The Magazine

RUSSIA'S LOST LIONESS

Dec 14, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 13 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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GALINA STAROVOITOVA was a brilliant and memorable member of Russia's Duma. To admirers, she was a lioness, fiercely defending Russia's ethnic minorities from the tyranny of surrounding majorities. She championed decency in the face of all forms of bigotry, and grasped the folly of attempting to replace Russia's stuttering market economy with a new variant of state socialism. To political enemies with twisted purposes, she posed a mortal threat.


Late on the night of November 20-21, her enemies settled their scores with Starovoitova. She had just returned from Moscow to St. Petersburg and made her way along the Griboyedova Canal, then turned into the stairwell of her apartment building, when unknown assailants, using a silencer-equipped Agran-2000 submachine gun, shot her in the throat and chest, killing her instantly, and critically wounded an aide, Ruslan Linkov. The killers' work was the darkest stain on Russia's ailing democracy in the seven years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Starovoitova was not the first member of Russia's parliament to be murdered in cold blood: She was the sixth in five years. What made her murder different from the others (though all of them were ugly) was its political nature. The other slain Duma members all had offended criminal gangs in disputes over commerce. Starovoitova had none of the personal business interests that have ensnared other politicians in conflicts with the ruthless underworld. Instead, she represented the power of outrage mobilized against the corruption that has distorted capitalism in Russia.


This fall, with a noisy and bitter campaign underway for municipal legislative elections on December 6, Starovoitova worked to unite the city's fractious democrats against a rotten political establishment. The Moscow newspaper Noviye Izvestia reported that at the time of her death she was in possession of telephone transcripts that clearly incriminated the city's Communist governor, Vladimir Yakovlev, in dealings with the mafia. There had been five contract killings in St. Petersburg in the previous seven weeks. Many speculated that Starovoitova might have been shot on the orders of corrupt politicians who knew that, if the democrats prevailed at the polls, a massive municipal house cleaning would follow. Be that as it may, Russia's Communist and nationalist extremists had been eager to see her removed from the scene.


The estimated 20,000 mourners who filed past the casket at her funeral in the Alexander Nevsky Lavra Monastery were a virtual who's who of Russian democrats, including former prime ministers Yegor Gaidar and Sergei Kiriyenko, privatization chief Anatoly Chubais, and the leader of Yabloko, the Duma's largest democratic party, Grigory Yavlinsky. Gaidar blamed the murder on "nazis and fascists," while Chubais fingered the Communists. "Everything she did," he declaimed bitterly, "she did to make sure this ideology would never triumph again."


That was certainly true. The causes Starovoitova embraced were an honor roll of democratic political engagements in the waning years of communism and the start-up years of freedom. She won election to the Congress of People's Deputies in 1989 as a write-in candidate on behalf of the Armenians, whose plight in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave within Azerbaijan she championed. She quickly joined forces with Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov in the Supreme Soviet. She staunchly supported Boris Yeltsin, as he worked to bring to life an independent, sovereign Russian state within Gorbachev's Soviet Union in 1991. Providentially absent on a trip to England during the abortive Soviet army coup in August of that year, she lobbied Margaret Thatcher to come out in support of the embattled Yeltsin in the Russian White House. Other causes followed. When the Duma voted to enact a reactionary law restricting religious freedom in Russia in 1997, Starovoitova fought it harder than almost anyone. Just weeks before her murder, she sharply attacked the Communist members of the Duma -- that body's largest faction -- for refusing to censure one of their own, General Albert Makashov, for a vicious anti-Semitic outburst. Unabashed by the presence of TV cameras, a red-faced Makashov had sneered, "I will round up all the [Jews] and send them to the next world!"