When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions
William Shakespeare, Hamlet
One sunny June morning in 1991, I was sitting on the steps of a dreary Soviet institution in Moscow's Maly Karetny street, opposite a small detached house. The Moscow City government, recently democratically elected for the first time, had allocated this building to the 'Memorial' society and I was waiting for Alexander Daniel. He was late, as usual, but I was not at all upset at having to wait. I was 15 and due to finish to school in a year, after which I intended to study at the Moscow State Institute of History and Archives. Alexander Yulevich was a friend of my parents, a dissident and one of the editors of the [samizdat publication] Chronicle of Current Events, and he had offered me a job for the summer. Any summer job is a teenager's dream, but I was being asked to sort out the archives of 'Memorial's' programme called ‘The History of the Dissident Movement’ in this new, private, independent research institute which had only just been set up.
Then the August coup happened and it was the end of the communist regime. As though Francis Fukuyama's 'end of history' really had come to pass, for Russia at any rate. All we could do was study the past, preserve the memory, gather up and collect the archives; the future was dawning cloudless and there was no longer any need to fight for human rights, except on the edges of the former empire, where things were not quite as good as they were for us.
It all turned out rather differently, of course. But, despite the difficulties, NGOs became a diverse community of hundreds of organisations engaged in literally everything – collecting archives, establishing museums, defending people in court, risking lives to gather information at dangerous 'flashpoints', working on boring legal expert evidence and training everyone – from prison warders to people working in kindergartens.
Almost every one of these organisations is unique, if not for the whole of Russia, then at least for its own region. You may be able to get a haircut or buy a smartphone on every street corner, but NGO activities are one-off in every case.
The Sakharov Centre is no exception. It is indeed a centre, in that it is a space with a heart and a linchpin/pivot, surrounded by very varied types of activity: academic, museum, cultural and civic. The linchpin is, of course, the legacy of Academician Andrei Sakharov, which can be summed up as 'peace, progress and human rights.' Everything subsumed in those few words finds a place in the Sakharov Centre.
Even the chronology of its development. The archive is made up of Sakharov's personal documents and other materials on the history of the USSR dissident movement. Manuscripts, academic works, drafts for his famous essay 'Thoughts on progress, peaceful co-existence and intellectual freedom' and a great deal more.
The Sakharov Centre museum is Russia's only exhibition showing the history of Soviet totalitarianism. There are many GULAG museums and places dedicated to the memory of the victims of political repression, but only one exhibition of the history of the Soviet totalitarian state. Its main visitors are schoolchildren. Their history books give only a small paragraph to the themes of Stalinist repression and the dissident movement, often not touching on the totalitarian nature of Soviet power at all, so a visit to the museum is an important lesson in civic studies. But Russian educational bodies have other priorities (primarily the history of victories in all kinds of wars), so we are sincerely grateful to those enthusiastic teachers, who join in our work by bringing more than 1000 pupils a year to our museum.
By folding up one of the exhibition blocks, we have space for discussions, debates, seminars and lectures. As recently as 4 years ago there were practically no such discussion venues in Moscow, whereas today it has actually become quite fashionable. One only has to look at the site 'Theory and practice' to see the quantity of invitations to clever discussions – enough to make one's head spin. But one should not be taken in by the apparent diversity. If you want to organise a discussion on fraudulent elections, the homophobic law, the Pussy Riot case, or to put on an evening in memory of Sergei Magnitsky, then the number of fora is suddenly reduced to a few. A couple of years ago, inspired by the success of our own discussion programme, we thought of launching a similar programme in St Petersburg. It turned out to be almost impossible to find a similar place for the discussion of any subject. In the provinces the situation is, of course, even worse.
To continue. If you are a group of civil rights campaigners, a small NGO, an anarchist or, even worse, an LGBT activist and you want to put on a meeting or a seminar, then you will find nowhere in Moscow. You probably are not in a position to pay for the hire – and Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world – but even if you have the money, then it's no foregone conclusion that the director of some business centre or other will be prepared to hire you space. Not perhaps because he's afraid of what might happen to him if he does, but because he simply prefers not to get involved. Just in case. University or public library authorities too will either ask for money or be wary of having anything to do with you. So the Sakharov Centre is effectively the 'home of human rights', helping colleagues and giving refuge to people who have nowhere else to go, even if we don't exactly share the ideas they are promoting. Sakharov was, to put it mildly, fairly far removed from the ideas of anarchism, but he interceded on behalf of nationalist political prisoners, whose views he not only didn't share, but actively denied. In a nutshell, support for civil society.
But it's not only civil or human rights campaigners and minorities that are short of resources and venues in Moscow. I have always thought that freedom, human values and democracy should not simply remain topics for excursions and seminars and the Sakharov Centre tries to run cultural projects seeking new forms of contact with our audience. In recent years we have worked with documentary theatre and photography a great deal. We put on the premiere of the theatre project ‘Act II. Grandchildren’, a documentary show based on interviews with the grandchildren of victims of Stalinist repressions, incidentally the first such show in Russia. One woman in the audience works for a foreign foundation. She asked us if this kind of show could really only be put on in the Sakharov Centre, it’s only an experiment, after all. We told her that it might be put on by teatr.doc (a small basement theatre which is also an NGO) or, probably, at ‘Memorial’. But nowhere else.
It’s the same for documentary photography: if it’s not entertainment, if visitors are not offered beautiful views of nature or touching street scenes, but pictures taken in children’s homes, of invalids or the indigent life of the tribes of the Far North, then our centre is the only place you’ll find the exhibition. There might be 1 or 2 other venues in Greater Moscow, I suppose.
The Sakharov Centre doesn't run public campaigns or rallies, doesn't offer legal assistance in the courts to people arrested at demonstrations and doesn't do monitoring in the North Caucasus. It's not that we don't support this kind of work, just that we were originally conceived as an archive and a museum, a forum for public and cultural events, discussions, dialogue in memory of, and to explain, the past and the present. Peace, progress and human rights.
Established in memory of nuclear physicist and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, the Sakharov Centre today provides a space for free and fearless discussion of contemporary and Soviet history. Photo: Sakharov Centre
Russia's Prosecutor General has forced us to make a very tough choice: either we assume the label of 'foreign agent' or we stop our operations. You may not get a black mark today i.e. an order to register, but it could come at any moment, because any public discussion of politics in Russia can be classified as political activity. Actually, there is no choice. If you accept the label, you are voluntarily putting yourself in a ghetto and the final outcome for people who have been driven into ghettos is well known from European 20th century history. There can be no room for illusion.
The outstanding historian Vasily Klyuchevsky wrote about the establishment of Russian autocracy: 'The state grew fat while the people grew thin.' Unfortunately in the 21st century this maxim is once more in evidence. The perceived threats to its autocracy mean that the Russian political regime is prepared to destroy the seedling of independent public life which has been growing over the last 25 years often despite, rather than because of, external conditions.
Sakharov said that peace, progress and human rights cannot exist without each other i.e. one of them cannot be achieved independently of the other two. There can be no progress in social or economic life, without civil society. Russian society is once more at risk of losing the fertile soil without which any development is an impossibility. It takes bloody mass repression to quash civic activity, so it will continue, despite all the new laws introduced by the political regime. Institutions with experience of specific, systematic work are very slow to build, but take no time at all to destroy. If the work of Russian NGOs is wound up, it will take years to rebuild and much will have to be started from scratch. There will, of course, be young people, like me 22 years ago, fortunate enough to start this wonderful work all over again. Perhaps I am a bit selfish, but I want the trajectory of Russian history to be a straight line streaking upwards, rather than a circle.
Thumbnail: Sakharov Centre