An interview with Igor Kalyapin on Torture and the Network case [M.News World]

posted 1 Mar 2020, 06:05 by Translation Service   [ updated 1 Mar 2020, 06:09 ]

19 February 2020

An extract from an interview with Igor Kalyapin in conversation with Nikolai Nelyubin 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: M.News World

Igor Kalyapin, chair of the Committee against Torture, member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights, and a Moscow Helsinki Group prize-winning laureate, is convinced that the Network case (concerning an organization banned in Russia) has produced an unprecedented reaction from the public, one which is already forcing individual state officials to respond. And the reason, in his view, is not so much the sentences of six to eighteen years in prison camps for the eight who were convicted as in the torture they suffered.

Igor Aleksandrovich (Kalyapin) , acting as defence counsel for Dmitry Pchelintsev who received an 18-year sentence in the Network case, told M.News that this is a clear indication of how the methods used by the security forces in the Caucasus are becoming the norm in the rest of Russia. Can this really be said?

This is not the first time that torture has been used in a Russian region, where evidence has been produced with the aid of torture, or where torture has been simply applied during the period of detention, and an individual beaten savagely, reduced to a lump of meat. And then very dubious charges are hung on the individual. I can’t say that there are a lot of these cases, but they existed before the Network case. What is unique in this instance is that it has produced such a public outcry.

Does it happen that in such instances the court gives a softer sentence than that requested by the prosecution? In the Network case the judge simply copied the figures out of the prosecutor’s files.

Usually the court gives shorter sentences than those requested by the prosecution, having found some extenuating circumstances which the preliminary investigation did not discover. Here it looks as though the judge was, in effect, settling scores with these individuals on account of the unfriendly public atmosphere that arose around the case. Really, this is the first time that I have seen so many people disturbed by a verdict. And – not so much by the severity of the sentences, but by the use of torture during the preliminary investigation.

The investigative committee checked the statements on torture and stated that they were not substantiated.

Quite true. And the court did not take the matter up.

I quote the judgement: “the statements by the accused regarding the use of prohibited methods of carrying out an investigation are fabricated, used as part of the defence strategy they have adopted. The court considers them to be a conscious attempt to confuse the public by discrediting their own initial statements and giving maximum publicity to a criminal case.” How should we interpret judge Klubkov’s statement?

During the hearing the court is obliged to evaluate the arguments of the accused. From a procedural point of view all was correct. The standard wording was used. The attitude towards these accusations was critical because the court sees them as a means of defending themselves. Usually that is the end of it. But in this case the judge went on to describe them as an attempt ‘to confuse the public’. For a judge to say of course this borders on indecency, almost verges on breaking the rules. The verdict was afterall completely on the verge of breaking the rules in all ways. I am not expressing my opinion of its legality and of the grounds on which it was based, nor, as they say, am I ‘evaluating the judge’s assessment of the evidence’. For me, something else is obvious: the accused spoke of torture, but the investigation into this was very poorly conducted. I am not simply saying this. I have seen the documents relating to this investigation.

Is this verdict a signal that torture is now suitable to use for obtaining evidence?

This verdict demonstrates a certain intransigence on the part of the repressive authorities. After all, when there was a buzz surrounding trials like this one, the court would usually investigate the entire body of evidence more carefully. If people claimed that there were circumstances that could have made the evidence inadmissible, the court would independently examine the evidence and comment on the legality of introducing it. In this case, everything was done very crudely. We didn't hear any explanations about this from the court in the verdict. This is clearly being done in a demonstrative manner.

When you created the Committee Against Torture in 2000, torture was considered uncommon. Today it's almost thought of as the norm. How did the attitude of the average citizen change?

I'm going to say something seditious: I don't think that torture has increased in the past 20 years. Take any case and I can find a similar one from 20 years ago. But it is obvious that society's attitude towards such things has changed. And I'm sad to say that the government doesn't see this at all. Over the past year, I have spoken with various high-ranking individuals about the need to make changes to the legal framework of the Investigative Committee, to the Criminal Code, and so on. The first thing I hear from deputies and the President alike was that the issue of torture isn't a legislative problem, it is a matter of society's attitude towards it. People tolerate it. President Putin said to me, "Of course we need to make changes, let's think about it." A year has passed since then, and nothing has changed. But there's much more information now, conclusive and reliable information. The Internet is teeming with clips of beatings in penal colonies, and people understand that it's happening. People see recordings of how prisoners are beaten with clubs, but these people don't take issue with it. Or when these same outrages occur at rallies. People are on the ground, being tasered or beaten with rubber sticks, in places where the law forbids the police from beating people. And people are growing accustomed to long prison sentences.

So will people really start thinking of sentences longer than 10 years for political activity as normal?

People really are getting accustomed to long prison sentences. But the thing is, people are more sensitive to torture.

If we're acknowledging that the extent of violence creates tolerance in society, then is the government perhaps consciously taking advantage of people's habit of not responding to other people's pain?

You shouldn't think that the tolerant attitude is gaining traction. On the contrary, people now react more strongly about reports of torture. Maybe this has to do with the fact that 20 years ago torture was used to elicit confessions of participation in organized crime groups. And people thought that participation in an organized crime group would definitely not be applied against them. But when they see that torture is used against demonstrators, airsoft players, runners, that it's used against anyone, not terrorists... Then it's easier for people to see how it applies to them. They are more outraged. When we said 20 years ago that in a day the police can make a killer of you, a leader of an organized crime group, a thug, and so on, people didn’t really believe it. But now they see that if you enjoy airsoft guns and you criticize Putin, the police have enough to make a terrorist out of you. [...]

Translated by Mary McAuley and Nina dePalma

Ella Polyakova: It seemed the abolition of conscription was just around the corner! But, unfortunately, we were wrong

posted 26 Feb 2020, 10:31 by Translation Service   [ updated 26 Feb 2020, 10:39 ]

10 February 2020

An interview with Ella Polyakova, founder of Soldiers’ Mothers of St Petersburg and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize by Andzhei Belovranin

How the protection of human rights in the army was born in Russia, what we were able to achieve in the process, and where we have arrived thirty years later is covered in an interview with Ella Mikhailovna Polyakov, the legendary founder of Soldiers’ Mothers of St Petersburg and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize.

How did you come to start dealing with the problems of protecting human rights in the army?

At the end of the 1980s, society already sensed that there was something wrong with the army. It was the Afghan war, there were deaths, there were human rights violations. But no-one really knew or understood anything, it was still just some kind of underlying ferment.

The real shift – at least, in my opinion – came after the case of Arturas Sakalauskas. I remember that we were all astounded by this situation.

He was a Lithuanian who served in the Escort Troops, now called the Russian Guard. He was humiliated to an extreme degree and shot eight people with a machine gun – colleagues and a woman.

It was the start of 1987. I was living in Leningrad, in Kupchino and I remember officers were standing beneath the windows of my house – they were hunting him. Military patrols were all over the city.

It was a very vivid story that made me understand the horror of it all. How one person was a victim of monstrous violence and sees no way out. He picks up a gun and kills those he sees as his enemy and, perhaps, random people nearby. And this destroys his own life because there can be no normal life for him after this.

There was an understanding of the horror that people in the army face every day: it’s clear that Sakalauskas was not alone. He was simply one of the few who decided to stand up for himself. Or that we heard about because he escaped and a massive search for him was launched.

But at that moment it was impossible to directly engage in human rights protection for soldiers – society was facing other problems. It was impossible to do anything without reforming the society and the political system. So the next active phase was a period of creating the People’s Front.

In Kupchino, we organised our own branch of the Leningrad People’s Front, the first branch registered in our city.

Straight away, the opinion formed that we had been “permitted” to register so that it would be easier to strictly control us. And that opinion had every right to exist – people visited me in particular, showed me their credentials, threatening unspecified punishment. But at that time, things didn’t go beyond threats. Registration took place, we dealt with many problems: we looked into people’s treatment, organised committees for public oversight and, of course, attached massive importance to the elections.

When the KGB switched from just threats to attempts at disrupting our work, we transferred our headquarters to my apartment. A coordinating council worked there. That was 1989, and my home phone number was pasted up around the whole city. Many future deputies passed through my apartment.

We staged a lot of actions: held processions, rallies. They were all non-violent. Lithuanians and Poles helped us.

Then there was participation in the elections. We got our candidates elected. I remember that Vladimir Gel’man – now a professor at the European University – kept the whole election process of the city in his head. We fought to make sure the Communists and the KGB didn’t win. Fortunately, the security services were afraid to show themselves too much.

On the deciding night we set up a headquarters, a place to go for information. I was on duty, relaying information while Volodya directed: analysing and making decisions faster and better than any computer could.

Symbolically, it was the city government had its headquarters on Moskovsky prospect, where the military enlistment office is now located.

In the upshot, our candidates were elected. I became an aide to Yuly Rybakov.

Kostya Etingof was also aide to a deputy. He studied at the military political Academy in Gorelovo, and was liable for military service. A campaign had just begun against Article 6 of the Constitution of the USSR, which claimed that "the leading and guiding force of Soviet society is the Communist Party of the Soviet Union".

We were opposed to members of the Communist Party having some advantage in public and political life. Etingof, given his military background, had no right to speak out against this Article, i.e., against the Communist Party. Or so he was made to believe. He came to us, and I helped him to speak on Radio Liberty to openly express his opinions. So we consistently undermined the foundations of the totalitarian regime. Step by step, we studied democracy, human rights and how to live on their own terms.

The next milestone was the first human rights conference in the Soviet Union. It was meant to be held in Lithuania, but Gorbachev banned it. It ended up going ahead in St. Petersburg, in the recreation centre of the Leningrad city council.

It is a great tale. The legendary Democratic Union was there and human rights activists from around the world came, including from England and the United States.

I was in the organising Committee of the Congress. I could see that we were being interfered with. That's how we first learned about their methods of interrupting events.

Like what?

For example, mentally ill people who allegedly wanted to participate were sent to speak. Well, maybe they were not genuinely unwell but were just good at pretending to be. We had our electricity cut. Basically, all the same stupid techniques that are used to this day. Anything which will get in the way of work.

So, at that congress, during one of the sessions, I was approached by Liubov Lymar. Her son was killed in the army, a really horrible story, he was stabbed in hospital. Liuba was not informed. The vast majority of human rights activists did not understand the problems relating to the army. And now, unfortunately, not everyone understands.

So, I helped Liuba to speak out. I was shocked when she told me about the horrors which she had to face.

After that we kept in touch. She invited me to a meeting run by the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. It was the year 1990.

I saw the disorganisation, all these mothers and fathers holding posters. Up until that moment I did not understand how the authorities had manipulated their grief. At the meeting, I saw it all.

We entered the organising Committee, I met several times with Liuba and naively explained to her how to better organise themselves. I did not immediately understand her when she said she was "people-driven".

She was from Chelyabinsk. She’d lived in terrible poverty. And then, in her room at the hotel Moscow, she was given ministerial rations — which at the time was an unheard-of luxury.

I slowly realised ways of manipulating people trickier than just turning out the lights. It is done in a way that prevents the channelling of popular indignation. This indignation would dissipate - no solutions would be found.

An officer was always standing behind Liuba. She was like a showcase: it drew people in, but nothing concrete was proposed.


How successfully?

Sadly, not without some success. One of the worst scenes I have witnessed during my life unfolded before my very eyes. The parents started to fight with each other. Their energy exploded – and was directed not against those who were guilty of causing their grief, but against those who, like themselves, were its victims.

Incidentally not a single deputy came out from the White House.

Then the demonstrators went on to Red Square, to the Kremlin. And there they suffered further humiliation; in front of the Historical Museum a naval band suddenly appeared, playing cheerful music. Just like at a parade, celebrating Russian military prowess. And this to accompany parents whose children had been killed, and the truth about how they had died had been covered up. Accompanied by this orchestra they went to Red Square.

There the demonstrators split – a small group went to meet with the President, and the rest stayed at the Spassky Gates. Everyone stood about, not sure what to do.

Then I went up to Moskovtsev – he was the officer attached to Liuba, and he was not allowed to meet with the President. I said – give me a megaphone. He brought me one. He, too, probably had no idea who I was, and whether I could give him orders. I then organized a meeting at the Spassky Tower.

The parents spoke in turn – and told horrific stories of what they knew of their sons’ deaths. And each was inconsolable – they had no one to turn to. Everything was hidden, it was impossible to learn anything, or to appeal to anyone.

It was then that I finally recognized – that was what the authorities wanted: go on demonstrations, appeal to us, bring petitions – let off steam. Let people tell of their pain, and it disappears into a vacuum, it’s lost.

If it’s heard, it’s quickly forgotten, confused with other stories, all mixed up. And it doesn’t get anywhere. And no one will do anything to change the situation.

And that meant we should act in a different way. Not meet so as to get rid of the tension or emotion we feel but to work together - sensibly, purposefully, and consistently.

Realizing this, and once back in St Petersburg, I discussed it with my colleagues. And we decided to set up an ‘initiative group’ – a quite new organization. Not a Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, which was wholly under the control of the military, and which could nothing but ask: don’t devour our children.

Then, in January 1991, there was Vilnius. There I saw with my own eyes how our army behaved, how it set upon its own people. We tried to establish what had happened there, with the Pskov parachute division, whose soldiers participated in the murder of civilians. Finally, the human rights organization, ‘The Soldiers’ Mothers of St Petersburg’ emerged out of the ‘initiative group’ in the autumn of 1991, after the attempted putsch. […]

Translated by Nathalie Corbett, James Lofthouse and Mary McAuley 

Genri Reznik: "In a sprint race such as this, people start to lose respect for the Constitution"

posted 9 Feb 2020, 05:51 by Translation Service   [ updated 9 Feb 2020, 09:15 ]

29 January 2020

Genri Reznik, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group and of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, is a Soviet/Russian lawyer and Doctor of Law

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: БИЗНЕС Online]

Genri Reznik, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group and of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, a Soviet/Russian lawyer and Doctor of Law, has refused to participate in discussions regarding amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation, as proposed by President Vladimir Putin. Reznik compared the procedure for adopting changes to a sprint race, and said that he did not agree with 19 out of the 22 proposed amendments.

A working group was established as part of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights to discuss the proposed changes. On the eve of their meeting, according to Kommersant, members of the Council argued for over two hours about whether such a group was even necessary.

‘Some members of the Council spoke about how the creation of a working group for amendments to the Basic Law is unethical - the President didn’t request it, and the bill was labelled a constitutional coup,’ said one of the meeting participants, who wished to remain anonymous.

As a result, a majority voted to create an interim working group. They will pass on their findings to the ‘main’ working group by the middle of next week. It’s also worth remembering that President Putin earlier introduced a bill to the State Duma that would amend Article 22 of the country’s Basic Law.

‘Five other members of the Council, as well as myself, spoke out against the creation of this group. There is no agreement on a number of amendments among legal experts: regarding, for example, the powers of the new Constitutional Court of Russia to exercise initial oversight ex ante, but not ex post. Or for the municipal and federal authorities to combine to form one single public authority, which means that municipal authorities are deprived of any autonomy. In a sprint race such as this, people start to lose respect for the Constitution, so I will not be joining the group. What we really need here is thorough work done by professionals, but there is not enough time,’ said Reznik.

The lawyer criticised the amendment, which, he says, gives the President the right to start the process of removing the status of judges, including judges of the Constitutional Court. He expressed bewilderment over the fact that the judges have not yet noticed this.

‘I consider this a violation of the principle of judicial independence, not least because the wording in the proposed amendments says [regarding the reason for removal of a judge’s status] "for committing an act defaming the honour and dignity of a judge," but this is vague wording. It’s unconstitutional, and the judicial community should be outraged,’ Reznik said.

Aleksandr Verkhovsky: The far-right movement has been routed. Repression will not get any worse, because there is no one left to repress

posted 3 Feb 2020, 06:52 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 10 Feb 2020, 10:39 by Translation Service ]

20 January 2020

Below is an extract from an interview by 7x7 with Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Centre for Information and Analysis and an expert on the politics of the far right in Russia. Interview with Maksim Polyakov

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: 7х7]

On 19 January, rallies were held in Russian cities in memory of the lawyer Stanislav Markelov and the journalist Anastasia Baburova, who were killed by far-right nationalists in 2009 in Moscow.

The day before that, the online magazine ‘7x7’ spoke to the Director of the SOVA Centre for Information & Analysis and winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize, Aleksandr Verkhovsky, about how Russia’s far-right and far-left have changed over the past 20 years, why it is that the government initially collaborated with right-wing activists, and then destroyed the movement, and what fascists and anti-fascists now have in common.

There were always many more of the far-right 

We are speaking on the eve of the anniversary of the 2009 murder of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, who were killed by members of the far-right movement. Explain, if you would, for those who haven’t been following, what the far-right and far-left movements had been like up to that point 11 years ago. What did they stand for and how did they operate?

I’m an authority on the far-right, but I’m no expert on the far-left. I’ve been aware of them, to a degree, for many years, but I haven’t studied them. So I’m not as well informed about one as the other. And the subjects themselves differ in almost every way.

In the early 2000s, there was a fairly powerful far-right movement, which differed from that of the 1990s in that it was very much geared towards violence. Of course, it had a political body fronting it – the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (the DPNI, an extremist organisation banned in Russia), and later on, some other organisations. But it basically involved street violence and people who combined that with some sort of political activism. That feature of the 1990s resulted largely from impunity.

By comparison, the far-left movement was relatively weak. Also, within it, a specific anti-fascist agenda took shape. While it had always been around in some form, as a youth movement, specifically, well, that came about in the 2000s.

The landscape at that time was shifting. It revolved around core groups of anarchists or people with communist views - Trotskyists, if you will – and also by people who didn’t hold any particular views as such but were just annoyed by the neo-Nazis on the streets. Either they were annoyed by them on an ideological level, or it was the violence itself that annoyed them, or both of those things applied.

Of course, you get people of all ages, but fundamentally, this was specifically about young people, and it was very much tied to the music scene and certain bands. Sometimes this had the appearance, to be blunt, of clashes between fans of various rock bands. To the casual observer, these conflicts often looked like clashes among groups of friends. But actually, even if a person who called themselves anti-fascist didn’t have a positive agenda as such, they simply didn't like the Neo-Nazis. That negative stance was very much an ideological one.

Accordingly, ideas about what anti-fascism ought to look like vary from one person to another. Some believe that you need to mould kids in school, while others think that you have to find nazis and punch them in the face. There was this documentary once about antifa in which they asked these musicians what antifascism was. They answered, “These people should be ******! That’s it. End of!”.

Importantly, these lads perceived the situation as a violent power struggle; the idea of rehabilitating your opponent simply didn’t come into it. Whereas for others it did. Moreover, we know that views have very often changed, in both directions. After all, we are dealing with young people here, and so the divide has never been completely clear.

As I said, things aren’t evenly balanced here in every respect. Nazis were almost always on top, with one or two local exceptions. 

Why were there more ultra-rightists?

Because generally the leftist movement, if you leave out the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, isn't very developed here. You can find all sorts of deeper explanations for it, but the result is visible to all: it was generally always weak.

The 2000s - that was the time when the numerous groups of street Nazis formed the basis of the nationalist movement. In some sense it was fashionable among a certain subculture of youth. It reflected mass tendencies to xenophobia. The ultra-right worried about the invasion of migrants, people from the Caucasus who (it seemed to them) were occupying the country.

I participated in the "Russian March" in 2007 in Moscow. That phenomenon was interesting to me as a journalist. At the meeting there were old ladies in the first row. And when they shouted "Russia for Russians" from the rostrum and listed all the people who should be kicked out, those old ladies all enthusiastically repeated the slogans. I saw a lot of older people.

I remember the 2007 march very well. There were some old ladies, sure, but in general they were the exception. In fact it was a march of youth, quite war-like. Of course Belov [Aleksander Belov, coordinator of the DPNI Central Committee] wasn't yet 20, but he was active very young.

The ultra-right also had the upper hand in that they were much more popular among football supporters. Although football fans are a little differently constituted -- it's a separate milieu that overlaps with political circles.

Generally, the sides were completely unequal. Apart from that, the anti-fascists weren't at all in a mood for killing people. Neither were the Nazis. That boundary on killing is very important. Attacks were very rarely and badly investigated, and the victims seldom even went to the police, but if you've got a corpse, there's no way out of it, there's going to be a criminal case and some kind of investigation. Nobody wants it. But nevertheless there were more killings on the side of the Nazis.

What role did the authorities play in the 2000s? Did they have agents infiltrate the rightwing movement?

That's a complicated story. Of course the militia, the FSB and probably the president's office had its agents. They didn't even need agents so much. If we remember the Surkov era [Vladislav Surkov, inventor of the concept of "sovereign democracy", crafted the internal politics of the Russian Federation from his post as first deputy in the President's office from 2008 to 2011], it was the dominant idea that the administration should concern itself with everybody and find ways of manipulating them. You don't need agents for that, you need intermediaries of a kind, people who can go back and forth.

There was no need to create groups. They grew like mushrooms anyway. Of course there was infiltration and there were attempts at manipulation. The story of "Russian Image" [an ultra-rightwing organization] is a prime example. That organization was helped to grow and given the appearance of influence so that some of the smaller groups ran to join them from DPNI and thereby weakened the DPNI as the main political actor on the far right.

Then it was though that Russian street nationalism was a political problem and you had to deal with it seriously. Center "E" [The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs] used repressive methods, although they also used preventive methods and infiltration. And the President's office did the smears and scandals.


How did this change the situation that followed? That is, the behaviour towards these movements of the right and left?

The security forces are all different, with their sympathies. There are times when they have pronounced political leanings. But in general, the law enforcement system views all of these fringe movements very negatively, especially the violent ones. That's why I think the situation hasn't gotten worse. The discovery of the Militant Organization of Russian Nationalists dramatically shifted the administration's position, because it became clear that the whole thing with Russian Image was, essentially, a failure.

The FSB were great, they uncovered everything. And while the FSB were arresting Tikhonov, the presidential administration allowed this same Russian Image to hold a concert on Bolotnaya Square. It didn't look so great, because these events took place at the same time. Antifa's time came later, when they attempted a serious revolt and tried to step outside the boundaries of conflicts between marginal oppositional groups.

It's clear there was another issue that existed both before and after this. There's the opposition in the broader sense of the word, and everyone recognizes that it's not very powerful. Frankly, before 2012, it was extremely weak. The rally for Khimki Forest was considered an accomplishment, but everyone there fit in the square around the Pushkin monument in Pushkin Square. It was pretty puny. The Russian March was the main oppositional event in the country simply in terms of size, so it's clear that people were paying attention.

Then, in December 2011, the scale changed dramatically. These radical movements stopped attracting attention, although the people who were at Bolotnaya Square in 2012 definitely did not represent any serious threat of destabilization.

Our government is always three steps ahead and is trying to nip the threat in the bud, as it were. And therefore, radical groups focused on violence are viewed by the government as a critical element that must be monitored.

Udaltsov appeared to be one of these potentially dangerous rebels. But if he were to decide to lead some sort of attack, the ordinary people who were at the Bolotnaya protest wouldn't be there. But there are a number of people involved in the Left Front organization who are truly capable of some sort of attack.

And this approach by the authorities continues to this day. Suppose there's a large Navalny rally. You always want to say, "Look, such peaceful young people." But somewhere out there in the crowd there are radicals, and if they are organized correctly the situation could be destabilized, or there could be an attack on someone or other. None of this is really within the realm of possibility, because we don't see it happening, but as speculation, as a hypothetical, it could be. I have a feeling that this theoretical idea still plays an important role. People believe that there's a potential threat, so it must be monitored all the time. This applies to the far right and far left, to any groups that could objectively or hypothetically use violence.

If I understand correctly, the turning point in relation to far-right movements in Russia occurred once Surkov had left the president’s administration?

There wasn’t just one turning point, but several. But the real turning point was Kondopoga.

This was a very significant event. It wasn’t about the fact that a restaurant was set on fire, but the fact that on that day, there was no authority whatsoever in the city. All top brass ran off, and it turned out that for some essentially spurious reason, those in charge of the city had simply disappeared. So it was in Kondopoga, but then what if it suddenly was somewhere else? It is a serious threat. And then they decided to take on the nationalists because they played a certain role, although it’s clear that it wasn't really about them. If Belov hadn’t come to Kondopoga the situation would have remained unchanged.

After that, the Centre E agency was created, which first and foremost deals with these issues. Talk that hate crimes were just hooliganism ended. When those in power realised this represented a threat not for migrants from Tajikistan - to which the state was indifferent - but to the state itself, suddenly things changed.

Then when Surkov left, the complex games ended. Furthermore, all that time, the repressions, roughly speaking, increased every year until these groups of street fighters had not been well and truly thinned out. Hundreds and hundreds of people were jailed. And the next generation of “young idealists”, as one colleague put it, who had joined this movement, were now afraid, while before then they had not been afraid.

This changed the situation and the ultraright movement became more political. They started talking about democracy and human rights. So the pressure they had applied suddenly everything changed. Then the mass protests happened that led to an increase in repression on the whole, and, of course, affected the nationalists too.

And then there was the story of the huge number of prosecutions for expressions of opinion, which eventually numbered in the hundreds. This change happened before the protests, at some point in 2011, without any external reason. I suspect that the repressive machinery had been finally restructured and was able to do this. Because for your average inspector to launch an investigation into a post on VKontakte would be quite out of the ordinary – they don’t work like that normally. But when they learnt how to do this, it all became possible.

Then there was Ukraine, the division within the nationalist movement and the threat that military mobilisation might somehow backfire. And already in autumn 2014, we see fierce reprisals against nationalists beginning, because they were hypothetically speaking a potential breeding ground for militants. These repressions continue, although it is no longer so clear what their targets are: there is no one to really take action against, the movement is virtually crushed. Only small groups remained. Now, it looks like the repressions against these ultraright groups won’t increase any further because the groups themselves have become insignificant.

Is there any common denominator characterising those who remain in the far-right movement and those who remain in the far-left movement? Are they making any political demands? Or are they simply making their views known?

The thing they have in common is oppositionism. We need to understand that almost all of them, anarchists and all the left-wingers and nationalists alike, are opposition groups. And that makes it all the more apparent when the nationalists cannot organise their own big rallies; they simply don’t have enough people. They have to go to other people’s rallies – the pro-Donbass groups go to rallies with the KPRF and the Left Front, and the (nominally) pro-Kiev groups go to rallies of the liberal opposition. The far left go to both, but under different circumstances. And what do they still have in common? Only 19 January.

Do you think that the conditions are in place for the far-right or far-left movements in Russia to gain the momentum they had 10 or 15 years ago?

Yes. I’m not talking about the far left. I don’t think there’s much potential for it to pick up steam – after all, it didn’t manage to do so previously. I can’t bring myself to believe that escalating social stratification or something of the sort will mobilise the far left, because people can convert their social dissatisfaction into anything at all, and it certainly doesn’t need to be revolutionary left-wing ideas. To be perfectly honest, that’s probably the last thing that would happen. The conversion of this dissatisfaction into far-right ideas is a definite possibility, however.

The nationalist movement that emerged in the 1990s was essentially about nostalgia and looking back to Russia’s “golden age”, but that is not a particularly good foundation for a political movement. To a large extent, this nostalgia resulted from trauma, crisis and the subsequent collapse of the USSR, but after a while this got swept under the carpet, and it was replaced by this straightforward, fervent and racist nationalism, aimed at getting rid of “newcomers” and achieving an illusory cultural homogeneity. This kind of thing is much easier for people to understand and much more relevant to their lives, which means that there is a constant source of fuel to fan the flames.

But as we now know, this too proved unsuccessful, and the far right ultimately ground to a halt and all but died out. Does this mean that we’ll never see it again, not even in a different configuration? No, not at all. I think that we probably will. I don’t know which constellation of events might cause that to happen. And the North Caucasus is still bubbling away, even if it is largely off the radar of those living elsewhere in the Russian Federation.

I wouldn’t like to guess how it might happen, but I certainly think it might happen; after all, anything’s possible. If a serious crisis occurs, it’s likely that the ethnicity of those involved will be mentioned, because that’s the easiest and most accessible way of framing a story – and that in turn may well trigger a new wave of ethnic nationalism with completely different protagonists. And that’s just what comes to mind first – what really happens may be something else completely, it’s impossible for me to know.

It’s also fair to say that the imperial version of nationalism has been successfully – very successfully – monopolised by the state. You can attempt to observe it from the side lines, but there’s very little point since you won’t achieve anything. Or you can act the clown, but even clowns fall out of favour.

We have a historian, [Nikolai] Starikov, who once created a party, by the way. We have Deputy [Evgeny] Fedorov with his NOD [National Liberation Movement, which advocates freeing us from “U.S. neocolonial dependence” by means of restoring the sovereignty of the Russian Federation through changing the Constitution]. That is, one can continue on in this vein and try to stand out against this backdrop, but this idea, as we have seen in any number of examples, doesn’t work.

The Rodina party, still alive by the way, what is it? Nothing. But in some indefinite future, if something should happen to our state monolith, then imperial ideology might be rejected by the elite but become the motor for political mobilization. One can imagine all sorts of things.

One other point. Right now there is a strange phenomenon. In a certain sense it relates to the entire oppositional field.

Right now, differences in views are not that important. What is more important is that people oppose the regime. Exactly how they oppose the regime is of secondary importance.

At one time we saw this with the nationalists, which in the 1990s quarreled desperately over important questions of how exactly a monarchy might or might not be established, how to think about Stalin, and so forth. And in the 2000s, it became clear that all these differences still existed, but it didn’t really matter.

What does matter is fighting the “interlopers” and this anti-Russian regime, as they put it. The rest we can resolve later, so to speak.

An analogous transition is happening right now, at the start of the new decade, I think, in the oppositional field as a whole. How this will be reflected on the future political configuration, including on the formally persistent opposition between the ultraright and ultraleft, is anyone’s guess. Then there are, finally, the National Bolsheviks [NBP]. The NBP was founded on the principle that you can be ultraright or ultraleft, you can be perpendicular for all they care, the main thing is that it all be cool and fun. Okay, understandably this can’t be repeated literally, but why not something in that vein.

Stanislav Markelov was a lawyer for the Moscow Human Rights Centre. He defended antifascists and participated in several high-profile cases. Anastasia Baburova worked as a freelance correspondent for Novaya gazeta and wrote about the antifascist movement. On 19 January 2009, they were shot in Moscow by ultraright activists Evgeny Khasis and Nikita Tikhonov. In 2011 Khasis was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment, Tikhonov to life imprisonment.

There is an article on “The Russian March” of 2007 in Moscow on «И „Нашим“, и фашам». It says that unlike in previous years, “no one asked the activists to refrain from fascist greetings and they took full advantage of this. “Come on, now, ****** out of here! Russia for the Russians, Moscow for the Muscovites!” The crowd ran through one nationalist rallying cry after another without the slightest embarrassment. New slogans were added as well. For example, the capacious “***** Chechnya, *****!”— to harmonize with the soccer chant.”

There were mass riots in Kondopoga in late August and early September 2006. A group of people from the Caucasus started a fight in a restaurant and killed two local residents. On the eve of the victims’ funeral, residents of the city smashed several shops belonging to people from the Caucasus, then set fire to a restaurant, and pogroms began in Kondopoga. A few dozen families who had come there from the Caucasus were forced to leave. Law enforcement agencies were brought to the town from all over Karelia.

Translated by Lindsay Munford, Alissa Valles, Nina dePalma, Nathalie, Wilson, Joanne Reynolds and Marian Schwartz

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: "It turned out that there were only a few hundred of us 'degenerates' in the whole country"

posted 26 Jan 2020, 04:06 by Translation Service   [ updated 5 Feb 2020, 09:14 by Rights in Russia ]

18 January 2020

An interview with Vyacheslav Bakhmin: 'The Fate of a Dissident'

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Siberia. Realities]

Forty years ago, on 12 February 1980, Vyacheslav Bakhmin, a human rights activist, dissident, and one of the organizers of  The Working Commission for the Investigation of the Use of Psychiatry for Political Purposes’, was arrested and sent to a Siberian prison camp.  While there his sentence was extended for ‘anti-Soviet conversations.’

At the time of his arrest Bakhmin had been in the sights of the KGB for more than ten years. For the previous three years he had published an Information Bulletin of  the Working Commission which included information on cases where penal psychiatric methods were used to investigate dissidents. In 1980, in the preparations for the holding of the Olympics in Moscow, the security services received instructions to clear the capital of dissidents who could ‘defame’ the Soviet way of life and the political system. Writing of the day of his arrest in his autobiographical Notes, Bakhmin says:

‘On that day I noticed that I was being followed from when I took my son to school (he was in the beginners’ class). At the time I did not know that the next time I would see him would be after four long years. I did not stay long at work, then I went to see Irina Grivnina ( a well-known dissident, who has lived since 1985 in Holland) to work on the next number of the Bulletin. Before long there was a ring at the door, and it was the police. They said that they were aware that some sort of a thief had come into the apartment. Irina did not open the door.  They continued to insist, ringing the bell, which she then disconntected. They started to hammer on the door, threatening to break it down. It was not possible to hold out any longer and I persuaded Irina to let them in. Having checked my documents, the policeman and his uniformed companion took me to police station No. 3 near the Paveletsky railway station and Novokuznetskaya Street. For a long time no one could find me, my wife received no answers to her queries, and only subsequently, when she started to visit various police stations, did she find me and was clever enough to give me a parcel before I was dispatched to prison.

The author of Notes spent the next six months under investigation in the Lefortovo prison. The trial was not held until the autumn of 1980. Vyacheslav Bakhmin received a sentence of three years in a prison camp for producing and distributing the Bulletin, and also for distributing ‘anti-Soviet literature’, including The Gulag Archipelago. Bakmin served his sentence in the town Asino  in Tomsk province, in a general regime prison camp.

In an interview with Sibir.Realii, Vyacheslav Bakhmin, now co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, spoke about how he tried to fight against the rehabilitation of Stalin as a student at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, how he conducted 'anti-Soviet conversations' in a labour camp, and why he remains a traditional optimist despite the rising authoritarian trend in Russia.

Was your first experience with human-rights activism related to the backlash against the revival of Stalinism at the end of the 1960s?

It was more like the reason for my first arrest, which was linked to the distribution of leaflets against Stalin.

And what was the reason you had for creating these leaflets?

As a student, I was involved with a group of young people: I was from the Physics Institute, and there were several women and one man from other universities. At that time, articles started to appear in magazines about the 90th anniversary of Stalin's birth, where he was described in a decidedly favourable manner. This was an attempt to restore a positive image of him – as a person who won the war, led the country to victory, and so on. Then, at the end of the 1960s, indications appeared of some level of rehabilitation.

And this caused your indignation?

Not just mine. This was concerning for all of the intelligentsia. Petro Grigorenko (a dissident and human-rights activist, and a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group) wrote a long article called 'Concealment of the historical truth is a crime against the people!' In his article, Grigorenko blamed Stalin for the fact that we almost lost the war in 1941. And as a result, the war had to be won with a huge number of lives – at the expense of millions of casualties. Grigorenko wrote about how Stalin did not prepare the country for war, how he was cozying up to Hitler, and so on. This left a strong impression on us, and we decided to speak about it not only with the close circle of those involved in samizdat, but with the general public. And how we were going to do that? Simply by printing and distributing leaflets. We've known this method since the days of the revolution.

But you didn't manage to do this in the time you had?

No, we didn't have time. What's more, on the day when I was arrested, I personally had come to the conclusion that in fact what we were doing was foolish, that we shouldn't have been doing it. On the one hand, it was dangerous, and on the other hand it was completely pointless. I decided to talk to the remaining members of our group, to dissuade them from following through. But on that very day, I was arrested. The following day, they arrested another two of us.

Were you effectively just arrested for your intentions?

Well, and for preparation. We did print the leaflets.

Do you have any of those leaflets anymore?

No, of course not. There's likely one in the KGB case file. We primarily took information from Grigorenko's article. That was the cause for the arrest. Because if it was possible to read some things at that time, 'anti-Soviet literature' was simply seized during searches. And leaflets were too much. They were like a red flag to a bull for the KGB of that time.

Even so, it appears that Russia soiled its international reputation in 2014 by annexing Crimea. But the West continues to do economic business with Russia, lay gas pipelines...

That's true. The annexation of Crimea reminds me of what happened in 1979 when troops were sent into Afghanistan. But at that time the Soviet Union's reputation and its relations with the West were so bad that the authorities no longer paid any attention to them and they began to stick everybody in jail, practically destroying the human rights movement...

You also joined that company of ‘jail birds’ in 1980. What did they accuse you of?

The reason was the activity of the Working Commission on the use of Punitive Psychiatry. From 1977 on, we were active as a civic organization. Later, as I said, the authorities didn't care anymore, and they started putting everybody in jail. They jailed us too, our whole team.

And so, in the autumn of 1980, you found yourself in Western Siberia where you met a kind of people you'd probably never seen before. I'm thinking of the prison colony prisoners. Was there a group of ‘politicals’ there, in Asia? Or were you on your own in prison?

Here I should clarify one detail. The Criminal Code of the RSFSR had Article 70, ‘Anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.’ That was the first part of the Code dealing with important crimes against the state. Those convicted under that article were imprisoned in special camps, which we called ‘political’ in our circle. For example, the famous camp Perm-36, and another one in Mordovia. There the ‘politicals’ were all imprisoned together. It was an astonishing place, which many remember with nostalgia: how great it was when everybody was in jail together, how much people taught each other, what kind of people you met, and so on. Of course, the authorities didn't like that, and so in 1966 they introduced three articles 190 into the Code, they ones used to try the demonstrators on Red Square, for example... That article carried a lesser sentence, up to three years, but on the other hand they started sending those people to the regular criminal prison camps - let them feel what that's like.

To meet the ‘real’ people?

Right. I was the only ‘political’ in Asino. That prison colony was considered ‘hungry’. The mark of the ‘hungry’ camp is that there was no bread left on the table when people had eaten, everything was clean as a whistle, even the crumbs were swept up. They fed us badly. The work was pretty hard, and there wasn't enough to eat. Added to that, it was an ‘ordinary regime’ camp, where there was a quick turnaround of prisoners. The average sentence there was two to three years. And because the turnaround of prisoners was so rapid, no one tried very hard to create normal conditions for life in the camp. The zeks themselves didn't try to do anything. For them it was a temporary refuge. And so there was a lot of lawlessness, people had their parcels taken away, there were a lot of ‘opushchhennye’ [in prison jargon, the lowest status prisoners, among other things forced to provide sexual services to higher status prisoners – ed.]. On the other hand, it was easier to get a letter out.

What kind of attitude did the other prisoners have to your ‘anti-Soviet’ article?

Before meeting me none of them knew of such an article. They were all there for ordinary offences, mostly ‘hooliganism’, thieving, things like that. The ones with long sentences were there for manslaughter. But they were all fine with me, because they saw me as someone fighting the authorities who had put them in prison. They saw themselves as fighters against authority too, only they ‘fought’ their way - by thieving and breaking the law. But one ‘article’ alone wasn't enough to earn their respect. In prison it's very important to show everybody you're not a pushover, that you have your own sense of honour and dignity. And they value that. If a person stands his ground, defends himself, then from their point of view he's a fine guy.

It says in your biography that after you finished your sentence they added on extra time for anti-Soviet conversations. What was that about?

Indeed, that was Article 190 again, which talks about spreading ‘consciously false fabrications, slandering the Soviet state system’. And how did I slander the system? By saying what I was in prison for, which human rights are violated in the USSR, what went on in Eastern Europe after the war, and so on. Those were my ‘slanderous fabrications’.

It turns out that the Soviet campaign ‘For Stalin’ was fairly modest – articles in the party press. It’s quite different now when monuments to Stalin are being put up, he is praised to the skies in new books, and films are being made that show him as the wise leader.

Of course, now things are on a much bigger scale. But the generations have also changed. In my youth people could still had fresh memories of what happened at the 22 Party Congress, and how Stalin was removed from the Mausoleum. At that time many anti-Stalin films were made. And the attitude in society towards Stalin was quite negative. Against this background even a number of articles in the party press caused serious concerns and fear that the country had begun to slip back to the justification of Stalin, and that would mean justification of the repressions. Nowadays the people’s attitude towards Stalin has become much more positive. And not at all because they don’t know what happened during the Great Terror. Everyone knows perfectly well. But since the notion of ‘fake news’ has arisen, information no longer has such a strong influence on people. Quite recently we were full of joy that at last trustworthy information about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, fatal for the Soviet Union because it was kept absolutely secret, had been made public. But now the original document has been published and no one is bothered as if that is how things should be. And after all this is not just the position of the authorities. A majority of the population see Stalin not as the murdered of his own people, but as a person who could bring order and keep the bureaucrats in line (bureaucrats who in our time have become over bold and deeply corrupt). But under Stalin they would have been sent to the Gulag. People understand this very well, and the outcome of opinion surveys ‘in favour of Stalin’ are, above all, a reaction of society to the impunity and corruption in contemporary Russia.

Returning once more to the 1970s, when you actively were engaged in human rights work, how do you assess it now? Was it the dissidents who ‘shook’ the Soviet system?

We certainly did not set ourselves the goal of ‘shaking’ the system. At that time people thought that it was absolutely unshakeable. We engaged in human rights work not to change the nature of the regime or to shake the system, but only because we couldn’t live in any other way. This was the personal position taken by each of us. At the same time, we thought that there were only a few hundred of us, ‘outcasts’ and ‘degenerates,’ in the whole country. Later it became clear that in the Soviet Union there were not hundreds, but tens of thousands of people who disagreed with the system, and each in their own way expressed this disagreement. Some merely read banned books, some people retyped them and passed them on, some distributed the "Chronicle of Current Events", some wrote slogans on walls or placards, and so on. A large part of the intelligentsia was permeated by dissident attitudes at that time. No one intended to change the system, but each person did something. For example, we had a Working Commission on Investigating the Use of Psychiatry for Political Purposes, and sometimes we succeeded in getting people out of the psychiatric hospitals where they had been forcibly incarcerated. True, instead of psychiatric hospitals they sent them to the camps, but for most people that was much better than being in the hands of Soviet psychiatry. There were very few cases of this kind, and they were all connected with the influence of the West, whose views were influential on the Soviet leadership. At Politburo meetings they discussed what was more in their interests: to send someone into exile abroad or to jail them…For example, they decided not to jail Sakharov, but to make do with internal exile. For the same reason they sent Solzhenitsyn into exile abroad, although at first they wanted to imprison him. The members of the Politburo were pragmatists who took into account what action would be less damaging to their reputation. After all, reputation was always linked with the economy. Of course, it was on the whole not the done thing to have big joint economic plans with a country that had a very bad reputation. That is why the economy also played a role here, just as now it does. For our authorities, reputation in the West is important not just in itself, but because we are linked economically.

Who betrayed you to the authorities?

There were enough people who had been specially assigned to provoke me and also monitor what I was doing. As a result of their efforts, a second case under Article 190 was brought against me. I was subsequently transferred to Tomsk where I was held under a so-called 'strict regime.' During the investigation I was treated like the Man in the Iron Mask. I was locked up in solitary confinement and I was taken to the yard for exercise alone. Contact with other inmates was forbidden. Even my feeding dish on the cell door was padlocked – they did that specifically for me. My ‘corrupting’ influence seemed of such concern to them that they kept me completely isolated from the rest of the world. This, of course, was ridiculous, totally odd.

You were known to have had run ins with the KGB on more than one occasion, and you even recalled that during your first encounter the investigator behaved in an almost fatherly way toward you. But you say they were afraid of you? On the whole, did you get the feeling that these people were afraid of something? They seemed omnipotent at the time.

Of course I don’t think they were afraid of me personally. Their aim was to see to it that I didn’t 'corrupt' anyone with my ideas. They were simply trying to curb my influence, nothing more. Of course at the time they saw themselves as the masters of life. That being said, in Soviet times the KGB had less power than the FSB. Back then, everything was decided by the Politburo, which included only one KGB representative. Whereas now everything is decided by one man, who came from that very same structure and, naturally, he listens to them to a great extent. Currently there is no collective leadership in the way that there was then. Understandably, Brezhnev or Andropov played a significant role in the final decision. But nevertheless, everyone was heard and the Politburo in general bore collective responsibility. There would be disputes and even full-blown disagreements. The decision on Afghanistan wasn’t taken immediately. Nor when it came to Czechoslovakia in 1968. Yet now it’s reduced to a very brief conversation: the boss ordered it - and that’s that.

Does your intuition and political experience tell you anything about the future of a country where there is such a unity of command?

I don’t possess any form of political intuition. I’m not a political analyst. I therefore wouldn’t want to be so bold as to give a short-term prognosis. However, insofar as I am a historical optimist, I’m sure that, in spite of everything, a normal, human future awaits the country, not in the next 10 to 15 years perhaps but more likely in 50 – 100. And of course that’s an easy prediction to make because no one will check.

In the 1970s, everyone read the Strugatsky brothers, disagreed with the regime, and associated themselves with the degenerates from Prisoners of Power, feeling the atmosphere’s hopeless oppressiveness. Don’t you think that those times are returning?

I actually feel positive on the whole, and that’s because there is growing irritation and dissatisfaction, which spills over in different ways into a variety of protests. The authorities have distanced themselves from the people so much that the latter can’t help but feel it. It is difficult to see what alternative is possible here, so there is no clear political movement. But the general irritation is growing. The authorities are trying to do something about it, but the only tools that the current authorities have are tools of repression. They don’t understand how else they might deal with challenges. All they have are tougher punishments, restrictions, fines, imprisonments and so on. But no one has repealed Newton’s third law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It was the same in Soviet times. The dissident movement only emerged because of the authorities’ repressions. If they hadn’t sent Sinyavsky and Daniel to prison, or Ginzburg, who wrote a White Book about their trial, then there wouldn’t have been such a reaction, there wouldn’t have been such a movement. Because as soon as those close to you are imprisoned, a movement springs up around you to support them. And these circles spread further and further. The same is happening now, as we have seen with the 'Moscow trials': people uninterested in politics went to all the Moscow demonstrations to hang out and see what would happen. Now they have all become politicised. They saw how the authorities behave and it turned them into politicians. In my view, it shows that such authorities will not be able to hold out for long. Not to mention that the development of technology, the development of modern civilisation is moving in completely the opposite direction. With such a level of information technology, it is simply impossible to maintain the regime as it is now. It’s a utopia. Although there are attempts to make a 'sovereign Internet' and so on, it won’t work. Even the 'jammers' in Soviet times found it impossible to drown out a few Western 'radio voices.' So backing the country into a corner and drawing a new iron curtain around it will not work now. I’m sure it can’t go on for long. That’s why I call myself a historical optimist.


In a final speech at his 1980 trial, Vyacheslav Bakhmin ended with what he himself regarded as the 'naive' assertion that the children and grandchildren of the judges before him would feel shame over their involvement in the trial. Three years later, in Asino, his sentence was increased for 'anti-Soviet talk' in the prison camp. At that time, the system seemed unshakeable and shameless, and any talk of repentance was completely out of the question. Yet just ten years later, when all that remained of the Soviet Union were memories and rusty rockets, Bakhmin received a letter from Siberia that he later published in his Notes:

Almost 10 years later, I received the following letter that surprised me greatly, written by Mr Mironov, the judge who had sentenced me in Asino:

'Dear Mr Bakhmin,

By way of a mea culpa, I would like to apologise to you for the proceedings that took place in 1983 in the town of Asino. Circumstances at the time meant that I was forced to lead these proceedings.

On our initiative, the Presidium of the Supreme Court of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic adopted a decision…overturning the sentence handed down in your case by the Tomsk Regional Court, and closing the case on the grounds that your actions did not meet the definition of a crime...'

A copy of the decision by the Presidium of the Supreme Court of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic was enclosed with the letter.

It was certainly an odd turn of events.”

Viktor Andreyevich Mironov formerly presided over the Tomsk Regional Court, and still lives in Tomsk even though he is now retired. He worked as a judge for 27 years, from 1976 when he was appointed Deputy Chair of the Regional Court, until 2004 when he retired from a position as its Chair. When asked whether he remembered Vyacheslav Bakhmin, his response was immediate:

'Of course I remember Vyacheslav, and I’ve thought about him often over the years. He made an extremely favourable impression on me at the time, as someone with a lot of integrity and a very vibrant personality. I was responsible for sentencing him, and I made sure that he was given the most lenient sentence possible. He was looking at up to three years in prison according to the relevant article of the Criminal Code, but I handed down the shortest term that I could – 10 months – in view of the fact that he had obviously been provoked by the camp management. By the time the sentence was handed down he had already served his time, and so he was released and left for Moscow almost immediately after the court hearing.'

Did you come under pressure to sentence Bakhmin to a longer stay in prison?

'The "competent authorities”, as we used to call the KGB, attempted to appeal against the sentence I had handed down. My decision was reviewed by the Supreme Court, but the “authorities” got nowhere, since the Supreme Court confirmed that I had handed down a sentence that was fair – by the standards of the time – and sound.'

A few years later, you wrote a letter to Bakhmin, apologising to him for the entire Soviet system.

I felt an obligation to do so. The whole case against him was built on obvious provocation. And so I wrote Vyacheslav a letter apologising, and told him that he was entitled by law to demand compensation for the months he had spent behind bars while the second case against him was before the court. He sent a very kind letter back in response, refusing compensation of any kind, and his wife even added a note at the end expressing her gratitude. Vyacheslav wrote that he wasn’t interested in the money; receiving an apology from a Soviet judge was the real compensation for him.' 

It’s certainly an unusual development in the course of relations between a judge and the man he convicted.

'That wasn’t all I did; around the time that I retired in 2004, we were working on a volume that would be published to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Tomsk Court. I edited this anthology and included in it an account of the Bakhmin case, with the heading “Nostalgia for the Gulag ".'

What meaning did you intend to convey with this heading?

'A very simple one – that there are lots of people in our country, particularly among the authorities, who feel nostalgia for the Stalin-era concentration camps. Bakhmin stood in direct opposition to these people. Have you heard from him recently? Is he well? I’d like to meet him some day. When I used to visit Moscow on work trips, I would sometimes remember him as I was walking along the street. I would think to myself how nice it would be to meet him now, to chat for a while and to shake his hand.'

Translated by Mary McAuley, Nathalie Wilson, 
Alissa Valles, Simon Cosgrove, Nina dePalma and Joanne Reynolds

Svetlana Gannushkina: ‘They want to keep us in a state of fear, because they believe that is the way to hold on to their power’

posted 20 Jan 2020, 02:20 by Translation Service   [ updated 20 Jan 2020, 02:32 ]

31 December 2019

Svetlana Gannushkina is head of the Civic Assistance Committee that works to protect the rights of migrants and a board member of Memorial Human Rights Centre

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Deutsche Welle]

In connection with the 20th anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s assumption of the presidency of the Russian Federation, Svetlana Ganushukina, winner of a Moscow Helsinki Group prize, expressed concern about the atmosphere of fear sweeping over Russia. This interview with the Russian human rights activist was published on December 31 by the DPA newsagency.

Exactly 20 years ago at 12:00 p.m. Moscow time, Boris Yeltsin, the then president of Russia, announced his resignation. On the very same day it was Putin, who became acting president, who addressed Russian citizens in a televised New Year address.

‘They want to keep us in a state of fear, because they believe that is the way to hold on to their power,’ said Gannushkina. In her opinion, over the past two decades government institutions and the independent judicial system have been completely destroyed. She adds, ‘the destruction of the organisations making up civil society continues.’

‘This is capitulation’

At the beginning of November the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation liquidated the human rights movement For Human Rights, which was headed by the civil society activist Lev Ponomarev.

In October the composition of the Presidential Human Rights Council was changed. The chair, Mikhail Fedotov, was replaced, on the grounds that he had reached the age of seventy, by the former presenter of the TV news programme Vremya on Channel One, Valery Fadeyev.

Svetlana Gannushkina, who has been nominated more than once for the Nobel Peace Prize for defending the rights of migrants and refugees in Russia, commented that what was being seen in Russia was the destruction of the foundations of the existing state system.

‘This is the capitulation and complete destruction of the judicial system. Nowadays the state is always right,’ she added, referring to the unwillingness of judges to challenge government decrees and decisions. The defenders of the Putin system, Gannushkina is convinced, ‘are sawing off the branch on which they sit.’ ‘Not least out of fear of losing their power, they are becoming increasingly irrational,’ she added.

‘People are prepared to take to the streets’

At the same time, Gannushkina believes that in recent times there has been a growth in public awareness and self-confidence: ‘People today are more prepared to defend their rights and to take to the streets.’

In September Svetlana Gannushkina, a board member of Memorial Human Rights Centre, expressed the view that the recent Moscow protests were a sign Russian society is moving out of a period of stagnation and that ‘changes are looming’. Earlier in an interview with DW, Gannushkina said that she cannot imagine living ‘outside Russia’, but also explained why there is not a flood of migrants to Russia, as there are to Europe.

Vladimir Putin was officially elected as president on 26 March 2000, and re-elected in 2004, 2012 and 2018.

Translated by Rose Glickman

Aleksandr Cherkasov: “The attack makes us stronger.” How fines affect the work of Memorial Human Rights Centre

posted 20 Jan 2020, 00:33 by Translation Service   [ updated 20 Jan 2020, 00:47 ]

 10 January 2020

 Aleksandr Cherkasov, chair of the board of Memorial Human Rights Centre, in an interview with Kommersant  

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group (original source: Kommersant]

Photo: RFE/RL

On 9 January, Moscow’s Tver district court fined International Memorial for the 21st time for not labeling itself a foreign agent on the organization’s resources. Total fines for International Memorial and Memorial Human Rights Centre Memorial have now reached 4.2 million rubles. Let us remember that, in all, Roskomnadzor [Federal Supervision Agency for Information Technologies and Communications] has drawn up 28 official court records against the organizations, each of which the court is considering separately (see Kommersant of 26 December 2019). In a conversation with Kommersant correspondent Valeria Mishina, Aleksandr Cherkasov, chair of the board of Memorial Human Rights Centre and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group prize, could not recall there ever being such a full schedule of court hearings for a single NGO-foreign agent in Russia.

Why was Memorial fined this time?

On Thursday, there was a hearing regarding — this is a database for agents of the Great Terror (the site is entitled 'Personnel of USSR state security organs. 1935-39.' – Kommersant). This database has about 40,000 people in it, and, it turns out, it too should have been labeled a foreign agent.

Memorial has announced that it is collecting funds to pay its fines. How much have they collected? And how much does Memorial need for its work per year?

Right now more than 3.6 million rubles have been collected. For its work, Memorial requires about 180 million rubles a year. We’re talking about major net-based programme work, not only in the Moscow office but in the Migration and the Law network that has 40 legal consultation offices in Russia’s towns for refugees, forced resettlers, and other vulnerable groups. It is our work with the European Court of Human Rights, it is legal aid for the political prisoner programme, and it is the work of our offices in the North Caucasus. We’re not saying this money could possibly be wholly recompensed, but this does mean that more and more people are signing up for regular donations. Unfortunately, right now even well-known projects cannot be fully financed out of those payments. And the state has looked into cutting off major donors. One recalls, in the early 2000s, for example, Mikhail Khodorkovsky donating for the fight against torture, but Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia was quickly shut down. And right now, Aleksei Kudrin’s foundation has not been able to accept money from major donors for a similar programme of civilian oversight; possible donors know full well what does not have the state’s blessings here. What people do give for is relatable, one-time issues. In the space of a few days, the Civic Assistance Committee was able to collect money for a refugee child who had had acid splashed in his face. During the summer protests, the OVD-Info project was able also to crowdfund for itself, since people understand what it’s for, what it’s needed for. But even for them this can’t cover all their needs, since apart from such one-time issues as giving immediate help to people detained there are also the subsequent legal proceedings, appeals on administrative cases and the submission of complaints to Strasbourg, and assistance in criminal cases.

What kind of relatable issues do you have apart from collecting for fines?

Our relatable projects include the following. We collected money for a project we put out on 17 September 2019, the date Soviet troops invaded Poland in 1939. This was a memorial book, Mednoe, about the more than 6000 Poles who were detained at Seliger and executed in Kalinin (Tver) in 1940 and buried at Mednoe, a village 30 kilometers from Kalinin. Russian money was collected for this publication. We felt it was a matter of principle that this be public funds and not grants, since this is important for the Russian people. All kinds of people donated, from modest pensioners to the children of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who donated a significant sum. This way we collected 2 million rubles.

But there are issues where foreign money is better than our country’s. The phrase 'nongovernmental organizations' speaks to the fact that they truly are nongovernmental, and it’s preferable that any conflict of interests be ruled out. What we are doing in the North Caucasus is, in essence, civilian oversight in a zone of counterterrorist operations. We can’t accept state funds for something like this. For the past few years, they haven’t given us presidential grants, not that we could ask for that. You would be taking money from someone and then overseeing them.

It’s like the health inspector who goes into the cafeteria storeroom, comes out with heavy packages hanging off him, and says, “Everything’s fine.” Somehow there’s not much trust in that kind of health inspector.

Therefore, in certain instances, if the state understands that it has to look respectable, it has to make sure no such situation arises.

Our situation with crowdfunding is improving, but we’ll see what happens. We’re not talking about switching over entirely to those kinds of collections, but they truly can help. Rather, we have to be talking about a combination of several sources of financing.

In 2013 you, among other NGOs, made an application to the European Court of Human Rights about the law on foreign agents.

We submitted a complaint as potential victims at the time of the recently passed law on foreign agents. At the time we insisted on the urgency of considering it, but seven years have passed already. We regularly send additions to this complaint, including materials from various disputes over fines applied to us. If Strasbourg ever does consider this complaint, the court will rule that these fines have to be repaid to us and, moreover, the moral harm recompensed. In that case, the funds will in any case go to the organization’s work. So that Strasbourg can help us out with this bad joke.

In 2016, the Justice Ministry inspected some of the resources for which you are being tried right now, but the ministry made no claims against you.

At the time, they inspected us from the tip of our nose to the tip of our tail. In the years 2014-2016, Memorial Human Rights Centre underwent constant inspections, and we already had the social networks they’re fining us for right now. At the time, though, the Justice Ministry mercifully decided to consider them, shall we say, as in order. But in the past three years the criteria have changed. And what they write in the denunciation is what ends up in the court proceedings. The results of the Justice Ministry’s inspection were not considered now in the court’s decision. For example, in several hearings we appended documents from the review of pages by the Justice Ministry, where it was written that a given page was prepared with funds from a European Commission grant, and according to the law on foreign agents, the purpose of labeling is to inform that work was carried out using foreign money. That is, the necessary information was provided on the page.

You have called the law on foreign agents 'elastic,' saying that its formulation can be interpreted variously, especially the requirements on labeling formulations. What in it can still be 'stretched'?

The main thing is above all the definition of political activity. Right now it is more or less everything: any articulated statement about a significant problem addressed to the state. This is the main place where they’ve stretched the owl to fit the globe.

Any nonpolitical public statement can be ascribed to politics. This is precisely why the law on foreign agents can’t be amended, it can only be repealed, because it’s faulty at its very foundation.

You’ve already been through more than 20 trials. Do you remember similar situations with regard to other NGO-foreign agents?

I can’t remember any. It’s usually a small number of legal proceedings. But this kind of constant nibbling away—in this, I think, we’re the first.

Is there any likelihood of the organization being liquidated due to this outside pressure?

They’ve done their best to create this danger. But in fact, this is a situation when the attack makes us stronger. The support we feel, including the support we feel through the site where we are collecting money, allows us to get through this affair. The authors of the foreign agent law scarcely had in mind increasing the national independent financing of nongovernmental organizations. Yet this, apparently, is exactly what we’re going to be able to achieve. You and I are speaking on the second anniversary of Oyub Titiev’s arrest. But after his prosecution the stream of information from Chechnya has not stopped. On the contrary, it’s intensified. Here is something analogous: as a result of the trials, there is more information for the public on Memorial’s work, more requests for support.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: The authorities have no instruments other than repression and tougher punishments

posted 12 Jan 2020, 06:52 by Translation Service   [ updated 12 Jan 2020, 07:19 ]

31 January 2019

Vyacheslav Bakhmin, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, on the results of 2019 in the area of human rights in Russia

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Русская служба «Голоса Америки»


Summing up the results of 2019, Memorial Human Rights Centre has published fresh but “сertainly incomplete” lists of Russian political prisoners. The list consists of 314 names, of which 250 people have been imprisoned “for exercising their right to freedom of religion or religious affiliation” and 64 were convicted for political reasons.

Two months ago, political prisoners numbered 305. “The real number of political prisoners and other persons incarcerated for political reasons in present-day Russia is undoubtedly substantially greater…” human rights activists have pointed out.

Vyacheslav Bakhmin, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, shared his impressions of 2019.

Viktor Vladimirov (journalist, Voice of America Russian Service): What sticks in your mind about 2019 with respect to the human rights sphere in the country, what kind of trend are we seeing?

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: The entire second half of 2019 very much confirmed the old trend that the present state has long followed. This is the trend toward prohibitions, repressions, and suppression of independent human rights organizations. Some NGOs have already been shut down, for example, the For Human Rights movement led by Lev Ponomarev. Others, including Memorial and Public Verdict foundation, have been subjected to tremendous fines in the hope that they won’t be able to withstand them and will be forced to cease their work. On the other hand, this tendency is linked to the fact that people have stopped meekly tolerating the authorities’ tyranny as they consistently deprive citizens of fundamental rights and freedoms. It is already clear that Russians are badly irritated by the consolidation of this practice. The active portion of the population protests actions by the authorities that are not only anti-human rights but also anti-popular in nature. Falling under the wave of repressions, in particular, are ecological organizations and individual fighters for ecology. We know what is happening in the context of the garbage problem—in Shiyes, the Moscow area, and so forth. Resistance is mounting, but the forces are as yet unequal. Society is still not united or mobilized, while the state has the resources and is prepared to use them.

Viktor Vladimirov: Last year, an avalanche of fines came crashing down on the leading Russian human rights organizations, as well as, in fact, a number of activists and oppositionists. Can an NGO survive in this situation?

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: It seems to me that it is those organizations that will continue their work in any case, whatever their status, even if they are stripped of their status as a legal entity, that are being subjected to especially strong pressure. Quite a few activists and volunteers who are not abandoning their activities have gathered around them. Yes, their work is going to be much more difficult, nonetheless, I don’t think it will stop. The fines, of course, are terrible for the nonprofit sector. 3.9 million rubles (the total fines levied on Memorial in 2019) is a tremendous amount of money. NGOs in principle do not have funds like that. Because they receive earmarked money for specific projects, it can’t be spent on paying fines. So apparently there is nothing left but to collect money through crowdfunding.

Viktor Vladimirov: They can’t count on donations from businessmen?

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: This is not a simple matter. Understandably, for any businessmen, to say nothing of those on the Forbes list, these sums are small change. They can easily part with that money without any special loss to themselves and at the same time save one or several NGOs at once. It’s another matter that so far Russian businessmen are not burning with this desire. Most of them are probably not capable of such a step in principle. However, it is possible that at least some of them will wake up to some degree of sympathy, conscience, and solidarity and will come to our aid. Such businessmen do exist, or so I believe.

Viktor Vladimirov: But for them there is the risk of themselves falling into disgrace by helping human rights activists. Isn’t that so?

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: Yes, that is in fact one of the reasons why business tries not to advertise acts of this type. But with crowdfunding, when you collect money in some account, the donations can be anonymous if they’re not too big. Therefore, one could make ten or hundreds of small contributions, say, so that they don’t stand out. In short, there is always a solution. It’s another matter that we have here rather a question of civic maturity and of the understanding of the human rights movement’s role in a country where people who have fallen on misfortune often simply have no one else to turn to for qualified help.

Viktor Vladimirov: Do you place any hope in the European Court of Human Rights?

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: The machine in Strasbourg works very slowly, unfortunately. An NGO in Russia can get crushed before the ECtHR makes its decisions and probably assigns compensation. I’m afraid that will be too late for some organizations.… All these years we have been unable to obtain any decisions on the law on NGOs as foreign agents. Since 2012, the ECtHR has not come out with anything on this subject. Therefore I have no great hopes for the Strasbourg court, unfortunately.

Viktor Vladimirov: How do you assess the changes made in the Presidential Council on Human Rights and the discussions in United Russia on the subject of creating some kind of human rights organ attached to the party?

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: This tendency was noted long ago. It’s aimed at replacing human rights organizations that are actually functioning and defending goals and values of general utility with other organizations that formally have the same goals and objectives but by their very essence are shams. In this way, the authorities think, a kind of pluralism is achieved. There are human rights organizations that are in favour of the government, and there are those that criticize the government. It’s another matter that all NGOs that come out on the government's side are most often created with the help of that government. By the way, a similar tendency can be observed in virtually any sphere of public life.

Viktor Vladimirov: What are your expectations for the new year?

Vyacheslav Bakhmin: I think the dominant trend today will be maintained. How far it will go is hard to predict. I think the protests will also continue with various degrees of intensity. Because the general irritation is superimposed on a difficult economic situation, the situation is becoming especially gloomy. The frustration of people and representatives of the nonprofit sector obviously might lead to excesses connected with protest activity becoming more frequent. But now any easing up of pressure by the authorities, to say nothing of repealing odious laws, is unlikely. All previous experience points to this. The authorities do not want to yield their positions. They have no instruments other than repression and tougher punishments. Evidently they don’t understand how else they might interact with society.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

Igor Kalyapin: I became caught up with the idea of proving the obvious - people are being tortured

posted 10 Jan 2020, 07:04 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 5 Feb 2020, 09:55 ]

30 December 2019

Igor Kalyapin, head of the human rights organisation Committee against Torture, talks about the main difference between human rights activists and lawyers, about his sense of duty ‘in the worst sense of the word’ and about where Gleb Zheglov went wrong. Igor Kalyapin is a recipient of a Moscow Helsinki Group Award.

Photo by Slava Zamyslov / ASI 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: АSI]

This interview is part of a project by the Agency of Social Information and the V. Potanin Charitable Foundation. ‘NGO Profiles’ is a series of conversations with non-profit professionals about their careers in the civic sector. The material is cross-media, published in partnership with the Jobs for Good People portal and Les.Media.

Many people have the impression that human rights exist in isolation from civil society. Even in the title of the Council on Human Rights and Civil Society these concepts are separate. Why is this?

This separation does not come from the human rights community. I would say this is the doing of state institutions which are trying to manipulate public opinion. A few years ago, under Surkov, we had the so-called GONGOs (Government-Organised Non-Governmental Organisations) which are supposedly independent and public. In fact they are created by the state in order to manipulate public opinion. They are simulacra, a decoration designed to create the impression of some kind of social activity or other. Remember all those groups like Walking Together, Ours and Yours.

In practice it has been shown that these organisations are not independent; they exist only in as far as they are fed by the authorities. They are not about human rights, of course. They are created to provide the appearance of public support for government initiatives.

When representatives of independent civil society organisations start to resent this and say, ‘Excuse me, but this organisation is a GONGO’, the authorities usually reply: ‘The fact that their people poured green stuff on you doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not part of civil society.’ I think this rhetoric gave rise to the idea that on the one hand there are human rights activists, and on the other civil society. Which is of course not so.

It seems to me that there is still a ‘glass wall’ between those who defend the rights of those who have suffered at the hands of the state, and the rights of everyone else: women, children, patients et cetera. Don’t you feel the same?

Again, this is quite an artificial difference. You see, when the authorities start to persecute one group of human rights activists, that group is stigmatised, and gets a complex about being different. They begin to feel that they are special. We are persecuted, and that means we are special – that’s how the logic goes.

In fact, the focus of state persecution is constantly changing. First to be labelled a foreign agent was the Golos movement – there was an impression that the legislation was created for Golos. And it wasn’t hard to protest against this law; people thought it wouldn’t touch anyone else. But then it turned out that activists protecting whales in the White Sea were also foreign agents. And people combatting AIDS, and a whole lot of environmental organisations suddenly became foreign agents. And then organisations were being systematically labelled foreign agents, because there was an instruction to unearth some in every region.

Are you being serious now?

Absolutely! Three or four years ago, at the Human Rights Council, Mikhail Fedotov reported to Vladimir Putin, citing the example that in the Far North there were only two NGOs. The leader of one of them was quite openly summoned to the prosecutor’s office and told that foreign agents had to be caught. And if there aren’t any, well that shows the prosecutor’s office is not doing its job.

Our organisation has been labelled a foreign agent three times. Using my official position I got an appointment with Valery Fedorov (former first deputy minister of internal affairs); he was responsible for the identification and prosecution of all foreign agents. I bothered him for a long time; we probably discussed the matter for two hours.

In our organisation, my personal financial donation was considered foreign funding. I told him: ‘In Nizhny Novgorod, the Gorky Automobile Plant is the main enterprise. They sell their cars to the West. Am I to take it that any worker at that factory who gives us money will be considered a source of foreign financing?’ Mr Fedorov said yes, that would be so.

That was when I realised the Ministry of Justice was quite prepared to declare anyone and everyone a foreign agent.

In 2015 you said, that you wouldn’t operate with the status of foreign agent.

We lost this status along with our status as a legal entity. The Committee against Torture is an organisation with its pockets sewn shut. We don’t have the technical capability to receive foreign funding, because there is no balance, no property, no bank account. We are an association of citizens. It’s what Memorial has been for a long time. And it’s clear that they’re being victimized with fines.

Generally speaking, NGOs appeared so that the state could provide some preferential form of support for civic associations. Previously, this made sense, it provided opportunities for interaction with the authorities and other organisations. But the beneficial legal form has turned into a Procrustean bed.

The additional reporting [required for foreign agent NGOs] is a form of intimidation, not a way of obtaining information. It is somewhat damaging, but we can survive. But the fact that, at any kind of event, I should present myself as a foreign agent is fundamentally wrong. Even a person who has committed a murder, proven in court, is not required to introduce themselves as a murderer.

What do you think about the changes to the Human Rights Council? One gets the impression that you have quite warm relations with Mikhail Fedotov.

I have always been on good terms with Mikhail Fedotov [chair of the Human Rights Council until October 2019], he is himself a very warm person. I can honestly say, and no offence to Valery Fadeev [current chair of the Human Rights Council], whom I have also known for a long time, that Fedotov is a person absolutely committed to human rights, and this has been characteristic of him for a long time. This is despite the fact there are lots of things we don’t agree on, but I learnt a great deal from him.

Fadeev, unlike Fedotov, is a political public figure. Although he is a liberal, he is a liberal in the mold of United Russia. And by the way, Fadeev is one of the strongest supporters and ideologists of the law on foreign agents. What can I think of that? This is a form of patriotism that turns into aggression: they are enemies, consequently we mustn’t take anything from the enemy. At the same time Fadeev is a clever person who is able to talk with all kinds of people. He understands that he has been appointed as a human rights defender. I think he will honestly try to perform this role.

Why does it happen at all that there are government-appointed human rights defenders in Russia?

I’ll express a fairly extreme point of view, but you are interviewing Kalyapin as a person, and not as a representative of the Human Rights Council? I consider that these are quite deliberate measures intended to replace human rights activism with a surrogate. I think that it is possible that Mr Fadeev is a figure through whom an attempt will be made to significantly reshape the work of the Human Rights Council.

The great majority of human rights ombudsmen in the regions are government officials. If there is a problem, then the task of the ombudsman is not to defend a person’s rights, but to smooth over difficult situations and lower the temperature of passions. Ombudsmen are defenders of the authorities, and not human rights defenders.

Not so long ago, on Russian Flag Day, you told your story of how you took part in a May Day demonstration thirty years ago, carrying the Russian tricolour. Soon after you started to have problems at work and your research career came to an end…

It would be an exaggeration to speak of a research career for a second year student. It would be better to say that I parted with my dreams of a career in science. Within the space of a month I was driven out from everything: from work, from the institute. It was a time when everything was rapidly changing; back then there were cooperatives, and I worked in them for some time, part-time. Then I did some work on the side in construction, and after a while some colleagues and I opened a private business. Up until 1993, if I had been asked, “What do you perceive yourself to be?” I would have said I was a future businessman.

Weren’t you involved in democratic developments at the same time?

I supported [democracy] as a businessman. I was one of the founders of the Nizhny Novgorod Society for Human Rights, I sponsored it and took part in its undertakings and actions. But it was not my top priority. Certainly, civil society has to be developed. But in our country people had the same attitude toward community activity as they have towards toward ‘total idiots’[pridurok], because in the USSR all civic organizations were organized from above, and otherwise they could not be established. ‘Pridurok’ is a subculture slang term. In prison that’s what they called amateur performers who sang about birches and mountain ash trees in prison clubs. The phoniness which permeated any and all community activity under the Soviet state is something we’ve inherited from those times.

It was very important to show that a new phenomenon had appeared, that truly independent new organizations had appeared which would now really do something good.

In 1995 I went to Warsaw to study at the School of Human Rights. The training there helped me a great deal and prompted me to study law.

In the 1990s my total faith in business, in a market which puts everything in order, began to waver. I clearly saw a tendency which did not lead to any sort of democracy. Gangsters enjoyed the open connivance of the law-enforcement system: it wasn't that the state had no power to fight it – it had no desire. I had lots of friends and acquaintances in law-enforcement structures, and very high-ranking police officers in the department against organised crime told me: “Why should we be engaged in protecting businesspeople who work in private companies?”

What’s your attitude to the growing interest in the libertarian concept of economic freedom?

Libertarians have simply never had any experience of the realities of the 1990s, when gangsters did as they pleased. Libertarians never served in “construction battalions” in the Russian Far East, and they have no experience of spending time in a prison that is actually run by the top prisoners.

I’m no supporter whatsoever of the idea that the less government there is, the better. The state is not the greatest evil; it’s simply necessary to constantly work on perfecting it, because there are always people who want to make it serve them. We have to do things so that the government works for everyone and not just for some individuals.

I believe that democracy is possible, but everything depends on the condition of society: is it capable of democracy or not?

Is society free in the Russian Federation?

I’ve got a big question about this, but it’s not officials I want to ask, but ordinary people. Democracy, to put it mildly, is in a bad way in our country – indeed, we don’t have democracy. It’s not because the president seized power, but because people don’t want to check up on anything: they want to spend a working day in the office and do as they’re told. If things are like that, we won’t have any democracy in the future. That’s the way it is now.

Coming back to the matter of how the Committee against Torture was set up, how come, of all forms of human rights violations, you chose to take up the issue of torture?

There was the episode you’ve already asked about [on a previous occasion, Kaliapin told ASI about when he was wrongly accused of embezzlement in 1992 and tortured. — ed.] I was brutally detained and beaten almost without breaks or with rare pauses for a smoke break. I was beaten almost to a pulp, spent three months in harsh conditions in a detention centre. There were 11 of us in a four-bed cell, it’s impossible to even imagine such conditions now. But I can say with absolute certainty that all this had nothing to do with my choice of what to focus on, although it was certainly a significant experience in my life.

Most of my friends were in the police, it just turned out that way. I’ve never had a negative attitude towards police officers or law enforcement agencies in general. This experience of torture added to my interest in how it all works in these organisations on the inside, because I saw and heard quite a lot. I was in jail while a case was being investigated in which I was the defendant.

I began working on torture for a different reason: I worked for several years with the Nizhny Novgorod Society for Human Rights, which worked on other things: family violence, xenophobia and prisoners’ rights. I was interested in topics to do with prisons, I travelled to many detention centres and found it very interesting: those detention centres run by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the prison colonies.

That’s what surprised me. For example, if the trees in a park are cut down, there are pros and cons, there’s a controversy. But the fact that they are cut down is beyond doubt. Torture was the only problem that was absolutely categorically denied. They said: "Torture? What are you talking about? It isn’t 1937, there isn’t any torture." When a man is collected from the police station, beaten into a pulp, they say that he fell over ten times and it had nothing to do with torture.

We have a magnificent archive with examples like this in it: during interrogation he stood up and hit his head on the shelf. Did the expert record that he was hit four times? Well, that means he hit the shelf four times. This information isn’t an anecdote, but taken from a ruling not to initiate criminal proceedings. It’s like the emperor’s new clothes: everyone knows that the police beat people up, it’s an obvious fact, yet the phenomenon is completely denied.

I became caught up with the idea of proving the obvious.

How would you now evaluate your success in proving what is obvious? Has anyone budged?

Of course. Nowadays who could say that there's no torture in our country? People have even grown accustomed to the word 'torture.' The concept was defined clearly in the Convention against Torture: firstly, it is a deliberate action, and secondly it has a definitive goal. For example, the brutal conditions in pre-trial detention centres should not exist, but those conditions aren't torture.

I really believe that we shall succeed in classifying torture as a separate legally-defined crime, so there would be a special article for it in the Criminal Code. Now it's dealt with under the article on abuse of power. The laws that we have are, in principle, quite sufficient for handling torture.

They're just not applied.

I begin many of my speeches by saying that the symbol of Russia isn't the matryoshka, the balalaika, vodka, or black caviar. The symbol of Russia is a Potemkin village. Our legislation is quite good, but it's a village with a beautiful facade: the laws simply aren't applied. Law enforcement and legislation exist on different planes, in different worlds.

Almost 200 years ago, British historian Thomas Macaulay said, "The law serves no purpose for those who don't have the means and the courage to defend it." This could be said about our laws. Nothing will change when we create new articles: what difference does it make which article it is that we're not using?

We need a special body to investigate these crimes. Out in the real world, let's say in a small district town of Berendeyevka or somewhere, there is a police department that employs ten criminal investigation agents. In this region, there's also a department of the Investigative Committee, which employs two investigators. There's a statement on the table for an investigator, saying that an officer beat and tortured someone, and the investigator recognizes that he will be told to dismiss the case. If the investigator begins to gather evidence, the officers won't forgive him. And he'll have to look the officers in the eye the next day. He can't do his job without them.

How do we solve this problem?

It's simple. This type of case needs to be handled by investigators who don't work in the region. It's best for them to be investigators from a special unit that the chief of the local police can't bargain with.

Let's get back to the Committee Against Torture. At the moment you have six regional branches in Russia. On what principle are they set up?

The methodology we've developed can be applied anywhere, you can set up a whole bunch of branches. But in Russia everything depends on people. To do this work you need qualified lawyers specialized in criminal law, prepared to work for a salary. It's not meagre, but it's a salary, it's not lawyer's fees. A lawyer with such a qualification can earn many times more.

It's impossible to compare with working in the state sector - they get salaries there too, but in addition you have ID, a uniform, a gun, street credibility. You're not embarrassed to explain where you work. When you say you work for a human rights organization you get the response: "So you couldn't get a decent job?"

There were some dramatic events connected to the closing down of your branch in Mari El.

Yes, there were. But the press didn't throw much light on it. Who likes to talk about unpleasant things?

We do creative work. Our investigating lawyer first thinks about how to go about things and understand whether there was torture or whether a person is making it up, and people can have a whole range of reasons for that. If the lawyer comes to the conclusion that there was torture, how do you assert the rights of the citizen? How do you make scoundrels from the police or the Penitentiary Service accountable? How do you gather evidence? It's all a creative process.

If at the same time someone does some other legal work, the basic case will inevitably suffer. Because he's sitting in a warm office rented and maintained by the Committee against Torture, typing a complaint on the Committee's computer to an acquaintance of his at the court, who will later pay him five thousand roubles for it.

In our time we had a lot of arguments, we tried different things and we came to the view that anyone who is a regular employee of ours should sign an agreement that absolutely forbids him or her from carrying out any paid legal work on the side. Exceptions are made only by agreement with me, but it’s practically impossible to get my agreement.

Our top colleague in Mari El got in to trouble for working on cases involving "leftists". I really hated to part with him, because we went through hell and back together; an extraordinary guy. A friend of his asked him to get involved in some litigation over a civil case, and then he got caught up in that case.

We said goodbye to him, and the people left without a leader couldn't manage to work independently, so they closed the branch. We had an analogous situation in Bashkiria: there was a two-year interval, we had to fire people, it took a long time to find replacements.

I wanted to ask about Chechnya. It's my understanding that you have a quite personal story connected with it.

It's not personal, why does everyone try to make out there's a personal enmity between me and Ramzan Kadyrov?

I wasn't talking about a personal enmity with Ramzan Kadyrov. The North Caucasus office, which was in Grozny for a long time, was moved to Pyatigorsk. Is the work on Chechnya still going on?

It never stopped for a minute. Where did that myth come from? We moved our office to Pyatigorsk because of three pogroms in which all of our office equipment was destroyed. We replaced everything once, then a second time, we spent millions on it. How much can you spend? Apart from that, 
the second time around people were almost killed there.

Aren’t you afraid to continue working now?

We are very afraid, but we’ll carry on because there are people there who want to work, who are ready to do it and consider it their mission. If people want to work, they will. And the office in Pyatigorsk probably won’t be set on fire.

What would you reply to someone who says: “You’ll never find out the truth without torture, without beating someone”?

A person on the street or a law enforcement officer?

Do you have different answers?

Of course I have different answers. Ordinary people think that torture is bad, but should it involve a paedophile, then their attitude changes. They don’t understand that anyone can be detained and tortured and, by morning, they’ll confess to paedophilia and to terrorism.

And what about law enforcement agencies?

They know full well that it’s possible to force anyone to confess to anything. But they’ll tell you that they don’t torture everyone, only those who are actually guilty: “I know he’s a thug”, and they torture him so that he’ll admit it. It’s like Zheglov said: “A thief should be in prison, and no one cares how I put him there.” In this situation, he takes on the role of investigator, prosecutor and judge – all at the same time.

Is it possible to appeal to humanism when talking with representatives of the authorities, to say that human beings shouldn’t be beaten because it causes them pain?

No. I agree with such arguments, but I can tell you without a doubt that it doesn’t work. It is the value system I have, but those people usually have a different one, and you will never change their minds.

You have to show them in a different way. They need to be told: “In this case, you have assumed a power that doesn’t belong to you. You are committing a far more serious crime called ‘exceeding official powers.’ You are committing a crime against the state, while Kostya Saprykin [the main character, a pickpocket, in the film The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed – ed.] just stole a purse. What he did comes with a sentence of up to five years, but what you’re doing is up to ten years. What are you talking about? Who is the criminal? Here you are definitely the criminal.” They’ll understand that.

In one interview, journalists compared the Committee Against Torture to a business. You replied, “The Committee Against Torture is by no means a business structure.” These days, NGOs tend to adopt a business approach and they are very keen to adopt that approach.

I think some business approaches are definitely needed because we handle large amounts of money. The people who work for us receive salaries and bonuses, and there is an incentive scheme in place. We take lawyers rather than human rights defenders, and we spend a long time watching someone to see if we will be able to make a human rights defender out of them or not.

Do your employees have ‘Key Performance Ind

They don’t, because working them out would be rather difficult. As I see it, "business" is about earning money, and profit is a good indicator that a business structure is succeeding. That kind of approach is impossible in a human rights organisation. You might be a supremely successful human rights activist without anyone giving you any money for it or paying you to do it. The reward comes from bringing about change rather than from earning money.

How does a lawyer differ from a human rights activist?

They have different motivations. Lawyers are serving the interests of someone or other, and this is perfectly normal – a lawyer’s job is to defend his or her client’s interests. Someone might come to a lawyer and say that he or she has committed a murder, and the lawyer – despite knowing that the person is really a murderer – is obliged by law to help this person to deceive the investigators, to deceive the court and to escape criminal liability for murder. That’s just what the job involves. A lawyer working for some company or other might have to defend the company against customers claiming that the company sells defective goods. In reality the goods are indeed defective, but the lawyer’s task is to prove the opposite.

And where do morals come into it?

That’s a question that every one of us must answer for ourselves. Jurisprudence is a very specific area of knowledge. Someone appearing before a court needs the professional assistance of a lawyer, who will dress up his submissions to the court in the appropriate legal language. The lawyer knows how the procedure works, and the lawyer’s client is the one who knows what he or she wants out of the procedure. A lawyer should not be seen as no better than the individual he or she is defending – he or she is not defending a murderer or acting as an associate of a murderer, but simply acting as a legal adviser for someone who is defending his or her own interests in court.

So why can a lawyer not also be a human rights activist?

Because a lawyer defends someone else’s interests, and a human rights activist defends everyone’s rights.

If the situation regarding torture is deteriorating, what motivates you to keep on going?

A feeling of obligation, in the very worst sense of the word.

What kind of obligation? An obligation towards society?

Some time ago I read Orwell’s 1984, and found it the most chilling book I had ever read in my life – not least because society is sliding further and further towards 1984 before our very eyes. I believe that a society of this kind is a complete dead end, without any way out and without any hope.

I feel an obligation towards society in the sense that we must not allow it to become dehumanised, but my main motivation is a feeling of obligation towards specific individuals. If our lawyers do not set the wheels in motion for a particular case, that individual will not receive assistance from anyone. And behind each of these individuals, metaphorically speaking, there is a grinning police officer who carried out the beating but is not in the least bit alarmed when the individual lodges a complaint about it. This police officer doesn’t even try to hide how amusing he finds the whole thing: “The hell with it, I’ll write a letter of explanation and then a report. Nothing will happen. Complain away – who’s going to listen to you? The UN?”

Why you? Why not leave the task of helping these people to someone else?

It’s not a rational decision. I read yet another complaint lodged by someone, and I can imagine roughly how it all happened; I can imagine how the investigator will respond, how the Investigative Committee will respond, and how the police officer will respond when he finds out that the complaint has been made. I know straight away that not getting involved is impossible, since the individual who was beaten up also faces the prospect of being mocked and derided. The adrenaline simply starts to pump through my veins.

Is it a calling?

It’s not a calling, it’s a moral imperative. And I feel that imperative more acutely with every year that passes.

Translated by Anna Bowles, Nina DePalma, Suzanne Eade Roberts, Mercedes Malcomson, Alissa Valles, Nicky Brown and Joanne Reynolds

Valery Borshchev: 'We’re going back to 1937.' About the alleged discovery of opposition training camps

posted 27 Nov 2019, 12:51 by Translation Service   [ updated 27 Nov 2019, 13:10 ]

19 November 2019

An interview with Valery Borshchev, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group.

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: NSN]

Foreign-funded “camps” for training organisers of protest actions have allegedly been discovered in a number of Russia’s regions, members of the parliamentary commission on investigation of foreign interference in Russia’s domestic affairs have announced. They also took the initiative at the legislative level to introduce a special criminal punishment for those who have been trained there and taken part in the organisation of rallies.

The human rights defender and Moscow Helsinki Group co-chair, Valery Borshchev in a conversation with the National News Service stated that he does not believe these kind of “camps” exist, and he equated discussions about this to attempts to return Russia to the era of Stalin’s repression.

“This is a general tendency towards a return to the Stalin era, when they discovered 'enemies of the people,' said that they were connected with foreign governments of one kind or another, and accused them of espionage and treason. None of this was true but they killed them all the same. It is a convenient method to depict critics and opponents of the regime as traitors to attract support from some parts of the population. Of course, I have not heard of any camps, nor seen any, nor can I even imagine their existence in any way at all, even on a virtual level,” said Borshchev.

A member of the parliamentary commission said that the term “camps” includes virtual platforms where a concentration of “protest ideas” expressed, particularly in social networks. At the same time, Valery Borshchev expressed the view that if there were “camps” for training the organisers of protest events, then they would be taught many useful things.

“I note that protests are held by a number of organisations, applications are also submitted by various different organisations, and there is no single centre here," Borshchev explained. "Depending on the situation, various numbers of people take part. For example, there was the 'Moscow case.' Sixty thousand people took part. The next rally gathered somewhat less – 20,000. If there were training camps, wouldn’t these people have been taught to keep the numbers up? Because it's nothing to do with any imaginary centralised camps, it all depends on the public mood, on the political authorities, on the reaction of society.”

Responding to a question about the possibility and consequences of adopting legislation in Russia introducing criminal or administrative liability for participation in such 'camps' (as in the case of the law on foreign agents), Borshchev said: “This darkening of the clouds would have unpredictable consequences. Of course, the authorities can introduce such legislation, they can create whatever kind of provocation or insinuation – there are professionals who are employed to do this kind of thing. The law on foreign agents was also very cautious at first, and then they took it right up to the point where they began to close down organisations under the pretext of foreign interference.”

Today the State Duma adopted a bill in its second reading that would make it possible to designate individuals as 'foreign agents.' The document provides for the recognition of individuals as 'foreign agents' or 'media foreign agents' if they publicly distribute information to an audience or participate in the creation of such information, as well as receive funding from abroad.

Translated by Mercedes Malcomson

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