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

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

30 September 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taboo Virtually Lifted

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

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

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

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

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

Not Enough for Everyone

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

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


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

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

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

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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

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

9 March 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Of course, their business reputation.

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

— And this is the subject of your application?

— Yes, that’s correct.

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

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

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

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

Translated by Anna Bowles, Joanne Reynolds and Nina de Palma

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

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

2 March 2018 

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

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Colta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— How did the group develop?

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

— That's a significant success.

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

— What other goals have you had?

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

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

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

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

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

— And do you ever win?

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

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

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

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

— What’s the hardest part of your work?

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

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

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

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

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

— How many of you are there?

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

— Do employees burn out?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 March 2018 

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

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Colta

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

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

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

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

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

20 July 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31 December 2016

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

With a Little Help from my Friends

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

You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away

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

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

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

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

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

The Long and Winding Road

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

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

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

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

Back in the USSR

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

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

Ticket to Ride

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

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

Run For Your Life

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


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

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

Hello, Goodbye

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

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


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

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

An interview with Mikhail Savva: ‘It’s true, I am not an accidental victim. I am their enemy.’

posted 27 Nov 2016, 09:48 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 27 Nov 2016, 09:49 ]

27 November 2016

Early in November, Rights in Russia spoke with Mikhail Savva, the civil society and human rights activist from Krasnodar who now lives in Ukraine, where he has received refugee status. Today Mikhail sees his future in Ukraine, supporting democratization processes in Ukraine, at least until it is possible for him to return to Russia. 

Mikhail’s career, as it developed in the 1990s and 2000s has been multi-faceted in a way that careers in Russia before 1991 and after 2010 are much less likely to be, spanning academia, government service, human rights protection and civil society activism. Most of this career has unfolded in Krasnodar, a city with a humid, subtropical climate and a population of about 800,000 on the Kuban river, roughly 150 miles from the Black Sea. The city is the administrative capital of the Krasnodar region, a traditional area of Cossack settlement which, in the post-Soviet era, has been known for its political conservatism, in the 1990s forming the ‘buckle’ of the so-called ‘Red Belt’ of pro-communist regions. 


Mikhail was born in 1964, at the end of the Khrushchev period, in Krasnodar city into a family of high school teachers. Both his parents taught Russian language and literature. In his earliest years he lived in a Cossack village, Troitskaya, just over 100 kilometers outside Krasnodar, where his parents then taught. At the age of 10, his family moved 3,700 kilometers to teach in the small Siberian mining town of Talnah, about 20 kilometers from Norilsk in Krasnoyarsk region. 

For the small boy, as Mikhail describes it, this new location held a lot of interest, not least because people who lived there came from all over the USSR: from European Russia, from the Baltics, from Ukraine, from Siberia. Perhaps it was from these childhood impressions that his later interest in ethnography germinated. Each year, Mikhail would travel back from Krasnoyarsk to spend the summer holidays in Krasnodar. 


This phase of his life in Siberia ended in 1982, when he graduated from high school. That year he moved back to Krasnodar permanently to attend Kuban State University, where he studied history, living in his parent’s apartment while they continued to work near Norilsk. It was a change in life that, he says, enabled him to gain a feeling of real independence at an early age. 

At university Mikhail specialized in ethnography, which has since remained the focus of his academic interests, as well as of much of his work in government and in the 'Third Sector'. In Soviet times, Mikhail says, ethnography was already well developed as a subject. Moreover, insights into ethnic groups and inter-ethnic relations were much in demand in the last decade of the Soviet Union, as conflicts began to emerge into the open – not least in multi-ethnic regions such as Krasnodar so close to many of the USSR’s ‘hot spots’. 

Mikhail did his two-year army service in a unit stationed on the border with China, between his first and second years at university (1983-85). He remembers it as a hard time, but also one that ‘toughened him up’. He remarks that in his unit there was no hazing (‘dedovshchina’). After returning from the army he continued his studies in an atmosphere that was already changing. Mikhail Gorbachev was General Secretary and the new spirit of freedom under perestroika was soon to be felt in Krasnodar. 

It was this spirit of freedom, Mikhail recalls, that pervaded his later years at the university. Students, and Mikhail among them, began to push the boundaries of the possible. Mikhail recalls an incident when a group of students decided to take part in the annual official demonstration to mark the 1917 revolution on 7 November by carrying placards with Lenin’s slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’. This initiative was not approved by the local authorities, despite the fact it was a slogan Gorbachev had himself put forward for perestroika. Perhaps for this reason, the local authorities decided not to ban the students, but insisted they dress up in the clothes of the time, turning their section of the demonstration into a historical fancy dress – thus taking the contemporary sting out of the slogans. 

In 1988 in the penultimate year of his studies, again inspired by the new political permissiveness, a number of students with whom he was involved organized a theatrical presentation of a ‘trial of the General Secretary’ at the House of Culture belonging to the Krasnodar Cotton Factory. Mikhail wrote an article entitled 'The Trial' based on the event for the university newspaper, Po zavetam Lenina [Following Lenin’s Guidance]. The article caught the mood of the time and was reprinted by newspapers in several Soviet cities – as far away as Tallinn, Riga and even Magadan. The article was read out on Radio Svoboda. All this was too much for local communist party bosses who decided he should be excluded from the university. But this didn’t happen, perhaps partly because Mikhail was an excellent student (he had won a ‘Lenin grant’ to study because he had top marks on graduation from high school), and furthermore he had support from faculty and other students. 

In this situation, Mikhail took the original and bold step of writing a personal letter to the General Secretary, enclosing a copy of the article he had written, and asking Gorbachev whether it was possible at that time to publish a piece of this nature in the USSR, and whether the General Secretary had felt personally insulted by the article. Mikhail did not receive a direct reply from Gorbachev, but before long a representative of the Central Committee arrived at the university to hold a series of meetings. The message the official conveyed was that, yes, it was now possible to write such things. Harassment of Mikhail ceased. It was a critical moment in his intellectual development, confirming him in his interest in politics and in his liberal beliefs. ‘Since then I have never changed my political views based on the principles of liberalism and absolute respect for human rights and civil liberties,’ he says. The turn of events also highlighted Mikhail’s interest in not merely observing or researching the phenomena of life, but also in taking part in civil society and politics. The upshot was, however, that while he remained a student, party organizations in Krasnodar now singled him out as a target for criticism. They began to call him an ‘enemy’. 

To Moscow 

Mikhail’s letter to Gorbachev also showed his interest in the wider world beyond the confines of Krasnodar. And after graduation in 1989, Mikhail took up postgraduate studies at Moscow State University, where, in the department of sociology, he continued his study of ethnography, although this time not from a historical, but from a sociological, perspective. He recalls it was an exciting time to be in Moscow, but, as always in such periods, time passed quickly. When the whirlwind of change found the country facing the 1991 coup attempt, Mikhail was spending the summer back home in Krasnodar. Unable to leave for Moscow, he must have shared the sense of frustration, followed by celebration and excitement, of so many at that time. But he also points to a more somber feeling: ‘the great uncertainty as to what the future would bring.’ It was an atmosphere less conducive to studying. As he says, ‘it was a time to work and not just to study’. 

Back to Krasnodar 

Soon after the coup he was offered, and accepted, the position of head of a department of the Krasnodar Region Council of People’s Deputies on ‘national [meaning minority, or inter-ethnic] affairs and international relations’. His academic background perfectly fitted the issues with which this post was concerned: inter-ethnic relations, migration, refugees. The groups facing particular problems in Krasnodar region included the 12,000 Meskhetian Turks who had come to Krasnodar region from Uzbekistan (they were originally from Georgia) after pogroms against them in 1990; the Shapsug minority in the Black Sea region; and other migrants and refugees who included Chechens, Uzbeks, Armenians, Azeris, Georgians, Abkhazians and Kurds. In those years there was no Federal Migration Service in Russia, and many of those arriving had no passports, no residence permits, and no home. As a result the new arrivals faced huge administrative problems. There was much work for Mikhail to do. Nonetheless, having made the choice for ‘action’, Mikhail determined to continue his graduate work by correspondence. 

In 1993, the year that Mikhail concluded his graduate studies by correspondence at Moscow State University (receiving a ‘Candidate’s Degree’ [PhD]), he also changed jobs. He now left the region's elected assembly and took up a position with the regional government, with a portfolio very much the same, as head of the ‘Department for National Affairs, Regional Policy, and Migration’. The governor of Krasnodar region at that time (appointed by Yeltsin) was Nikolai Egorov. 

Return to Moscow - to the federal government 

However, one year later, in 1994, Nikolai Egorov was appointed Minister for the Nationalities and Regional Policy of the Russian Federation (and subsequently representative of the President in Chechnya). As so often happens in Russian politics, a politician moving up the ladder will take some of his colleagues with him. So it was in 1994 that Mikhail left Krasnodar to assume the post in the federal government in Moscow as a head of department within Egorov's Ministry. 

The start of the conflict with Chechnya towards the end of that that year was a watershed in Mikhail’s career as a public official. He opposed the war. ‘A country has the right to combat separatism,’ he says, ‘but not in the way it was done in Chechnya.’ He brands Russian actions in Chechnya in the 1994-95 war as ‘talentless’ and ‘inhuman’. He also saw the war as a cataclysm shaking the foundations of the Russian state. ‘No one knew how the war would end,’ he says, ‘There was a huge degree of uncertainty. It was like 1991 all over again.’ 

Unable to support the government's policy of waging war in Chechnya, Mikhail resigned. This was far from typical behaviour for a Russian government official – not least because it involved giving up the substantial income and the perks (such as a car) that went with the job. This was all the more the case because Mikhail's boss, Nikolai Egorov, as a leading member of the 'party of war' was going from strength to strength up the bureaucratic ladder. Egorov was to become head of the Presidential Administration the next year (1995), a post he held until the 1996 presidential elections. 

Return to Krasnodar – to regional government 

Mikhail’s first thought was to return to academic life, and that year he began research for the degree of Doctor of Political Sciences at the Russian Academy of Public Administration (in the department for national and federal relations') in Moscow (he obtained this highest degree in the Russian education system in 2000 at the young age of 30). However, he was not obliged to remain in the capital to pursue his academic interests, and 1995 found him back in Krasnodar. In the Krasnodr region there was now a new governor, appointed to replace Egorov, Evgeny Kharitonov. Under Kharitonov, Mikhail's experience and abilities were in demand, and he soon took up a new and prestigious position as deputy head of the regional administration (and representative of the regional government to the region’s Legislative Assembly at the same time). But here the turning of the wheels of politics in Moscow again disrupted Mikhail's desire to have a practical impact on issues that concerned him through working in government at the regional level. In 1996 Egorov, then head of the presidential administration, fell from favour as peace was concluded in Chechnya and Yeltsin was reelected. When Yeltsin appointed Anatoly Chubais to take Egorov's position as head of the presidential administration, the president sent Egorov back to Krasnodar to resume the governorship. This meant Mikhail once again resigned his position. He comments: ‘Egorov didn’t want to work with me, and I didn’t want to work with Egorov.’ 

Civil society: a first acquaintance 

Consequently, in the summer of 1996 Mikhail returned to academia. He became at first associate professor (and then professor) of political science at Kuban State University, Krasnodar, a position he was to hold until 2001. However, Mikhail was no longer completely satisfied with the academic life. In 1997 the first elections were held for governor in Krasnodar and a communist, Nikolai Kondratenko, won, taking over the position from Egorov. This election victory by a communist was no surprise, Mikhail says, because a large percentage of the regional population opposed economic and social change. Krasnodar, Mikhail points out, was part of the Red Belt that voted communist in the 1990s. This was less, in Mikhail's view, because of an ideological commitment to communism than because of the region’s ‘traditional conservatism’. To illustrate this, he says that during the Civil War the region’s conservative Cossacks supported the Whites for longer than in most areas. ‘When democracy will finally be established,’ Mikhail says, ‘the Kuban will be a stronghold for democracy.’ 

At the same time as Kondratenko was elected governor, however, a non-communist, Valery Samoilenko, was elected mayor of Krasnodar city. This development provided a new opening for Mikhail. While he continued to teach at the University, in August 1997 Mikhail became deputy head, then head, of the department for public and interregional relations at Krasnodar City Hall. 

This was the first time Mikhail had worked closely with NGOs, and he describes these four years as a great learning experience, a time when his eyes were opened to the new realm of civil society that was now rapidly developing in Krasnodar. Without doubt, the sense of change derived from the contrast with the Soviet period, when any forms of independent association were banned. One achievement Mikhail recalls in particular was the erection of a monument – the first in Russia – to all victims of the Civil War, Red and White. ‘It was our idea to put it up,’ he says. ‘The communists were against it. In the event, it was the first such monument in Russia.’ However, at the city elections in 2000 a communist, Nikolai Priz, was elected mayor, and Mikhail left the city administration. He resigned once again, the official bureaucratic formula used for his resignation, he says with a laugh, was ‘Owing to disagreement with acts of government bodies.’ 

Southern Regional Resource Centre 

One of the NGOs with which Mikhail had come into contact while working in the city administration was the Southern Regional Resource Centre (SRRC), set up in 1996 primarily for the purpose of distributing funding for NGOs made available by USAID in the south of Russia (including the regions of Krasnodar and Stavropol and the Republics of Adygea, Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and North Ossetia-Alania). In 2001 Mikhail, inspired by his new interest in civil society, took up the position of deputy head and board member of the SRRC (at the same time, Mikhail continued his association with Kuban State University, from 2001 – 2013 working as head of the department of public relations and social communication). 

Mikhail says that these were particularly exciting years for the development of civil society. It was also a time when positive attitudes towards the United States, and towards grantmaking activities by USAID and other US funders, government and private, prevailed. Mikhail ascribes the fact that these positive attitudes were also widespread in regional government largely to the awareness of the huge social issues facing the country, and assistance was therefore genuinely welcome. Even then, however, Mikhail says that some voices could be heard, especially among officials in the security services, that USAID and other US donors were ‘undermining the country.’ Nonetheless, for the time being, Mikhail personally had more freedom and greater opportunities than he had ever had. He travelled regularly, not only around Russia, but also to the US and to Europe to take part in various conferences, courses and events. 

As a board member of the SRRC Mikhail now became an active participant in civil society in the south of Russia. He relates that he found himself drawn, in particular, to human rights work. In 2005 he became deputy chair of the Krasnodar region governor’s ‘public council for the promotion of civil society and human rights’. In 2006 he became a member of the consultative public council of the Krasnodar police department (he was chair of the council from 2008 until 2011). In the years 2008-12, when Dmitry Medvedev was president, Mikhail also an enthusiastic participant in a number of anti-corruption forums in Krasnodar (many of them held under the aegis of the Governor’s human rights council of which he was deputy chair). In 2010, he became a member of the Public Oversight Commission for Krasnodar region, a body responsible for monitoring observance of human rights standards in places of detention and other closed institutions. Together with his fellow members he inspected police stations and police cells and prisons. He recalls that among those he visited in detention were the environmental activists Evgeny Vitishko and Suren Ghazaryan. In 2010, Mikhail organized a series of discussions involving members of the Presidential Human Rights Council over the case of Anastasia Denisova, a rights activist then being prosecuted by the FSB. Mikhail tells the story that one prison colony he visited had a system of automated entry relying on fingerprints. When it was time for Mikhail to leave, however, the system wouldn't work, and the prison director joked: ‘You won’t get out!’ It was a joke that Mikhail would long remember. 

2012  - a watershed year

In the years before 2012 Mikhail became aware that civil society organizations were exercising a growing influence on government. At the same time, he knew that government officials in Krasnodar city and region were frequently unhappy about the work of civil society activists. Nonetheless, until 2012 there was relatively little these officials could do little to push back against civil society. In 2012 all this changed. President Putin’s decision, announced in September that year, to serve a third term in office met widespread protests, not seen since the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then, following Putin’s return to office, a swathe of new repressive laws were adopted, and law enforcement became correspondingly severe. Civil society organizations and activists became a special target for the authorities, in particular those with foreign funding. A significant turning point was the banning of USAID in Russia, and the closure of its programmes, in September 2012. In this situation the SRRC, an organization whose essential purpose was to distribute US government funds, was vulnerable. It seemed likely the authorities could well be looking for a potential victim for a show prosecution. 

Mikhail had already spoken out (on 24 August 2012) against the campaign of harassment of NGOs with foreign funds in an article in the newspaper New Reality. He ended the article with the words: 'Time will tell how severe the impact of the new law will be. Possibly, it is targeted at a specific group of organizations that monitor elections. We'll see what happens and draw conclusions. As the saying goes, whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.’ 

On 14 March 2013, FSB officials searched the offices of SRRC, and several partner organizations, seizing computers and documentation. Subsequent searches resulted in the seizure of more documents and computers. On 11 April Mikhail received an invitation from the chair of the Presidential Human Rights Council, Mikhail Fedotov, to make a presentation in Moscow on 15 April about the harassment of NGOs in Krasnodar region. On 12 April Mikhail was detained by police and remanded in custody. 

Arrest, detention and interrogation 

‘When someone is arrested and they know they are innocent, there are two alternatives,’ Mikhail says. ‘One is when you don’t understand what is happening. Then it is very hard. The second is when you know why it is happening. And the reason is that you are a political opponent. That is much easier.’ Mikhail recalls that when an FSB officer in Krasnodar told him, ‘You are an enemy,’ it made things much clearer, and to a certain extent easier, for him. 

Mikhail gives three probable reasons why he was prosecuted. First, he says the FSB wanted to destroy the SRRC, and they thought a spy scandal was the best way to achieve that. He says they saw the North Caucasus as a high risk area, and therefore the SRRC as a special danger. A second reason, he notes, was that the FSB wanted to close down civil society in the region as a possible breeding-ground for opposition to the authorities. The third reason, he argues, was that in the prevalent atmosphere by engineering a ‘successful’, and high-profile, prosecution, FSB officers could earn medals. As one FSB officer cynically told him: ‘I haven’t got an award yet.’ While on the one hand, criminal prosecutions could only be brought at the local level with the agreement of the FSB in Moscow, local operatives knew that cases they launched were always ‘at their own risk’. So they had to make sure they were successful once started. 

Mikhail says that as soon as the investigation started it was clear the FSB had no evidence against him. There was no ‘presumption of innocence’. They had decided for themselves he was ‘guilty’, and they were looking for more or less plausible charges that could put him behind bars. One approach was to assume that, because Mikhail had worked for the US-funded SRRC, he must be a spy. He was informally accused by the investigators of subversive activity as an NGO activist because he had met with US embassy staff. One FSB officer told him that the actual purpose of the prosecution was to demonstrate he had coordinated the activity of a hostile network of NGOs partners in the North Caucasus on the instructions of foreign intelligence agencies. It was also suggested he slander an employee of the Krasnodar region administration by saying that the person was a resident of a foreign intelligence service. The interrogators also argued that in working with migrants and refugees he had come into contact with spies, because refugees were themselves often spies. Mikhail soon understood that the FSB seemed to consider human rights work in itself as a crime. Furthermore, during interrogations Mikhail was repeatedly told his publications had presented a negative image of the Russian authorities. They considered a blog he had written for the online publication Yugopolis was against the national interest. During a formal interrogation on 30 April 2013 he was asked questions about his overseas travels and personal contacts. Mikhail also says the FSB put pressure on students and staff of Kuban State University to testify that he had received bribes, but no one was prepared to give false testimony against him. 

During the interrogations, Mikhail was regularly threatened with long terms of prison on trumped up charges, and being sent to prison camps in Mordovia, infamous for the practice of torture. Mikhail was also subjected to an unofficial, ‘secret’ interrogation by the head of the Krasnodar FSB investigation department and other senior FSB officers. These interrogations began on 13 June 2013 when, Mikhail considers, it became apparent that it would not be possible to charge him with treason. But Mikhail didn’t give in. In this he may have been helped by the relatively good conditions in which he was kept at the FSB’s No. 5 pre-trial detention facility. He says there were 13 small cells, each for two people. All the time he was videoed, and even his meetings with his lawyer were videoed. Any companion in the cells could not be trusted since they were a potential informer. But despite this, the worst was when he was moved to a cell on his own, where there was no TV. The sensory deprivation, living in a space of 9 square meters with bare walls, was very hard to bear. Getting word out became vital for him, and he wrote texts that he succeeded in having published in the outside world. [1] 

However, despite all the FSB’s efforts, they found no evidence of espionage. In the upshot, Mikhail was charged and tried for alleged fraud in relation to a grant provided by the Krasnodar region government to the SRRC in 2012 and, in charges added only in May 2013, alleged fraud in receiving a salary as a professor at Kuban State University. Mikhail points out that usually the FSB does not deal with cases that involve sums of money below $10,000, a fact which shows the political motivation of the case. 

From his experience of prosecution and detention Mikhail drew a number of lessons about how to remain alive in such difficult circumstances, and how to continue to fight. He says grimly: ‘Never collaborate with investigators. Never give in to pressure, never make a deal, never make false confessions. If you are in prison, you need to be ready to die. Otherwise you won’t win.’ 


Many individuals and organizations, Russian and international, spoke out in Mikhail’s defence. The Presidential Human Rights Council concluded the prosecution was political in nature. Legal expert and member of the Presidential Human Rights Council Mara Polyakova declared the charges were implausible and unlawful. Memorial Human Rights Centre classified Mikhail as a political prisoner. Human Rights Ombudsman Vladmir Lukin actively expressed his support for Mikhail. Abroad, Human Rights Watch, the US State Department and the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum all called for an end to his prosecution. Deputy chair of the Bundestag of Germany (CDU/CSU) and coordinator of German-Russian cooperation in the German Foreign Ministry, Andreas Schockenhoff, visited Krasnodar but was not allowed to meet Mikhail in detention. The German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina addressed President Putin with an open letter on his case. 


Mikhail was held on remand for almost 8 months (until 4 December 2013) in the FSB’s pre-trial detention centre No. 5.). Mikhail says that the blatant falsifications in his case prompted Judge B. Makhov of the Pervomaisky district court, who conducted the case from October to November 2013, to excuse himself on grounds of illness. After December the trial was heard by Judge V. Popova. 

On 5 November 2013, the first day of the trial, Mikhail made a statement in court (published by Novaya gazeta and elsewhere) setting out what he saw as the real motives of his prosecution: ‘The first motive, in my opinion, is to discredit the non-profit organizations of the region, including the SRRC as one of the most important of them. The second motive is to punish me for human rights activities. And the third, and most significant, is that it is convenient, while I am in FSB detention, to put pressure on me to rig another criminal case, this time for “treason,” basing it on my contacts with foreign journalists, US Embassy employees, and foreign experts.’ 

That evening, and the next morning, Mikhail was taken to an office of the FSB investigation department where the head of department and other officers asked him to withdraw the statement. Mikhail refused. 

It was not until later that month, following an appeal by Human Rights Ombudsman Vladmir Lukin, that Krasnodar regional court transferred Mikhail from the pre-trial detention centre to house arrest. However, the terms of house arrest were unusually severe. Only his wife and my lawyers were permitted to contact him. He was not allowed to communicate with his daughter or grandson, despite the fact they are registered residents at the same address. He was not allowed to use the Internet or leave the apartment (his movements were monitored by a leg bracelet). He says that he used the four months under house arrest to record every detail he could remember of the secret interrogations by the FSB, as well as their own admissions about FSB methods. 

On 2 April 2014, at the end of a trial which Mikhail and many observers believed added further injustices to his prosecution (for example, the presiding judge refused to allow witnesses for the defence to be called), he was sentenced by the Pervomaiskiy district court in Krasnodar to a three-year suspended sentence with two years of probation and a 70,000 rouble fine. 

Mikhail believes he avoided being sent to prison because of the pressure exerted by civil society activists and foreign organizations and governments. 


On 30 September 2014 Krasnodar regional court dismissed Mikhail’s appeals against his conviction. This, Mikhail says, convinced him that: ‘In today's Russia I would not be able to protect my rights, and there is no possibility to stop further repressive actions of the authorities against me.’ Indeed, Mikhail says that the FSB take the view that ‘No one gets away from us’. 

Despite his experiences, Mikhail had lost none of his determination to continue his human rights work and civil society activism. In his view, it may well have been because of this that about a year after his original conviction, on 15 May 2014, Krasnodar FSB opened a new criminal investigation (against the head of an NGO in Krasnodar city) in which Mikhail was cited as a witness. An interrogation on 25 December 2014 gave Mikhail to understand that he would shortly be declared a ‘suspect’ in the case and charged. Given the suspended sentence he was serving at the time, this would have meant he would be held in detention for the length of the investigation, and that subsequently his probationary period would very probably be changed to a real term in prison. 

At that point Mikhail decided to leave Russia for Ukraine. He left Russia on 19 February 2015 and applied for refugee status with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In a statement he issued at the time, he said: 'The authorities in our country are at war with its people. [...] Political prisoners in Russia are people who have been taken hostage by the regime in the course of this war.' [2] In February 2015 Mikhail was included in a federal ‘wanted’ list by the Russian authorities. 

Mikhail has now thrown his energies into being a participant in civil society in his newly adopted country, Ukraine. He says he hugely admires the freedoms in Ukraine, which he contrasts with the repressive situation in Russia. But Mikhail continues to watch with interest what is happening in his homeland (not least by following developments on the Internet and engaging with Russian colleagues by that means). Together with Ukrainian colleagues, Mikhail has set up a centre for civil society expertise called the Owl Expert Group ['Еkspertna grupa "Sova"’ – Sova, meaning owl, no doubt echoing Mikhail’s family name ‘Savva’]. 

He says there are two potential scenarios for what will happen in Russia: ‘One is something very like what happened in the 1990s, a rapid collapse of the system and a change of power. But this is unlikely. The second, more likely, scenario would see economic stagnation for the next twenty years or so, resulting in a gradual growth of public discontent. Eventually, this would be very likely to lead to the collapse of the country.’ 

And what of himself? 

Mikhail says that his army service taught him, among other things, how to behave as a prisoner of war. A prisoner of war must do three things, if possible: stay alive; escape; and cause harm to the enemy. Mikhail says that now his purpose is to fight the regime in Russia – but using peaceful means. He does not wish to hide this. 

‘It’s true, I am not an accidental victim,’ he says, ‘I am their enemy.’ 

[1] A number of such text were translated and published by Rights in Russia. See: Mikhail Savva, Civilized norms of the Middle Ages, 16 April 2013; Mikhail Savva, 'Reflections on human rights from an FSB pre-trial detention centre,' 4 June 2013; Mikhail Savva, On the might of the “fifth column” in Russia, 26 December 2014; Mikhail Savva, 'You have one less hostage, Gentlemen!' 19 February 2015

For other articles from the press about Mikhail Savva translated by Rights in Russia, see: Polina Nikolskaya, Funding from the FSB: Why domestic financing can be more dangerous for NGOs than foreign funding [], 10 May 2013; Criminal Prosecution of Mikhail Savva is Politically Motivated, His Wife Believes [Caucasian Knot], 15 April 2013; Andrei Ivanov, 'Anyone can become a spy [Svobodnaya pressa],' 17 April 2013; Elena Savva, 'My eye-witness account of court hearing on 5 June [Savva Support Group],' 5 June 2013; Leonid Nikitinsky, 'The Case of Mikhail Savva [Novaya gazeta],' 9 January 2014; Mikhail Savva: FSB officers in Krasnodar questioned NGO director for 9 hours [Zhivaya Kuban], 9 April 2013; Yabloko Press Release, Prominent human rights defender Mikhail Savva arrested by FSB [Yabloko], 12 April 2013; Yulia Galyamina, Test of Integrity: Detained Professor Savva reconciled ethnic communities; criticised Tkachev and Cossacks [Natsionalnyi aktsent], 20 April 2013; Anna Perova, Investigation into charges against Mikhail Savva completed [Kommersant], 24 September 2013; Vadim Karastelev, Conditions of detention of Professor Mikhail Savva are cause for serious concern [Live Journal], 1 October 2013. 

[2] See: 'Person of the Week: Mikhail Savva,' Rights in Russia, 23 February 2015

An Interview with Dmitry Pritykin, project manager at Memorial Research & Information Centre, St. Petersburg

posted 1 Nov 2016, 09:47 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 2 Nov 2016, 02:16 ]

1 November 2016

On a chilly St. Petersburg morning in early October, Rights in Russia met Dmitry Pritykin, project director of Memorial Research and Information Centre (MRIC), at the organization’s offices on Rubinstein Street in central St. Petersburg. MRIC is a branch of the International Memorial Society and a self-standing organization that was initiated by Veniamin Iofe in 1987 (and formally registered in 1991) on the new wave of openness and enthusiasm that characterized perestroika. It was created with a mission to conduct research into the Soviet state terror, resistance to the totalitarian regime and the history of the GULAG, as well as to maintain and build an archive, based in the first place on Iofe’s personal archive gathered over many years. More recently, MRIC has become perhaps best known for its Virtual Gulag Museum. Its director since 2002 is Irina Flige, who has worked with Memorial since 1988. Index on Censorship, which awarded MRIC its 2012 Freedom of Expression prize, has called the Centre ‘a living tribute to the survivors of Soviet Russia’ for its work in ‘preserving documentation that many have tried to bury.’

Dmitry is a native St. Petersburger. His parents were quite typical members of what was then known as the Soviet intelligentsia. His father was a screenwriter for documentary films (at one time he worked as script editor for the film director Aleksei Gelman). His mother was an editor of journals and newspapers who, at the end of the 1980s, became director of Feniks Archive, a publishing house for works previously published only in the West, set up in the city by Vladimir Alloi (who had emigrated to France in 1975). Dmitry’s mother continued Alloi’s work after the latter’s suicide in 2001. It was from his parents that Dmitry learnt about another side of life in Soviet Russia: the dissidents. Both his parents not only regularly read samizdat, but also participated in its production. Dmitry’s father wrote and edited samizdat articles, while his mother typed them up for distribution. Once perestroika got underway, Dmitry’s mother became one of the founding members of the International Memorial Society in 1989, and in later years also worked for MRIC.

In 1994 Dmitry entered St. Petersburg’s Herzen Pedagogical University to study political science, subsequently qualifying to teach what in the West might be known as sociology and politics. However, he did not work for long as a teacher, but became an administrator in the state education system. After two years in that role, he moved on. By 1999 he was working for the US organization Project Harmony, which was funded by USAID. Project Harmony arranged cultural exchanges between the US and Russia, supported Internet access in Russia (especially in educational centres and libraries), and provided related know-how and training to teachers, students and librarians. At that time there was a strong demand for these programmes in Russia given the generally poor quality of Internet access.

Project Harmony focused its work on the Russian regions, and in those years in the provinces there were high expectations of what US assistance could offer. Yet this was already a time when in St Petersburg and Moscow USAID funding was treated with suspicion by the authorities, a tendency that only increased during the 2000s. Dmitry soon found that he had attracted the attention of the security services who wanted to know more about what they saw as ‘suspicious’ foreign programmes. As a result, in 2002 Dmitry left Project Harmony and went into the commercial world of advertising, where he worked for seven years. It was not until 2009 that he decided to return to the non-profit sector, when he took up a post with the Centre for Supplementary Education for Children. At the same time he began working as a volunteer at MRIC.

This move into the non-profit world was against the grain in terms of what was happening in Russian society at the time, Dmitry points out. ‘Everyone was making money,’ he says, ‘But I was not interested in making money.’ But he realized that his strongest interest lay not in human rights as such, but in history and memory. Memorial, he says, is a human rights organization ‘of a very specific kind.’ The main goal of Memorial, Dmitry says, is to bring about a major, official investigation into the Terror – an investigation that could result in trials like the post-war Nuremburg Trials. Despite the potential significance of this goal, Dmitry says that Memorial, while it is one of oldest NGOs in Russia, does not have a very high public profile. He notes that it is often the authorities and their repressive actions against civil society nowadays that have given NGOs more prominence in Russian society. Indeed, it was the same year, 2009, that Dmitry began working as a volunteer at MRIC that the General Prosecutor’s Office conducted a raid on the organization’s offices in St. Petersburg, confiscating hard drives and CDs containing a great part of the organization’s archive. The raid and the legal proceedings that followed had resonance around the world. Index on Censorship commented on the events of that year: ‘The attack [on Memorial] was condemned by activists and historians across the globe, and eventually all of the material was returned after a battle in local courts.’

It was while Dmitry was working at MRIC as a volunteer that he became involved in a project to find and commemorate the victims of the Red Terror, whose bodies had been buried in the Kovalevsky Forest outside St. Petersburg. During the Red Terror, an estimated 4,500 people were shot and their bodies buried at this location, which was rediscovered by Memorial in 2002. The Kovalevsky Forest itself forms part of a larger area, the Rzhev District Firing Range, where as many as 30,000 people are believed to have been shot dead – including the poet Nikolai Gumilev. After identifying the location, Memorial began to raise funds to build a museum on the site. In 2009 President Medvedev indicated he supported the building of the museum. However, no funds materialized, and a number of legal and administrative problems have arisen, as a result of which the museum remains to this day just an idea on paper.

It was also as a volunteer with MRIC that Dmitry first found out about the Swedish governmental organization, Living History Forum, that uses the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity as a starting point to raise awareness of issues related to tolerance, democracy and human rights. Later Dmitry, by then a full-time employee at MRIC, worked with the Swedish organization on a programme entitled ‘The Role of Memory in the Process of Developing Human Rights,’ a three-year initiative bringing together teachers of history, trainee teachers, librarians and local historians. Under the programme, participants wrote articles on historical topics of their own choosing, and a jury then chose the 40 best works. On the basis of presentations by the 40 authors, the jury went on to select ten contestants to travel to Sweden, where they again presented their work.

It was in Sweden that Dmitry became fascinated by storytelling as a mode of oral history. In Sweden, he explained, there is a long tradition of storytelling between the generations. Young people are often told about the past by an older person, and then in turn the older person listens as the young person relates something about their own life. Not only does this practice continue today, but in factories and companies there are people employed to tell the story of the business.

However, Dmitry says that the Swedish model did not work well in Russia, primarily because ‘there is no trust between generations.’ In Soviet times, there were topics forbidden even within the family. For example, parents would often refuse to tell their children about political repression they had suffered, or to which their relatives and friends had been subjected; or about relatives who had been active in opposing the Bolsheviks, by serving as a White officer for example, or who had gone abroad.

Dmitry’s move to work full-time at MRIC took place at around the time of the elections of 2011 and 2012. Before these elections Dmitry, like many others in Russia, had felt rather indifferent to elections. But in 2011 he was caught up and inspired by the simple, but new, idea that elections could make a difference. He sees his own career move at that time as part of a sea change in public attitudes then taking place. After the elections of 2011 (for the State Duma) and 2012 (for President), he says, there was a new sense that change was imminent in society. There was a lot of new energy and civil society felt energized. MRIC itself hosted a preparation centre for those who wished to become observers during the Duma parliamentary elections in 2011. There were concerns the authorities would seek to falsify the elections, and civil society activists wanted to prevent this by means of election observation. While there were no radical activists in St Petersburg that had the same profile as the Moscow leaders, nonetheless the protest mood was strong. Like Moscow, if on a smaller scale, St Petersburg saw demonstrations. Marches of up to 50,000 people filled the streets. But the new energy was not only focused on the elections. Now working at Memorial, Dmitry found there was a new broad interest in civil society initiatives and in NGOs. New forms of activity were springing up all around. New volunteers came to Memorial.

Dmitry pauses in reciting his story. At this point the narrative changes. He says, with something of a sigh, that at that time the situation changed. Despite the election monitoring, the results of the Duma elections, widely suspected of being fabricated, stood. Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency. The period of intense optimism passed. In a radical change, a raft of new restrictive legislation and law enforcement practice, introduced by the authorities from 2012, indicated that officialdom had declared a kind of war on civil society. The adoption of the ‘foreign agent’ law was but one sign of this change, albeit a major one. Among civil society activists there was even a degree of panic as to what the new changes might mean. And, in the meantime, inspections of NGOs imposed under the ‘foreign agent’ law, and the related court cases, got underway. This meant that NGO staff were spending their time dealing with the new, heavily bureaucratic procedures requiring reams of paper and reporting.

MRIC has only a small administrative staff. Valuable resources that could have gone on project work were spent on the bureaucratic requirements of the foreign agent law. It was clear that the authorities wanted to create problems for civil society organizations. In reaction, the activists put their heads down and carried on working. Yet MRIC was not quite as exposed to official arbitrariness and the repressive measures as it may seem. While the organization does not have its own lawyers, it works in close collaboration with the group of jurists led by the prominent human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov, known as Team 29. As Dmitry explains, these lawyers have always been ready to come to the assistance of MRIC, to give advice, and to represent the organization in court. On many occasions their work has been crucial to MRIC’s survival.

By 2014, and even before Crimea, Dmitry notes, in the civil society sector there was a sense of depression. Some people began to think that there was no future in civil society projects. And when Crimea happened, it divided society. Even among the staff of organizations like Memorial there were divisions, for and against.

In November 2015 MRIC was added to the foreign agent register by the Ministry of Justice. At that point, the organization decided to cease all public activity. Those individuals who still wished to take part in the kind of public activities formerly carried out by MRIC now did so through an informal, unregistered, association known as the Iofe Foundation. This decision marked a move away from the increasing professionalization of the Third Sector that had taken place in the 1990s and in the first decade of the 2000s, and a return towards the informality of civic associations of the late Soviet years.

In the current situation, Dmitry says, ‘It would be wrong to exaggerate and pretend there is a threat to our very lives. This is not a matter of life or death. But the situation disturbs and annoys us. It creates problems for us in our relations with officials, with schools, and so on. It is all a bit insulting and very unpleasant. We do our best to resist. We look for a bureaucratic way to dull the impact of the law. And sometimes the officials step back. There is no heroism on our part. We feel under pressure all the time. We can no longer do the work we want to do in the way we would like to do it. There’s the temptation to stop work and give up.’ He goes on, wanting to make sure the point is clear: ‘I have no victim complex. And it’s wrong to exaggerate. I have no sense of serious personal risk, of a threat to life. There is no pressure to leave country. But there are permanent bureaucratic problems - reporting, problems with funding. It’s very unpleasant.’

Asked if there is still interest in society in the work Memorial does, Dmitry says: ‘There’s no problem with getting people involved in our work. The interest remains, and it’s strong. For example, the project Last Address, which involves putting up plaques on buildings to commemorate those who lived there before they were taken away to their deaths during the Terror. Last Address is not a project of Memorial, but a completely independent initiative. The project is very successful in engaging young people.’

He points out again that the project is wholly independent of Memorial, and only one of the main participants happens to be a MRIC staff member. ‘So things go on. And some people, when the pressure on them increases, for that very reason want to continue doing what they have been doing. I would say there is even more interest in the issues we are working on - in preserving historical memory. The work continues, our projects continue, for example the Virtual Gulag Museum. All the time we are gathering information and publishing it. Publishing resources for the public - for people who don’t know this history. For example, the Map of Memory. Take as an example the burial places in Sandormokh in Karelia – an important place for the study of the Terror – where so many people were shot. We have all the documents about this atrocity. We know the names of those shot, and of those who did the killing, and how it was done. We know everything.’

‘And as for the future,’ Dmitry concludes, ‘we can only speak for ourselves. We shall continue our work. Of course, the situation in the country has a direct impact on what we can do. But we shall continue our work despite the pressure that the authorities put on NGOs, because we are convinced that this is the best form of resistance to this pressure, and because we see that there is a demand in society for the work we do. And our interest in our work, our commitment, remains strong.’

The remains of the tea on the table had grown cold during our conversation. After bidding goodbye to Dmitry and leaving the offices of the Memorial Research and Information Centre, the air outside seemed also to have acquired an additional chill, though it was still morning in St. Petersburg.

On 6 November 2015 the Ministry of Justice declared the Memorial Research and Information Centre, based in St. Petersburg, a 'foreign agent' NGO. The Memorial Research and Information Centre includes an archive, a library, premises for discussions and exhibitions, and an online GULAG museum. The Centre was founded in 1991 by Veniamin Iofe as a research centre to support Memorial's work on historical archives. Arseny Roginsky, chair of International Memorial Society, described the decision of the Ministry of Justice as 'an enormous blow for all those who work on preserving the memory of Soviet terror.'

Interview with Valentina Cherevatenko: "The priorities for our work have always been peacemaking, conflict prevention, and rehabilitation of those who have suffered in conflict zones" (Radio Svoboda)

posted 6 Jul 2016, 10:58 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 6 Jul 2016, 11:03 ]

30 June 2016

"Flowers for Savchenko - 'criminal intent'. On the price for peacemaking efforts in the time of Putin era" 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Radio Svoboda]

Photo: Amnesty International
For the first time in Russia criminal charges have been brought for 'malicious refusal' to comply with the requirements of the law on foreign agents (Article 330.1 of the Russian Criminal Code, up to two years in prison). The decision by the Investigative Committee to charge the chair of the Women of the Don Union, Valentina Cherevatenko, states that the Women of the Don Union was involuntarily included in the register of foreign agents in June 2014 (it became the first NGO to be registered involuntarily), but Cherevatenko, 'with criminal intent' to avoid complying with the law, back in 2013 had registered a Women of the Don Foundation. In 2014-15 the Foundation 'engaged in political activity' (ran educational seminars and worked to develop the potential of civil society actors) and received foreign funding of approximately 3 million roubles from the German Heinrich Boell Foundation. Cherevatenko, knowing that this organization was acting as a 'foreign agent', 'intentionally' did not register the organization, the decision to begin criminal proceedings states. Grigory Bakunin of Radio Svoboda speaks with Valentina Cherevatenko.

– The initial investigation in relation to your Foundation began back in May. How unexpected was the decision to bring criminal charges? 

– Of course, it was unexpected. All the more because the criminal case was opened on 22 June 2016 at 22:00 hours. I was still thinking that the investigators had other things to do. But nonetheless, you can see what has happened.

– When your office was searched, what did the investigators look for and what questions did they ask you?

– They didn't ask me any questions, and I didn't understand what they were looking for, because we don't have anything hidden away. I wasn't at the office that day. I was coming back from a business trip, and I only found out that there was a search going on in our office by telephone when I reached an airport in another region. By the time my plane landed, it was all over. What especially surprised me when I was given the official report on the search was that they wrote the word 'discovered'. Perhaps the reason for everything is bureaucracy, but even so...For example, there was a computer on the table. Nobody hid it, but in the official report on the search it states: 'discovered'. When it is written like that, it creates the impression that we hid it. And in addition they seized documents that were on the shelves in our archives, with the contents, the year, and so on, written on each file. These files have been seized, and the official report describes each as having been 'discovered'.

– For many years you headed the Women of the Don Union. When, and why, did you decide to register the Foundation with a similar name?

– Yes it’s true that the Women of the Don Union has been working for more than 20 years. And the priorities for our work have always been, and remain, peacemaking, conflict prevention, and rehabilitation of those who have suffered in conflict zones. These are our main areas of work. And when the inspection of our organization by prosecutors began in 2013, we suddenly received an official warning that the Union, as a regional organization, does not have the right to work in other regions. Because of this we created the Women of the Don Foundation, whose activities are in many respects similar to those of the Women of the Don Union, but the Foundation has no territorial limitations on its work.

– So far as I know, through the courts you have succeeded in having Women of the Don Union removed from the ‘foreign agent’ list. Did you also challenge the decision to include the Foundation in the register? What is the situation with this case now?

– In the courts we succeeded in getting the Women of the Don Union removed from the register. We sent a declaration to the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation setting out why we believed we should not be on the register. After this there was an unscheduled inspection of the organization, and the Ministry of Justice resolved to remove the Women of the Don Union from the register, since there were no grounds to keep us listed. Indeed, we are now challenging the decision to include the Foundation in the register in the courts. At present, the higher court has not yet heard the appeal we lodged.

- How is the Foundation funded? Is it true that the Foundation receives funding from the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Germany?

– Neither the Foundation nor the Union has received any funding from abroad for more than a year now. Our Foundation, the Women of the Don Union, and the German Heinrich Boell Foundation were partners in the implementation of a joint project entitled ‘Supporting civil society leaders in the North Caucasus.’ The project in question was funded by the European Union.

– Why, in your opinion, was the organization added to the list of NGOs that the authorities consider objectionable? Did the organization do ‘something wrong’? Have some of the Foundation's recent projects attracted a higher level of attention from the authorities?

– Well, I don’t want to guess about what we might have done that was objectionable, or ‘something wrong’. We simply sought to continue our mission. So far as I understand, you are interested in asking about ‘Civic Minsk’? To date it is not a project, it is just an initiative. The initiative is really ours, Women of the Don’s. The coordinating council of the Women of the Don Union considered this question and put the idea of the initiative forwards to the Presidential Human Rights Council. Since we are peacemakers, and this is the main characteristic of our work, we believe that all conflicts must be resolved through negotiation, without weapons, without death and destruction. We believe that the Minsk Process lacks input from civil society. If you want, it lacks civil society support. We also believe that representatives of civil society in Russia and Ukraine, as well as the eastern regions of Ukraine, can and must take a more active role in establishing peace in the Donbass. This idea has been around more more than a year now. We are doing everything we can in this direction.

– And could you tell us the story of your visit on 8 March to the pre-trial detention facility in your city, and whether you actually did meet Nadezhda Savchenko there? It’s said that you gave her a gift of flowers?

– The fact is that my colleagues from the Public Oversight Commission and I visited Nadezhda Savchenko that day in the pre-trial detention facility. And 8 March is my mother's birthday, and I planned to go straight from the remand centre to visit my mother and wish her a happy birthday. When I bought the flowers for my mother, I thought that, since it was 8 March, Nadezhda, as a woman, would be pleased to receive some flowers. All the more since we were all at that time concerned about how to persuade Nadezhda to end her dry hunger strike. I want to make it clear, this was not a specially planned visit to see Savchenko on 8 March. My colleagues and I were visiting Nadezhda every day, closely following the state of her health. But it turned out that one local journalist saw me going in to the pre-trial detention facility with flowers in my hands. And she immediately wrote about this, first on social networks, and then in a published article, to the effect that Cherevatenko had gone to give flowers to Savchenko. And that started it! All sorts of things were said about me! And not only, as the phrase is, people in the street, but also people in positions of authority. It was even said that I ‘gave flowers to a murderer’. So that’s what happened. There were demands that prosecutors and the FSB should take ‘appropriate action’ against me. I don’t know, perhaps these things we’ve been discussing have been the very ‘measures’ that they wanted taken against me. I don’t know…

– What other projects is your organization engaged in?

– Women of the Don Union continues, for example, to carry out a major, important, project called ‘Public Advice Clinic’. I should say that we have been doing this as long as the Union has been in existence. And we don’t only provide consultations. In especially difficult cases we also take up legal cases and follow them through. The work of the Foundation is based solely on voluntary work. We don’t have a single staff member employed there.

– How do you intend to defend yourself in court from the charges of ‘criminal intent’ not to register as a ‘foreign agent’? Is anyone giving you legal support?

– I am being represented by an experienced lawyer, and I have complete faith in him. I am also grateful to everyone who has given me moral support. And I’m not only talking about colleagues. These days I hear many words of support from ordinary people, residents of our city that I did not even know before. A huge thank you to everyone for this.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove

Liudmila Alekseeva on the importance of the debunking of the Stalinist cult of personality: "After the 20th Party Congress people were no longer afraid to talk with one another." (Voice of America)

posted 5 Mar 2016, 09:46 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 9 Mar 2016, 02:41 ]

25 February 2016

Source of Russian-language original: Moscow Helsinki Group [original: Russian Service of Voice of America

On 25 February it will be 70 years to the day that Nikitia Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in February 1956 made a speech on the ‘cult of personality and its consequences’ at a closed session of the CPSU's 20th Congress. This speech became a sensation as an exposure of the crimes of Joseph Stalin and his subordinates, and marked the beginning of a period of rehabilitation of tens of thousands of innocent people who killed and in other ways fell victim to the repressions. The complete text of the Khrushchev’s speech was published only 33 years later. 

Many Russian and foreign historians believe that Nikita Khrushchev, who himself had signed death sentences, decided to unmask Joseph Stalin in order to strengthen his own personal authority and to frighten his competitors within the leadership of the CPSU. Nonetheless, it was after his speech at the 20th Party Congress that a process of democratization in the USSR began, to the extent that this was possible in the conditions of the predominance of Communist ideology. Moreover, debunking myths about Stalin had no impact of the USSR’s foreign policy: it was in 1956 that Soviet troops mercilessly suppressed the anti-Communist uprising in Hungary.

In 1956 the well-known Russian human rights defender Liudmila Alekseeva, chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group, completed her post-graduate studies at the Moscow Institute for Economics and Statistics. In an interview with the Russian service of the Voice of America she recalls how Soviet people reacted to the speech by Nikita Khrushchev.

Danila Galperovich: What was the importance of the 20th Party Congress for you personally? How did it change the way you understood the country at that time?

Liudmila Alekseeva: For me what they said at the Congress about repressions was nothing new. But for me this Congress was very important, as for everyone, because afterwards people believed that there would be no return to state terror, and people were no longer afraid to talk with one another. They stopped being afraid to discuss things. Immediately after the Congress the situation in society changed a great deal, because people began talking with one another in a much more natural way, something they had feared doing until then, because any careless word could, if reported, cost them their lives, and not only the lives of those who had said something, but the lives those close to them as well. After the 20th Congress this fear was no longer there.

Danila Galperovich: Did you discuss what had happened at the 20th Congress with you friends, with family?

Liudmila Alekseeva: Everyone discussed it, people talked a lot about it. First of all, this speech by Khrushchev was read out at various meetings, and after that people discussed it. For some it was a discovery, for others not. But people began to talk. Those for whom there was nothing new in the speech had kept quiet before, but now they could discuss it.

Danila Galperovich: But surely the fact that Khrushchev made the speech at a 'closed' session of the Congress meant that the text was also ‘secret’? After all, only the decisions of the Congress (adopted on the basis of the speech) were officially published.

Liudmila Alekseeva: No this was not the case at all. To start with, the speech was read out at meetings of key party personnel, then it was read more widely – at ordinary party meetings, at meetings of the Komsomol, and it was read out to students in higher education institutions. And so what was discussed was not the decisions of the Congress, but the speech itself.

Danila Galperovich: Looking back, why do you think Khrushchev decided to expose Stalin’s crimes?

Liudmila Alekseeva: I can’t exactly answer that. I think that Khrushchev was a participant in the terror that Stalin set in train, but not a willing participant. And he wanted to change attitudes to Stalin. The lease he wanted to do was to explain to people what this person, who at that time was literally deified, was actually like. 

Danila Galperovich: If we go back three years earlier when Stalin died, what did his death mean for you at that time? Did you take a neutral position on this, were you bitter, or you had some other feelings? 

Liudmila Alekseeva: I even wept when I learned of Stalin's death because, you know, things were not like they are now. Now we know about other people around the leader, but then they we did not. We knew their names, but we had no idea who they were. Apart from Stalin, there was no one. And the question was: what will happen now? Who will rule such a huge and complex country in such difficult times? Because it seemed there simply were no people in the country capable of doing this. That is what frightened us, and not the news of Stalin’s death as such. I felt no grief. Not because I had some kind of special understanding, but because in order to love someone you need to be able to know what they are like. But he was presented in such an idealized manner that you couldn’t get any real idea of what he was like as a person. It was impossible to have any kind of normal, human feelings towards him.

Danila Galperovich: When was the first time you met and spoke with someone who had returned from the camps?

Liudmila Alekseeva: People began coming back from the camps even before the 20th Congress, and there were quite a lot of people like that in Moscow. To be honest, I can’t really remember when this happened for the first time. It was a very long time ago. But for us, of course, it was very important to hear what these people had to say. We talked with them, communicated a lot, and tried to find out how things had been in the camps.

Danila Galperovich: Do you think it can be said that at that time there was a mood in favour of moving away from the Stalinist terror and returning to ‘Leninist norms’? The idea that Stalin had corrupted socialism, but in fact it was quite possible to return socialism onto a renewed and progressive path?

Liudmila Alekseeva: That is how it was! That’s the idea people had. We were people who had no idea of any other kind of society, except the one we had that was called socialism. And the great majority of people at that time sincerely believed that the most just form of society is one where the means of production are not held as private property. Yes, that was the mood of those times, that now everything must change and socialism will be humanized, people believed that. But it has to be said that disillusion came quite quickly. There were the events in Budapest which also, of course, lowered the level enthusiasm that followed the 20th Party Congress. It was possible to condemn Stalin, but it was not allowed to criticize the party or party policy in any way. So it turned out that there were no steps actually being taken towards the democratization or humanization of society, except the fact that the senseless imprisonment of anyone for nothing more than a careless word came to an end.

Danila Galperovich: Do you think that after Putin we shall see something similar to the ‘20th Congress’? Or do you think that there will be completely different ways to renew our society after regimes of this kind?

Liudmila Alekseeva: No, I don't think there will be anything similar to the 20th Party Congress. Nothing in history happens twice. Everything happens differently. Although, of course, when this current regime changes, without doubt there is going to be some kind of criticism of what went before. And I hope that this will not just be a matter of words, but of deeds also.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove

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