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!"

Russia's crisis has been with us so long that many in the outside world take it for granted. The economic collapse, the declining life expectancy (down to 34 years in the far-north Chukotka region), the almost routine and seldom-punished gangland murders, Yeltsin's endless illnesses, the pugnacious xenophobia of the Duma's Communists and nationalists -- all of these seem to have gone on for years. To some observers, they suggest disturbing parallels with Weimar Germany, that feckless and decadent regime whose failure led to Hitler's ascendancy in 1933. One manifestation of Russia's Weimar tendencies is the rise of street-level anti-Semitism, either winked at or promoted by members of the Duma. The Communists have been among the worst offenders. Against this backdrop, the brazen assassination of democratic politicians determined to stand against the nationalists is ominous. The murders of Japan's prime minister Takashi Hara in 1921 and of Germany's foreign minister Walther Rathenau the following year proved landmarks on the road to militarism in the 1920s.

A few weeks before she was murdered, Starovoitova observed in a moment of pained reflection that "the way to freedom [had] turned out to be far harder" than she and her democratic allies had expected. At her funeral, fellow Duma member (and former Russian ambassador to the United States) Vladimir Lukin echoed her disillusionment. "No one expected," he said, "that it would take so much courage to carry on the struggle honorably and to stand up for our ideals."

Galina, or Galya as her friends called her, impressed new acquaintances with her forthrightness and passion. On our first meeting, at her Moscow office ten years ago, I was amazed by her voluble and unselfconscious conviction that democracy, decency, and compassion for all human beings, regardless of their origin or condition, were, well, simply right. After a long-uninterrupted diet of Soviet lies, these sentiments from a Russian politician were sheer balm to the spirit. How could Russia, emerging from that era of bombastic falsehood, I wondered, produce such a wonderful disciple of freedom?

In due course, Galina Starovoitova will merit a biography that helps answer this question. She was, of course, a martyr for democratic principles. But it is also worth noting that, in an unpublicized move a few months before her death, she was received into the Russian Orthodox Church, a convert from Soviet-era agnosticism, making her a martyr in an even deeper sense.

Her death may prove to be the bell that tolls for Russian democracy -- or it could have the opposite effect, galvanizing Russia's dwindling and demoralized democratic politicians into burying their petty squabbles and rescuing their nation from chaos. If that should turn out to be the case, Starovoitova would certainly reckon the price she paid to have been worth it.

David Aikman is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. For several years, he reported on Russia for Time magazine.

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