The Sacrificial Truth


As students, we are raised to be truth-seekers. We are given questions; we think read rethink discuss rerethink and, ultimately, try to muster up some kind of answer. Anna Politkovskaya sought the truth to unspoken questions about Putin’s Russia. Sought. Past tense. Far from a red-ink tick, Anna’s answers were met with red blood: she was shot dead as the lift doors opened in her apartment block on 7 October 2006.

Several days ago, I found myself in a narrow underground corridor, shoulder to shoulder with equally bewildered onlookers, backed against the wall. On arrival for a performance of Anna by Badac Theatre Company, we had been ushered into a lift that plummeted before revealing a woman, distressed, begging us to listen to her story.

This, of course, was the story of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had chronicled human rights abuses in Chechnya for the Novaya Gazeta, as well as publishing a personal account of wider conditions in her country. Her essay ‘Am I Afraid?’ begins with the lines: “If anybody thinks they can take comfort from the ‘optimistic’ forecast, let them do so. It is certainly the easier way, but it is the death sentence for our grandchildren.”Russian_Federation_(orthographic_projection)

The play Anna was written by Steve Lambert, who told me that he had been blown away by a video Letter to Anna. The film had brought home the fact that his theatre company’s human rights work was only made possible by someone risking their safety to broadcast such abuses. “Anna’s story epitomises that danger”, he explained, and eighteen months later, audiences bore witness to the project that was born from this realisation.

The lead up to this was laborious. Steve confessed: “Getting into her mindset was difficult, because she didn’t write about herself. Only about other people.” Alongside Marnie Baxter, who played Anna, Steve carried out much research, even talking to Anna’s friends, colleagues, and relatives. The harrowing reports that surfaced are rammed into every minute of the hour-long play. It is discomfiting. Anna’s anguished stare, sometimes held for as long as a minute, is not easily shrugged away. The Russian officers’ unhinged periods of cursing are not easily soaped off the skin. The relentless overhanging heavy breathing of ‘Our Glorious Leader’ is not easily tuned out.

I asked Steve what he would say to Putin, given the chance. “I would ask him firstly if he was involved in Anna’s murder, and secondly, if he could stop the process of destroying his own country and those around him.” The 2014 Winter Olympics loom, and Russia is in the spotlight. Putin’s crackdown on homosexuality has sparked something of a battle, and voices are being raised. Anna’s words on the Chechen war resound: “People ask me: ‘Why do you write about this war?’ The reason is quite simple: we are contemporaries of this savage conflict and, in the end, we will have to answer for it”.

Reactions to the show, Steve? “Some love it. Some hate it. Some people cry. Some are left cold. That is the nature of the work. It divides. Exactly what theatre should do!” But when it comes to the objective truth, we must all commit. Anna’s legacy lies in her determined delivery of the facts, and refusal to be bullied into a sanctioned ‘truth’. Her life’s work was testimony to the most important of facts: fear need not be a padlock on honesty.

Annis being performed in Summerhall, Edinburgh until 25 August.


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