Voice of reason

Putin's Russia

Anna Politkovskaya <em>Harvill, 291pp, £8.99</em>

ISBN 1843430509

Anna Politkovskaya is, as the cover of this book describes her, "a hero among hacks". Aged 45, she is old enough to remember the last, grim years of the Soviet Union, and young enough to have carved for herself a journalistic niche in the new Russia. Even in this unique transitional generation, she is one of a kind: a lone and utterly admirable voice crying out in what is often a moral wilderness.

In her reporting from Chechnya, Politkovskaya has been without peer, telling Russia and the world beyond what is being done in the name of the post-Soviet state. And like so many prophets and truthsayers, she has been scorned (but not silenced) in her own land.

For all her honesty and courage, however, this book has been grievously oversold. Far from being, as the title suggests, an overview of Russia under Vladimir Putin, it is, as the author says in her introduction, essentially a series of emotional jottings "in the margin of life as it is lived in Russia today". Politkovskaya describes the decay of the Soviet armed forces, and details the iniquities of the so-called second Chechen war (launched by Putin when he was prime minister). In perhaps the most telling section, she offers a collection of mostly negative portraits of a number of her contemporaries, showing how they have fared in post-Soviet Russia. She considers the aftermath of the 2002 theatre siege in Moscow, and ends with a general indictment of Putin, whom she regards as a second-rate KGB officer and poor political leader whose lack of vision and blinkered quest for order are speeding Russia back into a Soviet-style past.

It is on this point that the author and I seriously part company. Politkovskaya says she wants to present Putin "not as he is normally viewed in the west. Not through rose-tinted spectacles." Yet any reading of coverage of Russia, at least in the British media, shows that Putin is often given a very rough ride over such matters as Chechnya, organised crime and justice; and one reason for this is the immense influence - outside Russia - of Politkovskaya's reporting. Perhaps modesty prevents her from saying so, but the prevailing view of Russia in the west owes far more to her work than it does to the Kremlin's inept propaganda machine. Moreover, westerners who read her writing tend to stop there, satisfied that Russia is as bad as they always believed. In general, they do not read other accounts - largely, it must be said, because so few are available in English.

In Russia, Politkovskaya's reports stand out for their vivid honesty, but they also appear in a wider context, which is ab- sent outside that country. The contemporaries whom she sketches include a ruthless businesswoman who has prospered, and a set of noble failures. My own friends of roughly the same age include the wife of a successful accountant who cannot believe that she can now live a "normal" life in Moscow, a social worker with battered women, and a researcher at a natural-birth research foundation. When one jogs their memories, they dimly recall rising in the early hours to queue for staples at the back doors of empty shops and laughingly ask: "How did we stand for it?" There are tragedies, too: broken marriages, ruined careers. On balance, however, there is more hesitant optimism than despair.

More than once, Politkovskaya admits that what she detests almost more than Putin is the mass of Russians who seem satisfied with the stability he has brought and who re-elected him as president. In saying this, she reveals herself as an intellectual in the rarefied Russian tradition: impatient and almost contemptuous of her fellow countrymen for not demanding more by way of justice and freedom. On her own terms, she is right, but she does not have a monopoly of the truth.

How Russia is viewed today depends on whether one sees the excesses in Chechnya, the widespread corruption and the perversions of justice as stubborn relics of the past or as harbingers of a repressive, and sadly familiar, future. Politkovskaya sees them as the latter - but that is not the only way.

Mary Dejevsky is on the staff of the Independent