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Russia: Silencing Dissent

By Alexandra Poolos

In 2005, I interviewed Anna Politkovskaya about working as a journalist and a human rights activist in Russia. I remember how tired she sounded on the phone, but she was clearly committed to her work. She told me that she and other activists were motivated by a Russian theory of "little business."

"It's a special Russian theory that if you can't change the whole world, you need to do some little things to help specific people," she said.

Politkovskaya's devotion got me interested in reporting on the new Russia, one that is emboldened by oil revenues and capitalism but which is seeing a dramatic reversal of democratic reforms and human rights under President Vladimir Putin.

I traveled to Russia in March of 2006 to look at how a new nonprofit law was undercutting the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) across the country. Activists painted a grim picture, explaining to me that while Putin and his cronies tightly restricted the activities of all NGOS, many Russians were buying his propaganda campaign portraying them as agents of the West. Their work had clearly become more dangerous and less welcome in the new Russia. Then, in a shocking and unexpected turn, Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in October, before publishing an in-depth investigation of alleged government-sponsored torture in Chechnya.

protest photo

A protest in Russia

Politkovskaya's practice of little business had finally caught up with her. She was just about to meet her 28-year-old-son, Ilya, who works in a public relations firm in Moscow. I met Ilya for coffee in a Moscow shopping mall in January. Over coffee, he showed me photos of Politkovskaya and explained how he was still in a state of shock. "I am, of course, angry," he said. "But to me she was a mother first and then a journalist."

Politkovskaya is just one of 14 journalists killed since Putin came to power in 2000. Earlier this month, another journalist investigating the government "fell" out of his window.

I decided to travel back to Russia earlier this year to investigate the aftermath of Politkovskaya's murder and meet with other journalists and activists working in Chechnya. My first stop was Novaya Gazeta, the last of the independent newspapers in Russia. In the main editorial meeting room, three photos of slain journalists, including Politkovskaya, hang over a long table. Political editor Andrei Lipski took me on a tour of the offices, showing me the room where Politkovskaya worked on her in-depth pieces. "It was a feature of her character, the main character as a person, not only as a journalist: no compromise," he said.

Today, new reporters sit at Politkovskaya's desk. On the day I visited, they argued about stories, worked the phone lines and wrote while smoking furiously. "We have no time to be afraid," Lipski said. "We must work."

Radical changes have swept Russia under Putin's rule. The media is almost entirely controlled by the government; big business is effectively run by the Kremlin; and regional elections have been compromised. The NGO law is the latest attack against independent voices in Russia. But I found that the story of the new Russia -- one of increasing authoritarianism and repression -- was not being adequately covered by the media in the United States.

On my trip in January, I decided to look for other groups working in Chechnya. The continuing war there has become a real concern for many Russians, who face a mandatory military draft. I discovered the Russian Chechen Friendship Society, a group that had already been labeled as having terrorist affiliations for its work documenting abuses in Chechnya. I found out that leaders of the society were closely tied to Anna Politkovskaya, collaborating and sharing information.


Oksana Chelysheva

Oksana Chelysheva, a leader of the group, told me that she had become close friends with Politkovskaya and that they were about to share her database on torture in Chechnya. But Chelysheva says that, although her group has been targeted, most Russians don't want to know about the atrocities happening in Chechnya. "They know something horrible is going on there, but they don't want to know, because if they knew the details, they would have to make their choice to get involved or not, to be responsible," she said.

Chelysheva showed me her modest offices in Niznhy Novgorod, a small town about eight hours outside of Moscow. There I met some of her staff, including a Chechen woman who had been detained and tortured by Russian soldiers. The woman told me that without groups like the Russian Chechen Friendship Society people like her would be entirely forgotten.

"People who are in power now," said Chelysheva, "belong to this military clique. What they are trying to protect is their own self-interest. I would say right now we are living in an almost authoritarian state."

Toward the end of my visit, Chelysheva's group was called to trial at the Supreme Court in Moscow. Accused of terrorism, the group was quickly found guilty and ordered shut down. Immediately after the trial, Chelysheva and others called for an evening protest. About 30 people stood in the cold, holding banners, surrounded by security officers.

Leaders like Chelysheva see their work as a true continuation of Politkovskaya's and view her death as a motivation to continue exposing what is happening in Chechnya, no matter what the risks. Chelysheva says that her group will carry on its work under a name registered in Europe.

Despite being offered asylum in three different countries, Chelysheva says she's not ready to abandon Russia. "There is too much work to be done," she said.

Reporter Alexandra Poolos has worked for Radio Free Europe, National Public Radio, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, American Prospect magazine and Newsday. She has covered international stories in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Russia and Central Asia. She is currently based in New York.