President Vladimir Putin’s first reaction to the murder of Anna Politkovskaya came on October 9, when he was quoted as telling President George W. Bush in a telephone conversation that everything possible would be done to solve the murder. “Putin stressed that the Russian law enforcement agencies would make all the necessary efforts for an objective inquiry into the tragic death of the reporter Anna Politkovskaya,” Interfax quoted the Kremlin’s press office as saying.
Putin’s first public statement on the Politkovskaya murder came on October 10—three days after the tragic event and the same day as her funeral in Moscow. Speaking during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Eastern German city of Dresden, Putin called Politkovskaya’s murder “a crime abominable in its cruelty,” Newsru.com reported. “Whoever committed it and whatever his motives were, this crime must not go unpunished.” The murder “of a person, a woman, a mother” was “aimed against our country, against the current authorities both in Russia in general and in the Chechen republic, which this journalist covered professionally,” said Putin.
Grani.ru on October 10 quoted Putin as saying during the Dresden press conference that Politkovskaya “was known in journalistic and human rights circles, but her influence on political life in Russia was minimal.” According to the website, Putin told the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung: “This murder causes the current authorities far greater losses and damage than her publications.” Grani.ru also quoted Putin as saying: “We have information, and it is reliable, that many people who are hiding from Russian justice have long been hatching the idea of offering somebody up as a sacrifice in order to create a wave of anti-Russian feeling in the world.”
Putin said he did not want to evaluate Politkovskaya’s views, although he added that “they were too radical.” Politkovskaya, he said, “first of all, had the right to hold these views and, secondly, maybe precisely owing to this radicalism, she did not have a wide influence on the political life of the country and especially Chechnya.” While investigators would “consider all possible versions” of the murder, Putin said, “One of the main ones is the journalist’s professional activities. She was, indeed, a critic of the current government, which in general is the nature of all representatives of the press, but she took radical positions. Lately, she focused her attention mainly on criticizing the current official authorities in Chechnya.” Still, Putin said he did not believe that any officials, including Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, could have been involved in Politkovskaya’s murder. Grani.ru quoted Putin as saying that while it should not be forgotten that Kadyrov once fought against federal forces in Chechnya, “Today we are bringing into the law-enforcement bodies of Chechnya as well as the power bodies in Chechnya all people regardless of their former lives and political convictions.”
Putin also said that Politkovskaya’s murder was “unfortunately not the only crime of its kind in Russia,” noting that the American journalist Paul Klebnikov was murdered in Moscow several years ago and that he had covered issues related to Chechnya and had written the book, “Conversation with a Barbarian” (based on Klebnikov’s conversations with Khozh-Akhmed Nukhaev, a former Chechen separatist official and reputed organized crime figure). “According to the investigators’ version, the heroes of this book did not like the way Klebnikov depicted them, and they destroyed him,” Putin said. Putin did not mention the fact that the Chechens put on trial for killing Klebnikov were acquitted (Chechnya Weekly, May 11).
Still, Putin promised in connection to the Politkovskaya murder, “We will do everything so that the criminals are convicted.” He added, “It is absolutely intolerable; this horrible crime blemishes Russia and must be exposed.” Still, as Novaya gazeta staffer Pavel Felgenhauer noted, at Politkovskaya’s funeral “there was no prominent member of the Kremlin staff or government present, no person acting as President Vladimir Putin’s official representative to offer condolences or to lay a wreath” (Eurasia Daily Monitor, October 11). And as Masha Gessen noted in her Moscow Times column on October 12, the day after Politkovskaya was murdered, Putin congratulated figure skater Alexander Gorshkov on his 60th birthday and actor Leonid Kuravlev on his 70th birthday but “did not find the time to express condolences to the family of Anna Politkovskaya.”
Keeping in mind Putin’s allegation that “people who are hiding from Russian justice” plotted assassinations as a way to unleash anti-Russian sentiment internationally, it is worth noting that the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia claimed on October 9 that it had found on the Internet an “anonymous analytical report” dating back to 2005 which said that former Yukos vice president Leonid Nevzlin, who is now living in Israel, was plotting to destabilize Russia. The report, according to Izvestia, cited an attempt on Politkovskaya’s life as a way to destabilize Russia. “The version of Leonid Nevzlin’s involvement in the murder—or, for example, another ‘exile,’ Boris Berezovsky—seems mad at first glance,” Izvestia wrote. “However, it is not inconceivable that someone among those who have left the homeland needs to build up Russia’s image in the world as a country where you can be killed for your beliefs.”
In an article posted on the website of Yezhednevny zhurnal, Ej.ru, on October 11, Yevgenia Albats drew a parallel between Anna Politkovskaya’s murder and the assassination of the Soviet Communist Party’s boss in Leningrad, Sergei Kirov, in 1934. Kirov’s murder, Albats noted, was “no more than a pretext” for the start of Stalin’s purge of the party apparatus. What was important then and remains important today are the “instruments of policy and the mechanism that the government puts into action when it feels threatened,” Albats wrote. “V. V. Putin has launched the instruments; the mechanisms will be started up. The question is how large-scale the consequences might be.”
Meanwhile, commenting on Putin’s remark that Politkovskaya’s influence on Russia’s political life was “minimal” and that her murder had caused Russia more harm than her articles, Masha Gessen wrote in the Moscow Times, “There we have it. The measure of a journalist’s influence is the amount of harm he or she does to the state. Journalists, in other words, are saboteurs, enemies of the state—if effective—and pests and thorns in the president’s side if they are less widely read or heard.”