Radio Free Europe commemorated the first anniversary of the murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskay on Thursday, October 4th at their headquarters in downtown Prague. Thanks to Dinah Spritzer, my journalism professor, I was able to attend this gathering, which served as both a remembrance and an analysis of the issues plaguing free speech in Russia today.
Politkovskay was gunned down in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building in 2006, at the age of 48. To this day, no progress has been made in the investigation. (Alexander Litvinenko, the former FSB agent and Russian dissdent, later accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of masterminding her death; Litvinenko later died under mysterious circumstances in London after being poisoned with radioactive polonium.)
The event started with a “video tribute” to Politkovskaya, a phrase when seen in the program of events caused me to immediately think of the Oscar Death Montage usually seen at the Academy Awards.
The actual tribute to Politkovskaya came afterwards, when her former employer at her newspaper in Russia appeared, twenty feet tall, on a plus-size video screen in the front of the conference room. He asked everyone to take down the number of Politkovskaya’s old cell phone, the number having been purchased by the paper and would be answered by reporters for the following three days.
It was hard to tell through his ruddy Russian complexion, but judging by the sound of his voice, he was close to tears.
“There is no one to replace her,” he said.
To her enemies, his words were vitriolic. “Now let them be afraid,” he said in regards to the Russian secret police he accused of covering up the true circumstances of her murder.
He told the assemblage he hoped those responsible for her murder would be caught and sent to prison, so he could look them in the eye and say, “Be you cursed.”
The other interesting moment of the morning came when Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek took to the podium and delivered a rather generic speech about the importance of press freedom. Afterwards, he agreed to two questions – and for the second, Dinah leapt to her feet.
And Dinah proceeded to attempt to skewer the Czech Prime Minister for hypocracy. Topolanek, you see, was recently quoted as suggesting press freedoms be curtailed in response to unprofessionalism on the part of the Czech press – such as being manipulated by Topolanek’s opponents and printing misinformation about him. (See it here. )
(Just for the record, Topolanek recently left his wife to shack up with his partner-in-infidelity, former colleague in the Czech parliament, Lucie Talmanova. She was pregnant with his child while he was still married; their son was born in July. Amazingly to an American, no one here really seems to give a shit.)
Dinah pointed out the complete disparity between Topolanek’s prior comments and what he’d just said to the journalists before him. For his part, Topolanek probably should have been expecting something like that – but it didn’t stop him from disavowing his previous remarks and blasting Dinah’s behavior as an example of bad journalism.
Nor did it stop me from sliding into my seat a little bit.
Now, for the record, I love seeing journalists nail politicians to the wall, I really do. And I am very proud of Dinah for standing up for doing what she thought was right. To be honest, I was tempted to do it myself. What stopped me, though, was that I just don’t feel like doing it at what amounts to a memorial service is the best place to do it. Now Politkovskay probably would have condoned of Dinah’s actions; after all, she spent her career fighting Vlad Putin and his lying government cronies. It’s just something I don’t think I would have done at this stage in my life.
(However, it did make the papers.)
The rest of the morning (and sadly, spilling over into early afternoon) was hardly exciting, if tolerably interesting. Here’s what I learned, paraphrased:
Journalistic freedom is rapidly declining in Russia.
The Russian secret police FSB, the KGB’s successor, can quite literally get away with murder in the Motherland.
Vlad is an evil, evil man who will crush anyone in his way. And he had his heart set on creating a new Soviet Union.
Freedom of speech is on the decline there. Gestapo tactics on the rise. (Anyone remember the incident in Beslan in 2004 when nearly 400 people – mostly women and children – were killed when Chechen terrorists held the school hostage and Russian security forces opened fire after three days of siege?)
And perhaps most worrisome, the Russian people don’t seem to mind. In fact, Vlad’s popularity is quite high in Russia – nearly 80 percent, according to local news sources. (See more here.) Western influence is lessening every day as the Kremlin grows stronger. Of course, many American policies such as the missile defense shield don’t do much to help, but ultimately, the tension is caused by those in Moscow.
The Cold War might have ended, but memories run longer than winters in Russia. Many of those who remember the days long before glasnost and peretroika are still in positions of power, and they’d like nothing more than to see the former USSR returned to its superpower status. Economic systems rise and fall, but the lure of power is forever.
Or as one panelist said, “Neither West nor God can help this country overcome the problems that it faces.”