Interviews


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.

Revolution

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.

Imagine

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. 

Childhood 

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. 

University 

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.’ 

Support 

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. 

Trial 


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. 

Afterwards 

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 [Lenta.ru], 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

Pavel Chikov: Answers to questions from Ekho Moskvy listeners (Ekho Moskvy)

posted 26 Feb 2016, 07:14 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 1 Mar 2016, 11:27 ]

19 February 2016

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Ekho Moskvy]


Pavel Chikov, director of international human rights group "Agora", answers questions from listeners of "Ekho Moskvy".

Question 1 Besides standing in picket lines, are opposition members now allowed to throw pies at Putin and his friends? Or only at Kasyanov?

Answer Yevgenii Viktorovich, standing in picket lines can now be a punishable crime too -the first such sentence, of three years' imprisonment, passed on Ildar Dadin, was recently announced in Moscow.

I think it's a bad idea to resort to thuggish methods of harrassing or attacking opponents. There are plenty of way to express your positions precisely and strongly without any crude violence.

Question 2 How has the law on 'foreign agents' affected the work of your foundation Agora? And why are you so against it? What difference does it make what they call your organization, the main thing is you help people? Why all this bickering over nonsensical laws? Thank you.

Answer The law on foreign agents forced us to reorganize all our work in many active ways.

Basically it's forbidden today to use a non-profit organization for public activities. The cost of running an NGO is excessively high and can't be justified by the advantages it has. We are able to continue our work regardless of the state's repressive policies toward NGOs.

As far as opposing unconstitutional laws - on agents and a ton of other things - it's an independent and very important front for rights defenders to fight on.

It's important to show the public the true essence and aim of these laws, force the higher courts to state their position on them, press for an evaluation of whether they accord with international standards, and in concrete cases - restrict the damage done when they are used repressively. The stronger this legal defense, the harder it will be to pass even worse laws, and the closer we will be to having them declared bad laws.

Question 3 Pavel, you've helped and are helping many people. Do you have principles about whom to defend and whom not to? For example, if A. Breivik turned to you for help, would you agree? What rules do you have: are they personal, or dispassionate, that is, whoever needs help will get it from us? Thank you. Ilya.

Answer Ilya, that's a very good question, right to ask.

There are certainly principles, but they have to be adjusted with time. The basic approach, which we formulated for ourselves at the beginning of the 2000s, is this: we work on cases of violations of human rights standards as they are interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights. The Court has existed since 1950, and in those 65 years it has accumulated a gigantic body of experience on all ten articles of the Convention (the right to life, the ban on torture, [illegal] arrest, the right to freedom of speech, assembly, religion, a fair trial and effective legal defence, the ban on discrimination, the right to property). The Court's legal positions have also been adjusted over the years, but the foundation remains the same.

The dilemmas we face in practice are above all moral ones.

For example, a man killed his children, but he was tortured by the police. Do we take his case? We say: if he killed his children, let a court try and punish him. But if he was beaten, let a court punish the police too.

The next dilemma: do we defend neo-Nazis from illegal pressure?

This is more complicated - we don't share the neo-Nazi ideology, but we don't share many religious views either, or Communist ideas, and so on. This doesn't mean Nazis should be thrown in jail on false charges or beaten up at the station.

People often ask if we defend nationalists. Sometimes it's hard to draw a line between neo-Nazism and nationalism, but we have taken the cases of Daniil Konstantinov, Aleksandr Belov-Potkin. And also a lot of cases where people are punished for posting photos with a swastika. Freedom of speech embraces different points of view, you don't have to agree with them, but they have to exist in a normal society, because that's a necessary condition of normality. Besides which, even when law enforcement is justified in responding to illegal actions, the response should be appropriate. For example, when someone is sent to jail for five years for his words, whatever they were - that should raise considerable doubts.

As far as Breivik goes, he's not in Russia, of course.

More than that, he is serving his sentence in a country with the most enlightened and humane prison system in the world, the kind Russia should strive for. If Breivik had been tortured or denied medical treatment in prison, of course we would have to concern ourselves with him. In Russia we are conducting about fifty cases of prisoners who are severely ill, about ten cases where prisoners died under torture, and we don't even ask under what article they were convicted, what crimes they committed. Breivik asked to be given the chance to educate himself - and that was permitted, he was granted that right. We are waiting for the decision of the European Court of Human Rights, that it was a violation of the Constitution to send Major Yevsyukov to serve his prison sentence a thousand kilometres from home, where he can only rarely see his family. And his fight for his rights is justified.

Question 4 In your view, what should be done, what cardinal reform should be introduced to make courts truly independent in Russia? Thank you. Ilya.

Answer Political reform.

We have to resurrect democratic institutions - elections, parliament, separation of powers, free media, a system of checks and balances. Courts should be watched closely and intensively. There is the positive experience of the arbitrage courts, there is the short period in which civil courts worked normally. We should streamline criminal trials, shift the emphasis from court prosecutions, take away the supervisory powers of the prosecutor's office, shake up the Constitutional court, get rid of

Question 5 The statistics indicate that an overwhelming number of verdicts are guilty ones. Is that because a majority of judges in Russia are former prosecutors, that is, they were on the prosecuting side in court? Why do you think defence lawyers don't become judges - are they not let in? Thank you.

Answer They're not let in.

A woman I know passed her exam to be an arbitration court judge. She was agreed on and passed as a candidate. They asked that her brother, a defence lawyer, leave his position. It's not only defence lawyers who are not accepted as judges, but even the relatives of defence lawyers.

Question 6 Pavel Vladimirovich, in the course of your work as a human rights lawyer, have you ever refused to defend the interests of any citizen because you didn't like them, they didn't share your convictions, or for some other reasons you were put off? Have you taken a case like that, or has it not been such a general problem, and have you gone on, despite your personal feelings about an individual?

Answer This question is related to number 3.

I'll give you an example. In the early 90s in Tatarstan, where I was born and where I live and work, there was a short period in which Tatar nationalists ran riot. Young people, with cries of "azatlyk!" (freedom!) and green scarves on their heads, demanded sovereignty from Moscow. Their leaders, like Rafis Kashapov and Fauziya Bairamov, called on people to kick Russians out of the Tatar republic and destroy children from mixed marriages (my father's Russian, my mother Tatar). I was 12 or 13, and at a certain point my parents were very worried for my safety.

15 years went by, and in 2006 I wrote one of my first applications to Strasbourg on behalf of Rafis Kashapov, who'd been sentenced for extremism. Nine years later he was put in jail, and Agora provided him with a lawyer. For me that was an important personal decision, and I'm proud of it.

Question 7 Pavel Vladimirovich, how do you explain the fact that the concept of reputation is ceasing to be a measure of value for intelligent people (and not just in our time), why is it diminishing so fast with some politicians, journalists, and this is even seen among human rights lawyers? How important is your reputation (personal and professional), what does it mean to you? Or does this problem not exist for you?

Answer Reputation is all that's left of someone after death.

Absolutely, it's very important. Both personal and professional. A human rights lawyer's demands on himself are generally extremely high, there are too many people wishing to cast a shadow on him and sully his reputation. You're on view all the time. Your professional reputation is the most important thing. You have to show people that you can achieve success by means of the law in our conditions, in very complex cases whose fate is decided in offices very high up. There are few legal professions where your brain is under so much strain all the time. Our lawyers have been called to the judiciary several times, but they refused, because they wouldn't find such professional interest there. Here we have the possibility of exerting systematic influence, standing on solid moral foundations and using exclusively legal means.

Question 8 Pavel Vladimirovich, do you feel a change in public opinion today, compared with the nineties and the 2000s, in relation to human rights defenders? Or is it the way it always used to be, do citizens (and the authorities) have the same, if not contemptuous then rather cool and mocking attitude toward human rights work, as the Soviet people once had toward dissidents? And then they suddenly run to human rights defenders when they've felt on their own skin that officials don't wish to solve the problems of the 'little person.'

Answer 
I'm not in any way worried about the former, as long as we have the latter.

As long as people come to us, so long as we succeed in defending them in spite of everything, we get satisfaction from our work. And then - we know the degree to which public opinion is influenced by propaganda, but it is just as easily influenced in the other direction.

Question 9 Hello, Pavel Vladimirovich! How do you explain the fact that Agora has been liquidated right at this moment - what prompted it, what was the logic of the authorities? Will you fight to change the decision, will you turn to the European Court of Human Rights? Thank you!

Answer What they liquidated was one particular legal entity.

This is not only not the end of our work, on the contrary, it's an impulse to work on a new level. Our legal staff are working on the court case. There will be an appeal to the Supreme Court of Russia, and an application to the ECtHR. The ECtHR already has two Agora cases - about the tapping and searches of our offices in 2009, and about our forced inclusion in the register of foreign agents in 2014.

Question 10 Why do people who are lucky enough to live well support arbitrary government and lawlessness? After all, the illegality can affect them badly too. For example, in the time of Stalin's repressions, many law enforcement officials, and other 'faithful Leninist-Stalinists', suffered too. Wouldn’t it be better for them to refuse their supposed privileges and live by the law, giving others a chance of a decent life as well? Gennadii Vasilevich.

Answer Gennadii Vasilevich, of course it would be better, but I'm afraid that's not how life works.

We often defend former law enforcement personnel, and even more often we witness their fall from grace. This is the sphere of psychology, not jurisprudence. Ask any police officer if they want to get out of it – they’ll tell you no. Ask any former police officer if they’re happy to be out of it - they'll tell you yes, no doubt about it. And they’ll add that they should have left sooner. A third of our team are former law enforcement staff, prosecutors, directors of juvenile prisons - and it's very entertaining to watch the change in their values or on the other hand, hear the stories of how they became disillusioned by the system.

As long as someone is a member of a corporation, that person belongs to it mentally, it feeds and protects them. In return it demands that the person gives up everything for its sake, including morally. And people think it will last forever, that's how people are.

Translated by Alissa Leigh-Valles

Andrei Yurov: “Civil society activists can’t be hypocrites, they must be objective” - an interview with Eva Cukier

posted 9 Dec 2015, 23:30 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 9 Dec 2015, 23:54 ]

4 December 2015 

An interview with Andrei Yurov by Eva Cukier

Originally published in Security and Human Rights [Netherlands Helsinki Committee]. Reprinted by kind permission

The Russian Human Rights defender Andrey Yurov received the first Helsinki Civil Society Award on 19 November 2015 in The Hague. The Netherlands Helsinki Committee launched the award to honour the work of prominent activists and organizations that base their activities on and contribute to the legacy of the Helsinki principles. Andrey Yurov is a human rights defender and the founder of the International Youth Human Rights Movement which works in 30 countries. Currently, Yurov heads the Crimea Human Rights Field Mission which monitors the situation in annexed Crimea. Freelance journalist Eva Cukier spoke with Yurov about the human rights situation in Russia, the terrorist threat after Paris and the upcoming Dutch referendum on Ukraine.

First of all, can you explain the situation in Crimea?

Currently all is rather quiet in Crimea. At first glance, it might even seem as if nothing has changed at all. However, for the Ukrainians and Tatars on the peninsula literally everything has changed. They face severe humiliations and violations of their rights. I myself haven't been able to visit Crimea since July when the Russian authorities put our monitoring group, the Crimea Human Rights Field Mission, on the so-called 'patriotic stop-list' [a list of unwanted non-governmental organizations which Russian legislators believe to pose a potential threat to Russia – EC]. I don't want to endanger our volunteers by visiting them, but of course we are in contact and are working together. Another obstacle is that Ukraine has implemented a dangerous law which makes it illegal to travel to Crimea via Russian territory. For the sake of Crimea, Ukraine should repeal that law so that human rights defenders can travel freely and do their work.

How do you assess the human rights situation in Russia today?

It is clear that we have a colossal problem with fundamental rights in Russia, but that has been going on for years. Every year it is getting worse, but I also see some positive developments.

You mean that it used to be very bad and now it is just bad?

Exactly. You see, I am a human rights defender, not a politician. So I try to be objective. It would be a lie to say that Russia is governed by a terrible regime that is destroying its citizens day and night. I won't deny that the situation has deteriorated in many respects, but we also need to acknowledge the improvements. The penitentiary system, for example, has become much more transparent. Today human rights defenders are allowed inside the prison walls, ten years ago that would have been unthinkable! And police violence has diminished in some regions because there is more oversight from civil activists and human rights defenders. The situation is still very difficult, but it is not impossible to do something.

Even if there are some improvements, doesn't the arbitrariness of the system worry you?

Yes, but that is something different. It has to do with the fact that Russia is not a real constitutional state. In a system that is not based on legal principles you may go to prison even if you haven't done anything wrong or the opposite: you have done all kinds of bad stuff but you won't go to prison because you or your relatives have connections. In Russia, people experience different consequences for the same actions. However, this problem did not emerge yesterday but centuries ago.

What do you think of Russia's intervention in Syria, will it increase support for Putin?

This is a question to ask a political expert, not a human rights defender. I can only give you my opinion. You see, it is very hard to say whether states should or should not interfere in the internal affairs of other states. How can we stand by and feel good about ourselves when people in Syria are killed every day? From a human rights point of view, non-intervention is not an option. How can one interfere, that's a different question. You know, I am not a pacifist but I am a convinced antimilitarist. And even I still haven't decided whether it would be legitimate to take up arms against an elected leader. Is it important that Hitler was elected, or that Assad was elected, or Saddam Hussein or indeed any dictator?

You mean that democracy is not the decisive factor?

The West treasures elections more than anything, but in my opinion democracy is not about elections. If fascists and populists gain the majority of the votes, that has nothing to do with legitimacy. As a matter of fact, democracy in its purest sense is intolerable. What if the fascists had been elected in a legitimate way? Would we then have to respect them? After World War II, humanity agreed that human rights are more important than national sovereignty and that they are needed to prevent genocide and mass repression. But even democracy can turn a state into a monster, so even democracy has to be limited. It's a lesson we shouldn't forget. A ruler who has been elected democratically but engages in mass human rights violations automatically loses his legitimacy. I don't care if he has received 100 % of the votes. This is why I am not a politician. I have a different criterion for legitimacy, which is laid down in the United Nations Charter. You know that elections aren't even mentioned in the Charter? On the other hand, there are many states which have no democracy but where people do not live bad lives at all. The Vatican is an example.

In a recent interview you said that the terrorist attacks in Paris present a serious test to the concept of human rights. What do you mean?

Before 9/11 the USA was generally regarded as a bastion of democracy and human rights. But after the terrorist attacks, the US Congress allowed some very bad things to happen in the field of legislation and law enforcement which resulted in a total stagnation of human rights. Europe will see a similar development. For many people safety is the second most important requirement in life, just after physical needs such as food. The 'war on terrorism' is a very convenient banner for the sake of which people are willing to sacrifice their freedoms. This counts for civilized and liberal Europeans and Americans. With regard to less liberal societies - those in the Eurasian region for instance - freedoms are even less of a priority. And the secret services just love it. I am not talking about the Russian FSB, but about secret services in the whole so-called civilized world. The more threats we face, the more our rights are endangered.

So how do you see the future after the Paris and other terrorist attacks?

The mandate of the secret services will be expanded and human rights will suffer everywhere. Again: not only in Russia, but everywhere. What happens in Russia is a reflection of what is happening in the world. Actually, the USA and Europe were first to demolish international standards. Look at Serbia, look at Iraq. I am against the common but very primitive idea that the East is evil and the West is paradise. In terms of human rights, the USA are not doing much better than Russia. But I can't understand why Europe allows America to do things that others can't. With these double standards, the West is doing authoritarian regimes a big favour. I will give you one example: Europe keeps pointing at the death penalty in Belarus, but how many people are being killed in China? I don't see people freaking out about that or about the rights violations in America. What I am saying is that everybody is participating in the silent destruction of human rights and international law. The West thinks it's the good guy and Russia is the bad guy. But no one speaks about, for instance, Azerbaijan, even though what is happening in Azerbaijan today is incomparable to what is going on in Russia. But we keep silent because of economic reasons, because Azeri oil and gas supplies present an alternative to Russia. And what about Turkmenistan, where civil society has completely been destroyed? It doesn't interest anybody, all that interests them is Turkmenistan's cheap gas. What I am trying to say is that what happens in those countries, Russia included, is a reflection of the tendencies in the West.

In your opinion, is everybody a hypocrite?

Everybody, except for civil society activists. We can't be hypocrites because we have to be objective. Our common enemy is the attempt to overturn human rights. In the recent terrorist events I see a huge challenge to our civilization. Because in such circumstances people are immediately ready to forget about human rights.

What do you think about the referendum that will be held in the Netherlands regarding Ukraine's association with the European Union?

Some seem to think that Moscow is behind this referendum, but I don't think that is the case. The people behind the referendum are Eurosceptics and their interests by coincidence overlap with those of Moscow. Many people see Russia as a symbol of resistance against NATO. Look at France where the Communists and Madame Le Pen have united in one front. But unfortunately NATO doesn't only bring us joy. Some think that sceptic people are fools and NATO is like the sun, like Jesus Christ. But NATO isn't Jesus Christ and things are far more complicated. Regarding the referendum, the Kremlin is too stupid and too corrupt to be behind it. But one thing is certain: this corruption is saving Europe.

What do you mean?

Just look at what is going on in Crimea. A bunch of opportunists have been appointed there who have only one goal: To steal what is there and share the loot with their bosses. Take the Kerch project [the project to build a bridge to Crimea from the Russian town of Kerch - EC]. Such large construction projects are meant only for one thing: corruption. I have a theory about this – and I have been arguing a great deal with 'Transparency International' about this: If the level of corruption in a country is extremely high, then it becomes impossible to build a totalitarian state. A corrupted regime is simply too weak to build a repression machine. Mass repression has to operate like a watch and all the little screws have to believe in the system. When the screws are stolen, the system will collapse.

Rights in Russia interviews Arseny Roginsky: "The authorities still do not understand what freedom of association means"

posted 26 Apr 2013, 02:42 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 26 Apr 2013, 03:28 ]

26 April 2013

Arseny Roginsky is chair of the board of the International Memorial Society

Rights in Russia: What is the International Memorial Society today? 

Arseny Roginsky: Today Memorial is a network of organisations operating in several countries. Most of our organisations are in Russia— 38 of them. There are about ten organizations in Ukraine, one each in Latvia and Kazakhstan and, further abroad, in Italy, Germany and France. Each organisation operates autonomously and independently; and all of them together form a community, which is called International Memorial. The management board of Memorial is more of a coordinating body than a directive body. Once every four years delegates from all the organisations gather at a conference, re-elect the management board and plan the main strategy for our work going forward. [Read more]

An Interview with Ludmila Alekseeva: "This Bill will Come Back to Haunt the Kremlin"

posted 10 Jul 2012, 07:22 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 10 Jul 2012, 07:48 ]

10 July 2012

n-ost correspondent Pavel Lokshin spoke with Ludmila Alekseeva on the eve of the first reading in the State Duma of the new NGO bill on 6 July 2012.

n-ost: The Russian Parliament is about to debate a new bill which labels NGOs that receive international funding “foreign agents”. It forces them to reregister and disclose their finances or else to face exorbitant fines, a ban on their activities or even prison terms. How will the Moscow Helsinki Group, of which you are a co-founder, respond to this bill?

Ludmila Alekseeva: The Kremlin will wait in vain for us to register as “foreign agents”. We won’t let ourselves be branded like that. If the bill is adopted we will give up foreign funding. We will accept restrictions on our activities. How other representatives of civil society will respond I don’t know. [Read more]

This is a translation by Rights in Russia of an original German text made available by kind permission of n-ost

Ludmila Alekseeva lives in Moscow and is chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group. She is a member of the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights.

An Interview with Irina Flige

posted 10 Jul 2012, 07:03 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 10 Jul 2012, 07:42 ]

11 April 2012 

An interview with Irina Flige, director of the St. Petersburg Memorial Research and Information Centre, by Masha Karp 

"If there is an enthusiast, there is a monument. If there isn't one, then there is no monument"

"In Russia I think at the present time there is only one measure for political events: whether blood will be shed or not. Unfortunately, we are on the threshold of these events."


On 28th March Index on Censorship, which has just celebrated its 40th anniversary, awarded one of its Freedom of Expression awards to Memorial Research and Information Centre. Irina Flige, director of the Centre in St. Petersburg, was presented with the award in London by Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, one of Index on Censorship’s original trustees (photo below: Index on Censorship). In this interview with Masha Karp, Irina Flige speaks about the work of the Centre, the protests that have taken place in Russia, and the current situation in Russia. [Read more  

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