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We really need you, Anna! [Need] your belief that it is not hatred, but love for humanity, that will save us.

12 years on from Anna’s murder, 2018 Anna Politkovskaya Award winner, SVETLANA ALEXIEVICH, publishes a personal Letter to Anna on the anniversary of her murder. Today, the letter was printed in Anna’s paper in Moscow, Novaya Gazeta and in The Washington Post:

We really need you, Anna! [Need] your belief that it is not hatred, but love for humanity, that will save us.

Dear Anna,

I want to tell you about our lives without you. Where are we now? At what point in history? One thing is clear – not where we ever wanted to be. In the more than 10 years you have not been with us, we could have already been living in another country, turned from the GULAG Empire into a normal European state, as many of our neighbours have done. But as Stolypin famously put it: “In Russia, every ten years everything changes, and nothing changes in 200 years.” I am sick and tired of this quote, but it contains so much despair that is so familiar to us, that I want to repeat it.

Do you remember the 1990s – “dashing”, bloody, holy.. Do you remember what romantics we were, criminally romantic we were and we must admit it today. It was naïve of us to believe that if books by Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, Grossman appeared in our bookshops, books that had previously meant a prison sentence for those who read them, if we had free newspapers and different parties – not just the Communist Party, this would be the beginning of a normal life. We would be like everyone else. We would join the rest of the world, stop scaring everyone with our Iskander rockets. Rallies, hundred thousand strong, gathered in the squares, we walked about and chanted: “Freedom! Freedom!” It seemed to us that this eternal Russian dream, this wonderful creature so lovingly nurtured in our kitchens, where we used to gather and dream, was about to become reality, that literally tomorrow we will be free. No-one at the time could possibly know that a former convict, who spent his whole life in a prison camp, cannot just come out of the camp gates and become free overnight. He cannot be free because all he knows is his prison camp, all he can do is live inside his prison camp.

How many illusions we had then! We naively believed that as soon as we remove that henchman Dzerzhinsky from his granite pedestal, that would be enough, and the whole country would breathe free. And so they published Solzhenitsyn and Rybakov and everyone read everything. My friends and I, any intelligentsia household did not often own a decent coat but we all had large libraries. Now our children and grandchildren do not know what to do with all these books and thick magazines, they do not need them – they put them in the rubbish.

Yes, we ran around the squares and shouted: “Freedom! Freedom!” Yet no one knew what it meant. And then it began … Plants, factories, research facilities, enterprises were closing down – and what could we do with all that freedom? No-one had imagined that we would be free but destitute. Everyone wanted to be a master, not a servant. Even today, if you walk into an expensive shop and ask for a little extra attention it is taken as an offence, a sign of condescension. Yet everyone has only recently emerged from socialism, where everyone was poor, but equal in their poverty.

I think, Anna, you must have already seen those TV images: “new Russians” eating black caviar, boasting gold urinals in personal jets, largest yachts in the world, while people somewhere in Ryazan or on the Sakhalin Island, without any work or money, looked on with hungry eyes. No one thought about the people. Ideas were cherished, not people. Now we are surprised that our people’s heads are a real mish-mash of red-and-white, – right wing and left wing ideas. Because no-one had ever talked to them, no-one took pains to explain anything to them from TV screens. Now it is Putin who talks to them, he has learned from our mistakes. But it is not about Putin alone, Putin says what the people want to hear; I would say that every Russian is a little Putin. I am talking about the collective Putin: we thought that it was the Soviet power that was the problem, but it was all about the people. The “Sovok”, the Soviet mode of thinking, lives on in our minds and our genes. How quickly has the Stalinist machine set to work again … With what knowledge and excitement everyone is once again denouncing each other, catching spies, beating people up for being different, unlike everyone else … Stalin has risen! Throughout Russia they are building monuments to Stalin, putting up Stalin’s portraits, open museums in Stalin’s memory…

You passed away, Anna, with the belief that we had won the coup. Yet the years that we have lived without you have clearly shown that the coup had only hidden for a while, taken other forms, only to come back victorious. If anyone were to put on a T-shirt with Stalin’s picture or with the words ‘USSR’ in the 1990s, they would be made fun of. Now it is considered OK. There are dozens of books about Stalin lining our bookshops: books about Stalin’s women, about the great generalissimo during the war, about the wine he loved, about the cigarettes he liked to smoke. It is quite incomprehensible how people at the same time grieve for their innocent loved ones murdered by Stalin and express their love for Stalin. Nostalgia for everything Soviet. Russians want to have a Schengen visa, a foreign car, even if a second hand one, and hold on to their faith in Stalin.

The hardest thing you would find to accept is that Russians have learned to kill their brothers, they have learnt to hate. I could tell you how a Moscow taxi driver kicked me out of the car when he found out that I was from Western Ukraine, that my mother was Ukrainian, and that I loved Ukrainians. “Crimea is ours!” he yelled at me. “No, it is not yours, it is Ukrainian.” “Donbass is ours!” – “No, it is Ukrainian.” I am not sure if your heart, Anna, could endure this pain as well. Undoubtedly, you would have gone to the front line in Ukraine, undoubtedly you would have written your honest reports from there … If in the past bodies of soldiers in zinc coffins were brought back from Afghanistan and were buried secretly at night, today they bring back the so-called “Cargo 200” from Ukraine and Syria. But there is also a terrible difference – when I wrote my book, “Zinc Boys”, about the war in Afghanistan and would go to meet a mother waiting for a coffin with her son’ s remains, she would greet me with the words: “I shall tell you everything! Write the truth.” Today, mothers are silent, they talk in whispers. Only one of them admitted to the newspaper reporter: “I shan’t tell you anything, because they will not pay me compensation for my dead son. I want this money to buy an apartment for my daughter.”

Where did this happen? When? When did we turn back, sink back into the darkness of madness, fear and hatred of the Stalin years. We are still afraid to openly admit it to ourselves. But it is so. There is a war on … In the former Soviet Union, dozens of journalists have been killed, every year new names appear on this black list. Life in Russia is still in limbo between chaos and a prison barrack. It is not an accident that I often hear people in my circle talk about reading books on the 1930s’ Germany or the final years of the Russian Empire, on the eve of the Russian revolution. Ask yourself: why? Well, there are so many terrifying similarities with our life today. Some talk about the Third World War, others about the return of fascism.

Freedom is a long road … This is what we have learnt since your departure. We really need you, Anna! We have learnt from you that there can be no compromises in a war; even the smallest compromise makes you an accomplice. It would be much harder for all of us without everything you had managed to say and do. Without your belief, that it is not hatred, but love for humanity that will save us. Thank you for having been here and still being here.

Svetlana Alexievich

Go to Svetlana’s award page for more information