At around 5:30 in the morning on December 25, 2016, 92 people from Russia died in a plane crash in the Black Sea as they were leaving Sochi for Syria on a humanitarian mission. The cause of the crash has not yet been established, but people everywhere are reeling with grief, because such a large number of the passengers were known to them through the media—known and loved.
Besides the crew and a group of journalists, almost the entire Alexandrov Military Choir (a present-day formation of the world-famous Red Army Choir) perished in the crash. They were going to console the Russian troops on New Year’s Eve with their moving vocal and instrumental music and dance. If you look at the photos of these people you can’t help but cry—such wonderful faces.
But one individual will be especially missed—especially by all the people she helped when no one else would. Her name is Elizaveta Petrovna Glinka, but she was known to all simply as Doctor Liza.
As one of Doctor Liza’s co-workers said, “She was a saint. People like her are born once in a thousand years.” Others called her “another Mother Theresa”, although Liza herself only scoffed at such a comparison. “First of all,” she said in an interview, “I am not a nun. Besides, I smoke and curse.” But those two foibles, understandable for a small woman who bore the weight of the world on her shoulders, can be no doubt overlooked by even the most stiff-necked Pharisee, because the good she did every day of the week surpasses all. And that such people are born only once in a thousand years—Liza also argued that she is a human being just like everyone else.
We had seen Liza here at Sretensky Monastery services a number of times. She was a religious person—not only on Sundays and feast days. Her Christian outlook penetrated her work as a medical doctor, and she obviously took Christ’s call to feed the hungry, visit the sick, and help the wounded on the road very seriously. To Doctor Liza, there simply could not exist a human being who does not deserve medical attention, accompanied by kind words and real, active love. Never mind that they are on the wrong side of political lines, or that they are digging their own graves by their way of life, or that they are simply bound to die no matter what anyone does. These were Doctor Liza’s favorite people, and she took care of them with utter self-denial.
Elizaveta Glinka (nee Sidorova) was born in 1962 in Moscow. She graduated from the Russian National Research Medical Institute in Moscow specializing in pediatric anesthesiology. In 1986, she and her husband emigrated to the U.S., and later graduated from Dartmouth Medical School, where she studied palliative medicine. Elizaveta was particularly interested in the work of American hospices, and she brought this experience back with her to Russia and the Ukraine. She was instrumental in the founding of Moscow’s first hospice, and in 1999 she founded a hospice for the terminally ill in Kiev, financed by her own husband Gleb Glinka, a successful lawyer and entrepreneur.
Liza began appearing in the Russian media for her foundation called “Fair Aid”, which ministered to cancer patients and the homeless of Moscow. There is a train station called Paviletsky, where for some reason a particularly large number of homeless people gather, living their lives in cold, sickness, abuse, and forgottenness. This station is also not far from her office, and therefore she “took on” these people as her own responsibility. A thin middle-aged woman in a clean, white dress, her hair impeccably coiffed, tastefully made-up, would regularly appear in the midst of these rough people carrying a doctor’s suitcase. Each would approach her makeshift office consisting of a portable table and benches with his or her own complaint. Liza would bandage wounds, treat frostbite, hand out medicines, and if necessary, stroke someone’s hair like a loving mother. “Some people can’t bear to be near the homeless,” one interviewer commented to her. “It’s hard. They can be dangerous, and most of them smell.” This thought was expressed as if Liza was somehow immune to all of these negatives, while others aren’t—they can’t help it. She only intimated that it is just as hard for her. But she helps them anyway.
One man came to her after being beaten up, blood streaming from his mouth. She treats his wounds, but right afterwards the same street toughs who beat him up before, beat him up anew—right in Liza’s presence. What to do? She treats his wounds again without so much as a sigh. The journalist filming this scene asks her, “But what if you know that this is just his own fault?” She looks straight at her with those enormous, intense eyes and says, “So what? If a man comes to you with blood gushing from his mouth, what would you do? Would you just ignore him?” “Anyway,” she said, “there are people who make even more important contributions than I do—they send money and buy food for these people. Other volunteers pass out the food.” She never questioned or judged the people she was helping. How they got into this situation was of absolutely no concern to her. “We have to feed them if they are hungry. And even if a man comes back nine times in an evening for a bowl of porridge, I will give it to him. The main thing is that he is no longer hungry.” By the way, one of her associates found out from another source that in fact, Liza was very sensitive to smells.
Doctor Liza did not seek publicity, but publicity is sometimes needed in order to bring a cause to other people’s awareness. She felt very strongly that no one should die humiliated, no matter who they are. Besides studying hospice work in America, she also studied the purely Russian experience of the prerevolutionary almshouses. Especially in the larger cities, there were always homes attached to the monasteries and parishes for the homeless and needy, where they were fed and given shelter in a clean and loving, Christian environment. These homes often received help from the government or wealthy benefactors. She wanted very much to have such places in Moscow again. “Not a conveyor belt system of 600-bed dorms, but smaller homes scattered around the city.” So far, a few such places have been opened under the auspices of the Orthodox Church, but very little support has come from the municipal government. However, the small group that did gather around her to do this work is very tight and dedicated.
Her Fair Aid foundation brought help to hundreds of people. Donations came, if only in bits, from all over the vast territory of Russia. Local individuals pitched in with food donations, others came to pass out the food. Another doctor came to assist Liza in some of her house calls. But a project that started with feeding one homeless man outside of her mother’s apartment—every day—grew to encompass hundreds of terminally ill, homeless, and poor people. And the doctor answering the phone calls, and travelling to apartments, was almost always Doctor Liza.
When the war broke out in the Ukraine and peaceful civilians in the Donbass were being shelled, Doctor Liza felt obligated to go there and provide medical help. Since such extensive damage had been done to the infrastructure there, many civilians injured by the bombings had little hope for survival. Paying no attention to the fact that she could come under fire just as easily as the people of the Donbass, Doctor Liza began making trips there with suitcases full of medical supplies. It wasn’t enough for her to just send them. She had to see with her own eyes that they were delivered to hospitals and clinics. She would fly to Rostov-on-the-Don in southern Russia then drive to points in the Donbass, often under fire. There Liza made rounds to the sick and wounded, organizing the passage of scores of children to hospitals in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Many families have appeared on television after the air disaster to tell about how Liza saved their children from sure death.
When viewing the documentary films produced about Doctor Liza and her work, one of the most striking things is her incredible rapport with the patients and a love for them that can only be described as totally self-emptying. There is one scene where Liza is visiting a girl who is deprived of every sense but the sense of touch. Because of her trauma she is afraid of everyone and would violently resist any medical care. But as soon as Doctor Liza came close to her, the girl threw her arms around her and clasped her close, not freeing the doctor for hours. Liza just stroked her hair soothingly, telling her (even though she could not hear it) that she was not leaving her, that she would stay there with her. Finally released but not completely from this desperate and fully trusting embrace, Liza continued to sit with the girl for several more hours. It is clear that to this doctor, already stretched beyond all limits, the only important matter at that moment was this poor blind, deaf and dumb girl.
Liza also described one patient who was mentally ill. When she came to visit him, he was obsessed with a battle against “evil”, which he saw everywhere around him. He wanted very badly to write a letter to the defense minister about it, but did not feel competent for the job. So Doctor Liza wrote it for him. Others asked why she spends so much time indulging him, but she answered, almost impatient with the question, “They need so little to make them happy. Why shouldn’t we give it to them?”
Elizaveta Glinka was also incapable of looking the other way when opportunities arose to help people in war-torn Syria. The airplane that crashed with her on board was headed to Latakia. Her associate later related that he also wanted to go but he had not received the necessary permits. He noted that in fact Liza did not have to go—the aid could simply have been sent. But she always wanted to go, no matter how dangerous the trip could be.
Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly awarded Liza for her outstanding achievements in charity and human rights activities. In her acceptance speech, she said that she would soon be travelling to Syria. What she said could be viewed as almost prophetic:
“We never know whether we will come back alive, because war is hell on earth; and I know what I’m talking about. But we are confident that goodness, compassion and mercy are stronger than any weapon.”
The Russian Deputy Minister of Defense Ruslan Tsalikov assured journalists from RT on December 25 that, “The humanitarian cargo of the “Fair Aid” fund was sent by another aircraft. It is already in the airport of Khmeimim, and of course we will finish Elizaveta Glinka’s job.” Her name is already being immortalized in medical spheres—a Russian Defense Ministry medical facility will be named after her, and even the president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadirov, has announced that a children’s hospital is named after her in Grozny, the capital. He wrote on Instagram, “Dr. Liza devoted herself to the most noble cause—saving children. She had a brilliant medical training and could have worked in some clinic, but she chose the hard path of helping those who could not get help from anywhere else.”
This tragic airplane crash has stricken many people with a terrible sense of loss. An orchestra flying out of a sense of duty to bring joy and beauty to people in danger, and a humanitarian doctor who cared only about others. Doctor Liza characterized herself as an ordinary person, who mops her own floors when she comes home from work. And truly, there is no reason why anyone of us could not be so dedicated. But Elizaveta Glinka had something that so many of us lack—the indomitable will to do good.
This tragedy was the loss of something beautiful—very, painfully, beautiful.