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He Died for His Ideals

Published: June 22, 2001 (Issue # 680)


ON June 2, the prominent human rights defender and peacemaker Viktor Alekseyevich Popkov died at the Vishnevsky Military Hospital. He was mortally wounded on April 18 in Chechnya, near the village of Alkhan-Kal.

He had been sitting in the front of a medical van, and the killer fired at an upward angle. The bullets shattered the windshield and riddled the entire right side of his body. All this happened in broad daylight just a short distance from a federal checkpoint. The assassin's car left, and nobody followed. The car carrying the dying Popkov was detained at the checkpoint for about 40 minutes. Every minute's delay decreased his chances for survival.

Viktor Popkov. Born in 1946. Human rights defender, missionary, peacemaker, savior. He spent the last 15 years of his life in the hotspots of Russia's south and the near abroad, beginning in Nagorny Karabakh and ending in Chechnya. His earlier biography was typical of a 1960s intellectual. He studied physics at a Moscow institute, left without graduating and became a journalist. He worked as a seismologist in Kamchatka. When the war in Chechnya began, Viktor did not stop to think whether one powerless man could do anything. He plunged in to stop it with his own hands.

During the monstrous Grozny "meat-grinder" of January 1995, he did the impossible. Day after day, in the cellars of the demolished presidential palace, he pleaded with armed guards for the lives of captured Russian soldiers. And he got a few of them to safety, taking those who could still walk. Only a few days later, heavy bombing turned the palace cellars into a mass grave.

Sitting with two dogs and a cat in a tiny book-filled apartment on the outskirts of Moscow, I look through family photographs. A happy young couple with two children, ages 3 and 5. "This guy is one of those he got out of there," says Viktor's wife Tanya. And suddenly I understand that, if not for Viktor, this guy would not be alive and enjoying his children.

I traveled with Viktor to a few hotspots. The first time it was the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone. I had to learn on the run, from how to get around in areas under fire to negotiating with combatants. Viktor at first irritated me with his deliberate slowness when I thought haste was in order. It was only after a few years of having worked with him, in both Chechen wars, that I understood he marched to his own drummer, sharing other people's pain and taking on other people's burdens.

Speaking of his goals in his seventh and penultimate trip to Chechnya, Viktor wrote; "As usual, it is to preserve my feeling of involvement in what is happening in Chechnya, to keep within me a striving to help and to defend the people of Chechnya, who are being destroyed by my Russia." He always felt a personal responsibility for evil done before his eyes and for every life extinguished - he simply could not be otherwise. And he was able quietly to insist to people blinded by hatred and given to violence that they respect humanitarian precepts. He knew that the slightest sign of nervousness or haste could ruin everything.

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Thursday, Aug. 21


Time is running out to see the fantastic creations on display at the 2014 Sand Castle Festival on the beach at the Peter and Paul Fortress. Adhering to the theme of Treasure Island, visitors can wander amongst larger-than-life interpretations of pirate life or attend one of the workshops held to educate a future generation of sand artists. The castles will remain on the beach until Aug. 31.



Friday, Aug. 22


Get ready to pledge allegiance to the flag during National Flag Day, paying tribute to when, 23 years ago today, the iconic hammer-and-sickle was replaced with the tricolor that now flutters in the wind. Petersburgers will be treated to a free concert on Palace Square, a military parade and a culminating air show featuring Russias Russian Knights stunt pilots.



Saturday, Aug. 23


Uppsala Park plays host to Fairy Noon today, a performance of five separate fairy tales ranging from folk classics to more haunting selections. There will be three different renditions of the tales throughout the day and tickets start at 500 rubles ($13.80) for adults and 300 rubles ($8.30) for children.


Classic Finnish cartoon characters the Moomins expect to receive a warm welcome from Russian fans during todays Moomin Festival at the Pearl Plaza Shopping Center at 51 Petergofskoye Shosse. Become a kid again or introduce a new generation to the beloved creation of Finnish writer Tove Jansson.



Sunday, Aug. 24


The tortured genius of Dutch master Vincent van Gogh gets his day in the centers Konnushnaya Ploschad during Make Art Like Van Gogh, a daylong celebration of the artist that will allow amateur artists to try and replicate the work that made the famed painter world-renowned.


Experience a variety of dances highlighting the diversity of the world around as at the final day of the Ethno-Dance International Dance Festival that has been at the St. Petersburg Humanitarian University of Trade Unions this past week. Tonights performance will feature Egyptian dancers accompanied by local orchestras.



Monday, Aug. 25


Today kicks off the Elena Obraztsovoy International Competition for Young Vocalists in the large hall of the Shostakovich Philharmonic. Talented youngsters will showcase their range over the next six days before a winner is chosen on Aug. 30.



Tuesday, Aug. 26


Love movies but hate all those words? Then check out Rodina Cinema Centers Factor of Consensus film forum this evening. Silent movie classics from the beginning of the 20th century will be screened and accompanied by a pianist, who will provide the soundtrack for the ongoing action. The screenings begin at 7 p.m. Check Rodinas website for more details.



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