15.11.2006 | Nadezhda Azhgikhina

Prisoner of honour


What distinguished Anna Politkovskaya from the many correspondents writing about the North Caucuses was the way people in a never-ending flow came to her. Mothers of Russian soldiers and relatives of Chechen hostages, women and children, elderly veterans and refugees, those wronged, humiliated, not always completely adequate in their behaviour, and effectively not needed by anyone.

There were such people, of course, at other editorial desks and offices, but nonetheless it was Anna Politkovskaya that people tried most persistently to reach, because she always listened to their story. Even those who had been refused at all levels.  And one whom an Orthodox priest could not listen to.

Material sometimes came out of those conversations. Sometimes it didn’t, but the people, remaining invisible to the newspaper audience, often received not only moral, but also practical, help.  There were far more of those than official investigations launched after the publication of journalist writing.

And nobody knows exactly how many men and women did not fall into despair only because they knew that there was a place in Moscow that there could come to when there was nowhere to go.  A long time ago, thirty years ago, people went to the “old” “Komsomolka” and “Literaturka”*, to journalists whom they trusted.

Quite recently at one international meeting, dedicated to extreme journalism, colleagues from the BBC and NBC argued about whether a reporter from a “trouble spot” or place where a catastrophe had taken place could express their feelings before the cameras and try to help the victims. They spoke of journalists honoured with all kinds of prizes who commit suicide because they didn’t help dying children, refugees and the wounded whom they photographed and made their name on.

I thought then how different we are. When the question arises about helping those very African or Chechen or Ryazan children, our colleagues, some of course, get them treated, set up in schools, find money, and sometimes simply bring them from the war to their own homes, not at all seeing themselves as heroes.

Because for some, that’s obvious. Some precisely in that way, when still young and immature in the years of stagnation understood some kind of basis of professional behaviour and saw before them some examples of such behaviour in that terrible and unfree country.

Among these were quite a lot of women.

Whatever is said, there was and is women’s journalism. And it is continuing, to some extent, to rehabilitate our profession, reminding us of some old, fading into history, Russian literature and writers’ publicist works, of principles of serving society, of conscience, responsibility of personal choice and sympathy for the abandoned, the unsuccessful in life, those who have gone wrong.

They drive editors crazy, break out from the boundaries of genres and editorial policy, totally disregard the principle of political expediency and collective interest and foist on readers fed on pop culture some kind of not quite traditional priorities like the tear of a child** or personal responsibility of each person for what is happening around them. And these oddballs write about the war in the same way, noticing details and faces, which normal war correspondents pass by – sick children, elderly people lost in some ruins who’ve been forgotten about, soldiers taken prisoner, parents of civilian victims of military operations crushed with grief, and a lot more.

This is happening today not only in Russia, but practically throughout the world where journalists write about tragic events. And this view on events isn’t liked by everybody.

But without it, without that woman’s intent and impassioned view, the picture of the contemporary world is not complete. And while this remains, it would be premature to speak of the end of free journalism with a human face.

Obviously not all think this way, not in our professional community either. There are extremely different points of view on the development of contemporary Russian media, its role and influence in society. And each chooses the point of view closest to his or her own, just as they choose their own line of behaviour.

That choice and that journalism which Anna Polititkovskaya preferred is shared by an absolute minority of colleagues, that is true. Yet at the same time, it seems to me that to speak of the lack of significance of that experience would not be quite correct. Here our leaders have badly informed.

The history of Russian journalism and Russian writing in general knows of quite a number of examples of the fact that it is not the number of copies and proximity to the throne that defines the significance of words spoken and accents places, that even a solitary voice, reminding people of the importance of each, however unimportant in terms of political expediency, person can override the powerful state choir, and in the memory of those who follow, and in the hearts of those who valued honour, goodness and personal dignity. In that same meaning that existing in the times of Lermontov and Dostoevsky. It so happens that in recent times these concepts have been linked for many with women.

Galina Starovoitova, Larisa Yudina, Anna Politkovskaya. Very different. Very similar. Can we do something to ensure that this tragic list does not become longer?


*  these two newspapers were “Komsomolskaya gazeta” [“Komsomol newspaper”] and “Lteraturnaya gazeta” [“Literary newspaper”].  The newspapers – in name – still exist [translator’s note]

**  Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s novel asserts that all the knowledge in the world is not worth the tear of a child  [translator’s note]

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