Anna Politkovskaya and the Politics of Memory

Anna Politkovskaya’s murder continues to reverberate in the Russian and Western press. It is no surprise that her memory has become one of either martyr or demon, and where one stands in this sordid binary depends more often on one’s political perspective than an appreciation or thoughtful criticism of her work. The dead are the play things of the living, and for a figure so controversial like Politkovskaya it is no surprise that the vultures of memory are hovering in greater numbers.

I recently called Politkovskaya a political football. I now think that this metaphor is incorrect. A football suggests something that is kicked around, back and forth between participants. Given the hyperbole of her memory, I think the appropriate metaphor is Politkovskaya as political pi?ata. So many politicos and pundits are incessantly beating her memory with the hope her body will shower the sweets of political capital in their outstretched hands.

I am alerted to the discourse on Politkovskaya memory by Alexei Pankin’s editorial in the Moscow Times. Pankin writes that he could no longer quietly morn the famed reporters’ death once “grief [turned] into a dance on Anna’s grave.” As a long time associate of Politkovskaya, Pankin feels that she would have viewed all the superlatives now being said about her with much disgust. “Anna, I think,” he writes, “would not have accepted all the consternation generated by Putin’s inability to find any appropriate, human words after her death. For her it would probably have been the greatest acknowledgment of all. I also think she would have disapproved of all the petty politicking in her name.”

The worst offenders Pankin cites are articles in the Financial Times, the Weekly Standard, and a debate that erupted Yevgenia Albats and Anna Arutunyan on Echo Moskvy.

The production of memory is a game of detractors and adherents alike. One should point out that Russian Union of Journalists has used her death to publish a sixteen page tabloid about her and the 211 journalists that have been killed in Russia since 1992. Using her image is an effective way to draw attention to the violence against those trying to do their job as the fourth estate.

One may debate whether it is right or wrong to criticize Politkovskaya at this time. I personally feel that it really doesn’t matter. Her supporters are going to cry that it is too soon when faced with unfair or harsh criticism, her detractors are going to use the fact that she is in the news to launch criticism or attacks. Others will simply use her as a prod, like the Weekly Standard article, for other means.

Whatever people say, a memory of Politkovskaya is being produced and it matters little whether she would have agreed or disagreed with what is now being said about her. She is, after all, dead and can’t join the debate.

All of the rhetoric I think begs a different question. Is there a “real” Politkovskaya to know or even reclaim? I began thinking about this years ago when I wrote a paper on biographies of Huey P. Newton, the famed leader of the Black Panther Party. I discovered in my reading that everyone claimed to represent the “real” Huey P. Newton, even Newton claimed such in his autobiography. I soon realized that there wasn’t a real Newton to represent and that all representations were just that because no biographer or even autobiographer could either capture the complexity of an individual like Newton or siphon through all the political sand to get at something genuine. The memory of Newton could not be reduced to his person because his life symbolized more than Newton the individual could ever represent. Thus his memory is a political battle that is still being waged to this day.

The same could be said of Politkovskaya. There is no Anna Politkovskaya to remember that is free of all the political baggage, much to the contestation of her family and friends. They may have individual reminiscences and they may try to share them, as Pankin does, with the world. But since her death, Politkovskaya has become a figure that is in a sense public domain. There is a battle over its ownership because her memory is a potential weapon for the weak and the strong alike. And there is no doubt that the narrative that was Anna Politkovskaya life will be written and rewritten. But one should not shudder at the thought of such naratological chicanery. The public-ness of her memory is a result of her very controversial work and a testament to its importance. In that sense, no matter how opportunist or disgusting people’s use of her memory may be, I think it is all a vindication that even in death; she can’t be so easily ignored.