Blog post

To remember is to fight: the legacy of Russian activist lawyer Stanislav Markelov

Ten years ago this month, Russian human rights advocate and journalist Stanislav Markelov was shot and killed by a Russian ultranationalist Nikita Tikhonov on a busy Moscow street. The aftermath of the murder helped to bring to light the collusion between the Russian state and the nexus of ultranationalist groups responsible for Stanislav Markelov's killing. In this article Thomas Rowley and Guiliano Vivaldi analyse the events that lead up to the murder, and Markelov's incredible work fighting for the oppressed in Russia.

Giuliano Vivaldi, Thomas Rowley18 January 2019

Moscow 2012: March in memory of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova. CC BY-NC 2.0 Vladimir Varfolomeev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The news broke: Russian human rights advocate and journalist killed in central Moscow. On 19 January 2009, Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova were shot by a Russian ultranationalist, Nikita Tikhonov. Markelov, a lawyer from Moscow, died at the scene. Baburova, an activist and journalist from Sevastopol who reported on Markelov’s work, died several hours later.[1]

As evidenced in the investigations and trials that followed, there was more to this tragic double murder than many western observers recognised at the time.

Ten years on, 19 January is an important date for left-wing groups in Russia and Ukraine. The marches held are in memory of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, as well as other victims of Russian neo-Nazis But they also refer to issues that are often off-limits at other demonstrations.[2] While not mass demonstrations, 19 January is one of the rare occasions where, particularly in Moscow, a whole range of groups — leftists, LGBT+, anti-racism campaigners, liberals, human rights activists, independent trade unionists, anarchists — come together to fill the streets with anti-militarist, anti-racist and anti-capitalist slogans for one day a year.

Indeed, in today’s light the work of Stanislav Markelov — both his legal defence and writings — appears as a vital missing link between human rights defence and critiques of Russian capitalism.

In the years before Markelov’s murder, the streets of Russia’s big cities became a battleground as ultra-nationalists took aim at two targets: Russia’s migrant workers and anti-fascist activists. Protests, fights, murders and fabricated criminal cases flicked through headlines and news segments.[3] “The moderate section of the nationalist movement has broken down,” Markelov said at a press conference after the murder of Alexey Krylov, a 21-year-old man who was killed on his way to an anti-fascist concert in 2008. “They have consciously gone underground… and are trying to provoke war itself.”

Following Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, Russia’s authorities set about “reordering” the political field (often with the help of water cannons). As part of this campaign, the Kremlin’s political technologists were attempting, in the words of Robert Horvath, to “manage” nationalism in their favour. This “project” involved striking often unclear deals with agile and flexible “non-governmental” networks in exchange for political patronage.

The investigation into the murder of Markelov and Baburova revealed that the end beneficiaries of the political technologists’ plans could be unpredictable. In the mid-2000s, Nikita Tikhonov and his accomplices in the revolutionary terror group BORN (Combat Organisation of Russian Nationalists) carried out 11 politically-motivated murders — migrant workers, anti-fascists, a federal judge being their targets. They also had deep connections to Russian Image, a magazine-turned-movement that aimed to rebrand far-right nationalism as intellectual and glamourous. In turn, Russian Image not only collaborated with pro-government youth organisations as it sought to out-position others in the competitive world of far-right activists. It also had connections in high-ranking Russian politics.[4] With help from contacts in the police, they collected extensive personal information on Russian anti-fascists.

But while BORN and its competitors may have had their roots in the nexus of street-level and intellectual nationalism that emerged in Russia beginning in the 1980s, there was also a constellation of counter-movements developing, comprising environmental, social and political initiatives, that continued into the new decade and animated fresh protests under new conditions. It was in this milieu that Markelov, a Moscow law student, came of age politically in the long perestroika of the early 1990s — and perhaps where the pluralism of his political concerns was born. In the “October days” of 1993, Markelov served in a volunteer medical unit (comprised of socialists and anarchists) that patrolled the conflict zone which erupted in central Moscow as pro-government forces attacked the Supreme Soviet and the anti-Yeltsin movements. “He helped the wounded. Then he helped carry and load the dead. A real test for a 19-year-old boy,” as Pyotr Ryabov, an anarchist historian, recalled.

In 1994-1995, Markelov was involved in the radical left wing of the Student Defence trade union. This saw Russia’s student movement break, if briefly, into carnavalesque but deeply serious politics with major demonstrations on Moscow streets. The agenda ranged from higher student grants to ending the war in Chechnya and fighting big business. Pacifism, it seemed, had never been cooler.

As a self-described left social-democrat, Markelov also stands out for his engagement — albeit far from uncritical — with anarchists.[5] In the mid-1990s, he began visiting the Pryamukhino anarchist workshop in Tver, as well as participating in the Protectors of the Rainbow anarcho-ecological movement (which spanned Russia and Ukraine), organising protest camps against new nuclear power stations in Rostov and Mogilev, Belarus. The horizontal elements of these activist, and often anarchist-influenced, milieu were attractive to Markelov. Looking back on the Pryamukhino workshop in 2007, he recalled: “This was a utopia made reality. [...] It was here that a system of the free organisation of labour began to work.”[6]

In distinction to many of the Russian liberal crowd, Markelov wanted to knit social and economic rights into human rights work, in order to give voice to a society being left behind in the transition. “In the 1990s, a paradoxical situation emerged,” he wrote in 2007, “you could organise hunger strikes, public demonstrations with thousands of people, even block roads, but that didn’t interest anybody.”[7] For Markelov, a series of left-wing bomb attacks on public monuments carried out at the end of the 1990s (and whose participants he defended) suggested that Russian citizens’ desire for social justice had reached a breaking point — and had been frustrated by a dogmatic focus on liberal human rights.

Events at the Vyborg Paper Factory, near the Finnish border, are instructive. In the late 1990s, workers at this newly-privatised factory gave up waiting for their new owner, seized the plant, issued one share and began working under the direction of a worker-led trade union.[8] In an attempt to restore owner-control, riot police brutally stormed the plant on three occasions, eventually pressing riot charges against active workers. According to Markelov, who defended the employees, the reaction of the Russian liberal press was telling: demands by journalists to bring the workers to account was driven by a “fear of reevaluating the results of privatisation”. He didn’t have much time for certain sections of the human rights community, either. “You can sum up the attitude of rights defenders to [the workers at Vyborg] who came under threat of serious prison time, and who came to them for help, like this: we don’t defend these rights, they’re outside the sphere of human rights,” he wrote in 2007.[9]

In this sense, Markelov is important as a consistent, if not widely known, critic of Russia’s new capitalism. “We were told that we can’t speak about society’s interests, collective interests, that we have individual interests which are above them,” he said at a conference in 2008. “Well sure, society’s interests were spat on in the Soviet times, but we at least had the system of Soviet paternalism. [...] If something new is to emerge, then it will be in the spirit of socialist paternalism — when Soviet [social] guarantees are mixed with, well, not so democratic tendencies.”

Indeed, the left-wing human rights lawyer was invested in the idea of creating a new left tradition in Russia — one informed by the mistakes of the 1990s and earlier revolutionary history. “The main myth, which the Narodniki and Social Democrat-Mensheviks took from western social democrats,” he said at the same conference in 2008, “and which we felt on our own skin in the 1990s, is that after the fall of the cruel totalitarian Soviet system, the ordinary people, accustomed to social guarantees, a stabile social-welfare society, will be open to the ideas of democratic socialism. This was a very serious mistake.”[10]

But while the late 1990s encompassed Markelov’s socio-economic interests, he shifted increasingly to defending the rights of people affected by the actions of Russian law enforcement and security services. Residents of Blagoveshchensk brutalised at the hands of riot police. Relatives of anti-fascist activists killed by neo-Nazis on Russian streets. The families of people tortured and murdered by a policeman in Khanty-Mansiisk. A journalist brutally beaten for his role in protesting the construction of a highway through a forest outside Moscow.

His bravery, courage and sheer drive were impressive. He worked extensively in Russia’s North Caucasus — in particular, Markelov represented the family of Elza Kungayeva, who was murdered by Russian soldiers during the second Chechen campaign. It was here that he gained the respect and trust of local rights defenders in an unimaginably hostile environment.

In what turned out to be the final years of his life, Markelov spent a significant amount of time defending the interests of Russian anti-fascists and their families. As political repression picks up in Russia, this year’s 19 January events will pay particular attention to repression faced by left-wing activists, including the “Network Case” — the 11 Russian anti-fascists and anarchists who were tortured into confessing to terrorism charges in 2017 and 2018.

Undoubtedly, Markelov would have been at the forefront of the solidarity and defence campaigns for them.

Thomas Rowley is editor at oDR, Open Democracy’s post-Soviet space section.

Giuliano Vivaldi is a translator and writer. His writing has appeared in Senses of Cinema, Calvert Journal, Desist Film, Open Left, the Russian New Literary Observer journal, Historical Materialism, and e-flux journal.

The authors are currently working on a collection of Stanislav Markelov’s writings in English.

[1] Baburova, who was 25 at the time of her death, moved to Moscow a few years earlier to study journalism at Moscow State University. Beginning her freelance journalistic career for mainstream newspapers, she moved to the more critical newspaper Novaya Gazeta after resigning from her post at Izvestia over its increasingly cynical stance. In the last period of her life, she became increasingly socially and politically active, participating in a variety of ecological and social protests, including with the anarcho-communist Autonomous Action movement. In the last few months of her life, she was investigating the activities of Russian Neo-Nazi groups. A documentary film about her life has been made by film director Valery Balayan. 

[2] Significant themes in recent years have included the persecution of political prisoners from the 2011-2012 protest cycle, opposition to repressive laws against the LGBT community and Russia’s economic crisis. 

[3] “Today, both the fascist and anti-fascist movements are on the rise,” Markelov said in an interview in 2008. “Moreover, the issue of Russia’s ideology and development is not being solved at the highest level. In terms of official politics, all political forces have moved away from reality, from what really moves society [...] The path along which our country is developing is being defined in the streets.” 

[4] See Robert Horvath’s article, “Russkii Obraz and the politics of ‘managed nationalism’”, Nationalities Papers, 2014. 

[5] According to Yaroslav Leontiev, in his youth Markelov joined the new Social Democratic Party of Russia, standing on the far left wing of the party. Though he didn’t join any further organisations, Markleov participated in a large number of initiatives of social, ecological and trade union movements. He also participated in meetings of the anti-globalisation World Social Forums, and had good relations with libertarian and anarchist movements as well as the Marxist “Alternatives” club, headed by Alexander Buzgalin. Leontiev, in his own words, depicted Markelov’s views as left socialist and left democratic. He pointed out that Markelov was colder to liberal views, which he blamed for creating the socio-economic conditions for the resurgence of Neo-Nazism amongst the disadvantaged children of working class suburbs. From the revolutionary movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Leontiev singled out figures like Georgii Plekhanov, Julius Martov and Pyotr Kropotkin as being the historical coordinates for Markelov’s thinking.

[6] From Markelov’s speech at the Pryamukhino Readings, July 2007. 

[7] Stanislav Markelov, “Political prisoners today”.

[8] For more on the situation at Vyborg, see Olga Pulaeva and Simon Clarke’s extensive report, “Vyborg Celluose Paper Combine”.

[9] Stanislav Markelov, “Political prisoners today”. Indeed, Markelov occasionally chastised liberals in the press — particularly for what he saw as their situative alliance with the Russian regime.

[10] From Markelov’s speech at a June 2008 conference in Moscow: “The phenomenon and paradoxes of Russian democratic socialism”. In the early nineties, Markelov attended the Left Historical Club, which met at the offices of the Memorial Association. The club was a meeting place for people of socialist and anarchist persuasions to discuss history. Markelov’s historical knowledge and imagination is very present in many of his writings that were collected by Memorial and published in a 2010 volume entitled Who Apart From Me. 

[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
Russia without Putin
It is impossible to think of Russia today without thinking of Vladimir Putin. More than any other major national leader, he personifies his country in the eyes of the outside world, and dominates W...

Filed under: russia