Marina Salye: Distinguished geologist who became a vociferous opponent of Putin

 

Marina Salye was a geologist of considerable repute, locating mineral deposits in the furthest and least hospitable reaches of the Soviet Union and producing dozens of academic papers and six monographs. But she came to prominence as a pugnacious and eloquent leader of the perestroika-era democratic movement in Leningrad, and as a sharp critic of Vladimir Putin ever since she uncovered gross financial malpractice in his St Petersburg office in the early 1990s.

The Salye family was steeped in science – Marina was the fourth generation of geologists – and exemplified the intellectual culture and heritage that helped forge St Petersburg as the nation's Western-leaning capital. Her forebears were nobles from Western Europe, who all brought their service and outlook to the tsars' courts. By the 20th century, such families were cornerstones of Russia's progressive intelligentsia and professional class. Unlike some, the Salyes accepted the 1917 revolution – Marina's grandfather fought on the side of the Reds – and stayed.

Yet by the time of Marina's birth in Stalin-era Leningrad in 1934, her foreign and privileged roots were toxic, her grandfather denounced as a class enemy, her uncle arrested and sent to the Gulag. Her father Evgeny's expertise and value to the Soviet state as a uranium prospector allowed him to escape the purges by excavating in Central Asia, to where he evacuated his family from Leningrad in 1942, after being heavily wounded defending the city against the Germans. On the epic journey to Uzbekistan, the seven-year-old Salye witnessed refugees' boats being sunk by German bombers in Lake Lagoda, and a nation in turmoil. On the return journey, by cattle-truck in 1944, she saw her mother die of blood poisoning; she was buried at a siding in the Central Asian steppe.

But two years living on geology camps in barren mountains and in cramped accommodation in the Ferghana Valley had given the young Salye a taste for scientific exploration and travel that would inspire her to follow her father. She excelled at Leningrad State University, where she graduated as a geo-chemist. Her postgraduate work was in mineral extraction, and she was soon participating in expeditions that shaped her career.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Salye travelled to the country's extremities in the Kola Peninsula, Karelia and Yakutia, as well as to Central Asia and the Caucasus Mountains. Her academic base was the Leningrad Institute of Precambrian Geology and Geochronology, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences. By the 1980s she was travelling less, and by 1986 had become the Institute's deputy director – the pinnacle of a career for a woman in the Soviet sciences.

It was the type of career beloved by the Soviet intelligentsia, far from the constraints of politics and ideology. In the perestroika era of the 1980s, everything changed. Well-connected in Leningrad intelligentsia circles, a skillful organiser and strategist, she became a key member of the Leningrad Popular Front, a pro-democracy movement. Her skills as an orator and apparent disregard for arrest while leading demonstrations meant that she became known as the "babushka of the Russian democratic revolution".

In 1989 elections the Popular Front took control of Lensovet, the Leningrad Town Soviet, but instead of Salye, they chose the debonair Anatoly Sobchak as Mayor. Salye built links with figures in nationwide democracy movements, such as Yeltsin's future Prime Minister and free market reformer Egor Gaidar, and headed the Lensovet Commission on Food Produce. It was in this capacity that Salye ran into Vladimir Putin, a KGB operative working for Sobchak.

At the end of 1991, struggling with the deprivations and shortages of the collapsing Soviet economy, Salye became aware of an extraordinary scheme run by the Committee for External Economic Relations at the Mayor's office, headed by Putin. Leningrad, now renamed St Petersburg, was in dire straits, but contravening government rules, Putin's committee was issuing licenses to companies to export millions of dollars' worth of raw materials, under the obligation to barter abroad for foodstuffs to be brought back. Salye was shocked to discover that little or no food was finding its way back.

She headed a commission to investigate, and found a catalogue of irregularities. The companies were being awarded commissions worth millions of dollars, and raw materials such as rare metals and timber were often grossly undervalued in the agreements, thus massively increasing the profit margin for the middle-men. The deals had not been put out to open tender, and Salye calculated that nearly $100m worth of raw materials disappeared through Putin's committee, and suspected that the total was far greater. Many of the companies disappeared without trace, despite the fact that some were linked to influential St Petersburg figures; one was even registered in the same building as Putin's committee.

Putin later claimed – in the face of documents to the contrary that Salye kept to her death, some signed by Putin himself – that his committee did not issue licences. He also argued that in the chaos that reigned in the early 1990s, the authorities were not prepared for the lawless capitalism of the early post-Soviet days.

Convinced that Putin was at the centre of the scheme and should be made responsible for the huge losses, Salye recommended that he be sacked. But he was protected by his boss, Sobchak, and criminal investigations were soon dropped. In 1996, Salye published more details on the affair in her book Mafia and Corruption (Mafruptsia), and bitterly opposed the support given by many in the democratic movement for Putin as presidential candidate in 2000.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the democratic movement was becoming ever more marginal and dangerous. Salye attempted to join forces with the liberal politician Sergei Yushenkov, but disturbed by the fact that their meetings were shadowed by informers, she retired deep into the Russian countryside, to a village near the town of Pskov. In 2003, Yushenkov was shot dead in Moscow, and Salye disappeared from public view.

It was not until 2010 that she reentered the fray, campaigning for democracy in the run-up to the 2011 and 2012 elections. At a time when talk of corruption and cronyism has become commonplace, Salye found she was regarded as the individual whose work on Putin's committee had demonstrated most clearly that corruption goes to the very top.

Salye was said by her friends to have taken very badly Putin's recent election victory. She died of a heart attack, unable to complete her autobiography, but with her life-long companion, Natasha, at her side.

Marina Evgenevna Salye, geologist and politician: born Leningrad 19 October 1934; died Ostrov, Russia 21 March 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot