Speaking at the grave of Galina Starovoitova after she was murdered in St. Petersburg on November 20, one of the Russian mourners recalled that terrorism in Russia is nothing new. But the nineteenth-century terrorists, so perspicaciously depicted by Dostoevsky in The Possessed, terrible as they were, had a certain ethics: they paid with their own lives for taking the lives of their enemies. The terrorism of today’s Russia is a work of cowardly bandits who are interested in nothing but money, whether they are doing the bidding of politicians or not. Authorities don’t know how to deal with this criminal Mafia. “No one among us expected,” concluded the speaker, “that the road to freedom would be so difficult.”
She belonged to a generation that did not dare to dream that freedom would come. When freedom did come, she placed her faith in it with all the strength of the naive romanticism of a Russian intelligent. She was one of the charismatic leaders of the first generation of perestroika. She contributed greatly to the demolition of the Soviet prison of nations, and added her brick to the construction of the edifice of Russian democracy. The Russian intelligentsia, long deprived of freedom, savored its intoxicating taste. They were aware that in the fight for freedom there is a price to be paid. This is why Russia gave birth to a generation of courageous and noble people. But freedom is for everybody-also for rascals, cheaters, and hooligans. When freedom is young, and not yet solid, it is always accompanied by an undeclared war between the idealist, who strives for truth and honesty in public life, and the gangster, who is satisfied with the freedom to rob. Galina Starovoitova fell victim in such a war.
What is Russia? “A limitless plain, austere climate; austere, gray people with its heavy, gloomy history; tartardom, tchin, ignorance, poverty, humid climate of the capital Russian life batter the Russian so that he is unable to collect himself, batter him as if with a thousand-pound ram.” This is how, a hundred years ago, Anton Chekhov wrote about his country.
I liked Galina Starovoitova, a direct and cheerful woman, friendly toward the world. We met in the summer of 1989, when I visited Moscow for the first time. It was a year when the world was in ferment and the sky over the Soviet Empire was trembling. The impossible was becoming possible and even banal. The most romantic prophecies turned out to be real as if they had been the most obvious predictions. Galina-“Gala”-came to a meeting of university students at which I was speaking about Poland, the Polish democratic opposition, the Workers Defense Committee-KOR, and Solidarity. After the meeting, this nice, golden-haired woman came up to me, introduced herself, and proposed going to dinner. We passed the evening in her room, provided to her in her capacity as deputy to the Highest Council of the Soviet Union, talking about Poland and Russia, dictatorship and freedom …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.