An Inventor of Russian Democracy
By MASHA GESSEN – March 26, 2012, 8:38 am
Masha Gessen is a journalist in Moscow. She is the author of “The Man Without a Face,” a biography of Vladimir Putin.
MOSCOW — I wanted to write her story for a long time. To be precise, I wanted to write this story: She was Vladimir Putin’s oldest enemy, and she lived to see his demise.
She did not.
I first met Marina Salye more than 20 years ago, in what was then Leningrad. The Soviet system was crumbling, and this gruff, short, heavy-set woman was one of the key people taking it apart. She was Leningrad’s most popular politician and a member of its new city council, one of the first popularly elected government bodies in this part of the world. She was one of the inventors of Russian democracy.
A geologist who had spent much of her life in far-flung expeditions, away from the ideological center, she was elected to office in 1990, at a most promising and most frightening moment. Food shortages had been endemic for decades, and the country was now on the verge of full-fledged catastrophe. In the hopes of staving off famine, the federal government decided to allow regional authorities to use strategic supplies of oil, gas, timber, rare metals and other natural resources to barter for food imports.
Famine was ultimately averted, but in Leningrad — or St. Petersburg, as the city was called starting in late 1991 — food imports never materialized. In 1992, the city council formed a committee to investigate what had happened. The committee, which was co-chaired by Salye and the city councilor Yuri Gladkov, concluded that the city had lost as much as $100 million and named a deputy mayor called Vladimir Putin as the probable culprit. It recommended that Putin be dismissed and prosecuted. The mayor dismissed the city council instead.
Salye became a professional organizer and eventually moved to Moscow. In the winter of 1999-2000, when Vladimir Putin emerged as the frontrunner in the race for president, she tried to campaign against him. She also tried, unsuccessfully, to draw attention to her long-ago investigation. A week before the election, she published online a prescient article warning that Putin would be “the president of a corrupt oligarchy.” Still, 12 years ago today, Putin was elected president.
A few months later, Salye disappeared from view. She later said that she had gone to see a political ally and encountered someone in his office whom she “never wanted to see under any circumstances.” She found the encounter frightening, she told me some years later, and as soon as she came home, she told her partner they would be leaving Moscow. They moved to a semi-abandoned village in the woods not far from the Russian-Latvian border, where Salye’s family had owned a house for some time. The man Salye had gone to visit, the opposition politician Sergei Yushenkov, was gunned down in Moscow in 2003.
I started looking for Salye about four years ago. Rumor had it she had long left the country, but it didn’t take me long to find out she was in Russia. At first she didn’t want to talk. Over the following two years I continued bothering people I thought might be in contact with her. Finally I was given a direct phone number and Salye invited me to visit her.
One day in 2010, a colleague and I were in Salye’s pink wooden house. Salye’s companion, whom she called her sister, fetched box after box of documents. Salye kept talking about rampant corruption in the St. Petersburg administration in the early 1990s, when Putin was the mayor’s right hand. I had seen some of the documents before; others were new to me. In any case, Salye was the only person who could guide me through them now: Gladkov, the co-chair of her investigation, had died in 2007 of a rapidly progressing degenerative neurological disorder. Salye and others claimed it resembled a chemical poisoning.
Salye started writing a blog. Even while living in the woods, she maintained a remarkably keen sense of Russian politics. Throughout 2011, she spoke out ever more forcefully in anticipation of last December’s parliamentary election. After the protest movement that shook Russia in the winter, she came out of hiding. On Feb. 4, she appeared in front of tens of thousands of protesters in St. Petersburg, just as she had done more than 20 years earlier.
Her partner objected, fearing for Salye’s life, but Salye seemed unstoppable again. She started campaigning vigorously on behalf of the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and, as was her custom, against Putin. She claimed to have evidence of previously undisclosed violations on Putin’s part and vowed to pursue an investigation.
I thought it would make a beautiful story someday soon: Woman comes out of hiding to bring down repressive Russian regime again. I think I forgot she was 77 years old.
Marina Salye died of a massive heart attack on March 21.