Galina Starovoitova (1946-1998)

Issue Date January 1999
Volume 10
Issue 1
Page Numbers 188-90
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On the evening of 20 November 1998, Galina Vasilievna Starovoitova was shot to death outside her St. Petersburg apartment. She was the sixth member of the Russian Duma to have been murdered since that body’s creation in 1993. Most observers agree that this was a political assassination.

Starovoitova was a tireless, persistent voice for freedom, democracy, and human rights. An ethnographer by training, she wrote two books on interethnic relations in her native St. Petersburg. She first gained national attention ten years ago, when she championed the cause of the Armenians of Karabakh. In 1989, she was elected from a district in Armenia to the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies. That body elected her to the Supreme Soviet, where she became one of the founders of the Inter-Regional Group of Deputies, which called for an end to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. She was a close associate of Andrei Sakharov and a co-founder of the Democratic Russia movement. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russian president Boris Yeltsin named her as his chief ethnic affairs adviser, but she did not last long in a government apparatus dominated by the remnants of the old communist nomenklatura. She later became one of the most outspoken critics of the bloody war in Chechnya.

Starovoitova was elected to the State Duma in 1995 from a St. Petersburg constituency. In 1996, she was the only woman to be nominated for the Russian presidency. She had talked of running for president again in the year 2000, and at the time of her death, had declared her intention to run for governor of Leningrad Oblast.

Starovoitova was one of the most outspoken opponents of the communists and nationalists who dominate the Duma. Recently, she condemned the antisemitic remarks made by Communist deputy General Albert Makashov and harshly criticized her fellow deputies for failing to censure him.

Galina Starovoitova was buried as a national hero on 24 November 1998 in St. Petersburg. A kilometer-long line of people stood in the bitter cold, waiting to be let into the Russian State Ethnographic Museum, where her public viewing took place. Friends, family members, three former prime ministers, and other politicians eulogized her.

Starovoitova had a close relationship with the National Endowment [End Page 188] for Democracy (NED) and its International Forum for Democratic Studies, and participated in many of its conferences. On December 9, a memorial ceremony was held in her honor at the NED, attended by her many friends at the NED and elsewhere in Washington.

The Words of Galina Starovoitova

The danger of an extreme-nationalist revolution is real, as the state of things in Russia comes more and more to resemble the plight that Germany’s Weimar Republic faced in the 1920s. The widespread persistence of imperial thinking, the humiliation of a proud people, discrimination against its members living in bordering states, and the continual broadcasting of the concept of a “divided nation” all helped to pave the way for fascism. In the case of “Weimar Russia,” we may add to the list economic deterioration, indifference and misunderstanding on the part of the West, and the sinister union that extreme right-wingers have formed with ex-communist hard-liners.

Russians have been unwilling to heed the sad lesson of German history because of our unexamined conviction that our country, having defeated a fascist regime in war, has thereby automatically become immune to fascism. This conviction, alas, is not necessarily true. . .

It remains an open question whether the liberal reforms that have occurred in Russia are irreversible. . . . As Václav Havel has said, “We have learned how to destroy, we have learned how to build, and now we must learn how to wait.”

The majority of Russians seem prepared to wait to enjoy the fruits of their peaceful revolution. But for how long? The answer to this question will be of momentous importance not only for Russia, but for the world.

—“Weimar Russia?” Journal of Democracy 4 (July 1993): 108–9.

Tributes to Galina Starovoitova

“Thousands and thousands of people braved the cold for hours to pay their respects to Galina Vasilievna. This should tell us something at a time when they say that all politicians are dirty. . . . There are dirty politicians and then there are honest politicians—like Galina Starovoitova.”

—Gleb Yakunin, dissident priest and former State Duma deputy.

“The Russian reform movement has produced few leaders with an uncompromising dedication to democracy. Galina Starovoitova was one and her murder . . . was a terrible loss to Russia. . . . How many more honest, decent Russians have to be killed before democrats understand that only by sticking together can they achieve something in power and ensure that Russia becomes a safe country?”

—Boris Nemtsov, former deputy prime minister. [End Page 189]

“In our increasingly relativistic, postmodern public culture, aesthetic criteria have largely replaced moral ones, and it is sometimes hard to believe that there are really such things as good and evil—even harder to believe that good and evil can be embodied in real people who live and walk among us, especially in positions of political and intellectual leadership. Yet Galina Starovoitova was just such a person—a leader in both the political and intellectual life of post-Soviet Russia and not just a good but also a prophetic person, actively concerned about both the rights of others and the duties of herself. . . .

If the outside world in its respectful but bland obituary notices has generally failed to recognize how extraordinarily good this woman was, it is in part because it has still not recognized the extraordinary evil that was embedded in the Soviet nomenklatura system and in its end-game afterlife as Russia drifts from crime, corruption, and cronyism into some new variant of fascism—the twentieth century’s evil scavenger of failed democratic experiments in historically authoritarian entities.

—James H. Billington, U.S. Librarian of Congress.

“Galina Starovoitova was one of those people for whom freedom—political, national, or religious—was an absolute value. . . .

What is happening in Russia today is tragic. But some people—and Galina Vasilievna was among them—called on us not to lose heart, while others called us to go back to the madness of the Soviet epoch.

The first kind of people put themselves to work—hard, long, and exhausting labor. The second sort looked for enemies and called for their extermination. So far, the latter have not succeeded in taking power. That is why they have resorted to killing. . . .

Galina Vasilievna was a new kind of politician—not a charismatic leader who leads the masses behind her, but a hard worker, who was always found among the people. Politics will stop being a “dirty word” only when people can be found who are ready to take responsibility for the country upon themselves.”

Father Georgii Chistiakov, writing in Russkaia mysl.

“Galina combined some interesting paradoxes: She was modest and unassuming but at the same time acutely aware of her position and potential influence. . . . Galina was deeply aware of the dangers of her own position—she was not a willing Joan of Arc. I’m sure she didn’t wish to become a martyr, but neither did she believe that she should tone down her sharp-tongued condemnations of extremism, despite the numerous threats she received and . . . her sense in those last few weeks that dark forces were closing in around her.

It’s too bad that we can give tribute to her courage only now.

Vechnaia Yei Pamyat’. May her memory live on.

—Nadia Diuk, Senior Program Officer, NED.


Copyright © 1999 National Endowment for Democracy and the Johns Hopkins University Press