The no. 38 (30 May) issue of the perhaps now-suppressed newspaper Novaya Gazeta contains an article by leading war correspondent Anna Politkovskaya concerning the recent travails of a Russian “democrat” and strong opponent of the war in Chechnya, Sergei Val’kov. A resident of the central Russian city of Ivanovo, which is located to the northeast of Moscow, Val’kov was serving as an elected deputy of the Ivanovo Legislative Assembly and as chairman of that body’s Committee on Local Self-Government. He also served as head of the Assembly’s Committee on Human Rights and as coordinator of the Ivanovo Oblast’ Society for Human Rights.
“In April of this year,” Politkovskaya wrote, “Sergei Val’kov brought to the Ivanovo Oblast newspaper Rabochy Krai an open letter addressed to the Procurator General of Russia, Vladimir Ustinov, with a request that they publish it.” In this letter-which Politkovskaya quotes from at length-Val’kov posed “several concrete questions concerning the situation in Chechnya, and he asked for just as concrete answers…” “Did,” Politkovskaya then asked, “Val’kov have a right to ask such questions? ‘Yes’ will answer anyone in our country who has even once heard of the [Russian] Constitution.”
On April 30, Rabochy Krai published the text of Val’kov’s letter. Nothing happened over the long May holiday period (from May 1-9) but on the first day of business after the holidays, May 13, “the deputies of the Oblast Legislative Assembly were raised due to an alarm which came from its Committee on Legality and Social Safety.” An urgent special session of the Assembly was then convoked to discuss “the behavior of Sergei Val’kov and of the newspaper Rabochy Krai.” “The discussion,” Politkovskaya reported, “turned out to be stormy, angry and categorical. A majority of Val’kov’s colleagues shouted and gesticulated actively, as if they were repelling an attack on a strategically important command post. In short, the deputies of the Oblast Legislative Assembly saw in the open letter to the procurator general exclusively ‘slanderous inventions concerning the actions of the Russian army,’ ‘antistate activity,’ and ‘the ideological preparation of terrorist acts’ (all direct quotations).”
The Ivanovo Assembly also resolved: “to condemn the publication [of the letter]; “to recommend to the mass media that it refrain from publishing materials containing inaccurate and unchecked information aimed at inciting national and social intolerance and discord”; “to request that the Administration for the Press and Information of Ivanovo Oblast take measures to prevent such publications in the future”; and “to propose to the procuracy of Ivanovo Oblast and to the chief federal inspector for Ivanovo Oblast of the plenipotentiary presidential representative in the Central Federal District that they examine the publication to see if it came under legislation relating to Slander in Relation to the Russian Army.” On May 13, all funding for the Ivanovo Oblast Committee on Human Rights was officially withdrawn.
Commenting on the fierce campaign launched against deputy Val’kov and the provincial newspaper Rabochy Krai, Politkovskaya concluded: “We are flying into a black hole where we have already been, one in which we condemned dissidents only because they thought differently from the majority. And it is no exaggeration to say that we are ‘flying’ there: the time has already arrived when the persecution of human rights defenders has become common once again, and when human rights committees in the country are de facto being liquidated.”
On June 7, the website Human Rights in Russia reported that Sergei Val’kov had also been removed as chairman of the Ivanovo Oblast Assembly’s Committee for Public Self-Government. “He believes,” the website noted, “that this action is directly connected with his human rights activity” (Prava cheloveka v Rossii, Hro.org, June 7).
To sum up, the fierce campaign launched against Sergei Val’kov and the provincial newspaper Rabochy Krai and the apparent closing down of the Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta appear to be signs that the Putin regime and its supporters will no longer tolerate criticism of the way in which the war in Chechnya is being prosecuted. Russia, as Politkovskaya aptly remarked, seems rapidly to be returning to the “black hole” of the Soviet period, with its bristling zero tolerance for glasnost.