Genri Reznik: Politics has overpowered the law

posted 5 Nov 2019, 13:24 by Translation Service   [ updated 7 Nov 2019, 00:46 ]

18 October 2019 

An interview with Genri Reznik

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Sobesednik]

Photo of Genri Reznik: Novaya gazeta

Moscow City Court has sentenced Konstantin Kotov, who participated in the recent Moscow protests, to four years’ imprisonment. Lawyer Henry Reznik reflects on how the Moscow protests became a litmus test for society, the government and the judicial system. Reznik is the vice-president of the Russian Federal Bar Association and first vice-president of the Moscow Bar Association. He is also a member of both the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Presidential Human Rights Council.

Many lawyers believe the trial and investigation following the ‘Moscow case’ was unprecedentedly speedy and unjust. Do you agree?

I do! Kotov was a peaceful demonstrator who caused no harm, yet he got a sentence twice as long as a murderer would have done! Police officers get the same sentences for torture. This is related to Article 212.1 of the Criminal Code - the so-called ‘Dadin Article’, about violation of the rules of demonstrations. Yet, in 2017 this was declared essentially unconstitutional! Essentially, politics has overpowered the law, it walked all over it. It’s embarrassing.

Why is that? Have demonstations changed since the time of the Bolotnaya Square case? Or has there been a change in the government?

It seems to me that these recent events gave the authorities great cause to be worried - they are afraid of the people. Even those who usually wouldn’t have done so took to the streets. The same applies to students, despite the fact that most young people are politically apathetic. There was a wide range of professions present who were previously absolutely indifferent. An awakening, of sorts.

People no longer believe that things are going to get better, that the economy is going to grow or that their standards of living are going to increase. They’ve begun to realise that they’re being treated unfairly and that their voices aren’t being heard.

In 2017, the opposition skillfully campaigned in municipal elections in Moscow - volunteers approached literally everyone: be it at home, at work ... This is the difference. After the incidents at Bolotnaya Square, after all, none of those protesting gained any power. But in many districts in the 2017 elections, it was actually the alternative candidates opposed to the government who won.

Muscovites seized the opportunity and took to the streets, outraged by the arrogant exclusion of opposition candidates from the Moscow City Duma elections.

I remain convinced that despite everything, the authorities lost the elections in Moscow. It would appear, that they don’t really know what to do next: should they tighten the screws, or loosen them.

You have said that practically all of these convictions will then be quashed in the ECtHR. Do Russian judges not care about their reputations at all? They refuse to look at data from CCTV cameras, dismiss the arguments of defenders, take into account protocols with mistakes…

Unfortunately, the psychology of our judges is such that they don’t consider themselves representatives of an independent branch of power, as the law sees them. They see themselves as civil servants. So, is it worth being indignant about the fact that they refused to review the materials presented by defenders? They had done the same at all of the protest-related cases before. And then they lost in the European court. Nothing has changed.

I think, by the way, that the judges saw all these materials, not during the trial, of course. But, since the nod was, it seems, to give a guilty verdict, it wasn’t possible to make this public.

Take Kotov’s case for example. If the videos had been shown during the trial, how could he be given four years in a prison colony, when it is clear from them that he committed no illegal act and that it was actually an attack on him? After all, then those who detained him would need to be brought to justice. Because the laws on the National Guard and on the police are entirely clear on what actions to take when force is used.

So whose ‘nod’ was it? Not from the Supreme Court’s surely?

Not from the Supreme Court. Why? That needs to be kept ‘clean’. All levels of our courts are now adequately autonomous. And even a ruling from the Supreme Court may not always be carried out by the lower courts, something which never would have happened during the Soviet era.

In the regions, particularly in administrative cases, they are a law unto themselves. Much depends on the governor. And since they are virtually the same, they look to the supreme power… it seems to me that the siloviki [law enforcement agencies] are calling the shots.

Why does this happen specifically in ‘protest’ cases? Or does the same thing happen in criminal practice?

Whether in criminal, or in administrative cases, don’t expect an independent decision. Towards the middle of the 1990s, the siloviki realised that the criminal justice system needed to be brought under control: they believe that acquittals undermine the law enforcement system (though that’s absolutely not the case). In my opinion, the situation can only change with the expansion of the jurisdiction of jury trials: they see 15% acquittals, where as in ordinary courts it’s only 1%.

But there is one caveat. Ordinary crime has been decreasing for a decade already in the country.

Really? But you say that the police are doing a bad job…

The reasons are more simple. Firstly, the proportion of young men, from which the contingent of criminals (theft, robbery, grievous bodily harm, hooliganism) is mainly recruited, has fallen. Secondly, this is a global trend: the youth has left the streets, they’re sitting at their computers.

The authorities only responded severely to the very last of the recent wave of protests. There wasn’t any trouble at the unapproved “Mothers’ march”, for example...

The authorities don’t really understand what they’re doing, though. That’s why their responses have been varied. They didn’t clamp down on the 'Mothers’ march', and they didn’t arrest the pensioners who are protesting in the regions either. In the latter case, the authorities clearly see older people as their supporters in elections (although their real supporters are the security forces). On the other hand, their usual response — detentions, rushed court cases, clamping down on everyone in an extreme way — wasn’t working. I think that this is how they are monitoring the situation.

You see, the authorities evaluate everything that has happened from the point of view of the impending federal elections. That’s why they’re worried. This is shown by the severe response of the police and courts to those arrested, and by the open war on Navalny's organisation.

The authorities have begun looking feverishly for the most effective method. They’re not without ingenuity: now they’re betting on crushing the opposition with the rouble (all these lawsuits for material damage and loss of profit due to the rallies). The goal is the same: to limit protest movements and ensure that the federal elections go the way they need to.

Do you think that the Kremlin doesn’t understand that severe clampdowns just make civil discontent grow?

I don’t think that the authorities know what’s going to happen yet. In the past, about ten years ago, for example, it didn’t bother Russians when the screws were tightened. Won’t it bother them this time, either? The authorities are trying out different ways of responding. For example, will high-profile events turn people away from protests? That’s one reason why major sporting events, competitions, youth concerts, and so on, are being organised.

Have all the authorities’ counter-actions just woken up civil society? Or not yet?

Yes, it’s begun waking up, due precisely to this completely unjust clampdown. And even clamping down on young people, as in the case of the New Greatness group! And even clamping down on representatives of all professions: Golunov, Serebrennikov...

Journalists, actors, directors, etc. — everyone who is rather disunited, whose professional circles are highly competitive, has suddenly begun to realise their professional affiliation. Remember how outraged the journalists were: a man who was just doing his job and didn’t oppose the government, had drugs planted on him...

People of all professions are outraged: how can our comrades, representatives of our profession, and even children be treated like this? I believe that the value of human dignity is beginning to grow, and that the protest against the authorities is, in many respects, growing out of Russians’ general ideas about justice.

Does that mean that it’s not any sort of injustice which bothers them, but only if it affects children, elections or members of their own professions?

It's just that these things are sensitive topics. No matter how much effort Business Ombudsman Boris Titov makes to draw attention to the way entrepreneurs are being persecuted, society is not particularly bothered by it – rich people are distant from ordinary Russians. But when children are wrongly convicted, that really bothers people. The authorities can't change that. Or when it comes to restricting the Internet: young people live online, so when the state starts getting into this sphere, it’s seen very badly.

Incidentally, Vladimir Putin’s favourite phrase (he’s said it a couple of times) is: “the state should make an effort, and society should resist”. I don’t think that’s the best model of the relationship, but that’s the way it is here.

Now, faced with the fact that society has become more resistant, unfortunately the authorities aren’t thinking about reconsidering their relationship with society, but only about how to emerge as victor.

How are things abroad?

"Protests have to be coordinated with the authorities all around the world," explains Henry Reznik. "When there’s an unapproved protest in Europe, the authorities respond, of course: this is a formal breach of the law. But if the protesters behave peacefully and don’t cause any harm to anyone, the protest organisers are simply fined. That's all. If there are riots, though, there’s a severe response."

Translated by James Lofthouse, Mercedes Malcomson and Suzanne Eade Roberts

Zoya Svetova interviews Oyub Titiev (Part III): “Chechnya is a testing ground for torture”

posted 30 Oct 2019, 14:22 by Translation Service   [ updated 30 Oct 2019, 14:43 ]

27 September 2019

By Zoya Svetova, journalist [Photo:]

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original: Ekho Moskvy]

How can you explain that as a result of the second war a man like Kadyrov came to power?

He didn’t come to power. It was all created by the hands of the Russian president. He created this system.

At the time there were other Chechens also laying claims to power. Many left, some were killed. There’s the sense that no one remained.

There were claimants, some of whom are alive to this day. But for some reason the Kremlin chose Kadyrov.

Did everything that happened in Chechnya happen thanks to the Kremlin?

Naturally. Chechnya is a testing ground for torture. We saw how much cruelty there was on the part of police officers during the protest actions in Moscow in August and September. What was once practised in the Caucasus has come to Moscow. And all this will spread throughout Russia. It’s impossible to stop. They’re conducting experiments and seeing how the people react to it. They understand how to hold the people in their fist. There are people who believe that the state can hold on only by these brutal measures.

Anna Politkovskaya wrote a lot about that. She believed that a model was being worked out in Chechnya for what would later come to Moscow. But why was such a thing possible among you?

The two wars. A great many people suffered. Chechnya didn’t arrive at this immediately either, at this kind of submissiveness. The start of the second war, if you take the first year, the second year.

Whenever people were detained in a settlement, seized and taken to the military HQ, right away the entire settlement would gather around the office and everyone would demand they be released. They’d stand there for a day, two days, until they were released. That’s how it was in our village. There was one case when an APC was blown up at the edge of the village, and not far from the spot of the explosion there was a tech station where they repaired cars. Immediately after that explosion, soldiers swooped down on that tech station, there were five or six people there, they were seized and taken to the military HQ. When people found out the men had been detained, the whole village went to the military HQ. I stood there, too. I think this was 2001. First the women, these boys’ relatives, started banging at the gates. Soldiers rushed out, beat those women, and immediately retreated behind the gates. No one came to the gates anymore. Later, when people started to make noise and shout, they started shooting in the air from the territory of the military HQ. And across the road there was a temporary police station. They started shooting from the roof of that station, too. They had machine-guns. A little four-year-old girl got scared and ran off home, she ran along the fence that went from the military HQ to the settlement. Everyone saw the machine-gun fire follow that little girl.

Did they kill her?

Two bullets went right through her. Women snatched her up and started shouting, and only after that did the soldiers stop shooting. They took the girl to the hospital right away and she survived. This was how they showed us they could kill old people, children, anyone.

After that, the shooting stopped, but they started firing at the crowd. Not at people but at the ground. Bullets were flying right next to people. At first people were standing to one side of the military HQ and the temporary police station. Then they moved to the other side. Then the soldiers started throwing stones across the whole building at people, at the crowd. Someone was hit in the shoulder, someone in the head. Some people left. Later, when people were detained the next time, very few people went to the military HQ. Only relatives, only close friends. That’s how they gradually broke our resistance.

Aren’t there ever protest rallies in Chechnya?

Not anymore. Because anyone who even looks sideways at the state might disappear. This all happened gradually, step by step. And then the two wars, and nearly every family suffered. People think they need to wait it out, that this will all change one day. But no one thinks that he himself should change it.

What do people like Anna Politkovskaya, like Natasha Estemirova, like you mean for Chechens? What do people think of them?

In any case, no matter what the state, no matter what the dictatorship, there has to be a place where a person can come for help. I tried to maintain that place in Chechnya as much as I could. What do they think of Natasha? When Natasha’s body was brought from Ingushetia, it was carried on a stretcher down the entire central street. The street was filled with people, and everyone walked behind it.

Grozny’s central street?

Yes, from our Grozny office straight to the centre of the city. People walked behind her, and all those streets were filled.

At the time, in 2009, people weren’t afraid?

Not then.

This was 10 years ago.

They knew Politkovskaya, too. Every chance she got, she travelled to Chechnya. When she saw articles on our site, she always flew to Chechnya, collected information, and wrote about it. At the time she was helped by a great many law enforcement officials. When I met her, it was in 2003, she flew in, and she was escorted the entire day from morning ‘til night by an MVD [Interior Ministry] officer. We spent the entire day with him. There were a great many people who helped her. Of course, people speak very well of her, think well of her. But the fact that Memorial and its work were needed one can understand by the way people came to see me at home when I was released. All those days I was home, there were people.

They weren’t afraid?

Those who were afraid came to see me at night, but there were a lot of people during the day, too.

Did you feel it had not all been for nothing?

The fact that people came who needed to vent, that’s understandable. The fact that we worked so many years, and if we helped at least one person, were able to save one person, that is the result of our work over 18 years, that means it was not in vain. There were lots of those instances. There were instances when a person could not be found for several months, and after our intervention he showed up.

These were the first days of my acquaintance with Memorial. When Natasha and Oleg Petrovich Orlov came to Kurchala, at that time eight people had been abducted after that mopping-up operation. I handed this material over to Memorial in full. Memorial began working on this properly. And in at most two weeks the seven people were released.

This was the first time?

Yes, the first time I encountered Memorial. And I realized I needed to work with Memorial. They released seven men, threw them out at various ends of the republic. The eighth was a current FSB [Federal Security Service] officer. He’d been picked up at his house and he hasn’t been found to this day. We worked on his case, submitted a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, and the court deemed it an abduction and the family was paid compensation. But that is small consolation.

How do you assess the role of President Maskhadov in Chechnya’s history?

First of all, Maskhadov is the sole president elected by the people. When we elected a president in 1997, the people were going to the election polls from morning to evening. The turnout was very high.

Did you vote for him?

I didn’t get to vote. That day I was driving cars out of the republic. And I was held up en route. When I got back, the first point of settlement from the border I arrived at was Azamat-yurt. I drove to the polling place in that village and began demanding they let me vote. My friend was there, and he said the urns were already closed. I asked him to open an urn. He asked, “Are you for Maskhadov? He’s already won.” That’s how I wanted to vote for the first time in elections and didn’t manage to. And the turnout was very high, such as there never was before or has been since in Chechnya.

Maskhadov, as far as I know, was against Basaev going into Dagestan in 1999. This was the unequivocal opinion of everyone living then.

As far as I know, Maskhadov agreed with the chairman of Dagestan’s State Council, and they were supposed to meet at the border. The State Council chairman was supposed to come with a TV crew, and Maskhadov planned to apologize to the people of Dagestan for the fact that Chechen fighters led by Basaev had invaded their territory. But en route, as far as I know, the chairman of Dagestan’s State Council was stopped. Russian special services, FSB officers, wouldn’t let him go there. There was no secret to it whatsoever. They didn’t want Maskhadov to meet with the chairman of Dagestan’s State Council. Right away, the federal media began writing about how Maskhadov had not condemned the invasion.

What did people in Chechnya think about Maskhadov’s murder? (according to the official version, he was killed on 8 March 2005 by a Russian antiterrorist unit in the village of Tolsty-Yurt)

Everyone mourned him, the majority. Although there was no open mourning.

They never did give the family back the body?

I don’t think so.

How is Maskhadov perceived in Chechnya? As a hero?

Even the present-day leadership does not treat him that negatively. Everyone respects him. He chose his road and followed it to the end.

And Basaev’s role in Chechnya’s history and as an individual are not so unequivocal?

You might say that. I’m not about to judge.

Has Chechnya’s genuine history been written yet?

Of course not. No one would allow it. There are doubtless people writing, perhaps in secret. There is the “Chronicle of Violence” (published by the Memorial press center), ours. We’ve already put out five books.

It’s a kind of alternative history of Chechnya.

It’s about violence.

Essentially, it’s Chechnya’s history for the past 20 years.

We’ve collected many volumes’ worth of material. But right now this work has come to a halt. It needs to be continued.

Why has it come to a halt?

I don’t know. It all still needs to be processed and some information verified. Of course, we verified it locally. Now this is more complicated.

Your office in Grozny is now closed?

Yes, we closed it. There is no guarantee of safety. 

Earlier parts of this interview can be read here: Part I and Part II

Translated by Marian Schwartz

Zoya Svetova interviews Oyub Titiev (Part II): On Natasha Estemirova and the brutalities of two wars

posted 24 Oct 2019, 12:58 by Translation Service   [ updated 24 Oct 2019, 12:59 ]

27 September 2019

By Zoya Svetova, journalist [Photo:]

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original: Ekho Moskvy]

How did you meet Natasha Estemirova?

At the time there had been a very brutal mopping-up operation in the village. The village was blockaded for five days, and the operation lasted all those five days. Many young men were detained.

In 20 years, a new generation of young people has grown up who don’t know what a “mopping-up operation” is. Can you explain for them what it is?

I don’t think I need to explain what terrorist acts are. In Beslan and Kizlyar, the terrorist act at the Nord-Ost music hall, when they took large groups of hostages, that’s understandable. But when an entire settlement of nearly 25,000 inhabitants is taken hostage, that’s called a “mopping-up operation.” Soldiers set up a solid armoured perimeter. No one goes out, no one comes in. Everyone’s in this cauldron. Then soldiers pass through each quadrant, down each street. They check every house and turn everything upside down. Everything valuable is confiscated. Some military subdivisions have specific lists. On these lists you can find just one name, for instance, Makhmud. The list might indicate the street, it might not. If there is a street, than on that street there are approximately 100-200 houses. All the Makhmuds living in them will be detained. They’ll be taken to a filtration point at the edge of the settlement. Someone who was detained before this, who was tortured, he broke and named some participant in the resistance living on that street. But he only knows his first name. So they pick up everyone with that name. They’re put through a torture grinder, they try to get confessions out of them. Anyone who can’t take it — he disappears.

They tortured people in order to get confessions out of them that they were members of armed bands?

Yes, that they were participants in the resistance.

Were you never detained?

Not then. They detained people regardless of their age, they detained 65-year-olds, 80-year-olds. People disappeared after the mopping-up operations. Why detain them?

Sometimes they checked their shoulders for callouses from weapons. Maybe they don’t like his beard. It depended on who went into your house. If it was contract soldiers, they detained people indiscriminately. I don’t even remember how many times they came to my house. For instance, in Tsotsin-Yurt, according to some reports, there were 39 mopping-up operations in three years; according to others, 43. The military was taking revenge on the settlement’s inhabitants because in the first war they didn’t let federal troops go through the village. The entire village closed off the roads, and the military had to skirt that village.

We started talking about Natasha Estemirova. How did you and she meet?

At the time, during the 2001 mopping-up operation, a great many young men were detained and tortured. Some ended up in the hospital, and five people were blown up.

At the filtration point?

They were blown up at the edge of the village. There was this little house between our village and a neighbouring village. So the soldiers blew up that little house and five people. At first they could only establish the identity of one of the people blown up because half his face survived. Two others were identified, one by his features, a third was identified from a scrap of paper found in his pocket with a telephone number written on it. That number was given to him by his cousin. He, by the way, was a current employee of the police. The identities of the two other dead men have still not been established. After this, our fellow villagers began gathering signatures for a protest letter. I wrote a major article for the newspaper. At the time the republic’s head came to see us. He did not spend long in the village, he went to the administration, a few people spoke with him, and he left. Right after him, Deputy Aslanbek Aslakhanov came. And we gave him a letter which told about what had happened to us in the village. Then an article appeared in his newspaper, three lines, simply stating the fact of the mopping-up operation and the killing of five people. I had described everything in detail, who had been detained, by surname. No one ever worked on this case again. After this my future colleagues arrived: Natasha Estemirova and Oleg Petrovich Orlov. He came from Moscow after hearing what had happened to us. This incident was unprecedented at the time. People had never been blown up before.

The district administration advised them to talk to me. We drove around the village the entire day. They interviewed victims, went to the hospital, and then spoke with relatives of those missing as well. They collected material, but it was already getting dark and they needed to get out of the republic. There was a curfew then in the republic. They also had to reach the border in time. Natasha stayed in the village and asked me to meet with her in the evening. She and I spoke until late in the night. She wrote everything down. Then she proposed I continue my collaboration with Memorial. She told me to send all my materials to the Grozny office. I started sending the results of all my observations. Everything that happened: abductions, murders, mopping-up operations. This lasted from July 2001 to 1 March 2002. Natasha would come see me when there were mopping-up operations in the mountain villages of our district. She would come, change into an old woman’s clothes, and leave everything else with me.

So they couldn’t recognize her?

Yes, so they would take her for an old woman.

She put on a wig or a scarf?

Just a scarf.

Alone, or did you accompany her?

Alone. I would see her as far as the bus. She travelled to the mountain villages of our district, and we had volunteers there. Natasha would stay with them and collect material for a few days. Then she would return, change clothes at my place, and go back. I would accompany her as far as the checkpoints. Usually at that time there was a so-called “stop wheels” command. They wouldn’t let cars without passes out of the settlement. You could drive as far as the checkpoint, cross the checkpoint on foot, and after that there were taxis and you could go on. That was how we operated.

We remember that during the first war Russian soldiers abducted people. Soon after, Chechens began abducting people for ransom, too. During the second war there were also abductions by both soldiers and Chechens. When the war ended, Chechnya became Kadyrov’s and Kadyrovites started paying people visits. How did it happen that Chechens started abducting Chechens?

The first time, the person was abducted for the sake of a ransom, during the first war. It was done by federal structures. I heard about this instance back in 1995. It was the director of a major factory, he was abducted, and he had to pay a large sum of money. After that, ours started abducting people, too. It’s all been “off and running” since the first war. It’s all been regularized like a conveyor belt, and it even continued between the wars. Federal structures would give information to local ones about how one of the Chechens had collaborated with the federals during the war. He would be abducted and released only for ransom. Which was shared with the people who had given them the information. That’s how this practice got started, but after that it flowed smoothly. The federals would abduct people during active military operations during the second war, then under torture they would get information about other people and pass that on to local structures. Local law enforcement agencies continued this work. But today they even abduct those who have nothing whatsoever to do with resistance. The MVD [Interior Ministry] operatives’ report has a blank, “analogous period last year.” So today is September 2019, and if the operative solved 10 crimes but last September solved 11, that means this year he solved one crime less. That means his rating is “fallen.” He could get a demotion for that.

But in order to solve a crime, he has to detain someone and force someone to confess to a crime. This practice is in effect to this day. And this forces law enforcement agents and operatives to commit these kinds of crimes. These are crimes, there’s no other word for them. Catching someone on the street and forcing him to admit to committing a crime. This is a Russia-wide problem.

This can be any crime?

Any. Once, in a SIZO [pre-trial detention center], in a small room where we were waiting for a convoy, I was talking with one of these suspects. An 18-year-old boy. He asked whether I’d confessed to committing a crime. I said no. He said, confess, because if a person refuses and doesn’t confess what they’re incriminating him for, the sentence is always harsher. He advised me to confess so that my sentence would be less.

Had he himself already confessed?

Evidently he had confessed and was hoping for leniency.

This is the disciplinary system throughout Russia, and it’s scarcely connected with the Chechen wars. What changed in the Chechens themselves after the war?

Something in their psychology changed.

Can you cite something specific? If we take the first war, everything got worse in the second.

A lot worse. If in the first war it was considered outrageous if a local law enforcement officer raised their hand against someone 40-50 years old, I’m not talking about 60 or more. Today it doesn’t matter what your age is, what your gender. If you fall into law enforcement’s hands, they will beat and torture you.

Respect for one’s elders, respect for the woman, has all that vanished?


What lay at the foundation of the mountain peoples way of life has vanished.

Yes. It was a disgrace for the entire clan overall. And today it’s considered normal to beat an old man, a woman. Even to beat a child.

Aren’t they afraid of vendettas?

Evidently not. They think it has always been this way and will continue this way. If today someone joins law enforcement, he is prepared to work in this mode.

He knows in advance what he’s agreeing to?

Naturally. Everyone knows how law enforcement works.

How does this mesh with religion, with faith?

This has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam. Whatsoever. Islam forbids violence in general, to say nothing of murders.

There is something else. When someone commits a crime, it is all registered, and he has to be judged and punished for it. But this must be done by a court.

And when you were arrested and later held in a SIZO and a penal colony, were there people in law enforcement who sympathized with you?

Naturally. There are always people like that. But by expressing their sympathy, they basically doom themselves to major problems.

The first part of this interview is available here

Translated by Marian Schwartz

Oyub Titiev: What was once practised in the Caucasus has come to Moscow. An interview with Zoya Svetova

posted 20 Oct 2019, 07:30 by Translation Service   [ updated 20 Oct 2019, 08:15 ]

27 September 2019

By Zoya Svetova, journalist [Photo:]

A few months ago, Oyub Titiev, head of Grozny Memorial, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group’s prize, sentenced to four years in a penal settlement for possessing narcotics, was released on parole and then moved to Moscow. In an interview with MBKh Media correspondent Zoya Svetova, he recalls the second Chechen war and explains why after the first war Chechens began to abduct Chechens and how the brutality and violence that flourish in the republic affected police conduct during the Moscow protests. 

Twenty years ago, on 23 September 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree “On measures to improve the effectiveness of counterterrorist operations in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation.” The decree envisaged the creation of a Combined Forces Group in the North Caucasus to carry out counterterrorist operations. On 23 September, Russian troops began a massive bombardment of Grozny and the surrounding areas. On 30 September, they invaded Chechnya. The second Chechen war began. How did this second war differ from the first Chechen war (1994-1996)? 

You know, the first war began without preparation on either side somehow. The military invaded and threw young boys straight into the very worst fighting. Most of these boys didn’t even know where they were going, they hadn’t even had it explained to them that they were going to take part in military operations. They were thrown into Grozny. In Grozny, every house, every street, every block in and of itself is a defence post from which military operations can be conducted under concealment, and this is a very good point. And when the armour and tanks went in, they started to come under virtually point-blank fire, and as a result there were huge losses on the Russian side.

In the second war, evidently, the military took all this into account and prepared better. As far as I know, no soldiers were thrown ahead; everything was done at a long distance. First came the artillery, then aviation, and they would work in a kind of tandem against a single specific quadrant, level everything, and then advance. Then the next quadrant. The second war was more destructive for the local population and there a great many casualties. Those who didn’t manage or think to get their families out of the republic, most of them suffered.

Where were you when the war began?

I was at home, in my village of Kurchala. During both the first and the second wars I stayed in my village the whole time until the end of military actions. Now, when I analyze all this, I realize this was wrong. Not for me but for my family. In moments like this you should always take out the children, women, and old people. Take them entirely out of the zone of military actions to a place of safety. After that, anyone who believes he should be in the zone of military actions can return and do what he has to do. But children should not be under bombs or shells.

How many children did you have at the time?

At the start of the second war I already had three children.

And were you still working in a school?

At the time, the school in our village was not operating well. I had left the school back in 1988. In the Soviet era, I had worked both in a furniture store and in the school [as a phys. ed. teacher—MBKh Media], because there was no way I wanted to part with the school. My working day at the store ended at two o’clock. I would go quickly to the village and give lessons there. And work until late in the gym. I also had a day off on Monday. The head teacher scheduled lessons for me that day. Sometimes I even worked a third job, in the district department of culture, where they needed a designer. They asked me to work there, and so I was working three jobs.

And what were you doing in September 1999?

At the time I wasn’t doing anything, just occasionally some small business, selling or buying things.

Why didn’t you take your family to Ingushetia, as many then did?

I could not have taken my family out alone. None of my family wanted to leave, and everyone stayed. There were seven of us in the family, and everyone had their own families.

What is your strongest memory of the second Chechen war?

The whole war made an impression. When the artillery was firing on the village, they would open artillery fire on the settlement from the soldiers’ side, from the сommandant’s office, and from the sub-unit at the edge of the village. You heard these shells flying. You heard the salvos and waited for where it was going to explode. You didn’t know where to put the children, how to protect them.

Did your village suffer badly from military actions?

The artillery didn’t operate against the village that often. The first two depth bombs were fired at our village on 30 October 1999. It was a plane that dropped them. At the time, I had a lot of people at my home, a lot of refugees. The nine rooms were packed with refugees. First we fed the children, then the men, and then the women. We ended up having to feed them in three shifts. First breakfast, then dinner immediately after, and then supper, all day long, until everyone had eaten. I don’t even know how many of us there were. People were sleeping in the kitchen, too.

We know that during the first Chechen war you took part in the militia but left. How did that come about?

The assault on Grozny began on 31 December 1994, and lasted until the end of February. That was when I joined the militia. On 3 January 1995, my cousin was killed. I had to return for the funeral. Then, on 18 January, I left once again to rejoin the militiamen. But then word was sent to me that my family wanted to see me at home. My mother, older brother, and sister. I arrived, and my mother told me she would not give me her blessing and forbade me from participating in military actions. Then my older brother forbade me, too. My older sister said that wherever I went, she would go, too. So at the request of my mother, older brother, and sister I had to stay home.

During the second war, were you already less than eager to fight?

During the second war as such there was no major militia movement. It was in the first war that everyone was eager to fight.

When did you start working to help people?

I lived right in the middle of the village, next to the district administration. Opposite, across the road, were the police. My former colleagues and fellow villagers I knew were working in the administration, and my former pupils were working in the police. I ended up right at the centre of events. Information would come in, and I began collecting it.

But why?

At the time, many in Chechnya were keeping diaries. Subsequently, when I was already working at Memorial, they collected information for the next generation, for history. I started collecting information on military violations, but I didn’t have the idea of working in human rights specifically until I met colleagues in 2001. And when I did, I believed I could be of some use in this area. 

To be continued.

Translation by Marian Schwartz

"There are no politics here” - Grigory Melkonyants on the rally in support of political prisoners

posted 9 Oct 2019, 11:39 by Translation Service   [ updated 9 Oct 2019, 11:39 ]

30 September 2019

The Agency for Social Information (ASI) spoke with Grigory Melkonyants, human rights activist and co-chair of Golos, and learned how “Let Them Go” differs from previous rallies and what changes in the affairs of political prisoners human rights organizations are awaiting.

On 29 September, on Academician Sakharov Prospect in Moscow, an authorized rally, “Let Them Go,” was held in support of political prisoners. It was specifically devoted to those charged and convicted in the “Moscow affair.”

Grigory Melkonyants was a public observer at the 29 September action. “This is the most massive rally devoted to political prisoners in my memory. Rallies have been held for free and fair elections and political demands have been presented. In August there was a political rally with an election subtext, but there are no politics here; it is a call to release people who are guilty of nothing,” Melkonyants told ASI.

In his opinion, it represents a qualitative change in the public agenda.

The demand for justice has begun to be heard from various spheres, and this, Melkonyants believes, is what has attracted so many people. According to the data gathered by White Counter, “Let Them Go” assembled 25,000 people.

“The authorities treated this rally in a new way, too, as was immediately clear to the participants. Unlike past actions, law enforcement agencies were practically invisible. Dump trucks to block off streets and the view weren’t used, either,” the human rights activist remarked. He added that the MVD [Interior Ministry] provided objective data on the number of rally participants, and this is a signal that the state is changing its attitude toward such undertakings.

“This time everything was done properly: it began peacefully and ended peacefully,” Melkonyants said.

Taboo Virtually Lifted

“We are seeing that this solidarity manifested by society has had an effect on court rulings, but these are isolated decisions regarding individuals on whose behalf they are specifically stepping in. This rally showed that a large number of people are prepared to defend others on issues that did not bother them before — the issues of political prisoners. Previously, this was a narrow human rights activity that now is spreading into the mainstream,” Melkonyants remarked.

He also mentioned various projects and services that now accompany mass meetings: OVD-Info, which renders informational and legal support; and the large number of lawyers prepared to travel to see those detained and win their release in police departments and courts.

“We are seeing the public collecting money to pay fines in administrative cases. And people (the detained and convicted. -- Ed.) feel they aren’t alone. There is a serious transformation under way in attitudes toward law enforcement opposition,” the human rights activist remarked.

To the evolution in the public’s attitudes toward actions he added as well the high-profile letters written by various organizations in support of figures in the “Moscow affair.”

“Since the taboo on support for political prisoners has virtually been lifted, we should expect the sphere of professional support to grow and public opinion leaders in their spheres to continue to speak out in defence of those convicted who did not commit crimes,” Melkonyants said.

Not Enough for Everyone

“Even this broad coalition of various professional groups doesn’t have enough strength to win the release of everyone detained,” the human rights activist believes. “After all, this is a matter not only of rally participants.”

According to him, if a conversation about the need for full-scale reform of the law enforcement and legal systems is not begun, the struggle will have little effect. Society throughout the country simply cannot consistently maintain this kind of tone and defend people accused of something they didn’t do. This reform is the main demand that should be heard, apart from political prisoners’ individual cases,” Melkonyants concluded.


On 30 September, Memorial said that two more people accused of riot during the summer protests in Moscow are now political prisoners: Eduard Malyshevsky and Nikita Chirtsov. Previously, the human rights organization had declared had declared nine people detained in the “Moscow affair” political prisoners.

Human rights defendersactors, priests and teachers, psychologists and psychotherapists have come out with open letters in defence of those arrested.

On 20 September, actor Pavel Ustinov was released under travel restrictions. After this, a wide-scale campaign opened throughout the country for the release of all figures in the “Moscow affair.” On 30 September, his sentence was changed from three-and-a-half years'
imprisonment to one year instead. On 26 September, Aleksei Minyailo, who has been in a pre-trial detention centre since August, was released in the courtroom.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

An Interview with Kirill Koroteev on the application to the ECtHR by Russian NGOs regarding the "foreign agent" law [Idel.Realii]

posted 26 Mar 2018, 06:35 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 26 Mar 2018, 10:18 ]

9 March 2018

An interview with Kirill Koroteev, legal director at Memorial Human Rights Centre

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Idel.Realii]

Lawyers representing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) recognized in Russia as foreign agents are completing the final stage in a process in the European Court of Human Rights and are preparing responses to the position of the Russian government. For the first time, the European Court has combined the appeals of more than 60 NGOs, requiring that representatives from the organisations prepare one document. Twenty lawyers prepared the document, among them the Agora lawyer Irina Khrunova; Kirill Koroteev, Memorial's legal director; Karina Moskalenko, Moscow Helsinki Group member and founder of the International Protection Centre; as well as Galina Arapova, Maksim Olenichev, Dmitry Bartenev, and others. In an interview with Idel.Realii, Kirill Koroteev discussed the main objective of the application to Strasbourg, what has happened to the organisations who have filed applications over the past five years, and what is so frightening about the term "foreign agent."

— What was the main objective of the appeal to the ECtHR: compensation, returned fines, or acknowledgment that the Convention was violated?

— The competency of the European Court is, first and foremost, to determine violations of the European Convention. This, above all, is what we ask of the Court. And actually, this is very important. The Court cannot overturn or modify Russian laws. The ECtHR can only establish in which part of the Russian law there are problems. We are confirming the violation of the convention inherent in the existence of a law that calls professional non-governmental organisations enemies and spies. We expect that the Court will establish a violation of the Convention in this case and that the authorities will repeal this law in accordance with the decision. It cannot be fixed.

— A question for readers who aren't particularly familiar with the topic. According to the law, a foreign agent is an organisation that receives international financing and is politically active. Why does this status scare non-governmental organizations so much?

— Those who are familiar with it have been used to it for a while. Their skin has become thicker, their sensitivity lowered. But those who aren't familiar can perhaps see with a fresher eye that, as a matter of fact, "foreign agent" is a term from the lexicon of our past, from the 1930s. In many Russian-language dictionaries, the first definition of this word is "spy." One particularly subtle and cunning aspect of this law, which is openly laid out in it, is that it demands that organisations call themselves foreign agents, which, when translated from bureaucratic language means the following: organisations must declare that they are enemies and spies.

— Is it just a matter of the phrase "foreign agent"?

— In many respects, it's that precisely. It's also about the delineation of the absurdly-defined concept of "political activity." I think that it was deliberately defined absurdly, because according to a 2012 law, the whole wordy definition of the concept of "political activity" meant one simple thing: political activity is any text on the organisation’s site. It's not participation in elections, it's not supporting candidates—it's any text of the website! When the Russian authorities say that it's also oversight of international financing of political activity, that's also wrong.

The law is obviously not compliant with ECtHR practice. We are not the first organisations to complain to the European Court. The restrictions many organisations face, going as far as dissolution, are forbidden by the European Convention, if there are no calls to violence. Consequently, you can explain at great length why this or that restriction is permissible, but fundamentally, the ECtHR primarily examines the reasons for which the authorities imposed a given restriction.

— Not long ago, news of an NGO’s inclusion in the registry of foreign agents was quite a regular occurrence. Now there is practically silence. Why? Are all those who the authorities wanted to have recognised as foreign agents, now recognised?

— We’re not going to prompt the Ministry of Justice and name more organisations that could be added to the register (laughter). Firstly, the register contains many organisations. Secondly, the job of the department has apparently changed. It would make no sense to annihilate all those groups on the register, because it is necessary to report back on inspections carried out, and so to retain personnel to check documents. Of course, the intensity has decreased. We don’t know if it would have decreased if the ECtHR had communicated the applications at the close of 2014, for example. But I think that the communication of the application in 2017 contributed to the reduction in intensity, because the Ministry of Justice realises that taking further measures would strengthen the applicants’ position.

— At this stage, you inform the ECtHR which changes organisations have undergone. It’s been five years since the first complaint. Tell us, how has the fate of organisations changed in that time?

—They’ve all developed in different ways. Their histories are completely different. The Moscow Helsinki Group was not included in the register of foreign agents, but only because it refused foreign financing. As we recall, Golos’ [Voice]’s rejection of foreign funding did not help it escape inclusion on the register. Many of the organisations that ended up on the register of foreign agents were liquidated – these are not isolated cases. The first that comes to mind is the Memorial Antidiscrimination Centre in St Petersburg, and the LGBT organisation Vykhod [Coming Out]. In addition, the Committee Against Torture was liquidated, but people are carrying on its work anyway. That seems to me the most important thing. What form the organisation takes according to the register of legal entities is less important than what it can do. For the most part their work is continuing.

But there are exceptions – in Moscow the organisation YURIKS [Lawyers for Constitutional Rights and Freedom] was completely liquidated. That happened even before the authorities tried to enter them on the register – at the stage of the prosecutors’ checks in 2013. That organisation no longer exists, and its people aren’t doing their work – this is all the sadder because YURIKS united specialists in administrative justice.

— Many organisations were unhappy that the ECtHR took so long to start reviewing their applications. As I understand it, combining all the applications into one and preparing a single document to respond to the position of the Russian authorities helps speed up the process. Is that right?

— There is a certain procedural economy, the court organises its work as is convenient – that is its right. On the one hand, the trouble is that four years passed between the filing of the first application (before there were as yet any real repressive measures, so the applicants described themselves as potential victims) and the communication. During this time, everything that NGOs wrote about in their applications in 2013 happened. If the decision is in our favour, it will have less effect than if the process had started after 2014. The organisations that were liquidated won’t be restored. Even the communication of applications very often stops the authorities from worsening the situation for the applicants. Not always, but in many cases.

— A team of lawyers has lodged compensation claims with the ECtHR on behalf of NGOs subject to fines on account of their “foreign agent” status. How much money are we talking about?

— The amounts are different for all of the organisations involved, and it is impossible to generalise since the damages are calculated separately in each case. Not all of the organisations which were fined have made applications, and not all of the applications which were granted were communicated. In my opinion, the exact amount of money awarded is known only to the Ministry of Justice or the Federal Treasury, and naming a total would in any case be meaningless.

These fines are of course significant sums. There are organisations that managed to escape them only to be hit by audit-related expenses which proved the final straw. It has been small organisations that have been most affected by this law – if their annual budget is EUR 10,000, they might be forced to spend one quarter or one half of this or perhaps more on measures to ensure that they are legally compliant.

— Your application contains a request for the compensation of non-pecuniary damages. As I understand it, Russian legislation states that damages of this kind cannot be claimed by legal entities. What is the ECtHR’s position on this matter?

— That’s an imprecise way of framing the question. Firstly, the Convention forms part of Russian legislation, and secondly, even legal entities can be awarded compensation for damage to their business reputation...

— Of course, their business reputation.

— Past decisions by Russian courts indicate that awards can be made on grounds of damage to the business reputation of a military unit. The latter may not appear to have much in common with a business as we would normally understand the term, but one of the applicants in this case – the Soldiers’ Mothers of St Petersburg – is all too familiar with the courts’ interpretation of this point. Even Russian legislation provides a certain amount of room for manoeuvre, and the ECtHR does not in any way object in principle to compensation for non-pecuniary damages being awarded to legal entities.

— And this is the subject of your application?

— Yes, that’s correct.

— As I understand it, the clock is ticking on the deadline for you to respond to the Russian authorities' position, according to which the Law on Foreign Agents does not infringe the Convention in any way. It is highly likely that the ECtHR will find in your favour in 2019. What will happen then? Will the NGOs assigned the status of foreign agents be awarded their compensation, and then everyone will simply go home?

— We should not underestimate the importance of declaratory judgments by international courts. The very fact that such a judgment has been handed down – and I am under no illusion as to the likelihood of ECtHR decisions being executed rapidly and in full by the Russian authorities – and the fact that the ECtHR has analysed the case and drawn conclusions will be of great immediate consequence. Maybe our children and our children’s children, looking back at the events of the second half of the 2010s, will be able to identify the lessons to be learned from the problems we are facing, and find ways of solving them. This issue goes beyond the field of NGO activity, since the ECtHR is also taking stock of many other areas of the Russian legal system which can be described as problematic. In all probability, it is only the next generation that will be able to benefit in full from the analytical work currently being carried out in Strasbourg.

— That’s all well and good for our future descendants, but for the time being NGOs need to continue their work – and the Supreme Court of Russia may decide not to set aside the Russian courts’ rulings that impose fines, and the Constitutional Court may block the ECtHR’s decision full stop.

— I think that we need to keep things in perspective. In 1965, on the occasion of the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial, Aleksandr Esenin-Volpin wrote his famous proclamation of civil rights: “Respect the Soviet constitution”. Make no mistake; in 1965 there were no realistic opportunities for ensuring compliance with the standards of constitutional and international law. Nevertheless, just 20 years later, a great deal had changed. I think that now change will happen even more rapidly, regardless of everything. For this reason we should not over focus on the legal form of NGOs, the registration of NGOs in the Unified State Register of Legal Entities, for example. We should focus on the living people who have good ideas and do valuable work. They come together in very different organisational forms in order to do this work, and modern technologies are making it possible to focus ever more on the content of their work and pay ever less attention to the registration of legal entities. You can’t unscramble eggs, but, as Konstantin Arbenin said, "The tsars are lost in the mists of time, but we are still here.”

Translated by Anna Bowles, Joanne Reynolds and Nina de Palma

An interview with Natalya Taubina: "Surrendering your principles leads down the road to nowhere" []

posted 12 Mar 2018, 10:17 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 14 Mar 2018, 07:09 ]

2 March 2018 

An interview with Natalya Taubina, director of Public Verdict Foundation, with Yulia Bashinova, for 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Colta

Natalya Taubina is director of Public Verdict Foundation, a human rights group which for 14 years has been assisting people who have been victims of the violations by law enforcement agencies. In an interview with Yulia Bashinova, published in COLTA.RU, Natalia Taubina spoke about the work of human rights activists and how to persevere in a time of repression.

— When and how did you begin your civil society activism?

— In 1992, I was a student in my last year at Moscow Engineering Physics Institute. I studied in the cybernetics department and worked with databases. My research advisor said that he had acquaintances who needed to systematize requests from refugees and immigrants from Central Asia in order to help them more effectively. I went to the Civic Forum, where I met Lidiya Ivanovna Grafova.

At that time she was a journalist at Literaturnaya Gazeta in which she had published a questionnaire for people who had come from Central Asia and needed help regarding social assistance, protection of rights, and other aspects of arranging their lives. We had to create a database out of these questionnaires, which had been cut out of the newspaper.

At that time, I met my future colleagues and friends from the Moscow Centre for Human Rights. This turned out to be an interesting group—people who were doing concrete things, helping others; people with whom you could discuss many vitally important things—and I decided to stay on. I got dragged into it all, and then this year I realized with horror that I've been doing it for 25 years now.

— Wow! My word. And what came after the Civic Forum?

— I worked as a program coordinator at the Centre for Human Rights, and then I worked at the Human Rights Network, which provided training for activists. They also bought books for colleagues all over the country, and I think they even bought computers and other equipment and sent them all over Russia. In 1995-1996 the idea was born for an organization that would work on regranting for local human-rights organizations. Thus the Foundation for Civil Society came into being, and I was its director. Finally, in 2004, we registered Public Verdict Foundation to provide legal assistance to people who have fallen victim to arbitrary acts of the law enforcement agencies.

— How did the group develop?

— It became apparent early on that there were a lot of cases, that they were all similar, meaning it's a systemic problem, it requires system-wide changes. But before fleshing out practical recommendations, it would be a good idea to dig deep—truly deep, to the roots. And we were the first people in the country to begin scientifically-grounded research in this realm, including in the sociology of law enforcement agencies—and of course all of this from a human rights perspective. Then we tried to push our recommendations forward to the authorities, to ensure that the number of such cases went down, that the cases are effectively examined, in essence to change the situation surrounding torture by police. In 2008-2009, during a period when official law enforcement agencies were actively reformed, the authorities did pay attention to some of our proposals.

— That's a significant success.

— Yes, it was a success, although it also went the other way. For example, a special subdivision was created within the Investigative Committee in 2012 to investigate crimes committed by law enforcement officers. This was a huge victory, since [Aleksandr] Bastrykin publicly acknowledged that it was a reaction to the demands of the human rights community, which is a rather rare event in our country. But the special subdivision team wound up functioning very poorly. We didn't have the resources to force the Investigative Committee to develop the additional necessary legal framework, to ensure that everything would really bring results.

— What other goals have you had?

— Raising awareness of what we do and the results we achieve. The general public is extremely sceptical about the possibility of obtaining justice, and our aim in bringing cases to court is to show that this feat can in fact be achieved, difficult as it may be.

Back when we first started out, the idea of instigating criminal proceedings against a police officer would have seemed fantastic, let alone getting the case before a court. Now our organisation alone can boast of over 70 court rulings in which police officers have been found guilty. The sentences handed down by the courts in cases of this kind are also changing. On the few occasions when there were convictions of police officers in the early 2000s, they were almost always given suspended sentences. Our current experience is that 60-65% of police officers who are sentenced have to serve time in prison, and over 100 police officers have been punished.

Again, in the early 2000s the idea of seeking compensation before a civil court for moral and material damages for torture would also have been more or less a pipe dream, but now we do just that after criminal proceedings – and we even ensure that the level of this compensation is appropriate and commensurate with the practice of the European Court of Human Rights.

Even when the state – for various reasons which we will not go into here – is unable to ascertain exactly which specific officials are guilty of a crime, and no criminal proceedings can therefore be instigated, but it is manifestly obvious that the victim entered police custody as a healthy individual and left with various injuries, we proactively follow an approach of seeking compensation for torture. The individual in question was in state custody, the state is responsible for what happened to him, and there is a possibility that compensation may be awarded in the course of civil proceedings. This is a relatively new approach, and we are trying to develop it further and train lawyers and attorneys in its use. No officials are sent to jail, but the civil proceedings do not preclude the opening of criminal proceedings at a later date, and a court decision awarding compensation is an acknowledgement of sorts that people have been tortured by the police.

The second innovative approach we have actively developed over the past few years in our work before the courts relates to compensation for failure to carry out effective investigations, for example in cases where an individual files a complaint claiming that he was tortured by the police, but the investigative bodies do not take the necessary steps to investigate the circumstances thoroughly and refer the case to court. We appeal against all procedural findings at the investigation stage, and attempt to prove before the court that the case has been beset by red tape and unnecessary delays. And then we once again instigate civil proceedings and seek compensation for damages suffered owing to the failure to carry out proper investigations.

— And do you ever win?

— We do indeed sometimes win. As well as gaining redress for the individual in question, our second goal is to find a solution to a generalised problem. The more frequently these cases are heard by the courts, the less society will be able to hide from the fact that the failure to investigate cases properly is a widespread practice and a systemic problem, and that something must be done. We are therefore not only working to help individuals, but also to bring about changes to the system as a whole, and this is the principle underlying all of what we do. It’s also worth noting that our work involves a much wider range of approaches than simply talking to the authorities. We also conduct research, work out new legal practices, and raise public awareness. We are well aware of the fact that new legislation to close us down could be adopted at any time, but the problems will remain when we are gone, and so it is important to us to establish mechanisms and opportunities for systemic change, since the pressure on civil society groups means that there are sadly ever fewer options in this area.

The “foreign agent” status we acquired some years ago is a further problem which has meant that we are unable to plan our activities in the same way that we did previously. We no longer make any plans beyond three months in the future, and even the plans we do make are based on an awareness that anything may happen tomorrow.

Our “foreign agent" status has closed many doors and shut off many opportunities for talking to the authorities. It’s a difficult task to work in the field of human rights and to try and bring about change without being able to talk to those in charge. We have been deprived of these opportunities, both in theory and in practice, for four years now, and we have therefore had to overhaul our entire approach to what we do and change our priorities. We have continued working towards our goals, fulfilling our remit and implementing our programmes, but their focus has shifted.

Our principal target audience nowadays is the public, and many of the new programmes we have launched over the last year or two (“Life after Torture” and “Reform Barometer”, for example) are aimed at achieving greater public understanding of our work. Our second target group is the legal community – we might not be able to change the work of the Investigative Committee, but we can work on developing new judicial practice.

— What’s the hardest part of your work?

— It’s hard when you encounter a serious story of blatant violation, years of beatings – and nothing had come of it. The system gets stuck, it isn’t prepared to provide the victim with justice. That’s emotionally very difficult. We talk to people, look them in the eyes, we sense our own rightness, and we understand that we are doing our jobs professionally, but the result is not the right one. Torture in police custody is more than just one day of persecution, it’s also a long life afterwards, a long life to spend attaining justice. And not only for the victims themselves but also for their loved ones, who start to live for that alone. These are broken lives.

Take the [Ruslan] Rakhaev case. He is a former employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the head of the criminal investigation department in the Karachay-Cherkessia Republic. This is the third time he has been taken to court, where fellow operatives testify against him: they ill-treated a detainee, but each time it is Ruslan that has been charged. He is the one who has been accused of torture that caused a man's death. A strong young man, whose life has been marred for the past six years. Then you meet his Aunt Lidia, who is very grateful to us for our work during those years, but I feel we haven’t achieved the desired outcome, and for a third time we’re going down into hell.

Or the case of Martiros Demerchyan. He was the victim of ingenious forms of torture in police custody and was taken to hospital in an ambulance. There was the medical and all the other evidence, but the authorities refused to prosecute. Instead, a case was brought against him for making false allegations. The court of first instance found him guilty and sentenced him to 300 or 400 hours of compulsory labour. On appeal, the verdict was cancelled, an additional investigation was carried out, and now there will be a second trial. The case is crumbling, but Martiros’ family has been living in this situation since 2013. They live in poverty with young children, because he can’t work due to the injuries he received in police custody. And he can’t go anywhere because of a written undertaking not to leave the area. His wife can’t work either, because they live in a small village where everyone knows them because of this story and she lost her previous job. We are not a humanitarian organization and have no capacity to help with money, but we understand their terrible situation and are announcing a collection to help this family. Last year they were able to buy firewood with the funds collected, to survive the winter.

— So life is a constant state of tension for you.

— Yes, but we have a great team. Our organisation has a democratic system of management, not a bureaucratic one.

— How many of you are there?

— Twenty. After all these years of audits (the first was in March 2013), after four years not one staff member has left; in fact five people have joined us.

— Do employees burn out?

— Once a year I try to find the resources to take everyone somewhere for a few days. We discuss work issues, but it’s also a chance to relax and socialise. This is a major thing – our team, we are very friendly, not just colleagues but a family. This is our great strength.

Well, and there are constant opportunities to go places – to conferences, seminars or study-tours; I try to distribute them so that everyone can have a break with something new, spend time in a different environment. If the situation becomes more serious, we look for the chance to send the employee off for rehabilitation for a month or two.

— In 25 years, how has the understanding of your work changed? Not from inside, but from outside.

— There is more understanding. In the 1990s people found it hard to understand that there are some people who – although we receive wages, like any employed citizens – go to the Yaroslavl prison colony for no fee, spend the day there and try to get access to a defendant. Or answer phone calls in the middle of the night, and that very same night urgently seek a lawyer to come to the police station… In the eyes of an ordinary person these people are slightly mad. Why would they do it? There must be some profit in it. It’s quite hard to understand that the profit might be the satisfaction to be found in justice.

- But among your friends, aren’t there people who say: why do you need this?

- Yes, there were and are people who regularly say, “Natasha, you should’ve left this place by now. You have expertise, skills, the language, you can easily build a life wherever you choose. You can’t expect anything good here and nobody will thank you for staying either.” And these are people genuinely empathising with me.

So, one day my work may bring no concrete results, sometimes even one year of work. But each time there is a step in the right direction. And this helps me go on, despite the gloomy, rainy-day feeling that winter is near.

Recently there was a meeting of my university classmates. We haven’t seen each other for about 15 years but they know what I do. And I was surprised that my friends were saying, “We don’t agree to a large extent, but what you do – that’s cool. Maybe they don’t share my critical views of the party and government, and for sure we would probably have run-ins over Crimea a hundred times, but they have an understanding of the basic rightness of my work.

- Did you really never wish to give it all up and do something else?

- No, but there is a feeling of tiredness. Like the frog in the fairy tale, who tries to turn the milk into butter with its legs, you work and work but never manage to make the butter. But even when you are tired of moving your feet, you understand that there is no other way to crawl out of this milk, except by churning it into butter. And one day this will happen.

- How do you think it is possible nowadays to develop civil society in Russia?

- This is a huge, complex question. I have no fail-safe recipe. Fairer to say there is a dialogue that of late I’ve been having with myself. It seems to me that for the development of civil society in our country we must never depart from our values, our basic principles. And because of the pressure in the past few years on civil society, unfortunately this has been happening, and this is extremely destructive.

Look at the straightforward story about renouncing foreign funding. For me it is important, not that I receive support from a Russian or foreign source, but that I receive it for those projects which we ourselves created and that the body to which we have applied for funding makes decisions in a way that I can understand.

Apart from that, if the Universal Declaration of Human Rights lays down the universality of human rights – that human rights are not the internal affair for any particular state – then the freedom of association to work for the benefit of society is also universal, and support for the realisation of that right must also be universal in nature. And as soon as a potential donor starts to dictate what I should do, and what I shouldn’t do – and our organisation has met several examples of this – for us this is the end of the conversation. Either you trust our professionalism and our understanding of what is useful and important, or we have no dealings with you.

The more we depart from the basic values and principles and concede to the authorities our right to freedom of association, the move we stand on very shaky ground. If once we let some elderly men in high offices dictate to us, and we said “OK!”, tomorrow they will dictate whatever they feel like. The state will determine whether or not we should help Ivanov or Petrov, just as the state has already said that organisations included in the register of “foreign agents” cannot carry out election monitoring. Next the state will try to say that organisations designated as “foreign agents” do not have the right to nominate candidates for membership of the Public Monitoring Commissions (there is already a draft bill to that effect).

- And then they won’t be able to provide lawyers in human rights cases…..

- Yes, then they will be banned from providing lawyers – or the lawyers will be excluded from bar associations for having signed contracts with “foreign agents,” and so on. To my mind, these are all things of a kind. Either we stick to our right to freedom, or we quietly surrender our positions. Either you act on the basis of your principles, while you can, or you leave this sector of work because to surrendering your principles is the road to nowhere. It allows you to live, to have financial means, to pay employees’ salaries, but you won’t have any moral satisfaction from the restoration of justice.

Colta” is beginning publication of a project “Why am I doing this?” The authors are Irina Kosterina, coordinator of the programme “Gender Democracy” at the Heinrich Boell Foundation, and activist Yulia Bashinova. In the course of the project, Colta will publish a series of conversations with directors of human rights NGOs and activists who are today experiencing difficult times.

This is how the authors of the project explain its aims and purposes: “Russian civil society exists in conditions of deep crisis and continually increasing pressure. The adoption of two laws (on “foreign agents “and “undesirable organisations”) has seriously restricted the potential for NGOs, human rights and civil society activity. Many organisations and activists find themselves in a situation of burnout and their motivation reduced. At the same time, new types of civic activism appear: grassroots initiatives, social enterprises, independent city platforms, online activism. There often attract activists of a new generation. At the present moment it is important to think about the “altruistic” motives of those who have long carried out civil society work, and to understand what helps people deal with disappointment, pressure and instability – and to share these ideas with new people.”

Translated by Anna Bowles, Frances Robson, Joanne Reynolds and Nina de Palma

An interview with Natalya Taubina: "Surrendering your principles leads down the road to nowhere" []

posted 12 Mar 2018, 10:17 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 13 Mar 2018, 12:40 ]

2 March 2018 

An interview with Natalya Taubina, director of Public Verdict Foundation, with Yulia Bashinova, for 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Colta

Natalya Taubina is director of Public Verdict Foundation, a human rights group which for 14 years has been assisting people who have been victims of the violations by law enforcement agencies. In an interview with Yulia Bashinova, published in COLTA.RU, Natalia Taubina spoke about the work of human rights activists and how to persevere in a time of repression.

— When and how did you begin your civil society activism?

— In 1992, I was a student in my last year at Moscow Engineering Physics Institute. I studied in the cybernetics department and worked with databases. My research advisor said that he had acquaintances who needed to systematize requests from refugees and immigrants from Central Asia in order to help them more effectively. I went to the Civic Forum, where I met Lidiya Ivanovna Grafova. [Read the translation of the full interview here]

An interview with Sergei Davidis: Why are Russians indifferent to the Syrian conflict?

posted 28 Jul 2017, 10:39 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 28 Jul 2017, 11:28 ]

20 July 2017

This interview with Sergei Davidisa member of the council of Memorial Human Rights Centre, and a member of the Federal Coordination Council of the 5th of December Party was conducted by SyriaUntold in partnership with openDemocracy Russia (oDR)

This interview was first published by openDemocracy Russia and is reprinted here by kind permission

It's been more than six years that Syrian civilians are subjected to unprecedented violence, why is the Russian civil society silent about it? Are there underreported solidarity initiatives?

Sergei Davidis: I don’t think there are any particularly significant solidarity initiatives that the world doesn’t know about. Sometimes there are solitary pickets, sometimes there are slogans of solidarity at general opposition demonstrations — particularly those regarding Ukraine. After the Kremlin decided to deploy troops in Syria, there was a demonstration against it, two to three thousand people attended. There was an attempt to hold a solidarity demonstration at the height of the storm of Aleppo in November 2016 — this had a certain resonance in society, but the city authorities didn’t allow it to go ahead. Back then, there were some protest actions in a few Russian cities, although they didn’t get much in the way of numbers. There’s some solidarity with the Syrian people on Russian social networks, but it’s quite quiet.

The reasons why Russian society is silent on this issue are complex, and probably can’t be explained exhaustively. I suspect that the following factors are at play:

- the coverage of the situation in Syria by media outlets under state control. If this coverage mentions violence against civilians, then it will be acts of violence committed by IS or the Coalition. Russia is presented as the defender of the civilian population;

- the conflict in Syria doesn’t fit into the dichotomy of the battle between the democratic west with the autocratic Putin regime;

- the general lack of information on the situation in Syria, and the complexity of this situation for Russian citizens — to figure out what is going on, especially on the basis of fragmentary and unbalanced information, and therefore understand who should be supported and why, is very difficult;

- the Syrian context itself is culturally alien and incomprehensible for Russian citizens (in contrast to Ukraine), and the level of empathy for the Syrian people is low;

- the threat of Islamic terrorism and, in first place, Islamic State, is seen as real, and the Russian public finds it hard to distinguish the fight against IS and other military conflicts in Syria.

What about the Russian opposition to the current government? Where does it stand on the Syrian conflict?

Sergei Davidis: The real opposition to the Russian authorities — the non-system opposition — views Putin’s war in Syria negatively. This concerns the so-called “liberal” opposition too, as well as a considerable section of the Russian nationalist opposition and the Russian left. But the main theses of Russian opposition groups are pragmatic rather than humane — Russia is using funds for a distant and unnecessary war, funds that are needed to solve the numerous internal problems at home.

Nevertheless, the idea that the Putin regime is waging war in Syria to support Bashar Assad, to oppose the west and satisfy his own geopolitical ambitions, rather than really confronting IS and other terrorist groups, is seen as more or less self-evident by the opposition.

Is indifference towards Syria somehow related to the poor status of civil liberties in nowadays' Russia?

Sergei Davidis: It’s difficult to judge the connection between the two exactly. But there’s definitely something. At a minimum, the numerous problems with rights and freedoms in Russia suck up a lot of time from the section of Russian society that is, in principle, ready to express its concern with these domestic issues, which doesn’t leave energy for problems taking place far from Russia. Moreover, the constant limitations on freedom of assembly and expression make getting your position across to the rest of society all the more difficult.

To what extent can apathy towards the Syrian cause be ascribed to general indifference towards remote conflicts and to what extent is it a signal of widespread support for the Russian government's policies in Syria?

Sergei Davidis: Both factors are present here, but to understand their contribution, a comparison with the annexation of Crimea and aggression towards Ukraine is telling. According to polls, these actions by the Russian authorities had far more support from society. However, the protest against state aggression and solidarity with the Ukrainian people was significantly more noticeable in Russian society. So, in terms of Syria, support for the Russian authorities’ actions is extremely passive. Indeed, it is precisely indifference to a distant, foreign and incredibly complex conflict that is key here.

To what extent are reliable and diversified sources of information on Syria available in Russian in the country? What is the general perception of the Russian media's coverage of Syria? What about the prevailing view on how western media are covering the conflict?

Sergei Davidis: It’s hard to say, at least in Russia, what sources of information about events in Syria are absolutely reliable. But of course, it’s impossible to talk about diversification of information resources in Russia. In official media, which are more or less the main source of information for the majority of Russian citizens, the coverage is purely propagandistic and prejudiced. In the few oppositional media and the internet, diversification comes down to refuting official information, drawing attention to the Russian casualties, expenditure of funds on the war, foreign policy and military failures of Putin and Assad, rather than an attempt to paint a real, holistic picture of what’s going on in Syria.

The picture of the Syrian conflict, which you can see in the mainstream western press, is practically inaccessible to the Russian viewer — the kind of information paradigm (not only in its relationship to Syria, but in terms of attention paid) isn’t available in Russian, including in opposition media. The picture you see in Russia’s official and pro-government media is principally different, opposite, from its western counterpart — and it’s the same in the alternative press.

Is there any Syrian civil actor, intellectual, artist who has managed to reach the Russian audience? Because of the historical relations between the Assad regime and the URSS-Russia, a significant number of Syrians have have lived in Russia, some of them even speak Russian fluently. What is the role of this Russophone Syrian community in Russia and abroad? Does it have any impact on how the narrative on Syria is shaped in Russia?

Sergei Davidis: I can’t think of any successful examples where Syrians have appealed to the Russian public, or any role played by Russian-speaking Syrians. The only instance I can think of is, perhaps, the statements made by Muhammed Faris, the first Syrian cosmonaut. Faris, who conducted a mission on the Mir space station in 1987, joined the opposition in 2012 and eventually fled to Turkey. In November 2015, Faris called on the Russian people to support the fight against Assad — and this had a certain resonance in society.

Some have argued that Islamophobia has played a role in decreasing empathy with the Syrian cause (especially in comparison with the Ukrainian cause). If so, do Russians look at Syria in the same way they look at Chechnya, therefore sharing the same prejudices on an allegedly "Islamic" cause? What about Russian Muslims? Are they vocal about Syria or is mobilisation limited to Islamist hardliners?

Sergei Davidis: I don’t think that Islamophobia is crucial to understanding the indifference of Russian citizens to Syria. It plays a certain role. Society doesn’t want to understand the internal confrontations or waste energy on distinguishing IS terrorists and other groups fighting in Syria, thereby risking the possibility of being wrong. But a comparison with Chechnya shows that Islamophobia isn’t key. The level of empathy for the Chechen people during the first and even second Chechen wars was far higher. This was probably connected to the geographical, cultural and historical closeness of Chechnya (and the casualties, terror attacks, mass involvement in military actions from across Russia, and because the war was so physically close).

I’m not well informed enough about how Russian Muslims feel about this situation, but what I do know tells me that their positions are defined by their relationship to the Russian authorities. Supporters of the regime tend to support its position, including Syria, whereas opponents are more likely to sympathise with IS. But as far as I know, there’s been no actions in support of Syrian civilians, actions against Assad or Russia’s role in the war, by Russian Muslims.

In Europe, siding with the Syrian regime has become a common trend among wide segments of the traditional left (under the "anti-imperialist" guise) and the far right-wing (for Islamophobic reasons and in the hope of curbing the unwanted waves of refugees through stable "secular" dictatorships). A growing number of decision-makers are also rehabilitating the Asaad regime under the pretext that, in their view, it's the lesser of two evils (the latter being Sunni jihadism) and its collaboration is helpful in restabilising global security. Are there any similarities with the Russian political landscape and, if not, how does it differ from Europe with regards to Syria?

Sergei Davidis: The Russian authorities, and the “experts” and media who support them, use elements of similar rhetoric. But with the absence of public politics and public discussion in the western understanding, these arguments remain instruments of building support for the authorities’ actions, rather than a subject of substantive political and civic debate.

The support for the Assad regime and the military operation in Syria is based on the public position of the Russian authorities, which is passively shared by a significant section of Russian society. This position can be explained as follows:

- This support is the most effective and natural means of fighting IS and terrorist groups like it, and a chance to stop them far from Russia’s borders;

- The Assad regime, which is a legal, democratically elected regime that is realising Syria’s sovereignty, defending it against external aggression, international terrorism and colour revolutions from outside, is legally and morally justified;

- Participation in the military operation in Syria, the support and maintenance of a friendly regime in the Middle East allows Russia to oppose its geopolitical enemy — the west, and, in particular, the US, as well as to show the might and importance of Russia, test new military equipment, and give practical military experience to the Russian army.

An interview with Sergei Nikitin: ‘Young people in the Soviet Union instinctively knew the Beatles embodied the idea of freedom’

posted 31 Dec 2016, 07:23 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 31 Dec 2016, 10:37 ]

31 December 2016

Early in December, Rights in Russia spoke with Sergei Nikitin, who has headed the Moscow office of Amnesty International since 2003. Sergei has been coordinating Amnesty’s work in troublesome times. In recent months, in particular, Amnesty International has faced serious difficulties. In November Amnesty staffers were locked out of their office for 16 days over a dispute about rent, and in December the state-controlled NTV station broadcast a vicious and mendacious attack on the organization.

With a Little Help from my Friends

Sergei’s friends also know him as an expert on the Beatles; he regularly posts items about the band on Facebook. ‘Most of my friends,’ he comments, ‘are people who work in human rights. Every day we have to deal with a lot of negative things - injustice, torture, violations of all kinds, and this is very difficult. That’s why it’s good to post things of a different kind, otherwise we would all go mad.’ When we spoke with Sergei on 9th December, he was quick to point out that this was the 26th anniversary of the killing of John Lennon in New York. Lennon had been shot dead on 8th December 1980 (as Sergei noted, already 9th December in Russia). We decided to ask Sergei in more detail about his love for the Beatles, and the impact these musicians had in the Soviet Union and Russia. Appropriately, our conversation would also mark the passing of John Lennon, whose most famous lyric imagines people living in peace and harmony, an aspiration which Amnesty members and supporters of human rights the world over will share.

You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away

Sergei says he has always been interested in the Beatles, at least since his early days as a high school student in St. Petersburg. Over the years he has developed a deep knowledge of the Fab Four. But growing up in Soviet times, it was certainly not easy to listen to the Beatles or to find out about the group. Almost the only way to hear their music was on foreign shortwave radio stations. ‘Shortwave radio was the only source of real news available to us,’ he comments. ‘The Beatles were not banned by the authorities, as such, but they were ignored, and certainly not encouraged. Since the Beatles were not mentioned in the official press, this means they were considered anti-Soviet, though there was no punishment as such for listening to their music.’ Sergei especially remembers hearing the Beatles on the programmes of Seva Novgorodsev on the BBC (Sevoborot and Rock-posevy). But the Beatles could be heard on other stations, such as Voice of America. Sergei first heard Lennon’s album Imagine in 1971 on a Romanian radio station, and later remembers hearing the lead song from the album on a Swedish broadcast of a Beatles concert in Stockholm.

Sergei says that despite the difficulties in hearing the music, many young people in the Soviet era were Beatles fans: ‘I remember in my class at high school in the ‘60s, my friends talked about the Beatles and listened to their music.’ Sergei and his friends would write out the lyrics of the songs by hand, in a kind of samizdat: people who had the lyrics would lend them to be copied. Moreover, wanting to understand the songs was one more motivation to learn English. Sergei remembers puzzling over various slang words and grammatical abbreviations, the strange word ‘gonna’ being a special puzzle.

In the Soviet Union you could not buy the records or any of the paraphernalia that was on sale in the West - boots, bags, clothing, and so on – and Beatlemania was out of the question. For most of the country's citizens there were no contacts with foreigners at that time. But some records did manage to reach a Soviet public. Sergei remembers: ‘I had some friends whose fathers worked at a research institute in St Petersburg. One of them visited the Nils Bohr Institute in Copenhagen and brought back a copy of Sergeant Pepper. Another went to England in 1972 and bought Abbey Road. It cost about $10, a fantastic sum for those days, especially considering they only had $30 for the whole trip.’

If the Beatles were ever heard on official Soviet broadcasts, it was by accident. For example, Sergei relates that there was an occasion in the 1960s when a Soviet documentary, ‘Sport, Sport, Sport’, showed one of the heroes of the film talking about being at an athletics competition in England. And for one brief moment they showed the Beatles. Sergei also says that the Soviet record label Melodiya once recorded a Beatles song - Girl (Devushka) - on a compendium of various songs, with credits as a ‘folk song’ sung by the ‘Beatles quartet’.

The way the news of Lennon’s death reached Soviet citizens was typical of how information seeped through from the West. The day Lennon died, Sergei says he was listening to the BBC on a shortwave radio at his home, and wondered why they were playing so much of Lennon’s music. He recalls the huge shock of learning Lennon had been shot dead. Desperate to find out what had happened, he set off to downtown St. Petersburg looking for more news. The obvious places to go were hotels where foreign tourists stayed: ‘Soviet papers wrote very little about Lennon’s death, so I went out to look for foreign newspapers that were only available in hotels for foreigners. I went to the Evropeiskaya Hotel to look at the foreign papers there. I thought there might be more news, for example in the Morning Star, the paper of the British Communist Party. A woman working in the hotel said, “I know what you are looking for” and showed me the latest issue of the Italian newspaper, Il Messagero, that had a picture of John Lennon on its front page. I paid a lot of money to buy it!’

The Long and Winding Road

Looking back, Sergei says there was always a strong link between the Beatles, and rock music in general, and human rights for many young Soviet people of the time. ‘Young people in the Soviet Union instinctively knew the Beatles embodied the idea of freedom,’ Sergei says, ‘It was obvious from the music. It didn’t need explaining. They were against censorship, against the banning of works of art.’ Sergei says the Beatles were spontaneously able to guess and express the feelings of young people. And in the Soviet Union adolescents had a yearning for freedom – and feelings of rebellion - just as in the West. ‘The music and the human rights themes went hand in hand,’ Sergei says. When he used to listen to the BBC on shortwave radio, Sergei recalls, ‘One moment they would be playing the Beatles and the next there would be a broadcast about violations of human rights, for example about the situation of the Crimean Tatars, or about reports of torture.’

The first time Sergei heard of Amnesty International was in connection with rock music: ‘I heard rock musicians were supporting Amnesty International. The first time I saw the Amnesty candle symbol was probably in 1986 when there was a big concert tour in support of Amnesty in the US with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, U2 and others. It was a tour that helped Amnesty reach a larger audience in the US. But news about it also reached us in the Soviet Union.’

Lennon’s death was so shocking partly because he had been the most politically outspoken of the Beatles, and was well known for his opposition to violence. Sergei recalls that Lennon had condemned the Vietnam war and refused to perform before US soldiers. In 1969 he returned his MBE over his opposition to the Vietnam War and British involvement in events in Biafra. Lennon was also known to be critical of the Soviet Union.

For their part, the Soviet authorities, especially in the Gorbachev era when the attitude to rock music became more permissive, seized on the social content of the music. Sergei comments that under Gorbachev the authorities stressed that ‘good’ Western rock musicians were progressive and against capitalism. And Sergei agrees with them to a great extent, but unlike the Soviet authorities he insists that human rights was an essential part of the music’s message: ‘Of course the Soviet authorities were right that the music was attractive not just for its musical content, but because it embodied radically new views about society, and about important issues, but of course these included human rights.’

Back in the USSR

In a Soviet Union largely isolated from the rest of the world, Sergei says that listening to the Beatles ‘was part of wanting to find out about a world where we could never go.’ This is one reason why the song ‘Back in the USSR’ caused, to say the least, mixed feelings. It was released in 1968 in the year the Soviet army invaded Czechoslovakia. Sergei says it is up to the listener to decide whether the references to balaikas, ‘Daddy’s farm’ and ‘keeping your comrade warm’ were ironic. But of course many young Soviet people were delighted to hear the Beatles singing about their country. Sergei also recalls that at the end of the 1980s, Paul McCartney issued an album exclusively for a Russian audience entitled ‘Снова в СССР’ [Back in the USSR]. Sergei was amused to discover it is also known in England, where it is referred to as ‘Choba b CCCP’, pronounced in the English fashion and mispronouncing the Cyrillic letters. Sergei says that at the end of the 1980s fans were delighted when Paul McCartney took part in a live phone-in on the BBC Russian Service. But Paul McCartney’s first visit to Russia did not take place until 2003.

While the Beatles as a group never visited the USSR, Sergei says there were legends to the contrary. For example, there was a story that they had stopped over in Moscow on their way to India, and police had surrounded Sheremetevo airport to keep people away. This was completely untrue, of course. Another story, even more fanciful, told how the Beatles had once gotten stuck at Sheremetevo airport and had been whisked away to give a secret performance to the Politburo in the Kremlin.

Ticket to Ride

Much later in life Sergei was able to travel to the UK and one of the first places he visited was, naturally, Liverpool. He wanted to see for himself the city where the Beatles came of age, the Cavern Club where they performed, and the houses where they grew up. The trip brought home to him how legends and adulation from afar had led to an idealization of the four young men and their lifestyles in the West where ‘all the roads were paved with gold.’ Sergei describes the shock he felt when he saw for himself the poor conditions in which they had lived - cramped terraced houses with few rooms, very basic heating and no indoor toilet. The housing Sergei saw in Liverpool reminded him of the very modest homes of his grandparents in far-away Gomel at the end of the 1950s (where his grandmother was a teacher and his grandfather an accountant). Growing up in St. Petersburg and listening on shortwave radio to the Beatles, Sergei could never have believed his heroes from the West had grown up in such poverty.

Sergei remarks that British life in the post-war 1950s, where levels of wealth were much lower than today (a driving factor for the Beatles’ ambitions, no doubt), is a fascinating backdrop to the musical and cultural phenomenon that was the Beatles. The economic hardship, rationing and the post-war housing crisis speak to the many similarities that existed between lives lived by ordinary people in the West and in the Soviet Union, despite ideological and geopolitical differences. At the same time Sergei was struck by the impact of the class structure, which was a peculiarly British feature. As he found out more about the Fab Four, he came to realize that while all of them came from relatively modest backgrounds, there were significant differences between their families. For example, John Lennon’s aunt thought John shouldn’t associate with lower class boys such as Paul, George or Ringo.

Run For Your Life

Sergei is also struck by the changes that have taken place in the UK since the 1950s and early 1960s, especially in terms of human rights. In those years homosexuality was still criminalized and the death penalty still in force. Indeed, social attitudes were also probably generally much closer to how they are in Russia nowadays. Gender discrimination and sexism were ubiquitous, and this can be seen in some of the Beatles lyrics. Sergei muses that the lyrics of Run For Your Life sound at odds with the Beatles message of love and freedom: ‘Well I'd rather see you dead, little girl / Than to be with another man.’ At the same time, Sergei points out that there was also a great deal of opposition in Britain at that time, especially among the older generation, to the Beatles, their music, life-styles and ideals. Sergei says that when the long-haired Beatles were awarded the MBE, a number of British military officers returned their own medals in protest.


Meanwhile, in the 1960s and 1970s, despite the imposed conformity, a great deal was changing in the Soviet Union. From the ‘60s onwards, home-grown rock bands were forming and developing ‘underground.’ In St. Petersburg, for example, groups started out playing in people’s apartments. If the quality of the earliest Soviet bands was not good, over time they got better. This was how Boris Grebenshchikov, Viktor Tsoi, Yury Shevchuk, Andrei Makarevich, all began their careers. And before long there were bands like Akvarium, Kino, DDT and Mashina Vremeni that enjoyed strong fan bases. Whenever one of them produced a new song or album, it was a big event, with everyone talking about it.

In Soviet times, attitudes towards rock music became a litmus test for political views. A love of rock music was associated with a longing for freedom and admiration of the West, while hatred of the West was usually associated with a dislike of rock music. Many of the musicians who came to prominence in the Soviet era have been strong supporters of human rights, such as Grebenshchikov, Shevchuk and Makarevich. Grebenshchikov, Sergei says, has been an especially strong supporter of Amnesty International. Yet generalizations can also be misleading. Sergei points to the fact that, paradoxically, some people who loved the Beatles and rock music in the 1960s and 1970s turned out to be illiberal in politics and hostile to human rights. He cites the example of Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB officer and close associate of Vladimir Putin who has served as head of the presidential administration and minister of defence, who makes a point of saying how much he loves Western rock music, and the Beatles in particular (and in a recent interview going out of his way to praise Pink Floyd). Yet Ivanov has been one of the leading advocates of repression of human rights in Russia and of an anti-Western foreign policy.

Hello, Goodbye

Sergei says that the peak of a wider collaboration between Amnesty and Russian rock musicians was probably in about 2005. Since then he says, on the one hand, as the economic situation improved, making money became the first priority for many musicians. On the other hand, the domestic human rights situation deteriorated, in particular after 2011, and there has been an increasing repression of freedom, and a growing polarisation in society. It has become increasingly risky for musicians to take a position on issues, not least human rights. Politics has become something of a minefield for a performer’s career. The events of 2014 - the annexation of Crimea and conflict in Ukraine – have seen a further deterioration in the domestic political situation. Sergei says this has had a strong and divisive impact on the music scene, splitting the music community, along with the rest of society. Sergei says many of Amnesty’s former supporters are now either more cautious in expressing their support, or have taken the view – propounded by the current government – that patriotism and national self-interest (as defined by the government) are more important than human rights. Many self-styled patriots, Sergei remarks, consider patriotism nowadays to be synonymous with hatred of things Western. It is a view, Sergei says with a sigh, that he ‘can’t understand.'

True, the polarization has to some degree brought a new wave of supporters to Amnesty. For example, Sergei says the prosecution and imprisonment of Pussy Riot brought many new supporters to Amnesty in Russia. And of course, one of the people who spoke out most strongly in support of Pussy Riot was none other than ex-Beatle Paul McCartney.


As 2016 draws towards a close, a year that saw the 26th anniversary of the killing of John Lennon, the world, and perhaps Russia in particular, is as far away as ever from the ideals expressed in Imagine. In these circumstances are the aspirations for human rights embodied in the work Sergei does at Amnesty International impractical and unrealizable? Sergei says no, it is not a utopian vision, either in Russia or in the world as a whole. He sees Amnesty's work as a very practical project to improve human lives, based on recognition of the need for justice and solidarity. As Lennon sang:

You may say I'm a dreamer 
But I'm not the only one 
I hope someday you'll join us 
And the world will live as one.

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