Burying a Russian Journalist

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People lay flowers at the grave of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow October 10, 2006.

Neither cold weather nor heavy rain could stop thousands upon thousands of people grimly walking to the funeral hall of the Troyekurovskoye cemetery on a distant edge of Moscow, to pay their last respects to journalist Anna Politkovskaya, assassinated last Saturday.

"Nature is weeping in rain when they bury an honest person," sighed a middle-aged, ordinary-looking woman in the crowd. However banal, her words reflected the common mood. The grief for a journalist murdered for speaking the truth about war crimes in Russia had brought together a range of people who in past decades would never have voluntarily found themselves in the same company.

A former KGB general, now a dissenting opposition politician himself, came to pay homage to Politkovskaya, because he has long admired her courage and honesty in untangling abuses in Chechnya and corruption in high places in Moscow, which the general believes are detrimental to Russia.

Old Soviet dissidents, once hunted by the general, came because they believe that Politkovskaya was one of the remaining few who stood by values and principles for which they had fought. "That is the problem that so many dissidents have become bosses now," said Maria Rosanova, a living legend of the erstwhile Soviet dissident movement, colleague and widow of late writer and thinker Andrei Sinyavsky. Sinyavsky's trial, along with Yuri Daniel back in 1966, had marked the beginning of the dissident era of the Soviet history.

Also in attendance were Politkovskaya's journalist colleagues, many of them long unemployed since their once-independent TV stations and publications were closed or taken over by Kremlin loyalists.

"Things feel these days as oppressive as back in the late 1970s," muttered one of them. "Journalists get killed just for speaking up."

The former KGB general offered this dark response: "People got jailed then, but didn't get killed. Now, it's getting worse."

Mused Dmitri Furman, Professor of the Russian Academy's of Sciences Institute of Europe: "In Soviet times, funerals of individuals frowned upon by the state but beloved by the people emerged as the only form of spontaneous public protest." Furman invoked the funeral of poet Boris Pasternak in 1960, which grew into the first spontaneous demonstration by the Soviet intelligentsia in decades. He also recalled the funeral of poet and bard Vladimir Vysotsky in 1980. In contrast to the refined Pasternak, the folksy Vysotsky, perennially restricted and harassed by the authorities, was as popular among ordinary Soviets as Elvis Presley had been among the Americans. Vysotsky's funeral grew into the first mass people's demonstration in Moscow, and so scared the authorities that his Taganka Theater was not allowed to stage a memorial performance to pay him homage.

Moscow, now grown opulent and apathetic on petrodollars and compliant to shrinking freedoms, has not seen such a mass demonstration in years. Nor have other cities like St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg in the Urals, where mass rallies to pay homage to Politkovskaya were also held. The badly divided remnants of once-strong liberal political parties fail to attract more than a few hundred to their rallies now. Perhaps, not unlike 25 years ago, it takes the funeral of an individual of rare honesty, courage and popularity to jolt the people out of complacency — and to the realization that there are too few like Politkovskaya left in their midst. But few of the embattled though sizable crowd gathered in the chilly rain to pay their last respects to a heroic journalist would have expected that 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they would have occasion to once again feel like dissidents in the face of an all-powerful state.