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Sharing Blame for Galina's Death

Russia: Did we help her enemies equate her pro-Westernism with treason?

November 27, 1998|SUSAN EISENHOWER | Susan Eisenhower is chairman of the Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Washington

Though Galina V. Starovoitova was not a household name outside of Russia, the world is a lonelier place with her passing. One of the brightest lights of the Russian independence and reform movement was extinguished a week ago when Starovoitova and her press aide were gunned down in the stairwell of her St. Petersburg apartment. The rain of bullets felled one of the bravest, most principled people to rise to prominence on the carcass of the decaying communist state.

Americans like to talk about our country as the "land of the free and the home of the brave," but most of us will never know what it is like to have our principles tested in life or death terms. Starovoitova did and yet she chose to stand up and be counted, to oppose hatred even as the economy collapsed, the crowd thinned, daylight dimmed and dark, ominous forces gathered to seek her demise. Her bravery, in the end, cost her her life.

Starovoitova was not naive; she knew the risks of taking on established monopolistic interests. In the last years of the Soviet Union, she actively supported the national aspirations of many of the U.S.S.R.'s indigenous peoples. In 1991, as the Soviet Union was poised on the precipice, Starovoitova, the lawmaker and ethnographer, told me, as I reported for this newspaper, ethnic nationalists were not hooligans as the regime had suggested, but "ancient nations with their own value systems and cultures." She urged the U.S.S.R. "to find legal mechanisms that will take into account their historic and cultural imperatives, as well as the human right of self-determination." This approach was controversial to say the least. At that time, Starovoitova was, she told me later, under KGB surveillance and her car had been run off the road more than once by people sent to warn her--or silence her forever.

Not since that time was she in as much jeopardy as she had been of late. With the social, political, military and economic fabric of Russia in ruins, Starovoitova persisted in articulating her "westernized" views. This she did while challenging opponents of reform, including ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, whom she was to oppose in the upcoming gubernatorial election in the Leningrad region. At the same time, she pressed the Yeltsin regime to censure radical communist Albert M. Makashov for his anti-Semitic remarks. Not long before her death, Starovoitova told friends she'd received a spate of telephone threats. Despite this however, she continued her crusade, without bodyguards, without letup.

In Russia, Starovoitova's death is being compared with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Many recognize that it could be some kind of a turning point. Perhaps her death will catalyze democratic forces. We can only hope.

But just as her killing has wracked Russia's conscience, it should also sting ours. What have we done in our U.S. policy toward Russia that has prompted the architect of it, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, to admit that Russia has been seized by anti-Western sentiment?

Starovoitova is now at peace, but the Russians and we are not. Starovoitova's death demands that we ask whether the United States supported Russia's true democrats, or whether we left them defenseless by undermining their case as we expanded NATO and imposed trade restrictions. Did we help Starovoitova's enemies equate her pro-Westernism with treason?

The Russians have even tougher questions to ask themselves: Have they tried hard enough or fought long enough for Russia's new future? And who would want to kill this modest woman who lived frugally without any embellishment at all, a woman who spoke quietly yet firmly but never displayed arrogance or self-righteousness?

Unlike so many others, Starovoitova spoke as she lived, with honesty and courage. A light has indeed gone out for us all.

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