Starovoitova, Galina (1946–1998)

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Starovoitova, Galina (1946–1998)

Russian politician, advisor to Boris Yeltsin, who was assassinated in 1998. Pronunciation: Sta-ro-VOI-tova. Born Galina Vasil'evna in Cheliabinsk, RSFSR, on May 17, 1946; murdered in St. Petersburg, Russia, on November 20, 1998; daughter of Vasilii Stepanovich (a professor and Party organizer who held an important position in the defense industry) and Rimma Iakovlevna; Leningrad College of Military Engineering, B.A., 1966; Leningrad State University, M.A. in social psychology, 1971; Institute of Ethnography of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Ph.D. in psychology, 1980; married Grigorii Borshevskii; married Andrei Volkov (a physicist), in 1998; children: (first marriage) son, Platon Grigor'evich Borshevskii.

Was a member of the USSR Congress of People's Deputies (1989–91); was a member of the Russian Congress of People's Deputies (1990–93); was an advisor to Boris Yeltsin on inter-ethnic affairs (1991–92); was a member of Russian State Duma (1995–98); ran for president of the Russian Federation (1996).


Ethnic Groups in the Modern Soviet City (in Russian; Leningrad: Nauka, 1987), based on her Ph.D. dissertation; numerous articles and interviews in the press on the political situation in the former Soviet Union (1988–98).

On November 20, 1998, Galina Starovoitova, a member of the Russian State Duma (Parliament), was shot dead in the hallway of her St. Petersburg apartment building. It was widely believed that Starovoitova had been the victim of a contract killing because of her history as a fierce and uncompromising fighter for democracy in Russia. The top leadership, including President Boris Yeltsin, for whom she had worked as an advisor on inter-ethnic issues, vowed to get to the bottom of her murder, noting the importance both of her commitment to the development of democracy in Russia and the need to stop the contract killings of politicians and businesspeople by organized crime and political extremists. Starovoitova was a popular public figure among the citizenry; on the day of her funeral, more than 10,000 mourners came to pay their respects as she lay in state.

Thus ended the turbulent and brief political career of a woman who is commonly described in epitaphs as courageous and noble, a person of integrity, a representative of the cream of the Russian intelligentsia. Writes Adam Michnik: "Their principle was the truth; their characteristic was straightforwardness; their method was a nonviolent way of forcing change; their spiritual climate was free from hate and thoughts of revenge." "In burying Galina Starovoitova," noted Bill Powell, "many Russians wondered whether they were also burying what she stood for: their country's flagging experiment with liberalism and democracy."

Born Galina Vasil'evna in Cheliabinsk in 1946, Starovoitova began her professional life in 1966 when, having graduated from the Leningrad Military College for Engineering with a B.A., she worked first as a laboratory assistant in a research institute. From 1968 to 1971, she worked as a sociologist at a research institute specializing in the technology of ship-building. In 1971, having graduated from Leningrad State University with an M.A. in social psychology, Starovoitova worked as a psychologist first at a factory, then at an architectural-planning organization; she also taught social psychology at two post-secondary institutions.

In 1973, Starovoitova began her Ph.D. studies at the Institute of Ethnography at the USSR Academy of Sciences. Three years later, she defended her dissertation on "Problems of ethnosociology of ethnic groups in the modern city." The study was based on material gathered on the Tatar population in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Starovoitova worked as a researcher at the Institute of Ethnography and at the Centre for the Study of Inter-ethnic Relations, also part of the Academy of Sciences.

Starovoitova's first political act occurred in 1968, when she signed a petition protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, an action for which she was interrogated by the KGB. Subsequent independent-minded activity was confined to private discussions around the kitchen table with like-minded friends—until 20 years later, when Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over Nagorno Karabakh.

As part of her work at the Academy of Sciences, Starovoitova had conducted field work in Nagorno Karabakh, an Armenian enclave in the republic of Azerbaijan. In 1988, Nagorno Karabakh voted to secede from Azerbaijan and to join with the republic of Armenia. Times had changed since 1968; Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost (openness) allowed citizens to publicly air their opinions in ways that had previously been impossible or dangerous; indeed, one of the goals of glasnost was to win the support of the intelligentsia. Starovoitova pursued several initiatives to help solve the problem of Nagorno Karabakh. She wrote a personal letter of support to her friends and colleagues in Armenia, which was distributed widely and broadcast over Radio Liberty; and she visited the region to discuss with Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities her proposals to bring an end to the conflict, which were based on the right of Nagorno Karabakh to sovereignty. Starovoitova's life as a politician began formally in 1989, when she was elected to the USSR Congress of People's Deputies (Parliament) as a representative from Armenia.

On the spectrum of political movements, Starovoitova belonged to Democratic Russia, the largest popular democratic faction. Long a leading light in the party, in February 1993 she was elected co-chair of Democratic Russia's council of representatives. Five years later, she was elected the sole chair. She was closely associated with Boris Yeltsin from the outset of her political career. After being elected to the USSR Congress of People's Deputies, Starovoitova joined the Interregional Group of Deputies, the most important of the reform-oriented blocs in the Congress, among whose leaders were Andrei Sakharov and Yeltsin. The Inter-regional Group called for a faster pace of economic and political reform. In 1990, Starovoitova was also elected as a representative of Leningrad to the Russian Congress of People's Deputies. Her association with Yeltsin continued—he was the chair of the Supreme Soviet (a subunit of the larger Congress), and she belonged to his closest circle of advisors.

In 1991, President Yeltsin appointed Starovoitova as his advisor on inter-ethnic affairs. The appointment was short lived, lasting only until November 4, 1992, when she was dismissed because of their differences over questions of sovereignty and territorial integrity. The former Soviet Union was composed of 15 republics, all of which became independent countries in 1991. The Russian Federation itself retained its character as a quilt of ethnic groups, typically territorially based in their own administrative units. Part of the political process since the breakup of the USSR in 1991 has been to define the relationship between the Russian national government and the ethnic groups, and to address the historical grievances of ethnic minorities within Russia. In the fall of 1992, fighting broke out on the border of the national republics (within Russia) of North Ossetia and Ingushetia over contested territory. Russian troops were sent in to stabilize the situation, and the Russian government and media adopted a predominantly pro-Ossetian stance. Starovoitova was opposed to this stance, drawing attention to the reasons behind Ingushetia's actions. She also floated the idea of redrawing the boundary, which Yeltsin did not support. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the president of North Ossetia pressured Yeltsin into dismissing Starovoitova.

Apart from the differences in inter-ethnic affairs, it appears that Starovoitova was also dismissed, as were other radical democrats in Yeltsin's Cabinet, in the course of his ongoing struggle with the Supreme Soviet during 1990–93 (the Supreme Soviet was selected from the 1,068-member Russian Congress of People's Deputies and was a 268-member bicameral body). Much of this struggle stemmed from his radical economic reform agenda. Yeltsin alternated between confrontation and conciliation with the Supreme Soviet in order to implement economic reform; one method he used to gain the support of the Supreme Soviet was to dismiss his more radical Cabinet members. Ultimately, the confrontation with the Supreme Soviet boiled down to determining the relative weight of the powers of the presidency and the legislature in ruling the country. It is clear from her own writings that Starovoitova, who had been a member of the Constitutional Assembly convened by Yeltsin in June 1993 to draft a new constitution, was highly critical of Yeltsin's efforts to concentrate power in the presidency.

After she was dismissed, Starovoitova left politics for several years and resumed her life as a researcher. She was a visiting professor at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, and a visiting professor of democracy at the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies at the New School University. Yegor Gaidar, a fellow democrat who served in Yeltsin's Cabinet, invited Starovoitova to join his Institute for the Economy in Transition in 1993. She formed an ethno-political studies laboratory and worked there until 1996.

When elections were held for the Russian State Duma in December 1993, Starovoitova did not run. Elections were held again in December 1995, and Starovoitova ran and won a seat in Leningrad. She ran for the presidency in 1996—the only female candidate—but was unable to gather the signatures necessary for a place on the ballot. She may have been planning to run again in the elections scheduled for 2000.

Starovoitova was one of the few women to hold a significant post in the Yeltsin government. Indeed, the overall percentage of women deputies declined precipitously with the advent of free elections. Under the old system, in which the Supreme Soviet was a rubber stamp and true power resided in the Politburo of the Communist Party, on average one-third of deputies at the all-union and union republic levels were women. In the 1990 elections to the Russian State Duma, the percentage of women deputies was 5%; 1993, 13.5%; 1995, 9.8%. As of 1999, of the 27 committees in the State Duma, 2 were headed by women: the Committee on Women, Family, and Youth Affairs and the Committee on Ecological Protection (among the least influential of the committees). The vice-premier of the government of Russia was a woman—Valentina Matvienko .

Gender stereotyping along traditional lines is quite strong in Russia. Starovoitova remarked on the difficulties that women politicians have in achieving high office. When asked in an interview for Argumenty i fakty if a woman could become president, she replied, "According to the results of a poll, 47% of the population would prefer a woman president, and another 22% would not be against. People believe that women are better than men—they don't drink and they don't start wars. But there is a glass ceiling that women hit." Similarly, in early 1992 there were rumors that Yeltsin would appoint Starovoitova as minister of defense. She noted that society had not matured to the point that it would accept a woman, let alone a civilian, in such a post. "Hers was a name that many Russians knew," wrote Paul Quinn-Judge after her murder, "and if she no longer held great political power, her moral power remained intact."


Argumenty i fakty. No. 48. November 1998, p. 3.

Gessen, Masha. Dead Again: The Russian Intelligentsia after Communism. London: Verso, 1997, chapter 7.

Michnik, Adam. "A Death in St. Petersburg," in The New York Review of Books. Vol. 46, no. 1. January 14, 1999, pp. 4–6.

Powell, Bill. "Requiem for Reform," in Newsweek. December 7, 1998.

Quinn-Judge, Paul. "Russia's Gunpoint Politics," in Time. December 7, 1998.

Starovoitova, Galina. "What Future for Democracy," in Perspective. Vol. 5, no. 3. January–February 1995.

Janet Hyer , Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada