A Shot at Democracy

By Richard P. Morin / January / February 1999
November 21st, 2007
Seldom has a political assassination half a world away had such a personal impact on campus. The November shooting of prominent Russian democratic lawmaker and presidential hopeful Galina Starovoitova shocked her native country as well as her former colleagues and students at the Watson Institute for International Studies, where Starovoitova had been a popular visiting professor on and off since 1994.

Starovoitova, who was fifty-two years old, was shot dead by two masked gunmen while she climbed the stairs in her St. Petersburg apartment. Although Russian law-enforcement officials did not speculate on a motive, they said the killing was most likely a professional hit. "The shots which cut short the life of Galina wounded every Russian who cherishes democratic values," President Boris Yeltsin said in a statement. "A brazen challenge has been thrown at our entire society." On College Hill, colleagues and former students gathered at a memorial service on December 2 to honor Starovoitova, who had met her husband, Russian physicist Andrei Volkov, while at Brown. "We are profoundly saddened here at the Watson Institute for Galina's family and for the people of Russia," says Thomas Biersteker, the institute's director. "We understood that Galina was a controversial figure because of her courage to say what she felt was wrong, but we never imagined she would be assassinated." Watson Institute Senior Fellow Sergei Khrushchev, son of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, adds that Starovoitova was "strong and honest. My wife and I have lost a good friend."

An ethnologist who rose to prominence as an advocate for Armenians in Russia, Starovoitova spent parts of the last four academic years at Brown studying and lectur-ing on the politics of self-determination for ethnic minorities. She was scheduled to return to Brown again this year as a visiting scholar. "She was an incredible teacher, a grandmotherly type," said Michael Corkery '97, one of her former students. He said being part of Starovoitova's senior seminar was like being part of history: each class was filled with such stories as her clashes with Mikhail Gorbachev over minority rights or her latest conversation with Russian democratic leaders. "It was just amazing to have her as a professor," he said. "I can't believe they killed her."

In the year before her death, Starovoitova had shared with Khrushchev, former President Vartan Gregorian, and other Brown colleagues her fear that her life might be in danger. But despite her misgivings, Starovoitova continued to publicly challenge opponents and expose political corruption. Shortly before her death, she had made headlines for denouncing communist and nationalist members of the Duma for making anti-Semitic remarks. She was also believed to possess compromising information about the financial dealings of various political leaders that was to be released in the coming weeks.

Biersteker said her fearless attitude came from her fundamental commitment to democracy for Russia. "I think we [at Brown] never really understood the important role she played in the democratic movement in Russia," he says. "She was just such an amazingly unassuming person."

In Russia, Starovoitova was one of the most outspoken women in the Russian parliament. A leader of the reformist Democratic Russia party, she came to prominence as a harsh critic of Yeltsin, whom she helped gain power in the early 1990s, and of communist, fascist, and ultranationalist leaders. In 1996, Russian officials ended her run for the presidency because of a technicality. She planned to run again in 2000. "It is time that a woman became president," she said in a televised interview shortly before her death. "It would show how democratic our society is, how civilized." "She will truly be missed," Biersteker says of Starovoitova. "Not only was she a legitimate presidential candidate, she was an excellent colleague, and one of the few bright lights in an exceedingly dim outlook [for Russia]."

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January / February 1999