October 7, 2016
Anna Politkovskaya has a question for Pence and Trump; had she not been assassinated ten years ago today, she’d be the one to ask it
by Ian Dreiblatt
As we mentioned last week, today marks the tenth anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya’s assassination. Politkovskaya, a ferocious journalist at Russia’s Novaya Gazyeta newspaper, became well-known for her trenchant-but-calm reporting style, vigorous critique of the human rights abuses associated with Russia’s war against Chechan separatists, and, ultimately, her presumably state-instigated murder at the age of forty-eight. It happened to come on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s birthday.
Politkovskaya certainly knew she’d been doing dangerous work: she was poisoned at least once, and had been subjected to threats of rape and a mock execution by Russian soldiers in Chechnya. And she knew she’d made powerful enemies: just a few days before her death, in an interview with Radio Free Europe, she said of Moscow’s puppet in Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who was turning thirty as she spoke, “Personally I only have one dream for Kadyrov’s birthday: I dream of him someday sitting in the dock, in a trial that meets the strictest legal standards, with all of his crimes listed and investigated.”
Her murder, nonetheless, was shocking: Russia’s most prominent and revered journalist, shot four times in the lobby of her own Moscow apartment building. Remembrances have rolled in over the years—among the most moving is Masha Gessen’s from the sixth anniversary of the killing—and in recent days, a number of tributes have appeared. In the Nation, editor Katrina vanden Heuvel declared her “a great and courageous journalist,” and congratulated those in Russia who “continue against great odds, honoring Anna Politkovskaya’s work and life, to publish and resist.” At the Guardian, Shaun Walker called Politkovskaya’s “the murder that killed free media in Russia,” while Irina Borogan profiled several young women following in her big journalistic footsteps, and Lana Estemirova, whose mother, Grozny-based human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, was a close friend and colleague of Politkovskaya’s (and was herself assassinated several years later), shared some moving personal remembrances.
Five years ago, Melville House published Is Journalism Worth Dying For?, a volume of Politkovskaya’s final dispatches, translated by Arch Tait. The book covers a range of subjects — Putin’s war on media freedom and the details of Russia’s ongoing conflict with separatists in the republic of Chechnya, of course, but there’s much more. Politkovskaya’s funnier, more personal side emerges: she praises Colin Powell as a wearer of “magnificently long” socks, and at one point uses the words “non-stop urination machine” (though, in fairness they are employed to describe a dog). In a particularly bracing passage, Politkovskaya documents her attempt to ask Tony Blair a version of the very same question that’s recently been put to Donald Trump and Mike Pence.
The Secret of Claridge’s. What Did the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Novaya Gazeta’s Columnist Talk About Over Lunch?
London, April 30, 2001. The city was unwelcoming. People waiting for spring were still faced with driving rain, a cold, bitter wind, a never-ending twilight, an autumn that couldn’t be shaken off despite the May tulips lining the avenues in the park.
The weather was a fitting background to the task I had set myself: having flown to the British capital, how was I to get the answer to a question I wanted to ask Tony Blair, Prime Minister of this influential island kingdom? Why, for some time now, has he been on such good terms with President Putin? What are the qualities in Putin he finds so appealing?
Any Russian journalist knows that to get an interview with a head of government you need the patience of a saint. In Moscow, miracles do not happen—such is the nature of the Kremlin—but in London on the morning of April 30 I received a personal invitation to the traditional annual launch of the London Press Club, founded in 1882, with the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Remarkably, I had not made a huge effort to get this invitation. I was just handed it. For 12.30 at Claridge’s, a grand old London hotel. So why not go?
The miracles did not end there, at least in the view of this citizen of the Russian Federation. At 12:20 there was nobody at the entrance to Claridge’s other than an elderly commissionaire wearing a heavy grey wool uniform and a high Dickensian hat. It is customary for the commissionaries of very expensive London hotels to be grey-haired elderly gentlemen who would have been retired long ago in Russia.
The commissionaire opened the door of my taxi and suggested that, if I was coming for the lunch with the Prime Minister, I would find it more convenient to use a different nearby door. I knew what he was up to. He was surreptitiously directing me to a queue where the British security services would filter would-be guests. They have their own, Irish, terrorists to worry about, after all.
So I marched through the main entrance, and soon realized I had got it wrong. All the aged commissionaire had wanted was to show me a shorter and more convenient route to the Prime Minister. I returned specially to my starting point to check and, while I was at it, looked around to see which rooftops the snipers were on.
There were none. Neither were there any lantern-jawed, shaven-headed security guards with searching scowls, or the bleeping metal-detector framed through which anyone in Russia is obliged to pass if they are likely to be within a kilometre of anywhere the President might show up.
At 12:45 Tony Blair arrived. At 12:50 the gong sounded for lunch. At 2:00 p.m. promptly we took our seats. My table was next to the Prime Minister’s. We tucked in to the starter, duck in aspic with milk sauce. Not bad but, to be honest, not that special either. Mr Blair was chasing it across his large plate, just like me.
The diners got on with their duck, and the gentlemen, all of them what in Russia we would call “directors of the media,” made no attempt to disturb the Prime Minister’s meal. Nobody ran up to him to ask questions while he was pretending to enjoy the starter.
At 13:19 Dennis Griffiths, the Chairman of the London Press Club, introduced Tony Blair to the guests and invited him to speak. What he had to say was intriguing, but for the most part consisted of declaring his love for the press and joking about the fact that he was wearing spectacles for the first time in his life.
A ripple of laughter ran over the tables and people clapped.
At 13.35, while Blair was still speaking from an improvised podium, orderly rows of waiters glided into the room bearing enormous plates. This was the main dish. Everybody got the same: A small piece of extremely tender braised or boiled pink salmon, with three tiny potatoes, a couple of sprigs of sweet basil, and a modest pile of kidney beans.
Blair, who as everybody knows recently had a fourth child, sat down and set about his salmon in exactly the way the hard-up father of four children would in Russia. The Prime Minister got through his diminutive piece of pink fish rapidly and with obvious relish.
He was now free, and I mounted my attack. The path to him was straight and clear, obstructed only by the remains of the first course and Blair’s press secretary, Alistair Campbell, a former popular columnist of one of the London newspapers. Alistair, however, was eating his fish, and everything was in place.
The response of the Prime Minister of Great Britain to my inquiry regarding the nature of his affection for Putin was brief but comprehensive. He replied, “It’s my job as Prime Minister to like Mr Putin.” And that was that. What more was to be said? The chef’s job is to cook the fish; the doctor’s job is to remove an appendix; the job of one head of state is to demonstrate how much he likes another head of state. It’s as simple as that.
At 14.10 speeches by members of the Press Club began and continued until 14.45. Blair listened politely. At 14.50 he quietly left, as had been previously announced in the program. There were no standing ovations or elaborate farewells. It was all very understated and British.
At this point dessert was brought in: tea or coffee and a piece of chocolate praline gâteau with coffee-flavoured custard. The Prime Minister was leaving but turned to the tables one last time. He glanced sadly at the unattainable plates of gâteau which the waiters, seemingly oblivious to the head of their government, were carrying past.
Everybody has a job to do, and nobody should try to stop them. That really is the British attitude. If a waiter is bringing diners their gâteau you get out of his way, even if you are the Prime Minister.
Happy birthday, Vladimir Vladimirovich. We know just what Anna would have wished for you.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.