Most crimes that affect the French in such a visceral way are rooted in something more abstract: economic crimes, discrimination, corruption. The cold, high-profile murder of writer-journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 seems to be part of a history of a different kind.
When Dmitri Kozlovsky was arrested in 2011 for killing Anna Politkovskaya, for one thing, he had permission from the Russian general prosecutor’s office, part of the administrative branch of the country’s government. (Kozlovsky was never convicted of the crime, but in Russia, being convicted in absentia is a criminal offence. Politkovskaya’s murder initially remained classified as an “anti-state” incident.)
At the heart of the murder is one of those unresolved factors that make France seem like a foreign country to others, a secret to foreigners. This is a country that venerates the rule of law; where crimes are supposed to be punished in court. Not so in Russia. The general prosecutor in court ruled that Politkovskaya was murdered to silence her as an opposition journalist—a woman who had been well-known for her interviews with Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, Russia’s most wanted man. But in France, especially in the Cote d’Azur, this dark, drawn-out murder seems to have never been seriously investigated.
It’s been eight years since Politkovskaya’s murder—and quite a while since a French institution, the École des Beaux-Arts d’Acadie, and its renowned French-speaking law professor Jean-Philippe Chauvail, publicly discredited the Russian authorities. In a paper on how Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius tried to ensure that the Politkovskaya murder was not swept under the rug, Chauvail noted that his frustration about the increasingly odd way the Russians handled the matter was expressed in unusually blunt terms.
“As a former minister,” Chauvail wrote, Fabius “expressed his official displeasure with the Russian position vis-à-vis Anna Politkovskaya’s murder. I suggest that, in his view, this position undermined the whole atmosphere of international respect for judicial mechanisms. In sum, the Russian position was, in its essence, opposed to respect for justice.”
According to France’s most famous police-guru, Pierre Sprey, a group of junior officials who worked for him in Germany in the mid-1990s decided that they would not let stories like Politkovskaya’s get under their skin. “They told me, ‘We have a principle—’no punishment for the guilty’. This philosophy in my opinion has nothing to do with their judgments but everything to do with the impunity that plagues the Russian justice system,” he told me in 2012.
French detectives in Moscow kept pressing the Russian authorities on this score; Sprey, who raised the issue with the French interior minister, Sarkozy, and with the French ambassador to Moscow, got nowhere. Russia’s nascent new information-systems directorate, instituted after the fall of the Soviet Union, was extremely reluctant to hand over information to the French. But French police simply did not want to engage.