Episode 3.11: Anna Politkovskaya part 2

Hello, and welcome to the conclusion of our two-part look at the case of Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist and human rights campaigner who was gunned down in the lobby of her apartment building in Moscow in October 2006.

Last week we found out about her life and work, especially her reporting from the war-torn province of Chechnya, in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation. We heard about her fierce criticisms of the administration of President Vladimir Putin. And we discovered that she might have previously been targeted for assassination, having allegedly been poisoned on board a flight from Moscow in 2004.

Politkovskaya was well aware of the risks of being an investigative journalist in Russia at this time, especially as she focused on the misdeeds of those in positions of power. She once observed that in Putin’s Russia: “People sometimes pay with their lives for saying aloud what they think.”

We will endeavor to go beyond the headlines, which, especially in the West, tended to assume that Putin was responsible for the assassination, in order to consider all of those who might have benefited from the death of this courageous journalist.

Now, before we get started, just a quick notice for our Patreon supporters. This week, we will have two special bonuses available and our monthly livestream. Please stay tuned at the end of the episode for more details.

Also, later in this episode I’ll tell you about Winc, makers of great wine, curated to your taste and delivered to your doorstep.

And now, let’s launch our investigation into the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya. 


In the afternoon of 7 October 2006, Anna Politkovskaya went shopping at her local grocery store. She had just returned from the hospital, where she went most days in order to visit her mother, who was dying of cancer. This was an incredibly tough time for the family. Just a few days earlier, Anna’s father had died of a heart attack.

She loaded the groceries into her car and drove to her apartment, located in an affluent neighborhood of Moscow. She parked in front of the building and carried two of the bags inside. She then went back down to get the rest of her shopping from the car. Stepping out of the elevator into the lobby of the building, she found herself face-to-face with a stranger. He had followed her home from the grocery store, and had let himself into the building using the code to the front door keypad. The man held in his hand a pistol with a silencer. He fired three times into her body. Politkovskaya crumped to the floor. The man fired a fourth shot into the head, ensuring that she was dead. He then dropped the pistol beside the body and walked out into the street. A few minutes later, around 4.20pm, a neighbor found the body, lying on its back in a pool of blood at the entrance to the elevator. 

Anna Politkovskaya, forty-eight years old, was buried four days later at a cemetery in Moscow. It was clear that she had been the victim of a contract killing - a hit, with a hired gun doing someone else’s dirty work. As outrageous as this crime was, it did not come as a surprise. Journalism could be a very dangerous job in Russia, and Ms Politkovskaya was the latest in a disturbingly long line of journalists to have been gunned down in Moscow in recent years. Nonetheless, to her friends and colleagues in Russia and around the world, the brutal slaying was both a personal loss and a blow to the profession as a whole, for Politkovskaya was widely regarded as one of the best and most fearless journalistic voices in Russia.

The International Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement condemning her murder: “She was an intrepid and brave reporter who repeatedly risked her life to report the news from that region,” the statement read. “It is a devastating development for journalism in Russia.”

Meanwhile, a representative of the International Federation of Journalists said that Politkovskaya had faced down threats from all sides and had become an inspiration to journalists both at home and abroad.

Hundreds of people - journalists, opposition politicians, and human rights campaigners - demonstrated in Moscow and St Petersburg, and there were protests in cities in other parts of Europe, too. These protesters cried out that this was not only an assassination of a valiant journalist, who had exposed many crimes being committed in Russia; this was also the murder of a leading human rights campaigner and critic of the administration of President Putin. For some, it seemed abundantly clear that her murder had been ordered by the Kremlin, perhaps even by the president himself. Adding an extra element of grotesque piquancy to this theory, was the fact that Ms Politkovskaya had been killed on Vladimir Putin’s birthday.

The Kremlin rejected the claim that it was in any way responsible for the crime. Speaking three days after the assassination, President Putin denounced it as a “disgusting crime”. He added that he was doubly appalled by the killing because, not only was Politkovskaya a journalist, but she was also a woman and a mother. The Russian president strongly implied that responsibility for the crime lay abroad, with individuals who wished to undermine his administration and damage the international reputation of Russia.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of claim and counterclaim regarding ultimate responsibility for the assassination, we must first go down the metaphorical food chain to look at the official investigation into those who committed, as opposed to commissioned, the crime - the contract killers.

In 2007, Russia’s chief prosecutor stated that his department was investigating the possibility that Politkovskaya had been murdered by an organized-crime ring made up of an unholy alliance of Chechen criminals and rogue elements from within Russia’s police and national security apparatus. The prosecutor said that the assassination appeared to have been meticulously planned with two groups keeping her under close surveillance for days prior to the crime. The police released CCTV footage, showing Politkovskaya being tailed in the grocery store where she had been shopping immediately before returning to her apartment building.

Several Russian media outlets reported that investigators believed that a Chechen mafia boss and rebel leader named Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev was responsible. Nukhayev was alleged to have been behind the assassination of another journalist in Moscow back in 2004. The editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, Paul Klebnikov had been gunned down outside his office in a drive-by shooting. The suggestion that these assassinations might have been linked was reinforced by the fact that both Politkovskaya and Klebnikov had, shortly before their deaths, written works that were highly critical of prominent Chechen figures.

Despite the high profile of the Politkovskaya case and appeals to the public for information, it would take ten months before Moscow city police made any arrests. Several Chechens known to have links to organized crime as well as three former officers of the Federal Security Bureau were charged. The suspected hitman was later identified as a 30-year-old Chechen man, who was still on the run, believed to be somewhere in Western Europe. 

In 2008, three men were put on trial in connection with the murder: two Chechens and a former FSB officer. A fourth suspect, another former FSB official, was charged with having extorted money from the accused in order to cover up the murder. However, the the jury unanimously acquitted all four of them.

Prosecutors appealed the jury’s decision. The Russian supreme court ruled that there could be a retrial of the men accused of her murder, and all were later convicted in a second trial. Then, in a shock announcement made in July 2012, prosecutors announced that a former senior officer of the Moscow Police Department had been charged with planning the murder of Politkovskaya. Later that year, he pled guilty, but was sentenced to just eleven years in prison as part of a plea bargain in which he gave evidence against five other suspects. 

In 2014, these men were convicted for their involvement in the murder of Politkovskaya. Two of them, including the man who actually pulled the trigger, who had finally been apprehended in Chechnya, were given life sentences. However, it remained unknown just who, behind the scenes, had ordered the assassination. And so we must now move onto that more difficult question. But first, let’s take a break.

We’ll be right back.

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Now, back to the show

We must now ask - who bares ultimate responsibility for this heinous crime? Who gave the order to murder Anna Politkovskaya?

Given her opposition to the Putin administration, many people thought it was pretty obvious where responsibility lay. Both within Russia and internationally, critics of the Putin administration simply assumed that he had commissioned the crime in order to silence a leading oppositional voice and send a dire warning to all other journalists who might dare to question his rule. 

It might very well be the case that Politkovskaya was killed on the orders of Vladimir Putin or one of his close associates. We will consider the evidence and let it lead us where it may. In so doing, we need to start from the understanding that Russia is a large and complex entity, with many moving parts. It is not an monolith, but a labyrinth; and I doubt if any individual holds the key to it all, even if that person sits in the Kremlin.

If there is a watchword, a key to understanding this case - and, I dare say, understanding Russia in general at the time of Politkovskaya’s death, then I believe that it is this: Chechnya.

Open warfare and protracted counterinsurgency operations, punctuated by horrific terrorist attacks and appalling human rights violations, scarred the province, rocked the wider Caucasus region, and had a massive impact upon Russia as a whole. The war defined the early years of Putin’s presidency. It established his reputation as Russia’s strong man, and it tested the steel with which he would bind the country together. 

Politkovskaya’s work in Chechnya told tale, unflinchingly, of the inhumanities that flowed from the drawn-out war. She seemed compelled to return to the Caucasus Mountains again and again, to delve deep into the lives of the ordinary people caught up in the conflict - to listen and give recognition to the dead, the dying, the broken, and the forgotten. In the tradition of Dostoyevski, she explored individual traumas, while simultaneously examining the fundamental character of the troubled world in which those tragedies played out. She saw that the wars in Chechnya destroyed lives and communities; but she also believed that the long years of warfare had warped the political and socio-psychological character of Russia itself, that the brutality and criminality of long years of war were reflected in and magnified all the problems of Russian society.

When she gained a victory through her journalism, which might simply be a matter of shedding light on a dark corner of life in Russia, Politkovskaya believed that it was a triple blessing: firstly, it brought some justice to the victims; secondly, it punished or at least exposed the ill-doers; and, thirdly, it reacquainted the Russian legal system with the notion of justice. But she was not at all optimistic that Russia under Vladimir Putin would change for the better. Instead, she despaired at what she saw as the complacency of the people in the face of a creeping autocracy.

They say, of course, that the first casualty of war is the truth. Politkovskaya was doubtless aware of that maxim, and most certainly she had seen its essential accuracy played out in Chechnya. The wars in that blighted corner of the Russian Federation, like most wars anywhere, had spawned propaganda, lies, coverups, and bureaucratic obfuscation. She didn’t find much more by way of truth in everyday life in Moscow, either. Russia does not have a monopoly on misinformation and media collusion; but nor does it have a shortage of either. In trying to get to the truth, Politkovskaya crossed some dangerous paths - perhaps none more dangerous than the one leading to the Kremlin.

Writing in Novaya Gazeta in 2004, she expressed her thoughts about the general situation in Russia:

We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum that spells death from our own ignorance. All we have left is the Internet, where information is still freely available. For the rest, if you want to go on working as a journalist, it's total servility to Putin. Otherwise, it can be death, the bullet, poison, or trial - whatever our special services, Putin's guard dogs, see fit.

Little wonder then that the finger of blame for her murder was pointed right up at the Kremlin. Her colleagues, supporters, and co-thinkers said that it was clear that the government had either carried out or ordered the silencing of the woman who was perhaps its most tenacious critic.

Unsurprisingly, the Russian government took a different view. Putin rejected as totally unfounded the claim that his administration might have orchestrated the crime. Moreover, he said, it would have been counterproductive to assassinate an oppositional journalist such as Politkovskaya who, while well known in some circles, wasn’t exactly a household name across Russia.

“In my opinion,” Putin said, “murdering such a person certainly does much greater damage from the authorities’ point of view, authorities that she strongly criticized, than her publications ever did.”

Officials alleged that Politkovskaya’s assassination might have been orchestrated from out-with Russia, by exiled forces who sought to discredit the president and destabilize the country. Putin claimed to have “reliable information” that, quote: “People who are hiding from Russian law enforcement have been hatching plans to sacrifice someone and create an anti-Russian wave in the world.” This was a pretty transparent implication that the man behind the murder was Boris Berezovsky.

You may recall that we had to deal extensively with Mr Berezovsky during our episodes on the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London just a few weeks after the assassination of Politkovskaya. Berezovsky was a very wealthy man, a billionaire, one of Russia’s oligarchs who had made a fortune during the economic free-for-all that accompanied the collapse of the USSR. He was a close confidante of President Boris Yeltsin, and he had actually been an ally of Vladimir Putin back in the 1990s. In fact, Berezovsky might even have been the kingmaker who brought who brought Putin to power as Yeltsin’s replacement in 1999. But he quickly fell out of favor. In 2000, faced with accusations of fraud, Berezovsky went into exile in Britain. From London, he waged a propaganda campaign against the Putin administration, which involved sponsoring several oppositionists and publishing work that was critical of the Russian government.

Alexander Litvinenko was one of those opposition voices that Berezovsky supported. Also exiled in London, Mr Litvinenko, a former Russian Federal Security officer, wrote articles and books that were highly critical of Putin. For more on this case, we have a three-part investigation into Litvinenko’s life and assassination, which focuses in no small part on the role of Berezovsky. Suffice it to say at this point, that the death of Litvinenko in London in November 2006 was widely blamed on Vladimir Putin, and that Berezovsky engaged the services of a prominent public relations company to ensure that this message was as effectively communicated as possible.

Would Berezovsky have arranged to kill Anna Politkovskaya as part of his propaganda battle with Putin Well, I’d say that the oligarch was just as ruthless as the Russian president. But I do think that it would be a stretch to assert that Berezovsky was involved in the assassination. The closest thing I’ve seen to a link is the allegation, which appeared in the Russian media, perhaps at the behest of the Kremlin, that there was a link between the murders of Politkovskaya and the American journalist named Paul Klebnikov, the editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine. 

Klebnikov had written an article, later developed into a book titled “Godfather of the Kremlin”, about Berezovsky. The journalist investigated the shady business practices and corrupt government dealings that had allowed Berezovsky to become one of the richest men in Russia within a few years of the collapse of the USSR. Klebnikov also alleged that Berezovsky had arranged for the assassination of a prominent Russia journalist and media entrepreneur back in 1995. So, when Klebnikov was assassinated in 2004, there were rumors - probably fanned, if not spread, by the Russian government - that Berezovsky had taken out one of his critics.

Another person accused of the assassination of Mr Klebnikov was a Chechen mafioso named Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev. Klebnikov had written a very unflattering book about this powerful and elusive man, who was not only the head of an organized crime outfit, but also a political and military leader in the Chechen independence movement. 

As we heard before the break, there was speculation that Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev might have been involved the death of Politkovskaya as well. But, again, we are dealing in the realm of whispers within the labyrinthine corridors of Moscow politics and media. 

It is perhaps worth noting that Nukhayev used to provide, [ahem], “security” services for a business owned by our old friend Boris Berezovsky back in the 1990s. This, dear listener, is Russia, the country for which the phrase “oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” might have been invented.

There is, however, one theory as to who might be responsible that seems to have much more substance to it. Let us go back to Chechnya, where Politkovskaya carried out her most dangerous work; where, over the years, she’d been threatened, held captive, assaulted, threatened with rape, and, as we heard last week, perhaps also deliberately poisoned.

The dirt poor villages of Chechnya preoccupied her mind, even when she was in her comfortable flat in a prosperous neighborhood of Moscow. On her desk Politkovskaya kept the photographs of two men, one Russian and the other Chechen. These men had allegedly been abducted, tortured and killed by a man named Ramzan Kadyrov. In the days before her murder, Politkovskaya was preparing to act as a witness in legal proceedings against Kadyrov, who was, and remains, the leader of the Chechen Republic. 

By 2006, the separatist movement in Chechnya had been almost completely crushed. Mr Kadyrov, whose powerful family had once advocated for independence, emerged from the ruins, declaring loyalty to the Russian Federation - in effect, to Vladimir Putin. In exchange, Kadyrov has been given more-or-less free reign to run Chechnya just as he saw fit.

Politkovskaya saw in the new Chechen leader nothing more than a ruthless petty despot, a miniature Stalin, who ruled through fear. And she wasn’t shy about saying as much. Amongst other crimes, she had accused Kadyrov of using his henchmen to abduct and torture citizens for the purposes of intimidation and extortion. Could it be that the paid assassins sent to gun down Politkovskaya did so in order to prevent her from giving this testimony? And, moreover, to prevent her from carrying out further investigations into the goings-on in Kadyrov’s Chechnya? It has been widely speculated that this was the case. But this too is just an allegation and, however probable it might seem, no firm link has ever been established to connect the Chechen leader to her death.

And there we have it. Thirteen years later, and we still do not know who murdered Anna Politkovskaya. Russia was and remains one of the most dangerous places on Earth to practice the profession of journalism. The international press freedom watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, ranks Russia as the 149th most safe country to be a journalist, out of a total of 180 countries in the world.

The group’s 2019 report notes that more journalists are now in prison in Russia than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union, that the Kremlin has demonstrated its determination to control the Internet, that journalists and human rights campaigners have been declared “foreign agents”, and that physical attacks against journalists continue to go unpunished.

Last year, one of Politkovskaya’s former colleagues, a woman named Svetlana Alexievich, the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote a piece in the form of a letter, imagining that she could send it to her friend. It concludes:

Freedom is a long road: This is what we’ve learned since you left. We really need you, Anna! We’ve learned from you that there can be no compromises in a war; even the smallest compromise makes one an accomplice. It would be much harder for all of us without everything you had managed to say and do — without your belief that it is not hatred, but love for humanity that will save us. Thank you for having been here and still being here.

Thank you so much for tuning in to this episode of Assassinations Podcast.

Next week we will begin a two-part look at the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. On 7 January 2015, two Islamist gunmen forced their way into the Paris headquarters of the satirical magazine and opened fire, killing twelve employees. The attack was launched in retaliation for Charlie Hebdo publishing several cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed. Please join us next week as we start our investigation into this fascinating, controversial, and tragic case.

This episode was researched & written by me, Niall Cooper. Lindsey Morse produces and edits the show. Our theme music was created by Graeme Ronald. To hear more of Graeme’s music, check out his band, Remember Remember.

I’d like to thank Winc, makers of great wine, curated to your taste and delivered to your doorstep. If you go to assassinationspodcast.com then you’ll see that we have details of our special listener offer and a link to their website in our show notes. Supporting our sponsors is a great way to support the show, so please check them out! 

You can also support the show by making a pledge through Patreon at patreon.com/assassinationspodcast. If you’re already a supporter, make sure to check in later today to hear our “Behind the Episode” mini-show, where I’ll talk informally about some of my thoughts on the Politkovskaya case. Also, later this week, we’re going to have another bonus episode on Patreon, in which we will look a little more closely at someone we touched upon in this episode: Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev - a most interesting character - mafia boss, political leader, military commander, and international businessman, with some rather surprising links to an array of very important people on the international stage. And finally, for our Patreon supporters we will have our monthly livestream on Tuesday, June 11th at 9pm, US Eastern Daylight Time. It’s a very enjoyable opportunity for me to take questions and comments, and to chat informally about the season and our upcoming episodes. You can find out more by going to our Patreon page at patreon.com/assassinationspodcast

Thank you so much for tuning in, and we look forward to seeing you next week. 

Until then, goodbye.