J.T.’s Note: It wasn’t until after I finished writing this review that I realized I’d forgotten to include the usual textual references. However, I’ve already sent the book back to the library, so you’re just going to have to trust me on my word here. Books like this – that bank heavily on emotional appeals – warrant more emotional responses, and that’s how this review will likely appear.
First, a brief background on Anna Politkovskaya, author of A Russian Diary.
Anna Politkovskaya was a Russian journalist and human rights activist well-known for her opposition to the Chechen conflict and Russian president Putin. Politkovskaya made her name reporting from Chechnya. She authored several books about the Chechen wars as well as Putin’s Russia and received numerous prestigious international awards for her work. Politkovskaya was murdered in the elevator of her apartment Oct. 7, 2006. (It can be argued that the murder of Politkovskaya was/is being manipulated by the international press to raise anti-Russian sentiments, but you’ll have to go to another blog for more on that topic.) A Russian Diary is her final book, published posthumously and billed as ‘A devastating account of contemporary Russia by a great and brave writer’.
I had some difficulty getting through A Russian Diary. Politkovskaya may have been a professional journalist but it’s clear that she eschewed all objectivity when writing this book. The negative tone of the diary updates continue throughout. В России, все плохо и становится все хуже. There is no silver lining and no light at the end of the tunnel. Mind you, this was during 2006 – around the time when, it can be argued, Russia was experiencing a boom and salaries/living standards were on the rise. The writing is filled with so much hate against President Vladimir Putin and his regime that it was almost impossible to separate the facts from Politkovskaya’s personal beliefs. To read her version of the story, Putin uses Russia as his personal toy and piggy bank, and has single-handedly destroyed all that is good about the country in the process. That’s a pretty bold claim to make – even for a personal diary, I would say.
In her book, Politkovskaya follows a so-called journalistic formula: there are a few key arguments, and then focus is turned on people’s life situations as if to prove the arguments; but the interrelation stays on a purely emotional level. The book continuously jumps from one event to another and often makes some rather spurious connections. Her linking friendly fire incidents, presidential has-been candidates, and other subjects to a corrupt government are stretches at the least and oftentimes appear as chasing ghosts. Her voice and tone are very serious, but she lacks the depth of material to cover the length of the book. My dilemma is not with her provocative ideas, but with the way that they are carried here.
In the end, though, I could not bring myself to give A Russian Diary the one-star treatment. However biased the book may be, the important issues of corruption and misuse of power in Russia are not ignored or covered up. That’s admirable, even if Politkovskaya could have gone about making her points in a more effective way. Make of that what you will.
My advice is to read it if you’re interested, but just know that you’ll be getting a very distorted picture of Putin’s Russia.
A Russian Diary: A Journalist’s Final Account of Life, Corruption, and Death in Putin’s Russia by Anna Politkovskaya. Pub. 2007 by Random House NY. Hardcover, 369 pages. ISBN13: 9781400066827