Letter to Anna Politkovskaya from Svetlana Gannushkina (RUSSIAN FEDERATION)

Dear Anya!

Once again, we are brought together by a war that is even more monstrous, bloody and absurd than the Chechen war, that linked our destinies back in 1996.

Anya, I often remember you calling me in August and asking if I knew a child from a Chechen family who was starting school on 1 September. It was supposed to be some kind of peacebuilding gesture: a large portrait of a Chechen child walking to school in Moscow with a bouquet of flowers. I had to disappoint you: regulations had just been introduced forbidding enrolment of children in schools if their parents had no Moscow registration. While another official document made any such registration of Chechens illegal. I told you about the plight of the people who had fled bombs and shells to join the relatives in Moscow, and who faced being fired from their jobs, their businesses being destroyed, their rental contracts being torn up.

The very next day you arrived at our office with the money raised for the refugees by your paper’s editorial office, and immediately became involved in their lives and problems. That issue would remain your main focus for the rest of your life. The world learned about the Chechens and they learned about you. For many years your room at the Novaya Gazeta newspaper served as a surgery where people came with their troubles.

There followed many trips to Chechnya, where, starting from the 2000s, our Memorial offices had become a base for all journalists. You would come, find out about the most pressing cases, talk to lawyers and convince them that publicity does not harm but protects their clients. Many lives were saved through this cooperation.

At times, judges have had to make the hard choice between disobeying their superiors’ orders or appearing in the pages of your vivid denunciation of lawlessness. They did not always choose obedience.

In late December 2002 we found ourselves together in the Chechen Republic government building, which blew up 20 minutes after we left. The city was shrouded in the misty haze of that explosion. We stood at the crossroads, talking to those who were able to leave the ruined premises on their own, trying to take stock of the scale of the tragedy. Later on, in Moscow we helped the victims to get treatment, and it was very important that you, Anya, wrote about it and made sure that medical care was provided without restrictions to all those affected.

The last time we worked together was almost exactly a year after we’d met. It was the Khasavyurt tragedy of young Chechen lads. Someone had persuaded these young Chechens – the Akins living in the Khasavyurt district of Dagestan – to go to the seaside to discuss the future of the Chechen nation. In fact, on the night of 12 to 13 July 2006 they were dressed up in camouflage fatigues, led to an ambush and shot. Thirteen people were killed, five were wounded and miraculously survived.

The provocation was presented to the press as a planned operation against the insurgents. The information went out to all foreign news agencies and could not help but be perceived as a great victory in the fight against terrorism. Large quantities of weapons were seized at the site of the so-called shootout. Even Novaya Gazeta published an article which said: “There is no doubt that these lads wanted to join the insurgents.”

The survivors were criminally prosecuted and pressure was brought to bear on the families of those killed. From 16-18 August 2006, myself and Rasiyat Yasieva, a lawyer with the Memorial’s Migration and Law Network in the Khasavyurt district of Dagestan, travelled to two villages in Khasavyurt and several villages in the Khasavyurt district of the Republic of Dagestan. There we visited 17 families who survived the terrible July tragedy. The picture that met us was horrific.

When I arrived in Moscow, I sat down to write the truth about the Khasavyurt tragedy. But apart from an appeal to the prosecutor’s office demanding an investigation, I couldn’t write anything. So I called you, Anya, and told you what I had learned on the trip.

You then replied that you would ‘pop in’ in the morning and interview me – in fact this was the original material from interviews I had conducted with parents who had just lost their children.

Your article ‘Schoolchildren Were Recruited at the Seaside’ appeared in the Novaya Gazeta. It told the truth about what happened in Khasavyurt. The article helped to protect both the families and the survivors – who were not acquitted, of course, but received a lenient sentence and were soon set free. Recently, one of the families was prosecuted again for ‘old sins’ and again we had to go back to your article that helped to protect one of its protagonists.

I also often remember how, in January 2005 in Helsinki, after our presentations and discussions on the situation in Chechnya, we drank tea two evenings in a row in a small snow-covered wooden house, where we stayed in some kind of fairy tale forest. Thanks to that magical atmosphere, for the first time we talked about personal matters. And you, Anya, talked about your children – how wonderful, musical and talented they were.

You radiated so much warmth and tenderness and it was clear how strongly you loved with all the strength of your passionate soul.

What can I tell you about today? On 24 February 2022, Russia started armed hostilities on Ukrainian soil. It is even more terrible than it was back then, even more unimaginable, and impossible to comprehend. Tens of thousands of victims, dead and wounded, millions of refugees from Ukraine.

Young people were leaving Russia in their hundreds. The first ones to leave were those who no longer wanted to identify with their country, whose education allowed them to work anywhere on the planet, which had become so small.

Others, who can no longer work in Russia but want to continue their work as journalists, human rights activists, researchers, analysts are also leaving. Dozens have been designated foreign agents. Your own newspaper, Anya, Novaya Gazeta, is no longer published on paper or electronically. The Memorial Human Rights Centre and the International Memorial have been disbanded. Civil society is being demolished. We increasingly prefer to meet online, while it is still possible.

Finally, the authorities have declared the so-called ‘partial mobilisation’. Thousands are already fleeing Russia. They are leaving with their families, whenever they can. Men of conscription age are being sent away. All anti-war actions are brutally suppressed. What is happening in Chechnya is too terrible for words. Women who went out to protest there were taken to the mayor’s office. Their husbands were summoned there and forced to brutally beat their wives. The next day the protesters’ sons were rounded up without summons and drafted into the army. One woman’s husband died of a heart attack during prayer after having been beaten and seen his son sent to Donetsk.

It is not only people who are repressed, but words, too. You can end up in detention simply for uttering them.

Do you remember, Anya, that Soviet-era catchphrase: “We were born to make Kafka a reality?”

We are now successfully making Orwell a reality.

My friends often say of those who are no longer with us, “It’s a good thing they can’t see it.”

Yet I don’t think so. I really wish you were with us now. Your voice has always been loud and heard not only in our country, but far beyond its borders. There is now a widespread perception in the world that there are no good Russians, that all Russians support the war. No, I am not trying to absolve every Russian citizen of responsibility for what is being done in the name of our people.
But we should not exaggerate the extent of support for the so-called ‘special operation”’.

Anya, you of all people would be able to talk about the huge volunteer movement to help refugees from Ukraine, which now involves thousands of our citizens. Well-structured networks have formed which help refugees both to leave Russia and to stay on and survive in the country.

These people are citizens, not Putin’s “cogs bound to carry out without questioning, the political gambles of those who have appropriated power, the ‘cogs’ that have no right to anything, including a dignified death“, to use your own words.

In the definition of Polish dissident Adam Michnik, “patriotism is defined by the measure of shame one feels for crimes committed in the name of one’s people”.

We, many of us, are ashamed, but the country will be different when we succeed in transforming this shame into something constructive and learn to take responsibility for what is being done in our name.

You, Anna Politkovskaya, are an example of such transformation of shame for all of us today.

With love,

Svetlana Gannushkina

Svetlana Gannushkina, one of Russia’s most respected human rights defenders, whose life has been put in danger many times, has spoken out against the war in Ukraine from day one. On her eightieth birthday in March 2022, she stood with a placard in Moscow’s Red Square, for which she was detained, accused of participating in an anti-war protest and later found guilty of violating the law on public assemblies. Svetlana had been a board member of the Memorial Society and a founder of the Civic Assistance Committee, both of which were designated “foreign agents” by Russian authorities and in late 2021, the Memorial was dissolved. Svetlana then became a co-founder and member of the board of a new human rights organisation, the Memorial Human Rights Centre. Svetlana Gannushkina has worked courageously in all wars and armed conflicts in the former Soviet Union – the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, two Chechen wars and today she continues to support refugees from the war in Ukraine and speak out against the war while risking imprisonment and persecution by the Russian regime. Svetlana Gannushkina was a close associate of Anna Politkovskaya and they often worked together during the war in Chechnya.