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