Hushed burial for flower of Russia

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The Independent Online
LUBA VINOGRADOVA should probably not have been outside at all yesterday, let alone for two hours. No amount of clothing seemed to keep out the bone-chilling temperatures of St Petersburg. The young lawyer was eight months pregnant, yet she felt compelled to be there.

She, and the thousands of others in the huge queue, had come to honour a woman whom she had seen as the only remaining beacon of true democracy in Russia, but who now lay dead, the victim of an assassin's bullet in the head.

And, with the multitude alongside her, all she wanted to do was to touch the side of the open coffin in which Galina Starovoitova was laid out, and to add her flowers to the three-foot high mountain of carnations, roses and lilies. "She was simply someone I admired and agreed with," she explained, "Irrespective of politics, what happened was a complete tragedy."

What happened, as every news bulletin in Russia now repeats on the hour, is that Ms Starovoitova, 52, a member of parliament, was shot in the stairwell of her home in St Petersburg last Friday night by two killers - almost certainly contract assassins. Ms Starovoitova was a figurehead in Russian democratic politics, a former perestroika-era adviser to Boris Yeltsin who had stuck resolutely by her liberal principles, while he - and others - wandered off course.

It was her funeral yesterday, and as she lay in state, Russia's former imperial capital chose to honour her in full. As many as 20,000 people lined up outside the Museum of Ethnography to file past her body.

The line wound round the large Iskusskv Square, with its statue of Pushkin, along to the canal that runs up to the multi-coloured domed cathedral marking the spot where Tsar Alexander II was killed by a bomb. Then it twisted back to the steps of the museum, in whose columned hall Ms Starovoitova lay, surrounded by a bayonet-wielding military guard of honour, and a hush broken only by funeral music.

Four months ago, the same gilded hall was the scene of a funeral lunch for the Romanovs after the reburial of Tsar Nicholas II, his family and servants. But yesterday the mood was different. Much of this city of 3.5 million people carried on as normal as the Romanov bones were lowered into their tombs. This time, the numbers spoke for themselves.

"Let those who did this contract killing see how many have come here," said Sergei Lebedev, 43, an engineer. "You can't kill us all."

You only had to look at the tears coursing down the cheeks of people filing past the body, some clutching candles and portraits, some crossing themselves, to understand that this event, unlike so many brutal crimes in the post-Soviet mayhem, has struck a nerve. And you only had to look at the dozens of wreaths around the coffin to realise that its impact stretched further afield than St Petersburg. They came from Armenia and Estonia - a reflection of Ms Starovoitova's campaign during the last of the Soviet years for self-determination for ethnic republics. They came from a plethora of democratic political parties, who would not exist were it not for the end of the one-party Communist system - whose demise the vigorously anti- Soviet Ms Starovoitova fought hard to secure.

They came from Jewish communities in Russia, honouring her outspoken battle against the anti-Semites within the ranks of the Communists who control Russia's parliament - which some of her allies, without any evidence, have suggested lies behind her murder. Even the British government - whose former leader, Margaret Thatcher, used the English-speaking Ms Starovoitova as a conduit to Mr Yeltsin - sent a representative.

While it was an opportunity for Russia's second city to demonstrate respect for this now martyred grand dame of perestroika, and its objection to the crime and corruption that infects their government, it was also a chance for the depleted Democrats to mark their bleakest hour for years.

Their heavy hitters turned out in force: Anatoly Chubais, once President Yeltsin's right-hand man; Boris Nemtsov, a deputy prime minister who was for months also a hugely influential figure on the Kremlin, and three former prime ministers - Yegor Gaidar, Viktor Chernomyrdin and Sergei Kiriyenko. Mr Yeltsin, who was in hospital, was represented by an aide.

"Our people are being killed, but we are not going to be deterred or frightened," said Mr Chubais, in one of many speeches over the coffin. "Whoever tries to stop what we have accomplished will not succeed. We will make it in the end."

Her death has jarred the Democrats, blowing open the gap between them and the far right, bringing a stark clarity to the political landscape. Speaker after speaker saw it as a reason to renew the fight, in a country where liberalism is in abrupt retreat. "No one expected the road to freedom would be so hard," said Vladimir Lukin, of the Yabloko party. "At the end of the Eighties, it looked far more simple."

Investigators have yet to establish who killed Ms Starovoitova, or why, although the consensus is on political motivation. The prospects for success are not good. The search is being led by the Federal Security Services, whose bosses stand accused by several of their own agents of ordering assassinations. Previous investigations into high-profile contract killings have got nowhere.

In the end, Irina Mamaichuk, 50, a childhood friend of Ms Starovoitova's, probably got it right. Standing in the queue, several hours before her friend was finally buried at the Alexander Nevsky Lavra monastery, near the graves of Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, she delivered this verdict: "The moment I heard of her death I realised a dark cloud was hanging over Russia. There are dark forces at work, and we cannot afford to be indifferent to them." St Petersburg citizens proved yesterday that at least they are not.