Analytics and Interview

On 16 January 2015 late in the evening the website of the Ministry of Justice published a statement that the NGO Committee Against Torture had been added to the register of non-profit organizations designated as ‘foreign agents’.
Tanya Lokshina is the Russia program director at Human Rights Watch and Honorary Participant of International Youth Human Rights Movement: As the crisis in Ukraine escalated this spring, the Kremlin’s vicious crackdown on civil society also escalated. Space for independent civic activity in Russia is shrinking dramatically, but international policymakers and the media have been understandably too distracted to do much about it. Since early spring, it seems as though every week brings a new pernicious law or legislative proposal.
Earlier this year, the correspondent of Youth Human Rights Movement from Germany Jakob Stürmann interviewed Konstantin Baranov, member of the Coordination Council of the International Youth Human Rights Movement. They discussed so called “law against homosexual propaganda” and the overall situation of LGBT in Russia.  

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Oleg Sentsov, Olexander Kolchenko, Hennadiy Afanasiev and Oleksiy Chyrniy have been held in Russian jails for two years already under fabricated charges of ‘terrorism’. We consider it being necessary to express solidarity with those who are persecuted due to their pro-Ukrainian views, civic stand and desire for freedom in Russia-annexed Crimea.
Helsinki Committee of Armenia has published “Human Rights in Armenia 2014” Annual Report. The report reflects on the Right to Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association, Torture, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, Political Persecutions, Freedom of Conscience and Religion, The Rights of the Child, Protection of Labor Rights.
«We have a few questions for you,» a border guard told Sinaver Kadyrov, a Crimean Tatar activist, at the Armyansk checkpoint in northern Crimea on Jan. 23. Kadyrov was on his way to Kherson, in southern Ukraine, to fly to Turkey for medical treatment. It was the beginning of an ordeal that ended with a local court expelling him from Crimea, his home of almost 25 years.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority It is time to sit back and reflect.

Mark Twain


Youth Human Rights Movement

"The Living Past": article by Will Lasky, coordinator for Eurasia at CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, member of the Secretariat of Eurasia IDEA Network

 I left the hotel Cosmos on a rainy Moscow Sunday morning, met Lena at the train station. Lena is a member of the Youth Human Rights Movement (YHRM) and was to be my guide on the way to Voronezh where I am to spend the next three months working with Russian human rights defenders.

Riding a Russian sleeper car is a unique experience: bunks line the length of a car like one huge hall. It reminds me of being in a bunk house or barracks. “Chai? Chai?” The conductor made his rounds, up and down the car, offering tea served in those magisterial, Russian tea glasses, tall, set within metal frames. Mandatory techno pop bubbled from wall-mounted speakers.

I am staying in Voronezh, working with the International Youth Human Rights Movement. Vitus, my new apartment mate, media officer and passionate activist, showed me the way to the office. We cut through a church yard, down a dusty street in the direction of the reservoir, passing through Voronezh’s brief old town (a large percent of Voronezh was destroyed during the Nazi advance and occupation), finally arriving at one of the old, red brick buildings: one of the oldest buildings in Voronezh, dubbed Human Rights House.

The offices of YHRM are small, yet serviceable. The walls are lined with books and neatly labelled folders. The building’s brick facades and the abundance of papers give the place a pleasant feel. Even as the majority of the people who work here are in their 20′s, there is an old-fashioned feel to the place, wrought from the architecture and the shady lane itself where Human Rights House is located. The only older people who enter Human Rights House, as far as I know, are the clients who take advantage of the free legal council offered.

The issues YHRM works on are hardly innate to Russia: freedom of association, of speech, of identity, of transparency and accountability, racism and tolerance, student issues, freedom of movement, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. These issues require servicing and observation even in the most forward thinking countries. However, while Russia is widely considered on a par with Brazil, in terms of democratic and economic practice, it bears idiosyncratic traits and historical legacies which make work within civil society uniquely challenging.

One of the most challenging obstacles to overcome on the road to free and open society in Russia, is its past.

Despite the horror and atrocities endured during the communist revolution, communism in Russia constituted a deeply idealistic, Utopian movement that was not all negative. During the first 30 years of the Soviet period, society comprised of over 200 linguistic and ethnic groups, was radically reshaped along idealistic, egalitarian and authoritarian lines. Untold masses of people migrated, received incentive to migrate, and were forced to migrate at the behest of an unprecedented and phenomenally successful industrialization campaign which eventually allowed the Soviet Union to successfully mount its counter push against the Third Reich. Those who had never touched a book, learned to read: the Soviets universalized education as Marxist Leninist ideology virally imprinted itself on millions. Lenin’s face, body, hand pointing off into the future became a universal facet of all civil geography, from East Germany to Sakhalin Island. Indeed, the Lenin monuments themselves were adapted to the physical traits of regional peoples so that Lenin was at once a round eyed European political figure and an Asiatic beloved leader (as Russia itself represents the commingling of European and Asian cultures).

Meanwhile, millions were exported to the Gulag: freedom of expression was virtually choked entirely. Writers and artists immigrated and poets hung themselves from bathroom fixtures. And so as Western Europe and North America gradually, organically, relaxed strictures and social morays impeding individual freedoms (even as, true to Marxist theory, oppression was exported to the colonies and American racism shamefully lingered in the form of strict segregation and economic exploitation), the Soviet Union arrived at a condition of equality suddenly as the result of a mass political movement.

There were benefits enumerated such as universal literacy, zero unemployment and the ability to successfully defend Europe against Hitler; but the drawbacks themselves submerged within a field of reference, in which the very notion of questioning authority was illegal. This became ingrained into the social fibre to the extent in which one could say the Soviet Union was a true thought regime: a Utopia true to Thomas Moore’s vision in which every element of life was strictly governed. In order to become a true communist, citizens were encouraged to reshape their thought processes, to banish doubt to the periphery and to become true believers in the State.

This process, documented by the Soviet scholar Steven Kotkin, reshaped a society from the ground up, as well as reinforcing it from the top down. The Soviet Union began as a massive, unprecedented social upheaval; one which was felt, instigated and united at all social levels. Untold millions were rewarded for their participation with literacy and employment. Dissent was thoroughly squashed and indeed played a prominent role in the maintenance of State power as a perception of ‘internal enemies’ (spies and saboteurs); always a good way of controlling others.

Meanwhile, over time, since the 1950s, Stalin’s atrocities were mostly forgotten by the majority of Soviet citizens: so much so, that today, in former Soviet countries, I often encounter admirers of Stalin. After the harshest oppressions were over, after the greatest steps toward mass industrialization had taken place, prosperous times emerged. The Soviet Union was beating the United States in the space race; there was universal employment; amazing public transportation; and a level of prosperity which was absolutely unprecedented within a Russian frame of reference.

When the Soviet Union’s unwieldy centrally-administered economy began to break, and information from ‘the outside’ began to seep in, this created a rupture in the societal consciousness. It seemed to come as an utter shock to discover that communism was a construct, that reality was in fact not the summation of a historical progression toward proletariat rule. That everyone in the West had a colour TV, a car and a pair of Levi jeans.

Today these shock waves still reverberate in the form of nostalgia for the Soviet period, coupled with awkward, traditionalist stances toward basic freedoms, democracy, human rights, and a lack of awareness of how to interact with a State which always historically represented the point where mass-belief and mass-terror collided.

Therefore, in Russia, 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is still a complex sense of ambivalence felt and expressed toward the concepts of civil society, democracy and human rights vis-a-vis the State. This is apparent in Medvedev’s recent speech on the necessity assigning NGOs to different categories, depending on their ‘helpfulness’ to Russian society. It is evident in terms of the State monopoly on television media: a monopoly which is strongly felt during elections. It is evident in a general lack of political interest among young people and a readiness to affirm the ruling party, to blindly admire powerful authority figures such as Stalin. There is also a strong sense of ambivalence felt in interfacing with the West that perceives itself as ‘victor’, despite its own obvious faults.

Institutionalized freedoms, such as the freedom to contend politically, to gather, to oppose, are not essential parts of the cultural fibre here, as they are elsewhere. Such ideals simply did not have time to fulminate and develop on their own, before they were suddenly thrust upon a mostly rural society, in the form of a visionary plan and its accompanying requisites and corruptions.

The result is that YHRM struggles to ensure basic human freedoms in society, as it struggles against ingrained historical legacies. This group struggles to safeguard the freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: to inculcate a new discourse of human rights within a society which did not experience a gradual historical migration toward these values. While there are great positives here — such as the universal access to playgrounds, the freedom to socially gather in the evening beneath one’s apartment block to discuss the common matters, to experience joy and sorrows with less of a threat of coming up against typically terrible American customer service values; along with other positives as well, such as immense natural resources, amazing scientific legacies, courage in the face of adversity, a peerless artistic heritage — there are also challenges in Russia which resemble many of those in countries regarded as developing with much potential. In order to understand them, it is important to have a baseline awareness of the effect the past plays on shaping current events.

I feel like it has taken me years of travel and living within the former Soviet Union to fully realize how alive the past still is here. As CIVICUS and YHRM work on many similar issues, I am wondering if we can work together to develop an approach based less on geography and more on thematic commonalities? After all, Russia is, in many ways, the South of the North. It has many issues in common with southern states, and yet it is considered part of Europe. I hope we will discover historical commonalities which enhance cooperation, and that we can move together towards a freer, more open and accepting world.