20 years under Putin: a timeline

On May 17, Galina Starovoitova—people’s deputy of the USSR and RSFSR, member of the Russian State Duma and co-founder of Democratic Russia movement—would have celebrated her 67th birthday. She was murdered at her house in St. Petersburg in 1998. IMR Advisor Boris Bruk recalls Starovoitova’s life and her political legacy.



She has stayed in our biography … in our hearts.
And it seems to me that … she has stepped into eternity
-Zoriy Balayan

Galina Starovoitova has forever become a part of Russian history as a bright, honest, courageous person, a wise and incorruptible politician, a human rights activist, and a symbol of struggle and hope for a better life in a new democratic Russia.

She was born in Chelyabinsk in 1946.  In her early years, Galina’s parents brought her to Leningrad. Her parents and younger sister Olga recall that since her childhood, she stood out as a leader, made her own decisions at an early age. “[She] had really grown up … by the time she was 11:”

Once, our father came home from work tired and somewhat irritated. He went to the kitchen where he saw dirty dishes left in the sink.
- Galya, why are the dishes not washed? – He raised his voice and addressed the first person in the family he saw.
- That’s not what I am meant for! – Galina said, keeping her composure.

There is another example that demonstrates that already in childhood she had a strong and independent character. Peter Voroshilov, a friend of the family, once tried to make a joke saying something along the lines of “A woman is not a person, but she is a friend of a person.”  Galina threw her spoon on the table, stood up, and left the room. Years later, Galina Starovoitova raised the issues of gender equality in national and international forums. Interestingly, she argued that the so-called “women’s question” was non-existent: “There is no special ‘women’s question’ or women’s problems. There is instead the question of human rights.” She took this position despite the fact that, as a female member of the Russian State Duma, she encountered, on numerous occasions, disrespectful, inappropriate and downright rude behavior from her male colleagues.

After finishing high school, Starovoitova entered the undergraduate program at the Leningrad Military Mechanical Institute. Several years later, however, she realized that she had a different calling, and transferred to the Psychology Department at Leningrad State University. Her student years played a crucial role in the development of her civic and political views. Particularly important was the influence of the “Saigon culture,” the spirit of “Saigon”—a café that opened in Leningrad in 1964 and quickly became a symbol of freedom and “cultural dissent.” Starovoitova said that it was in 1968 when her views fundamentally changed:  “In that year, several factors came together: I read Yevgenia Ginzburg's Into the Whirlwind; Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia … both changed my thinking dramatically.” That year, Starovoitova became one of the few courageous individuals who signed a letter protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Starovoitova shared Sakharov’s vision regarding a people’s right to self-determination.

Twenty years later, in 1988, Starovoitova wrote another letter that also proved to be life-changing, this time about the Azeri-Armenian conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, an Armenian enclave in the Azerbaijan SSR. Nagorno-Karabakh had become one of the most inflamed areas where “the first interethnic war began as the Soviet Union was beginning to break up.” Galina Starovoitova was not a stranger to the problems faced by Nagorno-Karabakh. After completing her graduate studies, she worked at the Institute of Ethnography investigating ethno-psychology in that region and since 1987 actively supported the Armenian population’s right to self-determination. She expressed her views in a personal letter to the writer Zoriy Balayan and poet Silva Kaputikyan. The letter did not remain private because, as Staroitova explained:

Suddenly, they decided to make and distribute copies of the letter to other people. So they made over 100,000 copies and, as they say, “passed them to the people,” to a crowd of 700,000 people persons that gathered in a square in Yerevan. Within one day, I became famous in Armenia.

In the spring of 1989, Staroitova was elected as the USSR People’s Deputy from Armenia; her candidacy was supported by some 80 percent of the voters. She was backed by Andrei Sakharov, with whom she had been working after he returned to Moscow from his internal exile in Gorky. One of their joint projects was seeking a resolution to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and, at the same time, doing everything in their power to help the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Starovoitova shared Sakharov’s vision regarding a people’s right to self-determination. As Elena Bonner pointed out in one of her articles, Sakharov believed that “all peoples have the right to decide their own fate through the free exercise of their will …” Sakharov included the same principle in his draft Constitution of the Union of Soviet Republics of Europe and Asia: “Article 16. The right to self-determination is the fundamental and primary right of every nation and republic.” In July 1991, when Starovoitova became Russian President Boris Yeltsin's advisor on ethnic issues, she was largely guided by this principle, especially when expressing her views on the policy towards the North Caucasus. For Starovoitova, this principle was an inseparable component of her overarching vision of politics: “national policy must be moral, sincere, and honest.” As Starovoitova argued, “The people, especially those whose rights were violated during the Soviet times, are currently waiting for a moral decision—the recognition of their right to decide their own fate.”

Valery Borschev, a prominent Russian human rights activist, was surely right when he stated that Galina Starovoitova was a political idealist. As Sergei Kovalev pointed out, in contrast to realpolitik that focuses on a specific interest and often utilizes such tools as “hypocrisy, lies, expansion, aggressiveness, distrust, lack of openness, and national selfishness,” idealism is based on values, principles, norms, and procedures, which “in no way depend on a particular interest.” The way of cynical pragmatism, of immoral actions in politics was totally unacceptable to Starovoitova; she did not believe that the ends justified the means. Not surprisingly, for many people, Galina Starovoitova became an “example of morality in politics.”


Twice—in 1992 and in 1997—Galina Starovoitova introduced a parliamentary bill on "lustrations" directed against former Communist and KGB operatives.


Already in the early 1990s, Starovoitova began to sense that realpolitik was coming to dominate the political scene. One might argue that the president’s decision to fire Starovoitova in November 1992 was one of the first signs confirming that she was correct. According to analysts, that decision meant that politically, victory was in the hands of “statists,” and that there was a hardening of the regime. Perhaps, even then, there were hints that “Democratic Russia” (with or without the quotation marks) would be pushed off the political stage for a long time.

Starovoitova’s resignation did not put an end to her political career, however. Although she sometimes thought about quitting politics and resuming her scientific endeavors, Starovoitova realized that she was a person of action. She wanted to influence the course of events and make a difference. In December 1992, while a member of the Russian parliament, Starovoitova introduced a bill on “lustration” (or “cleansing”) that would bar individuals responsible for executing the policies of the former Communist regime from practicing certain professions. The bill proposed to impose professional limitations “for a transitional period” of 5-10 years on persons who had worked for the Communist Party apparatus and on permanent employees and individuals collaborating with the secret services. The proposed limitations were expected to be imposed on those who had served in the above-mentioned capacities for 10 years or longer, and held one of those positions on August 21, 1991. The bill, however, was not passed either in 1992 or in 1997, when Starovoitova reintroduced it in the State Duma.

According to journalist Masha Gessen, “To change reality until it was not recognizable, to make a return to the past absolutely impossible – this was Starovoitova’s mission, radical even by the standards of the democrats of the early 1990s.”

In 1994, Galina Starovoitova became co-leader (together with Lev Ponomarev) of the Democratic Russia party In 1996, she became the first woman in Russia to be nominated as a presidential candidate. However, the Central Electoral Commission refused to register her candidacy. According to Starovoitova’s aide, “They said they had found some problems with the required signatures, page numbering … they found fault with really minor things. The unsaid reason was clearly political.” This did not stop Starovoitova either; she continued her work, still believing that she, together with the other remaining “romantics,” would be able to “reshape the world” and change life for the better.

Boris Nemtsov once said that Galina Starovoitova was powerful because she was a single whole as an individual and politician.

In 1998, in an article in Argumenty i Fakty that was entitled “A Woman and Power,” Starovoitova again discussed the question of gender equality. One sentence in the article reads: “Fortunately, in the last decades, there have been no bloody conspiracies that targeted women politicians.” In September of the same year, an attempt was made to place illegal wiretaps on the telephones of the office Galina Starovoitova shared with her Democratic Russia and State Duma colleague Yuli Rybakov. For Starovoitova, there was nothing extraordinary about this: her telephone conversations had been tapped previously, when she worked with Sakharov and joined the Moscow Helsinki Group. During her political career, she and those close to her had received threats on a regular basis.

On November 20, 1998 Galina Starovoitova was killed as she was walking up the stairs to her apartment. She was killed in a year that was declared by President Yeltsin as the “Year of Human Rights.” Much has been written about this political assassination and its investigation. We also know about the attempts to “kill Starovoitova for the second time,” the attempts to find some damaging information about her, and, even after the failure of those misbegotten attempts, still to present her in a negative light.

Boris Nemtsov once said that Galina Starovoitova was powerful because she was a single whole as an individual and politician. Similar words can be found in Gessen’s book The Man without a Face: “Galina was trying to be an entirely new creature, a politician who was also a human.”

Not everyone shared Galina Starovoitova’s principles-based position or could tolerate her idealism, her purity, and incorruptibility, her willingness to build a new free and honest Russia. She followed her own path, the “uniqueness” of which she had sensed as a child, with honor, remaining true to herself and to the ideals that guided her, and faithful to those who followed her.