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It’s not easy being an NGO in Russia

When Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were released from prison, they decided to organise a prison rights project. It has not been easy… на русском языке

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova
27 June 2014

The only people that don't lash out at human rights organisations in Russia are those that are not really in any state to lash out at anything. Criticism comes from the right, the left, ultra-conservatives and progressive left-wing intellectuals. I have a good friend who works with two such organisations in Russia: he tells me that his job involves daily 'confrontations with hell.'

Tolokonnikova escorted by police during her trial.

Convicted of 'hooliganism motivated by religious hatred' for protesting in a church, Tolokonnikova was jailed for nearly 2 years

I recently attended the private screening of a new feature film about Pussy Riot. We met the man who had devoted a considerable part of his life making it and so could be deemed to be extremely positively inclined towards the work of Pussy Riot. He asked us if we had liked his film and said he was very honoured to hear that we had. However, when we asked him if he knew of anyone who might want to join a system of public committees monitoring the work of penal institutions, and told him we were interviewing candidates, he couldn't get away from us quickly enough. As he literally ran away, Maria and I exchanged glances… there was no need to say anything. 

An image problem

Russian human rights organisations unfortunately suffer from an image problem. Miracles are expected of them, but there are thousands of officials firmly entrenched in their jobs with but one aim in life – to stamp on any new initiative and stop it developing by crushing it under the weight of hundreds of bureaucratic obstacles. So how can there be miracles? 

Russian human rights organisations unfortunately suffer from an image problem.

During the Pussy Riot trial we were often told, 'Bitches, if there's something you think is wrong, why didn't you try and change it in a civilised way, without any of your so-called performances?' Well, we heard what they said and decided to do what we could for prisoners' rights: we are currently developing our project, which is called 'Zone of Law' (a play on the Russian word zona, shorthand for prison camp). But what does it mean to be a human rights organisation in this country? I must say straight out that I do not claim to be expressing an expert opinion. Russia has some outstanding campaigners in the field of human rights, who have been battling for many years and can say more than I can, and more eloquently, on the subject. But I should like to give my view of the situation inside Russia. We came across many questions:

Working for human rights only strengthens the Putin system

Why should this be? Because, so the argument goes, taking up individual issues, which are not so important for the bigger picture, pushes Russia's big structural problems to one side. But I think that without this approach there can be no political change. It is these individual issues that convince people not given to idealistic thoughts about rights and freedoms, that the system needs changing. Although achieving even a small success is extremely difficult when faced with the resistance mounted by government bodies, it is nevertheless a priceless experience, which will enable us to build a law-based state as soon as the Putin system has run its course. So that, when he's gone, we won't find ourselves standing in the square carrying an anti-Putin poster, just from habit, and not knowing what to do next. 

When he's gone, we won't find ourselves standing in the square carrying an anti-Putin poster, just from habit.

The concept of human rights

Leftwing intellectuals and activists sometimes criticise the very concept of human rights, and Russian human rights campaigning with it. To understand this, it should be clearly understood that there are several major differences between the defence of human rights in Europe or America, and Russia. Historically, the Left has always criticised the repression of the weak by the strong. However, as soon as something becomes mainstream, the Left shows up and starts expressing doubts about it; and, incidentally, this is what they should do – I do the same.

But, when transferring Western practices into Russia, one has to be careful not to overlook the special features of the 'Russian world' (President Putin's term). Lenin was a good example of this: he understood those special features, and refrained from passing on to his fellow Russians, Marx's view that the Slavs are 'naturally' reactionary, 'flaccid, complacent and small-minded little people.' In Russia today one has to realise that the human rights activist is weak and has little power; and needs protecting. He/she is no American superman/woman in receipt of hundreds of thousands of donor dollars for his initiatives; neither is he/she a powerful advocate of neo-liberalism. Our activists are little people, but very valiant: despite their lack of power, they throw down the gauntlet to the hostile machine of the Russian state.

Alien Western values

Conservatives (ranging from the Russian Orthodox Church to Putin) criticise human rights activists for trying to introduce alien 'Western' values, by which they mean values that work towards the common good. According to Patriarch Kirill, 'the concept of human rights masks lies, untruths and offends religious and national values.' Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda criticise human rights campaigners along the same lines, so that puts him in good company, I think.

Patriarch Kirill holds up too flaming candles.

Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has voiced his scepticism of human rights.

In Russia today one has to realise that the human rights activist is weak and has little power; and needs protecting.

Where does the money come from

NGOs in receipt of foreign funding are now branded 'foreign agents,' they endure regular police searches and are thrown out of their offices. The most interesting thing about the law on foreign agents is that, for 'wilfully' violating it, an activist can be sent to a penal settlement for up to two years. 

I completely agree both with Aleksander Podrabinek, the veteran dissident and human rights campaigner, and with Igor Kochetkov (St Petersburg LGBT organisation 'Coming Out') that taking money from one's own government to finance an organisation is not a good idea. The argument is very simple: a human rights campaigner's raison d'être is the criticism of his government's actions, and saving the weak from the strong. So the government is hardly his best ally. Either the state has to be highly self-critical and incorrupt, like, for instance, Norway (then an organisation can safely take money from it), or it will sooner or later start requiring the activist to make concessions.

Lev Ponomaryov escorted from 'For Human Rights' after the Moscow government refuses to renew the organisation's lease.

Lev Ponomaryov, head of 'For Human Rights' escorted from the building after the city refused to renew the group's lease.

Without any doubt, the best way for an NGO to operate is by collecting funds from one's fellow citizens, private donations. But for a variety of reasons this is very difficult to do in today's Russia. Financing human rights will hardly earn private business a pat on the head, and problems will inevitably ensue. The trial of Yankauskas and Lyaskin, whose only crime was to help Navalny raise funds for his mayoral campaign, will unfortunately not give business the courage to donate money to social projects. 

We, citizens of Russia, should try and think how we might support human rights projects in such a way that they are not obliged to accept funds from other countries. 

The fashion for politics and human rights

What is meant by this is that people become involved in politics or human rights because they are fashionable, rather than out of conviction. For example, fingers were pointed at young people who went to the demonstrations in 2011-12 carrying their cups of Starbucks coffee. Actually, I liked that. 

Thousands of protesters march through Moscow in 2012.

Some level the accusation against human rights advocates that they are simply following fashion. CC digit.ru

All we need from the mainstream is its support for human rights.

In Europe and the US, human rights activity has become mainstream and every media celebrity feels it is his or her duty to speak out in defence of the downtrodden. This was quite simply the secret of support for Pussy Riot during the trial.

I think that it's wonderful when helping people becomes a fashion. Obviously, serious basic problems are not going to be addressed this way, but, then, at this moment, no one has signed up to raising these problems on your behalf; if you want this to happen, do it yourself – all we need from the mainstream is its support for human rights.

Human rights organisations are ineffectual

When Maria and I were released from prison, we decided to set up 'Zone of Law.' We submitted the NGO registration documents to the Justice Ministry of Mordovia (where we had been in prison) once, and then again. They were turned down. We submitted them for the third time, but in Moscow. We were again refused. Forgive me, but how do officials in fact imagine that 'constructive dialogue' with which we were exhorted to engage during our trial? We rented an office, but two hours after we had signed the contract, the prosecutors came and sealed up the rooms. Our landlord panicked and dissolved the contract. We arrived in the region to visit the prison settlement, but were violently rebuffed. When we hired a lawyer, FSB officers threatened him and his family. How do officials in fact imagine that 'constructive dialogue' with which we were exhorted to engage during our trial?

It transpired that we could not even deliver humanitarian aid to the pre-trial detention facilities in the settlement. We had to find other ways round the problem. Perhaps some parcels might be accepted somewhere, but certainly not from Tolokonnikova or Alyokhina. 

We are novices at the NGO game, but our experience is by no means unique. The excellent and respected Nizhny Novgorod 'Committee against torture' had its office windows smashed in; 'Agora,' which for ten years has been getting people out of prison and rescuing them from the arbitrary actions of the police, has not had it any easier. The 'Movement For Human Rights,' one of the largest and oldest organisations, has simply been evicted by force from its office.

Why are the authorities so desperate to fight these organisations if they are so 'ineffectual'?

Why are the authorities so desperate to fight these organisations if they are so 'ineffectual'? No doubt, because human rights activists are holding a mass of material damaging to the government. If Russian citizens had any idea of the knowledge that activists have acquired over many years of carefully monitoring human rights infringements in Russia, Putin and his gang would not be able to stay in power for long. The reason for shutting activists up is more than clear; it is precisely because they ARE effective, and could tell you everything that you will never hear from Russian government-controlled TV channels. 

Image one: CC Denis Bochakrev

Image three: (c) RIA Novosti/Maksim Blinov 

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