her head. “But sooner or later, everything becomes known.”
During her lifetime, Politkovskaya won dozens of awards, and her work is posthumously celebrated with many prizes around the world given in her name, but Mrs Kudimova hopes her sister’s legacy will one day be immortalised on the silver screen.
“I still hope that they make a feature film about her,” she says. “Soon after she was killed, there was an idea to do it and there are people talking about it. Her life was so colourful and eventful, a film would be a great tribute. I don’t want her name to be forgotten.”
What, I ask, would a leading lady playing Politkovskaya need to understand first and foremost about her sister and what drove her? She opens the book and points to a page which features an internal questionnaire circulated to Novaya Gazeta staff, where one of the questions asks: “Why, and for whom, are you doing your work?” To which Politkovskaya simply answered: “For people, and for the sake of people.”
*Nothing But the Truth: Selected Dispatches by Anna Politkovskaya (Harvill Secker) is available from Telegraph Books at £16.99 + £1.25 p&p. To order, call 0844 871 1516 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
Source: Telegraph – 31.01.2010