Politkovskaya was a journalist with Novaya Gazeta (New Newspaper), which was founded as perestroika was emerging. She covered the first and the second wars in Chechnya and was just finishing a story about torture there when Russian-supported Chechen security forces gunned her down in the elevator of her apartment in Moscow.
From Politkovskaya’s viewpoint, Russia is a country in chaos. She illustrates this in the pages of her diary, which bleed with horrible scenes of death, the escalating stink of corruption and the people’s utter resignation to the fact that they cannot do anything, while they pine for the good old days of the U.S.S.R.
Democracy is dead in Russia, says Politkovskaya, and the people did it to themselves because they failed to challenge government policies, put up opposition candidates, support an independent media or finance independent sources for significant public projects. Although she admits that political opposition lost its steam in 1996, when Yeltsin beat the Communists, she also puts democracy’s demise squarely on the shoulders of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, who masterminded the monstrous system that manipulates information, avoids responsibility and restricts human freedom. For example, Putin holds inane and scripted press conferences. He makes promises he does not keep. He does not respond to criticism and is unmoved by human tragedy, like the deaths of 300-plus children who were killed by Chechen terrorists in a Beslan school. He is equally unconcerned about soldiers who are bullied by the older “grandfather soldiers” and are being put in harm’s way without proper protection, decent food or even shoes to wear. He forgets about veterans, too, especially disabled veterans. He even abolished the right of the Duma (legislature) to vote—and got the people to support him.
A few citizens’ groups attempt to challenge the government, like the Soldiers’ Mothers, who valiantly and passionately appeal to Putin to change the awful conditions their sons must endure, but there are not enough citizens who involve themselves in these movements for change. Politkovskaya believes this silence and resignation comes from the Russians’ “serf-like psychology”:
Our society isn’t a society anymore. It is a collection of windowless, isolated concrete cells…. The authorities do everything they can to make the cells even more impermeable, sowing dissent, inciting some against others, dividing and ruling. And the people fall for it. That is the real problem. That is why revolution in Russia, when it comes, is always so extreme. The barrier between the cells collapses only when the negative emotions within them are ungovernable.Liberals and democrats tried to appeal to Putin. But they are locked in an insidious Catch-22: they cannot seek to work with him when they are simultaneously calling for his resignation.
Perhaps most disturbing is Politkovskaya’s warning about the government’s eerie and surreal return to Stalinism as revisionist historians and public relations people laud the former dictator’s brilliance in helping to win World War II. The truth, according to Politkovskaya, is that Putin is using some of the same Stalinist tactics, by which dissenters are abducted, tortured, drugged with truth serum or killed. Elections are rigged, and there is an aura of secrecy and suspicion surrounding the abject lawlessness of those who hold powerful and influential positions.
Without a free press reporting on such activities, says Politkovskaya, democracy has no chance, so she takes it upon herself to report the bad news and then dearly pays for it with her life.
A Russian Diary is imbued with an edgy and tense tone, yet Politkovskaya does not come off as shrill because her passion for truth is so forthright. Nevertheless, readers may need to take frequent breaks from the book, because it is utterly depressing to read about the government’s deliberate cruelty to its people and to see the people so complicit in the process.
Though Politkovskaya is a strong-willed woman, as her picture on the back book jacket suggests, sometimes the situation in Russia is so dire that even she is consumed with deep bitterness and disappointment. “The main problem,” she writes, “is that while collapse [of the government] is inevitable, we will not see it in our lifetime. That’s a pity, because we would like to.” A profound sense of hopelessness pervades the book, and readers come to know someone who loves her country yet grieves over its inability to overcome its abuses and predicaments.
Russians will probably never read this book because of government censorship —and because of citizens’ support for the restriction of freedom of speech and of the press, which is at 82 percent, according to a 2005 poll by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center. Politkovskaya surmises that such sentiment stems from the blatant sex and violence on television, which people abhor. Censorship of the press, however, prevents citizens from obtaining information and understanding the nation’s politics, including its dealing with Russia’s current nemesis, Chechnya.
Ms. Politkovskaya provides a sobering view of what an ebbing and unchecked social contract between government and its citizens looks like.
In his foreword to the book, Scott Simon, host of National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition Saturday,” honors Politkovskaya by recognizing that she did not do her journalistic work for “money, notoriety, or advancement, but the struggle for the survival of her country….” In fact, she stayed in Russia even though she could have left quite easily. This makes the book all the more compelling. She expresses her attitude in a postscript:
The more I think about it, the more I would be betraying these people if I walked away. The only thing to do is to take this to the bitter end, so that no one can say that when things became difficult, I ran away.