Remembering Anna Politkovskaya

Last Wednesday, the PEN American Center held an event “The Writer’s Conscience:

Remembering Anna Politkovskaya & Russia’s Forgotten War” at the CUNY Graduate Center to commemorate the journalist’s murder. Speakers included Musa Klebnikov, the wife of slain Forbes Russia journalist Paul Klebnikov, Kati Marton, Dana Priest, Francine Prose, New Yorker editor David Remnick, and Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, and Natalia Estemirova from “Memorial” Human Rights Center.

I stumbled up on a broadcast of the event on CSPN-2 Sunday evening. I don’t know if there is a rebroadcast planned, but you can listen to it in its entirety at PEN’s site for the event. The evening began with a segment from the documentary Democracy on Deadline that featured Politkovskaya. Unfortunately, this segment isn’t online for viewing and a DVD of the documentary costs an unbelievable $450 to buy and $150 to rent. The film appears worth seeing in its entirety since it focuses on the difficulties of practicing journalism in Mexico, Russia, Israel and Palestine, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan.

After the video presentation, those listed above read excerpts from Politkovskaya’s articles. I never realized how beautiful and humanistic her prose was until I heard it read aloud. It was clear that it was an emotional reading for many of them because several readers had to hold back tears, even though some had never met Politkovskaya or didn’t know her very well. I suspect that the emotion wasn’t just because Politkovskaya was killed for practicing her craft, but more from the deep humanism, violence, suffering, and hardship that she captured in her articles for Novaya gazeta.

Francine Prose’s reading was particularly moving. It was from an article from A Small Corner in Hell that chronicled the day in the life of a mentally disabled coupled that lived in a bombed out apartment building in Grozny. The images of Vika, the wife in the story who was brain damaged from a childhood car accident, twisting and turning in her bed out of frustration because she struggled to write poetry. The fact that bullets often whizzed past their kitchen window didn’t seem to damper her commitment to her art.

By far the most interesting conversation was between David Remnick and Natalia Estemirova. Estemirova was Politkovskaya’s colleague in Chechnya and activist for Memorial Grozny. Besides lauding her friend for bravery and journalistic stubbornness to get the story no matter the danger, she told of how Politkovskaya was well respected even by her critics and enemies. Security and military officials from Moscow and Grozny were happy to give her information, of course on the condition of anonymity, especially if her articles painted their institutional rivals in a disparaging light. At times they even thanked her for her work. Even a soldiers from a Russian army unit, whose abuses she chronicled in one of her articles, approached her for help in getting employment, apartments, and other services.

Sadly, Estemirova was the only Russian participant at the event, making the event mostly framed through American eyes. For example, many speakers took the opportunity to make veiled attacks, however justified, at the state of journalism under Bush’s War on Terror and going so far as to equate Washington’s tactics to Moscow’s. While I think that equating the dangers that many Russian journalists face with the conditions Americans face is rather foolish, I do think how both states’ attempt to control reporting on their wars deserves comparison and reflection. That said, overall there was very little of this political opportunism and Politkovskaya’s prose was allowed to make the audience reflect on the nature of state and partisan terror and their effects on the lives caught in the crossfire.

As several of the speakers repeatedly noted, 42 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1993, 13 of which have been committed since Putin came to office in 2000. Not a single killer has been brought to justice in any of them. But the figures in Russia should be considered in a global perspective. Of the Top 20 countries with the highest number of killed journalists since 1992 include:

Top 20 countries

Iraq: 78
Algeria: 60
Russia: 42
Colombia: 37
Philippines: 29
India: 22
Bosnia: 19
Turkey: 18
Rwanda: 16
Sierra Leone: 16
Tajikistan: 16
Somalia: 14
Brazil: 14
Afghanistan: 12
Bangladesh: 12
Pakistan: 12
Mexico: 11
Sri Lanka: 9
Angola: 8
Yugoslavia: 8

The Iraq number is only since the US invasion in 2003. So far this year, 52 journalists have been killed worldwide. What all this says to me is that Russia, though one of the worst offenders, is part of a global threat to journalists and journalism.