Advisory Council (International)

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

Martin Dewhirst reviews Irina Flige's new book about Sandormokh, the notorious site of mass executions during the Stalinist terror

posted 14 Jan 2020, 03:50 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 14 Jan 2020, 04:04 ]

14 January 2020

Martin Dewhirst reviews Irina Flige, Sandormokh: dramaturgiya smyslov (possible English translation: Sandarmokh: A Labyrinth of Meanings).  St. Petersburg, 'Nestor-Istoriya', 2019, 208 pp., 1,000 copies.

Far more books (but none too many) are still being published in Western languages about the Holocaust than about what, for brevity's sake, can be called the Gulag. It's not clear, even to the nearest million, how many lives were lost and how many other lives were ruined either as a result of the Great Fatherland War (1941 – 1945) or as a result of the Gulag (say, from 1918 to 1960). Although in some respects Russia is now in a 'post-Soviet' phase of development, President Yeltsin was, and President Putin is, a thoroughgoing homo sovieticus, with all that this ambiguous term implies. Irina Flige's short book should be translated into English, if only because its deeper meaning is implicitly about the future of Russia as well as explicitly about its past and present.

Both the title and the subtitle of Flige's book (only 132 pages of text) indicate how difficult it is to comprehend the significance of the failed communist experiment and its aftermath. For an unstated reason (p. 72, footnote 82), she prefers to write SandOrmokh rather than the widespread SandArmokh, and the rather pretentious subtitle suggests how difficult it still is to make sense of the (probably senseless) Great Terror which so dramatically weakened the USSR in 1937 and 1938. Flige quite rightly mentions (p. 86) that the overwhelming majority of victims of the purges (before, during and after the Great Terror) were not members of the so-called 'elite', but 'ordinary', decent members of Soviet society who were not engaged in any subversive activities whatsoever. This is, perhaps, the most important conclusion to which the author draws her readers' attention.

At least 6,241 (p. 11), but quite possibly more than 7,000 (p. 182) people (all, or nearly all, of them men) were murdered in Sandarmokh between 1934 and 1941. Flige pays most attention in this book to the 1,111 prisoners who were secretly convoyed here in late 1937 after it was decided to close down the Special Purposes Prison on the Solovki islands to the north. (The other prisoners were either shot on the spot or moved to other facilities further south or east.) Enormous pains were taken to conceal the place where the 1,111 victims were shot, and it was not until 1997 - 60 years later! - that Yury Dmitriev and a few other researchers found irrefutable proof that these unfortunates had been secretly interred in an urochishche (very roughly, a grove) in the conveniently out-of-the-way place called Sandarmokh. Most of those murdered were Russians, but there are now individual memorials there also to the Ukrainians, Poles, Muslims, Jews, Cossacks, Estonians, Finns, Lithuanians, Karelians, Chechens, Ingush, Moldovans, Tatars, Azeris, Georgians, Maris and local people whose lives were ended there.

It is a sign of the times that Dmitriev was arrested in late 2016 and is still being held under investigation for an alleged crime. Moreover, since 2016 the powers-that-be have been far less cooperative (to put it mildly) in helping to arrange what has already become the traditional annual meeting in Sandarmokh to honour and remember those who were buried there. Even more recently, according to Boris Vishnevsky and others, President Putin dropped Irina Flige from membership of the 'Working Group for the Coordination of the Activities for the Implementation of the Concept of the State's Policies for the Perpetuation of the Memory of the Victims of Political Repressions'.

Perhaps the most appropriate response to that decision would be to translate the text of this book into English so that more people can grasp why the Gulag theme is still so relevant for an understanding of Russia, both in the past and in the present?

Halya Coynash: Russia is destroying 16th Century Crimean Tatar Khan’s Palace in occupied Crimea

posted 10 Jan 2018, 09:51 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 10 Jan 2018, 09:53 ]

10 January 2017

By Halya Coynash

There are compelling grounds for fearing that Russia’s so-called ‘restoration work’ on the world-renowned Khan’s Palace in Bakhchysarai could forever destroy this vital monument of Crimean Tatar cultural heritage. While Russia is denying the accusations, photos smuggled out of the site are alarming, as is the lack of any experience in restoration work of the construction company and Moscow architectural firm commissioned to carry out the work. The Khan’s Palace in Bakhchysarai was placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List back in 2003, but the necessary work for establishing its international status was unfortunately not completed. According to Edem Dudakov, the former head of the Crimean Committee on Inter-Ethnic Relations and Deported Peoples, if the work now underway continues, the complex which includes the Palace itself, a hall for receiving visitors, two mosques, a harem and other buildings, will lose any chance of gaining UNESCO recognition in future. [Read more]

Halya Coynash: Russia turns to punitive psychiatry as its trial of jailed historian of the Terror collapses

posted 28 Dec 2017, 11:42 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 28 Dec 2017, 11:50 ]

28 December 2017

By Halya Coynash

A second expert assessment has effectively overturned the entire case against Yury Dmitriev, renowned Russian historian and head of the Karelia branch of Memorial. There is no immediate sign that this judicial travesty is ending, with the prosecutor immediately demanding yet another assessment of the photos which experts found no pornographic content in, and also that Dmitriev be placed for ‘tests’ in a psychiatric institution. The court agreed to both, however did reject the prosecutor’s application for a further three months in detention. Whether Dmitriev will be released on January 28, his 62nd birthday, remains to be seen, given the clear attempts underway to save the prosecution. [Read more]

Photo of Yury Dmitriev in custody by Valery Potashov

Andreas Umland et al: "Council of Europe Should not Become Russia’s Trophy"

posted 27 Dec 2017, 12:08 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 27 Dec 2017, 12:15 ]

Appeal of European experts to the members of the Council of Europe regarding the possibility of renewing the voting rights of Russian delegation despite Russia’s failure to comply with any PACE resolution.

Council of Europe Should not Become Russia’s Trophy

"We, thinkers of contemporary Europe, call upon the Member States of the Council of Europe not to fall prey to Russia’s blackmailing and not to lift sanctions
(including suspension of the voting rights in PACE) on Russia, introduced after theannexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and military aggression in Donbas. [Read more]"

Source: 'Council of Europe Should not Become Russia’s Trophy,' New Europe Centre, 14 December 2017

The full version of this appeal is open for signature here. Andreas Umland, one of the signatories, is a member of the advisory council of Rights in Russia.

Jens Siegert: Arseny Roginsky. On his 70th birthday [30 March 2016]

posted 24 Dec 2017, 04:22 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 24 Dec 2017, 04:44 ]

31 March 2016

We publish this translation of an article by Jens Siegert, written for the 70th birthday of Arseny Roginsky, to mark the passing of the Russian historian and civil society activist, leader of Memorial, on 18 December 2017.

Strange as it may seem, I have no clear memories of when I first met Arseny. I only know when it must have been: back in 1991 in Cologne, at the Heinrich Böll Foundation on the street named Unter Krahnenbäumen. Arseny Roginsky, together with Yelena Zhemkova and Oleg Orlov, was in the middle of Memorial’s legendary “Prison Tour” through North Rhine-Westphalia’s penal institutions, organised by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. If I remember correctly, at the time his official role was expert adviser to a commission on the reform of Russian camps and prisons. O tempora, o mores!

I was in my early 30s at the time, a supporter of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and a neophyte journalist, and was making a radio documentary on the “Ostarbeiter” or Eastern workers – the many millions of people brought from the Soviet Union to perform forced labour in Germany during the German occupation. The first project embarked on jointly by Memorial and the Heinrich Böll Foundation was to preserve the memory of these people, but it was Lena Zhemkova I interviewed (in fact I recently handed over a cassette containing my recording of the interview to the Memorial archive) and I have no recollection of Arseny Roginsky at all – which is odd, because even back then he must have been the one in charge.

There’s nothing so very strange about it, however, because one of the first things I noticed about Arseny Roginsky later, at the Moscow offices of Memorial, was that he is a boss who likes to fade into the background. Critics might dismiss it as pulling strings, which of course is (also) true, since it is true of all good organisers. Yet Arseny Roginsky’s style of leadership – both inward and outward – stems primarily from authority, knowledge and skill, and in my opinion from a deep well of experience; not only his experience during the dissident era, but also his experience of working at Memorial. This is a wise approach, and perhaps the only possible approach to fostering team spirit among people who are working voluntarily towards a goal which is constantly under threat from outside influences.

I believe however that Arseny Roginsky has more than just practical reasons for practising this particular style of leadership (if one can call it a style at all), since it also emanates from his deeply held democratic convictions and respect for every individual. As I understand it, the democracy which characterises the internal structure of modern-day Memorial also stems from this quintessentially democratic attitude of Arseny Roginsky (and naturally of many other friends within the organisation). This makes Memorial not only somewhere that highly professional and important work is carried out tirelessly, but also a flexible and stable entity; in fact I would even go so far as to say that this inner vitality, even though it occasionally tips over into conflict, is one of the most important prerequisites for the organisation’s stability.

At this point I need to make a brief jump forwards in time, to one of many internal strategy discussions that took place in the first few years of the new millennium and at which I referred to Arseny, without any hidden agenda, as a “human rights activist”. He reprimanded me indignantly; “I’m no human rights activist!” This confused me, because the struggle for human rights is and always has been one of the cornerstones of Memorial’s activities. After some thought, however, I understood; human rights activists must be unswervingly principled, and they must call out human rights infringements wherever and whenever they see them. This attitude is entirely right and laudable, but can sometimes be politically impractical. And Arseny Roginsky is a deeply practical person, a “man of the world” so to speak. He is flexible, good at networking and enjoys a position of authority not only among his friends, but also – and perhaps more importantly – among his enemies. He is astute but merciful, demonstrating his familiarity with the human condition – although occasionally a sweet yet terrifyingly evil smile will appear on his face… but let’s jump back in time again to when I first met him.

After moving to Moscow in 1993 as a correspondent I continued to work for the Heinrich Böll Foundation and became a point of contact for Memorial, long before I opened the Moscow-based office of the Foundation in 1999. Young and inexperienced as I was, it was no easy task to be noticed and taken seriously by Arseny Roginsky, whose trust had first to be earned. This holds true everywhere, but particularly in places like Russia where society has suffered such severe trauma, and where institutions count for little and personal relationships for a great deal.

I’m still not sure how I finally gained Arseny Roginsky’s trust; I only know when I spotted the first signs of progress in this respect. It was 1998, and Memorial had just published a book on the Soviet Ostarbeiter who had carried out forced labour in Germany during the war. The book was called Überwindung der Sklaverei: Folklore und Sprache der Ostarbeiter, 1942-1944 [Overcoming Slavery: Folklore and Language of the Ostarbeiter, 1942-1944], and I was asked to write a foreword for it as a representative of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which had worked together with Memorial on the project. Since I generally write in German, I assume that this foreword was the first piece of my writings which Arseny Roginsky had ever read, and he was moved to comment drily; “So you can write after all!”

It was around this time that our political partnership also began to take shape. Back in the 1990s, I had acted as a true Westerner by pestering many of those in the Russian NGO scene, including Arseny Roginsky and other Memorial supporters, to engage more with politics. They were fervently opposed to this suggestion, regarding anything to do with politics as dirty, immoral and potentially hazardous. This all changed at the end of the decade when politics caught up with the NGOs; under the new presidency of Vladimir Putin, NGOs quickly became one of the groups which had to subjugate themselves to the state if they wanted to stay out of trouble. The previous reluctance of the NGOs to get involved in politics turned out to be naïve, and in some cases downright dangerous.

Arseny Roginsky was one of the first to recognise this, and began working with others to organise the protection of Russian NGOs, not only on a practical level but also on a symbolic or in other words political level. These changes were symbolised most clearly by the Voskresensk Convention adopted in autumn 2000, following regular meetings between partners of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Russia; these meetings formed part of what became a whole series of new political dialogue formats invented by Memorial and the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

For the first time in Russian history as far as we know, in the Voskresensk Convention NGOs working in a wide range of different areas – environmentalists and human rights activists, women’s groups and consumer protection groups – promised to act in solidarity if any of their number were subject to attacks from the state. The Convention which was adopted in autumn 2000 was drafted by Alexander Daniel, but the idea behind it came from Arseny Roginsky. The most important practical manifestation of this new solidarity among NGOs was the Narodnaya Assambleya – a round table of leading NGO representatives, which was founded at around the same time and quickly gained de facto recognition as a negotiating partner of the Kremlin. Arseny Roginsky therefore played a leading role in the establishment of NGOs as fully fledged political entities in Russia.

Arseny Roginsky’s most important achievement is however his involvement with Memorial, and the fact that Memorial has become the go-to authority for matters relating to Russia’s totalitarian past is in no small part due to his personal reputation and integrity. Even the Russian state still (as yet) deems him a force to be reckoned with, and any government-backed initiative in his field of expertise which does not have his blessing or the blessing of Memorial has a whiff of inauthenticity. Finally, and perhaps most problematically in Russia today; I know many people who regard Arseny Roginsky as a political opponent, some who regard him as an enemy (of Russia), and some who simply don’t like him – but no one who doubts his sincerity.

Translated by Joanne Reynolds

Mary McAuley on Arseny Roginsky: "He did not give you an answer, he helped you find one"

posted 22 Dec 2017, 04:44 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 22 Dec 2017, 04:53 ]

21 December 2017

By Mary McAuley

The tributes to Arseny unwittingly reveal his rare ability to communicate with people of all ages and backgrounds. He must have been a good school teacher. 

Someone told me that, when serving his sentence, a group of prisoners would have him sit on a log and tell them stories rather than his holding the end of the saw. (Maybe, I suspect, it was safer that way – but all surely benefited.)  

It was not just that what Arseny said was almost always interesting but that he made you feel that what you were saying or asking was important. He did not give you an answer, he helped you find one. 

Negotiator, diplomat (in the best sense of the word), counsellor, and a man of principles, it would be nice to think that he is sitting, somewhere in the sky, talking of the present and future to a circle of old friends.

Halya Coynash: Council of Europe will share responsibility for grave human rights violations if it gives in to Russia now

posted 14 Dec 2017, 09:47 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 14 Dec 2017, 09:51 ]

14 December 2017

By Halya Coynash

Source: Human Rights in Ukraine

Crimean Tatar leaders, the sister of Russia’s youngest Ukrainian political prisoner and prominent Ukrainian human rights organizations have warned the Council of Europe against compromising its own values by giving in to pressure from Russia. There can be no grounds for reinstating Russia’s voting rights within the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe [PACE] while Russia continues its occupation of Crimea, military aggression in Donbas and escalating human rights abuse. As reported, the proposal to reinstate Russia has come only because the latter suspended its annual payment to the Council of Europe in June 2017 and is now threatening to end its participation in the European Court of Human Rights. CE Secretary General, Thorbjorn Jagland appears to be promoting Russian reinstatement, claiming that “we have to keep in perspective: what is our mandate. Our mandate is to protect human rights in Russia and Crimea, or wherever people live on the continent.” It is fitting, therefore, that Mr Jagland and his colleagues should be hearing the position of those who have directly suffered human rights abuse under Russian occupation and who foresee only a sharp escalation in such violations if the Council of Europe gives Russia as occupying state such an effective carte blanche. [Read more]

Halya Coynash: Imprisoned Crimean Tatar leaders reportedly exchanged for 2 suspected Russian state-sponsored killers

posted 12 Dec 2017, 11:31 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 12 Dec 2017, 11:37 ]

11 December 2017

By Halya Coynash

Reports in the media that Russia freed Crimean Tatar political prisoners Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov in exchange for two Russians accused of at least one political killing in Turkey cannot be confirmed or denied, however the Kremlin clearly has something to hide. Chiygoz’ lawyer Nikolai Polozov reports that neither Chiygoz nor Umerov were provided with any documents explaining their move before being put on a plane and taken to Ankara in Turkey. Both are therefore, legally speaking, still in Crimea. Chiygoz received just one slip of paper confirming his release. Since that refers to a presidential decree, both Polozov and his colleague Edem Semedlyaev sent lawyers’ requests for information about the relevant decree (or decrees) to President Vladimir Putin’s Administration. Both received letters refusing to provide the information, with the excuse that it was on restricted access. Both Chiygoz and Umerov will be lodging appeals demanding access to these normative acts which directly affect their rights. Polozov says that he will represent both men during the hearing in a Moscow court. [Read more]

Halya Coynash: Remember Sandarmokh & the Historian of the Terror Imprisoned in Putin’s Russia

posted 27 Oct 2017, 12:22 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 30 Oct 2017, 10:34 ]

27 October 2017

By Halya Coynash

It is exactly 80 years since the killing by quota began of Ukrainian, Russian and other prisoners sent to the notorious Solovki Labour Camp during the worst months of Stalin’s Terror. From 27 October to 4 November 1937, 1,111 prisoners were executed by the NKVD, including 289 Ukrainian writers, playwrights, scientists and other members of the intelligentsia. Their remains lie, together with those of nearly nine thousand victims, at the Sandarmokh Clearing in Karelia, near the Russian border with Finland. 

Perhaps the anniversary was not the reason for the low trick played on Yury Dmitriev, the imprisoned historian of the Terror, and his many friends and supporters on October 25. It would, however, be nothing new in this profoundly disturbing prosecution and imprisonment of a world-renowned historian in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.  [Read more on Human Rights in Ukraine]

Martin Dewhirst reviews Gleb Morev's 'Dissidenty: dvadtsat' razgovorov' [Dissidents: Twenty Conversations]

posted 26 Jun 2017, 04:32 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 26 Jun 2017, 04:48 ]

26 June 2017

By Martin Dewhirst

A review of: Gleb Morev, Dissidenty: dvadtsat' razgovorov [Dissidents: Twenty Conversations], Moscow, 'AST', 2017, 416 pp., 3.000 copies.

Coming out as an active dissident in Russia (there have always been numerous passive dissidents, dissenters, protesters and protestants in that country) after the 1991 coup and counter-coup is still a very challenging step with uncertain consequences. The separation (or division) of powers (legislative, executive and judicial) is still not a reality; even the Constitutional Court has taken some very dubious decisions; the Duma (parliament) is usually regarded as a talking shop, not as a place for debate; the Presidential Administration can often exert more power than the Government; and elections are widely regarded as neither free nor fair. There is also a feeling among some observers that the dramatic events of 1991 in Russia replaced state socialism with state and state-controlled oligarchic capitalism, which is not a great change for the better, and may be even worse. Is President Putin really an improvement on President Gorbachev? Is Roskomnadzor any better than Glavlit? The regime has changed, but the political system hasn't, some observers write. How many Russians grasp the difference between 'regime' and 'system'?

On the other hand, there are undoubtedly some changes for the better. Despite bans and restrictions on some denominations, religious freedom has increased; it is much easier for some dissidents in danger of arrest to slip abroad to relative safety; some dissidents can go to other countries to speak publicly and privately and then return to Russia; and, thanks to the recent real revolution, the digital one, it is now much easier to receive and disseminate information (but also, unfortunately, disinformation). Despite the notorious 'power vertical', horizontal communication is immeasurably easier than in Soviet times. But the key problem remains: have most Russians been forever so greatly genetically modified by the long Mongol and Tatar occupation that a parliamentary democracy in the Russian Federation, a huge Eurasian landmass, is simply an impossibility?

What can present-day dissidents learn from their Soviet (or anti-Soviet) predecessors? (It goes almost without saying that they had and have no objection whatsoever to sovety, councils, as an invaluable institution.) How, in particular, can they reduce the danger of the present fraudulent neo-Soviet regime, led by a proud and unrepentant 'former' Soviet KGB officer, from being succeeded by a no less fraudulent neo-neo-Soviet regime, rather than by a different political system based on the rule of law?

Gleb Morev was born in the key year of 1968, when a tiny group of dissidents felt morally, not politically, obliged to demonstrate (on Red Square in Moscow) against the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, whose Communist Party leadership was trying to establish a law-based socialist regime with a human face. Morev was too young to play a role in the dissident movement in Soviet times. For all I know, he doesn't consider himself to be a dissident now. Maybe he just feels that there are useful lessons for his country to be learnt from the successes and failures of the 'democratic movement' of the dissidents during what turned out to be the last quarter-century of the USSR.

Following on the heels of Aleksandr Podrabinek's remarkable memoir Dissidenty (Moscow, 'AST', 2014, 418pp., 3,000 copies), Morev uses the same 'Western' title rather than the Slavonic word pravozashchitniki, defenders of the law (and human rights), as enunciated and continually emphasised by Aleksandr Yesenin-Vol'pin, who I think should be regarded as the founder of the (perhaps misnamed) dissident movement in the USSR. He insisted that the Soviet Constitution should be taken seriously and literally; it was the people in power at all levels of the country in the 1960s and later who were often not acting constitutionally. (The very useful Index guides readers to the pages on which Yesenin-Vol'pin is mentioned and discussed. Problems of terminology are raised on, for example, pages 178, 207 and 232.)

Morev's book, prefaced by Jens Siegert, well-known already to seasoned readers of Rights in Russia, contains twenty conversations (almost monologues) with high- and low-profile dissidents. Three people he approached refused to cooperate, others were unavailable, and two, Fr. Gleb Yakunin and Valery Senderov, died before they could be questioned. The book is rather awkwardly divided into four parts, and there is no need, I think, to read these conversations – some short, some long – in the order in which they are printed. Depending on your fluency in Russian and the time you have available, pick and choose – every participant has something, and most participants have much, of interest to say.

Among the contributors whose names will be known to many readers of this note are Sergei Kovalev, Pavel Litvinov, Gleb Pavlovsky and Aleksandr Daniel', three of whom are still living and active in Russia today. Others who played a very important role well before Gorbachev's unexpected glasnost' are Sergei Grigor'yants, Gabriel' Superfin, Vera Lashkova. Vyacheslav Bakhmin, Vyacheslav Igrunov, Sergei Khodorovich, Viktor Davydov, Mikhail Meilakh, Yelena Sannikova and Lev Timofeyev, just over half of whom are still based in Russia, some of them enjoying (I hope) a well-earned rest. All the other six, three of whom live in the West, also deserve our gratitude for what they did in very difficult times: Irina Kristi, Sima Mostinskaya (the widow of Aleksandr Lavut), Marina Shemakhanskaya (the widow of Andrei Kistyakovsky), Fr. Boris Mikhailov, Masha Slonim and, last but in no way least, the Lithuanian poet and essayist, Tomas Venclova.

The fact that so many of these worthy people are now living (most of the time) outside Russia has different causes, one of which may be that what happened in the Soviet Union turned out, in the Russian Federation, not to be a revolution. The Cold War within Russia quickly started up again and intensified immediately after Putin became Prime Minister in 1999. There appear to be no dissident figures now in Russia (or in the West, for that matter) of the stature of Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, and Western support and supporters of today's dissidents in the Russian Federation are muted, perhaps because of the widespread view that 'the Kremlin' is no longer a serious threat to law-based states elsewhere in the world because the Cold War is over. Allegedly. 

Martin Dewhirst lectured on Russian literature and history at the University of Glasgow from 1964 until 2000. He is an expert on Russian Samizdat and on the Tsarist, Soviet and neoSoviet systems of censorship. Of late he has been working to improve the conditions in which people deprived of liberty in Russia are held.

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