By Sarah Hurst
The assassinations of three women in the Putin era shocked Russia, but led to no meaningful consequences. The first and best-known case was that of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had been exposing brutality in Chechnya and Putin’s repressions. In the light of the Ukraine war it is worth mentioning that Politkovskaya’s parents were Ukrainian – they were Soviet diplomats at the United Nations. Politkovskaya started writing for the liberal Novaya Gazeta in 1999.
Politkovskaya wrote extensively about the carnage caused by Russian troops in Chechnya. In 2001 she was detained by military officials in a village in Chechnya, beaten by Russian troops and subjected to a mock execution. When terrorists took hostages at a school in Beslan in September 2004, Politkovskaya tried to fly down to participate in negotiations, but she fell violently ill and lost consciousness after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant.
Nothing intimidated Politkovskaya into ceasing her activities. “We are hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum that spells death from our own ignorance,” she wrote. “All we have left is the internet, where information is still freely available. For the rest, if you want to go on working as a journalist, it’s total servility to Putin. Otherwise, it can be death, the bullet, poison, or trial – whatever our special services, Putin’s guard dogs, see fit.”
In her final interview Politkovskaya described Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov as the “Chechen Stalin of our days”. Politkovskaya was shot dead in the lift of her block of flats on October 7, 2006 – Putin’s birthday. She was 48. Five men were convicted of murdering her in May 2014, including three Chechen brothers. The organiser of the murder was not named.
On October 19, 2006 – 12 days after the murder – former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko was in the audience at a discussion at the Frontline Club in London. When Politkovskaya’s murder was mentioned, Litvinenko said: “Anna was killed by Mr. Putin, the president of the Russian Federation.” Politkovskaya and Litvinenko had been friends for three years, he said, and she had told him that she had received threats from Putin after the publication of her book “Putin’s Russia”. On November 1, Litvinenko was fatally poisoned with polonium by agents of Putin.
Anastasia Baburova was also a journalist with Novaya Gazeta, 25 years old when she was shot dead in Moscow on January 19, 2009. She and human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov, who was killed together with her, were leaving a press conference. Markelov, 34, had represented Politkovskaya. Baburova was born in Sevastopol, Crimea, and spoke Ukrainian as well as Russian. She was active in the anarchist environmental movement and had participated in a demonstration against the destruction of the Khimki forest to build a road. She had been investigating neo-Nazis for Novaya Gazeta.
In May 2011 a neo-Nazi couple, Nikita Tikhonov and Yevgenia Khasis, were sentenced to life imprisonment and 18 years in prison respectively for the murders of Baburova and Markelov. They were associated with the BORN group (Battle Organisation of Russian Nationalists). In 2015 another member of BORN, Ilya Goryachev, was sentenced in the case. The defendants themselves said that they received instructions from high-ranking officials in the Kremlin. One of those officials was said to be Pavel Karpov, named by Nadiya Savchenko’s defence lawyers as her kidnapper. Every year Moscow activists hold an anti-fascist march on the anniversary of the murders of Baburova and Markelov.
The third assassination of a woman was that of 51-year-old human rights activist Natalia Estemirova. She was abducted from her home in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, on July 15, 2009. Her remains were found in the woods with bullet wounds in the head and chest area. Estemirova was the widow of a Chechen policeman and had been gathering evidence on human rights violations since 1999. She was a representative of the Memorial human rights centre in Grozny and contributed to Novaya Gazeta. In October 2007 Estemirova was given the first Anna Politkovskaya Award by human rights organisation Reach All Women in War (RAW).
Memorial’s chairman, Oleg Orlov, said: “I know, I am sure who is guilty of Natalia Estemirova’s murder, we all know him. His name is Ramzan Kadyrov.” Kadyrov himself commented in 2010: “Estemirova’s murder was provoked by the people who murdered Politkovskaya and Litvinenko. I am pretty sure that that’s [Boris] Berezovsky’s job. Politkovskaya was speaking about Chechnya all the time. When everything became fine in our republic, and there was nothing to blame us for, it was the perfect time to kill her and shift the blame to Kadyrov to undermine the system.” No one has been charged with Estemirova’s murder. Ramzan Kadyrov is also the prime suspect in the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in February 2015.
First published on X-Soviet, 7 March 2016. Reprinted by kind permission