The Unlikely Rise of


Masha Gessen


I woke up because someone was shaking me. Kate’s face looked terrified. “They are saying something about Galina on the radio,” she half whispered. “And a gun. I think… I don’t understand.”

I got out of bed and stumbled into the tiny kitchen, where Kate had been making breakfast and listening to Echo Moskvy, the country’s best news and talk radio station. It was a Saturday morning, unusually light and crisp for November in Moscow. And I was not worried: somehow, Kate’s fear did not impress me. Whatever she had heard—or, with her limited Russian, misheard—might be the beginning of yet another great story. As the chief correspondent for Russia’s leading newsmagazine, Itogi, I felt all great stories were my fiefdom. And there were a lot of great stories. In a country that was inventing itself, every city, every family, and every institution was, in some sense, uncharted territory. The year was 1998. Since the early 1990s, virtually every piece I wrote was a tale no one had told before: I spent about half my time outside Moscow, traveling to conflict zones and gold mines, orphanages and universities, abandoned villages and burgeoning oil towns, writing their stories. The magazine, which was owned and financed by the same magnate as Echo Moskvy, rewarded me by never questioning my extravagant travel schedule and by frequently placing my stories on the cover.

In other words, I was one of those young people who had gained everything in the 1990s. Many people older and younger than I was had paid dearly for the transition. The older generation had lost its savings to hyperinflation and its identities to the apparent destruction of all Soviet institutions. The younger generation was growing up in the shadow of its parents’ fear and, often, failure. But I had been twenty-four years old the year the Soviet Union collapsed, and my peers and I had spent the 1990s inventing our careers and what we thought were the ways and institutions of a new society. Even as violent crime seemed to become epidemic in Russia, we felt peculiarly secure: we observed and occasionally described the criminal underworld without ever feeling that it might affect our existence. Plus, I was certain that things would only get better: I had recently bought a dilapidated former communal apartment in the very heart of Moscow, and I was now renovating it before moving out of the flat I rented with Kate, a British editor working for an oil trade publication. I envisioned myself starting a family in that new apartment. And this particular Saturday, I had an appointment with the contractor to go shopping for bathroom fixtures.

KATE GESTURED AT THE BOOM BOX as though it were a source of toxins, and looked at me questioningly. Galina Starovoitova, whose name the newscaster was repeating over and over, was a member of the lower house of parliament, one of Russia’s best-known politicians, and a friend. In the late 1980s, when the empire teetered on the brink of collapse, Starovoitova, an ethnographer, became a pro-democracy activist and the most prominent spokesperson for the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian exclave in Azerbaijan that was then engulfed in the first of many armed ethnic conflicts that would mark the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc. Like several other academics turned politicians, she had seemed to emerge in the spotlight instantly. Though she had lived in Leningrad since she was an infant, the people of Armenia nominated her as their representative to the first quasi- democratically elected Supreme Soviet, and in 1989 she was voted into office by an overwhelming majority. In the Supreme Soviet, she became a leader of the Interregional Group, a minority pro-democracy faction whose leadership also included Andrei Sakharov and Boris Yeltsin. As soon as Yeltsin was elected president of Russia in 1990—at that point largely a ceremonial and even aspirational post—Galina became his closest adviser, counseling him officially on ethnic issues and unofficially on everything else, including government appointments. In 1992, Yeltsin was considering Galina for the post of minister of defense; such an appointment, of a civilian and a woman whose views bordered on the pacifist, would have been a grand gesture in classic early-1990s Yeltsin style, a message that nothing would ever be the same in Russia and perhaps in the world.

That nothing should ever be the same was the crux of Galina’s agenda, radical even by early-nineties pro- democracy activist standards. As part of a small group of lawyers and politicians, she tried unsuccessfully to put the Communist Party of the USSR on trial. She authored a draft law on lustratsiya (lustration), the word deriving from the ancient Greek for “purification,” a concept that was now coming into use in former Eastern Bloc countries to denote the process of banning former Party and secret police operatives from holding public office. In 1992, she learned that the KGB had reconstituted an internal Party organization—a direct violation of Yeltsin’s August 1991 post–failed-coup decree outlawing the Russian Communist Party. At a public meeting in July 1992, she tried to confront Yeltsin with this fact, and he had rudely dismissed her, signaling both the end of Galina’s career in his administration and his own increasingly conciliatory stance toward the security services and the many die-hard Communists who remained in power or close to it. Dismissed from the administration, Galina made a push for the lustration law, which failed, and then left Russian politics altogether and decamped to the United States, first to the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington, and then to teach at Brown University.

THE FIRST TIME I SAW GALINA, I could not see her: she was obscured by hundreds of thousands of people who came out into Moscow’s Maya-kovsky Square on March 28, 1991, to take part in a rally in support of Yeltsin. Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev had recently publicly dressed down Yeltsin; he had also issued a decree forbidding protests in the city. Tanks rolled into Moscow that morning and were positioned in such a way as to make it as difficult as possible for people to make their way to the banned pro-democracy rally. The organizers, in response, split their rally into two, to make it easier for people to find a way to at least one of the locations. It was my first visit to Moscow after ten years as an emigre; I happened to be staying at my grandmother’s apartment near the Mayakovsky Square site. With the main street, Tverskaya, blocked off, I wound my way through a series of courtyards, diving out through an archway and immediately finding myself in the thick of a crowd. I could see nothing but the backs of people’s heads and a series of almost identical gray and black woolen coats. But I could hear a woman’s voice booming over the crowd, speaking about the inviolability of the constitutional right to assembly. I turned to a man standing next to me; he was holding a yellow plastic bag in one hand and a child by the hand with the other. “Who is speaking?” I asked. “Starovoitova,” he responded. Just then the woman began leading the crowd in a five-syllable chant that reverberated, it seemed, through the entire city: “Ros-si-ya! Yel-tsin!” In less than half a year, the Soviet Union would effectively collapse and Yeltsin would become the leader of a new, democratic Russia. That this was inevitable had become clear to many people, including me, that March day, when the people of Moscow had defied the Communist government and its tanks and insisted on having their say in the public square.

I do not actually remember when I met Galina in person, but we became friendly the year she was teaching at Brown: she was a frequent guest at my father’s house in the Boston area; I was shuttling back and forth between the United States and Moscow, and Galina became something of a mentor to me in the world of Russian politics, though she occasionally protested that she had completely returned to academe. Those protestations must have ended in December 1994, when Yeltsin launched a military offensive in the breakaway republic of Chechnya: the people advising him now apparently assured him that the insurgency could be tamed quickly and painlessly for the federal center. Galina perceived the new war as the certain disaster it was, and as the biggest threat yet to Russian democracy. In the spring she went to the Urals to chair a congress aimed at resurrecting her political party, Democratic Russia, which had once been the country’s most potent political force. I covered the congress for the leading Russian newspaper at the time, but on my way to the city of Chelyabinsk—a journey that involved a three- hour flight, followed by a three-hour bus ride—I managed to get myself robbed. I arrived in Chelyabinsk close to midnight, shaken and penniless, and ran into Galina in the hotel lobby: she had just emerged from a long day of tense meetings. Before I had a chance to say anything, she pulled me up to her room, where she placed a glass of vodka in my hands and sat down at a glass coffee table to make me a bunch of tiny salami sandwiches. She lent me money for the ticket back to Moscow.

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