MOSCOW — Of all the days in the year, Anna Politkovskaya had to be killed on Oct. 7.
She was an insanely brave reporter — one of those people who seem to lack the very capacity for fear — who spent her professional life writing about injustice and had for years been reporting mostly from and about Chechnya.She was shot dead in, or near, the elevator of her apartment building six years ago.
There were more people who had means, motive and opportunity to kill her than any investigator could know what to do with: because of her crusading and reckless ways, she had made many enemies who had guns and long memories.
And then there was the fact that Politkovskaya was killed on Oct. 7, the birthday of President Vladimir Putin of Russia. To the conspiracy-minded, this was clear evidence that Politkovskaya, who had written articles and bookshighly critical of Putin — the president then, too — had been killed on his orders. To the even more conspiracy-minded, it was evidence that she was not killed on his orders. Only someone out to set the president up to look like the killer would have staged the murder on his birthday.
Putin himself aided both conspiracy theories by first keeping conspicuously silent about the killing and then four days later, when pushed during a press conference in Germany, dismissing Politkovskaya as having had little influence inside Russia and claiming that her murder did more harm to his regime than her writing ever could.
Politkovskaya was not the first journalist to be murdered in Putin’s Russia; the country has consistently been ranked by the Committee to Protect Journalists as one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a reporter. Nor was it the most brutal killing in recent years. But in part because the victim was a woman, in part because the murder occurred in broad daylight, and in part because it took place on Putin’s birthday, Politkovskaya’s death signaled a turning point for many people.
“I had thought journalists do not get murdered,” a very close friend of mine wrote on her Facebook page today. At the time of Politkovskaya’s murder, my friend was a reporter in her 20s, and it was the day she stopped feeling invincible. It was also the day when I told my children, then five and eight, that journalists sometimes get killed. The next day we attended a protest, and either by design or because it was organized so fast, it was silent. My five-year-old daughter asked me: “Why aren’t we screaming?”
There was a small rally on Sunday to commemorate Politkovskaya’s death in the same park as the protest six years ago. There were rallies in other Russian cities as well, and flowers were laid at the building where Politkovskaya lived and died.
On national television, meanwhile, Putin celebrated his 60th birthday with an unusual interview recorded over the course of several days. He commented on the jailed members of the punk group Pussy Riot (“They got what they wanted”), on the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky (if he wants to get out of jail, he should ask to be pardoned) and even on leaders of the protest movement (he is not mad at them even though they have been rude).
He said nothing about Anna Politkovskaya. Still, for the rest of his life, on the day Vladimir Putin celebrates his birthday, it is his slain critic many of us will be remembering.