Moscow: As in life, Anna's murder brought to the fore Putin's "humor of a sniper" Print E-mail
 October 15, 2006 

A journalist's revelations, in life and in death

C. J. Chivers The New York Times

MOSCOW In death as in life, Anna Politkovskaya proved adept at exposing modern Russia's dark side.
Politkovskaya, 48, was a special correspondent for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta and an author of books that documented crimes and callousness in the war in Chechnya. She was also a tireless critic of the Kremlin and President Vladimir V. Putin, a role she kept at even as other anti-Kremlin voices here were muzzled under Putin's centralized rule.
She was killed on Oct. 7, shot with a pistol in the body, and then in the head - the finishing touch delivered in a coldly efficient form of murder that is known in the grim jargon of Russian police officers and criminals as a "controlling shot."
Investigators and her colleagues say her death had been contracted to silence her work. It led to international outpourings of sorrow, and demands for an honest investigation to bring the killers before the bar. President Bush made one such call.
The story could have stalled there, but it did not. Here in Russia, as friends and co-workers buried her last week, Politkovskaya seemed to remain busy lifting the veil off just the side of Russia that she had fought against.
With her killers at large and no clear evidence of who had ordered her death, speculation swirled that official Russia had sent hit men her way. Russian officials, it seemed, did not know how to react.
Putin first treated the event, which was given significant air time on even his state-controlled news, with a three-day silence, as other world leaders expressed condolences.
The Kremlin's silence seemed to scream. When at last he spoke, having been prodded at a news conference in Germany, Russia's president used the occasion to insult her. "The level of her influence on political life in Russia was utterly insignificant," he said.
Meanwhile, Putin's main proxy in Chechnya and a frequent subject of Politkovskaya's writing, the Chechen prime minister, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, proclaimed his innocence in a manner perhaps never before heard from a premier's lips. He could not have killed her, he effectively said, because the record would show that he had never killed a woman before.
"I did not kill women and I never kill them," he said on national television.
Normally, little is less difficult in statecraft than the protocol of condolence. Officials the world over routinely pause to reflect upon the deaths of figures with whom they share the public stage. Often the displays seem scripted. Sometimes they feel sincere. Rarely are they outright bungled.
For official Russia, Politkovskaya's killing posed problems. The Kremlin faced the memory of a journalist who was celebrated abroad, but whom it had tried to make a nonperson at home.
Her commentary on Russian television had long ago ceased, as dissenters were forced from the air by Putin's brand of message management. And her books, translated into several languages, are almost impossible to find here, echoing the days of samizdat.
The Kremlin was stuck. They had done what they could to push Politkovskaya and her lot to the margins. And her message stalked them past her end. Then came Putin's biting remark.
Masha Gessen, another Moscow writer who has maintained her criticism of the Kremlin, reacted with anger. "The murder has exposed him, with unprecedented clarity, as a callous, cruel and cynical man," she wrote in The Moscow Times.
Thus the week's mourning trailed off with a familiar feel about the Russian president and his circle, a group that exudes power and confidence in one moment, petulance and unease the next.
Putin's public appearances often reveal a president with an alert, disciplined mind. His command of detail can seem Clintonesque. But he is also prone to acidic asides, often painfully timed, that reveal all the humor of a sniper.
His gaffes have become a small canon. In 2000, Larry King asked him about what happened to the Kursk, a submarine that under mysterious circumstances had ended up disabled on the sea bed with its entire crew dead. "It sank," Putin said.
Two years later, at a news conference in Brussels, a French reporter asked him a pointed question about Chechnya. Putin suggested that the reporter might want to become a radical Islamist, and invited him to Moscow for a circumcision, saying he could recommend a procedure so that nothing would grow back.
The remark did nothing to dispel perceptions that sanctioned cruelty had run amok in Chechnya, a world that Politkovskaya labeled, in a book title, "A Small Corner of Hell."
For Politkovskaya, who journeyed repeatedly into that place, the price was her life. From her flower-covered casket, her breath stopped by bullets, she offered once again a peek at the Kremlin's heart. To those who mourned her, it looked like ice.