An assassin's logic

October 11, 2006

Russia is a country run by means of fear - not terror, by and large, but a quietly pervasive in-the-background fear. Fear of Chechens, fear of the law, fear of the arbitrariness of the state, fear of power. It serves President Vladimir V. Putin's purposes well because it distracts people, cows them, induces them to leave the politicians alone. To be not afraid is to be subversive. Anna Politkovskaya was not afraid, and now she is dead.

She was the third journalist with Novaya Gazeta to be murdered since 2000. She had written boldly, frankly, emotionally about the abuses of power in Chechnya, and about persecution and torture and death. She was famous, honored abroad; some thought her thereby immune from assassination. She knew better, Andrei Mironov, a human rights campaigner, said yesterday, a few hours after her funeral. "She was quite aware she was about to be killed any day."

Her killer, though caught on videotape, eluded the police, and there's no particular reason to suppose they'll get him. It's immaterial, actually. The crime itself was brazen and that was the point. To silence her unique and penetrating voice? No, the authorities had managed their affairs perfectly well despite her courageous journalism; in Mr. Mironov's words, she was a scratch on the surface. To make an example of her to others? That, yes, is the logic of fear.

Ms. Politkovskaya always wrote about people - such as Osman Boliyev, a rights activist in Dagestan, next door to Chechnya, who was imprisoned, tortured, released, detained again by Russian security services. Finally he escaped to Ukraine, which because of her articles granted him asylum last summer. (This helps explain why the Kremlin is so hostile to Ukraine for leaning toward the West.) Some of her allies criticized Ms. Politkovskaya for not dealing more in ideas, or in ideology. But she understood that real stories tell the Big Story better.

Her killing may come to be remembered as an important step toward open rule by fear, and maybe this is why it has attracted so much more attention than the deaths of so many other journalists, in Russia, Iraq and elsewhere. A thousand people went to her funeral yesterday; Russians, though, are not yet ready to say enough is enough. "But it makes closer this moment," said Mr. Mironov, "when it will be enough."

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