Hello, and welcome to this episode of Assassinations Podcast, in which we will be looking at the life and death of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist in Russia, and one of the leading critical investigators of the alleged crimes of the administration of Vladimir Putin.
She was assassinated by a hit squad in the elevator of her apartment building in Moscow in 2006, a killing which caused uproar in Russia and across the world, with many people laying the blame for her murder squarely upon the Putin administration.
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And now, let’s launch our investigation into the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya.
Anna Politkovskaya walked into a small house in a village in mountains of southern Chechnya in January, 2001. She had grown familiar with communities like this, and she’d developed a strong affinity for the hardy people who clung onto life in the high Caucasus Mountains.
Hunger, cold, isolation - these were conditions to which the people had grown inured. The more recent lack of basic medical care had made things even harder. But it was the punitive raids by soldiers upon the village that now made life unbearable.
The soldiers were from the Russian army. They were encamped outside the village. This was the second year of the Second Chechen War - and there would be another 8 years of fighting, another 8 years of horror - to come.
The soldiers were there to fight the Chechen separatists, Islamic jihadi militants who sought independence from the Russian Federation. But, as in all wars, the civilian population bore much of the suffering.
There was a woman in the village by the name of Rozita. She was a grandmother. She told her story to Anna.
Rozita had been arrested by soldiers who’d barged into her home. Allowed to grab a few belongings, she had been taken to a special camp in a different district of Chechnya.
Many people were taken to this camp for many reasons. Rozita had sheltered Chechen militants, she was told. So the soldiers threw her into a pit in the ice cold ground. The pit had been used before, and human waste covered the ground. Rozita would spend the next 12 days down there.
Three times she had been taken out of the pit in order to be interrogated. She had been assaulted and electrocuted. She hadn’t been sure why they tortured her, as they never seemed to ask any questions.
Eventually, the soldiers released her. Her family had been made to pay a ransom - it had taken them the 12 days to scrape enough money together.
Rozita was one of many, many people to have endured such treatment. Others faired even worse in the camp, or in one of the other hellish places that existed during the Second Chechen War.
Writing of her experiences, Politkovskaya also told tale of Isa, the young man suspected of being a militant, who was raped and had cigarettes stubbed out on his body. And she recounted incidents of villagers being terrorized by Russian army patrols, their meagre possessions stolen.
She told her own story, too. While reporting on conditions in Chechnya, Anna had been seized. The soldiers had said her papers were not in order. She had been seen speaking to Chechens in the villages, so she must be one of them - a terrorist.
She had then been taken for interrogation by officers from the Federal Security Bureau, the Russian successor organization to the KGB. What followed was an exercise in degradation that some people call “enhanced interrogation”. The methods had not been invented by these Russian security officers, but they knew their craft well: physical threats, intimidation, screaming, sexually suggestive comments with the implication that she would be raped. Most disturbingly for Ms Politkovskaya, the interrogators had taken photos of her children from her wallet, told her that they could find them easily, and described in horrific detail the things they could do to them.
She had been tied up and left alone. Intermittently, young men in uniform came in to grope her. Eventually, a senior army officer had arrived and matter-of-factly told Anna that he was going to take her outside to shoot her. In the pitch black, she’d been thrown to the ground … there was a terrible screeching and a burst of flame. But it had been a fake-out. The soldiers had fired a small rocket near where she lay. Terrified, she was then taken to a building, down to a basement, where she’d been threatened with rape. She would spend days down there before being released.
Flying home to Moscow, relieved that the nightmare was over, something just clicked. It all seemed to come together: the stories that she’d heard and the things she had experienced in Chechnya, combined with the many facets of her life and journalistic work in Moscow over the years.
“All this is happening in our country, here, now,” she wrote.
Under the existing constitution. Under a ‘strong-willed’ president who is its guarantor. With the prosecutor general's office still functioning. With human rights activists, both government and independent, working to ensure people’s rights.
All of it, she thought, all of it was a sham.
[Music comes in]
Anna Politkovskaya was born in New York City in 1958, the daughter of a Soviet diplomat working at the United Nations. Her family returned to Moscow, where Anna attended school and then went to the Moscow State University school of journalism, from which she graduated in 1980. She married a fellow student, with whom she had two children. Her husband, Alexander, was a well-known television journalist. Meanwhile, Anna worked for the main Soviet newspaper, Izvestia, during the 1980s and early 90s.
In post-Soviet Russia, she wrote for a new liberal press, in particular a newspaper called Novaya Gazeta, which had been set up with the support of ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The paper was well known for its investigative work, especially on social issues facing Russia.
Though she wrote extensively on many aspects of life in Russia, perhaps she was best known for her work reporting on the conflicts between the Russian central government and the federal subject of Chechnya in the southwest of the country.
In 1994, the First Chechen War broke out. This was a conflict by militants who did not want to remain a part of the Russian Federation, and instead declared the existence of an independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.
There is a long, long history of conflict between Russia and the Chechen people. Imperial Russia took over most of the Caucasus region, a mountainous isthmus between the Black and Caspian seas, in the 18th Century. However, it would take a long time for the tsar to subdue the mountain peoples, especially the Chechens, who were fiercely independent.
During the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the ensuing Civil War, Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus region declared independence; but the Soviet Red Army occupied the territory in 1921, and it remained a part of the USSR and then Russia until the war broke out in 1994.
Following two years of fighting, Chechnya gained de facto independence in 1996. The following year, it declared itself an Islamic republic. Then, in 1999, jihadi fighters from Chechnya moved into the neighboring Russian region of Dagestan, declaring it to be an independent state as well.
The Russian government in Moscow launched a massive military response. Its forces quickly routed the relatively small number of Islamist fighters in Dagestan, pushing them back into Chechnya. It was clear, however, that the purpose of the Russian government was not simply to repel the Chechen fighters from a neighboring province, but to reclaim Chechnya itself.
In its bloodiest battle since the end of the Second World War, the Russian armed forces laid siege to the capital city of Chechnya, Grozny. During a six-week-long battle, Grozny was virtually raised to the ground. Though most civilians were able to flee in the early stages of the siege, thousands who were unable or unwilling to leave died. Hundreds of Russian soldiers were killed or injured, and there were thousands of Chechen militant casualties and fatalities. Though Moscow regained control of Grozny, it then had to fight a protracted counterinsurgency war in the Chechen countryside, through the high mountains passes and in the remote villages.
In 2001, Anna Politkovskaya wrote a book called A Dirty War, based on articles she had written on the conflict. She would have to go back, time and again, to report on what was going on, as the war, which had started with the shock and awe of the siege of Grozny, turned into the prolonged nightmare of counterinsurgency against guerrilla forces who blended into the civilian population.
The Second Chechen War, which lasted from 1999 until 2009, claimed the lives of some seven thousand Russian personnel and perhaps as many as 30,000 Chechen militants. The human rights group Amnesty International estimates civilian deaths in the range of 25,000 people, with another 5,000 missing, presumed dead.
Boris Yeltin was still the president of Russia when the Second Chechen War was launched; however, he was in poor health, presumed to be a chronic alcoholic, his administration and his own family were mired in scandal, he was surrounded by cronies. In general, he was an unpopular figure and widely regarded as no longer fit to govern. Much of the responsibility for the organization of the war fell to Vladimir Putin, who served as head of the internal security service and then, from mid-1999, Prime Minister.
When Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned in December of that year, Putin took over as Acting President, before winning office in an election a few months later. A major problem for the Russian government was that there was initially very little appetite among the population for a potentially long and bloody war to regain control of a poor mountainous province in the remote Caucasus region. But public opinion in Russia was swayed by a series of shocking events. In September of 1999, a string of bombings took place in Moscow and two other cities. Attributed to Chechen terrorists and foreign jihadis, a total of five bomb attacks claimed the lives of 367 people and injured a further one thousand. The attacks galvanized the Russian population for a full-scale war against the Chechen separatists. And yet a number of aspects of the bombings raised concerns, both in Russia and internationally, about just who had really been responsible.
A number of people have suggested that the Russian government might have been behind the bombings. In particular, these critics point to a sixth incident, in which Russian federal security officers were seen planting what looked like a bomb in the city of Ryazan, about one week after the last explosion had killed 64 people. There was no explosion, but thousands of people were evacuated from the vicinity of the building. The Russian authorities stated that they were carrying out a training exercise in Ryazan, and that the bomb was a dummy to be used in a simulated search.
Several media outlets, including the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, investigated this case; and, to this day, it remains a highly suspect affair; however, the public narrative across Russia had been irrevocably shifted as a result of the bombings. Whatever lay behind the Ryazan incident, or any of the other attacks across the country, there was now a sufficient will among the Russian people to give the Putin administration the political leeway to wage a full-scale military assault on Chechnya.
On the 23rd of December, 2002, around forty Chechen militants seized the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow, taking around 850 audience members and staff hostage. Led by a man named Movsar Barayev, the leader of a Chechen militant group called the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment, the hostage-takers demanded that all Russian armed forces be withdrawn from Chechnya or they would start to kill their prisoners. Desperate attempts were then made to negotiate the release of at least some of those being held. The militants agreed to release children, pregnant women, some elderly people, and a few others with obvious medical problems. Muslim hostages were also released.
The following day, the Russian government said that if the militants agreed to let everyone go then they would be permitted to leave the country for any third country of their choosing. Barayev would not agree to this, and reiterated that if the Russian government did not take their demands seriously then hostages would start to die. While the Russian government would not enter direct negotiations with Barayev, under a rule that they never negotiated with terrorists, several high-profile people were allowed to take part in talks with the hostage-takers. Anna Politkovskaya was one of those who spoke with them. Along with other journalists and members of parliament, she help to negotiate the release of a few more hostages, as well as getting the militants to allow workers from the Red Cross to enter in order to provide medical assistance, food and water, and blankets to those held inside. Meanwhile, diplomatic staff from various embassies were able to negotiate for the release of foreign citizens.
After three days, and with no sign that the Russian government was going to consider, let alone agree to, their demands, the militants murdered two female hostages. Russian authorities decided that they had to move in. Due to the layout of the building, the militants had the advantage, easily able to defend narrow corridors with small arms fire and explosives. Therefore, a head-on assault by special forces would have been incredibly bloody, quite probably resulting in the death of most or all of the hostages. Instead the Russians decided to flood the building’s ventilation system with a gas intended to knock out everyone inside. This was a highly risky move - and it proved to be a costly one. The gas incapacitated some of the hostage-takers, but others had gas masks. When special forces entered the theater they still had to engage the remaining militants. After approximately 30-minutes of fighting, all of the Chechens were dead. But the gas killed some 130 of the hostages in the theater, and as many as another 70 people may have died from the aftereffects in the months and years that followed. The Russian government has never stated what chemical they used.
Politkovskaya would later write that two of the Chechen militants involved in the theater attack had been agents or informers of the Federal Security Service, and she questioned just what knowledge the Russian authorities had prior to the incident. Writing in Novaya Gazeta, she reported on comments made by a former senior Russian security officer, who said that there had been a build-up of a large number of Chechen militants in central Moscow for weeks prior to the attack on the theater, and that the security services must have known that something big was about to happen, especially if they had informants on the inside.
Following on from Politkovskaya’s book on the Chechen conflict, A Dirty War, she was commissioned to write a more general account of life in Russia. Published in 2004, Putin’s Russia was a blistering attack on conditions in the country as she saw them. She pointed to official corruption, the rise of mafiosi to positions of great power and wealth, the brutality of the war in Chechnya, and the crumbling state of much of Russia’s infrastructure. In particular, she singled out Vladimir Putin, stating that he and his ex-KGB comrades presided over and profited from the chaos, criminality and degradation of the country. Naturally, such sentiments didn’t win her many friends in the Kremlin, nor among the layers of oligarchs, crooked officials, and gangsters upon whom her thunder was loosed.
Let’s take a break. We’ll be right back.
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Politkovskaya was allegedly poisoned in September, 2004. On a flight from Moscow to the Caucasus region she fell violently ill, and was taken to hospital, semi-conscious, as soon as the plane landed. When she awoke, she said that medical staff told her that she had been poisoned, but that officials had removed her patient file.
She had been on her way to the province of North Ossetia, next to Chechnya. Islamist militants had seized control of an entire school in the town of Beslan. They were holding over a thousand people, mainly schoolchildren, hostage.
The Chechen militants, over thirty in number, all heavily armed and most wearing suicide vests, demanded that the Russian government withdraw from Chechnya or they would start to kill the hostages. She was going there in order to make contact with a Chechen leader who she had encountered in the course of her reporting. She wanted to speak to him, to try to get him to persuade the militants who had seized control of the school in Beslan to at least release the children being held there.
On the first day of the hostage crisis, the militants killed twenty adults who had shown signs of not complying. One man, a parent, was shot for refusing to kneel. Others were ushered into a room with a female suicide bomber. According to one witness, the bomb strapped to her chest was then detonated by remote control by the leader of the militants.
As the school quickly became surrounded by local police, armed forces personnel, and federal security officers, the hostage-takers threatened to kill 50 people for each of their own members who might be killed. Day turned into night turned into day again, with more and more Russian personnel, as well as the international media, descending on Beslan. The militants in the school shot at and threw grenades at the Russian security forces surrounding them.
In Moscow, 700 high-profile Russians, including politicians and actors, volunteered to travel to Beslan to to enter the school as hostages in exchange for the release of the children. But no deal was made. The Russian government would never accede to the Chechen militants’ demands, and the hostage-takers seemed determined to see their horrifying mission through to the end.
On the third day, Russian negotiators finally got the militants to agree to a medical team entering the school to aid the wounded and remove the corpses of those killed on the first day. However, the hostage-takers opened fire on them - then one or more explosions were heard inside the gymnasium. A fire soon broke out. With chaos in and around the school and the roof of the sports hall collapsing from the fire, the Russians made their move. Special forces entered the school, exchanging gunfire with the hostage-takers. Meanwhile an armored vehicle rammed through the wall of the gymnasium to allow those trapped inside to escape. Adding to mayhem, there were hundreds of armed civilians - the friends and relatives of those trapped inside - who were surrounding the school. As the Russian forces rushed in, many of these armed civilians followed them, desperate to save their loved ones.
After two hours, the Russian authorities had regained control of most of the school. A group of 13 hostage-takers had escaped to a nearby building, which was surrounded and then destroyed with tanks and flamethrowers. Another suspected militant was caught by the locals and lynched.
When it was all over, 334 people were dead. 186 of them were children. Only a single hostage-taker survived. He was given a life sentence.
Again, the Russian government came in for criticism for its handling of the terrible incident. Some thought that the siege of the school had been mishandled and that too much force had been used. Others believed that the authorities should have known that a terror cell was going to carry out such a large-scale attack. And others claimed that the government did know that an attack was going to take place, and wished to use the incident to shore up support for the Second Chechen War, then in its fifth year. Regardless, among most ordinary Russian people, blame for the atrocity lay squarely with the Islamist hostage-takers. The public view of Putin administration was generally that it had acted with strength and decisiveness against ruthless terrorists who would have killed everyone in the school otherwise.
Putin was in his second term in office by this point and he was pretty popular. For Anna Politkovskaya, this was a cause of distress. She thought that the public was apathetic about the corruption and abuses that seemed to be an routine part of official life. And she despaired that the Putin administration also at this time had relatively good relations with the West, especially the Bush administration in the United States. Moscow had cooperated with the US in its so-called “War on Terror”, including the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. And there was a sense in both countries that they shared a common enemy in Islamist extremist jihadi groups. She thought that the post-9/11 realpolitik, where Russia and the West set some of their differences aside, allowed the Putin administration to get away with more at home.
She was also highly critical of Ramzan Kadyrov. He was the young leader of Chechnya. He was the son of a previous Chechen leader who had supported independence in the 1990s. As the Second Chechen War came to its conclusion, with most of the Islamist militants defeated, Ramzan Kadyrov had struck a deal with the Russian government, which, in essence, would allow him to run Chechnya as a personal kingdom in exchange for his loyalty to Moscow. He had allegedly threatened Politkovskaya for her investigations into his ruthless methods of rule in Chechnya.
On October 5th, 2006, she gave an interview in which she claimed that Kadyrov was, quote, “a Stalin of our times” who abducted, tortured, and killed his enemies. She described him as, “a coward armed to the teeth and surrounded by security guards.” She stated that a criminal case had been launched against Kadyrov on the basis of three articles published by Novaya Gazeta. “I myself am a witness in one of these cases,” she said. “These cases are about abductions, including one criminal case about the abduction of two people carried out with the participation of Kadyrov.”
Two days after she gave this interview, on the 7th of October, 2006, Politkovskaya was shot dead in her apartment building in Moscow. Her body was discovered in the elevator. She had been shot four times: three bullets in the body and one in the head. The pistol used to kill her lay beside her body.
Her death was greeted with outrage amongst her colleagues and friends, both inside Russia and across the world. Oleg Panfilov, the director of the Moscow Centre for Journalism, said that Politkovskaya frequently received threats. “There are journalists who have this fate hanging over them,” he stated. “I always thought something would happen to her, first of all because of Chechnya.”
“Whenever the question arose whether there is honest journalism in Russia, almost every time the first name that came to mind was Politkovskaya,” he added.
Thank you so much for tuning in to this episode of Assassinations Podcast.
Next week, we will conclude our a two-part look at the case of Anna Politkovskaya.
We will find out about the official investigation into her murder. We will hear the evidence presented in two court cases, and we’ll consider the intrigues, including the widespread claims that she was assassinated on the authority of the Russian president. And we will encounter a man that we’ve met before - a certain Mr Boris Berezovsky, the Russian billionaire critic of Putin, who, exiled in Britain, sat at the center of an international web of shadiness into which, dear listener, we must once again peer.
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 our program sponsors, 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 us by making a pledge through Patreon at patreon.com/assassinationspodcast.
Thank you so much for tuning in, and we look forward to seeing you next week.
Until then, goodbye.