A Russian Diary : A Journalist's Final Account of Life, Corruption, and Death in Putin's Russia
Anna Politkovskaya, one of Russia's most fearless journalists, was gunned down in a contract killing in Moscow in the fall of 2006. Just before her death, Politkovskaya completed this searing, intimate record of life in Russia from the parliamentary elections of December 2003 to the grim summer of 2005, when the nation was still reeling from the horrors of the Beslan school siege. In A Russian Diary, Politkovskaya dares to tell the truth about the devastation of Russia under Vladimir Putin-a truth all the more urgent since her tragic death.
Writing with unflinching clarity, Politkovskaya depicts a society strangled by cynicism and corruption. As the Russian elections draw near, Politkovskaya describes how Putin neutralizes or jails his opponents, muzzles the press, shamelessly lies to the public-and then secures a sham landslide that plunges the populace into mass depression. In Moscow, oligarchs blow thousands of rubles on nights of partying while Russian soldiers freeze to death. Terrorist attacks become almost commonplace events. Basic freedoms dwindle daily.
And then, in September 2004, armed terrorists take more than twelve hundred hostages in the Beslan school, and a different kind of madness descends.
In prose incandescent with outrage, Politkovskaya captures both the horror and the absurdity of life in Putin's Russia: She fearlessly interviews a deranged Chechen warlord in his fortified lair. She records the numb grief of a mother who lost a child in the Beslan siege and yet clings to the delusion that her son will return home someday. The staggering ostentation of the new rich, the glimmer of hope that comes with the organization of the Party of Soldiers' Mothers, the mounting police brutality, the fathomless public apathy-all are woven into Politkovskaya's devastating portrait of Russia today.
Starred Review. One cannot read these journals without the awful knowledge that their author, Politkovskaya (1958-2006), paid for them with her life, shot in the head in front of her Moscow apartment on October 7 (President Vladimir Putin's birthday). Internationally known as one of the few Russian journalists fearless enough to report Russian news independent of Kremlin spin, she was a relentless and vociferous critic of Putin, reporting on his abuses in the Chechen war and his attempts to retract Russia's fledgling democratic freedoms. Covering December, 2003 to August, 2005, Politkovskaya records with dismal and sardonic exactitude the encroaching power of the State, dismantling private businesses, shuttering media outlets and squeezing more money out of its citizens, practically plunging the country into Communist-era conditions. Both the farcical policies and individual crimes of the government are documented and scrutinized: instituting life sentences for suicide bombers, as well as the attempted cover up of an 18-year-old Private beat to death by his superiors. Rounding out the bleak scene are opposition parties that prove fractious, disorganized, craven and predictably willing to sacrifice principle for power. Politkovskaya suffers nobly-and eloquently-in this semi-daily account, yet one must wonder how similarly she would have suffered amidst the capitalist excesses of the West. A rare and intelligent memoir-if an entirely depressing one-this will give readers a detailed look into Russia's everyday march towards totalitarianism.
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May 21, 2007
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Excerpt from A Russian Diary by Anna Politkovskaya
PART ONE The Death of Russian Parliamentary Democracy December 2003?March 2004 How Did Putin Get ReElected? According to the census of october 2002, there are 145.2 million people living in Russia, making us the seventh most populous country in the world. Just under 116 million people, 79.8 percent of the population, describe themselves as ethnically Russian. We have an electorate of 109 million voters. December 7, 2003 The day of the parliamentary elections to the Duma,* the day Putin* began his campaign for reelection as president. In the morning he manifested himself to the peoples of Russia at a polling station. He was cheerful, elated even, and a little nervous. This was unusual: as a rule he is sullen. With a broad smile, he informed those assembled that his beloved Labrador, Connie, had had puppies during the night. ?Vladimir Vladimirovich was so very worried,? Madame Putina intoned from behind her husband. ?We are in a hurry to get home,? she added, anxious to return to the bitch whose impeccable political timing had presented this gift to the United Russia Party.* That same morning in Yessentuki, a small resort in the North Caucasus, the first thirteen victims of a terrorist attack on a local train were being buried. It had been the morning train, known as the student train, and young people were on their way to college. When, after voting, Putin went over to the journalists, it seemed he would surely express his condolences to the families of the dead. Perhaps even apologize for the fact that the government had once again failed to protect its citizens. Instead he told them how pleased he was about his Labrador?s new puppies. My friends phoned me. ?He?s really put his foot in it this time. Rus- sian people are never going to vote for United Russia now.? Around midnight, however, when the results started coming in, initially from the Far East, then from Siberia, the Urals, and so on westward, many people were in a state of shock. All my pro-democracy friends and acquaintances were again calling each other and saying, ?It can?t be true. We voted for Yavlinsky,* even though. . . .? Some had voted for Khakamada.* By morning there was no more incredulity. Russia, rejecting the lies and arrogance of the democrats, had mutely surrendered herself to Putin. A majority had voted for the phantom United Russia Party, whose sole political program was to support Putin. United Russia had rallied Russia?s bureaucrats to its banner?all the former Soviet Communist Party and Young Communist League functionaries now employed by myriad government agencies?and they had jointly allocated huge sums of money to promote its electoral deceptions. Reports we received from the regions show how this was done. Outside one of the polling stations in Saratov, a lady was dispensing free vodka at a table with a banner reading ?Vote for Tretiak,? the United Russia candidate. Tretiak won. The Duma deputies from the entire province were swept away by United Russia candidates, except for a few who switched to the party shortly before the elections. The Saratov election campaign was marked by violence, with candidates not approved of by United Russia being beaten up by ?unidentified assailants? and choosing to pull out of the race. One who continued to campaign against a prominent United Russia candidate twice had plastic bags containing body parts thrown through his window: somebody?s ears and a human heart. The province?s electoral commission had a hotline to take reports of irregularities during the campaign and the voting, but 80 percent of the calls were simply attempts to blackmail the local utility companies. People threatened not to vote unless their leaking p