Pete Glatter

A Russian Diary

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Anna Politkovskaya, Harvill Secker, £17.99

Anna Politkovskaya was a journalist who never stopped investigating the abuses of power no matter what the odds. But last October she was shot dead in the lift of her block of flats in Moscow.

There was some publicity in the West for her courageous stand against the Putin leadership, but she was in a media tomb well before the headlines were swamped by the poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who seems never to have taken a stand against one authority except for payment by another.

Russia: Rising from the East?

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A few years ago post Communist Russia was commonly dismissed as a basket case, argues Pete Glatter, but today fear of a resurgent Russia is driving a new agenda.

Just how democratic is post-Communist Russia? Why does Russia feel the need to dominate many of its neighbours? And how is Russia positioned in relation to the main imperialist powers? There are all questions that have a habit of recurring. The poisoning in London of the former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko, the assassination of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the threats to cut off gas supplies to Georgia and its decision to halt oil exports to Belarus - cutting off supplies to much of Europe - earlier this month, have all put the Russian questions back on the agenda.

Everything is Not What it Seems

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Review of '4 (Chetyre)', director Ilya Khrzhanovsky

This film won two awards at the Rotterdam Film Festival and has sparked controversy in Russia. 'Out of decency and respect for their country, no English or American producer would release such a film', said Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the official government newspaper. Khrzhanovsky, the film's 25 year old director, has alleged that everyone who worked on the film has either been physically attacked or had their property vandalised.

Tender Love and Care

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I'd like to add a few points to the article by Mike Gonzalez on Frida Kahlo (June SR).

You might have got the impression from some of the media coverage that she was an obsessive painter of self-portraits who was absorbed in herself. This exhibition makes it clear that she was not.

She was the daughter of a mestiza (mixed race) Mexican mother and an immigrant German father. She lived intensely but was constantly and painfully conscious of approaching death after a horrific accident at the age of 18. She fought for her own independence and integrity but found it almost impossible not to be emotionally dependent on Diego Rivera.

A Different Game?

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Mike Haynes's thoughtful article on the Putin leadership (May SR) was a welcome change from the superficial analysis of the mass media.

One minute they give the impression that Putin's the new Stalin, the next he's a lame duck, then he's Stalin again. Thanks to this kind of coverage on both sides, most of us still have no idea how hated Gorbachev was in Russia while many Russians still find it difficult to understand why Thatcher was so unpopular and had to go.

Incredible Tragedy

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In my review of Anna Politkovskaya's A Small Corner of Hell (April SR), I put the total number of war deaths in Chechnya at between 53,000 and 120,000 by the end of 2003 according to the latest credible estimate I could find.

However, I overlooked an even more credible estimate in A Century of State Murder? Death and Policy in Twentieth-Century Russia by Mike Haynes and Rumy Husan. This is a fascinating and invaluable book not just about Russia but also about the more general uses and abuses of 'facts and figures'. They put the overall figure at 190,000, 160,000 of them civilians - over 15 percent of the total civilian population.

Don't Mention This War Either

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Review of 'A Small Corner of Hell' by Anna Politkovskaya, University of Chicago Press £17.50

If you want to know what life is like at the receiving end of Russian imperialism, I don't think you could do much better than this grim little book. Anna Politkovskaya is a Russian journalist who has broken with her own imperial establishment to report on its atrocities in Chechnya - not just once or twice, but over and over again. She has cowered under Russian air attack together with Chechen refugees and been tortured by Russian officers as a pro-Chechen 'militant bitch'. Her extraordinary courage in one of the most dangerous places on earth makes her account all the more believable.

Azerbaijan: Haydar and Farewell

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The death of Haydar Aliyev, the 80 year old president of Azerbaijan, was less than headline news in the west. Once a key figure in the 'evil empire' of the Soviet Union, Aliyev ended up as one of the US's favourite Muslim rulers.

The first 30 years of his career in the dreaded Soviet secret police included the worst periods of Stalinist terror, when there were nearly a million political executions and up to 10 million political prisoners. By 1967 Aliyev was the chief of the Azerbaijani secret police. From 1969 he ran the country on behalf of his Russian masters. However, like other agents of Soviet rule in republics outside Russia, he also built up a network of local bureaucrats who were beholden to him for their jobs, perks and privileges.

Russia: Oligarch Enemies

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On 25 October, Russian state security agents stormed a private plane and arrested at gunpoint the dapper 40 year old Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, worth £4.7 billion.

Khodorkovsky headed the recently merged YukosSibneft, Russia's biggest private company and the world's fourth-largest oil producer with half-year profits in 2003 of £1.3 billion. His arrest marked the climax of a four-month, high-profile investigation. Three of his associates were already facing charges, one with ordering a murder, and a fourth had gone into exile.

Black Gold Against the Soul

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Review of 'The New Great Game', Lutz Kleveman, Atlantic £16.99

Lutz Kleveman's book takes us on an epic journey through the latest imperial playground, the oil-rich Caspian Sea and its vast hinterland, which stretches westward across the Caucasus into Europe, south to the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, and east through Central Asia to China. A journalist, Kleveman writes with enough passion and simplicity to shed light on his complicated subject and from enough personal experience to bring it vividly to life.

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