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‘Blame the Russian Federation’ Journalist Irina Slavina’s self-immolation came after years of constant pressure from the authorities

Source: Meduza
Irina Slavina’s Facebook page

“Koza.Press” editor-in-chief Irina Slavina self-immolated outside of the police headquarters in Nizhny Novgorod on October 2, 2020. She died of her injuries at the scene. The day before, law enforcement searched her home in connection with a criminal investigation into the activities of an “undesirable organization.” The case was launched against another local resident — Slavina was considered a witness. In conversation with “Meduza,” Slavina’s friends and colleagues describe her as a fearless person, whose reporting on sensitive topics led to a life spent working under constant pressure from the authorities.

“For my death, please blame the Russian Federation,” Koza.Press editor-in-chief Irina Slavina wrote on her Facebook page during the afternoon of October 2. A few moments later, Slavina set fire to herself near the police headquarters in Nizhny Novgorod. She died at the scene from the resulting burns. She was 47 years old. 

Irina Slavina was a well known journalist in Nizhny Novgorod. She earned a philology degree and worked as a Russian language and literature teacher for several years. Her journalistic career began in 2003, when she landed a job at the leading regional newspaper, Nizhegorodskaya Pravda. In the spring of 2015, Slavina, having lost her job for the third time (for “poking my nose out too far,” she said in an interview four years later), founded the online publication Koza.Press. 

“I never dreamed of having my own media outlet. This idea was born spontaneously. I think I couldn’t avoid getting fired – [if] not today, then tomorrow. There are things that I don’t tolerate. It’s no secret that there's total censorship in the Nizhny Novgorod Region,” she said at the time, in an interview with the outlet Pravda PFO. The project is funded by donations. Slavina ran it on her own: she was “both a correspondent, and a managing editor, and a cameraman.” She wrote about the persecution of the opposition, the crimes of law enforcement officers, and the illegal purchases of the city administration. Some reports say that Koza.Press was quoted more often than the city’s major publications. 

Koza meant a lot to Irina, it was her life’s work. She raised many sensitive topics in [her reporting]: about corruption, about the environment — [topics] others didn’t write about. And her reports sometimes became the grounds for prosecutorial checks,” Irina’s friend Roman Kryazhev, a journalist for the Nizhny Novgorod edition of Kommersant, tells Meduza. He also adds that Irina didn’t make any money off of the project, but she had her own audience. “For example, the readers could collect money for her to [replace] tires slashed by some thugs or to pay a fine in a day.”

Anastasia Sechina, the coordinator of the media project Sector Four (which was founded by a group of journalists in Perm, but covers topics related to different regions across Russia) met Irina Slavina “at journalism school.” Sechina says that as a journalist, Irina was a loner, but they helped each other often. “Her project is a rare case where a regional media outlet exists on donations,” Sechina tells Meduza. “As a person, Irina was very comfortable and light. She knitted incredible things. She and her husband made cheese themselves, they gave off the impression of a very loving family. In life, she was a very gentle person, but at the same time she was quite radical in some of her views. [Sometimes] she took a very strong position, which wasn’t to everyone’s liking. But she stood her ground.”

Another friend of Slavina’s, Open Russia press secretary Natalia Gryaznevich, also describes her as a person who “tells it like it is,” “without looking for someone else’s opinion.” “She was simply a very free and passionate person. To be like that in Russia, as we can see, is mortally dangerous,” Gryaznevich wrote on Facebook. 

The day before Irina Slavina’s suicide, October 1, she said that her apartment had been searched. “Today at 6:00 a.m., 12 people entered my apartment with a cut-off saw and crowbar: Investigative Committee officers, police officers, SOBR [Special Rapid Response Units], official witnesses. […] They wouldn’t let [me] call my lawyer. They were looking for brochures, leaflets, Open Russia accounts, possibly an icon with the face of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. I don’t have any of that. But they took what they found — all the flash drives, my laptop, my daughter’s laptop, a computer, phones — not just mine, but also my husband’s, — a bunch of notebooks that I scribbled in during press conferences. I was left without production tools. I’m okay,” she wrote on Facebook.

That same day, five other Nizhny Novgorod residents were searched, as well: the deputy chairman of Yabloko party’s regional branch, Alexey Sadomovsky; the coordinator of opposition politician Alexey Navalny’s local office, Roman Tregubov; former branch coordinator and MBX Media journalist Dmitry Silivonchik; and activists Yuri Shaposhnikov and Mikhail Borodin.

Yabloko’s Nizhny Novgorod branch stated that they are all witnesses in a criminal case “under the article on the activities of an undesirable organization.” It was brought against activist Mikhail Iosilevich, the founder of the Nizhny Novgorod branch of the “Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” According to state investigators, he provided Open Russia (the organization deemed “undesirable”) with premises for conducting training courses. On October 1, Iosilevich’s home was searched. What’s more, in an interview with Ekho Moskvy, Open Russia’s executive director Andrey Pivovarov said that the case was fabricated. He maintained that in September, Open Russia didn’t have any events in Nizhny Novgorod (which, according to the investigation, were the link to Iosilevich), but they did have events in Veliky Novgorod. “In other words, they confused Nizhny Novgorod with Veliky and launched a criminal case,” Pivovarov said.

Article 284.1 of Russia’s Criminal Code criminalizes leadership or participation in the activities of a foreign or international non-governmental organization considered “undesirable” in Russia. This is punishable by a fine, correctional labor or community service, or between two and six years in prison. 

In the context of this investigation in Nizhny Novgorod, it appears the “undesirable organizations” in question are the UK-based organizations Open Russia Civic Movement and OR (short for Otkrytaya Rossiya). That said, Russia hasn’t declared the domestically-based organization Open Russia “undesirable.” Notably, all three organizations are linked to exiled Russian philanthropist Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oligarch who was once believed to be the richest man in Russia.

Irina Slavina’s friends say that this search was not her first encounter with the security forces by far. “This happened to her regularly,” Anastasia Sechina recalls. “She was always writing about it. She always named the first and last names of the people with whom these clashes took place, she named specific employees at specific agencies. Generally, it was a pain in the ass.”

In 2019 and 2020 alone, Slavina received administrative convictions for her political position and journalistic activity several times — for example, she was fined 20,000 rubles (about $255) for attending a march commemorating opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in Nizhny Novgorod, 5,000 rubles ($64) for a Facebook post about the forum “Free People,” 70,000 rubles ($895) for a Facebook post about the unveiling of a memorial plaque honoring Stalin in the town of Shakhunya, and 65,000 rubles ($830) for an article about the head of a Sambo (a Soviet martial art) academy who, despite being sick with the coronavirus, came in contact with other people (the court believed the publication constituted deliberately spreading false information about the coronavirus). 

“I’m in shock. I don’t know what was going on in her head, why she decided to kill herself like that. Obviously the last searches in the Mikhail Iosilevich case, when they took all of her office equipment, finally tipped her over the edge,” Roman Kryazhev of Kommersant told Meduza. She was constantly under pressure, he adds: “Courts, fines, her car was damaged, her tires were slashed. But many don’t understand in purely human terms the rationale for this political gesture with the Russian Federation.”

The last time journalist Anastasia Sechina spoke to her friend Irina Slavina was on the morning of October 2. After seeing the news about Slavina’s apartment being searched, Sechina wrote to her and offered to help. “She answered briefly,” Sechina recalls. “I asked her what the whole case is in connection with: ‘With what you wrote about the Iosilevich case?’ She says ‘Obviously.’ I say, ‘So what did the people say when they broke into your apartment’ She replied: ‘That it’s in connection with this case.’ And when [I] asked if she needed help she simply remained silent. That was it.”

Sechina adds that this wasn’t a typical conversation for Irina Slavina: “Usually, if we’re corresponding it’s with emojis. It’s somehow livelier then now. I also thought that maybe she answered so laconically because she didn’t want to correspond about this case on Facebook for security reasons.”

Anastasia found out about Irina Slavina’s death from the news. She says that at first she thought it was a joke or fake news. “Despite the fact that Irina constantly wrote about these kinds of conflicts, she was a completely cheerful person, who lived a quiet life in parallel, in which there was homemade cheese and knitted stoles — she published them on her page,” Sechina says. “Now I can’t reconcile that Irina, the one I know, with what she has done, I simply can’t. She’s that kind of person — a goat [koza] that will continue to butt heads until the end.” 

The Nizhny Novgorod Investigative Committee Department announced that Irina Slavina is set to undergo a post-mortem psychological and psychiatric evaluation. According to the agency, the reports linking her suicide to the fact that her apartment was searched the day before “have no basis.” “She was a witness and was neither a suspect, nor the one accused in the criminal investigation,” the Investigative Committee said in its statement.

In the afternoon, Irina Slavina’s husband and daughter came to the police headquarters where she died. Later, local residents in Nizhny Novgorod organized a spontaneous memorial there — they lit candles and lay flowers next to a black-and-white portrait of the journalist. 

Story by Kristina Safonova

Translation by Eilish Hart

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