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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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