Sunday, June 19, 2016

12 Years Ago, Russian Radical Nationalists Murdered a St. Petersburg Ethnographer for His Defense of Minorities

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 19 – Twelve years ago on this date, Russian nationalists associated with the Russian National Unity organization murdered Nikolay Girenko, a St. Petersburg ethnographer who had attracted their attention because of his outspoken defense of ethnic, religious and racial minorities in Russia.

            Girenko was the second Russian ethnographer to be murdered for his human rights work – Galina Starovoitova was the first in 1998.  She is often remembered for her efforts and her tragic end, but Girenko should be remembered as well even though he was less prominent and at least some of those responsible for his murder were charged and convicted.

            Born in the northern capital in 1940, Girenko was a graduate of the Oriental faculty of Leningrad State University. He then served as a military translator in Tanzania. After his return from there, he worked as an Africanist at was in Soviet times the Leningrad section of the Moscow Institute of Ethnography and Anthropology and is now the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (

            The ethnographer was also active in politics and in the defense of ethnic and racial minorities. He served in the first democratic city council in Leningrad/St. Petersburg and was one of the founders of the St. Petersburg Union of Scholars.  He also was one of the organizers of the European Conference on the Rights of National Minorities.

            Thanks to his efforts, students from Africa and Asia in the Russian Federation were able to organize national unions; but it was his struggle against radical nationalism and neo-Nazi organizations that he made the greatest contribution, testifying as an expert in various court cases and writing about the activities of those groups.

            As Aleksandr Brod, a leading Russian human rights activist said on the tenth anniversary of his murder, Girenko’s death “generated a large response in Russia and abroad” because he was “a most honest and conscience-driven individual,” who always put his expertise in the service of “humanistic goals.”

            Nikolay Girenko must not be forgotten on this anniversary or on any other date. Such people are precious, and those who turn to violence in order to prevent them from helping minorities or who do not work hard enough to bring all those responsible for such violence to be brought to justice also need to be remembered but condemned for their actions or inactions.

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