A murder in Moscow as things only get worse

October 15, 2006|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Staff

MOSCOW -- An improvised memorial of roses and carnations and daisies in every color sprung up from the concrete outside the building where investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed by an assassin a week ago, but mourners left other things to remember her by.

A few had taped ballpoint pens to the wall, a nod to the profession for which she lived -- and, all but surely, died.

There were posters in black and red lettering expressing hopelessness and sorrow, resignation and rage. One showed a photograph of Politkovskaya's face in the sight of a rifle.

"I Don't Know Of Any Other Such Country That Kills Its Best People," it said.

These are not the wild days of the post-Soviet 1990s, a decade marked by the introduction of an unfamiliar and once-despised thing called capitalism and the flourishing of a climate in which business dealings, which almost by definition went beyond the boundaries of any law, often turned bloody.

But there is another, broader wave of lawlessness in Russia that is arguably even worse. It comes at a time when Russia is ascending politically and economically and has won praise, laid at the feet of President Vladimir V. Putin, for becoming what in the '90s it decidedly was not: a so-called "stable" nation. And it comes at a time when the state, on the television networks it controls outright or indirectly, gets to prop up that image of stability on the news every night.

The lawlessness is worse because it is frequently aimed at those seeking truth and reform, and because few in this vast nation seem to much care. Putin himself uttered no public comment on Politkovskaya's slaying for three days, celebrating his birthday and issuing press statements on phone calls with the Greek prime minister and the Angolan president instead.

He has since condemned the killing, promising a full investigation, but something else he uttered in the same breath was far more telling: Politkovskaya's work, he said, had "minimal impact" on political life in Russia -- which is precisely the way authorities want it, and precisely what is wrong.

"Anna Politkovskaya's death, unfortunately, is an absolutely natural result of the last six, seven years of political trends in Russia," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few independent State Duma deputies, whose refrain that Russia has become a "military-like" authoritarian state goes unheard by the masses because state-run TV channels are forbidden to carry it.

A few years ago, one of Ryzhkov's assistants was summoned to the local Federal Security Service office in the Altai region, which he represents, only to be told that Ryzhkov should "be more careful because something could happen."

"Each of us who is in a position, who can criticize powers, cannot ourselves feel safe," he said.

The killing of Politkovskaya, who made her name in Russia and abroad for her brutally honest reporting on a conflict in Chechnya which the Kremlin has carried out with an abundance of brutality and little honesty, was the fourth contract-style killing in less than a month.

On Sept. 14, the deputy chief of the Central Bank, Andrei Kozlov, who was known for trying to clean up corruption in the dysfunctional banking system, died after being shot outside a sports stadium where colleagues were playing soccer.

Enver Ziganshin, chief engineer of a company that has clashed with authorities over development of a gas field in the city of Irkutsk, was fatally shot not two weeks later in the steamroom at his country house.

An executive at Vneshtorgbank, Aleksandr Plokhin, was shot in the head and killed last Tuesday, the same day a thousand people stood shoulder to shoulder in a high-ceilinged mourning hall outside Moscow to pay their final respects to Politkovskaya.

Nearly every eulogy, almost needlessly, pointed out this: Politkovskaya was brave. But being brave in Russia doesn't mean what it means in other, more civilized countries, where the democratic constitution is more than a piece of paper. Bravery, here, is not about grand-sounding traits like gallantry or valor. Here, it often means only doing what is right, or speaking what is true.

"That kind of truth," said Aleksandr Cherkasov of the human rights group Memorial, "can be dangerous."

So is the prospect that members of the already small minority that raises its voice in opposition to an all but monolithic state will only be increasingly intimidated into silence.

The Central Bank's Kozlov, who was 41, was courageous in his own way. He revoked the licenses of banks suspected of money laundering and, shortly before his death, proposed tougher penalties for those convicted of financial crimes.

No matter who pulled the trigger in any of these cases there are those who blame the system. It's not that the state itself is responsible for the killings, this argument goes, it's that the state is responsible for the climate of indifference in which they are carried out.

The well-known Soviet-era journalist Genrikh Borovik suggests otherwise.

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