A helping hand at Russia’s protests

Volunteer Elizaveta Nesterova talks about helping people arrested at rallies, relations with activists and Russia’s latest wave of protests. Русский

Igor Gukovsky
28 June 2017
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“I began to participate in political life when I was 14-15” Photo (c) from the personal archive of Elizaveta Nesterovaya.Three months ago, an anti-corruption rally in Moscow, unsanctioned by the city authorities, ended in mass arrests of protesters — and catalysed a series of further public actions in Russia. Elizaveta Nesterova, a journalist with The New Times, an independent Russian newspaper, volunteered to help people detained at the protest.  

I asked Elizaveta how this one-off initiative turned into a small but active support group for people detained during Russia’s new protest wave.

When did you start getting involved in helping people in custody?

I got involved systematically only after 26 March, when there was an unprecedented number of people detained — over 1,000. Nothing like this had happened in Moscow for 20 years. I’ve generally always been involved in helping anyone I could since school, but I only started organising systematic support for detainees after 26 March.

This support was essential, because nobody was looking after them, bringing food and drink and other necessities — most of the human rights organisations were up to their ears in finding lawyers for detainees, the right thing to do since suitable lawyers were in very short supply. They always are, but the situation was even more acute than usual with so many detainees.

People had been sitting in police vans for six to seven hours without anything to drink

There was no one free to sort out food supplies, and people had been sitting in police vans for six to seven hours without anything to drink. I was horrified at the number of people being detained and couldn’t just pretend that nothing was happening and head back home.

Was there a similar situation with detainees, and a shortage of lawyers, after the 12 June protests?

No, of course not. After 16 March, we all got together: human rights organisations, campaigners, volunteers, journalists and everyone else. By 12 June we were all better prepared, both morally and in terms of organisation. It was also less of a nightmare to find lawyers (previously we’d had resort to Google, for example, to find them in a hurry). And I had also sorted out the food parcels – I had a chat room, I had assistants, I wrote instructions to everyone about everything. Everything was clearer and faster.

Who were the people who helped you after both 26 March and 12 June?

After 12 June, many more activists and members of human rights NGOs such as Open Russia and OVD-Info joined my Telegram channel, which already had 930 members. After 26 March, Memorial did a lot to help the detainees, and took responsibility for the people in the worst situation, the special detention centre at 38 Petrovka Street, Moscow’s police headquarters. So we didn’t have to worry about them, which was a real relief, but a systematic, large-scale activist support operation only really got off the ground after 12 June.

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Led away. Photo (c): NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved. After that, it was difficult to keep up with the chat, because activists started getting ready to hold pickets – at special detention centres, for example. All online communications had to be kept to a minimum, so as not to jam the lines. Sorting out a picket is one thing, but delivering food parcels is another matter.

Has it been easy to work with activists and human rights campaigners?

It depends. It’s easier with the human rights people and experienced activists, because you don’t have to spend your time explaining everything to them. They know the difference between Article 20.2 of the Russian Federation Code on Administrative Offences [Breach of regulations of an organisation or holding a meeting, rally, demonstration, march or picket] and Article 19.3 [Defiance of an order from a police officer or member of the armed forces]. They also more or less know what is allowed in a food parcel, and where to go, and they can organise themselves as they are already part of a community. The only complication is that the activists live in a kind of parallel universe, with their own activist hangouts and their own concepts of what’s ideal.

Sometimes you have to put a lot of effort into just calming them down, otherwise they can go over the top and do whatever comes into their head. They might even think they are doing the right thing, and their actions may be fine in themselves, but because there are so many of them, some organisation is essential.

The persecution of protesters doesn’t, of course, end with their detention. Have you been involved in coordinating support for them in the courts?

Not personally. But I know people who are; I know human rights people who have gone round various departments and people who have coordinated these efforts. At one point I was the only person looking after food parcels, but then I started getting help from a wonderful young woman called Tonya Zikeyeva. The problem is that there are now enough coordinators to organise lawyers, and two of us looking after the parcels, so I decided that there should be a clear division of labour.

Have you helped people detained on criminal grounds?

Yes, I’ve been involved in organising food parcels for Stanislav Zimovets and Aleksandr Shpakov, two political prisoners charged after the 26 March protests. It turned out well with with Zimovets – his friends who are football fans set up a campaign and took him under their wing. They send him stuff all the time, and I don’t have to remind them: they just ask me sometimes about what they can send and how best to get it to him. Their problem is that they are in St Petersburg, so they have to send the parcels via the pre-trial detention centre shop. It is great that they’ve got involved; they’ve saved me the constant headache of wondering how else I could help.


Souvenir ticket for a ride on a police van distributed at protests in Moscow. Photo CC-by-2.0: Evgeny Isayev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Aleksandr Shpakov also applied for help after some time, and we put parcels together for him ourselves, as he didn’t have a circle of friends to do it. Now and then I’ll write a post asking for help, and there are always people who respond very quickly and take a parcel to the pre-trial detention centre.

As far as I know, this is not the first year you’ve been involved in protest. How does the situation today differ from that in 2011-2 and other years?

When I was around 14-15, and was just starting to get involved in politics, I spent all my time running around and taking part in election campaigns, but then I moved over to journalism because I got tired of activism. You get very little feedback, there’s not much of a positive agenda, there is no good news – there are also lots of nasty people around and a lot of pressure, and you just get emotionally exhausted.

But in general terms, on 12 June I finally saw the youth protest that old members of Nashi [pro-Kremlin youth movement active in the 2000s] and others like them had talked so much about after 26 March. After speculation on the subject in schools and universities, they went about telling people how evil Navalny was, at which point all the young people who had never heard of Navalny finally woke up to him. There were masses of young people in Moscow on 12 June. It was really good that it was an unsanctioned event, not some routine day out they were bussed into with their friends, because that was precisely what these young men and women needed. And they are an angry lot, but angry in a good way, with a good sense of humour. For example, I saw people making fun of the riot police.

When they want to detain protesters, these cops move though the crowd in a kind of snake formation, each with his hand on the shoulder of the one in front. So at a certain point students started imitating them, also forming “snakes” and running after the cops. On the other side of Tverskaya Street there were some students standing, noisily shaking bunches of keys – a dig at police officers who get fast-tracked flats after “working” at protest actions. They just stood in a chain in front of the line of cops, looking at them, and I realised that they had no fear of the police.

I don’t remember any mass chanting of radical slogans in 2011. In those days we turned up bringing positive vibes, balloons and ribbons

Finally, they chant the right anti-police slogans. I don’t remember any mass chanting of radical slogans in 2011. In those days we arrived at rallies bringing positive vibes, balloons and white ribbons. I’m not saying that six years ago we were totally clueless, but we needed to go through that stage, outgrow it, come out the other end and move further. It’s good that we went through that stage, and good that we finally have a protest movement with an absolutely concrete agenda.

Today’s demonstrators aren’t just angry in a good way — their anger is aimed in the right direction. All the stuff you hear about young people not knowing what they’re doing, how they’re just there to hang out, is rubbish. They know exactly what they want and what they don’t want, so I haven’t seen any violence or confusion among them. Chaos happens when people don’t know what they want, but these people knew precisely who their anger was directed at, and what happened, happened and it was all very effective and friendly.

Do you just support detainees in Moscow or in other cities as well?

Just in Moscow. On 26 March and 12 June protesters were detained in their hundreds, and as I said, there are just two of us organising the food parcels. We can’t even cover the whole of Moscow. All we can do when people contact us from the regions –from St Petersburg, Novosibirsk or wherever – is to help them set up a similar support structure to the one we have here, with a chat room, instructions and so on. I send them all the info and tell them: “you’re on your own now: the two of us can’t coordinate support and take endless phone calls from all over Russia.”

Are you planning to support detainees from the next protests, if the police and National Guard break them up again?

I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to, because I’m so deeply involved with all the coordination. Apart from anything else, I moderate a chat room of 930 people. It’s very tiring, and I realise that I don’t want to be involved in activism as well. If I was in a different situation and had a different personality, I would just stick to journalism, but I’ve taken on these other responsibilities and I can’t drop them just like that. I’m trying to find as many people as possible to help me organise the parcels. We have an extra two people involved now, and I hope there’ll be more. I hope that at some point we will have a large, properly organised system, and I’ll be just a nominal coordinator, answering questions and giving advice but not needed 24/7 as I am now.

So you are effectively planning to create an unregistered NGO?

No, I’m planning to convince people that they are brilliant; that they are effective; that they are involved and that everyone should be like them. They aren’t dependent on me; they are great guys themselves and doing everything right. All I can do is teach them and pass on the information that I have. But I am, of course, happy to give them any help I can if they ask for it.

Are you prepared for further repressive measures and an even harsher crackdown on protest?

I don’t know how you can prepare for that. I just don’t want it to happen. But if something more horrific does happen, of course I’ll be there to help people in every way I can.

Translated by Liz Barnes.

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