7 October 2020
Stanislav Dmitrievsky, human rights activist and journalist, is interviewed by Ruslan Shamayev for Kavkaz.Realii.
Stanislav Dmitrievsky is director of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, which was banned in Russia before being re-established in Finland. During the two Chechen wars he travelled to the conflict zone with humanitarian missions and organised rehabilitation for child victims. After the publication of an appeal by Aslan Maskhadov and Akhmed Zakayev, then president and deputy prime minister of the separatist Republic of Ichkeria, calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in 2006, Dmitrievsky was found guilty of inciting racial hatred and given a two year suspended sentence. In 2016, Stanislav Dmitrievsky received a human rights award from the Moscow Helsinki Group.
In an interview with Kavkaz.Realii, Dmitrievsky discussed how he and his colleagues rallied against Kremlin propaganda during the Chechen wars and taught others to see the humanity in other people.
Stanislav, whose idea was it to set up an organisation in the middle of the second Chechen war, and to call it the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society?
In the first war I went to Chechnya as a human rights activist and journalist. Honestly, my trip to Grozny in January 1995 turned my whole life upside down. Before that I was an aspiring scientist, an archaeologist. But from that moment everything changed completely… It was the kind of encounter with war where you don’t just see evil but also gross injustice, and you realise that either you do something about it, or you’re really not human.
Because seeing all that and then not trying to help was just impossible. That would mean losing your human dignity.
When the second war started, I already had more or less of an idea of what it was all about, probably unlike most of my fellow citizens. At some point I just completely stopped sleeping and realised I had to do something. Then I had to speak out loudly and shout that we didn’t want to fall into this hysteria. And that’s how the idea of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society was born.
Back then, the opposition between Russians and Chechens was being hammered through so hard through the propaganda that our message was just a scream. And of course, we didn’t expect that this scream would grow into the kind of organisation that would be able to help children and operate a news agency.
We found like-minded people among the refugees from Chechnya – we came across Imran Ezhiev (public figure and activist working on human rights issues in refugee camps – ed.) and Ruslan Kutayev (Chechen human rights activist – ed.) at that time too.
We suddenly saw that this idea had immediately gained a huge number of supporters. I don’t even know how to describe it – back then people would say we were “from the other side”, even though there weren’t any sides. People just thought up these sides for themselves.
Who else was among the founders of the society?
In Nizhny Novgorod it was Igor Kalyapin – he’s now the director of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture. There were a lot of people from the technical and creative intelligentsia. Altogether, these were very different people who were just ashamed and couldn’t stay silent.
In the spring of 2000, at the height of the hostilities in Chechnya, a meeting of the “Chechen Committee for National Salvation” was held in the Ingush village of Sleptsovskaya, headed up by athlete Ruslan Badalov. When your comrade came to the rostrum and said that he was a representative of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, the whole audience burst out with laughter, then with thunderous applause. The phrase “Russian-Chechen friendship” sounded like a mockery at a time when the Kremlin propaganda machine was busy successfully portraying Chechens as bandits and terrorists. How did your friends and acquaintances react to this?
People took it differently, of course. It was very tough, but human relations are always opposed to propaganda.
In the spring of 2000, for the first time, we decided to bring a group of children from Chechnya for rehabilitation. The initial reactions were so vicious, even in journalistic circles in Nizhny Novgorod. At that time, journalism was still more or less independent and it wasn’t possible to explain this by some kind of ‘instructions’ from above. Then came the broadcasts saying “you’re bringing terrorists’ children here, they’re going to blow up the car factory …” Some nonsense like that.
Despite this, the children were brought in. Mayor Ivan Sklyarov, a friend of the late Boris Nemtsov, slammed his fists on the table and said that these children had nothing to do with the war, and that we would bring them in and let them live in one of the best holiday homes.
And we rehoused them alongside our usual children. They saw each other, and there were no problems, even though the propaganda was stirring up hatred.
At that time I understood very well that one could use propaganda clichés as much as you wanted on either side. But the most important thing is to facilitate meetings between people, to be able to look one another in the eyes.
So, we tried to do exactly that, along with the news agency that worked for us, along with the newspaper, as a result of which they then tried to jail me. We have always tried to act through human contacts.
You mentioned that they tried to arrest you in Russia. What exactly were you charged with?
Technically, I was accused of inciting hatred – a broad term that was subsequently used a number of times against those who spoke out against the system.
There were two publications. There was a letter from Aslan Maskhadov to the European Parliament, where he asked for assistance in the negotiation process, but at the same time, of course, expressed his thoughts on the policy of Russia in general, and Putin in particular.
There were phrases referring to “putin’s blood-soaked criminal regime” and so on. There was also a letter from Akhmed Zakayev, who said (very much in the spirit of Leopold the cat) “I extend the hand of friendship to the Russian people, over the head of its government.” There were calls to not vote for Putin in the elections, because he represented a party of war, not peace.
I was charged with inciting racial, national and religious hatred. The experts who examined the text instated that in the phrase “putin’s bloody criminal regime” the word “Putin” should be written with a capital P, otherwise it is an insult. There was a lot of nonsense.
What saved you from a real prison term?
I think that I would have been imprisoned if it were not for the solidarity of my colleagues. To be honest, I don’t remember ever having received such a level of support.
Kalyapin and I recently remembered and laughed a little at this explanation. I say what a wonderful court this was, because not a single international conference brought together such people: Anna Politkovskaya (a Novaya Gazeta journalist, murdered in 2006- Ed.) and human rights defenders Liudmila Alekseeva, Sergei Kovalev, Svetlana Gannushkina.
These people spent their evenings, arguing about human rights, about the limits of acceptable cooperation with the authorities. Representatives of foreign embassies were constantly there, a huge number of friends, colleagues from Chechnya came. There was such a powerful display of solidarity and the authorities evidently didn’t dare to give me a real term in prison.
After that there was a war with Georgia and an anti-Georgian campaign, then Ukraine – and suddenly in Russian propaganda Ukrainians turned into “fascists” …
For some reason it was clear to me from the very beginning that everything would end like this. Well, it wasn’t the limit, in fact. I remember when Kalyapin and I went to Chechnya in 1995 in leaky boots and with a semi-functioning voice recorder, without money and without anything. Then there was a feeling that something was happening that would radically change the whole situation in Russia. It was clear that this was not just another conflict in the former Soviet Union. It was not just about the human tragedy of the war. It was also something of very considerable significance for the fate of the entire post-Soviet space.
Having started a military operation in Chechnya, Yeltsin and his team betrayed all the principles on which they had come to power. It was clear that this was a volte-face, which could not but have serious negative consequences for society and for the state.
It is impossible to establish a dictatorship in one small territory, to commit mass systematic crimes and at the same time to remain a democratic country. It just does not work that way!
In October 2006, the prosecutor’s office of Nizhny Novgorod region filed a lawsuit to close the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society and the court granted it. This ruling was criticized by a number of journalists, by Russian and international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International. According to Dmitrievsky, after the court’s ruling, about 20 MEPs joined the society in a gesture of solidarity
In 2006, the Russian-Chechen News Agency, which Dmitrievsky founded, was presented with the Gerd Boucerius award “The 2006 Freedom of the Press in Eastern Europe Award” in Hamburg. In the same year, Dmitrievsky and his colleague Oksana Chelysheva were presented with a special Amnesty International award in London for human rights journalism in dangerous conditions.
On 30 October 2007 the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society was officially registered in Finland. Stanislav Dmitrievsky was elected as chair of the organisation and the Finnish human rights activisst Eva Martinson as deputy chair.