20 December 2022
Svetlana Astrakhantseva, Moscow Helsinki Group CEO, in conversation with Svetlana Reiter.
Russia’s Ministry of Justice has initiated liquidation proceedings against the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) – the oldest human rights’ organisation still operating in Russia. Preliminary information indicates that proceedings were initiated for “formal reasons”, which included the fact that the MHG took part in events in other regions despite being registered in Moscow. However, the Ministry of Justice found this to be a gross violation which “could not be resolved through legal channels”. The MHG’s CEO, Svetlana Astrakhantseva, told Meduza what her organisation is planning to do next.
Did you see this coming?
Almost two months ago, in early November, the Ministry of Justice conducted an unplanned inspection of the Moscow Helsinki Group under the orders of the Prosecutor General. The Prosecutor General found something on our website saying we had monitored judicial proceedings against our colleague Semyon Simonov in Sochi. The Prosecutor General saw this as a violation of our regional status, as the MHG is registered as a Moscow Regional Public Organisation.
Basically, the Ministry of Justice conducted this inspection and, in addition to the usual kind of minor violations they drag up such as “submission of an incomplete package of documents for the inspection”, they also found a few instances where MHG had been mentioned in connection with events or activism outside Moscow. There were some online events, such as our “civic responsibilities masterclass” which was organised by our partners from the Krasnodar Region, or even an appeal to the Governor of St Petersburg [Aleksandr Belgov] which we wrote jointly with OVD-Info. It was a completely innocuous message, reading “We would like to draw your attention to the infringements of citizens’ rights and freedoms linked to the mass detention of picketers during the coronavirus pandemic”. There were eleven instances where we were found to be “violating our geographical bounds”, which were all absurd.
Will you appeal the Ministry’s decision?
As far as I know, there are no mechanisms for appealing. After the inspection, we wrote out our objections and explanations, but the Ministry of Justice went ahead and initiated liquidation proceedings against us before receiving them. Of course, we will go through court proceedings and we will defend ourselves, we will insist on our right to defend our activity.
For a full twenty years, we have not changed our working priorities and we have not had any claims or notices filed against us.
Now, our team has been looking at who else has faced liquidation for breaching their geographical bounds. There is an organisation which we work with in Yoshkar-Ole called Man and Law. A while ago they were in a similar situation. That was when Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva was still alive, so it must have been around 2015 or 2016. They successfully defended themselves against all the claims, but times then were different, less severe and law enforcement was at least paying lip service to the law. But now, the laws governing the activities of NGOs is being used like a scythe to hack away at anyone undesirable.
You mentioned Aleekseeva, and I remembered how Putin went to have tea with her many years ago.
He even gave her a government award.
I wonder, if she was still alive, would he go to have tea with her today?
I doubt that Liudmila Mikhailovna would invite him.
Nor open the door to him.
Right. A lot has changed.
How has your work changed since the start of the war?
We as people have found it harder since our country started the war. Just being aware of that…has it been harder for us to work? Yes, of course. Human rights have dropped so far down the public agenda. Now discussions are more around aggression and how to stop it, but the question of the value of human life and human rights has been completely forgotten.
The Moscow Helsinki Group worked in the difficult times of stagnation and repression. Will you be using that past experience now?
We absolutely have that experience, yes. The MHG has 27 members from those dissident times. That includes Viacheslav Bakhmin, the legendary dissident, Valery Borshchev, the well-known human rights’ activist, and Boris Altshuler who wrote Andrei Sakharov’s biography. Thank God, all our founding fathers are still alive and their experience will be very helpful to us.
This isn’t the first time you’ve been closed down, is it?
The MHG was closed in 1982 because its members were either in prison or in exile out of the country. Then the MHG was forced to cease its activity in the USSR and operated outside the Soviet Union thanks to the work of Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseeva.
Are your members willing to leave Russia if they have to?
How would we leave?!
Oh, honestly, it’s a hard decision. Some people have already made that decision, others aren’t ready yet and others still are completely unwilling. There are MHG members who had to leave because they were facing criminal charges, such as Lev Aleksandrovich Ponomarev. Then there is Sergei Krivenko, who had to leave because he couldn’t keep working safely. But most are still here.
Has the nature of human rights violations changed since the start of the war?
24th February brought a complete about-turn and even the small achievements for human rights that had been made in Russia, those little freedoms that Russian citizens had, they disappeared. The authorities, of course, knew how to manipulate those concepts, how to give a semblance of rights, but fundamental human rights exist now only in the text of the Constitution, to which law enforcement pays no attention.
Is it possible to have any kind of dialogue with the authorities these days?
Representatives of human rights’ institutions like [Commissioner for Human Rights] Tatyana Moskalkova or representatives of government agencies are trying to do something, but dialogue between civil society and government is completely off the table now and civil society actors’ places are being taken by people affiliated with the government. I think that when the members of the Human Rights Council were being changed, Peskov said that these should be people who reflect the spirit of the times. I can’t remember his words exactly, but that was the gist of it.
Can you imagine a scenario where the Chronicle of Current Events would once again be printed at night, distributed in secret and hidden under floorboards?
That’s a good question. I think that as channels for distributing alternative information come under more and more restrictions, then the means for distributing this information will also have to become more sophisticated – at least, as long as our Constitution is in force. In the era of The Chronicle we’d have to get the typewriters out. But in our age of information technology, there will always be ways for people to find the information they want without having to make eight carbon copies.
Translated by Judith Fagelson