This is a special edition of this column.
Yesterday, in broad daylight, in the center of Moscow, a human rights lawyer and a journalist were gunned down. Lawyer Stanislav Markelov was most famous for representing the family of Elza Kungaeva, a young Chechen woman killed by a Russian officer, in a case that polarized the Russian Federation. Anastasia Baburova was a young journalist for Novaya Gazeta – a publication that is still mourning the death of another journalist, Anna Politkovskaya.
This week, some across Russia are celebrating this tragedy. Comments on Baburova’s Live Journal site have been shut off, but before they were, news of neo-Nazis gloating over her death had spread far and wide. Others are merely wagging their finger at “poor Nastya” for having “kept bad company” – meaning, of course, that she should have known better than to hang out with the hated Markelov.
It looks as though “the enemy of the people” may be a phrase that we will have to start using in earnest again.
One of the most telling responses to Baburova’s death in particular, in my opinion, came from a young woman who identified as a journalist and said “if only she stuck to writing about [Eurovision winner] Dima Bilan…” It wasn’t a joke; it was said in earnest. Young women and men in the former Soviet Union are encouraged not to be too clever nowadays – if you want to write, stick to writing for the tabloids. Anything more profound can get you killed.
Another telling response from some members of the Russian public is blaming the entire thing on money. “She was after money, there had to have been money involved, journalists are bought and sold…” When I was offered a writing gig in Ukraine a few years back, I demurred. Later, when a relative asked me why I had turned the job down, I said, “remember [murdered journalist] Georgiy Gongadze? I have a big mouth, and don’t want to end up like him.”
“But Gongadze was killed because he got greedy! Don’t you know that? I thought everyone knew that,” was the response.
I understand where this sentiment comes from. When popular journalist Vladislav Listyev was shot dead in the grim year of 1995, even American journalists wondered as to whether or not the murder was financially motivated, either due to Listyev’s wrangling with the advertising industry, or else for something that was just plain dirty.
I have to ask – who wasn’t dirty in the year 1995 in Moscow?
In the year 2008, in the meantime, many Russians have claimed that their country is “getting up from its knees.” I can identify with that statement. I like the idea of a stronger, better, more prosperous Russia. I hate the russophobia that means that we, or anyone like us, are only acceptable in the role of the West’s sex-slaves and hired help. But now that Baburova and Markelov lie dead, a new sentiment is being born – “the wrong sort of person has ‘gotten up from their knees’ in Russia,” and I think there is something to it.
The beauty of downtown Moscow, where Stanislav and Anastasia were shot, is being paid for in blood. There isn’t anything shockingly new here – three hundred years ago, St. Petersburg was practically built upon a foundation of dead serfs. Yet I like to think that we live in times that are a little bit more enlightened that those of Peter the Great’s.
Growing prosperity means nothing when journalists and lawyers are murdered like this.
The most bitter irony of it all is the people who celebrate the deaths of Anastasia and Stanislav have no clue than when it’s their turn – and their turn will surely come, if we don’t watch out as the “brown-shirting” of Russia continues – there will be no lawyers or journalists left to sound the alarm.
The only solace we can take from what happened yesterday is that the voices of Russian outrage are stronger. Far too many have died. The most oft-repeated sentiment I have read and heard today is more akin to a demand – a demand that the terrorizing of the Russian media and the greater public be stopped.