Putin's Russia by Anna Politkovskaya
Few of the stories she tells have happy endings and her criticisms of Putin and his regime are unrelenting; they are, however, closely argued and convincing. Angus MacQueen has written perceptively (The Guardian, Dec 18, 2004) that this 'feels like a Soviet-era dissident's book. Her pieces have that slightly desperate pitch of someone who fears no one is listening - that her own people have given up and that the outside world does not want to hear, or worse, does not care.' This desperation can, of course, be irritating, but the content is so obviously important that one wants to carry on reading.
One chapter is devoted to the story of how a petty criminal by the name of Pavel Fedulev became the most important businessman and politician of the industrial area centered on Yekaterinburg. I have never read such a clear, detailed and convincing account of the symbiosis between big business, the mafia, the judiciary, the political elite and the security services.
Another chapter is devoted to the case of Colonel Budyanov, who was tried for the murder and rape of a fifteen-year-old Chechen girl. There are two striking features of this unusual case (it is rare for any attention to be paid to such crimes). First, Dr Pechernikova, a psychiatrist who gained international notoriety in the 1960s and 1970s for her readiness to diagnoze dissidents as schizophrenic and send them to mental hospitals, was an important defence witness; Pechernikova's diagnosis was that Budyanov had suffered "a temporary mental breakdown". Second, although there was every indication that the colonel was going to be acquitted, he was - in the end - found guilty. This was almost certainly because of appeals to President Putin from Chancellor Schroeder and other German politicians with a concern for human rights. Little changes in Russia: as in Soviet days, psychiatry is abused; as in Soviet days, foreign opinion still counts for more than one might expect.
Politkovskaya's account of a visit to the nuclear submarines of the Pacific fleet brings home the extent to which Putin and his regime are blind to everything except the short-term consolidation of their own power. One might imagine that the neo-imperialist Putin would lavish resources on what was once one of the most prestigious units of the Soviet armed forces, but one would be very wrong. The monthly rations of the commander of a nuclear hunter-killer submarine with an unemployed (though highly-educated) wife, and a daughter at school are 'two packets of shelled peas, two kilograms of buckwheat and rice in paper bags, two tins of the very cheapest tinned peas, two tins of Pacific herring and a bottle of vegetable oil'. The Vice-Admiral in command of the North-East Group of Forces receives a monthly salary of around 120 dollars, less than a bus-driver in the provincial capital. And the Ministry of Defence provides minimal funding even for the routine servicing of the nuclear-fuelled and nuclear-armed submarines. Politkovskaya comes to understand that the officers, some of whom, in spite of everything, are extraordinarily loyal and dedicated, 'discriminate between two concepts. There is the Motherland, which they serve, and there is Moscow, with which they are in a state of conflict. There are, they say, two separate states: Russia and her capital city.' Moscow itself clearly regards Kamchatka and its submarines as too far away to be worth notice.
There is little in today's Russia to inspire anything but horror. The birth-rate is low and male life-expectancy is 59 years; the country's ecology is being devastated; life-threatening diseases - including AIDS and drug-resistant TB - are spreading rapidly; the power of the security forces is increasing no less rapidly; the Orthodox Church is, as throughout most of its history, content to kowtow to the country's rulers; four fifths of the population is considerably poorer than during the last decades of the Soviet regime; there is nothing in the country, from a place to study law at Petersburg University (the initial bribe is 8000 U.S. dollars), to a position in a special anti-terrorist unit in the North Caucasus, that cannot be bought and sold; and the growth of non-governmental organizations - perhaps the most hopeful development of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years - is now being rolled back. The only positive changes since 1991 are access to the Internet and freedom of travel for the few who can afford it. In the words of an Iranian friend of mine - he was writing about contemporary Iran, but his words may be still more applicable to contemporary Russia - 'the atmosphere is sombre, desperate and sordid'.
Half way through the book, towards the end of an account of how a downtrodden ex-neighbour called Tanya became a successful businesswoman, I began to wonder about Politkovskaya's own ethics; most of this unflattering account, after all, was based on what Tanya had herself told Politkovskaya, presumably in confidence. At that moment I came to the following lines: She rang recently and asked me to write an article about her. I did. The one you are reading right now. She asked to read it before it was published, was horrified and said, "It's all true." She made me promise not to publish it in Russia before her death. How about abroad?" "Go ahead. Let them know what our money smells of." So now you do. From this moment I trusted Politkovskaya completely; few things win one's confidence more completely than when a writer answers a criticism at the very moment one first formulates it.
There are at least two good reasons for buying this book. One is that Politkovskaya only just survived a recent attempt on her life by the security services. Unless there is whole-hearted support for her from Western journalists, politicians and the general public, she is likely to be assassinated. The other is that the cataclysm that has engulfed Russia concerns us all; today's depraved and defeated Russia may be a greater danger to the world than the 'evil empire' of the past.