Russian state media have responded to the death of a Russian journalist, whose suicide note blamed government authorities for her actions, by alleging she was a member of a cult and speculating without evidence of longstanding mental health issues.

Russian journalist Irina Murahtaeva, who wrote under the pseudonym Irina Slavina, died on October 2 by setting herself on fire in front of the local interior ministry office in the western Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod. In a note, Slavina wrote, “I ask you to blame the Russian Federation for my death.”

Pro-Kremlin and Russian state media have extensively covered Slavina’s death. Their major claims:

  1. Irina Slavina was a member of a sect. The state news agency TASS interviewed an “expert” source from the All Russian Professional League of Psychotherapists, Victor Makarov, who said the way she killed herself is “connected with sects.” Makarov continued to say that most often only “fanatical people” behave this way, and “when we talk about fanatical faith we’re talking about a sect.” The statements traveled widely across the Russian press and social media, with the pro-government newspapers and Komsomolskaya Pravda also pushing this theory, along with smaller pro-government outlets.
  2. Irina Slavina had been suicidal for a long time. The state-affiliated RIA Novosti news agency reported that Slavina had written suicide-themed posts on Facebook in the past, quoting a message from more than a year ago. An article published today on RIA’s website under the headline “suicide as terrorism,” claimed Slavina had shown suicidal behavior for a while. The author of the piece alleges that Slavina’s colleagues and friends “clearly did nothing to help the suicidal woman” and even asks about “the role they played in her taking the final step.”
  3. Slavina was mentally ill. The online news outlet Vzglyad wrote on October 3 that Slavina’s death is far from a political act but rather the “sad picture of an unbalanced woman with long-standing suicidal tendencies.” The following day Vzglyad ran a piece with the headline: “Irina Slavina was burned by psychosis.” The allegation has been repeated elsewhere in the Russian media. The radio station of Komsomolskaya Pravda ran a story asserting that the main reason behind her death was that she was mentally ill.

Extensive research has shown that media can play an important role in preventing suicide. Suicide prevention organizations typically warn against oversimplifying or speculating on the reason for the suicide.

Slavina, the editor-in-chief of a small regional new website called Koza Press, had been facing repeated harassment from local authorities.She was fined about $800 in July for writing an article about coronavirus, which authorities labeled “fake news.” In 2019, she was levied a fine of about $250 for marching in support of the slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Most recently, authorities fined her for “disrespecting authorities,” citing a law passed in 2019 which carries a maximum sentence of 15 days in prison for online posts which insult President Putin or the government. The day prior to her death, Slavina had her home searched by authorities and most of the electronic equipment she used for running Koza Press was seized.

Slavina, who leaves behind a daughter and husband, had been a reporter for several decades in Nizhny Novgorod, which is about 250 miles from Moscow. She wrote that she founded Koza Press five years ago after “most editors and news outlets in the region wouldn’t risk hiring me.” The motto of her publication, where she authored and edited most pieces, was “no censorship.”