by Anne Applebaum
She wasn't charismatic, she didn't fill lecture halls and she wasn't much good at talk shows either. Nevertheless, at the time of her murder in Moscow Saturday, Anna Politkovskaya was at the pinnacle of her influence. One of the best-known journalists in Russia and one of the best-known Russian journalists in the world, she was proof -- and more is always needed -- that there is still nothing quite so powerful as the written word.
The subject of Politkovskaya's writing was Russia itself, and in particular what she called Russia's "dirty war" in Chechnya. Long after the rest of the international press corps had abandoned Chechnya -- it was too dangerous for most journalists, too complicated, too obscure -- she kept telling heartbreaking Chechen stories. The Russian army colonel who pulled 89 elderly people from the ruins of Grozny but received no medals, or the Chechen schoolboy who was ill from the aftereffects of torture but could get no compensation. A hallmark of her books and articles was the laborious descriptions of how she tried, and invariably failed, to get explanations from hostile and evasive Russian authorities. But she had no patience for the fanatical fringe of the Chechen independence movement either. Ideologues on both sides of the war repelled her: What interested her were human stories, particularly when they concerned brave, kind, and honest ordinary people.
Over the years Politkovskaya won scores of international prizes. At home she was threatened, arrested and once nearly poisoned by the same Russian authorities who refused to respond to her questions. The only official acknowledgment of her status was backhanded: In 2002, when Chechen rebels stormed a Moscow theater, she was called upon to help negotiate the release of hostages. She failed to keep them alive – and then she was murdered too. On the afternoon of October 7, she was shot to death in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building.
Politkovskaya was not, it is true, the first Russian journalist to be murdered in murky circumstances since 2000, when President Vladimir Putin first came to power. On the contrary, she was the twelfth. Among the worst crimes -- all, of course, unsolved -- were the murders of two provincial journalists from the city of Togliatti, probably for investigating local mafia; of Paul Klebnikov , the American editor of Forbes magazine's Russian edition, probably for knowing too much about Russia's oligarchs; and of a Murmansk television reporter who was critical of local politicians.
Nevertheless, Politkovskaya's murder marked a distinct turning point. Her assassin made no attempt to disguise his crime as a theft or an accident: He not only shot her in broad daylight, he left her body in the elevator alongside the gun he used to kill her -- standard practice for Moscow's arrogant hit men. Nor could her murder be easily attributed to distant provincial authorities or the criminal mafia. Local businessmen had no motivation to kill her -- but officials of the army, the police and even the Kremlin did. Whereas local thieves might have tried to cover their tracks, Politkovskaya's assassin, like so many Russian assassins, did not seem to fear the law.
At the time of the murder, no one in Russia expected that anyone would ever be arrested for murdering Politkovskaya. When asked about her death, President Putin himself dismissed her as a "person of no importance" - not an indication that Russian investigators are likely to waste time investigating her murder. But even if the assassin were someday to come to trial, he – or whoever paid him – had already won a major victory by killing her. As Russian history well demonstrates, it isn't always necessary to kill millions of people to frighten all the others: A few choice assassinations, in the right time and place, usually suffice. After the death of Politkovskaya, it's hard to imagine many Russian journalists following in her footsteps.
Even the most ardent fans of Anna Politkovskaya's writing did complain, on occasion, that her gloom could be overbearing: She was one of those journalists who saw harbingers of catastrophe in every story. Still, it remains difficult for anyone to write about her, now that she is dead, without employing the same foreboding tone that she herself would have used. Her life, and her death, was so much like one of the stories she would have written herself.