RUSSIA: The situation of human rights in Russia
Interview with Mrs. Alerxandra Polivanova
Everyone knows about the dictatorial regime created along all these years by Vladimir Putin. A regime made by a wide network of monitoring political thinking of people. A powerful system of various Federal security bodies. An oppressive control of territory. A well oiled system of prisons and places of detention. An Orwellian nightmare come reality? Maybe. But at present Russia can’t be labelled as Democracy. In order to know more about the situation in Russia and Memorial alongside its activities we have interviewed Mrs. Alexandra Polivanova member of international board of this organisation having won the Nobel Prize.
What is the present situation of Memorial?
"The legal entities of the two largest organisations in Russia continue to operate: the network organisation International Memorial and the Memorial Human Rights Centre. nevertheless, all the Memorial organisations that used to be part of the International Memorial network continue to operate. Many colleagues have had to leave - because much of the work cannot be done in Russia now due to wartime laws. However, a lot of colleagues have stayed to work in Russia, associations of Memorial exist and have stayed to work in 30 regions of Russia."
How to continue the activities in a non-democratic country as Russia?
"After Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, wartime censorship laws were enacted in Russia. Many laws prohibit telling the truth about the war, calling the war a war, instead we should say "special military operation," you cannot say that the Russian army is killing civilians, destroying homes, maternity houses, theaters, and so on. And it’s not that we at Memorial are afraid to say these words and tell the truth. We as Memorial are not afraid and we practically do not observe censorship, we say almost anything we think we should - but there is a problem in our audience. We can’t invite them to participate in events where they face a 100 percent risk of arrest - despite the fact that there is always a 50 percent risk of arrest. So we started looking for ways of memorializing activism to talk about the war without announcing talks about the war. That is, it was important for us to take every opportunity to talk not only about today’s war, but also about all the colonial, imperialist attitudes of the Soviet Union toward other nations, toward other countries: the occupation of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Moldova, the persecution of Ukrainian fighters for independence. In the very first days of April, the whole world learned about Bucha and saw terrible footage. and Russian propaganda assured that these crimes were committed not by the Russian army, but by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. 13 April is the International Day of Remembrance for those Polish citizens and soldiers shot on Stalin’s order in April-May 1940. We visited the two Russian memorial complexes dedicated to their memory: Katyn (Smolensk Region) and Mednoe (Tver Region). So we came to Katyn, our colleague talked about the history of Katyn lies and propaganda from 1940 to 1990, and everyone recognized the Bucha story and talked only about it. On 15 May, Ukraine’s Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Soviet Terror, we placed flowers at the Sandarmokh Memorial Complex in Karelia and at the Solovki Stone in Moscow. On 14 June, the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Deportation from the Baltic States, we joined the commemorative events at the Kommunarka burial ground* near Moscow and at the Yekaterinburg memorial complex to read out names of those deported from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine and other countries. October 29 every year in Russia is the Day of Remembrance for Victims of Soviet State Terror and Political Prisoners. People used to read the names of those executed loudly all over Lubyanka Square. In 2022, the Moscow authorities did not agree to the action, but the action still took place: people brought flowers to the square to the stone, put papers with the names of those killed during the Great Terror, and also left the names of those killed in Ukraine. Yuri Galanskov was a poet and political prisoner during the Soviet post-Stalin era. He died in a camp in 1972 from a serious illness. November 4, 2022 was the 50th anniversary of his death, we invited people to go to the cemetery to his grave, there we told his biography, read his poems, and then read the poems of another poet: Artem Kamardin, who in September 2022 read anti-war poems in a square in downtown Moscow, was arrested, tortured, and has been in jail for almost six months. Every weekend we take guided tours in Moscow around Butyr prison, one of the largest and most horrific prisons of the Soviet era. This prison still holds political prisoners, including for protesting against the war. We tell the story of this prison and after the tour, we invite people to go to a cafe and write letters to political prisoners in Butyrka prison."
Does Russian people want democracy?
"Russians in general are ordinary people, just like the rest of the world, not bad, not good. people have ordinary requests for well-being, family or loved ones, home, food, health, entertainment - just like the rest of the world. unfortunately, russia has a very weak tradition of democracy, so most people do not associate well-being with the realization of their basic rights and with their own actions. It seems to them that their well-being depends on the president. not on them, not on other fellow citizens, on working civil institutions of power change, elections, an independent court and others. so it takes a lot of work to get citizens to believe in their strength as individuals and as a society. that is why they are very easily manipulated and propagandized. not that they really believe. but they get a signal on how to think and act so that everything is right. this disables critical thinking - it was given to the TV."
How to implement the respect of human rights in Russia?
"Constantly questioning what we perceive as a given, asking ourselves questions - how is it better, what can I do to change. develop critical thinking. I think that we, as a society, need to constantly work on ourselves and constantly remind ourselves, too, that every person is a value, and every russian too! and if every person is a value, then one by one and together can change something. and then it will be easier to start respecting the value of other lives, such as the citizens of Ukraine. and maybe then Russians, together with all people of good will around the world, will manage to stop the bloody war.
Would you like to talk about your main projects?
"In the question above, I talked about city projects in Moscow - memory-activism, guided tours, memorial actions, etc. In addition, Memorial continues to work on databases, base of the NKVD staff, those killed in Chechnya, the history of Soviet dissidents and so on. Memorial has a large archive and museum collection - for several years now a digital version of the entire archive with indexes and so on has been in process. we work in state archives, we continue to study documents of the Soviet terror. we make videos with survivors of the Soviet camps, podcasts about protests during the Soviet era. now we are preparing a podcast about international humanitarian law. our legal colleagues work with recent complaints to the ECHR and other international law mechanisms, defend people’s rights in the Russian courts, and update the list of political prisoners."
What’s the aim of “remembrance”?
"Remembrance is a way of orientation in the system of values. freedom of memory//remembrance as a category is somewhere close to freedom of conscience. reflecting on the past, and it becomes clear in different ways in each new era, we understand something about ourselves, who we are, what values are important to us, what is important to us in the past and present, and on the basis of what values we want to build a modern society."
An important sector of your activity is research, would you like to talk about that aspect?
"It is important for us that all our practices of memory-activism or popularization, public engagement are research—based. if we tell people that someone has been arrested or shot, we tell them about numbers or places, then we have an evidence base and that it is publicly available so that people themselves can check and learn new things. this is connected with our work in state archives, our own collection of the Memrial archive and work with data."
Would you introduce the most interesting aspects of your Museum?
"The museum collection of the memorial has the largest collection of art from the Gulag in Russia, has a large collection of private memory of the Gulag. not government documents, a search warrant and arrest, an interrogation protocol and a sentence, but how the memory has dried up in the family, among people, in different communities. letters, photos, memories, homemade warm clothes that were sent to relatives in the camp, children’s toys, postcards, books that parents made in the camp and sent to children. all this was kept in families, often secretly, in the name of great love for loved ones. and these materials were then transferred to our collection and that is why they are very valuable to us."
What is the foction of lawers in your organisation?
"Unfortunately, lawyers, instead of doing their main job - defending human rights in the courts when the state violates them, or for access to the archives of the USSR, which modern Russia wants to classify - instead, lawyers have to spend a lot of time defending the Memorial itself. In 2019-2020, we had a series of 60 trials due to fines under the law on "foreign agents", the end of 2021 - the beginning of 2022 - liquidation courts.unfortunately, lawyers, instead of doing their main job - defending human rights in the courts when the state violates them, or for access to the archives of the USSR, which modern Russia wants to classify - instead, lawyers have to spend a lot of time defending the Memorial itself. In 2019-2020, we had a series of 60 trials due to fines under the law on "foreign agents", the end of 2021 - the beginning of 2022 - liquidation courts."
Volunteering is a strategic word for Memorial…
"Yes, the Memorial feels exactly like a public organization integrated into the society of Russia. therefore, our work is possible only together with society. unfortunately, now the state is very interfering with our work, it prohibits people from interacting with us, it is dangerous and scares many, but despite this, volunteers are a very important and powerful force in the Memorial! there are a lot of them, they are in Russia in different cities, now they are in different countries, and the Air Force is doing a lot of work in the most difficult projects!"
How to support Memorial?
"The first and most important thing we can do to help Memorial (and Russia), to support Russia, is to support Ukraine. We, as a Russian society, are terribly guilty before Ukraine, we could not prevent this catastrophe, we could not prevent the outflow of internal authoritarianism in Russia beyond state borders, so now unfortunately it is the responsibility of people of good will to stop this war, to return the 2013 borders to Ukraine. How to help Ukraine — these questions are perfectly articulated by both Ukrainian officials and representatives of Ukrainian civil society. — Increasing the visibility of everything that happens in russia - Crimes are good to commit in the dark, behind closed doors. When you open the doors and windows and turn on the light - it becomes more difficult to commit crimes. The attack on civil rights in all spheres, the subordination of the judicial system, the election system, all authorities - the ministry of justice, the prosecutor’s office, etc. to state criminals who have seized power completely. — In particular, the fact of political prisoners in RUssia: Sasha Skochilenko, Olga Smirnova, Alexei Gorinov, Ilya Yashin. And not least Alexey Navalny. And 500 more people. If we go out to a picket, but we get detained after 10 seconds, we go out to a rally, but the rally doesn’t amount to much because we’re pushed aside, isolated from the rest. So it is difficult for us to help with visibility the political prisoners — that’s why the visible support of the European media and analysts is supportive. — Russian civil society is atomized, suppressed, nailed down. it is in the process of finding a new identity, how do we overcome colonial imperial attitudes, who we are, this atomization and the fact that common bonds were torn within the country - now people ended up in different countries, some left for the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, some for Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, some for Germany, France, Spain – that is, it is difficult for society to communicate with each other, especially due to problems with visas, etc. and therefore it is very important to communicate with those forces within Russia that are ready and open to dialogue, that adhere to the values of human rights, European values that are pro-Ukrainian. therefore, a peaceful, safe and democratic Russia is needed not only by us. Ukraine, other neighboring countries, the whole Europe, the whole world really need it."
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