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Russians' political apathy frustrates feisty young journalist

Anastasia Chukovskaya sees a desire for stability that comes at the expense of freedoms.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 28, 2008

Still feisty: Anastasia Chukovskaya quit political journalism but still grapples with Putin's rule.

Melanie Stetson Freeman – Staff

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As a first-year journalism student, Anastasia Chukovskaya envisioned herself peering down Russia's dark alleys, scratching out truth on a flimsy notebook. An intern with the BBC, she looked up to veteran Russian reporters like Anna Politkovskaya, renowned for exposing human rights abuses.

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Then, in 2006, Ms. Politkovskaya was shot in an apparent contract killing. Deeply affected, Ms. Chukovskaya quit political journalism and took a job with Elle magazine, which features her latest story: Russians volunteering for charity.

"People here do not need my truth," says Chukovskaya. "Why should I risk my life when they don't care?"

Working full time while she finishes her degree, Chukovskaya is surrounded by peers who, she says, talk about kids, stars, love, fashion – everything but politics. To her, it's a sign that the traditional Russian preference for a paternalistic – if not autocratic – state has reasserted itself after what many Russians see as the dismal experiment with liberal democracy in the 1990s. But in contrast to many of her generation, the young journalist energetically refuses to settle for a stability that, she argues, comes at the expense of freedom.

Maybe her defiance is rooted in the six years she spent in the US during her childhood, or the fact that she claims two distinguished great-grandfathers who both tangled with the Soviet state: children's poet Korney Chukovsky and renowned composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Or maybe it's just her familiarity with Western media. But Chukovskaya doesn't lack for words when she talks about the thrill of investigative projects or comments on the five newspapers she reads daily, dishing out wry remarks about a headline calling President Vladimir Putin's protégé "the new president" ("He hasn't been elected yet!") or a Russian Orthodox mass dedicated to nuclear weapons ("That's absurd!").

Just 21, she has already served as an assistant to visiting foreign correspondents and landed a regular gig freelancing for Cosmopolitan. "All you need to do is send in three good story ideas," she says, walking briskly through the February slush after a long day at Elle, a firm grip on her weathered leather briefcase.

Chukovskaya also worked with the prominent French director Nino Kirtadze on "Durakovo: Village of Fools," a documentary about a Russian Orthodox businessman. The film won an award at last month's Sundance film festival – and inspired her thesis on what she says is the manipulation of religion in Russia. "The main idea of the film was to show what Russian think about themselves, and what I heard shocked me," she says. "They say that all men who have power, have the power from God. If Putin has power, he has it from God ... for me, it is something barbarian."

For a society accustomed to strong leadership and paternalistic government, the country's controlled political situation and resurgent economy is a welcome relief to many. But critics warn of authoritarianism masquerading as democracy.

"[Mr.] Putin cares about image, about appearances ... but there are no checks and balances, no accountability, no relevant opposition," says Masha Lipman, a liberal political analyst at Moscow's Carnegie Center. "This government is sophisticated, it's subtle."