Advisory Council (Russia)

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Boris Altshuler: The Death of Sakharov was a Supreme Misfortune for Russia

posted 5 Jan 2020, 02:45 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 6 Jan 2020, 04:10 ]

14 December 2019

On the thirtieth anniversary of Andrei Sakharov’s death

by Boris Altshuler (pictured left)

Boris Altshuler is chair of the board of the NGO Right of the Child, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and a senior researcher at the Department of Theoretical Physics of the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. For more information about the author, see here.

МиниатюраA. D. Sakharov died on the evening of 14 December 1989. Today, looking back, I find it impossible not to agree with Sergei Grigoryants’ assessment of this event in his article, ‘The Death of Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov’ (July 2012): ‘The main event and misfortune of Russia of that time, and indeed in all its history, was the death of Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov. I think this was the event of the greatest global significance of that time, one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Russia, comparable only with the death of Alexander II and the outcomes of great wars - the war against Napoleon and the First and Second World Wars. Andrei Sakharov, in my view, was Russia’s only hope, at least in terms of a relative affirmation of democracy in this country, and his death (and I am convinced that he was killed) not only wiped out all these hopes, but in the final analysis exercised an irreversible and fatal negative influence on the whole of European civilisation, with the consequences of which we are trying to cope in so far as we can.’

According to the autopsy, the cause of death was sudden cardiac arrest. I shall not consider whether this happened from natural causes or whether it was artificially brought about since there is no objective, scientific evidential base for such a discussion. But in the light of Sakharov’s achievements it is both possible and necessary to assess what has happened in the thirty years since his death.

‘Might have beens’ are of little interest in history. There is hardly any sense in guessing what might have been had Sakharov lived and been active in the 1990s. The horrors and mistakes of those years have largely determined what is happening in Russia today. Of course, Sakharov’s genius, his unique ‘ability to see both sides of a coin’ 
[literally 'ability to count to two' in the original Russian - trans.], his ability to identify those special moments of the present (‘points of bifurcation’) that determine the future, moments when a historic chance must be seized (and how many chances like that were let go!), in conjunction with his enormous authority among democrats, all these are strong arguments in favour of Sergei Grigoryants’ idea that the death of Sakharov was a misfortune of global scale.

But as someone who knew Andrei Dmitrievich for 20 years I can confirm that thinking about such ‘might have beens’ was uncharacteristic of Sakharov. He did not involve himself in guessing about the future. In response to such guesses, very ordinary and typical of their kind, he would say: ‘What is important is what has already happened.’ And, indeed, facts are important as the basis on which ‘the made by all of us, step by step in our infinitely complex interrelationship.’ (A.D. Sakharov).

So I leave it to readers, as I do myself, to fantasize in the form of ‘home entertainment’ on the theme of what would have happened if Sakharov had lived. But here I shall try to talk about the facts, about ‘what has already happened.’

I shall discuss two systemic problems, misfortunes of the New Russia that arose in the 1990s and have lasted until the present, determining our present, and possibly also our future.

In economics this is a virtually total growth of monopolies, turning all the reformers’ declarations about the need to build a competitive free market into empty words. Here lies the principal difference - tragically, of the worst kind - between our economic reforms of the 1990s (the so-called ‘Gaidar reforms’, although I don’t know how fair it is to give Egor Gaidar’s name to this insult to common sense and to the millions of people who live in Russia) and, for example, the economic miracle of post-war Japan. Underpinning the Japanese reforms were the very decisive steps taken by the government to defend the free market from monopolies that would inevitably take over the free market in the absence of government measures to protect it. Which is what happened in our case.

The most recent reports by the Federal Antimonopoly Agency describe the ‘universal cartelisation’ of the Russian economy, the prevalence of anti-competition agreements that ‘are carried out with the participation of government bodies,’ accompanied by ‘every evidence of organised criminal groups and criminal communities.’ These reports also state that the Ministry of Internal Affairs is failing in its responsibility to prosecute offences under Article 178 of the Russian Criminal Code on ‘restriction of competition,’ despite the fact that the evidence is plain for all to see. Just recall the activities of the Miratorg corporation that destroyed small-scale private farming in the Krasnodar region, and similar activities all over the country. Or think of the oligarchs in the construction business based in Moscow and Moscow region who have merged with the local political leadership and engage in inflating the prices of residential accommodation. Such a concentration of economic power is absolutely impermissible in any normal market-oriented country. But we have our own special path. A path in which corruption and wholesale theft of the general public by narrow elite groups flourish with impunity.

And what has Sakharov to do with this? The point is that Sakharov was not a reformer who based his views on a formalistic or narrowly logical approach. Behind the reforms he always saw the individual. And of course he would not have remained indifferent to the suffering endured by millions of Russians in the 1990s. And he also truly was able to ‘see both sides of the coin’ 
[literally to ‘count to two' in the original Russian - trans.]: on the one side, that it was not possible to create a competitive market economy ‘from above, using the authority of the President of Russia to overcome the resistance of the ‘Red Directors’, the KPRF [the Communist Party of the Russian Federation] and so on; on the other side, that it was necessary to ensure reformers won a majority in the State Duma by putting forward slogans and programmes that would save the average voter from the suffering they endured as a result of the painful reforms. But the thing is that none of the democrats and reformers of the 1990s were able to see this ‘second side’ of the coin. As a result we witnessed their shameful and systematic defeats at all elections to the State Duma.

And here we arrive at the second systemic misfortune of the New Russia. For almost 30 years the only electorally significant opposition party in our country has been the KPRF, the same KPRF that failed to reject the cannibalistic Soviet stereotypes and that continues to bow down before Stalin, the destroyer of Russia. We remember how collectivisation destroyed 15m of the hardest working peasants, the thousands of churches blown up on Stalin’s orders, and the monthly planned thousands of executions personally ordered by Stalin (and it is quite beside the point who was shot or for what), and Stalin’s orders on the eve of 22 June 1941 (no matter that they were also signed by Timoshenko and Zhukov) ‘not to respond to provocations,’ ‘not to fire on German planes’, and on the disarming of the army (the immediate withdrawal for servicing of tanks, artillery and aviation) as a result of which Hitler reached Moscow and the Volga, and the country lost more than 40m of its citizens.

True, the KPRF has not become a ‘vegetarian’ social-democratic party along the lines of such parties in Sweden, Denmark or Norway. But no other opposition, able to withstand the ‘party of bosses,’ has come into being. The LDPR and A Just Russia are not opposition parties, while the democratic parties and associations are unfortunately only visible under a ‘political microscope.’ Why have the democrats over many years remained invisible to millions of Russian voters? The question is extremely important since without real political competition it is impossible to build a stable state, a state with a predictable future. Just as in the absence of a visible, critical opposition and genuinely elected authorities at all levels, beginning most importantly at the local level, it is impossible to resolve a single one of the very serious problems facing the country. These problems include the need to overcome corruption and monopolisation, to ensure the independence of the courts, to bring order to the law enforcement agencies that have become an uncontrolled ‘state within a state’ (and today largely ensure not the protection of the law but the interests of oligarchs and of corrupt holders of high office), to protect the environment and small business so important for society, to stop the degradation of the villages, to overcome poverty and to resolve the huge housing problems facing families with children.

The reasons for the democrats’ electoral failure could be both the lack of political professionalism of its leaders and the deference, inherited from Soviet times, shown by millions of Russians towards the executive authorities, as expressed by Yuly Daniel in his verses from the 1960s: ‘Three hundred years the Tatars bent them under their yoke / Only to find out they won’t bend. / But in fifty years we bent them down so far, / That in three hundred years they won’t unbend.’ (Petr Starchik, in his version putting Daniel’s words to music in the 1970s, sang: ‘Oh, we did not hold them down long enough, we didn’t finish them off!’ You can find an original performance from that time online here).

But we must look to the future. Twenty years of the third millennium have already passed. This means new generations, free from Soviet stereotypes, have entered adult life, generations for whom the ‘wild nineties’ are distant history. They include wonderful young people like Yury Dud, Egor Zhukov, Konstantin Kotov and others. Young people who could not watch calmly as National Guard officers beat up someone who had fallen down, and young people who, for their human sympathy, have now been sentenced to terms in prison colonies.

I shall end with Sakharov’s optimistic words about young people from a 1989 interview with the newspaper Knizhnoe obozrenie [‘Review of Books’]: ‘I believe that, taken as a whole, people always maintain their moral strengths. In particular, I believe that young people, who in each generation begin to live life as it were anew, are able to uphold high moral standards. I am not talking so much about a renaissance as about the fact that the moral strength that exists in every generation is able time and again to develop and to flourish, and will inevitably come into its own.’


Of course, in connection with the thirtieth anniversary of A. D. Sakharov’s death I could have talked in more detail about the following:

- Sakharov’s exceptional role in preventing the suicide of humanity in a thermonuclear exchange (possibly accidental - everything at that time hung by a thread) between the USSR and the USA and the affirmation of the global significance of the observance of human rights as a practical instrument to remove the threat of such suicide;

- the 
notorious ‘atom mine’ (the idea of a hydrogen bomb of extraordinary power blown up in the depths of the ocean) and ‘cannibal’ Sakharov. No, he was no ‘cannibal’ and he never wished for the deaths of millions of Americans from a manmade gigantic tsunami; people who say that about him simply do not understand the depth of the faith and conviction of Soviet people, including Sakharov when he was working on the creation of the terrible weapon, that the USSR did not intend to attack anybody, our socialist country was the most progressive in the world and a truly peace-loving power, and the task of scientists was to make the USSR so strong that no country in the world would think of attacking it);

- the slander and propaganda directed against Elena Bonner, worthy of Goebbels;

- the ‘Sakharov oscillations’ of the background cosmic radiation predicted by Sakharov in 1965 and experimentally discovered at the beginning of the 2000s (since when the internet has been full of the phrase ‘Sakharov oscillations’), and so on.

However, it will be much better to talk about all this to mark the hundredth anniversary of Sakharov’s birth on 21 May 2021. For now I shall just note one significant event: very soon the publisher AST, as part of its project ‘Anhedonia,’ will publish a 700-page volume about Elena Georgievna Bonner: ‘Andrei Sakharov, Elena Bonner and friends: a life typical, tragic and wonderful.’ Inevitably, this book will not be only about Elena Georgievna. I quote from the editors’ notes to the book: ‘... Most of our fellow citizens know Elena Georgievna as the wife of the scientist A. D. Sakharov, as his colleague and assistant. That is plain enough: they lived through so many hardships in the 20 years they were together. But Elena Georgievna’s life is more than that of simply the wife and colleague of a great person, and this is the subject of the current book which consists of three sections: 1) a biography, told by means of a collection of her own autobiographical texts and extracts from A. D. Sakharov’s Memoirs, 2) the recollections of E. G. Bonner, 3) a series of key documents and a number of articles by Elena Georgievna herself. Finally, this section includes ‘My Mother’s Favourite Poems,’ a selection of verse by Tatyana Yankelevich: literature, and especially poetry, played a major role in the life of Elena Georgievna.

See also:

1. 'Ability to Count to Two. Opening Talk at the Third International Sakharov Conference on Physics,' P. N. Lebedev Physical Institute, Moscow, 2002

2. 'Andrei Sakharov as a physicist in all facets of his life' (2009)

3. ‘The Paradox of Sakharov...On the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Publication of Thoughts on Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom’ (2018) [in Russian]

In brief:
Novaya gazeta, 30.07.2018

At greater length:
Novye izvestiya, 28.07.2018

- ‘The attack on the Lebedev Physical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences is like an alarm signal from the Emergencies Ministry: Russia urgently needs protection from law enforcement agencies’ (12 November 2019) Ekho Moskvy; Moscow Helsinki Group; Novye izvestiya

Photo of Andrei Sakharov: Website of the Sakharov Centre, © Yousef Karsh

Translated by Simon Cosgrove

Sergei Lukashevsky on Andrei Sakharov: The Unheeded Russian Havel

posted 25 Dec 2019, 11:02 by Translation Service   [ updated 25 Dec 2019, 12:06 ]

Реставратор Сахарницы14 December 2019

By Sergei Lukashevsky 

Sergei Lukashevsky is director of the Sakharov Centre. By decision of the Ministry of Justice, the Sakharov Centre has been entered in the register of ‘foreign agent’ organisations. The Sakharov Centre has lodged an application against the decision at the European Court of Human Rights. 

Source: The New Times [Photo: ASI]

14 December marked the 30th anniversary of the death of Andrei Sakharov. He concluded his Nobel prize acceptance speech [read on his behalf by his wife, Elena Bonner - ed.] with a list of names of Soviet political prisoners. Sakharov showed what public politics in Russia should be and might become.

Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov died thirty years ago, on 14 December 1989.

The historic distance separating us from that date allows us to say without reservation: that was another era. It was another zeitgeist – the perception of a historic watershed, of the inevitability of change, hovered in the air. The wind of change had captivated not just the USSR, but the whole world as well.

Alarm and Hope

Sakharov’s attitude can be described by two words from the title of one of his essays on current affairs: “alarm and hope.” In 1986 came the time for the fulfillment of his hopes. The Soviet Union and the United States agreed to arms reduction, the Berlin Wall – symbol of the division of the world and of the Iron Curtain – fell, and within three years nearly all political prisoners in the Soviet Union were freed. The first to be released, from internal exile in Gorky [now Nizhny Novgorod - ed.], was Sakharov himself.

Freedom, creative energy, and the absence of impenetrable boundaries were for Sakharov a natural state, fundamental properties of the Universe reflected in human civilization. Alienation, violence and oppression, on the contrary, were unnatural: they led humanity, with nuclear weapons at its disposal, to destruction.

Twentieth-century science, which Sakharov the scholar embodied, united the physics of an infinite universe and the physics of elementary particles. Sakharov the social thinker extrapolated that vision to the realm of world politics, linking international security (the survival of the entire human race) with the defence of human rights, with the fate of every individual prisoner of conscience.

Sakharov’s Nobel lecture begins with the words, “Peace, progress, human rights – these three goals are insolubly linked to one another: it is impossible to achieve one of these goals if the other two are ignored.” And it ends with the enumeration of the names of 112 Soviet political prisoners. The ability to unite a global vision and an intensive, practical attention to the fate of individuals was one of Sakharov’s amazing abilities, rare among human beings and even rarer among politicians, who make decisions possibly fateful for the entire world. Decisions, one might wish to say, concerning both the world and peace, homophones in Russian [mir] that had distinct spellings in pre-revolutionary orthography. In those years, it appeared, the unity of micro- and macro-politics was confirmed.

Alone on the Battlefield

However, Sakharov's life was cut off on a tragic note. In the last months, and particularly in the last days of Sakharov's life, he was not understood in his own country and his voice was not heard there. "There will be a battle tomorrow," Sakharov said to Elena Bonner literally before he died. And in that political battle he was practically alone.

1989 was not just the last year of Sakharov's life, but also the first year of real (albeit only partially free) political life in the USSR. And it is very important, remembering the day of his death, to remember Sakharov the politician.

The canonical image of Sakharov which began to take shape immediately after his death ("He was a true prophet. A prophet in the ancient, primordial sense of the word..." - D.S. Likhachev) sets Sakharov above politics (he appealed to conscience and propagated ideals), but in so doing makes him, as it were, not of this world, remote from the "dirty" political struggle.

But in the last six months of his life Sakharov showed more than anyone else how Russian politics should and could be.

The motivation for Sakharov's participation in politics was personal and public responsibility. Sakharov didn't simply set high moral standards, but sharply raised the status of political action. "The voters, the people, chose us and sent us to this Congress in order for us to take responsibility for the fate of the country," he told the deputies during the first hours the First Congress of People's Deputies was in session. For Gorbachev the Congress was an instrument for carrying out reforms, a means to further his own political ends. Sakharov endowed the assembly of deputies with a political significance of a higher order.

Sakharov defended the basic principles of democratic culture, without which political action loses its legitimacy. At the opening of the Congress Gorbachev, in accordance with his political logic, wanted at once to strengthen his political position and introduced a vote on the composition of the presidium of the Congress with himself at its head. Sakharov protested: "There is always an order of doing things: first discussion, first the candidates present their platforms, and then there's a vote. We disgrace ourselves before our whole people - that is my profound conviction, if we act differently."

He attempted to appeal to Congress to carry out fundamental political reform, putting forward a "Decree on Power" - to assert Congress's power to appoint candidates to higher government posts, to amend Article 6 of the Constitution on the leading role of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to begin work on drafting a new constitution.

At the time when the majority of "democratic" deputies, even the ones who sharply criticized the government, acted within the framework set by Gorbachev (they limited themselves to speaking of abuses, openly discussing acute problems and plans for reform), Sakharov put forward political demands that seized the political initiative and the political agenda from the government. And more than that, he sincerely offered Gorbachev not confrontation but collaboration in the implementation of his political agenda.

It seemed there was no point in preaching to the deaf ears of an "aggressively obedient majority" that obstructed him and slammed his speeches. But Congress was broadcast live, and Sakharov appealed to society for support: "I turn to the citizens of the USSR with a plea to support the Decree both individually and collectively." In the summer, striking miners include the amendment of Article 6 in the list of their demands. 

The Lost Chance

The second and perhaps main motivation for these actions was that Sakharov could see the looming crisis. Here he spoke as a fundamental research scientist, a physicist who saw that the resultant force of social, economic and political aspirations and processes would lead to the destruction of the state.

He criticised Gorbachev for inaction and appealed directly to society. On 1 December he made a public appeal for a two-hour warning strike in support of his demands. Even among the members of the Interregional Group of deputies only five supported his appeal. However, the strikes took place in many Soviet cities. On 14 December at a meeting of the Group his appeal was subjected to sharp criticism. That evening Sakharov died from a heart attack.

It is impossible to answer the question whether Sakharov could have changed the course of history. And all the same in 1991 more than half of the inhabitants of the USSR declared they shared Sakharov's social and political views.

Sakharov definitively demonstrated the qualities of a major politician. He was able to see the political process as a whole, setting concrete decisions in the context of global objectives. He identified real threats that surpassed in importance ongoing political conflicts, understood the fundamental significance of political institutions, and was able to reach out beyond the boundaries of the social groups that normally supported him (the scientific and technical intelligentsia) to seize the political initiative.

Sakharov’s fate, his historically untimely death, is the answer to the longing for a ‘Russian Václav Havel’ that has continued down to the present time. Sakharov not only could have become, but indeed was a Russian Havel. However, he was unheeded and not recognised in this capacity. In the first place not even by society, but by the elite. And, moreover, not only by the conservative part of the elite, but by the ‘democratic’ part also. 

A window of opportunity, including on such a historical scale, comes only once. We shall not now ever have "another Havel." New turning points in the road of history will look very different. What is most important is to see them and make the correct choice.

The last speech that Sakharov drafted but did not make was on  legal reform: access to lawyers for their clients and lengths of detention. These are familiar problems to us, don’t you find?

Translated by Mark Nuckols, Alissa Valles and Simon Cosgrove

Lev Ponomarev: Thirty years without Andrei Sakharov

posted 24 Dec 2019, 02:34 by Translation Service   [ updated 24 Dec 2019, 04:34 ]

14 December 2019

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: RFI]

Exactly 30 years ago, on 14 December 1989, the world said goodbye to Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov – member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, creator of the hydrogen bomb, dissident, human rights activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. In this interview with RFI’s Russian-language service, Lev Ponomarev (leader of the For Human Rights movement and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group) discusses why Sakharov become a moral authority for all of Soviet society in the late 1980s, whether he could have become a “Russian Václav Havel”, and who can be called the “conscience of the nation” in modern-day Russia.

Lev Ponomarev: I spent the last two years of Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov’s life working closely together with him in the field of social activism – as fellow physicists we had previously seen each other from afar at conferences, but our professional paths had never crossed, and we would not have considered each other friends. When Memorial was set up, I asked him to become a member of its Public Council, which served as an add-on of sorts to the organisation proper. Andrei Dmitrievich himself did not set up Memorial, and he was not its leader in practical terms, but he was a member of this Public Council that we decided to set up so that Russians and people from the rest of the USSR would feel more confident about donating their money to us. Sakharov become a member of it, as did many other leaders from the Perestroika era, including Yeltsin – generally speaking, its members were individuals who had gained popularity by 1988 on the wave of Perestroika. That was when I started to work more closely with Sakharov. Then came the 1989 elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union, and I served as his aide and then worked for him until the last days of his life.

In your memoirs about Sakharov, you write that at the time – in the late 1980s and early 1990s – he shaped the nation’s opinions. Why do you say that, and how do you think he personally influenced attitudes among the Russian population?

He managed to become a leader not only of liberals, of people with the same views as him – anti-Communists, you might say – but also of the general population, because he had made a mark for himself in the Soviet era as the individual who created the fission bomb, and people loved him for it. He received the “Hero of Socialist Labour” medal three times, and he was famous for having “created the Soviet Union’s nuclear shield”, as we used to say in Soviet times. This was why his opinions – even if they did not coincide with the opinions of the average Soviet citizen – gradually percolated through to the national conscience, in a way that has never been seen before or since.

If Sakharov had been younger and a little healthier (we know that his death was completely unexpected), he could very easily have become the leader of the new Russia, as a kind of Havel Mark 2 [Václav Havel was a Czech writer, dissident and human rights activist; he served as the last President of Czechoslovakia (1989-1992) and the first President of Czechia (1993-2003). Editor’s note]. I even suggested that a new political party should be set up, with him at the helm. But he replied; “Just look at me, Lev – am I really capable of that?” No one would have said that he looked ill, but he did not have the necessary energy or political charisma, and perhaps he just wasn’t made for the job. We were unlucky in this regard – if he had been 20 years younger, he could have become a political leader, and perhaps he would have led the whole country, even if that sounds like pure pie in the sky if you think about what we have endured and the leaders we have actually had.

And if you were to fantasize and imagine him heading up a party and maybe even becoming president, how might that have changed Russian history? What mistakes would he not have made that Yeltsin did?

Well, in general, if we’re speaking more objectively, our country wasn’t prepared for such radical transformations. They happened unexpectedly because the Communists just … I’m sorry, I don’t want to speak on your French radio the way we do in Russian, but basically they lost everything. They buried the economy and therefore the transformations were forced to happen quickly. The population’s disappointment was so great that some major figure was needed who could explain somehow. Naturally, even under Sakharov we might not have succeeded at anything.

On the other hand, though, the world democratic revolution had triumphed, and who was at its head? Former Politburo member Yeltsin, with all the minuses only he could have. Although he truly was a bold person. He rose up against the diktat of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] and agreed to a multi-party system. But he still had many of the characteristic features of a party boss. He was not a man free of those views. Therefore he moved away from the democrats very quickly. In the early 1990s, I met with him many times, and he was open to interaction. Later, though, he was surrounded by various syсophants who intoxicated him, not that he himself was opposed to that. Naturally, if Sakharov had not had these minuses, there would not have been that corruption. Although Yeltsin was not inclined toward corruption, I can say that definitely. But too many people around him were bent on corruption and corrupted Yeltsin’s inner circle and his family.

What personal qualities did Sakharov have that might have safeguarded him from this?

You have to understand, the Communists, especially those who made a political career, these were people with a distorted notion of the populace, justice, and the party hierarchy. Whereas Sakharov was a very free man, he was a very democratic man. Obviously a man who thought strategically—even in science he had been a strategist, he hadn’t worked on small problems in science, he discovered new paths in new spheres of science, astrophysics, for example. He came to astrophysics in his later years, toward the end of his life. Nevertheless, he said things that defined a certain direction there. And therefore in his public activities he was free of stereotypes, and in his political activities he was free of stereotypes. He spoke honestly and candidly with people of any level, he did not resort to cunning. Whereas Yeltsin was a professional politician, and how does the saying go? - “We say one thing and think another.” Sakharov was a much more open person, and politics would have been far more open, which would have been the right way to do things.

In one interview you said that Sakharov was one of those people who can be called “the nation’s conscience.” If we were to speak about the present day, are there individuals in Russia comparable in scale and influence? Who today might be called “the nation’s conscience”?

All those myths arise after the person’s death. And rightly so. Then his contribution can be assessed more objectively. Sakharov truly could be called “the nation’s conscience.” But I would not presume to call anyone that during his lifetime. Later, people will probably speak that way about someone in the present era.

But I would say that we have a “collective Sakharov.” There is a group of people who are not afraid to speak the truth. There is a networked community, a “congress of the intelligentsia.” They do not make statements regularly, but when any especially acute events [occur], they do make statements. I believe that the “Congress of the Intelligentsia” can be called “the nation’s conscience.” When Crimea was annexed, it was the Congress of the Intelligentsia that spoke out very decisively and fairly swiftly. The most prominent individuals there are the writer Liudmila Ulitskaya, the actress Liya Akhedzhakova, the directors Andrei Smirnov and Vladimir Mirzoev, and [musician] Andrei Makarevich. Each of them, perhaps, could be reproached for something, but when they speak out together concerning these major events, then it can be said that this is “the nation’s conscience.”

Translated by Joanne Reynolds and Marian Schwartz

Pavel Chikov on the trial of Egor Zhukov: 'Pure Farce'

posted 15 Dec 2019, 09:33 by Translation Service   [ updated 15 Dec 2019, 15:09 ]

4 December 2019

by Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Association 

Source: Ekho Moskvy

The trial of Egor Zhukov is a pure farce, and the exemplar of an extremely cynical court in an extremism case. This is regardless of the punishment that will be handed down to him (although if he is actually imprisoned, the point will only be underlined).

Since 2006, when Agora began to work on criminal cases of extremism, there were many hundreds of them in the country, including dozens among the caseload of our lawyers. We managed to put a stop to the most odious practices imposed at a systemic level by the Centre for Combating Extremism, the Prosecutor’s Office, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation and even the FSB itself. The result of these efforts was the decriminalization of Article 282 of the Criminal Code, but Article 280, under which alleged offences were investigated by the FSB, was not affected. The FSB was exempt from reasonable restrictions, allowing it to continue and even ramp up its arbitrary interpretation of common sense, the Russian language and criminal law in the process. The Investigative Committee received the same exemption for cases instigated by direct instruction of the head of the Committee.

The main evidence in the prosecution of Egor Zhukov is a linguistic analysis  conducted by an FSB officer without specialist education, an academic degree, an academic position or any scholarly publications in the field of the Russian language. This expert is basically a mathematician. The court refused to question several well-known linguists with many years of experience and dozens of forensic examinations to their names.

No psychologist was involved in the analysis, which is mandatory in the case of appeals as the specialist must evaluate the words that led to one action or another; this is outside the competence of a linguist, and definitely outside that of a mathematician.

The court refused to append the opinions of the experts; in essence, it deprived the defence of the right to present evidence in a criminal case. This is expressly prohibited by law and is called a violation of the right to a defence.

The case of Egor Zhukov is, of course, exceptional. It sends a signal that young people are forbidden to criticize the authorities and call for reforms, under threat of imprisonment. It also sends the signal that no prevailing rules, restrictions, judicial and investigative practices, acceptable channels or Russian linguistic norms apply when there is a direct, blatant political order for a civic activist to be imprisoned to make an example.

Translated by Anna Bowles

Pavel Chikov: "To date, no one sentenced to life in prison in Russia has been released"

posted 3 Dec 2019, 13:09 by Translation Service   [ updated 3 Dec 2019, 13:19 ]

19 November 2019

Source: Facebook 

To date, no one sentenced to life in prison in Russia has been released. Around 200 people have already served 25 years, after which time the law grants prisoners the right to apply for parole. There is one known case where the court granted a parole request — which was made by a convict from what is called the "Pyatak" penal colony in Vologda Oblast — but the prosecutor's office challenged the decision and it was canceled on appeal.

Pyotr Stakhovtsev from Dubravlag was sentenced to life in prison and has been serving his sentence since 1989. He is a former major in the Soviet police, convicted for forming a gang responsible for murders and robberies. Stakhovtsev was sentenced to death, but there was a moratorium and Yeltsin later changed his sentence to life imprisonment. Lev Levinson has been involved in the convict's fate for many years.

Journalist Maksim Solopov worked on an extensive investigation of Stakhovtsev ( There is reasonable doubt in the validity of his guilt. The case was a springboard for the career of Yury Chaika, prosecutor in Irkutsk Oblast at that time.

Stakhovtsev has already served 30 years. He filed a petition for parole once, and it was rejected. He petitioned for pardon several times, with the same results, and today the court in Mordovia again refused to release him. People imprisoned for life can only apply for parole once every three years. Stakhovtsev will be 77 years old when the next time he will be able to ask the court to release him. He likely won't live until that time.

Prisoners sentenced to life in prison in Russia remain blocked from the right to parole, despite what the law provides. Indeed, like many other things in Russia.

Zona Prava is handling his case.

Translated by Nina dePalma

Lev Ponomarev: A human rights organization is obligated not to be on friendly terms with the State, but rather to make demands of it

posted 22 Nov 2019, 14:53 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 25 Nov 2019, 08:50 ]

14 November 2019

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Nastoyashchee vremya]

On 1 November, Russia’s Supreme Court closed down For Human Rights, which had been operating for more than 20 years, since 1997. The movement was headed up by Lev Ponomarev, a well-known Russian human rights activist, an associate of Academician Sakharov, and a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group. The Supreme Court cited as its reason for closing down the organization “violations of legislation.” 

During the Free Russia forum in Vilnius, Lev Ponomarev talked to journalists from Nastoyashchee vremya about the discussion within the opposition’s ranks and about the creation of a new human rights organization. 

On the role of human rights activists 

“If we’re talking about the essence of the discussion, where our main contradiction lies, then, of course, those radical political views held by some draw a black-and-white picture. Especially when people live abroad. 

“I’m a human rights activist, I live in Russia, and I have two positions: on one hand, I’m in Russia, and this is a little different; on the other, a human rights organization is obligated not to get along with the state but to interact and make demands of the state. That is what we do. 

“And reproaching human rights activists for interacting with the state is like saying, ‘You’re not needed, you’re just not needed.’ But we are needed. We know we are needed by Russia’s citizens. Moreover, I’m absolutely certain that human rights activists have played a huge role in the country creeping toward a peaceful resolution of the contradictions there are in the country. 

“There are many enthusiasts who would truly like to push the country toward conflict among its citizens. Not people and the state, but so that citizens [come into conflict] with each other, as happened in Ukraine. In Ukraine, that is what happened in part. And I must say that I also consider the role of radicals in Ukraine destructive. Although, they were waging a war, of course. 

“But I know that when the peaceful Maidan happened, I was there in Kyiv, the very first Maidan, and I know that a group of young people rushed and attacked the police right before my eyes. And hit them with Molotov cocktails—it wasn’t the police who attacked. This is something that cannot be allowed during a peaceful protest. That is, a group of radicals infiltrated, and they created a harsh confrontation, attacked the police. And of course, this is what benefits the state, too—so that people get radicalized, so that there’s violence. 

“There was no violence during the peaceful protests in Moscow. But a few participants in our march said they saw people like that, who [created provocations]. But for some reason they aren’t being tried now. The same thing happened on Bolotnaya Square. There were people there who tried to incite violence against the police. And later they weren’t tried—others, who were innocent, were tried.” 

On the prospects for human rights in Russia 

“They remain fairly positive. Moreover, they are increasing because we, at least, my organization, not only defends people in court, but we are engaged in creating non-profit organisations, in bringing people together, in creating civil society as such. This is part of my work. It’s not quite standard human rights work. I can see civil society being created right before my eyes. In some places I helped, in some places people have done it themselves. 

“I want this work to continue. And I will continue it. Therefore, if they eliminate our organization, we will create a Russia-wide non-profit organization. It will be of a different form, it will not be a movement, it will not be registered as a legal entity. And we will function as long as the state allows us to. Until they squeeze us again such that we search for a new organizational form.” 

Translated by Marian Schwartz

See a video in Russian of the interview by Nastoyashchee vremya with Lev Ponomarev here

Pavel Chikov: We are not about politics, we are about the law

posted 30 Oct 2019, 13:53 by Translation Service   [ updated 30 Oct 2019, 14:00 ]

21 September 2019

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source Ekho Moskvy]

The number of positive things I’ve heard said about me today, I would only normally only expect to hear at my own funeral. I thank everyone for their warmth and support from the bottom of my heart.

We live in amazing times: we have been cast out of the president’s Council and people congratulated us on our release, success and achievement; new friends arrive and subscribers sign up to social media. It’s as if we were being cast out of the Russian Communist Party in 1988 (this analogy is for old people).

Now to business. In spite of losing its former splendour, the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights (HRC), remains a Baba Yaga, opposed to almost everything. And as the number of things to oppose is not decreasing, the Council continues to cause irritation. Yet the government in this country is ever less tolerant of irritants; it wants comfort, a soft armchair and pleasant words. It doesn’t want unpleasant ones. First, the liberal old guard lost the post of Human Rights Ombudsman. And the question is not only – even not very much – that of results and achievements, but that of what kind of stuff a person is made of, what values he shares and which values guide him. Before, we had Vladimir Lukin [Translator’s note: Human Rights Ombudsman from 2004 to 2014], now we have Tatyana Moskalkova [Human Rights Ombudsman from April 2016 to the present].

And now here – before we had Mikhail Fedotov [President of the HRC from October 2010 to 22 October 2019], and now we have Valery Fadeyev [President of the HRC from 22 October 2019 to present]. The names are similar but the men behind them are different. Ilya Shablinsky was perhaps the most successful in putting his membership of the Council to good use. He devised the HRC’s position on cases in the Constitutional Court (together we worked out a whole series of them), he went out to observe elections and protests, he visited Nadezhda Tolokonnikova [a member of Pussy Riot], in a prison colony (where his mother was imprisoned in the 1930s, in the Dubravlag camp), and spoke out at meetings with Putin. Ekaterina Schulmann [former member of the HRC, dismissed on 21 October 2019] will find a place to say more nasty things about the authorities in her schoolteacher’s voice.

I have nothing more to worry about. It doesn’t do to throw stones into an abandoned garden. There are 15 different committees under the president, after all. All matters in the country that are significant to civil liberties were and are our business. We have about 150 lawyers in dozens of regions. They work on a thousand cases. Every day we appear in the pages of print publications and on judicial websites. We squeeze out of our legal resources every defence that the current environment allows, and more. We are not about politics, we are about the law. And we are far below the age limit for public service.

Translated by Anna Bowles

Lev Ponomarev: “Zhenya Ikhlov has died. I have lost a part of myself”

posted 14 Jun 2019, 13:56 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 14 Jun 2019, 14:01 ]

6 June 2019

Zhenya Ikhlov has died. A man who was closely connected to us for 30 years, since the time of Democratic Russia – he was a member of the coordinating committee of the DemRossiya movement, and then almost the entire staff of the ZPCh [Za prava cheloveka] human rights movement; the head of the expert council and the press centre; but most importantly, my main adviser in the movement.

He was a part of my brain. This doesn’t mean I always agreed with him. We often argued, and sometimes I had difficulty overcoming his resistance in order to make a decision. But when he agreed with me, he broadened my view. His arguments were always interesting.

I haven’t met many geniuses, but in my opinion Zhenya was one of them. You might say he was an unrecognised genius, but then the genius is not always the one who gets the recognition. He amazed me with his quick mind, instant reactions, excellent memory and wide knowledge. He was able to draw on historical analogies to support his position with ease.

Many people on the internet are writing about Zhenya’s contribution to journalism. Indeed, he had this talent, in combination with a fierce temperament. Consequently his articles were characterised by high emotion, and forced people to react emotionally. His ideas tumbled over themselves, and he could even contradict himself. But he was always in the first rank of liberal opposition journalists.

But this is only part of his contribution to public life. For all of the thirty years I knew him, I witnessed his hard work. You could say he did not just a double but a triple or quadruple job: he was the author or my co-author of the majority of ZPCh's reports and the Congress of Intelligentsia projects, and a defence lawyer in the civil courts. He had no special legal education, but this did not hinder his success in the courts and in significant public campaigns carried out by ZPCh. He did all this with the same enthusiasm with which he wrote his articles.

I loved Zhenya Ikhlov; we were great friends. For me, his death means losing not just a friend, but part of myself. This is a huge loss for the entire ZPCh movement. As if a part of us has been cut away.

A memorial service for Evgeny Ikhlov was held on the morning of Saturday 8 June at the Sakharov Centre in Moscow.

Lev Ponomarev

Photo of Evgeny Ikhlov: Za prava cheloveka

Translated by Anna Bowles

Natalya Taubina: "The 'foreign agent' label is a kind of seal of quality"

posted 5 Mar 2019, 00:22 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 5 Mar 2019, 00:36 ]

19 February 2019

An interview with Natalya Taubina by Zoya Svetova

Source: MBKh Media

 On 16 February 2019, Public Verdict Foundation, an NGO that defends victims of police violence, turned 15. On 18 February, the former head of Prison Colony No. 1, upon whose order convicted offenders were brutally tortured, was detained. This detention, like the opening of the criminal case against prison officers involved in the torture, was obtained thanks to the lawyers of Public Verdict. The Foundation’s head, Natalya Taubina, talks about the organization’s mission, how to eradicate torture in prisons, and how to create a mighty human rights organization in 15 years, starting from scratch.

Tell me, how did you come to human rights defence?

It was in 1992. I was still studying at MIFI [Moscow Engineering Physics Institute]. My specialization was databases, cybernetics, and my research advisor suggested I get to know the Civil Forum and create a database for them on refugees and migrants. In 1992, a major wave of refugees was flooding into Russia from Central Asia, and Lidia Ivanovna Grafova published a notice in Literaturnaya gazeta asking those who had come to Russia to fill out a form and indicate their requirements and what help they needed. Grafova received hundreds of forms, which had to be processed somehow, so I wrote a database for her that was called “Bigrafor.” At the time, in 1992, I met many colleagues from the Centre for Human Rights and realized I found this very interesting. As it happened, once I graduated from the institute, I didn’t work a single day in my specialty as an engineer-mathematician. I came to the Centre for Human Rights. At first as an assistant, a kind of project coordinator. But in 1994, an initiative arose at the Centre to create a Foundation for a Civil Society, which would help human rights organizations working in the regions. In 1997, I became director of this foundation, where I worked, basically, until I moved to Public Verdict. One of the programmes of the Foundation for a Civil Society was, in fact, activity aimed at, let’s put it this way, using international instruments, international agreements in the area of economic rights, and using them more effectively in our country.

How was the idea of Public Verdict born?

The idea was the brainchild of Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky. I don’t know whether it was Khodorkovsky himself or in discussion with colleagues, but in the spring of 2003 he proposed creating an organization to help the victims of illegal actions taken by employees of law enforcement agencies. This idea immediately gained support in the human rights sector, inasmuch as several times after the first Civil Forum in the sector they had discussed the necessity of having an all-Russia foundation to support work throughout the country on cases involving human rights violations. The Foundation’s founders were, on the one hand, Open Russia, and, on the other, the Moscow Helsinki Group and the International Memorial Society Memorial. Among the cofounders were two foundations that no longer exist: the Yakovlev International Democracy Fund and the Russian Regions Fund.

So Public Verdict was created literally on the eve of Khodorkovsky’s arrest?

Yes, he was imprisoned in October 2003. And we managed in July, I think, to meet and discuss just a little what kind of organization this might be. After Khodorkovsky’s arrest, I spent the entire fall of 2003 in discussions with various people. And I think our organization is one of the few in whose creation Liudmila Alekseeva, Arseny Roginsky, Sergei Kovalev, Yury Shmidt, and Tamara Morshchakova all took part in together. In February 2004, the Foundation was registered.

That is, they are essentially the founders of Public Verdict?

Essentially, yes, it turns out that these are the people who came up with what kind of organization it should be. And in February 2004 we were registered.

You have managed to accomplish a great deal in these 15 years. From a small, not very influential organization compared to the major “pillars” of human rights defence, to turn into one of the leading ones that everyone has heard of. What is the secret of your success?

When we were being created in 2003, the main emphasis and our entire activity was focused on legal assistance, on specific cases connected with law enforcement agencies’ excesses. From the very beginning, we realized that it was extremely important to provide all these cases with information. People did not believe, especially then, that justice could be obtained. At the time it was hard to imagine an employee of the law enforcement agencies on the defendants’ bench, followed by an actual sentence based on a court verdict. In this regard, the information component of our work was important. People needed to be shown that one can, after all, obtain justice and prosecute even these unprincipled employees, so that they are given some kind of just punishment. We realized the importance of public attention to this problem, therefore at the first stage the pivot of our activity was legal support for those who came to us and an information campaign to shed light on our organization’s activities. In addition, to attract attention to the problem, we worked out, in conjunction with the Levada Centre, a “law enforcement excesses index.”

Over the course of several years, we took measurements every month, showed the dynamic, and calculated how much attitudes in society were changing toward the problem of law enforcement agency excesses. This was a fairly serious and very important instrument, above all for the discussion with society. As we saw the results of this research and worked on cases, we became convinced that the problems were systemic. You could change the regions and the victims’ names, but the further details of what happened would bear a very strong similarity, like twin brothers. In order to pose the question of the necessity for changes, you need convincing, substantive research and not just scream that everything in the country is bad and has to be changed. Therefore, probably beginning in 2005, or maybe 2006, we saw a new objective of developing a serious research direction. That is, today we are one of the few to research modern law enforcement agencies rather intensively, but specifically from the standpoint of human rights. We study to what degree human rights guarantees are observed in those agencies’ daily activities.

Back in 2007, we began conducting complex research, “field work,” surveys, and in-depth interviews with those who had the relevant information. At the time it was still possible to speak with investigators, prosecutors, and judges, and we travelled through the regions at various times of the year: in Komi at -30°, a territory where there are many either currently serving or former prisoners. There you talk with all these employees of law enforcement agencies and try to understand why they aren’t investigating instances of torture. Why the system of accountability that had come about in Interior Affairs agencies had had such a catastrophic influence on the practice of using torture. Once we had done this field portion of the research, and while constantly following all official information coming out of law enforcement agencies, we prepared these reports. We talked about how the evaluation system established in the Internal Affairs Ministry actually influences practice and the widespread use of torture by Internal Affairs employees, especially officers in the field, why standards for effective investigation were not functioning for us, and so on. Today we have a research department comparable in strength and even numbers to our legal department. This is a serious line of work for us, and we are constantly following and looking at new trends and changes. Last year, in particular, we launched a project on monitoring vigilante activism—all kinds of Cossacks, the various patrols there are in various regions.…

What did you call it? Vigilante?

Vigilante activism, yes. This is a Western European term. Vigilantes are essentially groups of people who take law enforcement upon themselves. Accordingly, within the framework of this project, we are monitoring, on the one hand, all this vigilante activism in our country and watching how it changes. Unfortunately, the trend is fairly dispiriting and alarming inasmuch as this activity is spreading, and fairly often these groups, in carrying out some oversight activity, take law enforcement into their own hands and in so doing also use violence against citizens. We see that in this type of situation, they are not accountable in the same way the police are. Accordingly, the second objective of our project is to construct legal instruments that would allow them to be prosecuted in a way comparable to what would happen to an official in a similar situation.

Public Verdict was declared a foreign agent. How are you dealing with that?

We were among the first ten to be declared foreign agents.  The Justice Ministry put us on the register in July 2014. Since then we have not, as a matter of fact, experienced a reduction in the number of people turning to us. Once a person who had been a victim came to us and the conversation came around to the topic of “foreign agents.”  He made a wonderful comment that I have always remembered.  “Well, who else but foreign agents can give high-quality help in this country?”  Even before that, I had joked that the “foreign agent” label is a kind of “seal of quality.”  So, if they put you on the register, that means you are doing everything right.

It turns out that people who turn to us think that, if we areforeign agents,” if the authorities do not, let’s say, love us, that means we truly do help people.  Undoubtedly our work involving communication with the authorities has become more complicated.  For example, if at the beginning, in 2009-11, we conducted training in the regions for the Investigative Committee on how to effectively investigate allegations of torture and how to use international standards of effective investigation, when the whole story of “foreign agents” began in 2013 - even before we were listed on the register - we began to regularly get refusals in the regions. We had a programme that was aimed at developing cooperation with penitentiary administrations.  I think it was in 2011, after the pilot judgment of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Ananyev and Others v. Russia regarding, in particular, incarceration conditions.  We wanted to understand to what degree incarceration conditions corresponded to what was in the pilot judgment of the European Court.

We thus met with several regional administrations for discussions, and they rated the monitoring methodology we had developed rather highly.  I even remember how the head of the Federal Penitentiary Service in, I think, the Komi Republic, appeared at the federal collegium of the Penitentiary Service and cited our monitoring methodology as an example of how to assess incarceration conditions - how to immediately see where there are deficiencies, where something doesn’t correspond to the ECtHR judgment and what the pilot judgment prescribed. It was impossible to do all of this with “foreign agents.” Generally speaking, the only communication channels remaining today are the office of the Federal Ombudsman for Human Rights and the Presidential Council on Human Rights.  

And why aren’t you on the Presidential Council?  You are one of the few leaders of a human rights organization who isnt.

You should ask Mikhail Alexandrovich Fedotov that question.

Did they not ask you?

No.  Well, at a minimum, this year and last year showed that we can work perfectly well without being members of the Presidential Council on Human Rights. Analyzing the public statements of our colleagues who are members of the Presidential Council, you can conclude that the Presidential Council provides a kind of safety net for the organization itself and its employees, especially if they work in difficult regions. On the other hand it makes it possible to participate in the defence of specific cases.  But it seems to me that in both instances it shows it isn’t necessary to be on the Presidential Council to help with specific cases.  The case of torture in the Yaroslavl prison colonies shows that you don’t need to be a member of the Presidential Council in order to get a criminal case opened.

In order to be effective?

In order to be effective.

Has your organisation counted how many people you have managed to help in the last 15 years?

Well, of course, we do some calculations every year. And we always talk about how many people we helped over the year. Of course, there can’t be hundreds of cases, there are never enough of us for that; an organisation with 22 people in total, of whom seven are lawyers, including two lawyers who are not employees of the organisation but work with us practically day and night. If we’re talking about numbers, then each year we’re approached by around 300-400 people.

Of course, at the same time, since we prepare reports, we produce various analytical assessments; and here there’s already wider coverage, some tens of thousands of people. Since 2007 we have been conducting a programme of psychological rehabilitation for victims of torture. Thus, each year 20-21 people go through the course of psychological rehabilitation, whether they are victims themselves, or their relatives. Sometimes it’s through family therapy, that is, where a psychologist works with both the victim and their close family and friends.

In 2018, we took on 153 cases. Since 2012, when the mass protests began, on both sides, and particularly after Bolotnaya Square, activists and participants in public events have come under pressure, and moreover, pressure has been put on organisations in connection with the “foreign agents” law or, a bit more recently, in relation to the law on undesirable organisations. We have been pushed in the direction of defending freedoms. For the past year and a half, already, our legal department has been split into two separate departments: one is works on protection of rights, the other on protection of freedoms. And when I say 150 cases, that’s referring to the work of these two departments. If we look at the statistics on the results of our work, then probably, and this is a very rough estimate, in an average year, 5-10% of cases on rights protections end with sentences where law enforcement officers are held accountable. That is, 5-7 sentences per year, on average. Some years there are more sentences, and some years fewer.

That’s quite a lot.

In 15 years of our work, more than 150 law enforcement officers have been brought to justice. Two thirds of them received actual custodial sentences.

Have you or your colleagues received threats? Not counting the famous ‘Yaroslavl case.’

Periodically, we’ve faced situations where the courts have tried to declare the work of our lawyers void on the basis that they cooperate with “foreign agents.” It is clear the attempt has no basis in law. But, nevertheless, there have been press publications which state that Public Verdict is a foreign agent working with Western money etc. There have been no direct threats of harassment or, God forbid, of physical violence against employees as yet, but in several cases, particularly in the south, in Krasnodar region, there were cases where lawyers were under surveillance and so we took measures to minimise the risks. But 2018 has, of course, become rather critical from the point of view of threats. There were threats against the lawyer Ira Biryukova, as a result of which we had to evacuate her from the country for two months, as well as threats she continues to receive. In various groups on VKontakte and elsewhere they are trying to tarnish our good name, mixing it with dirt, calling us spies, agents and mercenaries, all for their own PR. Its the old traditional thing.

After the publication of the video from the Yaroslavl colony, which Public Verdict Foundation sent to Novaya Gazeta, a criminal investigation began, and the former head of the colony has been arrested. He gave the order to torture at least one of the prisoners. You founded a coalition of various human rights organizations to fight against torture in the penitentiary system. What needs to be done in order to end torture in colonies and prisons?

I assume that ending it is possible. As a minimum, international experience shows that it’s possible to fight torture. It’s difficult, and some individual occurrences will still occur, but it’s possible to get to the point where torture stops being such a widespread practice and a behavioural norm. For that, a number of things have to happen. The fact that torture happens in the penitentiaries – that’s not just a problem of the Federal Prison Service. To the same degree it’s a problem of the investigation committee, the judiciary, the medics. And therefore, in our coalition Without Torture, which in the first place fights against torture in penitentiary institutions, we stress the fact that an effective government instrument for the fight against torture is absolutely necessary for the country. For that, it’s necessary to have good investigations, it’s necessary to have high-quality documentation of incidents, it’s necessary to have oversight, both institutional and effective citizen oversight, it’s necessary to have preventive measures. And when all this together has been realized, we can expect that the practice of torture will at least decrease, and in the long term could reach zero. That is, it seems to me that even if we imagine that beginning tomorrow detectives will start to fully investigate all incidents and hold all penitentiary workers to account, they will come up against enormous difficulties. Medics still document everything extremely badly, so even with goodwill and willingness there won’t be enough objective information for investigators to bring to justice all unscrupulous staff. What did it take for there to be a breakthrough in the Yaroslavl story and for a criminal investigation to be opened? For an entire year, we couldn’t make it happen. A video recording appeared, and that was simply undeniable proof.

And if there hadn’t been that video recording, there wouldn’t have been a criminal case or the arrest of the officers?

I fear that none of that would have happened. Over the course of a year we received refusals to open a criminal case, and we didn’t have an argument, like a recording, after which nothing remained to the detective but to open a torture case.

That is, it means it was luck? But luck isn’t simple: in addition, people trusted your lawyer, Irina Biryukova.

Yes, of course it’s the result of trust, it’s the result of our work in that specific colony from the beginning of 2017.

If we’re going to talk about reform, about how and what needs to change, then of course it’s necessary that video recording is introduced. It has been introduced now. But if you read the testimony that the arrested prison officers in the Yaroslavl prison colony gave, and after there were the allegations about torture in prison colonies in Omsk, then it’s clear that in all of them video recordings were being made, and there were no violations. Yes, video recordings work, but they don’t work to prevent torture, the staff at the prison colony use them for their own administrative bureaucratic goals: in Yaroslavl Prison Colony No. 1, for example, they recorded torture on that recording device, because they had to report to their bosses how they had conducted educational work with the prisoner Evgeny Makarov. But if we put these video recorders to work to prevent torture, if we remove the Federal Prison Service’s current monopoly on holding the recordings, if doctors start to record traumas conscientiously and properly, and not how they do it now at the Yaroslavl colony, examining the prisoners through the bars, if our public oversight system becomes something much better than what we have now… then the situation will start to change.

You have in mind the members of Public Oversight Commissions (POCs) who cooperate with the authorities?

The members of the POCs are one of the elements. I, in general, am not on the side of, and am closer to opposing, the limiting of public oversight to what is provided for by the law on public oversight commissions. I’m convinced that today public oversight takes many forms, it should be much wider than just the POC. More than that, it seems to me that in authoritarian regimes, legislative regulatory public oversight will end in the same way that we have now with the POC.

Who should have oversight of prisons?

Civilian activists, staff and volunteers from human rights organizations.

You believe that they should also be allowed into prison colonies and remand centres?

Yes, until 2008 I, for example, was allowed to enter prison colonies.

How — by making a request?

Yes, on request.

That is, you want members of NGOs to be allowed into prisons?

Yes, members of NGOs. Public oversight is not just that moment of visiting. It can be modern technology, we live in the 21st century. Today, for example, we get information from the prison colony without visiting it, and then we can pass on this information we’ve received, for example, to the human rights ombudsman in Yaroslavl region, and they go to the prison colony to investigate.

You have in mind reports by relatives?

Reports by relatives, by the prisoners themselves, visits of lawyers on other business who can get information from other prisoners. That is, there can be many different means, and it’s not simply those visits by the public oversight commissions that are provided for by law. It turns out that in our country today, what is usually meant when you are talking about public oversight is just the public oversight commissions which, unfortunately, in the majority of regions are in crisis.

You’ve been working with officials from law enforcement agencies for so many years now, interacting with them in one way or another. How, in your view, can the prestige of the law enforcement profession be enhanced?

Good question. It seems to me, that currently, to a large degree, the violations and crimes committed by law enforcement officials - be they prison officers or police officials – often happen because one encounters sadists, with a predisposition to violence, working within these institutions. Furthermore, such actions occur because of the way in which the internal governance systems are organised. Hence if you decide to work within such a system, you have few survival options within it that don’t entail resorting to violence. Thus, in order for the situation to change, the governance system needs to change first – starting from the top. You often here the question, asked in relation to the prison environment: “What more can be done to tackle these repeat offenders?” Crime happens everywhere. Repeat offenders and serial killers can be found in all countries. Yet in other countries these criminals are dealt with in ways that don’t involve use of violence, or tactics designed to humiliate! We need to draw on this experience. We need to engineer the system in such a way as to ensure that it is not premised on oppression. Yet in our country, the prison system is designed to repress the individual once they enter the system. To turn people into putty so you can make them into whatever you want. If this inherently oppressive approach was done away with and, instead, detainees were treated like human beings, a lot would change. But for this to happen the status quo needs to change starting at the very top of these institutions.

The last question is a more personal one. I know you have a son growing up. How does he feel about your work? Does he know you help people who have been tortured? Do you bring your work home?

No, it’s not something I discuss with him, as you can imagine. He is of course fully aware that I work for a human rights organisation. He probably isn’t 100% sure about what that entails, but he knows that we help people, that there are good and bad police officers – you get the idea. My task is to get him and others to see that things aren’t ever that black and white and that not all law enforcement officers are criminals and people to be feared, that there are without doubt decent, reputable people working within the system. Our task is to make the system as good as it can be. Insofar as they are institutions, called upon to maintain order, to protect us. But of course, there are bad people, who do commit offenses. It’s these offenses we aim to combat. Our task is to ensure that these people are held accountable for their actions. My son gets that. I believe he respects it. Of course, he doesn’t like that I’m away a lot. While other people’s mothers are at home, his own is often unfortunately on the road.  

Imagine one day we get to a point where Public Verdict becomes obsolete. What would you do then?

One can certainly dream. But unfortunately, I think we’ve got a long way to go yet. But if a miracle were to happen, if the kinds of violations we are fighting against one day become a thing of the past, then perhaps I’d go into school teaching.

What would you teach?

Maths, my favourite subject.

Why does one encounter so many science and maths buffs amongst human rights defenders? Take Svetlana Gannushkina, for example, she is a mathematician, Oleg Orlov is a biologist, or Sergei Kovalev who is a biophysicist.

It’s true, many human rights defenders did not start out with a background in the humanities, but in the exact sciences. People might wonder why, after finishing my studies at MIFI, I ended up working in human rights. I would put it mostly down to circumstances at the time. Finding a job in my speciality at the time was nigh-on impossible. And then I encountered this new, fascinating area, into which I wanted to jump head-first. I’m nonetheless immensely thankful for my education, since it taught

How does this knowledge come in handy in the human rights field?

It’s essential for almost any line of work. If you do research, you always need a strategy, and strategies require flow diagrams.   

So, your former specialty helps you in your current role?

Yes. The fact that the organisation, which at its inception 15 years ago consisted of just three people, has now transformed into something quite big – with a domestic and international reputation - I think speaks to the fact that this approach – one that draws on my maths background - works. 

Translated by John Tokolish, Julie Hersh, Marian Schwartz, Mercedes Malcomson and Nathalie Wilson

Boris Altshuler, Larisa Miller: In Memory of Liudmila Alekseeva

posted 27 Jan 2019, 03:17 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 27 Jan 2019, 03:33 ]

17 December 2019

By Boris Altshuler and Larisa Miller

Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva has died. My heart aches. The entire context of our life is so grievous. And this death seems like the result of that context, although to die at age 91 is natural, of course.

Liudmila Mikhailovna and I did not cross paths during the Soviet era, although we knew many of the same human rights activists. I was not a member of MHG [Moscow Helsinki Group], which was created in May 1976, although after the arrest of three of its founders--Yuri Orlov, Aleksandr Ginzburg, and Anatoly (now Natan) Shcharansky--I wrote an open statement in their defense, “Eurocommunism and Human Rights,” which brought out each voice. The idea of rallying Western ideological allies of the Soviet party apparatus to the defense of human rights in the USSR was not mine; it was in the air at the time and was applied very effectively. Even the French Communist Party spoke out in defense of Shcharansky, who was threatened with execution, thereby, to all appearances, saving his life. Interesting and perhaps even paradoxical is the modern continuation of those long distant cases. I’m thinking of the three-hour dinner tête-a-tête in the Kremlin in early September 2000 between Russian President Vladimir Putin and then Israeli Interior Minister Natan Shcharansky, the continuation of which, one might assume, was the historic visit to Moscow in January 2001 by Israeli President Moshe Katsav and the agreement reached between Russian and Israel to collaborate in the fight against international terrorism.

I met Liudmila Mikhailovna after her return from emigration in 1993. In 1996, she became chair of the reconstituted MHG—after Larisa Bogoraz (former MHG chair, 1989-1994) and Kronid Liubarsky (MHG chair, in 1994-1996), who died tragically in Indonesia on 23 May 1996.

There is so much to remember here. I will say only that after every MHG meeting in which Liudmila Mikhailovna participated, in recent years in her home, one was always left with a joyous feeling. “It’s not night yet,” as Vysotsky put it—naturally, thanks to her unfailing positive mood.

Now I will tell the story of what was probably the gayest MHG meeting ever, in January 2013.

This was a special meeting which Liudmila Mikhailovna convened for one sole reason: for us to decide whether to keep her on as MHG chair or replace her with someone else—as required by the notorious “Dima Yakovlev law” of 28 December 2012, No. 272-F3. Part 2, article 2 of that law says: “A citizen of the Russian Federation who holds citizenship of the United States of America cannot be a member or leader of a nongovernmental organization.” There is the assumption that the law was written to target Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva, who, upon restoring her Russian citizenship in 1993, retained the US citizenship she had acquired in emigration. According to the MHG charter, Liudmila Alekseeva herself could not decide the question of her chairmanship herself, the decision about the group’s chair, again according to the charter, being the prerogative of the group’s general assembly. Now Liudmila Mikhailovna had assembled us to decide this question.

I repeat, we were very gay, as was Liudmila Mikhailovna. Of course, we heard the obvious argument that the “Dima Yakovlev law” contradicts the Russian Constitution (as was stated by the Presidential Human Rights Council on 26 December 2012, that is, before the final vote on this law in the State Duma). I remembered a joke told by some masters of ceremonies back in Stalin’s time that for some reason I’d remembered since I was a child: “The English have sent us a sealed ultimatum: we stitched up the ulti and we’re going to answer them with the matum.” That’s approximately how we unanimously replied to the authors to the “Law of Scoundrels.” Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva did remain MHG chair until that terrible day this year, 8 December.

Boris Altshuler


Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva has died. My heart aches. The entire context of our life is so grievous. And this death seems like the result of that context, although to die at age 91 is natural, of course. Nonetheless, thinking about Lev Ponomarev and everything else, it seems to me that LM was tired of living and fighting with no result.

To Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva on her birthday, 20 July 2017

It all came before me, I am not responsible.
I write no laws, crown no man’s head.
The idea was someone else’s, not mine,
That a noose looks good on an unbowed neck.

The idea wasn’t mine, nor is the fault.
That dungeon belly is forever hungry.
But it seems I must be sternly asked 
To answer for those murdered. 
For everyone without a roof.

Larissa Miller

[In the original Russian:

Людмиле Михайловне Алексеевой
в день её юбилея 20 июля 2017 г.

Все было до меня, и я не отвечаю.
Законов не пишу. На царство не венчаю.
Придумала не я, придумали другие,
Что хороша петля на непокорной вые.

Придумала не я, и я не виновата,
Что вечно не сыта утроба каземата.
Но чудится: с меня должны спросить сурово
За убиенных всех. За всех лишенных крова.]

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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