Worldwide Reading — In Memoriam of Anna Politkovskaya

After the death of Anna Politkovskaya on 7 October 2006, many thought that the incident would be buried and forgotten in just a couple of weeks, and that only relatives and close ones would retain her memory.As it happens, Anna’s name is mentioned at press conferences, in speeches, articles, and books.

On 20 March 2007, readings in memory of Anna Politkovskaya took place in more than 50 cities in 20 countries throughout the world, — from Finland to Australia; from Sudan to Colombia. Excerpts from her books were read out in various languages.

The Finnish PEN Club was one of the organisers of the event in Helsinki. Several Finnish poets and politicians, including Heidi Hautala, MP (Greens), read out passages from Politkovskaya’s last book, “A Russian Diary”.

PEN Club’s President, Jukka Mallinen, knew Anna Politkovskaya personally and assisted her on her visits to Finland. In his interview with “Spektr Nedeli”, Jukka Mallinen recalls Anna and ponders about the situation in today’s Russia, which in many ways gave rise to the “Politkovskaya phenomenon”.

Q: What was your personal experience of talking with Anna Politkovskaya? How many times did you meet? In your opinion, did she change in between the meetings? What was your experience?

A: We met a dozen times: in London, Finland, Moscow, and Norway. I accompanied her twice on her tours in Finland as a translator at public events and on television. I think we found it easy to understand each other, given that we both studied at the “dissident”Moscow State University in the 1970s, where freedom was the most important thing. My daughter has one of Anna’s books, which she signed “To Potuli, the daughter of my favourite translator.”

In 2001, Anna was still full of hope. But after the hostage crisis in Beslan, she turned gloomier, dispondent, and stopped believing in a rational solution to the Chechen problem. She was enraged at the passivity of Russians and especially at the hipocrisy of Western leaders. She was, of course, absolutely right!

She was christened according to the Orthodox tradition and believed in God. Her faith was, however, more akin to general human values; it was “fighting humanism”, which had little to do with “official”, state-sponsored religiosity. She felt that she had to follow Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. She found great consolation in the sermon’s text.


Q: Evidently, Anna had charisma. What were the characteristics of her charisma on the personal level? What made people turn to her, and what turned them away from her?

A: She reacted, spoke, and thought quickly and directly. She knew how to explain complex and horrible things clearly, logically, and without hesitation, — and get to the point. She was a very interesting personality; one felt her courage and, at the same time, her humility.She did not make an issue out of herself; the so-called Slavic pathos and sentimentality were foreign to her. She was an avid conversationist, characterised by excellent Jewish humour. She wasjust: she never demanded any rights without due reason. I do not think respectable people found anything in Anna that would have turned them away from her.


Q: I would like to think that there are many respectable people among journalists; otherwise the world would look too gloomy. Why do you think it fell upon Anna Politkovskaya to symbolise freedom of speech and honest journalism — besides her personal character, that is? Did those who supported her or opposed her have any influence in this? Or was it simply by chance?

A: Anna thought of herself as a regular journalist. She was focused on digging out the truth, on principles, not on self-admiration. She became a symbol mostly because of her fate. The war in Northern Caucasus is an open wound, crying out for attention. This epochal problem sheds light on a lot of things around us. If people are envious of her fame, let them write about the problems of humanity with the same courage as Anna did; then they will share her fame.


Q: How did Anna take to criticism and attacks against her?

A: With extreme tranquility, like a person tempered back in the 1970s.She understood perfectly who was who, and so do we. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote once: “The nation needs to know its snitches.”


Q: According to an old Russian saying, one must speak well of the dead or not at all. Do you think this saying is compatible with the principle of free speech?

A: The saying dates back to the Romans. To speak ill of those who have passed away is improper, but truth is above civility. Critical and objective discussion between decent people serves the interest of truth, which is absolutely in line with Anna’s life work. Campaigns designed to discredit and spread disinformation about her — something we have witnessed in Finland as well — are very different in nature.Let us be quite clear about this.


Q: Do you think one can talk about a “Politkovskaya phenomenon”, similarly to, say, the “Che Guevara phenomenon”, where the memory of someone’s personal charecteristics exists independently of the symbolic importance of his/her name and person?

A: This is a very interesting question. There is, for instance, the “Mother Theresa phenomenon”; one can name many people that are regarded as “icons” in the West. The emergence of “icons” is fuelled by the mechanisms of modern “glamour” journalism. Obviously, when someone turns into an “icon”, the diversity and complexity of his/her character is often forgotten or undergoes a metamorphosis. On the other hand, naive cult symbols reflect the yearning that ordinary people have for justice and spirituality, for true democracy. Anna Politkovskaya was not the first and not the last who would best be remembered as a person, not as an “icon” on the media market.


Q: The scarcity of freedom of speech in Russia has two sides: in television, there is direct censorship, whereas in printed media, there is a serious lack of demand for alternative information; newspapers exist, but there are no readers. Do you think the low demand for critical information is the result of the avalanche of negative reporting in the early 1990s, when the words “freedom of speech” came to equal “trash”?

A: I think people are simply dead tired in Russia; they have not had a moment of rest since 1985. Russians were bombarded with one catastrophe after another more than any other nation in our times.This is why people wish to retreat to their private lives; this is why there is no social activism to speak of. Journalists are to blame as well. I just finished translating an interesting book by Valery Panyushkin, “Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Prisoner of Silence”. Panyushkin writes that Russian journalism betrayed its principles and “sold itself to serfdom” in 1996, when everyone was happy to spread disinformation to assure the reelection of President Boris Yeltsin.Panyushkin regrets this very strongly. All mechanisms of disinformation, spreading dirt, and internal censorship were created by oligarchs to serve their interests back in 1996. This effectively ended press freedom. Afterwards, the “siloviki” [ruling elite linked to Russia’s security police] simply confiscated the ready instruments together with all channels of information, and began to use the mechanisms even more aggressively to serve their own interests.


Q: “Democracy”, “human rights”, and “freedom of speech” are concepts that have a literal meaning in the West, whereas in Russia, they remain largely theoretical. The words can even disturb many Russians when they are mentioned too many times. Many Western journalists have noted the growing rejection of the West and its values in Russia. Do you think the West is partly to blame in that “democracy” first came associated with jeans and sausage, and then for many came to mean the ruin, criminality, and dirt of Russian society?

A: In today’s economic system, jeans, sneakers, and Pepsi cannot be banned. One cannot ban imported cars, European interior design, laptop computers, or mobile handsets, either. All these attributes of popular culture disturb me no less than the average Russian. However, I do think that every normal person realises that democratic values are one thing, and the “brutal face of capitalism” is quite another. Russia is a sovereign nation, where people are free to choose the ideas they believe in, and the West has no real say in this. Let me just say that one can choose to believe in the uniqueness of the Russian nation, in the superiority of the Russian culture; in Eurasianism, xenophobia, rejection of the West, etc. Unfortunately, all this has nothing to do with being Russian. Take a look at German history in 1925-1933.Germans have grown out of these sort of theories; one can discern amazing parallels between German and Russian history.


Q: The first thing Democrats in the United States tell their foreign guests is that not everyone votes Republican, only a half of voters.Should we not try to separate the concepts of “Russia” and “Russian government”? More so, given that the results of the recent regional elections clearly demonstrate that such a separation has already taken place?

A: Exactly! When I hear someone babble about the “historical inclination of Russians toward serfdom”, I always raise my voice to say that Russia is a nation of great dissidents; from Protopope Avvakum to [Cossack insurrectionist] Yemelyan Pugachev; from [social critic] Aleksandr Radishchev to the Decabrist rebels; from Leo Tolstoy to Aleksandr Herzen; from Vladimir Nabokov to Andrey Sakharov; from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to Joseph Brodsky. We had almost nothing of the sort here in Scandinavia. Russian culture attained great heights because people always had to pay a high price for freedom to be themselves, for freedom to do creative work.

The government? Stalin had no nationality; Count Alexander von Benckendorff had no nationality. I do not think those from St Petersburg who now inhabit the corridors of power in the Kremlin, and because of whom the good name of Russia’s “Northern Capital” has been mired in ill repute, have any national adherence.

I do not think that Russians living in Finland would be wise in letting President Vladimir Putin’s regime — the “Power Vertical” — to manipulate their ethnicity and soil their reputation. One cannot identify people with their government and those that wield state power at any given moment.

At the time of the so-called Finlandisierung [Finland’s pro-Soviet foreign policy] in the 1970s, anyone who was concerned about the democratic rights of the peoples of the Soviet Union, was labeled as anti-Soviet. Now the label is “Russophobe”. In fact, those concerned about the fate of Russians and Russian culture can have greater claims against the Russian government than someone else.

Finns well understand that those “Russian-speakers in civilian clothes” who tried to disturb Heidi Hautala’s preelection meetings, did not represent Finland’s Russian and Russian-speaking community, but altogether different interests: the “Company”.

However, the existence of such corrupt marginal figures does not in any way justify violations of Finnish legislation, which bans discrimination. In regard to the rights of ethnic minorities, immigrants, and tolerance, Finnish legislation is not bad. I am, however, shocked to learn that the laws are only applied partly. This is why I always try to speak Russian in the street, even though I may rather be mistaken for a person from the Caucasus or Central Asia than a Russian.

I almost died from shame when I learned that the great Belarusian writer Vasil Bykov decided that he and his wife would no longer speak Russian in Helsinki’s underground due to the aggressive reactions this aroused in some of the co-passengers. (Bykov lived two years in Helsinki, having been forced to leave Belarus because of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s policies. He had tried to defend the Belarusian language and national consciousness.) What was most grotesque was that Bykov did not speak Russian, but Belarusian!


Translation: Kerkko Paananen

Spektr Nedeli

(Finland), Nr.12/ 26 March – 1 April 2007, p. 7


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