Two deaths, two very different cases; A Russian diary, by murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, is a ringing indictment of the course charted by president Vladimir Putin; death of a dissident, which reads like a spy thriller, looks at the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko

Montreal Gazette
Saturday, August 11, 2007


By Anna Politkovskaya

Harvill Secker, 323 pages, $45.95


By Alex Goldfarb with Marina Litvinenko

Free Press, 369 pages, $34

What do a rogue Russian spy, poisoned by a rare radioactive substance in a London sushi shop, and a muckraking journalist, gunned down in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building, have in common?

Depending whom you ask, you might get surprisingly different answers.

For some, Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer who died after ingesting a lethal dose of polonium-210, and Anna Politkovskaya, an independent journalist and a fearless campaigner for human rights, were victims of “a criminal regime in the Kremlin” who were silenced for their unrelenting criticism of Vladimir Putin’s policies.

Others would say they were victims of a Machiavellian scheme to blacken Russia’s image abroad, that they were marginalized dissidents at best, whose criticism of Putin bore little sting in Russia itself, but whose deaths were very conveniently exploited by the West to demonize the newly resurgent Russia.

I, for one, would not put Politkovskaya and Litvinenko in the same league.

Politkovskaya was a journalist of unquestionable credibility, whose writings on the war in Chechnya, human rights abuses and the dismantling of Russia’s nascent democratic institutions by President Putin set a standard for a generation of reporters.

Yes, she was marginalized; yes, Putin was right when he said that she had little influence in Russia, but neither did Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsin in the Soviet Union of the 1970s. She was a voice in the wilderness.

A Russian Diary, written not long before her death on Oct. 7, 2006, makes for depressing reading if you care at all about Russia. It is another ringing indictment of the course charted by Putin.

This is not a conventional diary: there are no details of Politkovskaya’s personal life. Instead, it offers the reader a series of snapshots of Russia’s political life from December 2003 through August 2005.

The book is divided into three sections. The first looks at the parliamentary and presidential elections that gave Putin his second term in office. The second section covers events in and around Chechnya, including the Beslan school massacre. The third section covers Russia proper and the protests by pensioners in 2005.

Politkovskaya unflinchingly charts Russia’s steady deviation from a democratic path, under Putin’s helm, and ponders what it is about Russian people that makes this possible.

“For our new rich, freedom has nothing to do with political parties,” Politkovskaya writes. “Freedom is the freedom to go on great holidays. The richer they are, the more often they can fly away, and not to Antalya in Turkey, but to Tahiti or Acapulco. For the majority of them, freedom equals access to luxury.”

But these so-called New Russians see a Russia under Putin that has grown more prosperous, a Russia where pensions have grown and are paid on time, a Russia that is becoming increasingly assertive in defending its national interests. They are proud of this new Russia, which is, if not loved by the West, at least feared and respected once again.

But Putin and his cronies are not her only targets. Politkovskaya is just as critical of Russia’s “democratic” opposition, calling the exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky “a mere gambler, not a fighter.”

Reading Russian Diary one cannot escape the feeling that Politkovskaya simply could not have survived long in the country she described, that her death at the hands of a professional hitman was inevitable: derided by her enemies, abandoned by her allies, she was shot like a stray dog that wouldn’t stop barking.

But if Politkovskaya’s death was a final exclamation mark in an illustrious career, Alexander Litvinenko, on the other hand, was propelled to fame in the West mostly thanks to his gruesome death.

Death of a Dissident makes for a fascinating read. It feels like something from John le Carré or Frederick Forsyth. The problem is, it also has as much credibility as a Forsyth spy thriller.

The book is co-authored by Alex Goldfarb, a friend of Litvinenko, and Marina Litvinenko, Alexander’s wife, but despite being listed as a co-author, Marina’s contribution to the book is almost indiscernible.

Goldfarb delivers a captivating insider’s account of the events that led to Alexander’s poisoning.

But the events discussed in the book are so incredible, so much outside of our normal frame of reference, so open to different interpretations, that one feels incapable of coming to a reasonable conclusion.

It’s a goldmine for any conspiracy-theory enthusiast. And regardless of whether you believe that Litvinenko was poisoned on Putin’s orders, or was a sacrificial lamb in a demonic scheme to try to undermine Putin, or whether he simply fell victim to a botched attempt to smuggle nuclear material, Death of a Dissident is sure to provide you with plenty of fodder for speculation.

Levon Sevunts is a Montreal writer.