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Symposium: To Kill a Russian Journalist By: Jamie Glazov
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, November 17, 2006

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The murder of internationally renowned Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in early October 2006 was yet another troubling sign of Russia’s retreat into its totalitarian past. Today Frontpage Symposium has gathered a distinguished panel of experts to discuss why Anna Politkovskaya was killed and what the tragic loss of her life symbolizes about the direction in which Vladimir Putin’s Russia is heading. Our guests are:

Andrei Piontkovsky, a member of International PEN-club, currently a Hudson Institute Visiting Fellow and author of Another Look into Putin’s Soul (Hudson.2006).

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Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, the former acting chief of Communist Romania’s espionage service. He is the highest ranking official ever to have defected from the Soviet bloc. He is author of Red Horizons, republished in 27 countries. In 1989, Ceausescu and his wife were executed at the end of a trial where most of the accusations had come word-for-word out of Pacepa's book.


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Yuri Yarim-Agaev, a former leading Russian dissident and a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Upon arriving in the United States after his forced exile from the Soviet Union, he headed the New York-based Center for Democracy in the USSR.


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FP: Andrei Piontkovsky, Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa and Yuri Yarim-Agaev, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.


Yuri Yarim-Agaev, let’s begin with you.


Tell us a bit about Anna Politkovskaya, her murder and what you believe her death symbolizes.


Yarim-Agaev: Let Andrei, who new Anna much better, speak about her. I will say only this. Anna Politkovskaya was a journalist well known around the world as a strong critic of Putin’s policy, particularly the war in Chechnya. She was murdered on October 7 in Moscow. I believe that in today’s Russia independent journalists are the most direct successors of dissidents of the Soviet era. So I am not surprised that they are the main target of the KGB, which is back in power.  The current KGB, though, feels too weak even to put its opponents through mock political trials. So they kill them in a cowardly way or cover up for their murderers.  Anna was shot in her elevator by professional killers who escaped.


As tragic as that murder was, no less disturbing is the absence of any significant reaction to it. The Russian Duma and the political opposition do not call for Putin’s resignation. His approval rating among the Russian people has not dropped. Many Russian journalists suggest insane conspiracy theories that only exonerate the authorities, and they continue to speculate whether Putin will stay for a third term or nominate his successor. Western political leaders do not question their alliance with Russia in any important political or economic areas. There are some expressions of concern, but too timid to challenge Putin’s authority.


Anna Politkovskay’s name is the last in a long list of independent journalists murdered for their criticism of official policy. These killings have become a trademark of the post-Soviet era and they seem to have become accepted as the norm inside Russia and in the outside world. It looks as if by world consensus Putin has been given a license to kill his critics, which he will continue to use until he silences all of them. People in Russia understand it well. After Anna’s murder some prominent journalists declared that they would abstain from writing on political subjects. Many voices of desperations have been heard. People believe that this macabre process will continue as long as Putin enjoys the unconditional support of leaders of the free world.


Pacepa: Yuri is right: assassinating political opponents has been a trademark of Russia’s leaders. Even Nikita Khrushchev, who made a show of unmasking Stalin's crimes, was revealed as a callous killer during the 1962 West German Supreme Court trial of Bogdan Stashinsky, a KGB illegal officer who had assassinated two of Khrushchev’s political enemies living in the West. The Court declared Stashinsky only an "accomplice to murder," ruling that Khrushchev’s guilt was far greater. It was not at all true, the Court stated, that after the XXth Party Congress the KGB had stopped political assassinations. It was not true that Khrushchev was not addicted to crime--he himself had ordered the killings committed by Stashinsky, and he had also signed the decree rewarding the perpetrator with the highest Soviet medal.[1]


Soon after that trial Khrushchev introduced a new "methodology" for “wet affairs" (the KGB’s euphemism for bloody operations), requiring: (1) political assassinations be handled strictly orally; (2) any evidence pointing to the KGB should be dismissed out of hand as ridiculous; (3) after each political assassination the KGB was surreptitiously to spread "evidence" accusing the CIA or other convenient "enemies" of having done the deed. Indeed, since Khrushchev, Russia’s political police has never owned up to any political crime.


Anna Politkovskaya, a strong defender of Chechnya’s independence, is the last name in a long list of Russians suspected of having been murdered by the KGB’s successor—the FSB—because they criticized their government. The night of November 20, 1998 was shattering for millions of Russians: Galina Starovoitova, the country’s leading female critic of the KGB, now re-baptized as the FSB, was also shot dead while entering her apartment building. Her most trusted aide, Ruslan Linkov, was shot as well, but he survived. While some 10,000 mourners gathered to pay their respects to Galina, Ruslan was visited by his worst nightmare—Vladimir Putin, the head of the FSB. Putin held Ruslan’s hand for more than an hour and kept reassuring him: “It’s all going to be okay. It’s all going to be okay.”[2] It wasn’t. During the following investigations, Putin’s FSB insinuated that Ruslan had killed Galina.


A year later, Putin, a 25-year KGB veteran, became prime minister. In a 14-page article entitled “Russia on the Threshold of a New Millennium” he defined the country’s new political future: “The state must be where and as needed; freedom must be where and as required.” In the same article he labelled the Chechens’ effort to regain their independence as “terrorism” and pledged to eradicate it: “We’ll get them anywhere—if we find them sitting in the outhouse, then we will piss on them there. The matter is settled.”[3]


Twelve Russian journalists who reported on Putin’s human-rights abuses in Chechnya or the corruption of his government have been killed in contract-style murders since he became President. Two of those murdered represented the American media: Iskandar Khatloni, killed in 2000, was employed by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; Paul Klebnikov, killed in 2004, was editor of Forbes Magazine. No assassin has been brought to justice in any of these slayings.


Piontkovsky: I knew Anna for many years. She was a very brave woman facing death many times during her trips to Chechnya. But I personally was struck by another kind of her courage - not physical courage but the moral kind. She wrote incessantly about unspeakable atrocities committed in Chechnya - abductions, tortures, massacres. Instinctive reaction of the majority of our people was rejection of this terrible truth.  Her countrymen, even the most close to her, didn't want to know this uncomfortable truth. She was a lonely hero, dedicated to the only mission - saving the memory of the victims and the honor of the country. To share this mission with Anna was unsustainable. Her husband divorced her and her country divorced her. And the absence of any significant reaction to her death, which Yuri notes, just emphasized this unpleasant state of our society.


So, when on her funeral day, Mr. Putin tried to humiliate her by remarking: "she had been uninfluential," he was right in some down-to-earth sense.

But if St. Peter has read Anna's book "Putin's Russia," I think Putin may find at the Pearly Gates that Anna was more influential that he would like to believe.

In Jerusalem there is a lane of righteous where people who saved Jews during the Second World War are buried in honor. There must be such a lane in Heavenly Jerusalem also.


Anna`s place now is there.


FP: Thank you Mr. Piontkovsky, for such touching words.


So is there going to be any kind of real investigation into this murder? Or is the “investigation” simply a joke because it will lead back to the very people ordering the investigation itself?


It is safe to presume there will be no justice, correct?


Yarim-Agaev: From the start, I placed the main responsibility for Politkovskaya’s murder on Putin. Although there were no objections from the other panelists, I need to elaborate my position, since some believe that we do not have enough evidence for that. 


These people confuse a criminal sentence with a political verdict.  The standards of proof for these things should be very different. A criminal case should be proven beyond a reasonable doubt; in a civil case, the standard is lower:  clear and convincing evidence. 


In both of these cases, however, we are depriving the person of his basic rights to freedom or property.  It takes much less to prove that a person is not fit for the highest political office, (which is a privilege rather than a right), and the following evidence should be quite sufficient:


[1] The pattern of unsolved murders of Putin’s critics.


[2] No denunciation of those murders on Putin’s part, which should have said that these independent journalists were true Russian patriots, and that those who silenced them were enemies of Russian democracy.


[3] No independent investigation. On the contrary, Putin instantly declared that he would take the Polikovskaya case under his personal control. This is a major conflict of interest.


Responsibility for Politkovskaya’s and other murders, however, goes far beyond Putin and his henchmen. First, it rests with those many Russian who approve Putin’s policy, including the physical elimination of his critics. Responsibility also lies with those who, although disapproving of those actions, do not want to sacrifice their comfort or political interests to stop them. This very wide circle includes most of the Russian opposition and human rights elite, and Western politicians and intellectuals.


Let me give several examples of seemingly innocuous events that took place within a short time of the Politkovskaya murder. The Spanish king Juan Carlos enjoys bear hunting in Russia. Bush welcomes Nazarbayev to the White House. At Lincoln Center, New York intellectuals celebrate Alexander Nevsky, possibly Russia’s most chauvinistic and pro-Stalinist movie.  Now imagine for a moment the same audience enjoying a Nazi propaganda movie a few days after some Jewish massacre and you will see how, in light of Politkovskaya’s murder, the above-mentioned events turn into an acceptance if not approval of what is going on in the former Soviet Union.


Over the same period I saw on the History Channel episodes showing American longshoremen boycotting the unloading of Soviet cargo and ordinary Americans breaking bottles of Stolichnaya vodka in response to the Soviet Union’s shooting down a Korean airplane.  Maybe that reaction was not very refined, but it was right.  And it had quite an effect.


Hardly anyone is ready to share responsibility for these murders, particularly those who denounced them in whatever cautious and nominal form.  They believe that their statements of concern fully exonerate them and they even feel self-righteous, forgetting how they helped Putin to gain and consolidate power.  The moment they disassociate themselves from Putin, these people feel relieved of any responsibility for what happens in Russia.  That is why their protests are so weak and ineffective.


That was not the case with dissidents of the Soviet era.  Although totalitarian society denied us any right to influence its policy, and punished everyone who spoke out, we still felt responsible for what was going on in our country. That is why our actions and words had such an effect.


There are still a few people in Russia who feel responsible for what happens there, and Anna Politkovskaya was one of them. That is why her words were so effective. If more people in Russia and around the world would assume at least a tiny piece of that responsibility, they might save the lives of people like Anna.


Pacepa: The truth of the matter is that Putin has continued the nefarious Soviet legacy that the political police has the right of life and death over the population. At least 335 hostages were dead following the catastrophic police “rescue” operation at the Beslan school in North Ossetia in 2004, which in many ways was a repetition of the 2000 rescue in the Moscow theater, where the KGB’s successor flooded the hall with fentanyl gas and caused the death of 129 hostages.[4]               


In fact, as time goes on, I am more and more struck by the remarkable similarity between Putin’s reliance on the political police and that of my former boss, Ceausescu, who also was educated at a military school in Moscow and managed his country’s political police--the Securitate--until the day he became president. The Securitate was the first institution Ceausescu visited after being enthroned as ruler. I was there. “You are the elite of Romania,” Ceausescu told us. “You, not the sclerotic academics, will make our country an industrial power. You, not the drunken diplomats, will take our foreign policy to new heights.” Soon after this inspiring pep talk, Romania’s Communist Party and government were quietly subordinated to Ceausescu’s political police. Weeks after I was granted political asylum, in 1978, the Western news media reported that Ceausescu had demoted four politburo members, fired one third of his cabinet members and replaced 22 ambassadors. All were undercover Securitate officers whose military documents and pay vouchers I had regularly signed off on.


Just days after Putin became prime minister he went to the Lubyanka[5] to celebrate a “memorable day,” the creation of the Soviet political police, which had killed tens of millions of people. “Several years ago we fell prey to the illusion that we have no enemies,” Putin told a meeting of top security officials. “We have paid dearly for this. Russia has its own national interests, and we have to defend them.”[6] In 2005, some 6,000 former KGB officers were holding the most important positions in Russia’s central and regional governments.


In December 1989 Ceausescu ordered his political police to open fire on the revolting population, and on Christmas Day he was executed for genocide. In September 2004, the Chechens set a $20 million prize on the head of the “war criminal” Vladimir Putin, whose political police had killed thousands of Chechen nationalists.[7] Politkovskaya’s killing should arouse the rest of the world to condemn the Kremlin’s habit of assassinating its political opponents.


Piontkovsky: I completely agree with my colleagues that Putin’s regime bears moral, political and legal responsibility for Anna Politkovskaya’s murder. She has been murdered by the same gang that three years ago poisoned another contributor to Novaya Gazeta, Duma Deputy Yury Shchekochikhin. 


At that time those star-spangled FSB generals were still just petty thieves extorting protection money from furniture stores, without any particular ideological fig-leaf.  They got away with the murder of Shchekochikhin and of many others.  They became emboldened, acquired a taste for it, and the most enterprising of them, who by now were asset stripping oil and gas companies, broke through into the charmed circle of the world's richest people.


In order to maintain themselves on this vertiginous peak in a country one third of whose population lives below the poverty line, they need to fool the people, to point the finger at “enemies” of the nation - the West, Caucasians and other non-Russian peoples living in Russia, the few journalists still intrepid enough to criticize the Putin regime.


The last document over the signature of Anna Politkovskaya was an appeal to society and the state authorities to “Stop the Persecution of Georgia”.  I am proud of the fact that my signature is alongside hers.


Anna Politkovskaya knew that she was doomed in Putin's Russia, and spoke about this on more than one occasion.  Her revelations about the massive violations of human rights in Chechnya, which continue to this day, about the shameful behavior of the state authorities during the catastrophic hostage-takings of the audience of the Nord-Ost musical in Moscow and of schoolchildren and their teachers and parents in Beslan, was a red rag to the regime.  There had already been more than one attempt to kill her.


It is symbolic, and was almost predictable, that she should be murdered in these dog days of the repulsive xenophobic bacchanalia that has seized Russia. This is a time when everybody, the human trash in the streets, the intellectual menials of the regime, have received from the “demons” ensconced in the Kremlin what Dostoyevsky called “a dispensation to be dishonorable.”


And Yarim-Agaev is absolutely right when he emphasize that à particularly disreputable role in abetting Russia`s descent has been played by the "Statesmen" who are said to lead    democratic countries of the West. They have known the answer to the famous question,  Who is Mr Putin? for a long time now.  Anna Politkovskaya (among many others) warned them who they were dealing with.  Her books have been translated both into English and French and have been widely reviewed .But some of them want to participate in exploiting the Shtokman gas condensate deposit in the Barents Sea. Others seek Russian votes in the UN Security Council. And so they carry on pretending that Putin is a respected member of the Club, their Club,and one of them. And the worst of all, it may be true -- as in the immortal final scene of George Orwell`s "Animal Farm".


FP: Gentlemen, as we go into our final round, feel free to rejoin to what has been said. Also kindly say a few words about what you think the U.S. must now do in terms of policy toward Putin’s Russia.


Yarim-Agaev: What do we need to know about Putin and his government? That in foreign policy, the U.S. remains for them enemy number one, and that they would support anyone who tries to undermine American power whether it be North Korea, Iran, you name it.  That in domestic policy they consider their major enemies democracy, human rights, and the free market, and they will try to suppress them by all means, and to bring back under their control most parts of the former Soviet Union.


By saying this, I do not reveal any secrets. All of this is in Putin’s and his retinue’s records and resumes. Most of them are career KGB officers who were brought up with the above-mentioned principles and loyally serve them. Actually, Putin’s KGB record is his only identity. In fairness to him, I must say that Putin has never pretended to be someone else nor has he ever denied his allegiance to the KGB. He never repented, but rather took pride in his KGB service. Unlike many intellectuals and politicians, Putin’s clique never pretends that the FSB is different from the KGB. They celebrate anniversaries of the FSB dating from 1918, and pay public tribute to Dzerzhinski and Andropov.


Putin did not seize power by force or deception. He was elected by Russians and accepted by the world not in spite of his KGB identity, but because of it. Was he elected because intellectuals were more comfortable with the KGB than with dissidents, feeling morally and intellectually superior to the former, while inferior to the latter? Was he accepted because world politicians preferred seasoned cynical politicians to idealistic novices?


Whatever the reason--inferiority complex or real politics-- all of them knew what they opted for. Putin, who has been true to his identity and his mandate, may be annoyed by those who gave him that mandate and now criticize him for his actions. That was the package deal. So far, everything that happened under Putin’s rule, including Anna Politkovskaya murder, is part of that package. Everyone who signed on under that deal shares responsibility for those crimes, unless he does something real to change power in Russia.


Simply bashing Putin is a futile exercise. It reminds me of Japanese employees punching an effigy of their boss only to return to their working place to serve that boss loyally.


Pacepa: Putin is, indeed, a product of contemporary Russia. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russians had a unique opportunity to cast off their political police that has isolated their country from the real world and left them ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of modern society. Unfortunately, the Russians have not shown themselves ready to accomplish that task. Since the fall of Communism they have been faced with an indigenous form of capitalism run by KGB bureaucrats, speculators and ruthless mafiosi that has widened social and economic inequities.


Therefore, after a period of upheaval, the Russians have gradually—and perhaps thankfully—slipped back into their historical form of government, the traditional Russian samoderzhaviye, a form of autocracy traceable to the 14th century’s Ivan the Terrible, in which a feudal lord ruled the country with the help of his personal political police. Good or bad, the old political police may appear to most Russians as their only defense against the rapacity of the new capitalists at home and the greediness of grasping foreign neighbors.


Moreover, the Russians have also had minimal experience with real political parties, since their country has been a police state since the XVIth century. It is perhaps understandable that it may seem easier to them to continue that tradition than to take the risk of starting everything anew.


The West cannot democratize the inscrutable Russia, whose borders still extend from the North Pole to the 35th parallel. Only her people can. For that to happen, we should help.


I applaud FrontPage Magazine for engaging people like us, who have known Soviet Communism from both sides of the barricades, in discussions about the future of Russia, and about decision-making and risk-taking. Perhaps such symposiums could reach out to attract people from today’s Russia as well.


Piontkovsky: I strongly agree with my colleagues that democracy and freedom cannot be imposed on any country from outside. If Iraqis want to continue to kill one another drilling one another skulls nobody can prevent them from this business.


If Russian intellectuals are ready to serve loyally to the authoritarian regime and dismiss Anna Politkovskaya’s murder as a death of "an insignificant journalist" it's their own choice and their own responsibility.


But the West at least could take honest and moral positions by publicly condemning Putin's strangulation of dissent in Russia. I am very sceptical of the current US administration ability to do it.


Americans managed to talk themselves into the double stupidity: that they badly "need" Mr. Putin for solving the Iran crisis and that they should lavishly reward him and his KGB entourage for their "efforts". One of these rewards is their closing eyes on the fate of democracy and independent thought in Russia. But their policy is not only cynical but also extremely naive.


The current UN SC debates demonstrate beyond any doubt that Moscow continue to play the role of "political cover" for nukes-seeking Iranian mullahs and their crazy president. "Useful bourgeois idiots" continue to placate Putin and they missed yet another opportunity to stand up to him what they were obliged to do at least out of self-respect.


FP: Andrei Piontkovsky, Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa and Yuri Yarim-Agaev, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium. We dedicate this panel discussion to the memory of Anna Politkovskaya and to her noble and courageous battle for freedom and truth.


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[1] John Barron, KGB: The Secret World of Soviet Secret Agents (New York: Reader's Digest Press, 1974), p. 318.

[2] Bradley Cook, “Putin: The Inside Story,” NewsMax.com, March 24, 2000, as published in.  

[3] “Putin rocked Russians with ruthlessness,” AFP, December 31, 1999, Internet edition, ruthlessness.html.

[4] David Satter, “A Small Town in Russia,” The Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2004, p. A20.

[5] The headquarters of the former KGB and the current FSB.

[6] Arnold Beichman, Hoover Institution, “Prologue for Putin,” The Washington Times, January 10, 2000, Internet edition, commentary 1-01102000, p. 1.

[7] George Coman, “Mort sau Viu” (Dead or Alive), ZIUA Romania, September 10, 2004, p. 1.


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Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in Russian, U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He is the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and is the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. His new book is United in Hate: The Left's Romance with Tyranny and Terror. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at jglazov@rogers.com.

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