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Olga Romanova: Crutches, nappies and a store of courage. What they looked for and what they found during the search of Russia Behind Bars [Novaya gazeta]

posted 30 Jun 2017, 08:45 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 30 Jun 2017, 12:41 ]
14 June 2017 


By Olga Romanova, founder and head of the movement ‘Russia Behind Bars’ [Русь сидящая - Rus' sidyashchaya], winner of a Moscow Helsinki Group human rights award 


Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Source: Novaya gazeta


So in this story there is a boss living the good life. Let's say a minister for medium-sized industry, for example. And as often happens, he’s not amazingly bright. He’s of medium intelligence, medium - like the industrial sector he heads. But he shows his fighting character, keeps his people on a tight rein, doesn’t let them read newspapers, or go home at the end of their shifts. He's stopped all vacations and sick leave. And so that they don't waste time and gossip, he's locked the doors to the corridors and kept the key under his pillow. The usual kind of thing. 

But now this minister of medium-sized industry is meeting his senior colleague – the minister for heavy industry. And that minister says to him: “Petrovich, don’t be too harsh. There’re a lot of complaints about you, you know. You’re stealing more than you ought to at your level.’ 

Who had dared? He began to put everything in order, in his own way. He got rid of the public observers from his medium-sized industry, put his security guards in their place, he shook up the advisory councils, he banned contacts between citizens from parallel industries with those labouring away in his own. He held a press conference to say ‘we’re working effectively, there are no complaints.’ And at that press conference some awkward types start asking him questions and saying loudly: ’You’re lying, Petrovich. Here is a document about theft, here is a document about the murdered and the martyred, and here is a draft order about the liquidation of the ministry of medium-sized industry, because there isn’t any such.’ Petrovich was extremely disappointed, and in his sorrows he ordered those who had asked the questions to be caught and sent to his stables for a flogging. 

And that's when the police came to Russia Behind Bars to conduct searches. 

And it has to be said that the guys who came to our office in the morning of 8 June were completely OK. They were from the police department for combating corruption and economic crimes, and they laid a special stress on corruption, that was the issue, they said, that they had with us. Of course in our offices we are engaged in corruption as often as we're pouring out the tea. 

In fact the investigating officers came not only to the office, they also called on the accountant who is not in our office. We outsource our accountancy – an outside auditing company does our accounts on a contract. We would not be able to cope with the amount of work. 

First of all they came in masks and with automatic weapons, but seeing our great wealth (the crutches, the jars and cans of food, the nappies) they left, all except for two young cadets from the academy of the Investigative Committee, our investigating officers who were perfectly polite and willing to understand the things we had to say. Give us the documents, they said. What documents? Well, some documents or other. There you are. Well, they were a bit confused. They asked to see the accountants’ room when all they saw in our office was nappies. While in the accountants’ room there were all kinds of videos we have made, photographs and that kind of thing. 

Of course we understood everything immediately. Our 'Petrovich' - the boss in the sphere we have chosen for our work - became extremely angry. In the Federal Penitentiary Service they’d read the issue of Novaya gazeta from 24th May, which was a joint issue with Russia Behind Bards about what is happening in our prison system and what should be done about it. And in response they sent us the guys from the anti-corruption and economic crimes police department. There is no doubt that behind this stood the Federal Penitentiary Service. 

In order to understand Petrovich’s logic, we have to say how Russia Behind Bars is organized. Our organization is very simple and effective, and, for the way we organize our work, Russia Behind Bards was awarded a prize by the Moscow Helsinki Group in May. 

Just look where we are. In two small rooms in Moscow’s Taganka district there are not just two organizations spreading themselves out liberally, but three. And I am the one who has legal responsibility for all of them. I sign off on everything for all of them. 

The first organization is the Russia Behind Bars movement. It is is not registered, it works without a bank account and without a legal entity, and does all kinds of things – for example observing how elections are carried out in pre-trial detention centres. 

The second is the Russia Behind Bards Charitable Foundation for Assistance to Prisoners and their Families. This organization does have a bank account, it is registered with the Ministry of Justice, we publish our financial reports, and so on. 

And the third is a limited company, ErEs (in other words, once again Russia Behind Bars [in Russian the initials of the name of the organization - Rus sidyashchaya - are RS - trans.]). This is an old company. It also has accounts and accountants and other staff who work on all kinds of practical matters: for example they carry out detailed sociological surveys about inter-ethnic relations in the prison system. Or provide training in financial knowledge to the vulnerable people we work with – relatives of prisoners, the prisoners themselves, the staff of the Federal Penitentiary System. In other words, ErEs, under contract, does intellectual work related to our area of specialization. 

The company ErEs earns money from this – money that is used to support the Russia Behind Bars Charitable Foundation and the Russian Behind Bars movement. Because Russian Behind Bars has no grants. This is not because we are too proud or because we are afraid of becoming “foreign agents”. We have submitted grant application after grant application, but so far we have not been awarded a single one. Our activities continue to be necessary, and so we must earn our own money and raise funds. Donations from within Russia are now a much greater source of income than our intellectual endeavours – the average donation is 974 roubles. 

How do we manage to do our work in the prisons without asking the Federal Penitentiary Service for permission? How do we carry out in-depth surveys, for example? How do we give talks and distribute free brochures? 

We don’t hide how we do it. It is obviously easy enough to establish contacts with former prisoners and the relatives of those who are currently in prison. It is also easy enough for us to talk to employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service, to ask about their lives and to attempt to provide them with useful information, for example about pensions, support payments and all kinds of other allowances. It is also possible and necessary to give talks to prisoners since we work with boards of trustees, religious organisations and members of the Public Monitoring Commissions. We enter into proper agreements with them – stamped, signed, invoiced, all accounts correctly produced. And all taxes paid. 

Do we need to ask the Federal Penitentiary Service’s permission to do this work? I’m sure the Federal Penitentiary Service would like us to ask for permission, but we do not at present and we shall not in the future. Do we need to ask the Federal Penitentiary Service what kind of plan for its own reforms it would like, so that we could draw it up? I think not. 

Do we need to ask the Federal Penitentiary Service for permission to look at the public procurement website and to wonder why the directors of strict-regime and special-regime prisons are buying wheat seed and sprinkling it over half the area of their sites, according to the reports they submit? Do we need to ask permission to look at cash flows within the Federal Penitentiary Service or the work of the prisons? No, we do not. 

One of our favourite pastimes is to scrutinise public procurement and all kinds of tax evasion and fraud. We do this for free and without any kinds of agreements, simply for our own satisfaction. We forward all the bizarre discoveries we make to Novaya gazeta, and it makes us very happy when other people start to take a close interest in the theft that is going on. 

It was therefore no great surprise when officials came to search the two small rooms which we call our office, and which are stuffed to the rafters with a random assortment of items such as crutches, nappies and the jars and cans of food. 

We are of course familiar with the name of our very own Petrovich – Anatoly Rudy, the deputy director of the Federal Penitentiary Service and an expert racketeer. We have seen the documents he has drawn up about us, and he is very much mistaken in his belief that it is impossible to work with the system, and in particular against it, without him knowing. This type of work is both possible and necessary, and I believe that everyone should get involved in it. Or we will end up with a beast which is “enormous, disgusting, a-hundred-maws and barking”. As many citizens of our country as possible must know what is happening within the Russian prison system, and how it is happening, so that changes can be made. Now that we are free, we must reform from the bottom up this legacy we have inherited from way back - from the Civil War and War Communism. And if we haven’t been successful yet, don’t despair. That is what Russia Behind Bars is for. 

Our main goal, however, is to render ourselves unnecessary, thanks to the complete disappearance of the problems experienced today by prisoners and their families. When they have stopped putting innocent people in prison and finally started rehabilitating prisoners, we will board up our headquarters, pack up our bags, retrain as museum workers and teach schoolchildren about the horrors of the accursed past. 

Translated by Joanne Reynolds and Simon Cosgrove 

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