Editors’ Note: Anna Politkovskaya was murdered on Oct. 7, 2006, in her apartment building in Moscow. She was reportedly covering alleged torture in Chechnya before she was found dead from gunfire in the building’s elevator. "Her death is a great loss to journalism, to her country and to the service of the truth," said Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which declared her one of the top press freedom figures in the world during the past 25 years.
(WOMENSENEWS)–Anna Politkovskaya was exhausted on a late Sunday night in December.
A mother of two and one of Russia’s most daring journalists, she has made a career of covering the wars in Chechnya. That evening she had been out in the cold protesting the disappearance of democratic freedoms in Russia in central Moscow. The march, which was scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the Battle of Moscow during the Second World War, drew thousands.
Politkovskaya, however, was disheartened that many in Russia would never even know the demonstration had taken place.
"It’s absolutely forbidden to cover democratic activities," she said in a phone interview from her home in Moscow. "We don’t have one independent TV channel, just state channels. We have one independent radio station and two newspapers. It’s absolutely little for such a huge country."
But protesting in the cold and fighting for democracy is nothing new for Politkovskaya, who has made a career out of daring journalism and tenacious activism.
In her work for the independent bi-weekly Novaya Gazeta, she has endured intimidation and even poisoning. Considered one of Russia’s bravest journalists, she has covered the Chechen wars from the ground, traveling deep into the remote and dangerous southern Caucasus to report on how the war has affected ordinary citizens. She has faced Russian soldiers, Chechen rebels and constant warfare in her tenacious work.
Recently she was awarded the Civil Courage Prize, given by the Northcote Parkinson Fund, based in New York, which honors those who fight injustice at great personal risk.
"The courage of Anna Politkovskaya, one of Russia’s leading journalists, stands out in sharp relief," presenter Nicholas Platt said at the October ceremony in New York. "She has exposed the atrocities of the war in Chechnya, in books and articles in Novaya Gazeta, persisting despite the wrath of the Kremlin and in the face of death threats, intimidation and poisoning."
She was also a recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation Courage Award in 2002.
Duty, Not Courage
But Politkovskaya doesn’t believe that "courage" is a good word for her work. "I don’t like this word. It’s duty. I’m absolutely sure that I want to do something for the people using journalism."
Politkovskaya doesn’t focus on women’s issues in particular. Rather, she says, just being a female journalist in Russia today means that she will see everything about her work differently, especially when it comes to war.
She says that while female journalists can be repelled by covering war, male journalists can often become fascinated. "They like weapons; they like to see it. But female journalists and me too, all the time, I thought it’s so awful to see all these weapons, to hear all these noises of the war. The only thing I prefer is to return home, not to see it and smell the war."
Politkovskaya says that her tenacity in covering the second Chechen war, which began in 1999 and continues today, ended her marriage in 1999. Her husband walked out after he could no longer stand the worry and loneliness that accompanied her constant travels. She believes her role as a female journalist and mother has shown her that reporting on the atrocities is never enough. She was a negotiator in the Moscow theater siege and has worked to find food, housing and justice for her subjects countless times.
"You need to be a writer first of all," she says. "But, secondly, you need to do something more for them. If the people don’t have food and water, you need to find them food and water."
Born in New York, Educated in Moscow
Politkovskaya was born in 1958–five years after Stalin’s death–in New York, where her Soviet Ukrainian parents were United Nations diplomats. She was sent back home to be educated and graduated from one of Soviet Union’s most prestigious departments, the journalism program of Moscow State University.
She became well read, in part, because her parents’ diplomatic status allowed them to smuggle forbidden books into the country. After graduation she worked for state newspapers and eventually made her way to the independent press, where she began to distinguish herself by offering dogged reporting of Chechnya and becoming one of the few reporters to stick it out over the years.
She says the challenges of working as a female journalist in Russia are many. She speaks of constant discrimination and harassment, and says that it’s almost impossible for a woman to rise to the rank of editorial board member. Ironically, these same challenges melt away in the mountains of the southern Caucasus, her second home in many ways.
"It’s absolutely dangerous work for men because everybody sees them," she says, "but as a woman I can wear some clothes, like the Chechen women, and move around more easily."
Slipped Poison in Her Tea
Recently, Politkovskaya’s work almost cost her life, when on her way to act as a negotiator in last year’s school hostage crisis in Beslan, she was slipped poison in a cup of tea. Although she isn’t sure who tried to poison her, she suspects the Russian security service.
The situation, she says, is likely to become more dangerous as democratic institutions suffer under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s measures. Just this month, Putin backed a bill to close all foreign nongovernmental organizations in the country.
Despite the risks, she believes she can only go forward and continue with what she calls the Russian theory of "little business."
"It’s a special Russian theory that if you can’t change the whole world, you need to do some little things to help specific people," she said. "Russian journalism was and now is the possibility to help people first of all in their everyday life and in their catastrophic life. I decided that it was a very nice theory for me."
Alexandra Poolos, the former managing editor of Women’s eNews, is completing a journalism fellowship at Columbia University. She has worked for Radio Free Europe, The Wall Street Journal, NPR and Newsday.
For more information:
Chechnya: Articles by Anna Politkovskaya:
International Women’s Media Foundation
Courage Awards: 2002 Courage Award Winners
Anna Politkovskaya, Russia, Novaya Gazeta:
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