Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russian Lawmaker's Killing 'Marked Beginning Of End'

Galina Starovoitova tried hard to keep the democratic spirit of '89 alive in the new Russia -- and probably paid for it with her life.
Galina Starovoitova tried hard to keep the democratic spirit of '89 alive in the new Russia -- and probably paid for it with her life.
Most of all I remember the crowds. The angry and bewildered masses gathered on St. Petersburg's Palace Square the morning after the assassination. The throngs of grieving ordinary people lining up to view her open casket. The haunting scenes of shivering pensioners in shabby overcoats crashing the gates at Aleksandr Nevsky Monastery to watch the twilight burial.

Ten years ago, on November 20, 1998, State Duma Deputy and human rights activist Galina Starovoitova was gunned down in the stairwell of her St. Petersburg apartment. Depressingly -- but not surprisingly -- those who ordered the killing are nowhere close to being brought to justice.

As a journalist working in St. Petersburg at the time, I knew Galina well, covered the aftermath of her assassination, and even endured a frightening interrogation at the hands of the Federal Security Security (FSB) as part of their so-called "investigation" into the killing.

Recent Russian history is littered with depressing watersheds and turning points as the country abandoned its clumsy, tentative, and half-hearted experiment with democracy in the 1990s.

For me, in hindsight, November 20, 1998 was truly the beginning of the end.

Class Of '89

Starovoitova was a leading member of Russia's Class of 1989, a collection of outsiders, intellectuals, ex-dissidents, and reform communists who rose to national prominence as members of the USSR's Congress of Peoples' Deputies following the Soviet Union's first-ever competitive legislative elections in the spring of that year.

Some of them, like former President Boris Yeltsin, eventually rose to the pinnacle of political power in the new Russia only to bitterly disappoint. Others, like Nobel laureate and human rights champion Andrei Sakharov, tragically died before the Soviet collapse. Most eventually just faded into obscurity.

But a few, like Starovoitova, stayed true to the principles that won her a seat in the first democratically elected Soviet parliament. Against the odds, she tried hard to keep the democratic spirit of '89 alive in the new Russia. And she probably paid for this with her life.

Starovoitova was killed weeks before a hotly contested local legislative election in St. Petersburg. As a federal lawmaker, she infuriated the city's retrograde bureaucracy during that campaign by throwing her weight behind a group of process-oriented reformers who were trying to create a more accountable local government.

An ethnographer who made her name with groundbreaking field work in the Caucasus region, Starovoitova was one of the last intellectuals remaining in Russian politics in the late 1990s.

Acid Tongue

Not that she was perfect. She could be petulant, like when she shunned her former ally Yeltsin when he launched the first Chechen war in 1994, refusing to even speak to him for years thereafter. She had an acid tongue, once offering mock praise for Communist lawmakers on the floor of the State Duma during the August 1998 financial collapse. "You say you want to return to the Soviet Union. Well congratulations! You're fulfilling your plan. The shelves in all the stores are empty!"

And she fought like an alley cat for her constituents, meeting them regularly and going to bat for them in cases of official abuse and neglect. She was not popular with the bureaucracy.

And this explains the spontaneous crowds of ordinary people pouring out on to St. Petersburg's frigid streets to mourn her death. It was as if they knew something that I missed at the time -- that the brief age where politicians like Starovoitova had any influence was over. "It is like we have all woken up in a different country," liberal politician Irina Khakamada memorably said at the funeral.

And indeed they had. Less than a year after her death, the last remnants of democracy were being rooted out, Russian troops were back in Chechnya for a second time in a decade, and an obscure KGB officer named Vladimir Putin was riding a wave of xenophobia to the Kremlin.

These days, the only crowds allowed to pour out on the streets in Russia are those singing Putin's praises -- or denouncing and harassing his enemies.

Shortly before she was killed, Starovoitova said she was deeply concerned that Yeltsin's successor could turn out to be a "potential dictator" with little interest in democracy.

How right you were, Galina.