Once in St. Petersburg

Editorial Notebook

July 15, 2006|By WILL ENGLUND

Nov. 24, 1998, was a cold day and a bitter one in St. Petersburg, Russia, and as the last of the wan sunlight faded and the cemetery workers hurried to finish their job, it was impossible not to sense that something more than the remains of Galina Starovoitova was being buried. Seven years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, she had been, almost alone among the reformers who had helped bring about that collapse, still willing to believe in a law-abiding, democratic, uncorrupted future for Russia, and still willing to work for it. She was maternal and ferocious and honest - and for all that she was gunned down in the dark stairwell of her apartment building, at the age of 52.

Thousands turned out to mourn her, despite the cold. Alongside her coffin were funeral wreaths - from political parties, from the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, from "Sympathizers and Friends," from the "Highway Committee of Leningrad Oblast," from the Estonian Consulate, from the "People of the United States of America." There was a feeling that Russia had failed Ms. Starovoitova - called Galina Vasiliyevna, in the Russian style - and that Russia would pay the price.

The newly appointed head of the Federal Security Service, a Petersburger himself, vowed in Moscow to get to the bottom of the crime and to stop the widespread abuses in his native city. He and Galina Vasiliyevna had some of the same political enemies - but it turned out they weren't on the same side, and the dark omens that attended her burial came all too painfully true. His name is Vladimir V. Putin, now the autocratic president of an undemocratic and seriously corrupt Russia. Starting this evening, he plays host to the leaders of the world's richest nations, gathered together, in St. Petersburg, for the annual Group of Eight summit.

Mr. Putin is secure in his power, and Ms. Starovoitova is safely dead in her hero's grave at the Alexander Nevsky monastery, so he has had no need to repudiate her, or even attempt to bury her memory. Russia today is prosperous (after a fashion) and enjoying a stern sort of stability (after a fashion), and even the sky-high murder rate in St. Petersburg (where politics and gangsterism long enjoyed a mutually profitable association) has come back down to earth. Mr. Putin has re-established what he calls the "vertical of authority," which is a pretty good description of everything Ms. Starovoitova opposed, but that was then and this is now.

Just over a year ago, a court found two men guilty in Galina Vasiliyevna's murder, one of them a former military intelligence officer. Four others were acquitted, and the people who ordered the hit are still unknown and still at large. Russian news accounts have suggested that politicians from the nationalistic and crime-ridden Liberal Democratic Party may have been behind the murder, and that may even be true.

Justice, in theory, could win out in the end, but justice is not history. Even if the perpetrators of the crime are all hunted down someday, even if the Federal Security Service investigation has for once latched onto the right suspects, the Russia of Vladimir Putin will in the meantime have sailed far clear of the sort of society that Ms. Starovoitova devoted her life to building.

President Bush is to meet with a group of reformers in St. Petersburg, which is commendable. But Russia is an important player right now regarding Iran and North Korea and the production of oil and gas for the world market; in some ways it's easier, and certainly necessary, to deal with that "vertical of authority."

While Ms. Starovoitova was lying in state at the Marble Hall, the line of mourners stretched to the Griboyedov Canal and then doubled back - about a mile, in all. "People will turn to common sense," Irina Mamaichuk, an old friend, said that afternoon. "There's little enough of it today in Russia, but they will."

She wasn't persuasive, and she knew it. "When I heard Galya had been killed, I realized a dark cloud was over us, and dark forces were flying over us." This was the new Russia, in plain sight at last on that damp, freezing day.

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