‘She was absolutely unstoppable’ A friend remembers Natalya Estemirova, the legendary human rights advocate killed in Chechnya 10 years ago today
July 15, 2019, marks a decade since the day human rights advocate Natalya Estemirova was murdered. Estemirova was a history teacher in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, until she decided in 2000 to turn her passion for human rights into a full-time job. In 2000, she took a position at the Grozny branch of Memorial, an international human rights organization that drew its mission from remembering the Stalinist purges but quickly came to be a bastion for contemporary civic advocacy as well. On July 15, 2009, Estemirova was kidnapped outside her home and killed. Human rights organizations around the world are still demanding an impartial investigation of that crime and legal consequences for those responsible. Journalists Shura Burtin and Yulia Orlova sat down with Estemirova’s friend Tanya Lokshina, the deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, to hear her memories of Estemirova’s life and work.
Natashka was very ambitious and very driven. She understood all the risks, but she just couldn’t stop. She went to all the most dangerous places, and sometimes, even how she got there was insane. I remember that there was a story in the spring of 2004 when an entire family — a mother and five small children — died after an airstrike on Rigakhoi, a village high up in the mountains. She went up there entirely alone, took whatever vehicles she came across to move up the mountain, and finally got to the village nearest Rigakhoi, where there was no road going further up. Then, she made a deal with the people living there to travel on horseback with total strangers higher up into the mountains — even though she’d never ridden a horse before and never rode one again afterward. And it was very scary: the mountains were still being bombarded. That story tells you everything you need to know about Natashka.
She was extremely emotional. She physiologically couldn’t stand injustice. She would start seeing white sparks in front of her eyes. When she heard about some instance of cruelty, children who were killed or civilians who were shot — that was it. She had to do something. She had to be there immediately. The risk didn’t bother her. She almost didn’t see it, though, of course, it was always there, and it was often monstrous. If she was going somewhere with somebody else, then she would worry about that person, but as an individual, she was absolutely unstoppable. And it was incredibly important to her to tell these stories herself, in her own voice.
People were always trying to persuade her: “Natasha, this is excellent information, we can publish all of it, but please, not under your name! You’re crazy, you’re right there…”
Her colleagues would go ballistic, and I’d go ballistic too. But she understood the situation very well, and she just couldn’t say it without using her own name. Natasha was naturally a deeply public person. She saw herself as a journalist. For her, silence was like a knife to the throat. And she always wanted to write in the first person: “I saw, I was there, they told me.” The poor woman, she really felt hurt if she’d found some kind of unbelievable story that they wouldn’t let her tell herself.
She helped journalists out a lot. All of them went along with her at one point or another — they really loved working with her. A lot of material for [Anna] Politkovskaya’s reports came right from Natashka. For example, there’s a famous report that Ms. Politkovskaya did about meeting [Chechen government head Ramzan] Kadyrov in his residence. She was actually there with Natasha, but Politkovskaya didn’t want to put her on the spot.
After Politkovskaya was killed, Novaya Gazeta wanted to keep working in Chechnya. They made Natasha an offer to write a regular column. Natashka went to Moscow and told me all about it in my kitchen — she was in a state of total ecstasy. She was literally shining with joy and pride. But Memorial’s leadership decided based on safety concerns that she there was no way she could do it. They made a deal with Novaya Gazeta and decided the column would be signed off by Memorial as a whole, not Natasha. They made that deal first, and then they told Natasha after the fact. And Natasha was hysterical. She was so offended; she cried so much. And we tried for ages to convince her: “Natasha, but you live in Chechnya with a small child! These people are trying to protect your safety!” Of course, that didn’t help at all. She was scared for her daughter to the point of panic, but she couldn’t stand to be on background all the time.
Natasha raised her daughter there at a really scary time. When she was pregnant, she moved to be near her family in the Urals and gave birth there, but she felt herself being pulled back [to Chechnya]. She just couldn’t stop working. She moved back and left her daughter with her family, and then she would go back to visit… She told me: “I go in there, and Lanka’s standing up, stomping her feet, she’s changed so much — and she doesn’t recognize me. She keeps turning away from me… So I took her with me. Sure, it’s dangerous, but otherwise, what kind of mother am I to her if she grows up without me? I had to choose.” She loved Lana to no end, and she was so frightened that someone might use Lana as a hostage because of her work. The older the girl got, the more scared her mother got. She made one attempt to send Lana to a private school near Moscow, but Lana didn’t adapt there at all. She had a hard time, and Natasha broke down and brought her back again.
The column with Novaya Gazeta didn’t work out, but Natasha started writing things for them under a pseudonym. And I remember very well how, about a year and a half before she was killed, she went to Moscow all inspired, satisfied. She had flown in from Grozny, and on the plane, an acquaintance of hers from the press ministry in Chechnya sat down next to her and just asked shamelessly, “Natasha, listen, that column in Novaya Gazeta that’s signed Magomed Aliev. I remember your work for The Grozny Worker — very similarly written. Is it you?” And instead of retreating, saying, “Oh no, of course not, how on earth could you…”, she blushed and smiled and said, “Oh, really? Did you recognize my style? I’m so glad people are reading my work…” She didn’t want to think about where that man worked and what the consequences might be.
Natasha very much wanted to be at the center of the action; she always wanted to be inside the picture. I remember that during one of my many visits to her in Grozny, one of many TV crews came to her house to do some kind of interview. I turned to her and asked very carefully, “Natasha, do you want me to talk to them instead? Might be dangerous.” She was just frightfully offended! People were staying with Natasha all the time — I felt like I never left her place, and she would stay with me in Moscow often, too. Even when we weren’t working together, when I was working on my own in Chechnya, I would still stay over at her place. But after Natasha was killed, my colleagues and I decided that we wouldn’t stay with our Chechen friends anymore. It’s an added risk for them.
Natasha wanted to be a journalist, but she would react so strongly to injustice that she could never concentrate on any single topic, a specific topic that could be a top priority for a journalist at any given time. Working with her was a constant effort to get her to focus, as in, “Listen, I’m here on a business trip for four days. You and I agreed ahead of time that we’ll do this, that, and the other thing. No, we’re not going to the temporary holding area for refugees. Yes, I know there’s no water there. No, we’re not about to work on the school where they don’t have any textbooks.” But she would go anyway. Sometimes, you just felt like stuffing yourself in the car and stewing in your own sense of guilt: I only have two days left, and I haven’t gotten anything done because I can’t do it without you… But she couldn’t say that one problem was more important than another as a matter of principle. For her, someone who got kidnapped by state security forces and a poor woman living in a little hut with three kids were on an equal plane. It would tear her to pieces: she wanted to help here, there, everywhere.
She kept visiting mothers whose kids had been kidnapped at the beginning of the war. After so many years, it was clear that they were no longer alive. But you would still be in the car with her on the way to somewhere, and she’d say, “Let’s stop by in this village on the way, so-and-so lives there…” And it was clear that there was nothing left to do, but she would still visit them, comfort them, support them. Her empathy was infinite.
A year before she was killed, Natasha got a talking-to from [Chechen government head] Ramzan Kadyrov himself. It was after she did an interview on REN-TV on women in Chechnya being forced to wear hijab. Natasha was an entirely European woman. Even though she lived in near-poverty, she always tried to wear stylish clothes. Sometimes, when she went on business trips abroad, she would buy all kinds of beautiful scarves and say each time that she would just go without coffee for a week. She had this balletic gait and posture. She spoke Chechen poorly, and of course, she didn’t really come across as one of their own.
Headscarves were a sore spot for Natasha. During the course of the war, the role of women in Chechen society changed drastically. Men were in a position of extreme danger, so they had to hide, and they couldn’t feed their families. The women had to do all of that. And a lot of decisions that men would previously have made for their families began to be made by women. But when the war ended, Kadyrov and his team decided to take on the task of putting women in their place. That effort included a new dress code policy and a general modesty code for women that referenced Sharia law and local traditions.
Kadyrov said publicly, “I have the right to criticize my wife. My wife doesn’t have that right. Here, wives take care of the home. Women should know their place. Women should give us love. Women should be property. And men are property owners. Here, if a woman walks around naked, if she behaves improperly, her husband, her father, and her brother answer for it. According to our traditions, if she walks around like that, her relatives kill her…” And in the course of that campaign, they forced women to cover their heads, even unmarried teenagers and really little girls. If a woman works — as an accountant, in a school, in a hospital, in the local government — she just never goes to work without wearing a headscarf. The guards wouldn’t let her through. And then local police started hunting down young women who went outside with their heads uncovered, insulting them, pushing them into dumpsters, shooting them with paintball guns. Not with real bullets, just with paint.
Natasha and I worked on that problem a lot. She was just burning with passion for it. And when Natasha was killed, I decided that we should finish that project. Later on, at Human Rights Watch, we published a detailed report and a lot of interesting, shorter pieces on the topic. And I think the media campaign we were able to get going ultimately caused the harshest measures that were being taken for women’s inequality to stop. I mean, a female accountant still can’t go to work without her head covered, but things like pushing women headfirst into dumpsters — that doesn’t happen anymore.
In any case, at the time, REN-TV came along, and Natasha did a long interview with them. She said that she was Chechen herself, and if she was going to a funeral, then, of course, she would cover her head. Or if she was visiting the home of a religious family — naturally, out of respect for them, she would wear a headscarf. But nobody has the right to force anyone to do anything. Kadyrov got angry and told her to come “to the wrestling mat.” But she didn’t understand that she was going to meet him. She was invited to meet with some government officials, and it was Kadyrov who was waiting there for her. I have this sense that Kadyrov thought at first that she was Russian, a Memorial employee who works and lives in Chechnya but is ethnically Russian. And then and there, he realized she wasn’t. He yelled at her and made terrible threats; he screamed about her family, her daughter. She was Chechen, so that meant he could do whatever he wanted with her. Maybe if he’d still had the illusion that she was Russian, things wouldn’t have been so dangerous for Natasha.
Natashka came back from that meeting all pale green. She said, “He was behaving so badly. He yelled so much. And I looked at him like I would look at my students, the ones who got Ds and Fs, when I was a schoolteacher. I mean, what was that all about? Come on, I’m a woman, and I’m a lot older than he is. Seems he didn’t like that very much…” I got the impression that the way she acted, she had even scared herself. But Natashka was in many ways still a schoolteacher at heart. And she would try to explain to people who were armed to the teeth, as though they were just high school punks, that beating up the other students isn’t allowed.
After that incident, Natasha and Lanka flew out to England for a few months. Of course, she could have stayed there; she would have gotten asylum. She had a good time in England, and she understood that it was an excellent place for her daughter. But she couldn’t imagine a life for herself there. She had to work. She came back and sent Lana to live with her parents in Yekaterinburg. Lanka wasn’t too happy about it, to put it mildly, and it was very hard for Natashka, too — she didn’t want to be separated from Lanka. But Lana, of course, was her Achilles heel, especially once she had grown up. Natashka was always in a panic worrying that something would happen to Lanka, that she would be kidnapped. In Chechnya, if you’re 13 years old, you’re a woman already, and even wearing pants to school or around town isn’t respectable by local traditions. And Natasha would literally force her to wear pants, to wear these little childish scarves, to create an illusion for everyone else, and partially for herself, that Lanka was still a little girl.
But when she was 14, Lanka was “exiled” to the Urals. And I think that after that, Natasha’s sense of danger relaxed somewhat, and she took her foot off the brakes. She started doing things that she probably would have avoided to a degree if Lana had still been in Grozny.
Natasha was killed after she investigated a public execution case in the Kurchaloyevsky region. The security forces there had received a tip that one of the locals had given a group of armed fighters a sheep. I mean, if your village is at the edge of the woods, and a bunch of armed men come to your house in the middle of the night, knock on the door with their fists, and demand food — how are you not going to give them food? It’s not a question of sympathy and antipathy. But they came for that man, and they took him and his son away.
We heard about this story, and we came to the village where it happened and talked to people. We were told that the day after, “Kadyrov’s guys” brought the man to the village. They threw him out of the car entirely beat-up, all his flesh was exposed, and he was only wearing underpants. He practically couldn’t talk. He couldn’t do anything. He just mumbled for them to let his son go. And they shot him right in front of all the young men there. They said they would do the same to anyone who helped the fighters. Whether they gave them a sheep or a crust of bread, someone would find out about it, and the punishment would be severe. Well, his relatives buried him quickly and wrote a statement saying he’d died of a stroke.
Of course, I told my bosses that we had this piece that we wanted to publish as soon as possible. But my bosses graciously responded, “Of course; just leave the region first. As soon as you leave, we’ll publish it immediately.” And I left. But Natasha was there all the time, and things had never been more dangerous for her. She was simply living her life where all the rest of us were tourists. Natashka did an interview with The Caucasian Knot under her own name even though we had said so many times that [publishing under her name] was exactly what she could never do. But she couldn’t be silent, and she couldn’t stay on deep background for her entire life.
She told that story, and practically immediately afterwards, she was killed. The interview was published the day I flew back to Moscow, and Natasha was killed the day after that. She left home in the morning, and for the first few hours, nobody looked for her — they thought she was just running around as usual. And then people started coming to the Memorial office, journalists who had set up appointments with her, saying that she wasn’t showing up. At first, the Memorial staff shrugged it off: “Natasha probably forgot, she works herself too hard, she always takes on more than she can handle.” And then, Lanka showed up — she had come home for summer vacation. On that day, Natasha was supposed to take her to see relatives in the countryside, and she told Lana to come to Memorial at a set time with a packed bag. She came in and asked, “Where’s mom?” And then everybody got tense because that kind of thing never happened, and they started looking. In the course of those few hours, while they were looking for her, running around, making calls from every telephone there, calling everyone they could and some people you’d think they couldn’t, tugging on every possible thread — during those hours, there was a sense of hope that they could save her. If you can get to the president’s administration fast enough — because if somebody took her, they must be keeping her somewhere… But it ultimately became clear that while we were trying to save her, Natasha was already no longer with us.
Translated by Hilah Kohen