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‘I will remember her ashes forever’ Why Nizhny Novgorod’s most independent journalist, Irina Slavina, burned herself alive in front of the local police station
On October 2, 2020, 47-year-old “KozaPress” editor-in-chief Irina Slavina killed herself by self-immolation in front of Nizhny Novgorod’s police headquarters. Before her suicide, in a post on Facebook, Slavina blamed the Russian Federation for her death. Her family, friends, and colleagues, who believe Slavina was driven to self-immolation by the authorities’ constant harassment, are calling it an act of heroism. Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova spent several days in Nizhny Novgorod to learn how the city and those who knew Slavina are coping with her death, and to find out how people are making sense of such a dramatic suicide.
Slavina’s friends, family, colleagues, and those who didn’t know her personally say she was caring, principled, and independent. “The best in Nizhny Novgorod, its mother.” Her death was a “final protest,” they say — a self-sacrifice comparable with Jan Palach and Danko.
Hundreds came to the House of Scientists to pay their respects to Slavina on October 6. “They killed Irina!” said Stanislav Dmitryevsky, an acquaintance of Slavina’s and a human rights defender. “Stop keeping silent, stop being afraid! If we sit down again, get fired up, shed tears, and then just go our separate ways, it means Irina died in vain.”
One of the last speakers was a small woman with a quiet, trembling voice who knew Slavina. “I’m scared to speak. I’m a little person. Life has been good, and I’ve been afraid to live otherwise, I’m still afraid, so very afraid,” she said. She added that the most terrifying thing would be if Slavina’s act turned out to be “in vain.” “I’m very grateful that [Slavina] didn’t just think about global injustice; she thought about the little people; she thought about me,” the woman said.
The making of a journalist
Irina Murakhtaeva, née Kolebanova, was born April 8, 1973 in Gorky, where she got her education and worked for eight years as a Russian language and literature teacher. In 2003, after graduating with a degree in journalism from the University of the Russian Academy of Education, she settled at the newspaper Nizhny Novgorod Pravda. She published her work under the pen name Slavina. Her friends and colleagues say that she did this out of love for her father, Vyacheslav Kolebanov, who died of cancer in 2014.
Irina Slavina worked at Nizhny Novgorod Pravda for eight years. “[Irina] was a very uncompromising person,” says Alexander Gushchin, Slavina’s colleague and a close friend who worked at the publication as a designer and then as an artistic director. He says the newspaper repeatedly refused to publish Slavina’s materials criticizing “state officials of all kinds.” They asked her to resign after she posted a statement in a forum on the Nizhny Novgorod site nn.ru titled “United Russia — Focus for the Media,” which was published in the newspaper on the eve of the parliamentary elections.
“When you start to dig into a story, sooner or later you uncover the interests of different social groups, including influential ones. When [Slavina] hurt someone’s interests, they called her in and explained that these types of people can’t be touched. It was impossible to come to an agreement with Irina and so they asked her to resign,” explains Svetlana Kukina, who worked with Slavina in multiple newsrooms. Over the next five years, Irina resigned from the Nizhny Novgorod Worker, Newsroom 24, and News NN.
Slavina wrote about her work situation on Facebook. In spring 2015, Kukina recalls, someone said to her, “Try working for yourself.” Acquaintances (like Kukina) donated money for Slavina’s open publications, and subscribers thought up the name Koza. “The idea was originally for independent journalists to create their own media, but it ended up just being Irina who wrote it alone,” explains Dmitry Leshchev, former co-founder of Koza and manager of the Nizhny Novgorod web-studio Go-Promo.
“She lived and breathed Koza. She birthed it and raised it,” says Gushchin. “I know that it was difficult for her.” She had a couple of volunteers, but the non-profit publication rested almost entirely on Irina’s shoulders. The project existed mainly on subscriber donations, but the money was often not enough. Irina was forced to work at other editorial offices at the same time.
Koza became “a brand of Nizhny Novgorod free journalism” in two years,” says journalist Alexander Puchugin. “We didn’t have a media outlet in the city that we could trust as much as Koza. If she wrote it, it was the truth,” Kukina says. Gushchin agrees. “When they didn’t want material to appear anywhere [due to the censor], people would always say, ‘send it to Slavina. She’ll deliver, she’ll help.’ Even newspaper editors said this.”
“She understood who was tightening the noose around her neck”
The morning of January 13, 2017, Irina Slavina discovered that someone had slashed her tires and left a leaflet on her car calling her scum. “Today she approves terrorist actions! WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM HER TOMORROW?!” The same leaflets, Slavina wrote, “littered the whole neighborhood.”
Slavina posted on Facebook about the plane crash of Tu-154 in Sochi in late December 2016, when 92 people died including artists of the Alexandrov Ensemble and Doctor Liza who were flying to Syria. The post was most likely what sparked the leaflets. “A terrible tragedy. A horrible loss, but the word vengeance comes to mind. They didn’t let us dance on the bones,” the journalist wrote about the crash. In the comments she added, “I’m not trampling on the bones. I’m grieving. But I can’t forget the corpses of children in Syria, where Russian artists were going to dance.” That January, her tires were slashed twice. The more popular Koza got, the more problems Irina Slavina faced. There were multiple defamation lawsuits against the media outlet.
In March 2019, local police arrested Slavina for allegedly organizing a march in memory of Boris Nemtsov and held her in custody for seven hours. That same month, a court fined Slavina 20,000 rubles ($260) for the offense. After she filed a complaint for illegal arrest, the court awarded her compensation in the amount of 1,000 rubles (about $13). “My Facebook friends dubbed [this] ‘the Snood Affair.” In their testimonies, which were carbon copies of each other, three men stated that a woman in a snood managed a group of people on Pokrovka, but none of them could explain what a snood is.” Irina wrote on Facebook.
Slavina was fined again in July, this time for 5,000 rubles ($65), for reposting on Koza about the forum “Free People.” In the court’s opinion, this proved that the journalist participated in the activities of an “undesirable organization.”
“All these cases, in my opinion as a lawyer, were made up. There was no basis for an administrative offense and nothing close to it,” says the journalist’s attorney Evgeny Gubin. “The authorities didn’t like her activities, and she knew it. It was infuriating that we lost all these cases because they were political.” According to journalist Alexander Pichugin, Slavina was watched closely and her journalistic requests were considered “very carefully” in government agency press services. “A lot of people believe, and still believe, that Irina allowed herself too much, that she was an upstart,” he adds. “It’s normal. This is envy — an attempt of a little person to diminish Irina’s accomplishments.”
Slavina had a lot of support in the city. Acquaintances went to her hearings, gave legal help, and collected money to pay her fines. Her family supported her, as well, says journalist Natalya Rezontova. “She has an amazing husband. He was always on her side” despite getting threats at work because of one of her articles. “She was constantly afraid that something would happen,” Gushchin explains. “There was so much pressure from the security forces for so many years. These court cases took so much of her energy, her life, grinding down more and more. Other journalists would tell her, ‘You’re asking for it. You’re to blame.’”
Slavina’s husband and children declined to speak with Meduza. “We don’t have the strength,” said her son Vyacheslav.
“Ira was just a tank. Injustice, arbitrariness, discord, mocking people — it was amok for her. She sensed danger, of course, and she clearly understood who was tightening the noose around her neck. But injured people would call her, and she couldn’t turn them down… All for the sake of truth, damn it,” says Kukina. “No one talks about the truth these days. They talk about anything: insanity, mental instability, the sect forgot about its family. It’s nonsense! She was a true knight, without fear or reproach.”
“It seems to me that there was no journalist as powerful as her. She was alone,” says Gushchin. “I’d tell her, ‘hire people, take some of the load off yourself.’ She’d say, ‘Yes, yes, but I don’t want to put this on them. Would you wish this life on anyone?’”
An undesirable organization
The last time Gushchin saw Slavina was in late September, the weekend before her death. “She was in a great mood, joking around,” Gushchin remembers. “She was a perfectly cheerful, sober-minded, and critical-thinking person. It can’t be that this all shifted somehow. When I saw her the last time, there were no indications that something wasn’t right.”
Irina’s family didn’t notice anything either on October 2. She baked in the morning and wished her mother a happy 70th birthday. At lunch, she messaged her son Vyacheslav that she loved him. “[In the afternoon,] Alexey called me. ‘Irina’s missing. I lost her,’” Gushchin recalls. He heard from a friend that Irina had gone to her daughter Margarita’s work, gave her money, and said that she loved her. Then she stopped answering the phone, which was very unusual for her. He and Alexey agreed to meet downtown to look for Irina. A few minutes later, Murkhataev called back and said that Irina had posted on Facebook, asking that the Russian Federation be blamed for her death. After another few minutes, Alexey said that there was a report of a woman who had set herself on fire in front of the Interior Ministry building. “I realized that was it. It was her, but I just didn’t want to believe it,” says Gushchin.
For the next three hours, he recalls, people who knew Irina gathered at the gates near the city’s police station, asking to be let through and begging for any information. “It was only when Alexey couldn’t stand it and started to scream, ‘How can you do this?’ that [an employee] came out and said that she was in the central morgue. We went, but it turned out she wasn’t there. They’d taken her to Avtozavodsky, where they usually take homeless people — people who can’t be identified.”
The day Irina died, the Koza website crashed. Colleagues later got it back up and running.
* * *
“If there hadn’t been a search, Irina would be alive. If there had been a search, but no fine for Shakhunya, for [the Nemtsov memorial march], and in general, none of the unpleasantness all these years, Irina would be alive. But everything together, I think, led to the tragedy,” says Mikhail Iosilevich, pastafarian and Nizhny Novgorod activist.
Iosilevich, Slavina, and five other Nizhny Novgorod residents were searched at 6 a.m. on October 1. The operatives informed Iosilevich that a case against him had been raised under Article 284.1 of Russia’s Criminal Code for carrying out activities of an “undesirable organization.” According to the ordinance (obtained by Meduza), in early September, “to infringe upon constitutional order,” the activist had leased the premises to the United Democrats to hold an event to train observers for the upcoming elections for the Nizhny Novgorod Duma and other offices in local government, and also participated in the event. The other six people who were searched were investigated as witnesses.
Iosilevich insists that he didn’t cooperate with “Open Russia” and its project “United Democrats,” but he did rent the premises to the voters’ rights protection movement “Voice.” The news about the arrest of training participants confirms this, as does a statement by “Open Russia” Executive Director Andrey Pivovarov that, in September, the organization didn’t hold any events in Nizhny Novgorod.
The search of Slavina’s apartment lasted four hours and she wasn’t allowed to contact a lawyer. As the journalist herself later wrote, a dozen operatives searched the apartment for “brochures, leaflets, and accounts from Open Russia, and possibly an icon with Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s face.” When they found nothing, they seized all her electronics: two laptops, a desktop computer, Irina’s phone, and her husband’s. “I was left without my means of production,” Slavina wrote afterwards.
Late on October 2, Nizhny Novgorod detectives announced a preliminary inquiry into Slavina’s suicide, and said a post-mortem psychological and psychiatric examination was scheduled. Officials rejected allegations that the raid on her home a day earlier precipitated her suicide, pointing out that she wasn’t a suspect in the case. After six days, Irina’s family received all her seized personal effects, except for her mobile phone.
“No one needs embers”
“I wonder, if I arrange an act of self-immolation near the entrance to the FSB (or the city prosecutor’s office, I still don’t know), will it bring our government closer to a bright future or will my sacrifice be meaningless? I think it’s better to die like this than like my grandmother did, from cancer at 52 years old,” Irina Slavina wrote in June 2019.
Many of her friends remember this post now, admitting they didn’t take it seriously enough at the time. Gushchin didn’t see that post, but he says he believes Slavina wouldn’t have made public comments about a violent suicide in 2019 if her situation had already become so dire. She’d also discussed the act of self-immolation with him privately. “I said, ‘Ira, what are you thinking? Have you lost your mind? What about your husband?’ ‘He’d be better off. I just mess up his life.’ ‘And the kids?’ ‘They’re grown.’ ‘And your mom?’ ‘I feel sorry for her, but she’s tired of having a daughter like this.’ I told her, ‘Forget it. No one needs embers. Forget it,’” Gushchin recalls.
Irina chose a police monument near the gates of Nizhny Novgorod police headquarters for her death, 500 meters (about 550 yards) from the place where Maxim Gorky wrote the short story “Old Izergil.” She tied herself to a bench between the figures of Soviet and contemporary law enforcement officers and set her clothes on fire.
There is a makeshift memorial at the spot where Irian Slavina died. Since that day, people have started bringing flowers, candles, and signs (“Ira, we won’t forgive them!” “I won’t fear evil!”). “It was a completely conscious, deliberate, and clearly regulated act. She just couldn’t resist in another way and overcome what was going on around her. This is a feat — an act that few can manage,” Irina’s friend German Knyazev says through tears. “How much this was justified depends on us. She took the first step. Ours should be simple: make this place an eternal flame of candles, which burns constantly, year-round. We’ll make it happen.”
When Kukina arrived at the memorial the day after the incident, she saw dark spots near the bench where Irina sat. “I realized that you had to walk over her ashes to lay flowers on the bench where she died. No one thought to go around. But I did because I couldn’t step on Irka’s ashes,” Kukina says. At the memorial service, Kukina kissed Irina’s hand. “Then I raised my hand. It smelled like burning. I don’t know what will happen with the memorial in the future, or our attempts to perpetuate Irina’s memory, but I will remember her ashes forever, the smell of her fire, and the symbol that she turned herself into in an instant.”
* * *
People also bring candles and flowers to the Funny Goat statue on Theater Square. Koza (which means goat in Russian) had no relation to the statue at first. On October 3, the day after Irina’s death, her children, Margarita and Vyacheslav, picketed at the Funny Goat statue. Their signs read, “While our mother burned alive, you kept silent.”
At first, municipal services in Nizhny Novgorod cleared the flowers and candles from the memorials every night. The police stopped all attempts by Irina’s friends to organize a vigil at the spot where she died. Irina’s son Vyacheslav complained that the police didn’t allow anyone to be near the memorial at night.
The situation changed only after Nizhny Novgorod Governor Gleb Nikitin posted on Instagram in memory of Irina Slavina. The comments on the post are hidden. Under another photograph in response to the outrage over the destruction of memorials, Nikitin wrote that no one would remove the flowers anymore. “I don’t understand why this was done or by whom… We’re dealing with whoever did it.” The governor promised to make an effort to ensure that “the investigation of the circumstances that led to this tragedy is overseen at the highest level.”
The Journalists’ Rights Commission of the Presidential Human Rights Council also called for an investigation into the suicide. “Slavina’s suicide is, in its own way, a logical form of protest against those who are called to protect the law but purposefully violate it in relation to journalists,” the statement says. The Council called the Nizhny Novgorod state investigators’ message on the lack of connections between the search of Slavina’s apartment and her suicide “the height of cynicism and human and professional failure,” having requested that the federal leadership of the department investigate the causes of the incident. Members of the council are convinced that the systematic harassment by law enforcement agencies “couldn’t give her the mental balance and strength to resist life’s difficulties, regardless of Slavina’s personal psychological characteristics.”
Sergey Shunin, lawyer for the Committee Against Torture, says that he saw Irina’s last post 10–15 minutes after it was published. “My heart stopped. I tensed up. I realized that either someone hacked her account, or something happened,” he recalls. “Then I saw the news that someone, a woman, had burned themselves alive in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.” That same day, the Committee Against Torture launched a public inquiry into Irina’s suicide, headed by Shunin.
“She was always collected, and in good humor,” Shunin says. “I had the impression that she was an incredible fighter and a very stable, strong person who approached all the injustice around her with irony.” Shunin says that not one of the dozens of Irina’s friends who already spoke to the committee during the investigation indicated that she had “any abnormalities or mental disorders.”
It’s difficult to prove that there was torture (any action, that harms a person physically or psychologically Shunin explains) especially when discussing psychological pressure that results in suicide. “It’s often done correctly: without witnesses, and of course, off the record. All the evidence is carefully cleared,” the lawyer says. However, the Irina Slavina case, in his opinion, is of a completely different character. “In this case, it’s incredibly difficult to identify specific officials. Irina blamed the Russian Federation. It’s impossible to get all officials in Russia on this,” Shunin explains. “If we take all the administrative cases [related to Slavina] there’s a large group of investigators, prosecutors, interrogators, and Ministry of Internal Affairs employees from different departments, judges, and possibly special services. No one knows their names. Each of them, I think, will find something to say in their defense, that they acted strictly within the framework of the law and of course, certainly didn’t wish for such tragic events to occur.”
The Investigative Committee isn’t obligated to respond to the results of the Committee’s public investigation, Shunin admits. But the organization can represent victims’ relatives and file complaints against the authorities’ inaction and “push them to do what’s legally required of them.” Irina Slavina’s husband intends to achieve as open an investigation as possible and to appeal to the committee.
According to Shunin, Alexey Murakhtaev is worried that his wife’s case will disappear. Nizhny Novgorod residents are concerned about what will happen with Koza. Many of them are certain that no one can replace Slavina. Irina’s friend Enikeeva has decided to head the publication for now.
“I think that societal indifference to this lonely cry is of great importance. She was alone in her attempt to convey the truth,” says Shunin. “She exposed people for crimes and corruption, but “no one was interested.” Shunin believes Irina’s self-immolation didn’t interest society, either. Few in the city know what happened. […] Look at this unbelievable, simply shameful contrast: the last post, a huge number of likes. And how many likes for her news on VKontakte? Two — and one of them was mine. Every journalist in Russia who is trying to follow her path is in this situation.”
* * *
Attended by close friends and relatives, Slavina’s funeral took place on October 6. After the memorial service at the House of Scientists, around 200 people with flowers and portraits of Slavina went to the place where she died. Walking past the FSB directorate building for the Nizhny Novgorod region, they chanted “executioners!” The same chants were heard near the police station where Irina died.
Two days after the funeral, activist Mikhail Iosilevich was charged under the “undesirable organizations” article, which can result in a prison term of two to six years. Iosilevich says the investigator leading the case, Andrey Shlykov, didn’t mention Irina once.
Abridged translation by Megan Luttrell
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