Russia: The assassination of Stanislav Markelov

On Monday afternoon (January 19), after leaving a press conference, Stanislav Markelov was shot dead near Kropotkinskaya metro station in Moscow. Anastasiya Baburova, who was with Stanislav at the time, was also murdered. Some activists and journalists have asked who was responsible for these disgraceful murders. It’s not possible to say at this stage, but nobody believes that the state will seriously seek to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.

On Monday afternoon human rights activist and lawyer Stanislav Markelov (Stas), 34, was shot dead near Kropotkinskaya metro station in Moscow. Anastasiya Baburova, 25, journalist and left activist was also shot after she went after the killer. She later died from her wounds in hospital. These barbarous murders have shocked all those that knew Stas and Nastya.

The tributes that have been dedicated to Stas show the tremendous respect with which he was held by so many people. Stas defended the cases of the families of victims murdered by Russian troops in Chechnya. He also defended the families of victims killed by neo-fascists on the streets of Moscow. Stas’ activity wasn’t limited to the courtroom but included support for active demonstrations of solidarity against the victimization and murder of activists. He held many press conferences warning of the dangers of the extreme right, who are left unchecked by the police.

Stanislav Markelov, the human rights lawyer, was assasinated on Monday. Photo by Novaya Gazeta.
Stanislav Markelov, the human rights lawyer, was assasinated on Monday. Photo by Novaya Gazeta.

On Tuesday hundreds of people gathered at the place where Stas and Nastya were murdered. Later in the evening 100 young people gathered in Saint Petersburg to commemorate the lives of Stas and Nastya in the place where another young anti-fascist activist, Timur Karachava, was knifed to death in November 2005. Despite police interference, they were able to march to the Mars Fields. In Moscow, despite the attack of the OMON riot police and the arrest of groups of mourners, 300 young anti-fascists remembered Stas and Nastya. Most of those arrested had been released late last night.

Tributes to Stas have also come from workers and trade union activists who he helped to understand and defend their rights. Alexandr Zakharkin, the leader of an oil workers’ union in Siberia, remembered on Monday evening a visit that Stas made to Irkutsk. This is very important when workers are isolated and don’t have a trade union leadership that is prepared to provide legal assistance to them. This means union activists have to deal with victimization and unfair dismissal for union work individually as the unions have been strengthened sufficiently to be able to defend their leaders.

In Kiev a group of mourners gathered outside the Russian embassy on Tuesday. Stas had been a friend to a group of trade union activists there, who wanted to set up a legal organization to fight for compensation for workers. Through their experience of gathering the most militant workers together and fighting back in the courts the comrades were planning to then branch out into building proper unions.

Stas will be best remembered for his courageous work in campaigning for justice for the victims and their families in Chechnya. A vigil was planned for him in Groznyi, with hundreds expected to attend. Stas was the first lawyer who succeeded in sending a Russian soldier to prison for his war crimes. In 2000, when in his twenties, Stas convicted Colonel Budanov for the rape and murder of Elsa Kungayeva. Budanov was recently granted early release. Stas was in fact shot dead just after he had spoken at a press conference denouncing Budanov’s early release.

Stas also worked tirelessly to defend the rights of all the peoples of the Caucasus irrespective of their nationality. He travelled widely in the Caucasus and was a vocal opponent of Russian aggression in Georgia last year, though he did defend the right of the Ossetians and the Abkhazians to self-determination. At the European Social Forum in Malmo last September Stas organized and chaired a lively and open seminar on the war in the North Caucasus, with speakers from Russia, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. As someone who had been in Tskhinval, the capital of South Ossetia, he was particularly scathing about war propaganda, and liked to repeat that the proverb that the first casualty of war is the truth. In particular he criticized western media for showing planes that he knew to be Georgian bombers attacking a town that he knew to be Tskhinval but stating to audiences in the west that they were seeing Russian planes attacking Gori.

Nastya only recently became involved in politics. She was bright and enthusiastic and keen to respond in a positive way to the injustices and indifference of Russian society. She was involved in anarchist groups. In particular she was involved in defending the inhabitants of a hostel in Yasnyi Proezd in the north of Moscow when a special government armed detachment came to evict them (illegally) in order for the building to be knocked down and a new building built. As a journalist she recorded there the injustice of the Russian state on people who were largely refugees from earlier wars in the Caucasus after the collapse of the USSR.

Such individuals as Stas and Nastya are examples of the other face of Russia, not the face of official Russia and the Kremlin, but of those who are sincere, youthful and prepared to make sacrifices to change the world.

Repression will not work!

Some activists and journalists have asked who was responsible for these disgraceful murders. It’s not possible to say at this stage. Nobody believes that the state will seriously seek to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice. And now there isn’t a lawyer with the courage of Stas to do everything possible to bring the truth to light.

In Russia trade unionists, journalists and lawyers risk their lives in campaigning for justice, for elementary rights that workers in the west would take for granted. This is particularly the case in the provinces where life is cheap and murder often goes unpunished.

Anastasiya Baburova, a journalist at Novaya Gazeta, was shot when she followed the assasin. Photo by Novaya Gazeta.
Anastasiya Baburova, a journalist at Novaya Gazeta, was shot when she followed the assasin. Photo by Novaya Gazeta.

But being in Moscow is no protection. The world-famous journalist Anna Polikovskaya was assassinated returning from the shops a few years ago – a case that Stas led subsequently. Another murder that took place in broad daylight was that of Ruslan Yamadayev, a Chechen commander. Yamadayev was killed at the traffic lights just outside the British Embassy.

The BBC and the Financial Times have taken the opportunity to use these murders to discredit the human rights record of the Russian government. They create the impression that Stas was singled out because of his part in the case against Budanov but don’t provide any proof to link Budanov with the murders.

Groups such as avtonom (Autonomous Action) in Moscow believe that the murders of Stas and Nastya were carried out by the extreme right wing groups that Stas warned against so many times. But it is unusual for such thugs to target such a high-profile figure as Stas. Instead of killing known leaders, the fascist murderers often picked on the sympathizers of the movement. In this way they hoped to intimidate wider layers of youth from directly opposing the fascists. Certainly the gangsters behind the killings of Stas and Nastya counted on weakening the resolve of the youth to fight against the neo-fascists and the brutality of the Russian state.

Although not directly related, these murders follow on from a campaign of attacks on well-known leaders of the trade union and protest movements a month and a half ago. Then Alexey Etmanov, the Ford trade union leader, was attacked three times though he was able to defend himself. Karin Kleman, the head of the Institute for Collective Action and wife of Duma deputy and trade union leader Oleg Shein was injected with an unknown substance as she was walking to a meeting. Mikhail Beketov, the editor of the newspaper “Khimkinskaya Pravda” was also attacked – and also defended by Stas. All these crimes were intended to attract publicity and sow fear into as wide a layer of activists – and potential activists – as possible.

The first instinct of the most militant youth could be to respond to these brutal murders by stepping up a physical struggle against the fascists and the police. The youth in Moscow who mourned for Stas and Nastya on Tuesday night are rightly upset and angry. But we should warn against extreme but counter-productive acts of desperation, which at the moment expresses itself in smashing windows but could develop into taking on a logic of its own.

The task of the youth is not in isolation to fight the fascists, police and riot-police. The state is too powerful, and can use examples of vandalism as an excuse to step up their victimization of the young activists. This is why, even at this emotional time, it is necessary to be firm on the need for the revolutionary youth to orientate towards the working class and the methods of the labour movement, mass protests, strikes and so on.

In Russia the genuine traditions of the labour movement are the traditions of Bolshevism, before they were physically destroyed by the Soviet bureaucracy under Stalin. It is as a reaction against the legacy of Stalinism that such outstanding individuals as Stas and Nastya sought to fight for justice and human dignity apart from the communist movement, which is only beginning to recover from Stalinism. It is an emotional time but it is necessary not to allow our frustration to be stronger than our belief in our ability to build a movement capable of fighting back and winning the ultimate victory.

This can only mean concretely the building of a movement of the working class conscious of its task of re-nationalising industry under its democratic control. This requires discussion and debate and, following the example of Stas and Nastya, the creation of as many ties as possible with workers and other oppressed layers of Russian society.

The blunt truth however is that the communist movement in Russia at the moment does not do justice to the qualities of such people. In particular Stas stood out as being an individual and a comrade in struggle who was very serious, in contrast to what Lenin used to call the marsh (in Russian “boloto”) of activists, who stand on the fence and only talk. But, contrary to the hopes of the gangsters who attack honest activists, this is not the end of the matter. Twenty years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall a new generation of comrades is coming to the surface, people who only a few years ago often did not imagine that they would be participating directly in the events that are already unfolding in Russia, and will unfold still faster in the coming years.

I can imagine that both Stanislav and Nastya would have been inspired by the response of the youth in Greece to the murder of an innocent schoolboy. They would have hoped to have participated in such an open and mass movement of the youth in Russia. Unfortunately, the situation in Russia is lagging behind and they never lived to test themselves in such events. But though they will not do so, other youth and young workers will take up their struggle. But for this struggle to be successful it must be armed with the necessary programme, strategy and tactics. The only example of such a struggle is the revolutionary movement of the Russian working class and youth 100 years ago.

In Russia the workers will also begin to find a road back to the genuine traditions of Marxism. The communist movement will again be compared to Hydra’s head, where two heads would grow back when one head was destroyed. In the place of individual revolutionaries killed today, groups of new revolutionaries will emerge in the future.

The tragedy of the murder of Stanislav and Nastya is that their chance to continue developing their living links with the oppressed layers of Russian society has been taken away from them. They will never be able to play the outstanding role in the future that their seriousness and enthusiasm had earmarked for them. They are an example of the heroic potential that exists beneath the surface among the youth in Russia, and a potential that will grow and be strengthened by their example.