Tuesday 15 December 1998


By Xenia Dennen, Keston News Service

The winter sun hung low, peering between church domes, elegant 19th-century buildings and the monstrous structures of the Stalinist period, as I walked along a street called Solyanka early on 4 December to visit the husband of the recently murdered Russian member of parliament, GALINA STAROVOITOVA. Vast numbers attended her funeral in St Petersburg on 24 November, more even than had attended the funeral of the last Russian tsar who was buried in July, stated the newspaper Segodnya (25 November): 'According to the law-enforcement agencies, more than 15,000 people attended the civil funeral.' But in addition to civil ceremonies, Galina Starovoitova was buried according to the rites of the Russian Orthodox Church within the precincts of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St Petersburg, for Galina had been a devout Orthodox Christian--a fact unknown to most of us.

On 28 November FR GLEB YAKUNIN, one of her staunchest political allies, told me that she had been baptised 'not long ago' and that she had regularly gone to confession and attended the Orthodox Liturgy. This she did quietly, unlike some politicians in Russia who make a show of placing candles in front of icons to increase their popularity and gain votes. She, on the contrary, would slip into churches unseen, away from television cameras and journalists.

Galina Starovoitova's husband ANDREI VOLKOV, a professor of physics and mathematics, whom I met after making my way through the spire-topped entrance and imposing hallway of one of Stalin's architectural creations, was brought up as an Orthodox believer, he told me. He met his future wife in America in the summer of 1995 when he was attending an international symposium and she was lecturing on sociology at Brown University - the motto of which, he emphasised, was 'In God is our hope'. They were married in May 1996.

Galina, he said, had been brought up by atheist parents--her father, a Party member and distinguished professor, had come from peasant stock, while her mother had Cossack roots. Both kept her away from any contact with the Orthodox Church. Soon after meeting Andrei Volkov she expressed a wish to be baptised (she had been reading and learning about the Orthodox faith long before this moment) but did not know how to go about this, to which Andrei said 'I will organise everything'. According to Russian custom he found an excellent godfather for her, VASILII DAVYDOV, from a well-known aristocratic family, with whom Galina frequently talked during the months leading up to her baptism which took place almost exactly three years ago on Orthodox Christmas Day, 7 January 1996. The ceremony was performed by FR VIKTOR KLINDUKHOV, an old friend of Vasili Davydov, who served at the Church of the Archangel Michael in Troparyov (near Moscow's Yugo-zapadnaya metro station).

Galina insisted on following all the rules of the Orthodox baptism rite, saying 'I will be baptised as laid down by the Church, following its statutes', her husband told me. She had many icons in her apartment, used an Orthodox prayer book, read the scriptures and lives of the saints. She would leave for work in the morning after making the sign of the cross and lived with 'the inner conviction that God is with us', Andrei Volkov said.

Her relations with the Moscow Patriarchate were not always easy: she actively opposed the 1997 law restoring state control over religious life, which the Patriarchate vigorously supported. She also disagreed with the Church leadership's attempt to keep the film, 'The Last Temptation of Christ', from being broadcast on television, since she believed that any form of censorship is wrong. Nevertheless, the Church buried her in great splendour, allowing her to rest in the cemetery within the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, an honour not given to many.

She had not worshipped in any particular church, attending many different ones, Andrei Volkov told me. He said that the Orthodox faith was a natural part of her life: on the spur of the moment she would often say to him as they passed a church, 'Let's go in'. During our conversation he talked a lot about Russian literature, mentioned his wife's love of the work of Henry James and described how he and she would make music alone at their dacha in the country, she singing, he accompanying. St Petersburg, where she was shot, had become a place of nightmares for him--the dark, oppressive city which was the background to Dostoevsky's stripping of the human psyche and the place of Pushkin's fatal duel, he recalled.

Vasili Davydov, a professor of physics, whom I met on 9 December, took his role as Galina's godfather very seriously. He worked in the same institute as Andrei Volkov, he told me, and had himself come to the Orthodox faith as an adult. For some strange reason, Galina had asked him to come to the Duma the day before her death. Only once before had he met her there, and that was only to collect her in the car--he did not share her political views and kept well away from that part of her life--so it was most unusual for him to find himself at a party in the Duma. This was at 4p.m. when he saw her happily drinking champagne. She left to fly to St Petersburg at 6p.m. He did not see her again.

Fr Viktor baptised Galina in a building adjoining his church of the Archangel Michael which had a pool specially constructed for adult baptisms. Vasili Davydov described how Fr Viktor immersed her firmly under the water three times and placed a white garment on her in accordance with Orthodox custom--symbolising her new birth in Christ. Only her husband, Vasili Davydov and his wife were present. Her baptism, said her godfather, 'was a great secret' and 'she prepared for it in a most responsible way'. Afterwards they bought some food on the way to the Davydovs' dacha--it was Christmas Day�and there they celebrated, singing round the piano--Galina had a good voice and loved to sing Russian folksongs and romances.

Thereafter Vasili Davydov continued to take an interest in her spiritual welfare: she attended the Liturgy regularly, he said, went to confession and was anointed twice a year, according to an Orthodox ritual which takes one and half hours. He fulfilled his final duties towards Galina by placing a cross and a handful of blessed earth in her coffin.

Fr Viktor said a requiem for Galina on the Sunday immediately following her death, and again on the 9th day afterward as laid down by Orthodox tradition. Now, during a period of forty days when the Orthodox Church believes that it is important to pray for the soul of the recently departed, prayers�the �sorokoust�--are being said every day for her. May she rest in peace. (END)