Friday, July 17, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russians Now View Political Murders as Something They Can Do Little About, Rights Activists Say

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 17 – As reaction to the murder of Natalya Estemirova shows, two Moscow rights activists say, political murders have become so common in Russia that ever more Russians now view them as part of the ordinary course of events, occasions for “tearful grief but not anger or protest” against the system that created the conditions for them.
In a comment posted on the portal this week, Nadezhda Nizovkina and Tatyana Stetsura argue that the kidnapping and murder of the Grozny journalist is especially horrible because it shows that Russians have become “so accustomed to political murders that [they] consider them a natural way of death” (
“Natalya Estemirova was the first laureate of the Anna Politkovskaya Prize,” they point out, suggesting that “this award as a symbol of honor has become a black mark for the Chekist regime. Politkovskaya was billed on Putin’s birthday in 2006. [And] it is said that her heard was brought to him on a platter.”
As far as Estemirova is concerned, Nizovkina and Stetsura ask rhetorically: “to whom was she given? On whose birthday [this time]? Or [rather was it simply] the day of the rebirth of the cannibal-like Chekist system” now on offer not only in Kadyrov’s Chechnya but in the Russian Federation more generally?
“Not long ago,” the two rights activists conclude with bitterness about what public reaction says about Russia today, “society buried Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova. It buried them and did only that. Is this sufficient as a memory not simply for the victims of totalitarianism but also for those who struggle against it?”
This sense that Russians do not view these string of murders as symptomatic of the country’s problems has prompted other human rights activists, including some of the most prominent in Russia, to issue a declaration that “Estemirova’s murder was the direct result of government policy” (
On the one hand, they say, the regime has created an atmosphere in which many Russians view those human rights activists, journalists, and opposition figures as “’a fifth column’ and as enemies of the state whose elimination would not only improve the situation but would not result in any punishment for those who carry it out.
And on the other, Estemirova’s murder is “a continuation of the current irresponsible, anti-constitutional and essentially criminal policy in the Chechen Republic and other regions of the North Caucasus, a policy which is characterized by systematic and massive crude violations of human rights” by the siloviki and groups “near them” who “act as ‘death squadrons.’”
The signatories, who include Lyudmila Alekseyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lev Ponomaryev of the For Human Rights Movement, Sergey Davidis of Solidarity and many others directly, call on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to intervene in this and other cases lest the situation deteriorate even more.
“If you do not want our country to be converted into a zone of open political murders,” they write, “precise and unambiguous measures to expose crimes against public figures, human rights activists and journalists must be taken” and “an adequate system of rapid reaction to reports about torture, kidnappings and murders must be established.”
And they conclude their appeal to Medvedev with a call to “radically change the current policy in the republics of the North Caucasus, to categorically exclude punitive actions, arbitrariness and reprisals, to being a real struggle with corruption, to prohibit violations of freedom of conscience and public life, and to block the falsification of elections.”
Three aspects of this situation – horror about what is taking place on the part of many, a sense that Russians are so inured to it that they will not act, and a view by some that those saying they are upset are simply exploiting such deaths for PR purposes – are reflected in a survey of blog posts offered by (
Among the most striking of these posts are the following. Journalist Nikolay Troitsky said that he is not sure whether Ramzan Kadyrov is guilty of the murder or not, but what is most horrific is “when supposedly ‘within’ Russia there is an enclave were the laws of Russia do not work at all.
Commentator Valeriya Navodvorskaya added that the deaths of Politkovskaya and now Estemirova were “programmed on December 11, 1994, when Russian tanks crossed the border of Chechnya.” Since that time, she continued, there has only been one kind of conversation with the regime’s opponents: “bullets and drowning in water or more precisely in blood.”
But what is perhaps the most interesting comment of all came from a student at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) who noted that what was both horrific and expected after Estermirova’s killing were the statements of those who consider themselves “patriots” that “a dog had died a dog’s death.”
In that environment, one promoted by the statements and actions of Vladimir Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov, it is not surprising that many Russians feel compelled to accept these murders as something horrific they can do nothing about, a sense that if they feel they do not have support at home or abroad will open the way to even more horrors ahead.
And tragically, this acceptance confirms what the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote 150 years ago about the nature of the human condition not only in his country but more generally. “Man,” the author of “Crime and Punishment” said, “is not a pig; he can get used to anything.”

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