ST. PETERSBURG - Hundreds of mourners gathered in the Central Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod on Wednesday to pay their respects to Irina Slavina, a Russian journalist who colleagues said was dedicated to truth.
On Friday, Slavina, editor-in-chief of the news website Koza Press, tied herself to a bench near the Interior Ministry in Nizhny Novgorod and set herself on fire. Hours before, the 47-year-old journalist had posted on Facebook, "In my death, I ask you to blame the Russian Federation."
Slavina was known widely in the region for reporting on local government and pro-opposition movements, and for helping to coordinate marches in memory of Boris Nemtsov, the Russian politician assassinated near the Kremlin in 2015.
Friends and colleagues say Slavina faced years of harassment for her work, and they blamed intimidating actions by security forces for the journalist’s death.
On Oct. 1, police and members of Russia’s investigative committee raided the journalist’s apartment as part of a criminal investigation into Mikhail Ioselevich, a businessman and pro-opposition activist.
Ioselevich is accused of carrying out activities for an organization declared "undesirable” in Russia – a reference to the group Open Russia. Authorities accuse the opposition group, which is financed by Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, of funding protests in the region.
Slavina and Open Russia had both denied that the journalist had links to the organization.
At least 12 agents searched Slavina’s apartment in the early morning raid, taking phones, laptops and other devices belonging to the journalist and her husband and daughter. “I was left without my means of production,” the journalist wrote about the raid.
Authorities had previously issued fines to Slavina over her articles about the Open Russia movement, as well as for her participation in opposition rallies, and reporting on issues including the coronavirus pandemic.
Russia's Investigative Committee (SKR) said it has opened an investigation into the journalist’s death and would conduct a "posthumous psychological and psychiatric examination." The regional governor, Gleb Nikitin, brought flowers to her memorial and also promised an investigation, Current Time reported.
Slavina’s death was described by Askhat Kayumov, an environmental activist in Nizhny Novgorod, as “a huge human tragedy” and “loss for the entire region.”
“There are very few honest journalists in the country, we have lost one of them," Kayumov told VOA’s Russia Service, before adding that he couldn’t saying anything more. “It hurts too much."
Arkady Galker, chair of the Nizhny Novgorod branch of the International Memorial, a nonprofit that researches political repression in Russia, said Slavina was the most famous independent journalist in the region.
"Her publications were closely watched,” Galker said. “Even in the power circles, Irina Slavina’s articles were treated with special attention, because they understood it was valuable information.”
“If Irina Slavina wrote something negative about our city officials, they could have very serious problems with their bosses," Galker said.
Koza Press, the news outlet Slavina founded, had a reputation as a serious publication that was read not only in the region, but also abroad, Galker said.
"Irina and I knew each other very well, and we worked especially closely together when they were preparing marches in memory of Boris Nemtsov,” Galker said.
“Irina participated not only in their organization, but also covered [the marches] in her publication,” Galker said. “She turned out to be the bravest person who led those who came to honor Nemtsov on the fourth anniversary of his murder."
Galker said he believes the investigation into Ioselevich is an attempt to intimidate opposition activists in the region.
The International Memorial chair said security agents who raided Slavina’s apartment arrived armed with chainsaws that could cut through a door in minutes.
“I regard these actions against Irina as state terror, as deliberate pressure and intimidation,” Galker said.
“Both in her journalistic materials and in public statements Irina has always been very persistent, and has never shown how she was hurt by the campaign of bullying, unleashed on her in Nizhny Novgorod region, when they tried to discredit her. And now it is clear that at some point she simply could not take it anymore."
The SKR regional office said that Slavina’s death was not connected to the search of her apartment because she was a witness, not a defendant.
In response, Igor Kalyapin, chair of the Interregional Committee Against Torture, wrote in his blog, "Apparently, in the opinion of the Nizhny Novgorod SKR, only the accused can suffer psychological trauma from an attack on a private domicile. A law-abiding man should perceive the morning search by a team of 12 people with the participation of special police forces as normal. And the seizure during this search of digital media, notebooks and computer, law-abiding person, professional journalist should be perceived with joy and gratitude."
Alexander Kynev, a political scientist who knew Slavina, said the political situation in Nizhny Novgorod had deteriorated in the past three years.
“What is happening in the city in recent years? Endless criminal cases against everyone. It all started with the dismantling of the old elite of the former mayor of the city. It did not stop there: harassment of journalists; endless fines; courts; searches. The same pressure was started against the public,” Kynev said.
Sociologist and publicist Igor Yakovenko told VOA that Slavina’s case illustrates the desperation and persecution of Russian journalists.
"I think that any journalist, if he wants to remain in Russia, periodically or even constantly feels some despair,” Yakovenko said. “If you want to be a journalist in Russia, you start either writing for yourself for little reward, or you are killed or put in jail.
This report originated in VOA’s Russia Service