“When it comes to press freedom, Russia is now ranked below countries like Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Afghanistan.”
That’s the finding of Michael Specter, the New Yorker magazine’s Moscow correspondent. The sinister subtitle of his Jan. 29 letter from Moscow reads: “Why are Vladimir Putin’s opponents dying?” And when you finish reading this article or my summary you will ask: How does this iron-fisted onetime KGB agent who now rules Russia differ from the bloody days of Josef Stalin?
This is how Putinism differs from Stalinism: There are no mass killings, no purges and fake court trials, no Gulag Archipelago. No need for the Great Terror. Kill one journalist opponent as happened to Anna Politkovskaya last October and everybody gets the idea, especially when the police can’t find the killer though they have his photo. Anna Politkovskaya wrote “Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy.”
Just before her murder, she wrote: “I will not go into the … joys of the path I have chosen … the arrests, the threats in letters and over the Internet, the telephoned death threats, the weekly summons to the prosecutor general’s office.”
In fact, since Mr. Putin was anointed by then-President Boris Yeltsin as his successor, 13 journalists have been murdered in Russia. One of the murdered journalists, Paul Klebnikov, was an American, the founding editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine. He was shot and killed leaving his office July 9, 2004. No arrest. Mr. Putin’s lapdog Duma has just passed a law sponsored by the Kremlin that allows assassination abroad of “enemies of the Russian regime.” So now it cannot be said there’s no rule of law in Russia.
Not one of these murders has, according to Mr. Specter, “been successfully investigated or prosecuted.” In the meantime you have Mr. Putin’s assurance to President Bush Feb. 24, 2005, that Russia will not return to its totalitarian past.
Could Mr. Bush tell Mr. Putin that if there is any Kremlin-inspired assassination on American soil, the crime would be immediately taken to the U.N. Security Council? I am not so sure President Bush could do that. After all, Mr. Bush said after his first meeting with Mr. Putin that “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul. He’s a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country and I appreciate very much the frank dialogue and that’s the beginning of a very constructive relationship.”
Was Mr. Bush aware he was saying this about a supposed democrat who once described the breakup of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” and who publicly toasted the centenary of Stalin’s birth?
In one of her last writings, Anna Politkovskaya said: “Yes, stability has come to Russia. It is a monstrous stability under which nobody seeks justice in courts that flaunt their subservience and partisanship. Nobody in his or her right mind seeks protection from the institutions entrusted with maintaining law and order, because they are totally corrupt.” Obviously a journalist who talks like that couldn’t be allowed to live anymore than Paul Klebnikov was allowed.
I have a little postscript to this column. The New Yorker Moscow correspondent, Michael Specter, is a brave man who takes risks. I hope he doesn’t go out alone at night in Moscow and I hope David Remnick, the New Yorker editor, has provided Mr. Specter with bodyguards. Accidents can happen, you know.
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