“My Mother Was Burning Alive While You Stayed Silent”10 min read

 In Civil Society, Opinion, Russia
On Friday October 2nd, a 47-year-old woman chained herself to a bench and set herself on fire in front of the police headquarters in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. Irina Slavina was a renowned local journalist, running her own independent media outlet. Her self-immolation and resulting demise were preceded by a last Facebook post in which she wrote ‘Blame the Russian Federation for my death’.

The suicidal and cruel nature of the act triggered a shock reaction from the Russian public. How could someone be so resigned, and at the same time, determined, to set their own body on fire? Who would even decide to protest in that way? If one wants to transform their own demise into some perverse act, what does it make them? A psycho, that should have been adequately treated before? Or maybe an attention-seeking lunatic?

The event, insane on the surface, was, however, driven by a certain logic. The death of Irina Slavina is a result of ongoing, state-led persecutions against her and free speech in broader terms. It reflects one of the darker facets of the contemporary Russian Federation – a police-state, where law enforcement agencies operate with ruthless impunity.

A journalistic authority 

‘A human life in Russia is not worth anything’, Irina told me when we met in January. I couldn’t imagine how these words would sound 10 months later. 

She was well-known in Nizhny Novgorod, the sixth largest city in Russia – a place with unfulfilled ambitions, taken away by its relatively close proximity to Moscow. Irina, as a single person handling an independent media outlet, Koza.Press, was one of a few who bravely reported about the authorities’ misdoings, and corruption among officials in the city. While collecting materials for my MA thesis on local politics, plenty of my respondents referred to her as ‘Nizhny’s authority’. I contacted Irina by myself, in order to deepen my contextual knowledge of the local environment.

She didn’t mind meeting with a foreign guy and answering some very basic questions. Our conversation coincided with a Polish-Russian diplomatic row over memory politics. Irina took the chance to apologize to me on behalf of the Russian people. I got confused and managed to safely remark that there are plenty of moments in which I also find myself ashamed of my government, so I know that feeling very well.

To this, Irina responded that it is crucial to have some sort of moral guidance in these situations, once your own government, and the passport which you carry in your pocket, makes you want to bury yourself deep in the ground out of shame.

I couldn’t agree more. That ‘moral guidance’ was explicit in her case. Our conversation was full of off-topic remarks, but encapsulated the story of her fight at the same time: a political awakening, numerous resignations from various editorial offices due to political pressure and consistent persecution. Irina told me how she was fined for carrying a Boris Nemtsov poster during a commemorative walk through the city. Nemtsov, who was assassinated in 2015, was the first governor of Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, thus memories of him are felt strongly within the city.

Irina also told me about a situation when she was charged for allegedly ‘offending’ the memory of the Great Patriotic War (the Russian term describing the conflict between the USSR and Nazi Germany) veterans. Infuriated by the fact that in one regional town the Communist party had hung a memorial plaque paying tribute to Stalin’s ‘input’ in winning the war, Irina wrote an emotional post in which she proposed renaming the city of Shakhuniya as ‘Shakhuynia’. Although the difference here seems to be minor, in Russian it is a play on words, which incorporates a vulgarism, leaving no doubt about her opinion on the Stalin whitewashing. According to Irina, all of these cases against her were orchestrated by orders from the very top of the regional power centre simply because she ‘doesn’t keep her mouth shut’.

I didn’t ask for more of Irina’s time after our initial meeting as I knew she was an extremely active journalist, investigating numerous topics at the same time. We did exchange a few emails though, and she put me in touch with useful contacts for my MA research. Needless to say, I also kept a close eye on her public profile as it helped me to stay up to date with the latest political developments in Nizhny Novgorod. 

The growing indifference

Writing about the Russian opposition makes you somehow indifferent, sometimes numb. Sad but true. While following the different people that I met and interviewed for my thesis, I was consistently followed by a persistent nagging feeling that basically everything stays the same. I might be scared or surprised by the scale of repression, but that doesn’t change the picture at all. If one wants to scream about something, the authorities find a way to make that screaming sound weaker or go unheard. 

The moment the coronavirus hit, Russian authorities passed a law to combat pandemic-related fake news, essentially giving them a pretext to infringe even more on an already heavily controlled media sphere. Irina, along with some other Russian journalists, were fined as a result of these new measures. Shortly after announcing her financial punishment, Irina stated that she was fed up with all the restrictions. I shrugged my shoulders while reading it, as it was not the first, nor is it likely to be the last, case of an attack on freedom of speech in Russia. Tragic indeed, but nothing extraordinary. People get arrested, detained, sentenced – the array of measures is so broad, they seem to come in any colour you can imagine. The apathy grows as there’s no one to cry to for help. ‘Opposing’ the regime is conducted by a small bunch of activists, usually misunderstood and portrayed as paid agents of the West, Khodorkovski, fascism, or whatever other scapegoat is most convenient at any given time.

The indifference can last a long time, but at some point the scale of the regime’s recklessness becomes unbearable. The day before Irina’s death, her apartment, and those of other anti-government activists including members of Yabloko and the team of Alexei Navalny, were shaken down by law enforcement

The police reportedly confiscated computers, cell phones and other digital equipment. According to the officials, the search was conducted in connection with a criminal investigation against a local entrepreneur, who is allegedly involved in the activity of an ‘undesirable’ organization. The people targeted by police raids figure in the case as ‘witnesses’. This did not deter the law enforcement agents from brutal behavior. One of Yabloko’s members was forced to the ground during the raid, while the doors of Irina’s flat were rammed open. Given the circumstances, the shakedown on local activists can be interpreted as retaliation for the opposition’s activity during the most recent local elections in September. Although the independent candidates didn’t secure any seats in the city assembly, they organized a well-coordinated team who conducted electoral observations, securing the process from potential vote rigging in some of the polling stations. The defendant in the aforementioned case, the entrepreneur, even rented a space for these observers to be trained. The training was interrupted by the police raid

Swan song

The target of the pathological violence conducted by the Russian regime seems to be reaching much higher than the local elections. It is aimed at frightening the opposition, to turn everyone into Havel’s greengrocer, an individual completely submissive to the system, a person living a lie. 

These kinds of regional actions do not usually get the publicity they deserve, as the activists involved are usually known only within small circles of politically-engaged communities. Nevertheless, the persecutions preceding Irina’s suicide are just a few examples of a much wider trend in Russia. They all demonstrate the tough line being taken by the authorities towards any form of dissent. In Petrozavodsk, Yury Dmitriev, a civil rights activist, who was documenting the atrocities of Stalin’s terror, was given an increased 13-year jail term, overturning the previous, shorter sentence he was originally handed. Given Dmitriev’s age, this is essentially a death sentence. 

In the same week, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov expressed surprise that he hadn’t also been accused of masterminding Alexey Navalny’s poisoning after the Russian opposition figure claimed that he suspects Putin was behind the attempt on his life. Kadyrov, in his own style, responded that ‘no doctor would try to save Navalny’s life’ if that were the case. That remains a typical ploy for the Russian officials – they hardly even try to portray themselves as innocent by investigating every case of power abuse. Instead, they ridicule every allegation and make it into a farce, as Kadyrov’s statement seems to illustrate. 

The repressive machine showed its predatory might in just one week. Regardless of which individual gives orders to silence the dissent, the same mechanism that is responsible for poisoning Navalny, sentencing Dmitriev and persecuting other innocent people, also killed Irina, devastating her life shortly before her death. Imagine the amount of humiliation, when unknown people storm into your flat on a bright morning. Try to put yourself in the situation where your entire professional toolkit is being taken away without any real explanation. When your source of dignity and identity, something you have devoted your life to – being a principal, free-minded journalist – is structurally shattered.

Self-immolation is not normal, I agree, regardless of the circumstances. But what constitutes normal in a given situation? What provides an appropriate point of reference, if not an internal voice, offering moral guidance? 

Her protest, of course, had a political layer. After all, she was portrayed as an enemy of the government on the basis of her political views. But the ethical dimension is much more important. She self-immolated to point a finger at the state as a source of crime, immorality and people’s humiliation. This goes beyond the political spectrum. Similar causes drive the various protests now, not only in Russia, but also throughout the post-soviet sphere. In Khabarovsk, a city in the Russian Far East, people took to the streets to protest against Moscow’s meddling in local affairs, most notably, the removal of the local governor on dubious grounds. Khabarovsk’s residents have rallied constantly since July, driven by their feeling of self-dignity and a need to determine their fate for themselves, without any external intervention. A poster with Slavina’s face appeared among the protesters shortly after her death.

Irina’s accusation that the Russian Federation was to blame for her death, may sound dramatic, but it isn’t really so far-fetched. In her case, nobody pulled a trigger or poured poison into a teacup, so there’s no personalized perpetrator. However, her tragic gesture was instead instigated by the system in its entirety. By every fake testimonial, by every forged court case and every prosecutor who made a fiction out of Russian law. And it goes further. The whole power structure is maintained by every person who rigs the votes or forces the members of polling stations to obtain certain electoral results, which help the system continue to survive and fortify the lie. 

The day when Irina committed her act, I defended my MA thesis – I read about her death two hours later. During the presentation of my study, I quoted her. Pure coincidence, one might say, but she, as a person and a journalist, deserves to be remembered. Along with all those, who are not afraid to show dissent. They might be not big in number, but they do exist. We should know about their struggle. That’s the least we can do, watching it from a distance. 

The rising flames were, therefore, not a gesture of misery, but they constitute a firm indictment and a call for awakening. ‘My mother was burning alive, while you stayed silent’, said a poster carried by Irina’s daughter, one day after her mom died. The independent journalist, who couldn’t continue her work anymore, decided to perform a swan song to make everyone listen. Otherwise people would ignore her tragedy, just as we did before.

Featured image: “My mother was burning alive while you stayed silent” / Margodrugart
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