Anna Politkovskaya, the brave Russian journalist murdered in cold blood, has been laid to rest in a moving ceremony in a Moscow suburb, according to a report in The New York Sun. Over a thousand mourners paid their respects as she lay in an open casket, a white ribbon tied around her head in accord with Orthodox custom.

Politkovskaya, who worked at a pro-democracy paper, was shot four times in the stairwell of her Moscow apartment building. The New York Times notes she was the mother of two grown children but lived alone, in part because she knew her life was at risk. The Times describes her murder as having “had the stench of a political assassination.” Her death is all the more hideous because it is part of an ominous and growing pattern in Russia: According to Reporters Without Borders, this is the twelfth time in the past six years a journalist in Russia has been killed.

The New York Post quotes filmmaker Cal Skaggs, who interviewed Politkovskaya for his documentary, “Democracy on Deadline,” to be aired November 21 on PBS. According to Skaggs, her response to the threat was, “If you let this terrify you, you can’t do anything.”

In 2004, Politkovskaya told Skaggs: “Everyone has a conscience…I think I currently fulfill all the obligations I have to my conscience…Pushing aside information about what is happening near you in your time is shameless.” Skaggs adds, “The fierceness of her will was incredible.” One of her editors told him, “‘Anna believes that journalism is worth a life.'”

Garry Kasporov, a former world chess champion who knew her, writes in The Wall Street Journal:

To know Anna was to know how profoundly she cared. She felt the pain of others deeply and communicated that passion in her work…She tenaciously investigated the government cover-ups around the Beslan and the Nord-Ost theater terrorist attacks, in which hundreds of civilians were killed. She took on the most sensitive stories and the most painful subjects. She was an inspiration because she was never intimidated….

As described in a Journal editorial, she was renowned for her reports on human rights abuses in Chechnya and accused the region’s brutal, Kremlin-supported prime minister of abductions and torture of civilians. In her last interview, Politkovskaya related incidents of kidnappings, including one personally involving the prime minister, whom she described as living in the “Middle Ages.” She also exposed the brutal conditions under which Russian soldiers lived in Chechnya.

In 2001 she was held by the Russian military in Chechnya and poisoned in 2004 en route to the hostage-taking in Beslan, near Chechnya.

In “Putin’s Russia,” Politkovskaya lambasted the Russian president for continuing to act “like a lieutenant-colonel in the Soviet KGB” and “crushing liberty just as he did earlier in his career.”

Another friend of Politkovskaya and director of the World Security Institute, Nikolai Zlobin, characterized her as a defender of “the poor and miserable…especially women and children.” “She never cared about financial satisfaction,” he said, “but about justice.”

What is it that made Politkovskaya a paragon of courage and conscience? Indeed, how does any such hero emerge?

The question is an age-old one. In The Republic, Plato identified courage as one of the foremost of all virtues – excellence – associating it with energy and determination. In modern times, various thinkers, notably psychologist Ervin Staub, have tried to distinguish the origins and characteristics of (what he calls) “heroic rescuers.”

The rescuers risk their lives to save others because:

  • Their parents transmit to them powerful moral and humanitarian concerns and values and, consequently, they had empathy for those who suffer and were repelled by brutal systems. Thus, they are “norm-centered” and feel a profound connection to other human beings.

  • They seem by nature unusually self-confident, adventurous and confident.

  • They have a sense of  “social separateness” that permits of a different viewpoint and decreases “fear of risking one’s relationship with the majority group.” When confronted with the persecution of others, they felt obliged to uphold the (religious, political and resistance) minority group norms.

  • Their repeated deeds on behalf of persecuted people tend to strengthen their sense of connection to the persecuted and their ability to help.

By contrast, “passive, nonhelping bystanders” incline toward a sense of disconnectedness and inability to engage in heroic action (The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence, pp. 166-167).

May those with the mettle of Politkovskaya – a heroic rescuer unafraid to tell the truth at terrible personal cost – forever dwell among us. And may their ranks increase.