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