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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Just before he died, Alexander Litvinenko accused Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, of orchestrating his death. Moscow has denied involvement, but the fatal poisoning of the former Russian spy follows the very public death of another Putin critic, journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

YDSTIE: We asked people in Pushkin Square in the heart of Moscow whether they believed the Kremlin had a role in the former spy's mysterious death.

Unidentified Man #1: (Through translator) It sounds delirious to me. I do not believe he was poisoned. It looks like a trick to me.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through translator) I think only one thing: that Putin is not involved because it doesn't benefit him. I am convinced, no.

Unidentified Man #3: (Through translator) It's clear that Putin understands that if he kills just a few people at a time, it's okay. The same about Politkovskaya. They were killed for the same reason: to remind Putin's opponents that he can hurt them.

YDSTIE: Voices from Moscow's Pushkin Square. To find out how President Putin fits into all this, we turn to New Yorker editor David Remnick. He's the author of "Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire."

MONTAGNE: He joins us from his office at The New Yorker. Good morning.

Mr. DAVID REMNICK (Editor, The New Yorker; Author, "Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire"): Hi, Renee. How are you?

MONTAGNE: Fine, thank you. Let's just start with why so many people - whether they're correct or not in this accusation - have speculated that President Putin had something to do with this poisoning.

Mr. REMNICK: I think the speculation is rooted in the fact that there have been so many of these incidents over time. And also they noticed that his reaction to them is not exactly one of fantastic grief.

In fact, after Anna Politkovskaya - the newspaper journalist - was killed in her elevator in Moscow, he basically smirked and said that her articles had no effect whatsoever and only foreigners read them. And her death has had more impact than her articles themselves.

It was a rather chilling moment. And it's that combination of things that has given people terrific pause, I think, both in Russia and here.

MONTAGNE: Now, there is a recent law from just this summer that was passed that has to do in Russia with extrajudicial killings abroad. And from what I understand of it, one aspect of it is that it defines the crime for which one could be killed - it's slandering the individual occupying the post of president.

Mr. REMNICK: Right. There's a long history of this in Russian history and Soviet history of trying to legally muffle criticism of the head of state. In fact, if you were to look in the larger context of what's going on in Russia, you've got a country that is advancing enormously in terms of its financial standing.

Natural gas and oil have been an enormous boon to the Russian economy, which give it a kind of confidence and swagger. And at the same time, politically, it's looking more and more backward.

MONTAGNE: Walk us through, if you could, specific things that President Putin has done that one might call undemocratic.

Mr. REMNICK: The list is long, but the list would have to begin with the elimination of any sense of political opposition. You can pick up newspapers that seemingly are very lively and are filled all kinds of differing points of views. That's fine, but those newspapers now have absolutely minimal circulation, and similar reporting is not allowed on the medium that everyone sees and everybody listens to, and that's television. So it's not a communist era elimination of the free press. It's actually a very clever trumping of the press so that all opposition is kind of sent into the corner where it can quarrel together.

MONTAGNE: How, then, does the question of President Putin rolling back democracy, if you will - how does that fit in to stories of assassinations and killings?

Mr. REMNICK: Well, the larger political context here is that Putin looked at the disaster of the late Yeltsin period and its chaos, its violence - and he decided that his goal as Russian president was, above all, stability.

His background, as I don't need to tell you, is one as a KGB operative, and so everything in his training, in his soul was not exactly that of a democratic reformer.

MONTAGNE: Yet Vladimir Putin remains, according to polls, popular with Russians.

Mr. REMNICK: Well, I think he's popular insofar as polls in an authoritarian state mean anything. You're talking about a state that really doesn't permit political opposition or real politics.

Anytime real politics begins to form, it's snuffed, and it's done rather easily, and all in the interest of stability, which to Putin's - I guess you could call it - credit has been the source of his power in the last seven years.

MONTAGNE: David, thank you.

Mr. REMNICK: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: David Remnick is editor of The New Yorker. He's also the author of "Lenin's Tomb."

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