Death of a critic

November 3, 2006

It was an early morning phone call that let me know of the attack.

Issa, a friend in Chechnya, his usually steady voice betraying just a tremor of fear, said unknown gunmen had opened fire on the car he had sent to collect me. 

Of the two men inside, one was badly wounded. He said that my trip to the mountains south of Grozny would have to be postponed. 

Later that day Issa (not his real name) called again to say there were rumours of government involvement in the shooting. “Go back to Moscow,” he said. “Go back now. There’s something badly wrong here. You’re not safe.” 

Sitting in my hotel in Vladikavkaz, a half hour drive from the scene of the Beslan school siege which had ended so tragically six months before, I was a little rattled but hardly suspicious. 

Even in 2005, four years after the Kremlin had declared the pacification of the small mountainous republic complete, drive-by gunfire and random shootings were everyday occurences in Chechnya.

It was only when I returned to Moscow and, with an American colleague, Doug Birch, who had been with me in the Caucasus, was invited to an interview at the Lubyanka, that alarm bells began to ring. 

Deep in the corridors of the slab-like building, the nerve centre of Lavrentia Beria’s infamous purges of the 1950s and so much other Soviet repression, a senior official sauntered in in a worn grey suit. 

“So you are the journalist who was shot up in Chechnya,” the FSB man started with a knowing look. “How many times do we have to tell you people not to travel there without our escorts?” 

My mind raced. How did the FSB know about the shooting in Chechnya? Were they behind it? Were they capable of shooting western journalists? If they were not involved, then how did they know about the incident? 

Casting aside some of the wilder theories that sprang to mind, there was an inescapable conclusion. Either Moscow’s secret policemen had been party to the attack or they had found out about it in some other way. 

In the event, President Putin’s men were wrong. As so often happens, important details were misconstrued. I had not been in Chechnya at the time. 

But the Russian regime’s message was loud and clear: Don’t try and hide from us, because you can’t. Mess with us, and you’ll be sorry. Defy us, and you may not live to tell the tale. 

For many western journalists based in Moscow, such oblique threats – and the ever-present possibility of expulsion – were cause enough to stay away from Chechnya. Editors in London and New York had, in any case, long wearied of the story. 

Some reporters opted for the Kremlin-organised Potemkin visits that showed off rebuilt hospitals and schools. But only the most stubborn persisted in travelling illicitly to the region. 

For Anna Politkovskaya, probably Russia’s bravest and most critical journalist, such trips were the bread-and-butter of her professional career. 

While the majority of Russian reporters slavishly toed the Kremlin line, she travelled repeatedly and extensively in the war-torn republic documenting Moscow’s crimes and abuses. 

When Putin nominated Akhmed Kadyrov as his proxy, Poltikovskaya cast a light on the killings and kidnappings he carried out in the Kremlin’s name. 

Later Kadyrov was blown apart by a bomb and his thuggish son Ramzan took over the levers of power – and terror – in Chechnya. 

Politkovskaya continued to be unflinching in her criticism. Long after international attention had moved on, she frequently travelled to Chechnya to document the banal brutality that stalks the republic. 

Such commitment to a story is often thankless in a world where media attention flits giddily from one crisis to the next. For those who stay behind, the journalistic rewards inevitably diminish but the risks only increase. 

The result of Politkovskaya’s work were two seminal books on Chechnya under Putin: The Dirty War and A Small Corner of Hell. 

Later she wrote Putin’s Russia, a book that was an unremitting attack on the former KGB spy’s rule. It won her international plaudits. 

But as her voice won an audience abroad, so the danger for Politkovskaya at home grew. Regime officials began to denounce her as a traitor and a nuisance.

Officials hinted that the country would be better off without her. 

In the dying years of the Soviet Union, the reasoning was that the more a dissident’s voice was heard abroad, the safer they were at home. But this calculus fails to hold under the quixotism of today’s Kremlin. 

The Putin regime, characterised by an arrogance that comes with its increasing economic clout and an almost total lack of censure from the west for its more egregious actions, has become immune to foreign criticism. 

This is the milieu that led to Politkovskaya’s death. 

In 2004 as she made her way to Beslan to try and help negotiate an end to the hostage crisis, she was almost certainly poisoned by the servants of the regime. 

Then, this autumn, as she made her way home to her Moscow apartment, she was shot dead, apparently by a professional killer. 

The debate over who killed Politkovskaya will continue for some time. Was it the FSB? Was it a faction of the military embarrassed by her investigations into corruption? Was it Ramzan Kadyrov? 

We will probably never find out. After a howling silence, Putin made it clear that he did not see Politkovskaya’s demise as a setback for Russia. On the contrary. 

During the last trip I made to the Caucasus before leaving Russia I worked on another story with a local journalist called Fatima, a mother-of-two. 

The story was about the killing and torture of innocent civilians by the local FSB and police. We found plenty of evidence. 

To punish Fatima for working with foreign reporters, local FSB agents abducted her and burnt cigarettes into her fingers. A key interviewee we talked to later went missing, presumed dead. 

Unfortunately, with Putin in the Kremlin, such abuses have become the norm. 

Julius Strauss was The Daily Telegraph’s Moscow Correspondent from 2002 – 2005.