Boris Altshuler: Remembering human rights defender Andrei Babushkin (28 January 1964 – 14 May 2022)

14 March 2023

by Boris Altshuler, human rights defender, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Новые известия]

Andrei Babushkin, who passed away in May last year, was a human rights activist in the truest and fullest sense of the word: simple human compassion was an essential part of his personality.

His passing at a relatively young age, for he was a quarter of a century younger than me, is the greatest injustice and misfortune for us all.

Before turning to telling his story in a more or less chronological way, here are a few quotes from Eva Merkacheva’s article ‘A man of God: human rights activist Andrei Babushkin has passed away. He was only 58 years old.’ They give an idea of Andrei Babushkin as a person. The article was written on the day Andrei died, 14 May 2022, under the strong feelings evoked by this terrible event. Eva Merkacheva is a journalist with MK, a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, Andrei’s comrade-in-arms at the Moscow Public Monitoring Commission, and someone who shared his views on these and many other issues.

Andrei Babushkin at the Yabloko party congress. Photo from the Yabloko party website.

I quote:

“He believed in people, and there is nothing more precious than that in our lives. I remember our conversation about one of the top officials in the prison system. “Evochka, he didn’t know there was torture in this colony, he was misled.” – “Do you believe that?” – “Of course.” And later this top official went on to help save many inmates from torture. What if he had become different because of the fact that Babushkin believed in his decency?” 

I involuntarily recall the mathematically precise definition of Sakharov’s attitude towards people given by another mathematician and well-known human rights activist, Tatyana Mikhailovna Velikanova: “The presumption of decency”.

Another quote from the same article by Eva Merkacheva: 

“Once we spent more than eight hours in Matrosskaya Tishina detention centre where we helped hundreds of inmates. We left late at night, exhausted and hungry, when there were no buses to the metro (and there were no apps to call a taxi available at the time). It was pouring with rain, and we had no umbrellas. We walked three stops, hoping to catch the last train. Babushkin was singing songs the whole way. He sang so infectiously, radiating a happy serenity at the same time, it was impossible not to join in. So we all sang along. That was the first time I understood what a special happiness it was to know that you had helped hundreds of people. You’ve done your job – and now you can sing songs in the pouring rain!”

I met Andrei Babushkin in 1992, when he joined us at the Human Rights Centre at No. 4 (entrance 3), Luchnikov Lane. His room was next door to Valery Abramkin’s Centre for Criminal Justice Reform. Yury Chizhov, then an employee of Abramkin’s Centre, reminded me in a recent phone conversation that Babushkin did not actually come to the Centre very often, as he worked ‘in the field’ – at shelters, train stations, and police stations. Andrei Babushkin was then (1990-1993) a member of Moscow City Council, headed the Commission on Crime Prevention and the work of special institutions, helping street children, homeless people and also those in custody – the people he was most committed to helping. 

Babushkin also ran the public reception office at a branch of the Human Rights Centre on nearby Zlatoustinsky Lane. And, of course, we were in touch about various specific cases. In all the 30 years of our friendship he never failed to respond to any of my requests for help, for all that he was always overloaded with work. I will tell you about the last such episode in February-March 2022 later. For for now, I return to a chronological account.

In 1994 Andrei Babushkin became a member of the working group on child neglect and homelessness set up by the Russian branch of the International Red Cross. Our NGO, Right of the Child, began working with the Human Rights Centre in 1996, and from that time Andrei and I worked closely together on the issue of child neglect. It was then that Andrei co-founded, with Valery Gabisov, the Committee for Civil Rights and participated in the drafting of Federal Law No. 120 of 24 June 1999, ‘On the basic principles for preventing homelessness and crime among minors.’ However, most of his recommendations were not included in the final version of the bill. Such was the interaction between civil society and the authorities that it was incredibly difficult to achieve something reasonable and necessary. But, nonetheless, it was worth the effort. We should not lose heart when we fail, but on the contrary, with each failure, ratchet up our efforts – even to a global scale. This is how we saved people in the USSR and how in the new Russia we solved the problem of child homelessness that swept the country in the years in 1998-2001.

How Babushkin ‘brought Luzhkov to his senses’

The above-mentioned Federal Law No. 120 had immediate, disastrous consequences: the ‘militsiya’ (the ‘politsiya’, or police, came along around 10 years later) stopped taking homeless or unaccompanied children who had not committed any crimes off the streets and from train stations. Those in charge at the ministry argued, ‘We should follow European standards: if a citizen (including minors) has not broken the law, then we have no right to detain them and should allow social services to deal with children on the street’. But in practice, no one dealt with such children at all.

A typical pattern in those years would be this: midnight on Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main thoroughfare, and there are youngsters sitting around and getting high – sniffing some drugs or other. A policeman comes along and looks the other way. The streets, train stations, and courtyards of Moscow and other Russian cities were filled with homeless children, just as they were in the Civil War. We know of cases where, in freezing temperatures, some of them would smash up shop fronts on purpose so that the police would detain them and put them in a TsVINP (temporary isolation centre for juvenile offenders), where it was warm, and they would get fed and have a clean bed to sleep in. So, in March 2001, Babushkin put up 36 homeless children in the office of the Committee for Civil Rights. It took more than a year for these children to be returned to their families and children’s institutions. Of course, human rights defenders would highlight the problem in the media and appeal to the authorities, but, sadly, to no avail.

In late December 2000, Liubov Kushnir, the managing director of Right of the Child, and I wrote to Russian President Vladimir Putin about this devastating problem. We sent it from the post office on Novy Arbat to the address: The Kremlin, Moscow. A month later, we were unexpectedly invited to the Presidential Administration, where a staff member showed us our letter, on which Putin had handwritten instructions to the Audit Office to look into the matter. The Audit Office spent a year investigating, visiting the TsVINP in Moscow – with whose leadership we worked closely – and holding meetings with then-Interior Minister Rushailo. But the latter categorically refused to deal with street children. The situation dragged on until 18 January 2002, when the Russian president issued a decree establishing a Headquarters for Homeless Children under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. At that, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who had previously ignored appeals from Babushkin, us, and many others, came to his senses and approved a procedure for the police to take street children into custody, but only for up to three hours, and from there by ambulance to a Moscow hospital, from there to a shelter, and finally home – to their ‘home’ orphanage or parents, that is – and so forth across Russia. The problem of street children has been solved completely.

Of course, the matter of prevention, to stop children running away from families or orphanages in the first place, remains. This problem goes unsolved to this day, as the said Federal Law No. 120 ‘On the basic principles for preventing homelessness and crime among minors’ has utterly failed to address the main task of prevention denoted by its title. That is why, by order of Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova, the Russian Ministry of Education is now developing a new law to replace Federal Law No. 120, designed to systematise preventive, social and rehabilitation work in cases of child and family trouble. Whether this new law will work or prove to be just as abortive as Federal Law No. 120 that emerged 24 years ago is as yet unknown.

We live in another country now

The next major event in Russia’s most recent history, convened at the initiative of V. V. Putin, with the key participation as organisers of Memorial and the Moscow Helsinki Group, was the Civic Forum, held in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses on 21-22 November 2001 – more than 5,000 delegates from all across the country. Of course, human rights activists drafted proposals on acute legal problems in need of rapid solutions, ourselves, the NGO Right of the Child, included. Our proposals related to the problem of mass social orphanhood (every year there were more than 300 court rulings to withdraw parental rights and more than 600,000 children in children’s homes and residential care: the problem has now been generally resolved). Meanwhile, Andrei Babushkin and Valery Borshchev put forward proposals on a law on the public monitoring of places of detention. This law was ultimately passed and public monitoring commissions (PMCs) began to work successfully until a few years ago when genuine human rights activists were driven out of the PMCs and all the good was, as usual, swallowed up by the bureaucratic swamp. See Babushkin’s article, entitled “Special Operation: The end of the PMCs”. 

But back then, over 20 years ago, in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, Liudmila Alekseeva and Sergei Kovalev were in the presidium of the Civic Forum … Chairing the assembly Liudmila Alekseeva gave the floor to the president of the Russian Federation to offer words of welcome. What he said included the following:

The state is always greater than the powers-that-be. And it is judged not only on its political successes and development of the economy, but surely not lastly but perhaps even firstly, it is judged on the level of personal freedom, on how influential civil society itself is in a given state. And naturally there will be no truly strong democratic state if society is weak. Only the fully-functioning life of society can safeguard the state machine from stagnation. The ethical principles adopted in society also reflect directly on the very style of activity of the state apparatus and on the outcomes of its work. I am convinced that the powers-that-be lose unless their partner is a free society. And the least successful decision here would be attempts at bureaucratisation.

It isn’t just sad, it’s frightening to read these words today. A few years ago, I happened to ring Ella Aleksandrovna Pamfilova, with whom I had worked closely and fruitfully for many years (I should recall that, from 2002-2016, she was successively chair of the Presidential Human Rights Commission, chair of the Presidential Human Rights Council and Federal Human Rights Ombudsman). It was the last time we spoke. I had rung with some minor request and Ella Aleksandrovna replied sadly, “I can’t do anything now. We live in another country now.”

I am always grateful when I recall Andrei Babushkin’s support at the spring 2004 meeting of human rights activists with Vladimir Lukin, the new human rights ombudsman who had just been appointed. The meeting was concerned with forming an expert council subordinate to the ombudsman, and its specialist units. Only two people backed my proposal to set up a dedicated unit on the human rights of the child — Andrei Babushkin and Valery Borshchev (the rest of our human rights activist friends insisted that the rights of the child should be handled by the section on social affairs). The matter had a positive outcome at the behest of Vladimir Petrovich Lukin after I said that I wouldn’t be on the expert council at all unless it had a section on children’s rights. It was a tricky moment and the support of Babushkin and Borshchev meant a great deal to me.

You’re criticising, you must be an extremist!

Andrei Babushkin’s social, political and legislative activity was extremely varied. He authored or co-authored a great many methodological books and booklets that were in high demand. The main area of his work, however, was helping people. He gave this all that he had. 

The last time I had to ask Andrei for help was in February-March 2022 when, all over Moscow, the police started pursuing dozens of defenders of the Troitsk Forest who had taken part in pickets and protests against chopping it down, seizing them on the street, in their flats and at work and taking them to police stations where they drew up charges to hand the cases over to the courts. At that time, when I asked, Andrei came to the assistance of several people. His standing with the Moscow police authorities was immense. When the activists defending the Troitsk Forest discovered that the Moscow police had nothing to do with it but were simply acting on the orders of higher-ups and found out that the protesters were being hounded on instructions from the Russian Interior Ministry Main Directorate for Countering Extremism, I rang Andrei and asked what sort of nonsense this was, what link there could be between defenders of the forest – the “lungs” of Moscow – and extremism. And Babushkin explained that it wasn’t news to him, that corrupt officials throughout Russia were using this Main Directorate for Countering Extremism to protect themselves against citizens who were defending their rights. In a word: you don’t agree with the authorities, you’re criticising – you must be an extremist. That’s the kind of police state we have in Russia today. Dreadful!

And in conclusion, a quotation from a magnificent article, entitled “Teacher Babushkin. Yavas”:   

We reckoned we’d have time to go to four penal colonies here but we were held up in each one. Babushkin believed that ‘the work with prisoners couldn’t be brought to a halt’, that we couldn’t just drop in and leave, without speaking to everyone who had something to say. And there wasn’t a single cell in the facility’s long corridor of cells where there was knocking inside and he didn’t demand that they also opened that dreadful door, bedecked with bundles of keys, chains, spyholes, food hatches and other protective fixtures. But it was the same with the guards: there were no questions Babushkin didn’t try to answer accurately and in detail because everyone should talk to everyone – that was the idea.

Translated by Simon Cosgrove, Lindsay Munford and Melanie Moore

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