Counting the cost

<strong>A Russian Diary</strong>

Anna Politkovskaya <em>Harvill Secker, 272pp, £17.99</em>


"Extremely insignificant," Vladimir Putin growled after Anna Politkovskaya's death last October - the first and only comment the Russian president could bring himself to make on the influence of his country's bravest journalist, gunned down three days earlier in her Moscow apartment block. The disdain was shocking. But Politkovskaya would have expected it.

A Russian Diary, completed shortly before her murder, runs for nearly two years from the beginning of Putin's re-election campaign in December 2003. It is a chronicle of her rage and despair at the cynicism of the regime to which her fellow countrymen and women have apparently consented. At its heart there is no evil genius, which Politkovskaya finds almost more troubling - the bland arrogance of a mediocrity. "The man is barking mad," she writes. At his inauguration, he strides alone down the red carpet while his wife Lyudmila is held back, unacknowledged, behind a barrier for VIPs.

Earlier, as he casts his vote for parliament, Putin is delighted to inform the nation that Connie, his beloved Labrador, has a new litter. The First Citizen makes no reference to the 13 victims of a terrorist attack being buried that same morning in the north Caucasus.

It is the regime's apparent contempt for humanity - the "moral vacuum" at its heart - that incenses Politkovskaya more even than its flouting of legality. Her diary describes what she sees as the death of Russian democracy: ballots rigged and media muzzled. But more searing is the record she keeps of individual deaths and disappearances that would pass almost unmarked but for her courage: the prosecutor in Ingushetia abducted for daring to investigate death squads; the Chechen tractor-driver shot dead by the security forces because they mixed up an address; the teenage army conscript tortured to death by his comrades, then hanged to create the appearance of suicide; the old woman burned to death in an arson attack because property developers needed her flat.

Behind each crime there are particular villains, few of whom are ever likely to face justice. But behind them all is a ruling class whose concern "is not solving problems, but controlling what gets reported on TV; not reality but virtuality." Politkovskaya's diary offers a glimpse of a system so surreal it would be almost comic were the consequences not so deadly serious - a system where the head of state declares that parliament "is not a place for debate"; where deputies overwhelmingly approve a prime minister no one has heard of; where a presidential candidate disappears for two days and recalls nothing of what happened to him; where a "virtually brain-dead" thug - Ramzan Kadyrov - can be appointed the Kremlin's security adviser for the north Caucasus, despite the fact that the oaf can't even remember whether the diploma he's supposedly studying for is in criminal or civil law.

Politkovskaya's farcical interview with Kadyrov - now the president of Chechnya, the man many believe was somehow behind her murder - is a highlight of the diary. So, too, is her visit to Beslan, the town "going slowly mad" after the death of its children in the school siege. Yet her characteristic determination not to become part of the story herself is such that we can only guess from these pages at the difficulty and danger of her work. There's no mention here, for example, of how she was apparently poisoned on her way to Beslan to try to mediate with the terrorists. Only incidentally do we sense how many ordinary citizens, particularly in the north Caucasus, looked to her to tell their stories. What we do get is an unflinching analysis of how Russia has reverted to what Politkovskaya insists is "the Soviet regime pure and simple".

She's as merciless towards her own side. The "democrats", she concludes, had no interest in making contact with the 40 per cent of Russians who live below the poverty line. And she is critical of the people themselves. Again and again she records their silence at the rolling back of freedom. No protests, no demonstrations. They "agreed to be treated like idiots". And who, perhaps, can blame them? There's a "hereditary memory", she admits, "reminding people how to live if they want to survive".

But Politkovskaya misses another possible reason for the silence. Even away from the glitz of Moscow, in towns across the country, there's a feel-good factor working for the regime. People don't just put up with Putin. Many, rightly or wrongly, admire him. They believe Russia is a power on the world stage again. And a surprising number, despite the appalling gulf between rich and poor, feel that a little of the country's energy wealth is, very slowly, trickling down.

That, of course, is no comfort to the victims to whom Anna Politkovskaya almost uniquely gave a voice. Indeed, it makes it still less likely that the explosion of anger she hoped for will come soon, if ever. And with her own voice now silenced, too, there will be even fewer people willing to record the sufferings of those who pay the price for Russia's "stability".

Tim Whewell is a former BBC Moscow correspondent who now reports for Newsnight

This article first appeared in the 16 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran