Plures efficimur, quoties metimur a vobis
(We multiply whenever we are mown down by you)
A few years ago, I became obsessed with a dead Russian woman. I never had the chance to meet her—she was murdered before I even knew her name—but sometimes I imagine she and I are having conversations.
This has been facilitated, I suppose, by my part-Ukrainian Orthodox upbringing, one in which the communion of saints was treated as a matter of fact. In this paradigm, we do not simply cherish memories of the dead. They are active agents, participants in grace.
And so, Anna Politkovskaya and I communicate, in a way.
It has helped too that she is a famous Russian woman and that her articles and books are readily available in English translations. Anna was a Moscow-based writer and journalist, well known for her reporting on the Kremlin’s “dirty war” in Chechnya and its dizzying record of war crimes.
The horrors are too numerous to recount here, but I can recall one of her first articles I read. It told of children at a school in the Shelkovsk region of Chechnya.
One day in late 2005, a thirteen-year-old girl began experiencing spasms and numbness in her limbs. This had never happened to her before. Soon, other students were falling mysteriously ill. Collapsing in math class. Seizures. Headaches. Hallucinations. Strange laughing fits. At its peak, nineteen children and adults from the school were hospitalized. Official state reports concluded it to be case of “mass psychosis due to stress.”
The school community, meanwhile, figured out that those who had made contact with the second floor girl’s restroom exhibited the worst symptoms. It was poison, they said, being tested on our children. Reporting for Novaya Gazeta, Anna also documented several similar incidents, arguing that “people who have the misfortune to live in Chechnya are seen as biomaterial for experiments.”
Anna herself was poisoned. (A cup of tea on an airplane, en route to assist with negotiations in the Beslan hostage crisis.) She survived then, but two years later came home alone one fall evening, dressed in all black and carrying a bag of groceries. A man in a baseball cap waited there. Anna was shot five times inside the elevator of her Moscow apartment building. The assassin left her crumpled on the ground like a pile of dead, wet leaves, a heap of groceries beside her.
Anna was killed on October 7, which happens to be Vladimir Putin’s birthday, which happens, also, to be my birthday.
I say that as if it were incidental—our shared birthdays and death day—but I grew up in my Ukrainian babusia’s kitchen, where her very intentional calendar was tacked to the wall above the toaster. The death days of friends and family were marked by names squeezed into its squares.
The page for each month looked like a cemetery map, paper coffins plotted in rows. We had to keep track of an exact death day because of the Trisagion prayer on the third day, the Panakhida on the fortieth, the six-month service, and the annual anniversary.
A loved one’s passing did not signal an end or even a reduction in contact made. If anything, it increased.
And so, Anna and I speak.
SB: What shoes did you wear in Chechnya?
AP: In Chechnya, twin baby girls were killed before they learned to walk.
SB: What did you dream of?
AP: Faint explosions and a silvery-violet, tulip-shaped column of smoke.
AP: Mass poisonings at schools in the Shelkovsk region.
SB: Are you frightened?
AP: The important question is something else: does anything change because of the article we have written, or because we have suffered as a result of writing it?
SB: But are you?
AP: I am a pariah.
As far as I can tell, Anna Politkovskaya was not practicing her faith at the time of her death, though she was laid to rest in a customary Orthodox burial service, a paper crown of glory on her forehead.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.
There is a long Russian legacy of the writer as truth-teller and martyr. In this tradition, Anna was the walking dead. When she received the 2002 Courage in Journalism Award in New York City, fellow journalist Mariane Pearl reportedly said, “I felt, and everyone in the room felt, that this woman is going to die.”
But like the widow, she persisted. (Anna’s own husband left her, work having put a terrible strain on their marriage.) She could not resist telling the truth. There was corruption to uncover, human dignity to defend, sacrifices to make, and mercies to beg.
Anna’s insistence that something could change as a result of suffering was no less than an insistence on conversion. She is, I believe, a holy martyr. And try as I do to dissuade myself from such romantic blasphemy—no doubt Anna would have rejected the label, too—I have found it absolutely impossible to think of her as anything else.
Have mercy on us, have mercy on us, have mercy. I invoke her.
Earlier this year I attended a reading given by Yale historian Timothy Snyder, whose work documents Europe’s bloody twentieth century and the regimes responsible for it. Snyder lamented that perhaps distance from the traumas of fascism and relative stability have lulled Americans into complacency.
We believe liberal democracy to be inevitable, he argued. Our political imagination is constrained.
I am grateful to Anna Politkovskaya for helping to widen mine, even if just a little. These days, American public life feels like the natural end product of our reality TV culture, truth more elusive than ever. In this milieu, the “official reports” leave a void.
An empty lot, a vacant yard, a plot of dead, blowing leaves. A place good for nothing, except maybe seeds.
“Anna Politkovskaya” by Glynis Mary McManamon, RGS, used with permission from the artist.
Sonya Bilocerkowycz’s essays and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Guernica, Colorado Review, The Southampton Review, Ninth Letter, Crab Orchard Review and elsewhere. Before completing her MFA at Ohio State, Sonya served as a Fulbright Fellow in Belarus, an educational recruiter in the Republic of Georgia, and as a visiting instructor at Ukrainian Catholic University in L’viv. She was named a finalist for the AWP’s Kurt Brown Prize in Creative Nonfiction and is Image‘s 2017-18 Milton Fellow.