Keith Gessen & Margarita Shalina

Russia, the Revolution Will Not Be Televised

The fear of an opaque future makes us long for what has already passed, when in actuality it’s as the song goes – ‚there were never any good old days‘. For the majority of the twentieth century, the Soviet punitive response to dissenting written opinion was exclusion from The Union of Writers, exile, imprisonment, execution, confinement to a psychiatric ward, or systematic manipulative erosion. Times have changed and these days journalists who draw attention to the dark and delicate underbelly of the Russian power structure are murdered outright. This is acutely evident in the killings of Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov.

The murder of Anna Politkovskaya on October 7, 2006 was met by icy silence from her president, Vladimir Putin. It was his birthday. When he finally commented three days later, he said „the level of her influence on political life in Russia was utterly insignificant.“ This made perfect sense – the best way to censor the legacy of your toughest critic is by minimizing the relevance of her work. Indeed, Politkovskaya did not seem to have any direct effect on Russian political life. Politics under Putin was, and is, closed. The Putin method of governing glows with the aura of Soviet redux and seemingly functions as a cabala for the initiated. During his administration, this muscular style was a reaction to the violent turbulence of the 1990s – an attempt to graft order onto chaos.

Paul Klebnikov understood power. He understood how easily it could become interwoven with strains of violence and corruption. In his book, ‚Godfather of the Kremlin: The Decline of Russia in the Age of Gangster Capitalism‘, Klebnikov describes, step-by-step the failed transition from the communist economic structure based on state ownership to the unbelievably violent feeding frenzy of perestroika. Perestroika metamorphosed into a bloody pseudo-capitalist kleptocracy during the 1990s, and the looting of Soviet industry was at its core – a war over control and ownership fueled by greed, intimidation and blood.

Perestroika, Russian for reconstruction, was virgin soil. The initial vision was a transition toward an idyllic vestige of freedom. Russia strove for an ideal that it has since systematically failed to reach. That the economy would have to change along with the government was an afterthought. Across the board, all the rules were being rewritten. Klebnikov’s knowledge of perestroika era economics earned him the first editorship of the newly established Russian Forbes Magazine. In 2004, he published a list: ‚The 100 Richest Russians‘. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the dethroned oligarch and former CEO of the now state-owned Yukos Oil Company, topped the list. Klebnikov went on to publish a second book still only available in Russian – ‚Conversations with a Barbarian: Interviews with a Chechen Field Commander on Banditry and Islam‘. The barbarian referred to is Khozh-Ahmed Noukhaev, the prominent Chechen warlord. Paul Klebnikov was murdered on July 9, 2004.

To try and better understand these crimes against Russian journalists, I spoke with writer, translator and n+1 editor Keith Gessen. At the time, Gessen had been living in Moscow for over a year and had just covered the Politkovskaya murder trial for the New Yorker. “Politkovskaya and Klebnikov both had a very personal style,” he told me, “An aggrieved style. Something traditional for Russian journalists”. Making reference to a conversation with a veteran reporter who covered the Politkovskaya trial for a relatively mainstream Russian newspaper, Gessen recalled the veteran’s opinions: “Her writing was personally insulting to them [the Chechens]. She felt it was not enough to just report the facts”. And about Klebnikov, he added: “He did not write like a business journalist”.

Contrasting the trials of their alleged killers, Gessen said: “In the Politkovskaya trial, it was obvious that those guys were not guilty of the things they were accused of. Family and lawyers at the end had come to the conclusion that they were not guilty. But the Klebnikov case was different. The Klebnikov case – the guys on trial were guilty. The jury may have been intimidated or bought. It wasn’t clear who ordered them to do it, but there wasn’t a lot of doubt it was them”.

Klebnikov was of Russian decent but a citizen of the United States who worked for a prominent, muscular, mainstream periodical accustomed to interacting with power brokers, and Forbes has since been unwilling to forget the loss of one of its own. Around the time of the fifth year anniversary of Klebnikov’s murder, I asked Gessen whether he had heard that the U.S. Department of Justice was going to be working with Russia on the case. He was mildly surprised but hopeful. “Certain governments are not very cooperative with Russia. For example, the English, who think Russian courts are rigged. For a while, European countries were not extraditing to Russia because Russia had the death penalty.” Russia has not executed anyone since 1996 and has had a moratorium on capital punishment since 2007. In our conversation, Gessen also touched upon the growing émigré community of nefarious Russians now living in London including Boris Berezovsky, the focal point of Klebnikov’s Godfather of the Kremlin.

But who is responsible for the murder of Anna Politkovskaya? “The government is involved in a weird way,” says Gessen. “It’s hard to tell in what way exactly. The line between government and non-government is pretty blurry. Eventually, I think, these things will come out but you need a new regime.” I asked if he really believed that a new regime would tell the truth. Gessen hesitated, sheepishly laughed and uttered a drawn out “yes.” His intonation was that of someone shaking their head from side to side in negation. He went on to cite the example of Georgiy Gongadze, a Ukrainian journalist kidnapped and beheaded in 2000. The president of the Ukraine at the time was Leonid Kuchma. “Kuchma was heard saying ‘Can’t someone take care of this problem?’ Recently, they arrested a retired general. Even though this guy was a former general – they finally got him.” Meaning: it had been necessary for Viktor Yushchenko to become president of the Ukraine for the truth to come out and reform to take place. In 2004, Yushchenko defeated the Kuchma backed Viktor Yanukovych. Massive voting fraud helped to ignite a series of bloodless protests and strikes now known as the Orange Revolution.

On July 14, 2009, Novaya Gazeta reported that human rights activist Natalya Estemirova had been kidnapped from her home in Grozny and forced into a white car bearing the license plate ВАЗ-2107. The newspaper reported this information and posted it online hours after her disappearance but before her body had been discovered. She had been working on the cause of kidnapping in Chechnya, a profit driven industry reminiscent of Italian and German revolutionary faction kidnappings of the 1970s but on a much less glamorous, microeconomic scale. Estemirova headed the Grozny division of the venerable human rights organization Memorial. Estemirova was also Politkovskaya’s personal friend. Following Politkovskaya’s death, Estemirova was the first recipient of the Anna Politkovskaya Prize established by RAW in WAR/Reach All Women in War. On the morning of July 15, 2009 Estemirova’s body was found in Ingushetia. Memorial has publicly blamed Ramzan Kadyrov, the Moscow supported Chechen president of the decimated region, for Estemirova’s death.

In and around Russia today, some speak of change under the Medvedev administration. But there is also talk that Medvedev’s governing is just a continuation of Putin’s policy. Is this just ‘business as usual’ for Russia? “Medvedev gives speeches where he doesn’t threaten to cut people’s balls off – which is nice,” Gessen told me. “His reaction was already better than Putin’s was to Politkovskaya. He [Medvedev] accepted that this is a major scandal.” “Kadyrov’s reaction also is an improvement in a way. He says he’s suing Memorial for defamation. This is also something: Usually when he’s asked about someone’s murder, Kadyrov just smiles.”

Both present and past, the question of how expendable people are is one that has haunted Russia. Anna Politkovskaya wrote for Novaya Gazeta, perhaps the last vestige of free discourse in Russian media. It is a periodical that has lost a disproportionately large number of journalists and its lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, to seemingly professional assassination. Politkovskaya’s strength and brilliance lay with her Akhmatova-esque loyalty to the common citizen. She recognized that common people were perceived by the government as expendable masses, people of no consequence, and she criticized Putin accordingly.

“The killing of Politkovskaya is something people are aware of,” says Gessen. “It’s rare enough for someone to be killed for her beliefs, or what she wrote out of those beliefs. Most people get killed [in Russia] because they’re in a business dispute – this is the ordinary way to be killed. Or for your apartment. In the 1990s you could be killed for money, even if you didn’t have money. Russians still think all killings are business-related, where in the West we are quick to blame the government. But both points of view are right: The Russian government has become part government, part mobster.”

That seems bleak. As an average Russian citizen, how is one supposed to understand this? Gessen responds, “In the 90s everyone around you – every Russian citizen – was getting killed. Now there is stability. Now people who get killed are prominent. Politkovskaya was prominent. The elite are conscious about losing certain things, like losing the Ukraine. They hate Yushchenko. The nation’s been much reduced, to half its population. They’re nostalgic for the communitarian ethos. Much of what the Soviets were doing was keeping the standards of living in the west hidden. Nobody wants to go back to wearing funny clothes and not knowing what people in Paris are wearing.” This is an intensely ironic observation. Where the Russian citizen is aware of what the Parisians are wearing thanks to the media, that same media minimizes the murder of journalists and human rights workers, arguably offering a two dimensional perspective on the Chechen crisis. Gessen thinks that longer historical processes are eventually going to improve things despite the best efforts of the Russian government. “There are objective forces of modernity in Russia – well, the internet. It’s harder for the government to control information. Of course, TV in Russia is becoming like FoxNews was during the Bush administration, except it’s on every channel, and run by the government.” An observation which harkens back to Vlad Listyev whose murder Klebnikov had written about and essentially accused Berezovsky of committing. Listyev, an astute television producer and host of televised discussion forums in Russia during the 1990s, made a play at privatizing and controlling the only national television station in Russia – Channel One. He suspended all advertising on the station and was subsequently murdered.

Should anyone want to look into the face of a dead man walking, it’s available on the internet: The last episode Listyev ever filmed of his talk show Час Пик/Rush Hour shows him wishing all his viewers a happy first of March (1995) and all the hope in the world, then saying “…because as we all know, hope dies last.” He was found shot dead in the stairway of his building that night. After his murder in 1995, the only television station to broadcast nationally, across 11 time zones, became state owned.

Media isn‘t everything, and a nation’s subconscious is often best revealed through its art and culture. As the Soviet state crumbled, for example, Igor Letov and Grazhdanskaya Oborona wrote the quintessential punk anthem of the time. The dirge ‚Everything is Going According to Plan‘ gave voice to the despair, bitterness and disillusionment of the Russian citizen experiencing the privations and mess that was perestroika. “I bought a journal about Korea – It’s good there too. They’ve got Tovarish Kim Il-Sung. They’ve got exactly what we do. I’m positive they’ve got exactly the same. And everything is going according to plan.”

North Korean journals in Russia during the time that Letov refers to are fascinating in their uniformity to Soviet and Chinese propaganda. They depict smiling happy children as hopeful symbols of the communist future lined up in rows performing in celebratory assemblage. They show a sprawling untouched landscape, lush and green. And of course, they depict the benevolent father leader in all his cult of personality glory, Kim Il-Sung. These journals are perversely beautiful in the way that only something produced by the government of a closed society can be. Letov was right – it probably is and was just as good in North Korea as it was in the collapsing Soviet Union of the 1980s and perestroika of the 1990s. By default, he was drawing attention to the media. During Soviet times, there was Pravda, “a journal about Korea,” and Samizdat. These were the sources of news for the Russian citizen. If the state has a good solid hold on the media in general, then was Anna Politkovskaya perceived to be a thwarter of propaganda by her government? Both Chechen wars were on near media lockdown and it seems that no one, from the expert to the layman, has a clear understanding of what exactly is happening in Chechnya even now. Klebnikov refers to the first Chechen war as some kind of business deal gone wrong. The Russian citizen would tell you – people of the mountains have been fighting amongst themselves for as long as anyone can remember. In actuality, Russia has been playing at imperialism in the Caucasus for as long as anyone can remember and a prolific number of romanticized accounts exist in the writings of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Lermontov and others. None of these responses are satisfying.

As Russia was overconfident and anticipated a quick and decisive victory, the first Chechen war was better chronicled internationally. The reality of the conflict is perhaps most accurately recorded in Anthony Suau’s 1995 photojournalism of the ravaged Grozny. Here, one finds stark high-contrast black and white photographs of a decimated, razed city that resembles Warsaw at the end of the Second World War. Wounded soldiers, dead soldiers, survivors with mad eyes fighting over the distribution of supplies while desperately clutching the bars of what appears to be a relief truck. An elderly woman showing the passport photos of her two dead sons. An elderly man searching a mass grave and finding the body of his son whose face had been eaten away by dogs. A mass grave. These images are available to the Russian citizen on the internet if he or she knows where and how to look, just as they’re chronicled in Anna Politkovskaya’s articles and books, in the collective knowledge of Natalya Estemirova’s Memorial, and in Paul Klebnikov’s writings. You won’t find any of this, however, on the nightly Russian news.

Article and Interview by Margarita Shalina, 2010.

Comments are closed.