The murder of Viktor Popkov

21 years ago, the heart of Viktor Popkov stopped beating. In Chechnya, he was known as a priest-human rights activist.

This man with long grey hair and beard, dressed in monk’s black robe with galoshes on his bare feet, managed to visit the entire republic.  Always carrying with him medicines and food for sick and wounded, he made his way to the most inaccessible and remote places. He was detained by both sides of the conflict. However, the questions – who exactly shot him or who order the murder are left unanswered.

On June 2, 2001, Viktor Popkov, a Russian human rights activist, advocating for peaceful resolution of the military conflict, passed away in a hospital near Moscow. He worked in Nagorno-Karabakh, when there were battles between Armenian and Azerbaijani formations. With a peacekeeping mission at the very beginning of the 90s, he was searching for people who disappeared during the war in Georgia. He visited North Ossetia and Ingushetia, as well as Moldova.

But Viktor Popkov received real and well-deserved respect during the first Russian-Chechen war. In December 1994, he was already in the republic, documenting the outcomes of the bombing and shelling of settlements. He participated in the release of prisoners who were kept in captivity, after which he became one of the organizers of the Peace March of Soldiers’ Mothers. He was arrested by the Chechen secret services, but soon after his release, as an observer attended the negotiations between the parties to the armed conflict in the summer of 1995.

When the bloody countdown of the second Russian-Chechen war began in the autumn of 1999, he tried to build bridges for peace between the Russians and Chechens fighting in deadly combats. At the end of April 2000, he met with the leadership of Chechnya and achieved a draft peace proposal, which could have formed the basis of the negotiation if Russia agreed to it.

Viktor Popkov, parishioner of the Old Believers Church and a novice, was going to eventually become a monk. In September 2000, while driving to the mountainous Nozhai-Yurt region, he was detained by the Russian military. Local residents informed journalists and employees of non-governmental organizations about this. His detention caused an uproar in the foreign press and Russian and soon he was released.

Viktor Popkov continued his visits to Chechnya even after this incident. In the early morning of 18 April 2001, together with a local doctor and a driver, he left Alkhan-Kala, where he was staying overnight, for Grozny to collect medicines and take them to the mountains. Soon bullets were fired toward his direction from a passing car.

The bullets fractured Viktor Popkov’s lateral branch of the carotid artery, crushed the upper and lower jaws, as well as the bones of the left forearm and thigh. While the doctor, who was also wounded, was trying to save Popkov’s life by clamping the carotid artery, the driver approached the Russian post. But the military refused to let them through without checking their documents. The first crucial minutes needed to save the human rights activist were lost there. He was brought to Grozny in critical condition. After the operation, the doctors recommended to take him out of Chechnya. Employees of the Memorial Human Rights Center transported the wounded colleague first to Ingushetia, and from there, with the help of Doctors Without Borders, to the nearest hospital in North Ossetia. But by then Viktor Popkov has already fallen into a coma. Same day, he was flown by plane to Krasnogorsk, near Moscow, and over the next six weeks, the best military doctors in Russia tried to save his life. However, with no success.

Viktor Popkov remains one of the most famous and respected human rights activists in Chechnya. Also because of him, even in the most difficult years of the war, many Chechens were not imbued with anti-Russian sentiments.  Perhaps, one day, signs with the name “the priest-human rights activist” will appear in the streets and cities of Chechnya.

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