Sarah Hurst: In Russia women have equal rights. To be tortured and killed. Part 2.

posted 21 Mar 2016, 10:15 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 21 Mar 2016, 10:20 ]
by Sarah Hurst

Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko is one of many courageous women who have resisted the brutality of the Russian authorities and paid a high price for this. The repressions started in the Yeltsin era and have intensified under Putin. The vindictiveness that Putin has shown towards his female opponents makes one wonder if he has psychological problems with women. But there is no point in attempting to guess at his motives. Instead I would like to briefly tell the stories of some of the women who have attempted to bring about change in Russia.

Larisa Yudina

In May 1998 I travelled from the UK to Elista in the southern Russian republic of Kalmykia to write about preparations for the World Chess Olympiad which was due to be held there in the autumn of that year. I had been writing about chess players and chess history for some time, and was fascinated by the eccentric Kalmyk leader Kirsan Ilyumzhinov’s idea to bring the world’s top players to his “City Chess”, a kind of mini-Olympic village that was rapidly being constructed on the steppe.

After waiting around for some time I was also able to meet and interview Ilyumzhinov himself. He showed me his pictures of meetings with Saddam Hussein, Colonel Gaddafi and the pope. He didn’t mention being abducted by aliens, which he would talk about subsequently. In Elista I also met a student called Inna Sangadzhieva, who gave me a note describing some of the human rights abuses that had been going on in Kalmykia. Sangadzhieva moved to Norway with a chess player from there and later married someone else. She now campaigns against human rights abuses in Russia working for the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.

On June 7, 1998, the editor of the opposition newspaper Sovietskaya Kalmykia Segodnya, Larisa Yudina, was stabbed to death and her body was thrown in a pond. She was 53. Yudina had been investigating Ilyumzhinov’s alleged corruption. I immediately started a campaign for chess players to boycott the Olympiad. Ilyumzhinov was not only the president of the republic, but also the president of FIDE, the world chess federation – as he still is today, despite US sanctions now having been imposed on him for his ties with the Syrian government.

All but a few players dismissed human rights concerns and participated in the Olympiad. Ilyumzhinov’s aides were convicted of the murder of Yudina. He remained president of Kalmykia until 2010. He is a close ally of Putin. Larisa Yudina would have turned 70 on October 22, 2015. To mark this date a friend of hers, Valery Badmayev, wrote anarticle about her murder and Ilyumzhinov’s response to it on an opposition website.

Galina Starovoitova

Not long after my campaign against the chess Olympiad had ended, I was hit by more shocking news. A liberal politician I had met while working for the St. Petersburg Press in 1995-96, Galina Starovoitova, was shot dead in the entrance of her block of flats on November 20, 1998. She was 52. Her aide, a young man called Ruslan Linkov, whom I had also met, was wounded in the attack. Two alleged hitmen were convicted of the murder in 2005. In August 2015 former MP Mikhail Glushchenko was sentenced to 17 years in prison for his role in organising the murder. He claimed that businessman Vladimir Barsukov ordered Starovoitova’s killing after she blocked him from establishing ties with corrupt city officials.

Starovoitova was a founder of the political movement Democratic Russia-Free Workers’ Union, which she led together with two prominent members of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lev Ponomarev and dissident Orthodox priest Gleb Yakunin. In April 1998 she became the leader of the political party Democratic Russia. Ironically, one of her aides in St. Petersburg was a youthful Vitaly Milonov. He has become a vitriolic hater of LGBTs and ally of Putin.

Issues of ethnic self-determination were of particular interest to Starovoitova, who became involved in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and negotiated with Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev in an attempt to avert the first Chechen War. She harshly criticised Yeltsin for his military campaign in Chechnya. Writing about gender equality in the newspaper Argumenty i Fakty in 1998, Starovoitova said, “Fortunately, in the last decades, there have been no bloody conspiracies that targeted women politicians.”

First published on X-Soviet, 6 March 2016. Reprinted by kind permission