CONFESSIONS OF A RUSSOPHILE: Has Nothing Been Learned?




If anyone still had doubts that the democratic experiment is dead in Russia, Galina Starovoitova's murder should put an end to them. As politicians and the press vie with each other for heights of cynicism and opportunism, the last vestiges of the light that she was instrumental in bringing to this dark, savage country are slowly dying out.


"I think it's about time we had a woman candidate for president," said Starovoitova in an earlier interview on NTV that was rebroadcast Saturday as Russia was mourning her brutal slaying. "It would show how democratic our society is, how civilized," she said.


Instead, this society demonstrated its democratic and civilized bona fides by slaughtering her, giving her the dubious distinction of becoming the first woman politician to be assassinated.


There is no one even remotely like Starovoitova on Russia's political stage today. She was a woman in whom a laser-like intelligence combined with common sense and just plain goodness, producing a reliable bellwether of sanity and fairness on issues as diverse as freeing Armenia's Karabakh committee (emphatically "pro") to banning Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" (just as emphatically "con").


Starovoitova was a lovely, warm and witty person, and her loss is a terrible blow for Russia.


But the aftermath of her murder threatens to be as horrible as the deed itself. Actors all across the spectrum have appropriated the tragedy as a weapon against their opponents in the current political wars. The airwaves on Saturday were full of sly innuendo, teasing hints, and, at times, outright accusations that Starovoitova was gunned down by people acting for the Communists. Viktor Krivulin, a Petersburg poet and a friend of the slain lawmaker, told a press conference that Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov "had reason to want Starovoitova dead." Liberal Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov said that aides of Albert Makashov, the Communist general whose anti-Semitic ravings have recently polarized the parliament, had asked for her home address.


The only non-Starovoitova news aired Saturday evening were clips from the National Patriotic Union congress, showing Gennady Zyuganov and other prominent lefties trying clumsily to demonstrate their mastery of Russian folk songs and dances.


"Perhaps they have reason to celebrate?" asked the anchor, launching into a spiel about Communist-linked newspapers that branded Starovoitova an "enemy of the people." This is not journalism, it is agitprop at its Bolshevik best. I am no fan of the Communists, but there are plenty of real sins for which they can be called to account without jumping the gun on this one.


The politicians were not sitting on the sidelines in this propaganda match, either. Zyuganov hurried to issue a call for "extreme measures" - a term that should send shivers down the spine of any Soviet history buff.


Yegor Gaidar, who together with Starovoitova established the Democratic Russia party in the early, heady, happy days of the New Russia, rushed to answer. Understandably emotional, he appeared on television and at demonstrations, screaming "We don't need 'extreme measures' to open criminal proceedings against Makashov. We don't need 'extreme measures' to deal with the fascist face emerging from the red and brown parties."


But, Yegor Timurovich, you were one of those calling for the banning of the Communist Party a week ago. Is shutting down a political group that holds one-third of all the seats in parliament not an "extreme measure?" Have you checked the Constitution lately?


Anatoly Chubais got his two kopeks in, with that disagreeable smirk of his: "Whose way was (Starovoitova) obstructing? Whom did she bother? It's very simple - bandits and Communists." For my money, those categories cover most of the country.


More than one analyst has mentioned historical analogies to the 1934 murder of Sergei Kirov, which set the stage for Stalin's bloody purges. The word "terror" is being thrown about freely, and politicians predict that Starovoitova's assassination is the first of many. One thing has become painfully evident over the past three days: The Communist legacy is alive and well, and lurking in the most unlikely places. In times of crisis, people revert to what they know - and what this country's leaders know is repression.


Has nothing really been learned over the past 80 years? Starovoitova started the democratic process in Russia. She deserves better than that her death should put an end to it.