WHEN the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead by an assassin in the lift of her Moscow apartment block on Oct 7 last year, the news reverberated around the world. It was said that the conscience of contemporary Russia had been extinguished.
The South African writer Nadine Gordimer described her murder as 'an attack on world literature'. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, called it 'a grave crime against the country, against all of us'.
Ms Politkovskaya's death, at the age of 48 and at the height of her powers, was greeted more with shock and anguish than with surprise. She had received countless death threats, and there had already been at least one attempt on her life. When you read her writings, you can see why she would have made many enemies among the powerful in Russia, whose misdeeds, cruelties, sleights of hand, untruths and cover-ups she exposed with devastating clarity. As the television presenter Jon Snow says in the foreword to her Diary: 'In some ways, it's miraculous that she lived as long as she did.'
It is a testament to her skill and courage that Ms Politkovskaya came to be famous, feared and fearless even though she worked, not for one of the mainline dailies or big TV stations, but for a small bi-weekly newspaper, Novaya Gazeta.
She had a big canvas, writing about society, politics, war, the machinations of apparatchiks, the neglect of social services and the big tragedies in the lives of little people. 'Those at the top and bottom of our society might as well be living on different planets,' she wrote.
There are few more witheringly critical chroniclers of the Putin era in Russia. Ms Politkovskaya was no fan of the Russian president, the ex-KGB officer whom she openly accused of systematically dismantling whatever fledgling democratic structures and traditions he had inherited. 'He trusts nobody and that is a fundamental characteristic of Putin's rule,' she wrote. 'The concomitant is the certainty that only he, Putin, knows what is best for the country.'
Some Russians found her obsessive in her opposition to Vladimir Putin, about whom - unfairly - she hardly has a kind word anywhere in her diary. She was also deeply cynical of the regime he spawned. Reading her, what comes through is that the oligarchs and mafiosos who ruled Russia in the pre-Putin period have simply been replaced by characters of similar ilk, but this time, with the state behind them. 'Our state authorities are today only interested in making money,' she said. 'That is literally all they are interested in.'
The dark and greedy tendencies of the Russian state also emerged in her take on the fall of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the one-time boss of the giant oil company Yukos, who was imprisoned by the Putin regime for 10years on charges of fraud and tax evasion.
'Why did Khodorkovsky come to grief?' she asked. 'He was no different from the rest of those who have amassed fabulous fortunes in record time ... When he was a billionaire, however, he said: 'Stop! Yukos will become the most transparent and non-criminal company in Russia, using Western business methods.' He began creating a new Yukos, but all around him, people remained at large who had absolutely no desire for transparency, people whose very nature is to work in the shadows, away from the light. They set about devouring Yukos.'
There is more to the story than this, however: while Mr Khodorkovsky's mission to promote corporate transparency (after becoming a billionaire in its absence) may not have been welcome to officialdom, even less welcome was his increasingly brazen challenge of the Putin regime, through the funding of opposition parties. Had he not done that, many observers believe he would have been permitted to keep his ill-gotten wealth, as indeed many oligarchs did.
But while Ms Politkovskaya may not have been strong on business reporting and there is not much of that in her diaries, she is at her best when covering war. 'I am not a war correspondent,' she once said. 'All my working life, I wrote about the state of our orphanages, our old people's homes. I was interested in reviving Russia's pre-revolutionary tradition of writing about our social problems.'
But when Russia's war in Chechnya intensified and the state propaganda regime went into overdrive, she went to Chechnya to see for herself what was really going on. Her more than 50 visits to the region produced some of the most vivid and graphic reporting of Russia's 'dirty war' you can read anywhere. Ms Politkovskaya's despatches from Chechnya are matter-of-fact, yet moving, as brutally truthful as photographs. Her accounts of tortured schoolboys, of people dragged from their homes without even their shoes and never seen again, of the random and mindless atrocities that devastated families and entire societies give us a heart-rending picture of the real victims of the Chechen wars.
They weren't only on the Chechen side. Ms Politkovskaya also wrote about the government's callousness toward tens of thousands of Russia's traumatised ex-servicemen, young veterans of the wars, who were sent back to their remote little towns after they were wounded or disabled, and became alcoholics, junkies and thieves. Shunned by society and forgotten by the state, they too are among the 'little people at the bottom of the pile', whose voices we would never have heard if not for Ms Politkovskaya.
She was not a 'balanced' writer; she clearly took sides - and there are, no doubt, other sides to many of the stories she tells. But Anna Politkovskaya spoke up for all those who suffered, whatever side they were on, who would never have a chance to speak. She did it with honesty and compassion, and with a clear voice. In the process, she took enormous risks and, in the end, paid for them with her life. Her diary is an example of journalism at its bravest, straight from the heart. If you read one book on Russia this year, make it this one.