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‘The house search was the last straw': colleagues react to Russian journalist’s death

Russian journalist Irina Slavina. Photo from Irina Slavina's Facebook account.

On October 2, Irina Slavina, editor of KozaPress, died in Nizhny Novgorod, after setting herself on fire outside an interior minister building in the city. In her last Facebook post, Slavina wrote: “I ask you to blame the Russian Federation for my death.”

Slavina’s death has shocked many, with several groups calling for a criminal investigation into the actions of Russian law enforcement that may have contributed to her death. On 1 October, Slavina’s home was searched as part of an investigation into the Open Russia movement – local law enforcement broke down the door to her apartment and confiscated all her computer equipment. She is survived by her husband and daughter.

Slavina’s website KozaPress covered a range of local issues — from public utilities and pensions to property development and the security services — and by 2019 was the second most-cited media in the Nizhny Novgorod region.

In 2017 and 2018, Slavina wrote three articles for openDemocracy — about how people who migrate to Russia are targeted by the security services. This work included exposing a horrendous fabrication of an “Islamic State” plot in her home region.

The Russian online publication Holod.Media asked people who knew her for their reactions, which was translated to English by oDR, openDemocracy's section on Russia and the post-Soviet space. RuNet Echo republishes this text with the permission of both publications.

Alexey Sadomovsky, deputy head of regional Yabloko party in Nizhny Novgorod

Irina was the founder, publisher and chief editor of the most popular independent media in Nizhny Novgorod — KozaPress. In recent years, she dedicated her entire life to working on this media. It’s clear that she was completely independent, because the security services pressured her constantly. They created several administrative cases against her — about insulting [a representative] of the authorities, the “undesirable organisation” law, for organising a march in memory of [Boris] Nemtsov, some other cases. She lived under constant pressure these past few years, in constant fear, anxiety. It seems she couldn’t take it anymore, the search of her apartment was the last straw.

Before she entered journalism, Irina worked as a school teacher. She worked for different regional media in Nizhny Novgorod, then she decided to set up her own – she lacked space for self-realisation, she didn’t want to be limited by some kind of administrative barriers, she didn’t want to serve, she wanted to tell the truth. She built the outlet from the ground up. She collected money including via donations. I donated too, like other people here.

When we first met, KozaPress had not been set up yet, but Irina was already a journalist. She loved Russia very much, her city, she wasn’t planning on emigrating, she wanted our society to become more civilised and for it to become a nicer place to live. She was always joking, and seemed happy. Now it’s clear that there was a lot of anxiety behind this, but she never talked about this publicly. As a journalist, she was marked out by the fact that she always tried to get to the truth, whatever it cost her. There’s no other journalist like her in Nizhny Novgorod. Public officials knew her well and were afraid of her.

The last time I saw her was last week when deputies to the city council were receiving their mandates. There was nothing depressive, no strange remarks from her — we had a normal chat, then she asked me for some photographs to publish with an article.

She never published any article that investigators could have had a go at. You have to understand that the case wasn’t started against her, but someone else who had a lot of administrative cases outstanding, enough to start a criminal case. We don’t have Open Russia in Nizhny Novgorod. She couldn’t have worked with them.

I think that the pressure of the court, the house search led to her taking her own life, nothing else. As someone whose home was also searched yesterday, I can say that it’s a lot of pressure. Especially when it happens over a couple of years. This can totally lead someone to take their own life. It’s hard to live like that, it’s true.

Stanislav Dmitrievsky, rights defender

It’s very hard to speak. Ira Slavina is one of the best journalists I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. A person of extreme professionalism and at the same time very strong civic position. To many people, she gave the impression that she was like a stone wall, but actually she was a very sensitive person.

People will say a lot of things now, that it was an act of weakness… What she did is awful, but it wasn’t weak. It seems it was a cry of desperation, to protest against the horror that is happening. I punish myself: today I was going to drop some money to help with the computer equipment… As soon as I saw her post, I wrote her, but she didn’t answer. And then news came. I spoke to her last yesterday, I asked what help she needed. She said that it was very hard for her to speak, that she hadn’t yet recovered from the house search. As far as I understand, it was her first experience of that.

We’ve got used to it, you see – a house search, so what? They’ve taken your computer equipment… But Ira had not developed cynicism. Just like with Anna Politkovskaya — the more she encountered the horror of war, the more sensitive she became. There are people who cover themselves with an armour of cynicism, there are people who just take the stronger side, they sell themselves. Take a look at our propagandists on television — many of them used to be perfectly decent journalists and decent people. But then there’s regression. Ira was someone who was hurt, traumatised by what happened around here, she couldn’t make her peace with it. There are moments when you are filled with anger to the point where it’s hard to live. Some people develop their own armour against this, but she didn’t.

For her, the ideal of a real journalist – independent, dispassionate, unbiased — was very important. Read her last reportage — it’s about the house searches. She doesn’t even mention herself hardly in the text. Just facts, just facts. For her, the idea of journalism as a part of civilised society was a very important value. After all, she hardly ever spoke righteously. Of course, sometimes she did get mad and was annoyed, but she never let herself express it. Sometimes it’s better to express it and say, you’re all rotten, but she kept it inside, and then it exploded.

I knew she was an emotional person, and I was, of course, afraid – but not that she would take her own life, that didn’t occur to me. I was afraid that she would lose it, give it all up… She reacted very emotionally to injustice. Not towards her! She had an instinctive sense of following the truth as a fundamental part of the world. She wasn’t religious, we spoke about this a lot, but she had an incredible sense for truth — which comes from above, rather than a person. She was killed by that gap between the truth that should be, and what she had to constantly face.

Everyone loves to say the right thing and look good, but not everyone’s ready to sacrifice something for the sake of the values that they live by. What happened is awful, but she remained true to herself to the end. I just punish myself that I didn’t see it coming. Perhaps, that’s a lesson for everyone. Perhaps if we were more sensitive in Nizhny Novgorod, then perhaps we would have been worried earlier. Unfortunately, I only became worried when I saw her Facebook post, and then a few minutes later found out she had died. Too late. We’re all guilty. Of course, the cops and the FSB will just wipe their hands. But we’re guilty.

Arkady Galker, chairman of Nizhny Novgorod branch of the Memorial human rights organisation

This news has knocked me off my feet. Irina and I were in touch yesterday about the case connected to the house searches. I sent her the case materials that we’d managed to get, she thanked me, wrote something on social media on the basis of those materials. We offered her legal aid via Memorial and OVD-Info. It should be noted that seven activists’ homes were searched yesterday and, as far as I know, only two faced nasty treatment – Irina Slavina and [Mikhail] Iosilevich both had large groups of security services, who used chainsaws to cut down their front doors.

Iosilievich has a specific situation, he’s the main suspect in a criminal case. In Slavina’s case, I think this was most likely an attempt to scare her by the state. The goal was to demonstrate state terror, to show that she was vulnerable to the state. It’s clear that all these searches aren’t really connected to Iosilevich’s activities. It’s just the state has taken the opportunity to scare people and get as much blackmail material that they can take off people’s devices. They hit Irina Slavina as hard as they could. Obviously it was very difficult for her.

Irina and I met at an event to commemorate Boris Nemtsov. She was a resilient and courageous woman. There was an episode with the fourth march in memory of Nemtsov, when she was brought up on administrative charges. She came to the gathering point and then went ahead of the column with a small portrait of Nemtsov. She was basically leading people. She had this capacity for leadership, courage. And of course, I didn’t completely understand how much she was traumatised by the state’s act of terror. We used to seeing her a certain way and didn’t understand how hard it was for her. I feel an enormous sense of guilt, we didn’t support her as we should have.

Nikolay Rybakov, chairman of Yabloko

Irina was a journalist who didn’t just cover events drily. She wanted to influence them. She was a very soulful, good-natured person. We even had to put out a fire once together: we came to a polling station where someone had set something on fire, and we put it out, called the fire brigade. She was someone who could not brush past some problem. Of course, the current government isn’t ready for these kind of people — they want people to keep themselves to themselves, to stay quiet.

It’s completely awful and unexpected that she made the decision she did, because it’s not worth it. She just couldn’t withstand the pressure from the security services, the persecution that was going on in recent monhs. Of course, yesterday’s house searches were the last straw. Law enforcement thinks that everyone is made of steel around them. But not everyone is made of steel. And now it’s the responsibility of those who organised this, the people who created this atmosphere in the country.

Svetlana Kuzevanova, legal counsel for Center for Defending Media Rights

Ira was a fighter. She was never afraid to write and speak, she always refused to be more neutral and accurate in her texts. And she loved and believed in her KozaPress.

On 17 September, we went together to a court hearing in Nizhny Novgorod — I represented the interests of her media. I didn’t know her well, but I didn’t see anything concerning. Yesterday I offered the help of our centre, to appeal against the house search. We had a normal chat, I’m in shock at what has happened.

Askhat Kayumov, director of Dront ecological centre

This is a gigantic loss for the city and a huge sadness for people. Irina, it goes without saying, was one of the few honest journalists in Nizhny Novgorod. We were in touch on ecological issues connected to protecting the environment in the city, citizens’ environmental rights. And she always wrote about them honestly.

Dmitry Mitrokhin, blogger

Irina was a journalist with a capital J — a clear example for all the city’s journalists of how to work. Over the course of several years, she made her own news agency, which successfully competed with larger media companies. A news agency based on one fragile woman. I was always in awe of her capacity, her speed, the amount of information she could process to then produce quality texts. Honestly, I never saw this in Russian journalism – that one person could set up a serious news agency. And she was principled — most likely, this is what caused the tragedy. She could never give up those principles that she believed in.

Pavel Miloslavsky, cultural manager

Irina was an incredibly honest person. Perhaps inside she was afraid of something, but she was always fearless in what she did. And if she was completely sure of something, she either got it, or made other people understand what her point of view was. Of course, she represented the kind of person that’s hard to find today — someone who has a concept of honour.

The fact that she took her life, I think she thought this through. Judging by the Facebook post that she published yesterday, she was in her right mind. There’s our swamp — we make some movements, we express dissatisfaction with our country. But real acts, like those by Nemtsov or Navalny now… She probably decided that she had to do something to draw attention to what is happening in our country, in our city. But what kind of act? Examples of self-immolation are well known. I think she decided that this would be a serious event that could bring people together, people who are not happy with what’s happening in the country. And the country is a piece of shit, we can see that already.

Dmitry Gudkov, politician

I knew Irina very well. In 2013, in Nizhny Novgorod, we set up a nationwide office for returning direct mayoral elections. Irina was one of the few journalists who actually covered it. I gave her interviews often — there’d be situations where everyone was banned from covering a press conference, and she would come along with a few local journalists. She knew Nemtsov. She was an independent journalist with opposition views, she always helped all the protest groups, always covered their protests.

I heard the following: they constantly humiliated her, the security services constantly pressured her, the counter-extremism officers tried to frighten her. She was very concerned about this. She brought these problems to me when I was an MP [2011-2016]. I’m shocked at what’s happened. They did this to her. They pushed her to take her own life. And that’s a crime.

Interviews conducted by Mikhail Zelensky, Liza Miller, Sofya Volyanova, Maria Karpenko, Olesya Ostapchuk, Yulia Dudkina.

Editor: Alexander Gorbachev

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