Over the last ten years, Russia has emerged from one of the unfortunate victims of the 1998 financial crisis to become a strong, almost fearsomely assertive country. Much of this is thanks to Vladimir Putin, a man who has won and maintained near mythical popularity by doing his best to “make Russia strong.” While this has resulted in a steady erosion of civil liberties, health indicators, rural development, and stalled overall GDP growth, his popularity even after relinquishing the Presidency remains as high as ever. Why is this? Anna Politkovskaya—one of the many journalists whose murder in Russia will never be solved—pondered this in her 2004 opus Putin’s Russia; four years later, Steve LeVine uses her book as a sort of jumping off point to more fully investigate the depths to which Russia has sunk.
For one, discussing Russia’s decent into autocracy is difficult, for one is often accused of simply being anti-Russia: a consequence born in part of the West’s deliberate attempt to “humble” the country after the Cold War, but also born of a strong patriotism that rejects criticism. It is doubtful anyone could reasonably accuse Politkovskaya of being unpatriotic, however—despite the gloom and near-depression of her account of the slow demise of democracy, she does so with disappointment in what her country had become, and not any ideological opposition to it.
Indeed, in story after story, her charge is that the state, rather than being unnecessary or not worthwhile, is simply behaving atrociously, whether in the ways it treats its soldiers and their families or the ways in which it enables the wealthy to seize whatever they deem fit. Corruption is a constant theme—the complicity of judges in particular rankles—and this corruption is what gets at the heart of her anger.
That being said, it would be shallow to call Politkovskaya’s work a polemic. Though a crie de cœur, it is no attack piece, save on Putin himself for enabling such abuse. This framework informs LeVine’s book, which catalogues the many ways Putin is not necessarily himself complicit in the murders of dissidents and journalists, but has created a permissive environment.
Politkovskaya herself was a victim of just such an environment: in late November, after surviving a crippling poisoning attempt years before on her way to document the tragic Beslan massacre, she was gunned down at her apartment in Moscow. And here we get at the heart of LeVine’s complaint against Russia: despite Politkovskaya’s popularity in the west—she is the recipient of numerous awards for press freedom and courage—it is unlikely her murder will ever be solved. Not because it is unsolvable, but because no one in charge wishes to solve it.
LeVine documents this pattern in his typically engrossing style: though sparked by the poisoning murder of Alexander Litvinenko (poisoning seems to be a favorite technique of the Russians, as if this were still the 19th century), he goes into great depth about the history of Moscow’s penchant for political murder, reaching back to the early days of the Cold War. Indeed, while Politkovskaya highlights many more examples of Russia’s collapsing social institutions, LeVine goes into far more depth. And, perhaps because he is writing in his native language and not being filtered by a translator, his book is extremely readable—the 166 pages fly by like a spy novel. Much like The Oil and the Glory, LeVine’s work is based mostly on interviews he conducted with the actors involved, presenting an intensely personal accounting of the events.
While this is disappointingly short in some respects, I would wager this stems more from a comprehensive lack of access—who could get useful on-the-record official statements about this sort of thing?—than anything else. Unlike a polemic, LeVine openly expresses skepticism of all the accounts he is given, which is a healthy instinct: even Politkovskaya seemed unable to accept that some of the people whose abuses she catalogued and attacked might have their own story to tell, or that her victims might be exaggerating their experiences. In this, LeVine does everyone a tremendous service by not only showing that every escapee from Russia cannot be taken immediately at their word, but also that blaming Putin for every single crime might be mistaken.
Indeed, the deeper story seems to be that events in Russia are actually out of anyone’s control. Maybe, perhaps with a strong and painful crackdown from on high, the corrupt police and judicial agents might be reigned in, but given the ways wealth and power have been structured in Russia, such a thing is highly unlikely. Everyone with money and power benefits from the system, and few of the poorer people seem willing to change it. (Interestingly, in one of the book’s more touching moments, Politkovskaya documented a friend of hers, and the way in which newfound wealth had profoundly corrupted her.)
Thus, the long string of murdered reporters, activists, and plain old dissidents continues apace. The foreign success of these killings is alarming—Litvinenko was killed in London—but it unfortunately seems par for the course. It is probably too early to be talking of the New Soviet in Moscow, but not by much: Putin seems to have learned his lesson from the Chinese, and quite well: so long as the people are kind of prospering, they will tolerate any number of injustices in the name of a strong Russia. It is a great loss Ms. Politkovskaya was a victim of this system. But so long as people like LeVine continue to highlight the system’s consequences. perhaps even within Russia itself, then there is reason to hope that one day it might change.