A year has passed since Russian President Vladimir Putin opened a full-scale war on Ukraine, on February 24, 2022, falsely claiming that it was only an operation to bring about the “de-Nazification” and “de-militarisation” of the country. So far, the Russian forces and their proxies have caused tens of thousands of dead and wounded Ukrainians, carried out a chain of massacres, used rape as a weapon of war, set up “filtration camps” for the mass incarceration of civilians under the pretext of finding fighters from among them, forcibly relocated mass population, destroyed entire neighbourhoods and villages, starved residents and detainees, committed extensive looting and torture almost everywhere they passed.
What is Putin’s masterplan and does he really have full knowledge of what is happening on the ground? These are the two main questions asked by commentators and probably intelligence services in many countries. At least, the fate of Ukrainian residents in the combat zones and areas under Russian occupation should not have surprised anyone. Even if the circumstances and proportions are different, Russia’s atrocities and terrorist methods in Ukraine are similar to those that it engaged in earlier under the leadership of Putin, first as prime minister and within a few months as president, during the second war in Chechnya that took place between 1999-2009.
Journalist Anna Politkovskaya was among the unusual voices in the press in Russia, who covered the war in Chechnya critically. She refused to stop her journalistic work despite threats, violence, arrest and attempted poisoning. A selection of her articles that in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, whose editor received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2020, are collected in the book The Dirty War – its descriptions of the war in Chechnya overlaps with the daily reports of Russia’s crimes in Ukraine now.
Politkovskaya did not sit in an office in Moscow and remotely collect information from sources or human rights organisations, but repeatedly came to Chechnya and the neighbouring Russian Republic of Dagestan, met and interviewed refugees, women, senior citizens, fighters and members of Chechen militias, but also Chechen collaborators, Russian soldiers and officials. In her articles, she not only described atrocities that are similar to those taking place in Ukraine over the past year, but also exposed the propaganda and corruption machine of Putin and its security forces. A machine that relies on the cooperation of most of the Russian press, whose role during wars is to spread hysteria and patriotism at the same time.
In her November 4, 1999, article published in the Novaya Gazeta newspaper and quoted in the book, Politkovskaya explained, “You probably think I’m writing all this to stir your pity. My fellow citizens have indeed proved a hard-hearted lot. You sit enjoying your breakfast, listening to stirring reports about the war in the North Caucasus, in which the most terrible and disturbing facts are sanitised so that the voters don’t choke on their food. But my notes have a quite different purpose, they are written for the future. They are the testimony of the innocent victims of the new Chechen war, which is why I record all the detail I can”.
From reading Politkovskaya’s articles, it’s hard to believe that she really gave up any hope of being able to influence reality in real-time, and believed that her dangerous journalistic work was only meant to build with words a monument to the people of Chechnya. Politkovskaya repeatedly published facts that contradicted the Kremlin’s official propaganda about the war in Chechnya, which, like the war now taking place in Ukraine, was also officially denied and defined only as an “operation” and even included several fake announcements about victory and the achievement of “pacification” while the fighting continued on the ground.
Her articles were interwoven with details of human stories: the elders who remained trapped without food and medicine in a nursing home in the bombed-out capital of Grozny, mothers and grandmothers who lost their loved ones. These stories, combined with the publication of proof that the Kremlin had lied, may have been intended to motivate her Russian readers to take political action, or at least rethink the Kremlin’s propaganda. Politkovskaya knew that her articles were also read by the Russian political and security elites, and they included embarrassing details about the dysfunction of the Russian security forces and bureaucracy, while explaining how they harmed even Russia’s own interests. In particular, Politkovskaya dealt with the absurdity and cruelty of the Russian bureaucracy, which led both to widespread corruption and to the violation of the rights of even the Russian soldiers. It seems that by choosing these writing tactics, she hoped that even if the chances are very small, there might be a small correction within the system.
On Putin’s birthday – on October 7 – in 2006, Anna was shot to death in the elevator of her apartment building. Two bullets to the heart, a third bullet to the shoulder and a fourth in the head.
Amira Hass, an Israeli Sisyphus
Israel’s war machine also relies on the cooperation of a majority of the Israeli press, whose role is to spread hysteria and patriotism at the same time. When you read Politkovskaya, you hear the words of the Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who covers the conduct of war crimes, crimes against humanity and terror of the State of Israel against the Palestinian people. Similar to Politkovskaya, Hass is like Sisyphus: in each article she publishes in the Haaretz newspaper, she’s rolling a huge rock up a mountain, one that is built from the lies of the Israeli military (IDF), police, Ministry of Defence, Israeli Security Agency (Shin Bet) and the military’s civil administration, the absurd and cruel Israeli bureaucracy and the human suffering they altogether create – only to reach the mountain top and watch the rock fall back down until her next article. The story keeps repeating, but reality just keeps deteriorating.
Similar to Politkovskaya, who motivated her readers to donate food, clothes and medicine for those elderly who were trapped in the nursing home in Grozny, Hass periodically uses her articles to help solve humanitarian or bureaucratic problems of Palestinian individuals – from releasing a confiscated tractor needed for a community of farmers’ economic survival, to getting a permit to enter Israel for life-saving medical treatments. As Politkovskaya found that a particularly violent unit responsible for suppressing uprisings in the prisons was sent to “supervise” the Chechen refugees, Hass is working hard to identify and name the specific units of the Israeli military, police and bureaucracy, and also to name the judges, lawyers, and other Israeli individuals who are responsible for the abuses against the Palestinians. Just as Politkovskaya tried to understand the chain of theft of the supplies that were meant for Chechen refugees who were under the responsibility of the Ministry of Emergency Situations – whose minister at the time is the one who is now serving as Putin’s defence minister in the current war in Ukraine – Amira is analysing the chain of theft of water from the Palestinian communities.
Similar to Politkovskaya’s words, Hass seems to understand that in Israel the hearts of most Israeli-Jewish citizens are hard and that all the Israeli governments and most of the Israeli journalists censor the most terrible and disturbing facts so that the Israeli voters don’t choke on their food. Nevertheless, Hass still continues.
Eitay Mack is a human rights lawyer and activist based in Jerusalem.