A woman lights a candle next to flowers and a portrait of one of the victims, Elizaveta Glinka, or Dr. Liza, at a makeshift memorial at the embankment on the shore of the Black Sea in Sochi on Dec. 27. (Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — The most famous person to die on Christmas Day aboard the Russian military flight that crashed into the Black Sea wasn’t a politician or army officer. She wasn’t a war journalist headed to cover the conflict, or one of the 64 doomed members of the famed Alexandrov Ensemble. (You've probably heard their “Skyfall” cover.)

She was a 54-year-old woman named Elizaveta Glinka, a celebrity aid worker known to Russians as Dr. Liza, who made a name for herself by charging into some of Russia's toughest — and most controversial — humanitarian crises and emergencies. From local floods and fires, to the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria that the Kremlin had much to do in creating, her work brought public recognition. She was lionized in a 2009 documentary film about the palliative care provided by her “Fair Help” charitable fund, and was recognized with an award by Russian President Vladimir Putin for her activities several weeks before the crash.

“We never are sure that we will return alive because war is hell on Earth,” she said at the award ceremony. “I know what I am talking about. But we are sure that kindness, compassion and mercy will work stronger than any weapon.”

Her efforts also drew criticism from opponents of Putin who thought she had grown too close to the halls of power. Russians who engage in civic life and volunteer work each face a critical decision: when and how much to work with the government, exchanging independence for the tools to get the job done that the Kremlin can provide. Glinka believed a partnership with officialdom helped her to save more people.

“I am ready to raise up anyone who helps me save one child,” she said about a Kremlin official, after he agreed to evacuate children from the Donbas region of southeast Ukraine, where Russia is waging a proxy war. “No war is worth a human life. You understand me?”

It was on a military flight to Syria, which she was using to take humanitarian supplies for the Tishreen University hospital in Latakia, that Glinka joined the ill-fated group.

“Many now blame her for having legitimized the current government,” Mitya Aleshkovsky, the head of the Moscow-based aid organization Nuzhna Pomosh (Help is Needed), said in remarks reported by the Meduza news agency. “Liza was always outside of politics, despite socializing with politicians often. … She was an honest and unbelievably worthy person. She was, without exaggeration, a genuine saint.”


In this Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016 file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, stands with Elizaveta Glinka after giving her a state award at the Kremlin in Moscow on Dec. 8. (Alexei Nikolsky/AP)

Glinka was born in the Soviet Union but left in 1986 for the United States, where she graduated from Dartmouth Medical School and began working as an activist in palliative medical care. She opened the first free hospice care center in Kiev in 2001, and in 2007 moved back to Moscow, where she founded Fair Help. It was dedicated to palliative care and supported by the Fair Russia party leader Sergei Mironov. She also became known for providing aid to the homeless.

Admirers often described her as a “saint.”

“I found her lying next to a dying man, an old man who had just been brought,” Lyudmila Ulitskaya, a writer, recalled of Glinka during a hospital visit. “She was stroking his head. I am not sure he felt it. Liza’s behavior seemed to me not entirely proper. Now, when many years have passed, I can add: The behavior of saints generally does not seem proper to normal people.”

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