By Elena Milashina
Despite the assassinations of many of her colleagues, Russia’s award-winning investigative journalist Elena Milashina forges into dangerous territory in search of justice.
I clearly remember the day I learned that my friend and coworker, Anna Politkovskaya, had been murdered. I was in my office working on the upcoming issue of Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s most prominent independent newspaper. At 6pm Editor-in-Chief Dmitry Muratov announced that Anna had been shot one hour before.
The news was shocking, and yet absolutely predictable. Like many of us at Novaya Gazeta, Anna had balanced on the borders of life and death for a very long time—so long that we had grown accustomed to the threat of her death.
It was October 7, 2006. Anna, who was then Russia’s most famed journalist, was assassinated outside her apartment. It was a contract killing, and we all understood why it had happened; authorities in both Russia and Chechnya, threatened by our paper’s investigative and critical reporting, had declared journalists at Novaya Gazeta their enemies. Anna was at the top of that list. She was one of only a few who continued to report on Chechnya, that problematic region where two wars for independence ended in the most severe totalitarian regime ever established and blessed by Moscow.
By 2006, most journalists had simply stopped going to Chechnya, instead writing fables about the supposed stability Moscow forces had achieved in the region. But Anna would not back down. She wrote of the torture, abductions, and killings of innocent civilians at the hands of Russian and Chechen authorities, actions that have still gone unpunished. But she also dared to report that Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov and Russia’s Vladimir Putin were personally responsible for these unimaginable human rights abuses.
The night I learned of Anna’s death, I stayed up all night and thumbed through the archives of Novaya Gazeta, going back to 1999 when Anna started working for the paper. I searched through her articles to find her most important works. But Anna didn’t write anything unimportant. She wrote about people’s pain and grief, while ruthlessly criticizing Russian and Chechen authorities for their policies and actions. In total, Anna wrote 500 articles for Novaya Gazeta. And that’s why she was killed.
Not long before her death, Anna told me that she would soon be a grandmother, and that she would soon be pulling back from her work because “grandchildren make life worth living.” But she never met her first grandchild, who was born in February 2007 and who bore her name.
After her murder, I picked up where Anna left off and began traveling to Chechnya. At first I went on editorial assignments, but soon, after Novaya Gazeta deemed it too dangerous to assign journalists to the region, I went on my own accord. Despite the threats, I couldn’t stop myself; it had become a matter of principle.
In July of 2009, without telling anyone about my trip, I traveled to Chechnya to investigate reports of extrajudicial killings with my friend, human rights activist Natasha Estemirova. I will never forget my last conversation with her. It was the evening of July 13, just hours before I boarded a plane to return to Moscow. Deep into the night we discussed the situation in Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus.
At the end of the conversation, I told Natasha that the situation in Chechnya had become extraordinarily dangerous. “You need to leave,” I told her. “You have to stop for a while and take care of your 15-year-old daughter.” I recall that one of us even joked that it would be a shame if she were killed before she had the chance to write a book about Chechnya.
I departed for Moscow on July 14, while Natasha stayed behind. On July 15 Natasha was abducted and killed.
It has been nine months since Natasha’s murder. There is no doubt she was killed for exposing abuses by law enforcement and security agencies in Chechnya. We know who shot her, and who issued the order. The investigating officers know, too. But her killers are under the protection of the Kremlin and are untouchable. It is the same with Anna Politkovskaya’s case. After more than three years, no one has been punished.
People often ask me if it frightens me to do what I do, after so many of my friends and colleagues have been killed. Yes, I am afraid, but not for my own life. I intend to continue my work in Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus region. I’m more afraid of the consequences of not exposing the truth than I am of dying.
I remember how the world reacted to Anna’s murder. International leaders demanded that Russian authorities find and punish the guilty. International organizations declared the murder of a journalist an unacceptable abuse. People around the world took to the streets in memory of the fearless woman who was brutally murdered for doing her job.
And yet, what has changed? If anything, things are worse.
After Anna’s death, a new time of killing began in my country. Human rights activists and journalists are murdered in Russia with such frequency that news of the next victim no longer excites the world. In the last year alone six activists, political dissidents, and journalists were murdered. All of them worked toward a common goal: to hold Russian security forces accountable for the unlawful murder of civilians in the Northern Caucasus. I knew all six victims. Three of them were my friends. I know that none of these murders will be investigated.
This does not trouble or shame the Russian authorities. On the contrary, they encourage assassins by giving them government jobs and granting them legal immunity.
It remains that journalists and human rights activists who still dare to speak the truth are a headache for the Russian authorities. They look to the strongest medicine available to escape accepting responsibility: assassination. A medicine like that is addictive. The Russian authorities are hooked on it.
But still the world is silent. And the silence scares me more than anything else.
—Translated by Maria Jett