A Russian Diary by Anna Politkovskaya takes us into the Russia dominated by Vladimir Putin between 2003 through August 2005. Politkovskaya was a distinguished journalist by the time she began keeping this diaries, and she was murdered before the pre-publication editing process was complete.
These are not self-oriented diaries in the least; they more closely resemble a reporter’s notebooks. The dominant theme is how Putin turned Russia into a FSB-state; the FSB, of course, is the successor to the Soviet-era KGB, of which Putin was an officer. Thus Putin turned the Russia duma, its parliament, into his puppet, the regional governors into his puppets, the courts into his puppets, and Chechnya into an overarching rationale for such fierce, mean-spirited oppression.
We know this not only through Politkovskaya’s diaries, but the grinding, ludicrous, cynical behavior Putin exhibited during his first tours in power--following Yeltsin--is made brutally clear here.
Entry after entry recounts arbitrary arrests, arbitrary torture, arbitrary judicial processes and a double-edged process in which Putin reduced social benefits on the one hand while pulling privatized corporations back into governmental control on the other. His aim was to undo the kleptocratic enrichment of Russian mega-billionaires under Yeltsin and add the spoils to his crony-government’s treasury along with dollars and sometimes pennies pulled out of the pockets of disabled war veterans, their widows, and families.
This makes for discouraging but fascinating reading. There are stories told here that remind me of Solzhenitsyn. For instance, consider the conscript who was crippled by being forced to wear size ten boots when he had size thirteen feet. Or consider the judicial process in which lawyers were never given official, accurate transcripts of trial documents with which to prepare their clients’ defense. Or consider Russian brutality and corruption in Chechnya and the suggestion, time and again, that certain terrorist acts attributed to Chechnyan “terrorists” were perpetrated by various secret Russian services, not always Putin’s FSB.
Again and again Politkovskaya surveys the landscape for some kind of effective political opposition. There isn’t any. Putin crushes real opponents, creates phony opponents, and has, it would seem only one ineffective but notable critic, Gary Kasparov, the former world champion grand chess master.
The same situation prevails in the media. Only Politkovskaya’s newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, reports the truth, but of course, that is stopped when she is shot to death in an elevator, a story she obviously would have reported with her succinct, ironic candor had she survived to write it.
But she didn’t survive, and her international fame didn’t protect her any more than hundreds of Russians in search of freedom and democracy were protected.
There are some issues in this book that warrant broader reflection. As a diary, it’s full of stories and anecdotes and reports that are not sourced. I have no doubt there’s little here that is inaccurate, but you’d like to know more about how Politkovskaya obtained her information. Naturally that would put sources’s lives at risk, so it’s understandable that many sources wouldn’t want to be named, but still, this is journalism, so every once in a while you do scratch your head.
The overall picture Politkovskaya paints, however, is remarkably consistent with what we know through thousands of sources going back through the entire communist era and deep into the times of the tzars. She often notes this, and she also often notes that autocratic rule is largely accepted by Russians. The idea that George W. Bush could look into Putin’s eyes and recognize a well-intentioned man is hilarious in this context.
Three previous Russian writers come to mind when considering Politkovskaya’s diaries. Dostoevsky published massive diaries that were, like hers, intensely focused on issues of public import. LIke her he castigated the judicial system; but he was a nationalist and found ways to forgive Russia while condemning enemies of its autocratic character and rule. Tolstoy kept eloquent diaries that brooded on his sins and the general sin of inequality throughout Russian society. Like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy had deep religious preoccupations and could not reconcile the precepts of Christianity with the masses living in abject poverty while a few danced minuets in grand ballrooms. The Russian voice closest to Politkovskaya’s among the great Russian writers is that of Chekhov, particularly his account of visiting the prison colony on the island of Sakhalin at the far edge of Siberia.
The BIG question is how a nation as rich in natural resources and brilliant people and splendid cultural and intellectual institutions can be so insecure, cruel, and suspicious of its own population.
We now have seen Putin surrender the Russian presidency and resume it yet again. He was “elected” but he’s the anti-democrat’s anti-democrat. There’s zero chance that he’s changed since Politkovskaya wrote about him. Do you have to ask whether her assassins were ever convicted?
For more of my comments on contemporary literature, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle).
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