Crime and No Punishment
The chill that swept through Moscow's Troyekurovskoye cemetery on Tuesday had nothing to do with the autumn squall stripping golden leaves from the birch trees behind the graves.
Anna Politkovskaya, one of the last journalists to regularly criticize the Kremlin, lay in an open coffin, a white, Russian Orthodox ribbon around her head, where three days earlier a hit man had aimed his final bullet. Among the hundreds who came to lay flowers at her side, many felt they were burying not only a friend, a colleague, or a fearless investigative reporter but also their dreams for Russia itself. "This is the funeral of a whole era," said Irena Lesnevskaya, a founder of the once independent Ren TV network. "It was an era of conscience, truth, and freedom, and 10 years ago no one could have dreamt it would be crushed."
The October 7 killing of Politkovskaya, a 48-year-old mother of two who was almost alone in writing about the continuing atrocities in Chechnya, touched a nerve in liberal circles. She was the principled, uncorrupted reporter who embodied the hopes that Russia would become a true western-style democracy. "They executed our conscience," says Yasen Zasursky, dean of Moscow State University's journalism faculty.
Such despair hardly extends to the ruling elite. Six years into the job, President Vladimir Putin has neutralized every potential source of opposition, from the formerly boisterous parliament and media to the few rebellious industrial barons, whose wealth provided little protection. For the small tribe of ex-KGB men, bureaucrats, bankers, and oligarchs who now own and rule Russia, the good times are in full swing. The elite pack ultraexpensive restaurants every evening, their black BMWs, Mercedeses, and the odd Hummer forming mini-traffic jams outside.
"Insignificant." Yet, something is afflicting Russia's hard men. They seem vulnerable, even paranoid. You gauge this by the astonishing number of bodyguards standing outside those chic restaurants, sometimes armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles. And you sense it at a deeper level in Putin's strange reaction to Politkovskaya's death. For two days he was silent, and when he finally spoke, it was to belittle the dead woman as "extremely insignificant." He said she was not even the main victim of the horrible murder, asserting it was aimed "against Russia, against the current authorities in Russia."
That mix of aggressiveness and victimhood was detectable throughout this autumn's row between Russia and neighboring Georgia over the brief arrest of four Russian officers on spying charges. A nuclear-armed state of 143 million people, awash in petrodollars, might have been expected to brush off provocation from a tiny, impoverished neighbor. Instead, Russia all but went to war. Moscow evacuated its embassy in Tbilisi, imposed an economic embargo, cut transport links, and put Russian military forces in the region on alert. "Russia is a great state," explains Sergei Mironov, head of the parliament's upper house and a member of the ruling elite. "We don't intend to forgive spitting in our direction."
What makes such powerful people so jumpy? The answer is partly rooted in the humiliation Russians feel from losing the Soviet empire, then being forced to watch the United States spread its influence and military into eastern Europe and beyond. Partly, there is nervousness about what will happen over the next two years leading up to the time when Putin-who still represents national stability to most Russians-is supposed to step down.
Dark undercurrents of violence, racism, and lawlessness keep resurfacing. Politkovskaya's assassination was the fourth high-profile murder in a matter of weeks, including the shooting of the deputy director of Russia's central bank, who had been leading a crackdown on money laundering. The police themselves are regularly accused of criminal activity, and their ongoing campaign against ethnic Georgians in Moscow has strong racist overtones.
At such times, some ask if Putin, whose entire image is based on his ability to exert control, is losing his grip. Others say that events like Politkovskaya's murder are inevitable during a presidency that brooks no challenge and for which force is a tool of first resort. "This is all part of the general atmosphere of hatred, suspicion," says Yevgeny Volk at the Moscow office of the Heritage Foundation. "Wiping out opposition journalists is the logical consequence of the general atmosphere where any opponent is considered an enemy of the nation."
This story appears in the October 23, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.