Obituaries: Galina Starovoitova

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The Independent Culture
ASSASSINATION HAS become such a commonplace in Russia that six members of the State Duma, along with scores of businessmen, have been murdered and most Russians have hardly even noticed. The liberal parliamentary deputy Galina Starovoitova was not just another talking-head politician. At the news that she had been gunned down in the stairwell of her St Petersburg home on Friday night, the whole country went into shock.

It was a measure of her significance that people began asking what would happen next. Optimists thought that her death might unite Russians and bring them to their senses. Pessimists feared it marked the start of open conflict between Slav nationalists and those who lean towards the West. One thing was clear: without her, Russia would never be the same again.

Galina Starovoitova was arguably the last true democrat in Russia. Uncorrupted, she continued to carry the torch of the democratic movement that emerged as the Soviet Union yielded to history. Unlike others, she did not compromise her principles as the political winds changed; she did not mix business with politics. She was one of the few politicians whom ordinary Russians still trusted.

On the morning after she died, my telephone rang ceaselessly. Russian friends who, like me, remembered her plump, motherly figure walking in the mass demonstrations for freedom, wanted to express their grief. "Democracy itself has died," said one caller simply.

Galina Vasilievna Starovoitova, 52 at the time of her death, grew up in what she called a "typical Soviet home". Her father, Vasily, was a factory boss in the Leningrad region. In 1968, the young Galina was forced to question Communist values when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and she joined protests by a few, brave Russians against the crushing of the Prague Spring. She said in a recent interview that that event had "overturned her thinking".

She studied psychology at Leningrad State University, breathing the atmosphere of the Russian city that has traditionally been closest to Europe, Russia's "window on the West". She pursued a career in the Academy of Sciences.

She came to prominence in the Gorbachev era as a member of the Supreme Soviet, the semi-democratic parliament in which the Communist Party was still the only party represented but, for the first time, there were also some independent MPs. They formed the Inter- Regional Group of People's Deputies, the nearest thing to an opposition that the Soviet Union had ever had. Only Boris Yeltsin himself, younger then and more energetic, and the saintly atomic physicist turned human- rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov, were more famous in that group than Starovoitova. At a time when long-suppressed ethnic tension was bursting into the open, she advocated a loosening of the Soviet empire and the creation of a voluntary commonwealth along British lines.

Mikhail Gorbachev listened to her. His plans for just such a freer union enraged hardliners and led to the coup attempt against him in August 1991. Starovoitova was on a visit to Britain at the time. Already the darling of the Western media because she was one of the few Russian public figures who spoke fluent English, she became, as Lord Bethell said, "the voice of Russia" in the dark, early moments of the coup. Then she flew home to join a triumphant Boris Yeltsin at the White House.

Russia by this time had a multi-party system. Starovoitova was co-chairman of the Democratic Russia Party, whose other members included leading market reformers. When he became President, Yeltsin invited one of these, Yegor Gaidar, to handle the transition to capitalism. He appointed Galina Starovoitova as his adviser on national and ethnic questions. Under her influence, he reached a rational agreement with Muslim Tatarstan, which gave the region considerable autonomy while preserving links with the Russian Federation.

Unfortunately, Yeltsin took advice from very different quarters when he sent troops and tanks into Chechnya in 1994. Starovoitova and the democrats broke with the Kremlin leader over that. The democrats also began fighting amongst themselves, which caused Starovoitova great pain. Later, Yeltsin realised his mistake. He was said at the weekend to be bitterly upset at the death of a woman he called "a passionate tribune of democracy".

After the agony of Chechnya, it was mooted that Starovoitova might become Russia's first woman defence minister. However, with her characteristic humour, she joked that Russia had not matured to the point where it was ready to see a "defence minister in a skirt". Instead, she worked tirelessly in parliament. She was bidding for the vacant post of governor of the Leningrad region and considering standing for the Russian presidency in the year 2000.

Herself frustrated that "the way to freedom turned out to be far harder than we thought", she was increasingly isolated in a Duma where nationalist voices were becoming louder and louder. She took a firm stand earlier this month when most of her parliamentary colleagues were too mealy-mouthed to condemn the anti-Semitic remarks of one of their number. Indeed, some think that that stand cost her her life.

Recently remarried, this mother and grandmother made one of her last public appearances at a meeting which the new Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, held with "women from the Duma". Galina Starovoitova was never a token woman and, while the other women listened quietly to his speech on pensions and child allowances, she pressed him hard on the make-up of the Russian team currently negotiating with the IMF.

The word used most often in media tributes to Galina Starovoitova was "yarkaya" (bright). She was bright in all senses. She was a colourful character with the strength of her convictions. She was also highly intelligent. The Russians often bemoan themselves that they live in a "land of fools". Russia could not afford to lose her brain.

Galina Vasilievna Starovoitova, politician: born Chelyabinsk, Soviet Union 17 May 1946; Soviet parliamentary deputy 1989-91; Russian parliamentary deputy 1990-93, 1995-98; twice married (one son); died St Petersburg 20 November 1998.