May 30, 2014

Kathy Lally and Will Englund were The Washington Post’s Moscow correspondents from September 2010 to May 2014.

We met Andrei Mironov in Moscow in the summer of 1991, just before the coup that helped speed the Soviet Union toward destruction.

When he died at age 60 last weekend, caught in a mortar attack in eastern Ukraine, Andrei was widely identified as an interpreter. He was so much more.

Andrei represented the very best of Russia and its people, and the authorities despised him for it. The story of his life embodies the struggle for human rights and democracy that Soviet dissidents set off nearly 50 years ago.

Andrei grew up in the Soviet Union, but he was never a Soviet man. He thought for himself and did as he saw right. One mutual friend, a Muscovite, called him the only truly honest Russian man he had ever met. Andrei was gentle and fearless — with a resolve that gleamed of pure steel. He taught himself English and Italian and often worked as a “fixer” for journalists, helping them navigate terrain and language. Those jobs financed his human rights efforts.


Andrei Mironov in a cafe in Simferopol, in Crimea, in March 2014. (Pam Constable/The Washington Post)

We had arrived in Moscow as correspondents for the Baltimore Sun a few weeks before the coup of Aug. 19, 1991. Our predecessor, Scott Shane, introduced us to Andrei, who had been among the last of the Soviet political prisoners. He was arrested and tried for anti-Soviet behavior in 1985, as the Mikhail Gorbachev era was beginning. Sentenced to seven years, he was released after 11 / 2 years in the gulag when the West pressured Gorbachev to free a group of political prisoners. Neither the KGB nor the most brutal gulag guards could bend or break him. That’s what they hated. A Ukrainian dissident who served time with Andrei in the gulag once told us that the guards singled out Andrei for the nastiest treatment because he was impervious to their routine punishments.

The coup plotters were intent on keeping the Soviet Union together, and Andrei told us matter-of-factly that he was sure the KGB would soon be at his door to arrest him. He did not want to compromise his friends and contacts by allowing his address book to fall into KGB hands. He asked us to take it and hide it for him.

We were nervous. The KGB had its eye on foreign journalists, too, and we were new and inexperienced. Andrei — slight, ever-smiling — assumed we would help, just as he would help anyone who asked. All we could say was yes.

He brought the address book over to our apartment in one of the buildings where the authorities segregated foreigners, a short walk from his apartment near Mayakovsky Square. We hid it deep in a closet. Then we went out on the streets with him, to the Russian White House. We watched as the tanks that were trained on Boris Yeltsin and his supporters turned their guns away. The coup plotters gave up two days later. We returned the address book.

We worked in Moscow for much of the 1990s and returned in the fall of 2010 as Washington Post correspondents, an assignment we finished in May. Andrei called us to say farewell the night before our departure. He and Kathy had spent a few days together in Kiev in March, after he finished up an assignment with a Post correspondent in Crimea. Now he was about to return to Ukraine with Andy Rocchelli, a 30-year-old Italian photojournalist.

Andy was a freelancer with more idealism than finances. That resonated with Andrei, who was immersed in a world of ideals. He wanted to help Andy tell the stories he thought the world needed to know. He was oblivious to the physical world and its comforts; he had set off to Crimea in March with one pair of pants. When a seam ripped, he paid no attention.

Andrei devoted his entire adult life to the struggle for democracy and human rights in the Soviet Union and then Russia. When he heard stories of injustice, he alerted journalists, helpful agencies or sympathetic officials, persisting until wrong was righted. When demonstrators turned out in the streets of Moscow to protest rigged elections in December 2011, Andrei was sure that the larger change he had worked for so hard was underway. He was often arrested at demonstrations. He concluded that the police were attracted by his Afghan pakol hat. Andrei wore it anyway.

Ukrainian officials confirmed last Sunday that Andrei and Andy died near the village of Andreyevka, not far from Slovyansk, which armed separatists seized in April. The details are unclear, but Russian media have reported that they were killed by shells launched by pro-Ukrainian “fascists.”

Andrei would not have called the Ukrainian side fascist. He was electrified by the Maidan movement, which began with protests at Independence Square in Kiev in November. Andrei saw the courage of the Ukrainian demonstrators as a model and inspiration for Russia, where Putin had stamped down the democratic movement. He disapproved of the far right in Ukraine but saw it as a marginalized minority.

He was curious about everything. After getting out of the army, his love of books led him to samizdat — forbidden literature secretly reproduced by dissidents in typewritten copies. He came to the attention of the KGB when he showed too much interest in foreigners and their work at international book fairs. He could identify just about any piece of aircraft or military hardware and describe its properties. He predicted the demise of the Soviet Union, based on its dependence on oil revenue and price trajectory. He seemed to know something about everything and adored playing with our cats. He wanted us to enter the big black one, Yuki, into an annual Begemot contest held in honor of the behemoth cat in Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita.” Tiny, nervous Lulu trusted him completely.

More than 20 years ago, Andrei introduced Will to a scientist who wanted to expose Russia’s continuing development of chemical weapons. Eventually, the scientist, Vil Mirzayanov, was charged with divulging state secrets, and the agency now known as the Federal Security Service brought Will in for questioning.

Under Russian law, Will could bring his own interpreter. He chose Andrei, the former political prisoner who had no fear of persecutors. Andrei translated the questions of the interrogator, Capt. Viktor Shkarin, then explained with each one what Shkarin was hoping to hear and advised Will on how to avoid falling into his traps.

Later, when Russian officials were looking for a way to drop the case because of international pressure, Andrei insisted on testifying in the closed-door trial and denounced Shkarin’s written distortions of Will’s answers in the interrogation. Mirzayanov was released later that day and now lives in New Jersey.

Andrei was determined to bear witness to Russian atrocities in Chechnya. He and Will spent a couple of weeks traveling through Afghanistan as Taliban rule collapsed in 2001. He agitated against corrupt political leaders looking to destroy historic buildings in Moscow and get rich through shady development deals. A decade ago, he was badly beaten outside the room he shared with his brother in a communal apartment. It looked as if he might die or live with permanent brain damage. Friends raised the money to send him to Germany for treatment, and he recovered.

Svetlana Gannushkina, a human rights activist who has been considered a favorite for the Nobel Peace Prize, described Andrei as a “murdered man with a crystal clear soul, absolute unselfishness, a boundless uncompromising sense of justice, kindness and an amazing faith in goodness.”

Andrei had been transformed forever by his imprisonment and torture in those last days of the Soviet Union. He always said the experience had made him strong. Amazingly, it did not make him bitter or diminish his faith in goodness. In a 2011 Irish radio documentary, he told another friend, Seamus Martin, that his interrogators turned him over to “specially trained thugs” in prison. They told him they were preparing to kill him and ordered him to write a letter saying he’d committed suicide.

“I refused, of course, and then they made a rope from a towel. Two of them took my hands so I couldn’t resist, and another one started to strangle me,” he said. “Just before I fainted, I felt relief, strangely enough, and I lost hate towards those guys, because I felt they are weak and I am strong. . . . When I regained consciousness, I saw their faces — they were extremely scared . . . and I was not. After that, I realized they had no more instruments to manipulate me.”

Time and again Andrei had risked his life to bear witness to wrong. Over the weekend, he gave his final testament.

Read more from Outlook:

In Ukraine, Lenin finally falls

Why America doesn’t understand Putin

Five myths about the Cold War

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