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S. Times: Never taking no for an answer (book review)

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  • Jeremy Putley
    The Sunday Times April 1, 2007 Never taking no for an answer Thomas de Waal A RUSSIAN DIARY by Anna Politkovskaya, translated by Arch Tait Harvill Secker
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 1, 2007
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      The Sunday Times
      April 1, 2007

      Never taking no for an answer
      Thomas de Waal
      A RUSSIAN DIARY by Anna Politkovskaya, translated by Arch Tait

      Harvill Secker £17.99

      Anna Politkovskaya, Russia's bravest human-rights journalist, who
      was murdered last October in Moscow, is generally described as a
      critic of Vladimir Putin. She was that, but so much more. Anna was
      one of the world's difficult people, who would not take "no" for an
      answer, in defending those whose rights had been trampled on –
      whether Chechen villagers, bullied Russian soldiers, orphans, the
      relatives of those killed in terrorist incidents. When I last saw
      her, at a conference in Sweden, shortly before her murder, she was
      castigating members of the Russian human-rights community for not
      doing enough to defend Chechens framed on dubious terrorist charges.

      Anna held everyone to the highest standards and found them wanting.
      She ruffled a lot of feathers and many Russians, Putin included,
      failed to utter words of sympathy following her death. But she was
      not arrogant, because the person she drove hardest was herself. She
      wrote solely for the low-circulation Novaya Gazeta newspaper because
      she was barred from appearing on Russian television. She received a
      huge daily postbag of letters from people who believed she alone
      could fight for their rights. She made dozens of exhausting trips to
      Chechnya. She also made frequent trips to the West to pick up
      journalistic awards – she was less interested in the prizes
      themselves than in the generally futile hope that she could use the
      occasion to persuade western governments to pay more attention to

      A Russian Diary, finished not long before her death, is the product
      of that frenetic life and makes for sombre reading. Day by day, Anna
      registers what she regards as Russia's slow surrender to a new
      corrupt autocracy. The "democrats" of the 1990s are ineffective and
      divided; Putin curbs or coopts the opposition; parliament stops
      debating real issues; the media is bought up by Kremlin-sponsored
      corporations; journalists sink into self-censorship; a nasty "war on
      terror" goes on in the south of the country, virtually unrecorded
      except by her and a few others.

      Some Russians mocked Anna for being relentlessly gloomy, turning a
      blind eye to Russia's return to "stability" and economic prosperity.
      At times she does see Russia merely as a prison of the KGB and its
      successor, the FSB. Yet her Cassandra-like warnings are being borne
      out. In some of the most compelling pages in the book, the author
      visits the 30-year-old Chechen boxer and alleged torturer Ramzan
      Kadyrov in his heavily fortified house. Kadyrov, whom she calls "the
      baby dragon", brags mafia-style, "It isn't a good idea to be one of
      my rivals. It isn't good for your health." Yet this man, who has
      been accused of involvement in Anna's murder, was recently appointed
      by Putin president of Chechnya.

      The overarching theme of this dark and powerful book is that Russia
      is a lawless place, where the powerful do as they wish. It leaves
      the reader with the bleak conviction that those who killed the
      author will not be brought to justice.

      Thomas de Waal works for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting
      in London. A Russian Diary is available at the Sunday Times Books
      First price of £16.19 (inc p&p) on 0870 165 8585
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