Boris Altshuler: Human Rights and Politics. In celebration of Liudmila Alekseeva’s 90th birthday

posted 1 Aug 2017, 23:38 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 1 Aug 2017, 23:54 ]
20 July 2017

By Boris Altshuler, chair of the board of Right of the Child, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Ekho Moskvy

“Our final goal is to help the individual person”

“As human rights defenders, we work on irresolvable issues. It’s only that which is worth doing.” 

- Liudmila Alekseeva

In congratulating Liudmila Mikhailovna on her wonderful jubilee, I want to express my great thanks for her support and collaboration in our struggle to protect the constitutional rights of Russian citizens to housing, and specifically to protect families with children who live in completely impossible housing conditions, or have no housing whatsoever. I have in mind our joint Open Letter of April 2015 to the President of the Russian Federation, “Why Children Have Nowhere to Live in the Largest Country in the World”; and the declaration by members of the Moscow Helsinki Group of July 2016, “Attempted Murder in the Centre of Moscow. We Demand the Immediate Resignation of Sobyanin,” in support of the dozens of mothers (from the organization “People on the Moscow Housing Waiting List”) who announced an unlimited hunger strike in front of the main public offices of the United Russia party in protest at impossible housing conditions ; and another letter Liudmila Mikhailovna and I wrote to the President of Russia, handed personally to V. V. Putin at his meeting with the Human Rights Council on 8 December 2016.

These appeals were concerned with the cynicism and corruption of the Moscow authorities that “failed to notice” the hunger strike, despite the fact that the protesting women had the support of the Presidential Human Rights Council and the Human Rights Ombudsperson. More generally, they were concerned with the sabotage over many years of Presidential Decree No. 600 of 7 May 2012 which, amongst other things, ordered that housing must be provided to “citizens on low incomes” and “monopolism and unfair competition in the realm of housing construction” must be eliminated. Those responsible for the sabotage were the Russian government (Igor Shuvalov being the minister answerable), the Moscow government, and the authorities of Moscow Region and other regions. 

The reasons for the sabotage are obvious: greed, an unwillingness to stop monopolies driving up the cost of housing, and the fat kick-backs deriving from corruption.

And it is not only we, civil society activists, who talk about this. According to Rossiiskaya gazeta of 5 June this year the draft annual report of the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service raises the following issues:

—  the total “cartelization” of the Russian economy

—  the participation by state bodies in criminal anti-competition agreements;

—  the special problems caused by monopolies in the construction industry; and 

—  the incomprehensible passivity of the law enforcement agencies with regard to these matters.

So what we have is a situation where the cat is drinking the cream, and, it turns out, it is impossible for the authorities to use their powers against the cat. This is why it is not possible to resolve the housing problems facing many large families, and indeed housing problems in general. But, as Liudmila Mikhailovna justly points out, it is only “irresolvable” issues of this kind that are worth tackling (see the epigraph).

What should be done?

For all that, following the advice to be found in the fables of Ivan (“Grandfather”) Krylov, we should “exercise the power we have,” having in mind that, according to the Constitution (Section 1, Article 3), “The bearer of sovereignty and the only source of power in the Russian Federation is its multinational people.” The Constitution also provides the means to realize this power, namely elections, that enable the public to sack all those money-grabbing, cynical individuals, indifferent to the real needs of the people. It would seem that, in today’s political realities, to repeat words such as “people”, “elections,” and so on, is only possible as a joke. But, firstly, it must be said that on a birthday it is good to make jokes. And secondly, as they say, “every joke is, in part, a joke” — although the main part is serious and no joke. 

Now as a matter of fact, it was Aleksei Navalny who has answered the question, “What is to be done?” And I quote: “Every issue must be politicized in every way possible. Those who talk about ‘non-political protest’ lose at the very moment they pronounce these words.” (Novosibirsk, April 2017).

Some people – including friends who are human rights defenders – have objected when I have said this to them, and insist that we do not need to get involved in such a “dirty business” as politics. In some ways they are quite right. We human rights defenders are not politicians, and we are not climbing the greasy pole of power. Our ultimate goal is always to help individual victims of human rights violations. In working towards this goal, however, we are all too often obliged to bring politicians round to our way of thinking. This has always been the case, and I will mention some incidents dating back 40 years as evidence of this claim.

Anatoly Shcharansky, one of the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group, escaped the firing squad even though the prosecutor had called for the ultimate punishment to be meted out to him. How did we succeed in whipping up a peaceful political tsunami in defence of Orlov, Ginzburg and Shcharansky, even involving the French Communist Party whose views were so highly regarded by the ideologists within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union? I even made a small contribution of my own back then by writing the declaration, “Eurocommunism and Human Rights,” which was broadcast on the radio stations referred to as “enemy voices.” At that time, however – back in 1978 – many people were working in the same direction, since it was clear that only those who accepted the need for politicization would succeed in saving those in danger.

Two years prior to that, an appeal to the French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing had brought about the release from a psychiatric hospital of the famous singer-songwriter Petr Starchik. Starchik had been forcibly hospitalised on 15 September 1976, and everything seemed to suggest that he would never be a free man again. But then on 15 November he returned home to his wife and children. A great deal had happened during these two months – “therapy” with injections of haloperidol, and then a sudden cessation of this torture, a move to a ward with less brutal conditions and a visit from Kotov (Moscow’s chief psychiatrist), apparently on the orders of the KGB, which at that time was dealt a huge blow to its power. Even five years later on, French journalists continued to ask representatives of the Soviet state, “Is it true that you lock people up in psychiatric hospitals against their will for performing songs in their own homes?” And it was true – Petr used to organise concerts for an audience of 50 or 60 every week at his home in Moscow’s Teply Stan district, and he would sing arrangements of poems by Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Shalamov, Klychkov and other poets, as well as folk songs such as “A Cruel Law:” “They imposed a cruel law on the nation, / They built prisons and camps everywhere, / And transported people in their thousands / To the land where the ground is frozen in silence…” Or other lines in the same song which seem highly appropriate in 2017, 100 years after the October Revolution: “Anyone who experienced that dreadful torture, / Cursed the October Revolution and Soviet power…”. Starchik also used to sing “A Walk in Vladimirsky Central” by Viktor Nekipelov, about the caged-in walking space where prisoners at Vladimir Central Prison exercised: “A little red spider has even spun a rusty web shutting out the sky” (see ). And this was back in 1976! Starchik was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital, and we only managed to save him by politicizing the problem and taking it right to the top.

There is no need for me to continue. The author of this piece avoided arrest in the early 1980s, not least thanks to a laconic telegram from the US Senator for the state of Iowa, Chuck Grassley, to the Chairman of the KGB of the USSR: “Dear Mr Chebrikov, it has come to my attention that the physicist Boris Altshuler is suffering persecution. Please be aware that 80% of the soya beans imported by the USSR from the USA are produced in my state.” Chuck Grassley is a Senator to this very day, and chair of the Judiciary Committee of the US Senate.

Indeed, in the broadest perspective, the politicization of human rights was a great victory of the 20th century. I agree with Sergei Kovalev that it was precisely the struggle of the Soviet human rights defenders that made the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 a document of worldwide significance. The historical landmarks in this development were the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov in 1975, and the realization of Yury Fedorovich Orlov’s brilliant idea to create the Moscow Helsinki Group - that was in 1976. And so far as political leaders are concerned, I am again in complete agreement with Sergei Adamovich that first place must be given here to US President Jimmy Carter who, after assuming the office of president in January 1978, announced that human rights would from then on be the chief priority of US policy. And although many of Jimmy Carter’s other actions as president, both then and later, are more questionable, he undoubtedly deserves recognition for this achievement.

CONCLUSION: Аleksei Navalny is right: “Every issue must be politicized in every way possible.” Politicians should compete with each other as to who best protects human rights, who makes the greatest contribution to helping large families, who is most effective in resolving such issues. And not as it is now, when the leaders of the United Russia party shamefully turn their backs on starving women who have come to ask for their assistance. And they do so with no consequences. Just like water off a duck’s back. What we need is a situation where disgusting, immoral behaviour of this kind would be enough to automatically put an end to a political career. 

In congratulating Liudmila Mikhailovna on her 90th birthday, I want to express the hope that a powerful political opposition will arise in Russia. One as committed to the protection of civil and social rights as human rights defenders are.

And, finally, I would like to end with a story on the theme of “exercising the power we have” told me by human rights defenders and friends from Penza region on Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva’s birthday. In a distant district of Penza region the local authorities, in violation of the law, refused to provide apartments to three young people - orphans - who had recently left children’s homes. The human rights defenders went to court and won the case. The court ruled that the authorities must provide apartments and imposed a fine for the violation. However, the authorities calmly proceeded to pay the fine imposed by the court but did not provide the young people with apartments. A second court case followed. Again, the court ruled that the authorities must provide apartments to the former inmates of the children’s homes, and this time increased the fine by a factor of ten. But the authorities neither paid the fine nor provided the apartments. However, the persistent human rights defenders went to court for a third time, and on this occasion the judge, seriously angry that his previous decisions had not been executed, announced he would insist the head of the municipal authority be jailed for 15 days. The day after the judge made this statement, three apartments were provided.

How vitally important it is for us to have an independent judicial system! And again it has to be said that until this issue is politicized, it will be impossible to resolve it.