Moscow is unbearably hot at the moment. It’s as hot as it was then in Grozny. You feel as though your brains are just about to melt. Impossible to work, to move and it’d be great to be able to flee the city and stay with someone at their dacha. Even better to abandon everything and rush off to the sea, to spend whole days in the water, drink cold wine and not think about anything…. But I can’t go anywhere. Not now. It’s a year since Natasha died. It’s time to write, to sort and print photographs and to invite people to gather in remembrance of Natasha on the anniversary of her death.
Natasha was not afraid to travel to the worst of the North Caucasus hot spots
I can’t believe a whole year has passed. It still feels as though she’s just gone away and at any moment the telephone will ring and I’ll hear her usual urgent burst of words: ”It's like this...it's urgent...it's just terrible...something has to be done.” When I'm coming back from yet another business trip, I sometimes catch myself thinking that I'll open the apartment door and there she'll be, in charge in the kitchen. Natasha often came to my flat when I was away. She had her own key. Even now I've got some dumplings in the freezer that she bought years ago and some kind of complicated vegetable mixture in a bright package. I somehow can't make myself throw them away, just as I can't delete her mobile number from my telephone. Although it's high time to throw away the food and delete the number. And to learn to live without Natasha. But it’s not easy.
Natasha Estemirova had always been there, or so it seemed. She began working at Memorial even before the Grozny office opened. She travelled to the worst of the hot spots, passed the information back, came home and then left again. Then we all stayed at her place. Sometimes three or four people would all turn up at once. Natasha and her daughter would sleep huddled up on the tiny divan in the kitchen to make room for the many guests. At some point the guests all went home, away from the war, but she was still there – for us all, instead of us all. There was no doubt in anyone's mind: Natasha would find out what you needed and tell you, do the necessary and patiently wait for you to find another chance to come back.
There might be those who would say – well, she was a Chechen, of course she stayed there, it was her home. But you outsiders, of course, would leave. Natasha's mother was Russian and she grew up in the Sverdlovsk Region, in the Urals. She only moved to Chechnya when her father did, but she was already an adult and never really learnt to speak Chechen. For her, as a matter of principle, the ethnic categories of ”blood and (home)land” never really existed. She could just as well have lived in Yekaterinburg, Moscow or Petersburg. What she simply couldn't physically make herself do was leave a place where people were suffering and where she might be able to help someone.
But Natasha really longed for a normal life. She was a historian who had grown up among the Russian classics. She loved books, though she was catastrophically short of time to read them. She also loved the theatre: if ever she managed to get to Moscow, she would rush from one theatre production to another. She could never on any visit get enough of the varied cultural life of the big city – the wonderful music, films and exhibitions. All things that were so painfully missing in Grozny. What she also missed were the nighttime gatherings, the noisy company, super clever conversations, cosy cafes – in a word, everything that for us is simply an essential part of our lives, so much so that we almost don’t notice it. Natasha had so little of this normality in her life, that every time she managed to immerse herself in it she was as happy as a little girl.
She was tall and walked very gracefully, with the posture of a ballet dancer. She loved beautiful clothes, though never had the money for them and the selection in Grozny is anyway far from brilliant. She adored her daughter, who was born just before the First Chechen War.
A terrible thought. Natasha always stayed at work until late. She would send her daughter to stay with relatives, or even to the Caspian Sea, which is not at all far away, but she never managed to have a summer holiday with her. ”There's so much to do, so many people, how can I leave them?” The year before she died she sent Lana away to the Urals. She had long known that Grozny was a dangerous place for a child: there was no proper education, no normal life. She often talked about this, but couldn't bear to part with the little girl. It was only in the spring of 2008, when the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, himself yelled at her for criticising him in the press and started asking threatening questions about her daughter, that Natasha understood she had to act. Her daughter could at any moment have been used to get at her.
In the summer holidays Natasha yielded to our entreaties and took Lana to England. They lived in an Oxford hostel for about two months. In the middle of July I came to London for work and Natasha managed to get to London for an evening so that we could have supper together and chat. I was sitting in the window of the restaurant and I watched Natasha walking down the street. She was literally radiating light, sparkling with some kind of inner joy. A beautiful woman in a big city. She had a jaunty scarf around her neck, a straight skirt and sandals with heels. We had known each other for a long time, but this was the first time that we had a conversation with no mention of torture, kidnapping, executions, lawlessness, war… Natasha told me many tales of her wonderful life in Oxford, what marvellous parks there are there, how she and Lana had explored the region and how they sometimes took trips to the capital to wander around galleries. She was going jogging every morning, doing yoga and learning English. I don't remember ever seeing her so happy.
On 15 July 2009 in Grozny Natasha Estemirova was kidnapped near her home. She was bundled into a car and taken to Ingushetia, where she was shot.
But she went home before the summer was out. She took her daughter to stay with her sister in Yekaterinburg, where she arranged a school for her. By the middle of August Natasha was back in Grozny. I rang her before she left and could barely restrain myself from shrieking. ”You're mad! You were having such a good time in Oxford! You look 10 years younger. Don't go back now. Stay with your daughter until the end of the holidays. You're going to be apart until her winter break! It's such bad luck on the girl and you'll be eating your heart out. What the hell are you doing?”
Natasha was stammering, almost making excuses: ”But you surely understand that I haven't been there for so long and there's so much to do…When I start thinking about them all, ringing me and hearing the voice message….the people that come to the office and ask for me. And I'm not there. I really do need to go. I can't do anything else…”
And she really couldn't. She had extremely tough ideas about how things ought to be and what she herself ought to do. We, of course, tried to persuade her to stop, to leave, to live for herself even a little bit, but if I'm completely honest, we didn't try hard enough. Because we needed her to be there, in Grozny, because nobody could do the work better than she, and who else would we have gone to stay with, who would have given us advice, who else could we have asked to finish off what simply cannot be done during a one-week stay?
On 15 July 2009 in Grozny Natasha Estemirova was kidnapped near her home, where we had all stayed so often that we had started regarding it as ours. She was bundled into a car and taken to Ingushetia, where she was shot. Some months before that she had turned 51. There has been no justice for Natasha's murder. And we have still not learnt to live without her.