As a teenager I found my first real-life hero, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ernie Pyle. I read his vivid dispatches from battlefields with American troops in North Africa, Italy and France in an anthology titled Brave Men.
Over the years, I've had a handful of other heroes, most of them journalists. They're commentators who risk becoming pariahs and losing their livelihoods for speaking truth to power, and they are investigative reporters who put themselves in harm's way by chronicling the deeds and misdeeds of influential individuals and institutions with criminal and otherwise harmful agendas.
In 2010, I added Russian journalist Elena Milashina to my roster of heroes after reading her essay in the Wall Street Journal, "The High Price of Journalism in Putin's Russia."
I didn't think I'd ever meet Milashina, but I recently had the honor of interviewing her and having dinner with her in my home.
A reporter for Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper that is critical of the Kremlin, Milashina was in the United States with seven other women from around the world to receive the U.S. secretary of state's International Women of Courage Award on International Women's Day.
Her investigative work has included articles on extrajudicial kidnappings, botched counterterrorism operations, military disasters, drug trafficking and the murders of other journalists.
"I got my break as a journalist in 2000, covering the sinking of the Kursk submarine in the Barents Sea by getting a scoop from high-level sources in the Navy," she wrote. "This story taught me a lot about how the Putin government operates. In that case government officials tried to cover up the fact that 23 sailors aboard the submarine survived for many hours after a deadly explosion in the torpedo unit — precious hours during which the authorities did nothing to try to save their lives."
Although the Kursk tragedy was difficult to write about, Milashina had yet to learn the extent to which revealing government deception would affect her.
"I covered the biggest story of my life so far, the Beslan school siege, in the fall of 2004, and it left me with an almost crippling sense of frustration," she wrote. "Journalistically, it was a success: In a series of front-page stories, my team exposed what happened in that North Caucasus town when a group of armed militants took people hostage in a school for three days."
In official documents, the government reported 354 hostages. Milashina and her colleagues found that the number was more than 1,000. She discovered more official lies. The government contended, for example, that the hostage-takers set off the initial explosions in the school building. She learned that the secret services attacked first.
"The government pretended it tried to negotiate with the terrorists, but that never happened," she wrote. "The human cost of the government's 'rescue operation' was horrific. … We reported the truth, but no justice was rendered for the victims."
As a result of such reporting, several journalists at Novaya Gazeta have been beaten and murdered. One was Anna Politkovskaya, Milashina's mentor, who was gunned down in the elevator of her apartment building in central Moscow. Politkovskaya's final articles are collected in the book Is Journalism Worth Dying For?
Milashina also has been attacked for her work. She has been assaulted twice, the most serious outside her Moscow home last year. She suffered a concussion, 14 blood clots, a broken tooth and other injuries. She has received many threats from government officials, corporations and private citizens.
I asked her if she was careful. She said that because she knew that someone might try to kill her, she is careful and worries about the safety of her parents, brother, husband and friends.
"I've never had a situation where they have been threatened," she said. "But danger is always there. You must choose to be brave. I don't have children. When I saw the Besian school terrorist attack and saw 180 children die — shot with tanks and set on fire with flame throwers — I decided that I will not bring children into Russia."
What did she see herself doing in five years? I asked.
"I want to be a detective," she said. "In my country, there is no room for honest investigators. I think that in five years, everything will be okay in my country. And I think I will be alive."
Contact Bill Maxwell at [email protected]