Lucy Popescu worked with the English Centre of PEN, the international association of writers, for over 20 years and was Director of its Writers in Prison Committee from 1991 to 2006. She co-edited the PEN anthology Another Sky published by Profile Books in 2007. The Good Tourist, her book about human rights and ethical travel, was published by Arcadia Books in 2008. She is the editor of A Country of Refuge, an anthology of writing on asylum seekers by some of Britain and Ireland’s finest writers, published by Unbound in 2016.
On 7 October 2006, award-winning Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead outside her Moscow apartment. She was deemed a dangerous woman by many for her investigative work and paid for it with her life. Her body was found slumped in the lift of her apartment block, together with a gun and evidence of four bullets. Her murder had all the hall marks of a contract killing, down to the kontrolnyi vystrel – the control shot, a final bullet into the head at close range – and there is little doubt that her death was in retribution for her fearless reporting, particularly on human rights abuses in Chechnya.
Born in 1958 in New York, Politkovskaya studied journalism at Moscow State University. She worked on the Soviet newspaper Izvestiya for over ten years, before joining Novaya Gazeta in 1999, one of the few newspapers to be openly critical of the Kremlin, its policies in Chechnya, and corruption in the armed forces. She worked as special correspondent for the Moscow newspaper and wrote extensively about Chechnya and human rights abuses in Russia. Her books, translated into English, include A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya (2001), Putin’s Russia (2004) and A Russian Diary, published posthumously in 2008. At the time of her death, she was working on an article about torture in Chechnya that implicated Ramzan Kadyrov, then the Chechen Prime Minister appointed by President Putin. After her murder, rumours began to circulate that Kadyrov himself was responsible and had ordered the contract killing to coincide with Putin’s birthday.
Politkovskaya was recognised worldwide for her championing of human rights, but her reporting had brought her enemies from various quarters. In the early noughties I was working as Director of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee and we regularly held campaigns protesting against the intimidation of this courageous journalist. In 2001 Politkovskaya was forced to flee to Vienna, after receiving death threats from a military officer accused of committing atrocities against civilians in Chechnya. She acted as a mediator in the Nord-Ost theatre siege in Moscow in 2002. Two years later, we learned that Politkovskaya had fallen seriously ill as she attempted to fly to Beslan to cover the hostage crisis there. After drinking tea on the flight to the region, she lost consciousness and was hospitalized, but the suspected toxin was never identified; the results of her blood tests were reportedly destroyed. This led to speculation that she had been deliberately poisoned to stop her from reporting on the siege. Politkovskaya was shaken by this, but continued to write, despite the death threats. One of her enemies was undoubtedly the Chechen leader Kadyrov who, she claimed, had vowed to kill her.
I met the journalist in 2004 when she was in the UK for the launch of her book, Putin’s Russia. She spoke little English, and I spoke no Russian, but her commitment and compassion were clear. Two years later, I was working on the PEN anthology, Another Sky, featuring the works of persecuted writers and commissioned a piece from Politkovskaya. Her English translator, Arch Tait, sent me her contribution just a few weeks before her brutal murder. As it turned out, it was the last piece she wrote for a foreign readership and her words were disturbingly prescient of her death. She writes of being a condemned woman: “Kadyrov’s government has publicly vowed to murder me. It was actually said at a meeting that his government had had enough, and I was a condemned women…What for? For not writing the way Kadyrov wanted?” She also succinctly expresses the dangers and challenges facing journalists like herself and the pervasive climate of fear that silences so many of them:
I loathe the Kremlin line…dividing people into those who are ‘on our side’, ‘not on our side’, or even ‘on the other side’… if a journalist is ‘not on our side’, however, he or she will be deemed a supporter of the European democracies, of European values and automatically become a pariah… So what is the crime that has earned me this label of not being ‘one of us’? I have merely reported what I have witnessed, no more than that…somebody who describes the life around us for those who cannot see it for themselves, because what is shown on television and written about in the overwhelming majority of newspapers is emasculated and doused in ideology.
When the news came through of her murder, I remember the shock we all felt that she had been gunned down in cold blood. Newspapers all over the world reported Politkovskaya’s death and her funeral was attended by thousands of mourners. It was terrible to think that all of us at PEN, and Politkovskaya herself, had dreaded the possibility that she would meet a violent end. Her untitled final essay, published in Another Sky, also demonstrated that she remained dedicated to her profession as a campaigning journalist until the very end
Putin was markedly silent immediately following Politkovskaya’s murder. When he finally condemned the murder, in an interview with a German newspaper, his parting shot was that “her political influence inside of Russia was negligible”. At the time of her death, Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB agent exiled in the UK, claimed Putin was responsible. A month later he was also dead.
On 14 June 2014, five Chechen men were convicted of Politkovskaya’s murder. Rustam Makhmudov was found guilty of firing the shots and his uncle Lom-Ali Gaitukayev (already serving a prison term for another contract killing) was charged with organising the crime. Both men were sentenced to life imprisonment. Former policeman Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, who had allegedly organised surveillance of Politkovskaya’s movements prior to her death, was sentenced to twenty years in prison Gaitukayev’s other two nephews, Ibragim and Dzhabrail Makhmudov, were accused of driving the getaway car and received fourteen and twelve years respectively. Another former police officer, Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov, had earlier received eleven years for his part in the murder.
Even if these men are guilty, the question remains: who ordered the killing?