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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- An Unforgettable Symbol Of Moral Courage

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 17 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Today would have been the 55th birthday of Galina Starovoitova, the Russian ethnographer and liberal democratic political activist. But her murder in St. Petersburg in November 1998 was an act that many who knew her still regard as a tragic turning point in post-Soviet Russian history.

At her funeral, Vladivostok Mayor Viktor Cherepkov said that "gone with Starovoitova is a people's faith in the government's ability to protect democracy in Russia." And the continuing failure of the authorities to bring her assassins to justice and the willingness of some of them to speculate that her death was somehow her own fault have only reinforced that conviction.

Starovoitova was only 52 at the time of her murder, but she had accomplished miracles in a variety of areas and won the love and respect of both those who knew her and many who admired her for what she did and even more because of what she stood for.

A member of the remarkable group of Soviet ethnopsychologists who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Starovoitova studied the Tatars and then the Armenians, and she became not only a student of these and other nationalities of the former Soviet Union but their advocate, often taking positions that put her at odds with Soviet officials and even many of her fellow Russians.

Her support for these ethnic minorities brought her into contact with Academician Andrei Sakharov and membership in the Moscow Helsinki Group. She was elected to the USSR Congress of People's Deputies from Armenia and to the Russian parliament where she promoted progressive legislation in a variety of areas. Later she served as an adviser to Russian President Boris Yeltsin on nationality issues.

Like many of the intellectual human rights activists of the late Soviet period, Starovoitova found it increasingly difficult to navigate in the rough and tumble of post-Soviet Russian life. One of her closest friends, Olga Lipovskaya, has observed that Starovoitova was "always very open and maybe too sincere for a politician. She didn't have a sense of the kind of danger she was in."

That judgment delivered shortly after her death which came as she was working to elect more liberal and democratic candidates in Russia's northern capital in many ways summed up her entire approach both to intellectual and political life and helps to explain why she succeeded in so much and remains so admired. But it also provides an important clue as to why she and others like her have suffered so many defeats in recent years.

In her academic work, Starovoitova was not afraid to ask questions that the Soviet authorities did not want anyone to raise. She was among the first to ask why national identities had not withered away in the USSR as Soviet ideology required and was willing to stake her professional reputation in pointing to causes that few in that country or elsewhere were prepared to examine.

Starovoitova described the ways in which competition for jobs and other preferments among people of different ethnic backgrounds had heightened identities rather than reduced them. And she followed up on that by supporting groups, like the Tatars in St. Petersburg and the Armenians in the Caucasus, that she believed had been mistreated by the state.

A more cautious scholar might not have challenged the ideology of the state, and a more carefully calculating politician might not have chosen issues, like the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, the predominantly Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan. Instead, Starovoitova might have sought to gain more allies for a partial victory rather than holding on to principles in ways that sometimes caused others to unite against her.

Starovoitova's approach guaranteed her widespread affection, but in the more open and often brutal politics of post-Soviet Russia, it did not ensure success for her goals. And that is not just her tragedy but the tragedy of her country and of the many nations it still contains.