Daughter of a Murdered Russian Activist Speaks Out
Natalya Estemirova was abducted and shot by Chechen authorities in 2009. Until last week her daughter had lived in quiet exile. But no more.
MOSCOW—Even when Lana was a little girl, just 12 years old, she was a very close friend and a great help to her mother, the Russian human rights defender Natalya Estemirova. In 2006 when we stayed in Estemirova’s apartment in Grozny, Chechnya the big-eyed, charismatic Lana seemed more independent than many young women her age. Her room had a shrapnel hole in the wall, but she didn’t complain. So many rooms were like that after the decade-long war between Russian forces and Chechen guerrillas from 1994 to 2004.
Then, on July 15, 2009 tragic news ended Lana’s childhood altogether: her mother, the head of the Memorial human rights center in Grozny, was abducted near their home and shot dead. Shortly after her mother’s funeral Lana left Russia for England, where she went to boarding school in Oxford, then to the London School of Economics. For years she was determined to stay away from the ongoing violence in the war-torn mountain republic that had been her home. She did not share publicly in the passionate defense of the rights of the Chechen people, the mission that had cost her mother’s life.
But recent news from home was more than Lana could take. First there was the violent crackdown on LGBT people, the heartbreaking tales of gay men tortured in jail. Then came the arrest of her mother’s friend and colleague, 62-year-old Oyub Titiyev. “My instincts are aroused and I cannot block them; my blood is boiling when I see the violations of Russian laws,” 24-year old Lana told The Daily Beast in her first exclusive interview.
Of course anger is not enough, outrage is not enough. One needs to focus on an issue that might make a difference even to those Russians who don’t want to care. And as the 2018 World Cup approaches, Lana Estimerova has focused on the designation by FIFA (the soccer federation) of Chechnya as the site for a training camp. Lana believes that this gives her a chance now to be heard.
When her mother was pushing authorities to obey Russian laws, the entire republic of Chechnya stood in ruins; tanks and armored vehicles were still rolling the streets, and anyone still there suffered the privations. There was no tap water in Estemirova’s house. In the mornings Lana tried not to miss the honking of a tractor, which meant the daily water delivery, and she would carry what she could up to the 9th floor. Her mother Natasha, as we all called her, carried heavier buckets in the evening, after a long day of documenting abductions, executions, torture and other horrors in Chechnya’s daily life.
Today Chechnya looks modern and spookily clean, but authorities continue to violate human rights. Natasha’s job was bringing Russian authorities to justice, to compel them to obey their own laws. According to Russian legislation, for instance, abductions and the framing of innocent people are crimes, but Chechen authorities did nothing to stop such practices. Journalists both Russian and foreign get attacked in the republic. Chechen authorities punish everybody who helps the foreign press—fixers have been arbitrarily detained, threatened, humiliated. The risk to both journalists and human rights defenders working in the field has increased dramatically.
When Natasha was the head of the Memorial center, the door to her office did not close: families came to ask Natasha to find their abducted sons, victims of torture and severe beatings.
As a little girl hanging out around my mom’s office, I remember people coming in with the same question: ‘Where is Natasha?’” Her mother worked day and night, and sometimes when Lana would be cleaning up around the house she found evidence that collected for court cases: photographs of tortured or dead people. “I carefully put the photos in a little stack, trying not to look at them.”
Today the Memorial human rights center frequently is the target of threats, prosecutions, even arson, while authorities blame human rights defenders of being “agents of the U.S. state department” and “traitors.”
What Lana is doing now is urging the world, FIFA, even the Kremlin to call for the release of Titiyev, Memorial’s Grozny director, and to defend her mother’s institution. In February Human Rights Watch asked FIFA president Gianni Infantino to urge President Vladimir Putin to intercede directly and call for Titiyev’s freedom.
Last month, 26 international human rights groups addressed FIFA with the same call. “FIFA is engaged with us, we are hopeful, but Titiyev is still in jail,” Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch told The Daily Beast. “There is still time before the 2018 World Cup, but the time is running out, and 10 years of Titiyev’s life are on the line.”
On Wednesday FIFA officials said they were “deeply concerned” about the situation in Chechnya. “Even though we have no indication that the detention of Mr. Titiyev is linked to FIFA’s own operations or the 2018 FIFA World Cup, FIFA is deeply concerned about the situation of Mr. Titiyev,” the official statement said.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has crushed every independent voice in the republic, publicly refers to human rights defenders as “enemies of people” who should not work in the republic. “They should know: if their actions cause harm, if they have bad influence on Chechen people, no matter whether they are human rights defenders or [their distant descendents], there is no place for them in Chechnya,” Kadyrov said earlier this year.
In the video posted by Human Rights Watch last week, Lana refuted the authorities’ claims that Oyub Titiyev was arrested in possession of drugs. “Chechen police planted marijuana in Oyub’s car and arrested him,” she said. “We could not save my mother. But we can save Oyub and we can save Memorial—all it takes is for Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, to pick up the phone and tell the authorities in Chechnya to get their hands off Oyub and off Memorial,” she said.
“Lana managed to share her very painful, very personal story in a heroic effort to save the last human rights organization working in Chechnya,” Tanya Lokshina, the Moscow director of Human Rights Watch, told The Daily Beast.
Estemirova is also the first Chechen woman publicly speaking in support of Chechen LGBT people.
“Putin created a monster that destroys all his critics, creating an atmosphere of total obedience, so that only Putin can stop this injustice,” Lana told The Daily Beast.
International visitors going to the soccer training camp in Chechnya should be aware that although the war ended almost a decade ago, violence continues in the republic. On Saturday, Chechen authorities said that four gunmen attacked an Orthodox church, killing two policemen and one worshipper. On Monday the so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.
But what actually happened in Grozny last weekend? On Monday, Echo of Moscow radio station deplored the lack of transparency, and of independent investigative reporters working in the republic.
Memorial’s team say that given this information vacuum, every voice speaking in support of Titiyev and other human rights defenders is needed. The Russian and international human rights community is happy hear Lana speaking out. Earlier this year Oleg Orlov, the former chairman of Memorial, and spoke alongside Lana at the British parliament, describing Chechnya’s human rights violations.
“If only Natasha could see how well-spoken, brave and intelligent her daughter sounded, she would have been very proud,” Orlov told The Daily Beast.