Advisory Council (Russia)

On this page you will find statements and opinions by members of Rights in Russia's Advisory Council (Russia).

Lev Ponomarev: "The system is increasingly protecting itself from all possibility of dialogue with society." On the proposal of the Supreme Court to equate pickets to rallies

posted 2 Jul 2018, 06:51 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 2 Jul 2018, 07:02 ]

21 June 2018 

By Anna Begiashvili

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: The Insider

The Plenum of the Supreme Court has proposed equating individual pickets taking place at the same time with unsanctioned rallies. The proposed resolution has not yet been adopted and is being finalized by a special group. According to the draft text of the resolution, organisers of single pickets which take place at the same time should bear administrative responsibility for violating the established procedure for arranging or conducting a rally. (Article 20.2 of the Administrative Code). 

The leader of the movement "For Human Rights", a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lev Ponomarev, has spoken about why the resolution will be adopted without much contention.

Law enforcement agencies and the judiciary are a single mechanism, aimed at repressing citizens in the event that they show some kind of activity and act as opponents of the State. Within the confines of the repressive machinery, this decision is completely logical and long expected. The system is increasingly protecting itself from all possibility of dialogue with society.

I’ve spent decades in this field and know of not one case where an official was punished for hindering the holding of a rally. Judges always take the side of the authorities in the country, the side of the officials. Courts rarely rule in favour of acquittals. If we look separately at courts that hear cases on unsanctioned rallies, then the level of acquittals will be 0%. If we look at the totality of judicial practice, there may have been ten such cases. In Moscow this never happens. Officials can come up with all sorts of rubbish when looking at the legality of holding a rally. They always manage to stop them.

This resolution will be adopted without question and this will reduce the possibility of mass protests. Of course when individual pickets take place en masse they are usually united by a common idea. Now these will be broken up by the police.

At the moment, individual pickets are allowed without prior approval in Russia, if the participant does not intend to use a ‘prefabricated collapsible construction’. Participants must be at a certain distance from one another. The distance varies depending on the region but the minimum should not exceed 50 metres.

Translated by Matthew Quigley 

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: The image of human rights activists must be positive and upbeat, not sad and gloomy

posted 26 Jun 2018, 04:20 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 26 Jun 2018, 13:24 ]

20 June 2018

An interview with Vyacheslav Bakhmin, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, by Kirill Ezhov and Inga Pagava of Public Verdict Foundation

Generally speaking, I don’t consider myself a human rights activist because I don’t engage in human rights activity. I engage in civic activism and the support of various civic initiatives, including human rights ones, yes, but I myself do not engage in the defence of human rights. I did that during the Soviet era, in the 1970s and later, after perestroika began. After that I ended up in the Foreign Ministry and remained connected to this topic inasmuch as I was in the relevant department which dealt with human rights, but from the state’s point of view. Since 1995, when I left the Foreign Ministry, I have worked only with donor organisations, and foreign ones at that.

All that time I was working in support for various kinds of projects, and for me right now the most interesting sphere is the development of civic activism and local initiatives. This is grassroots activism, out of which nonprofit organisations and mutual aid groups grow. Because it is only where “initiatives from below” are alive that something can grow — through civic activism, through involvement in any kind of philanthropic activity. . . . If, at that level, the population is merely scattered like sand, then there’s nothing there and nothing grows there.

I’ve heard the opinion — at first I was shocked, but later I realised that this might well be correct — that even civic activism that is completely conservative, “anti-human rights” and so on, even that is better than there being nothing at all. It means that people are no longer indifferent and a person can later have his mind changed, or they can understand something themselves. But if they’re simply sitting there, if they couldn’t care less and nothing is of interest to them, then that’s much worse. There’s also the famous expression, “fear the indifferent,” because they don’t kill anyone and don’t accomplish anything, but everything is done with their tacit consent.

What the classic human rights organisations talk about is fairly distant from people’s concerns and life. People absolutely don’t understand why such fundamental things as freedom of speech, freedom to create organisations, and freedom to demonstrate affect their daily lives. Clearly they’re affected by such things as pensions and social services, they’re affected by problems with housing and public utilities, healthcare, and education. . . . If we take a look at what concerns people, then this is what will be at the top, not freedom of speech. There’s a connection between freedom of speech and the freedom to create associations and organisations, on the one hand, and, on the other, these key things that concern them, but they don’t see this connection and don’t feel it, although it exists, it certainly exists, it just hasn’t reached them yet and they don’t see it. 

How do they usually come to understand? There’s this book written by Karen Kleman and others, From Townsfolk to Activists. Emerging social movements in contemporary Russia, about how this evolution occurs. A person is living their life, they have plenty of problems, concerns, and so on. How do they suddenly become a citizen who is not indifferent to what is happening around them? This is a kind of human evolution. All the same, he can, will, and must begin only from the problems that disturb him, or at least his neighbor or friend. For example, if a friend has been imprisoned, he will suddenly be concerned about the condition of political prisoners or the procedures in places of incarceration. If the friend hadn’t been imprisoned, this wouldn’t have affected him.

If you discuss with this person laws that affect them, and the problems that concern them, then together you will arrive at things to be done. For example, they’ll be ready to write letters and even go and speak somewhere. If a pipe has burst in their building, or if they’ve taken away a playground for construction. Or if a five-story building has been razed for renovation — hundreds of thousands of people will come immediately, prepared to act. That’s the first stage. After that they start coming out for demonstrations and they’re met by OMON riot police. The OMON officers start driving them out, imprisoning them, and imprisoning their neighbour or friend, even if they haven’t gone to prison themselves — and now here we have freedom of assembly, which had been completely abstract. This person starts to think, How can this be? I thought there was something written in our constitution about freedom of assembly. Why are they dispersing us? The lightbulb goes on, for now about freedom of assembly. Then reporters come to see this person and ask them questions, and the person tells them something, after which the reporter prints something, but the article gets removed. Once again, something that bothers me intrudes. Suddenly it turns out that freedom of the press, that, too, is connected with what bothers me, and whether or not something gets through or is achieved in the country, if you’re trying to change something, without these fundamental rights, it’s very difficult.

Effecting change is not normally something the ordinary person on the street aspires to do; it is what citizens do. So the path from person on the street to citizen goes something like this: from problems that concern him or her to problems that concern his or her surroundings, home, street, town, and so on. This happens gradually, and as soon as a person starts to get involved, he or she begins to understand the meaning of these fundamental rights from firsthand experience. Until then, they are an abstraction. This is a very important development we’re talking about, and the number of citizens is going up. Mind you, citizens will never make up 100% of the population, not even 50%. The person in the street will still form the majority in any given country. Particularly in a normal country, where life is basically settled and well ordered, and you have laws, the rule of law, and all the things that people don't notice, because there are particular entities and groups of activists who take care of that. So a person just goes about their everyday life, and may get involved in charity work and perhaps even come along to a demonstration one time, because they got the call and know that it’s important. But generally, they don’t do civil activism because it isn’t really necessary, as far as they are concerned.

In our country, on the other hand, it is necessary, but there aren't enough people to do it. Many people still don't see how such civic activism would change their life. As to the risks, many people still don’t really get it, because they believe it's dangerous when you start doing something. They are just passive. They have got used to how things are. The main thing people understand is that they don't make a difference, that everything has long since been, or will be, decided ‘over there’, and you're not going to change anything anyway. It proceeds from the idea, maybe, that nearly all laws that directly affect their lives are enacted without the involvement of people. All they hear is, “Right, this is the law here now, so please just do things that way”; and then, “Now this is the law here...” How come? Did anyone ask me? And because this happens all the time, a person now knows that no one is going to ask him or her, and they think God forbid they enact this or that, and things get even worse.

There will never be large numbers of citizens but, in a country like Russia, you need as many as possible. That’s because, realistically, it will only be possible to counter the arbitrary actions of the government with something if there is serious popular support, a civil rights movement, or a civic response of some kind. For now, these are absent. The government can basically do what it likes and is limited only by its own considerations as to whether something is or is not advantageous to them, and whether, on balance, the consequences will be positive or negative. If we reach a point where the citizenry doesn’t have any say at all, then they will have a totally free hand and will do whatever they like. At best, the backlash overseas may still have a role to play, and it would of course be a crucial one. But for now, they are acting as though they couldn’t care less and they know best. That is why I strongly believe that the country can only be changed if people change and you have a greater number of citizens. Otherwise, the country simply will not change.

Quiet, peaceful people whose lives have turned out well have the free time and opportunity to devote their energies to something, such as volunteering, doing charity work, and so on. But there is another side to it. If the economy is unstable, and people are unsure of what tomorrow will bring, then they suffer higher levels of anxiety and have greater concern for themselves and their family. This, too, is very important, and it makes people play an active role and encourages them to think and strive to achieve something. And at a certain point, people with a particular concern, one that is a constant source of worry, suddenly start to realise that they themselves have the power to effect change. Only a little, perhaps, but if they come together, they will achieve something. That really is the first step towards civic action.

There are many examples in the country of how people have come together and managed to achieve something. It is from these cases of success that we all have to learn, news about these success stories must be spread far and wide because many people have a feeling that the things that human rights defenders do are meaningless, that nothing can be changed in our country. "Of course, you are fighting here and we even respect you for it, but there is no sense... Yes, first of all, you use foreign money, we understand that you have to earn a living somehow and that it may be useful for you but nonetheless you cannot achieve anything. Our country is different".

To overcome these feelings, we need success stories, we need examples of success. One piece of recent research states that the image of a human rights defender must be positive, upbeat, and happy. Not the sad and gloomy image of a fighter against Leviathan who may be killed in the near future. This has to be changed radically. So, human rights work must be interesting, optimistic, successful - it is in this direction that we must go and this is the way to make people interested and involved in it.

Is it possible to wake citizens up with a shock? Reactions to a shock may be different and the most natural one is to move away from it, to step away from it, and to say that it has nothing to do with me, it’s not my business at all. Well, we know what happened in 1956 when Khrushchev presented his report at the 20th Congress. It was a shock for all communists and their reactions varied: you are made to reconsider your whole worldview and say that in reality you have been an idiot and have lived in a state of idiocy, and behaved like cattle and an idiot.

And who wants to hear that? You may say it and, yes, it is a trauma, and a reaction will be like: you are idiots yourselves, you don't understand what life was like then; I lived at that time and I know what a wonderful life it was, how romantic it was, how we went to work on construction sites, how we froze there in tents and were building a great country and state and none of you understand this at all...That's what the reaction will be like. It won’t be a shock that makes you reconsider everything. The reaction will be exactly the opposite.

For any person, including me, it is important to realise one’s potential in life. I want to use the skills I have, to do the things I can do, and to be useful. That is to say useful and needed, successful. When a person is no longer needed, he or she virtually dies as a personality. It is due to the fact that, no matter how hard we try to resist this, a person is a social being. Everybody lives in some social medium. One can step aside from it, leave, move to somewhere completely different and isolated – go and live somewhere in a forest and so on - but it is not likely to be the right reaction to the situation. Living like that is not a natural state for a human being. After all, the natural state involves communication, interaction. In general, this is because the purpose of a human being is to realise oneself in such a way that the whole of humanity takes a step forward, thanks to one's efforts too. And if there is a possibility of such self-realisation , it is the most wonderful society: a society that gives everybody the possibility of realising their potential and helping them to do so; helping them find their way in life. Such a society has maximum efficiency because everybody's potential is used. And when you put it all together, you understand the full extent of the potential of all this human activity.

Translated by Anna Dvoryanchikova, Lindsay Munford and Marian Schwartz

Andrei Babushkin: 19 July 2019 will mark 200 years of public oversight of prisons in Russia

posted 25 Jun 2018, 14:09 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 25 Jun 2018, 14:12 ]

10 June 2018

By Andrei Babushkin, director of the Committee for Civil Rights, vice-chair of the Moscow Public Oversight Commission, a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, and winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group award for human rights defence

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: LiveJournal ] 

And so, in a little over a month we shall mark 199 years of public oversight of prisons in Russia.

Few may be aware that on this date in 1819 the English philanthropist and entrepreneur Walter Venning, with the help of the Russian Empire’s Minister of Education Prince A. N. Golitsyn, established the St Petersburg Society for the Stewardship of Prisons. Three years previously, W. Venning had created a similar organisation, the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline, in his native London.

Venning arrived in St Petersburg in 1817. He was introduced to Alexander I and, having enlisted his support, visited a number of Russian prisons.

Venning’s organisation was concerned not only with charity, but also with the exercise of public oversight of St Petersburg’s prisons. W. Venning compiled a report on the state of prison life in the Empire, which impressed the emperor. “It’s impossible to even think about the terrible consequences of such obscene institutions without disgust: health and morality are forced to perish there, regardless of how brief the confinement,” the report said.

The Emperor’s reading of the report led to prisoners being segregated according to the type of crime; violent prisoners separated from non-violent; books appeared in prisons, including those written especially for prisons. One of the outcomes of his reading the report was the establishment of the Society.

Emperor Alexander I expressed his condolences when, in 1821, at 40 years old, Walter Venning died from typhus, contracted on one of his visits to prison. Incidentally, John Howard, whose ideas formed the basis of the practices of the London and St Petersburg Societies also died from typhus, also in Russia, but which he contracted in Kherson prison.

However, for another thirty years the Societies were managed according to the principles set out by Venning.

The establishment of the Society caused a widespread response in the regions: in 1826 there were already seven provincial committees for the public oversight of prisons and another 38 provincial committees were set up over the next ten years. In 1834, the first district branches of the Society were opened in St Petersburg and Vologda. By 1863, in provincial and port cities there were already 64 provincial and regional committees and 431 district branches.

The Society’s president was appointed by the Emperor. The first president was Prince Alexander Nikolaevich Golitsyn. In 1824 Golitsyn was replaced by V. S. Trubetskoy, who served in this post for 17 years. The next president was the well-known head of the secret police, Count A. Kh. Benkendorf (1841-1844), after whom the Society was headed by Count Orlov. After that, the president’s role was filled by the minister of internal affairs and justice. The vice president was selected from among the general-governors and bishops. But the members of the Society and its branches were representatives of the nobility, merchants and clergy.

To become a member of the Society or one of its branches, you needed to pay what was a considerable sum in those days: from 5 to 15 roubles a year. At the time, this was a lot of money.

The members of the Society had the right to apply to the authorities for the improvement of the conditions of detention and treatment of prisoners.

However, by the 1840s, not only the provision of charitable assistance to prisoners, but also the organisation of food for prisoners, the provision of medical assistance, the purchase of clothes and shoes for them, and the improvement of places of detention had been brought within the oversight of the Society. The Society was also involved in obtaining the release of prisoners imprisoned for debt by paying what they owed.

The Society initiated the creation in 1879 of a single body for the administration of the entire prison system of the Empire – the Chief Prison Administration, to which a number of the Society’s functions were transferred.

Translated by Mercedes Malcomson

Lev Ponomarev: The Country Will Perish Unless Someone Restricts Political Repressions

posted 24 Jun 2018, 13:56 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 24 Jun 2018, 14:02 ]

5 June 2018 

An interview with Lev Ponomarev, executive director of For Human Rights, deputy chair of the Prisoners’ Rights Foundation, and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group 

For Human Rights and the Prisoners’ Rights Foundation have been refused presidential grants for the coming year. Previously, these human rights organizations, like many others, were basically forced to refuse foreign funding by the threat of being included in the register of “foreign agents.”

Lev Ponomarev, acting director of For Human Rights, deputy chair of the Prisoners’ Rights Foundation, and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, talked about this in an interview for the Voice of America Russian Service.

According to his information, the Presidential Grants Fund has turned down nearly all NGOs that have opposed the state in cases of violations of citizens’ rights as “undesirable” to the regime. Lev Ponomarev feels that Russia is gradually eliminating the genuine human rights community and creating artificial structures in its place. At the same time, he is convinced that if everything continues at these rates, very soon there will be no one in the country to defend “ordinary citizens from the ‘Leviathan’ the law enforcement agencies most often act as.”

Viktor Vladimirov (Voice of America Russian Service): Lev Aleksandrovich, what is the situation today with the financing of NGOs that is not controlled from above in Russia?

Lev Ponomarev: Previously, the Kremlin grants, albeit small, were given even to those organizations which had been given the status of foreign agents. Now not a single such NGO is on the lists of grant recipients. Probably the sole organization for which an exception was made was the Moscow Helsinki Group. One of its two applications for funding has been successful. But this is entirely understandable. Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva has a special relationship with the president (Vladimir Putin); he congratulated her on her birthday. In addition, she is on the presidential grants coordinating council. But should the present trend continue, the other NGOs, particularly For Human Rights and the Prisoners’ Rights Foundation, may have to cease their activities in 2019. In any event, that cannot be ruled out.

V.V.: How do you explain this disfavour of the authorities?

L.P.: This policy has been prone to vacillations. I’ve already had one instance when we (For Human Rights) went without money for three months. Then they gave it again. There are different people in power. Some believe that the human rights movement must be preserved if only as window dressing, in order to show the West that we do have a democracy, albeit “sovereign" and purely Russian, but human rights activists exist under it perfectly legally. The president himself has occasionally spoken out loud about the necessity of human rights activists in the country. . . . Maybe even he has an understanding that a normal state cannot be built without human rights activists. After all, somebody has to oppose the regime. If there is no political opposition in Russia, then, obviously, only human rights activists now can restrain the growing appetites of law enforcement agencies and officials, who are simply drunk on the power they possess. At the given moment, though, another point of view has probably won out — that of the law enforcement agencies.

V.V.: Law enforcement agencies are your permanent opponents?

L.P.: Lately we have been saying tirelessly that the country will perish unless someone restricts the political repressions coming both from law enforcement agencies (the notorious anti-extremism police department), and from the FSB [Federal Security Service]. But it is political repressions that are increasing more and more today. . . . A vivid example is the case of the anti-fascists, four of whom were tortured with electric shocks, which is now impossible to hide. Also, New Greatness, a small opposition group that was raided in Moscow as an example, moreover in the most insolent way. The group included all of 13 people, six of whom were taken into custody. What is especially disturbing is how a case was fabricated against them. For no reason at all. This group of young people, which had done nothing more than go to a Navalny rally once and then discuss it on social media, had been infiltrated by three agents from law enforcement. These moles had made the group extremist, acting essentially as provocateurs. It was they who wrote the extremist materials that resulted in the young people being taken into custody. The agents who infiltrated the group are themselves at liberty today and acting as witnesses. . . . This is an extremely dangerous, textbook example. If we don’t expose the manipulations of the FSB, things will get even worse, and mass repressions will follow.

V.V.: Does this mean that the repressive machine is finding work for itself, thereby justifying its own existence?

L.P.: Yes, and no one can stop their tyranny. I assert that it is from below that the very dangerous extremism of the repressive machine is coming. In any Russian town or village, law enforcement agencies are the most influential force, a force no one can restrict. The courts are wholly under their control, and here I have in mind the FSB first and foremost.

V.V.: Does this actually mean that NGOs have been deprived of foreign financing and the Kremlin grant-making programmes are used to sort out organizations, separating them into "sound" and "unsound"?

L.P.: By and large, yes. It may be an awkward situation when the state takes on the functions of financing human rights organizations. But we’ve been forced to rely on government funding. We did not want to have the status of foreign agent so we refused to accept foreign money. Because we’re engaged in major correspondence with state officials in order to make them somehow see reason. Evidently, though, (the Kremlin) wants to have, instead of us, so-called GONGOs [state organized nongovernmental organizations—V.V.] operating, that is, artificial human rights organizations that abet rather than oppose the state. In this sense we are returning more and more to the Soviet era. It’s the same as we saw with trade unions at that time, which did all kinds of things but did not defend workers’ rights.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

Lev Ponomarev: Russia, it’s time to put a stop to arbitrary rule! - Rally in Moscow on 10 June

posted 18 Jun 2018, 11:10 by Rights in Russia

4 June 2018

On 10 June 2018, in the run-up to Russia Day, a protest rally will be held against the widespread infringement of citizens’ rights and freedoms in Moscow on Sakharov Prospect.

All should gather at 12 o’clock at the intersection of Kalanchevskaya and Masha Poryvaeva streets (nearest metro Komsomolskaya). The rally begins at 13.00.

· If you want to live in a country where there are no political prisoners

· If you are concerned about the impunity of law enforcement agencies who practice beatings and torture

· If you want to live in a city without rubbish dumps where your children can breathe clean air

· If you are fighting against the demolition of your home, the destruction of your park, or against in-filling building projects

· If you hate the corruption, lies, and double-dealing of the servamts of the authorities

· If you support social justice

· If you are against censorship and blocking internet access

· If you want Russia to be a country of Freedom, and not a country of slaves


Aleksei Simonov: "The methods of combatting journalism have improved, the need to kill individual journalists has lessened"

posted 11 Jun 2018, 01:43 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 11 Jun 2018, 01:52 ]

29 May 2018 

Extract from an interview with Aleksei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defence Foundation 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: 7х7]

At a seminar held by the Glasnost Defence Foundation near Kostroma on 25-27 May, Aleksei Simonov, President of the Foundation and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, invited Kostroma journalists and bloggers to interview him […]. The internet magazine “7x7” published the most interesting questions from the general interview.

Why is the Glasnost Defence Foundation funded from abroad?

We have not succeeded in replacing foreign money with presidential grants: they do not want to finance what we offer, but what they are ready to finance, we will not do. We’re not interested in it.

Is the Foundation you head prepared to defend the journalist and TV presenter Vladimir Solovev?

There is no such journalist.

If regional journalists don’t ask the Foundation for help, does that mean that everything is ok with journalism there?

If journalists in some regions don’t conflict with authorities, it means that there are no journalists there. Unfortunately, journalism has become more ready to be subject to discipline, more obedient, less penetrating.

How do honest journalists in Russia today fit into the political system and not suffer from it?

A journalist that wants to do his job well, but not suffer, cannot exist in the Russian Federation. He must be prepared to give up some part of the truth or suffer for the truth.

What, for you, is the press?

Firstly, it is a body that is arrogant, secondly, curious, and thirdly, aggressive. Without these things, we are talking about something that is very far from being "the press."

What role does journalism play today?

In this country, there is so much that is in a state of turbulence, on the one hand, and on the other hand so much that has been put into a state of order. But this turbulence on the one hand and order on the other are very difficult to bring together. And at their intersection there is journalism, which must try to translate the turbulence into order. That’s why journalism is a very unprofitable profession today.

Won’t journalism disappear with the development of the blogosphere?

I don’t think that will happen. The blogosphere is a very good source of information for the media. But there is a serious boundary between journalists and bloggers: the journalist is responsible for his own words, and the blogger is only just starting to learn this.

What is the relationship between journalism and public relations – PR?

If a journalist wants to remain a journalist, he should not engage in PR. But in this country, there is a tendency to entangle these two professions. In dozens of universities, journalists and PR experts are trained at the same time in one faculty. It is believed that these are two sides of the same coin, but that is a savage mockery of the meaning of journalism.

What problems do smaller regional media have?

There are successful projects among small regional media. For example, in Severodvinsk, the Severnaya Nedelya holding publishes some newspapers of interest. Some quite interesting journalists work for them. Although, being friends with their editor, I can say that the crazy journalists nonetheless leave are leaving. And it is the crazy ones who write the best journalism.

What are the prospects for investigative journalists in Russia?

Investigative journalism as a genre today is dying. After all, the very minute the authorities stop reading and listening to the press, investigative journalism becomes meaningless.

What accounts for the reduction in the numbers of murders of journalists in contemporary Russia compared with the 2000s?

The methods of combatting journalism have improved, so the need to kill individual journalists has lessened. Deaths are, thank God, fewer. But this doesn’t mean that journalism has won, rather the opposite. The lack of freedom of speech in journalism is becoming more and more habitual. And the fact that journalists themselves get used to it is the most dangerous of all symptoms.

What sort of relationship do you have with the current Russian authorities?

I have a single photograph with Vladimir Putin, which I love. It was taken during his first meeting with the members of the Human Rights Council. Putin is looking at me as if we’re at the start of a judo competition, and I’m looking at him like we’re at the start of a boxing match. I have a very tense, not very friendly facial expression.

Do you consider yourself to be a member of the opposition?

I have always been a member of the opposition, I was born into the opposition – it took my mother four days to give birth to me. When I started defending journalists, I joined the open opposition. It was clear to me that they could be defended, and had to be defended - in the first place from the authorities.

How would you characterize the current state of Russian society?

In a sociological sense, I would call it not really thought through, in a sociological sense. Here’s an evocative example. To the question “do you like how you live?”, 47 percent of Russian citizens give a positive answer. But 75 percent vote for Putin. My question: how is it possible not to connect these things?

Do you support Russia’s buildup of military power that’s taken place over the last few years?

I don’t see any build-up of military power. All these fake replicas they drive on Red Square don’t convince me personally. It all seems like a large bubble that will burst sooner or later. And that will be incredibly unpleasant for both the standing of the country and, even more so, for the standing of its leadership.

What do you think of the idea that Russia has a “special path”?

Since we lacked the spirit to do as well as all the others, we are trying to explain our lack of authentic spirit by a certain special characteristics. Therefore, we’re aggressive when most people are more or less tolerant, and inclined to benevolence when people are waiting for some sort of decisive action.

Do you want it to be in Russia like it is in Ukraine?

In Ukraine today, people feel themselves to be freer than they do in Russia. On the other hand, in Ukraine there is an enormous number of people who are ready to beat up on journalists. I don’t want the situation to be the same for us. For me, Ukraine isn’t an exotic enough example. I want things to be here like they are, let’s say, in England.

Is it possible for Oleg Sentsov, the Ukrainian director who announced a hunger strike, to achieve what he is demanding – the release of all Ukrainians jailed in Russia?

Unfortunately, no. His goal is absurd. The paradoxical nature of his courageous and humanly understandable action is, in fact, absolutely obvious.

To whom does Crimea belong?

The Tatars. The Tatars traditionally owned Crimea. We took it from them in our time, then we ruled together. Then Crimea supposedly became a part of Ukraine; now, it’s supposedly a part of Russia. In reality, Crimea is Tatar. […]
Aleksei Kirillovich Simonov is the son of the writer Konstantin (Kirill) Simonov and literary editor Evgeniya Laskina. A film director by profession, he is also an author, translator and journalist. 

Aleksei Simonov is a member of the Union of Journalists of Russia, the Union of Filmmakers of Russia, the Nika Academy of Cinematographic Arts, the Public Council for Press Complaints, and the Moscow Helsinki Group. He is founder and president of the Glasnost Defence Foundation and chair of the jury of the Andrei Sakharov prize for courageous journalism.

The nonprofit Glasnost Defence Foundation was registered on 27 September 1999. The main goal of the Foundation is furthering the preservation and development of the legal framework in which the domestic print and electronic mass media operate, and through this, advancing the democratization of the realms of media, research, politics, and education in contemporary Russia. After an unplanned inspection by the Ministry of Justice on the basis of a statement by an individual who “forbid the dissemination of their personal information,” the Foundation was designated a “nonprofit organization fulfilling the function of a foreign agent.” On 19 November 2015 the organization was added to the list of foreign agents. The Foundation has been unable to successfully challenge this decision in Russian courts, and has therefore appealed to the European Court of Human Rights.

Translated by Julie Hersh and Nathalie Corbett

Sergei Lukashevsky: Sakharov Centre Dedicates Festival to Oyub Titiev and Oleg Sentsov

posted 5 Jun 2018, 12:16 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 5 Jun 2018, 12:20 ]

25 May 2018 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Novaya Gazeta]

Sergei Lukashevsky, director of the Sakharov Centre and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, has published a video message in support of the Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, sentenced to 20 years in Russia and Oyub Titiev, head of Memorial in Chechnya. Lukashevsky announced that this year’s Sakharov Festival would be dedicated to them. Sentsov and Titiev today ‘symbolize the struggle for freedom and justice in Russia.’ All funds received by the Festival and cards signed by those attending the event will be sent to the lawyers, relatives and colleagues of Oleg Sentsov and Oyub Titiev.

Sergei Lukashevsky’s Statement

Oleg Sentsov is already on the twelfth day of his hunger strike. Oyub Titiev will soon have another court hearing, the fairness of which is open to doubt. Oyub personifies the courageous and dangerous work of human rights defenders in Chechnya, work which cost Natalia Estemirova her life. Oleg’s hunger strike, for the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners, is a tragic reminder of the death of Anatoly Marchenko, in Chistopol prison in December 1986, who died after a 117-day hunger strike while demanding freedom for Soviet political prisoners.

All prisoners of conscience and those unjustly convicted need our support. However, it seems to us that it is Titiev and Sentsov who symbolize the struggle for freedom and justice in Russia today.

It is impossible to imagine that Sakharov would remain silent about the cases of Titiev and Sentsov. The Festival of Freedom, which traditionally honours Andrei Dmitrevich Sakharov, we dedicate to Oyub Titiev and Oleg Sentsov this year.

We will send the all the cards and letters signed during the Festival to Oyub and Oleg, collect signatures in their defence and send money to their relatives to pay for lawyers.

Translated by Matthew Quigley

Dmitry Makarov: Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov declares hunger strike

posted 4 Jun 2018, 10:49 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 4 Jun 2018, 10:59 ]

18 May 2018 

By Dmitry Makarov, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group: 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Facebook]  

I find it very difficult to write about Oleg Sentsov's hunger strike. For me a hunger strike is the last step of despair when there is no hope that demands, expressed by other means, will be heard – a measure taken when there is an inner readiness to die.

There is an episode in the film "Rights of Memory" where Roginsky speaks about the meaning of Anatoly Marchenko's hunger strike. The hunger strike with an uncompromising demand for political prisoners' liberty ended in the Marchenko's death, but incredibly had a practical impact, pushing Gorbachev to liberate Soviet political prisoners.

The Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov is a political prisoner in the new Russia who protested against the annexation of Crimea and who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for "organizing a terrorist group" (for the alleged arson of a door of the office of the Russian Community of Crimea). He has declared a hunger strike demanding the release of Ukrainians held in Russia who are political prisoners. Those who know Sentsov say that he is ready to go to the very end.

I don't know whether Oleg know's about Antaloly Marchenko's deed but we - unlike the society of that period – knew of his demands and about his hunger strike as soon as it was declared. It is hard and unpleasant to think about this - especially amidst celebrations and festivities around the World Cup. A great number of famous film directors and actors have spoken out in support of Oleg, and all leading international organizations have issued statements in his support. Now a very large number of people around the world will be watching what happens to him, and, God willing, this international will bring about Oleg's release, and the release of the near 70 other Ukrainian political prisoners before it is too late.

Translated by Anna Dvoryanchikova

Liudmila Alekseeva: To Tatyana Moskalkova on her birthday

posted 4 Jun 2018, 10:40 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 4 Jun 2018, 10:43 ]

30 May 2018 

By Liudmila Alekseevna, chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group 

Today is the birthday of Tatyana Moskalkova, the Russian Federation’s Ombudsperson for Human Rights.

When Tatyana Nikolaevna was elected to the post by the Duma, she really knew little of the human rights activists and, at the time, I was doubtful that she could carry out the responsibilities of the Human Rights Ombudsperson in an appropriate way. But she quickly showed that to a remarkable degree she is well fitted for what is a very difficult position.

Tatyana Nikolaevna Moskalkova works, one can say, without sparing herself, and works very effectively: she knows how to talk to all kinds of leading officials in the penitentiary service, in the prosecutor's office, in the police, and so on, and she is more successful in defending citizens’ rights than were her predecessors.

Thanks to her, not only was Ildar Dadin acquitted but, and this was almost unbelievable, so was Yury Dmitriev, chair of the Karelian Memorial society. Although the charge of child pornography was absurd, Dmitriev faced the threat of a long prison sentence, and Tatyana Nikolaevna saved him. I cannot list all the successes of Tatyana Nikolaevna Moskalkova, the Russian Ombudsperson – there are too many.

I am convinced that one should support someone occupying such a difficult post for each of their good deeds and, if the individual works as selflessly as does Tatyana Nikolaevna, all the more so.

Good health, and persistence, to you, Tatyana Nikolaevna, in our joint endeavour to defend human rights in Russia. Unless basic human rights and freedoms are upheld, our country cannot be considered to be a democratic state, based on the rule of law.

Translated by Mary McAuley

An interview with Sergei Lukashevsky, director of the Andrei Sakharov Centre in Moscow [ASI]

posted 21 May 2018, 11:24 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 21 May 2018, 11:49 ]

4 May 2018

An extract from an interview with Sergei Lukashevsky by Elena Visens

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: ASI]

How an historian and archivist who had dreamt of studying the Middle Ages instead went on to lead and to modernise one of the oldest human rights centres in Russia.

This interview with Sergey Lukashevsky, director of the Sakharovsky Centre and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, is part of a joint project by the Agency for Social Information, the Vladimir Potanin Charitable Fund and STADA Russia. “NGO-Pro” is a series of interviews with professional NGO-workers about their careers in civil society. Its cross-media output is published in partnership with the jobs portal “Vacancies for good people” and the Russian Reporter magazine.

In my preparation for this interview, I had a look online to see what has been written about you and what you say about yourself. I learnt that on the whole, you don’t say much about yourself and what you do say usually covers your work, the Sakharov Centre, problems facing civil society, and human rights movements. How did you personally first become involved in human rights work?

A more fitting question would probably be how I ended up in this sector at all, since I don’t have a background in human rights as such. I came to the third sector above all as a historian. It all started like this: when I was at school, an opportunity to work on something real, serious, grown-up and professional fell into my lap. This opportunity was a programme on the history of dissident movements, run by the NGO Memorial. It was headed up by Aleksandr Iulievich Daniel, who was a friend of my parents. At just 15, I was introduced to him as a young man with an interest in history, and he offered me a job. As a result, everything I have done since has been connected with NGOs. After that, I was offered a job at the Moscow Helsinki Group by Liudmila Alekseeva. By that time, I had already graduated with a degree in historical archiving.

So you approached Alekseeva with a conscious desire to work on human rights or, rather, on that aspect of history in the broader sense of the word?

Not entirely, no. I was still deciding between the different historical subdisciplines; at first, I was mainly interested in ancient history and in the Middle Ages. But working with Memorial appealed to me not only in terms of the topics covered, but also because of the professional opportunities offered. I knew that if I were to become a Medieval historian, then I would mainly be working with sources that a large number of researchers already knew. That meant that I would have to work on very small, narrow issues. And here I am at 15 years old, in a room packed from floor to ceiling with boxes of documents, material from Radio Free Europe, the so-called Leningrad Samizdat collections. The project was staffed by Daniel and others who were highly professional, either because of their formal education or through practical experience. Then there were student interns who had to un-learn several years’ worth of university education. There were also others like me, teenagers with an interest in history. Most notably, there was Sasha Polivanova, who now works for Memorial. [...] 

I get the impression that “rights defendant” nonetheless means something broader than the defence of individuals’ rights in court.

Yes, that’s right. I received an offer from Liudmila Mikhailovna [Alekseeva] that I found particularly attractive, precisely because it wasn’t human rights work in the narrow sense of the word. It involved preparing reports on the human rights’ situation – in other words, rights-based analyses. I didn’t know that term yet, but now I would call it modern history. Essentially, it was modern history in that it involved looking beyond what was immediately visible. Back then, politics was supposedly much more open, the media were freer, and pure politics and political intrigues were out in the open. And here I was discovering an alternative version of life, seeing what was happening at that time in the country at grassroots level and behind closed doors. So it wasn’t such a big surprise for me when our political regime started limiting democratic freedoms, because I had already seen that on a regional level. What everyone else saw in the year 2000, I had already known for a long time. That was just the surfacing of trends that had been gathering strength throughout the 1990s. So, working with Alekseeva was also an opportunity for me to see what was really happening in the country. That really fascinated me. […]

And what has changed in the almost 10 years that you have headed the Sakharov Center?

Several programmes have been added: discussion, education, theater, and exhibition. There is the FOTODOC project— documentary photography, which seems to me to be more relevant because it nevertheless deals more consistently with the reality that surrounds us, with the problems around us. Modern art is — right now, let’s say — a very elitist form of expression, but documentary photography is more understandable, more accessible, and it is a lot easier to frame within thematic boundaries. After all ,we don’t work with just any documentary photography, we don’t do exhibitions of landscapes or city views, we work with those photographs that portray something connected with societal problems.

Our theatre—it’s not just any kind of theatre, but either theatre that is connected directly with our themes, or documentary theatre, that we participate in as an experiment, trying to address topics that we think are important or interesting And we use our space here for such experiments.

What project is the closest to your heart, for you the most valuable and interesting?

For me personally there isn’t enough time for historical work. I regret that our archive does too little historical work. I regret that our archive does not put out enough academic publications, but we just don’t have the resources — financial or human. If we had twice as many people, we could do many more projects.

I really like to think up ideas for our discussion platforms. It is really fun to conceptualize a long term cycle, to try to think up interesting approaches and unexpected topics.

I really like how our educational programmes work, especially the “Human Rights School” — an excellent, totally surprising project. It is really a living demonstration how we, in spite of our current situation [the Sakharov Centre is on the register of “foreign agents”— ASI], are functioning normally as we should. Twice a year 150-180 people come to seminars for the first time. In addition, about 50 people participate in our full programme, which lasts five months. It is training sessions, lectures on the philosophy of the concept of human rights, internships. We do these projects together with teams from the International Youth Human Rights Movement and the International School of Human Rights and Civic Action. And young people, 20-23 years old, come to us regularly—in general they are in the final courses at their institutes - and it is surprising. It works year in and year out, and it attracts people.

How would you judge your place in the third sector now, looking back at all your experience?

The nearly 30 years that have passed since the breakup of the USSR have been for our country a time when society tried to build a new country, to go down a path of development and renewal. Some things didn’t turn out at all as intended, others only partially. But it is obvious to me that Russia has managed to create a modern civil society. Nongovernmental organizations and activists have become engines of social progress — from the defence of human rights to the creation of a comfortable urban milieu. They demonstrate the possibility of a humanistic and responsible approach to the arrangement of the social sphere: they implement new technologies, form moral standards. And I am happy to be part of this process, it’s important for me to recognize that I also contributed what I could to this movement.

I am convinced that although civic activity is now described using foreign terminology (monitoring, crowdfunding, advocacy), it is nevertheless a natural continuation of the Russian humanistic tradition (Andrei Sakharov) and attention to the "little man” (the great Russian literature of the nineteenth century and to a large extent of the twentieth).

For my own life, participation in the human rights movement is an attempt to process my family history. Both of my grandfathers were repressed in the Stalin years, and in my own civil activism I am striving to say “Never again.” A country and a state exist for the general well being and for the well being of each person. And a citizen, and in general every person, should be defended from injustice and arbitrary rule.

Translated by John Tokolish and Judith Fagelson

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