Marjorie Farquharson: An Experiment in Moscow (May, 1992)

This piece from May 1992 by the late Marjorie Farquharson (1953-2016) was originally published on the website Marjorie and is republished here by kind permission.


The idea of setting up an AI information office arose out of our experiences in Moscow in 1989. At that time the USSR was taking its first steps towards international standards, but its program of legal reforms had got bogged down. When we spoke with government officials on AI’s first mission in April 1989 we met many legislators who wanted to learn more about international laws on human rights and how other countries apply them. At around that time a Soviet publisher asked permission to print a Russian version of AI’s book against the death penalty, and in September 1989 the crush of bodies which surrounded our first stall at the Moscow Book Fair almost broke the table. People in the USSR, it seemed, were wanting to find out more about human rights and we thought AI was well-placed to help them do it.

In 1990 we made our proposal to the USSR Foreign Ministry and in January 1991 I moved to Moscow as AI’s information officer. This year we extended the experiment and a new information officer began work in May 1992. We hope that in time local members will be able to take over the office. After my own 15 months of doing the job I think that we were right about the potential which our information office has, but finding this out has not always been painless.

The political context

When I arrived in Moscow, AI was the first foreign human rights group to be putting down roots and, officially, we were still one of the most suspect. On the Soviet side there was no established procedure for dealing with us and we did not – and still do not – fit any category of organization allowed for in law. Just to get visas to enter the country we had to depend on political good will, and as an international organization our natural sponsor was the USSR Foreign Ministry.

As 1991 unfolded we might have wished it was not, because the ideological clash which had flared up in Tbilisi, Baku, Osh, Vilnius and Riga reached Moscow and the USSR Foreign Ministry with centrifugal force. When I arrived in January the USSR Foreign Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, had already resigned, predicting a reactionary coup d’état, and Soviet foreign policy began to swing between a pro-Shevardnadze faction, who supported the United Nations resolution on Iraq, and an anti-western faction who opposed it. Each faction was trying to control reporting of the Gulf War in the central newspapers and on television, and AI`s reports on atrocities by Iraq or Kuwait would pop up alternately depending on who had the upper hand.

For most people this was not just a remote issue, because it seemed that the future direction of their own country might be visible in Soviet foreign policy. Soviet tanks had gone into Lithuania and Latvia only days after the war began, and the longer the war continued the more people feared a coup d`état in Moscow, while the world’s attention was distracted. The atmosphere was unstable and extremely threatening.

AI’s plans to open an office fell into the middle of this battlefield and stayed there for most of my time in Moscow. The faction in the USSR Foreign Ministry who opposed AI made sure that I was given short visas and continually had to re-apply for new ones: three times in the eight weeks leading up to the failed coup in August. Although I was formally their “guest”, the ministry refused to give me a residence permit for the first two months of my stay and I was forced to live illegally. Presumably during that time I could have been searched, fined or expelled very easily. The Press Department of the ministry, which had promised in 1990 to accredit our information office, changed its mind in spring 1991, and for the next seven months we were forced to rotate between them and the ministry’s division of Humanitarian Affairs, its department of International Affairs and its Legal Department, seeking official status as an organization. Difficult though it is to believe, the USSR had collapsed and the USSR Foreign Ministry had disbanded before any progress had been made on this issue.

Throughout this entire bureaucratic saga I had the impression that most of the officials involved were “onlookers”, almost as interested as we were which faction of the Foreign Ministry would prevail. From January 1992 the Russian Federation Foreign Ministry took over issuing my visa invitations and the procedures ran more smoothly. Interestingly enough, however, the same three men processed my visas as before. Plus ça change; plus c’est la meme chose!

Home and Abroad 

From the middle of the 1980s the USSR Foreign Ministry had represented the most progressive face of Soviet human rights policy. At the United Nations it had promoted international standards, committed itself to respecting human rights, and recognized the work which non-governmental organizations like AI do in monitoring human rights violations.

During my 15 months in Moscow I was always aware of the difference between officials who had been posted abroad, and those who stayed at home. The ones who had worked outside the USSR were noticeably more relaxed with AI: they knew our material was serious and wanted to read more of it, and they knew we campaign for prisoners all over the world. The officials who had no foreign experience knew about AI only through their own propaganda, and tended to treat me as though I was armed. It was difficult to get appointments with them and they preferred to meet me in twos. Bureaucrats handling our legal documents were especially hostage to this attitude, because if the political winds changed they did not want theirsignature to be on the paper authorizing AI`s presence. Procedures which were never quick, in our case went round in circles very slowly.

Unlike political structures, this kind of attitude is slow to change. Even after the revolution of August 1991, for instance, the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs tried to force AI to cancel its public seminar on the death penalty to allow the hall to be “redecorated”. Meeting this attitude in Moscow gave me an idea of the ignorance about AI which must reign in the provinces, let alone in republics which until now have had no experience of the United Nations. The encouraging thing was that working with AI on an issue led some officials who had started off hostile to become very cooperative. During my time there, the issue was usually the death penalty. Presumably, the more we do normal AI work in what was the USSR, the more effectively we will overcome old prejudices.

The discouraging thing, on the other hand, was that some people who are progressive abroad become quite reactionary in Moscow. I suppose a double standard in public life is nothing new, but it is particularly noticeable in a country where most of the public has not been able to travel and has had no power to bring officials to account. It is certainly a commonplace to people born and bred in Moscow, and possibly makes them too cynical about ideas or principles that are evolving abroad. To an incomer the double standard is illuminating, because it shows how fluently government officials can master the international language of human rights. To know how the language translates in practice, AI needs to be fluent in the cadences of the home culture. I always wonder, for instance, how seriously anyone can want a law-based society, when the Russian word “to try in court” means “to condemn”. It seems like trying to introduce credit cards, when people are frightened of putting money in the bank.

AI’s Office and Legal Registration

Eventually I was able to find an office for AI and to get us official status as an organization, but only with the help of politicians at municipal level. Some of them were less frightened of taking risks than people in the central government and were determined that Soviet society should not turn back towards “stagnation”. Strikingly, these people were not new to the political scene, but middle-ranking politicians with a great deal of experience.

In May 1991 we were given a 5-room office to rent in a central street of old Moscow by the district council at Krasnopresnensky. On 10 December – symbolically for us – the Mayor of Moscow granted us official recognition as an organization in the city, with rights to sign contracts and open bank accounts. This news was carried on the front page of the national newspaper Izvestiya, and I learned later that individual recognition of this type was unprecedented. It has been secured for us by the Moscow City Justice Department because we do not fit any organizational category provided for by law.

Like much of central Moscow, our premises needed renovation. In a country where there are no telephone books, few building materials, and not many construction firms working outside the state sector, this was quite a daunting prospect. With the help of a Soviet go-between, who continually supplied parts so that the work could continue uninterrupted, I hired a cooperative firm of builders, who worked six days a week and all through the August coup attempt – although then it was not clear if both they and we would be shut down and banned before the tanks left the streets. One of our small triumphs was to equip a bathroom for the office. Toilets had disappeared from state and commercial shops months beforehand, but in this, as in other areas of Moscow life, I discovered that patronage ruled. Our benefactors on this occasion were the Soviet Baptists` union, wanting to express their thanks for the help AI had given their prisoners, and luckily having several toilets to spare.

Over two months we re-wired and re-plastered the office, laid new level floors and re-painted it all. We also installed a security door and alarm system. When the office opens it may provide a meeting place for AI initiative groups in Moscow and also space in which volunteers can work. There are also rooms to display books and posters, where people may come in and browse.

Acquiring and renovating the office was only one part of the battle I discovered: securing our legal title to it was another. Although I worked on this with more or less intensity all the time I was in Moscow, the process was still not completed by the time I left. One problem was that after the August coup attempt, the mayordom of Moscow took over all property which had previously belonged to the district councils. This meant that all the documents which I had spent five months gathering became invalid at one stroke, and I had to start all over again. Dotted through Moscow around 19 different agencies are involved in the registration of property, all of them with idiosyncratic working hours and seemingly depressive staff. The endlessness of the procedure and strangeness of their requests made me sometimes feel I was trapped in a dreadful myth. If I’d stayed any longer I think I may have had to find them a dragons tooth.

The Death Penalty

Even without an office I discovered that one person with a computer can do a great deal of AI work. One of the most satisfying areas for me was working on the death penalty. When I arrived in January 1991 the country was heavily centralized and so was public thinking on this issue. Although the USSR had been a prime mover in adopting the UN Second Optional Protocol in 1989, aimed at abolishing the death penalty, at home the government kept repeating that other problems “were more pressing” and that the USSR was not ready for this step. In February 1991 it was quite an event for both sides when I went to the USSR Ministry of Justice to collect their statistics on death sentences and executions. They were releasing them for the first time in half a century and AI’s interest made them uneasy.

In the course of 15 months, however, the death penalty issue became very pressing and, for a short while at least, moved to the forefront of everyone’s mind. The turning point came when the coup attempt failed in August. I feared that a lust for blood would unleash when it was over, but in fact the effect was the opposite. A consensus immediately seemed to form against executing the coup organizers, because of the divisions and resentment their deaths would cause in society. After the USSR collapsed, the death penalty issue was thrown wide open. There were 15 different national legislatures, with different traditions and their own conceptions of the society they want to create. What happened to the death penalty was no longer the private property of a circle of academics and politicians at the centre.

By having a base in Moscow AI was able quite easily to keep up with these developments. In late August our name figured among a list of Soviet human rights groups who signed an Open Letter to the major daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, calling for the death penalty to be abolished. The following month we held a public seminar on the issue, to coincide with the official human rights meeting the government was hosting in Moscow as part of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Soviet lawyers, journalists, AI activists and members of the public took part from as far afield as central Siberia, the Arctic circle, the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, as well as official delegates from the CSCE. Judging from the comments of local people, they found the seminar useful because it showed that there are alternatives to killing, and that the abolitionist movement is professional and spreading across the world. Both things appeared to strike them as a revelation. For AI the seminar was valuable because it gave us a network of abolitionists across several republics who want to work with us and with each other.

I found that AI’s clear position on the death penalty distinguished us from other foreign groups setting up in Moscow. As our profile rose during 1991, so more relatives and lawyers turned to us with information about people awaiting execution – providing new contracts for the research department in an area which had once been almost hermetically sealed. In their turn, when they saw the impact which AI telegrams had on their clients` cases, many lawyers I met wanted to join AI so they could help people on death row abroad. In late 1991 AI members throughout the former USSR took part in the campaign against the execution of juveniles in the USA.

Because AIs research into death penalty is so exhaustive, I discovered a number of specialists began to use it as reference material. One young military judge at a Moscow institute, for instance, started to teach new trainees for the bench from our reports. In October, I learned that our seminar materials were regularly being used in courses at Moscow University by a Professor of Criminal Law, who called to ask for AI`s confirmation of pending changes to US federal law on capital crimes.

Some AI sympathizers from official Clemency Commissions also made contact with AI during 1991. These are the bodies which recommend to each president of the former USSR whether to grant pardon to a particular prisoner or not. Their interest enabled us to re-state the abolitionist case at the all-Union level, and in the clemency commissions of several of the republics. At the very least we gave moral support to some lone voices for abolition on these commissions. At most we may have helped to save the lives of some specific prisoners. As the USSR disintegrated, it also made sense for me to introduce AI`s work and concerns at the Moscow embassies of the former republics. For some of them. like the representatives of Tajikistan, the death penalty as a human rights violation was a rare and strange concept. Unlike the Soviet authorities in early 1991, a number of these republican officials were willing to give AI detailed information on the death penalty.

Being based in Moscow also gave me access to some specialist press. An article against the death penalty which I wrote in May for the Journal of Humanitarian Sciences, appeared by chance in October, when interest in the issue had heated up. A minor polemic then broke out on the journal’s pages, with an official from the Ministry of Internal Affairs asking for the right to reply to me, and an academic from the Institute of State and Law wanting to reply to him. By early 1992 AI also had a monthly column in Soviet Justice, the professional journal of judges and lawyers in RSFSR. Judging by the letters I received as a result, our piece about the death penalty drove many abolitionists out into the light, who were keen to join AI.

Providing information for people in their own language

When the information office was conceived, AI was looking for ways to spread the word about human rights in a continent that had been virtually closed for decades. Information that had long since been available to many other people, was still withheld in the USSR, and sometimes strange preconceptions had filled the vacuum. It seems to me that there is still very little understanding of the idea of “rights”, for instance, among people in the former USSR. “International” denotes some other, unattainable world, and “Amnesty International” means anything from free wheel chairs to a commercial firm.

In 1989 the country was so vast and the dearth of information so complete, it was difficult to see how a local membership could evolve which would be strong enough to close this gap. One of the tasks of the international office, as we saw it, was to provide Russian-language texts of international laws and to expand the pool of AI reports available in Russian. Given the size of AI`s output this obviously had to be a selective process. We decided to translate things which showed the balance of AI`s work, concentrating on countries where the interest of Soviet readers could have an impact on the human rights situation. With this in mind we produced Russian-language reports on administrative detentions in China; torture in Turkey; executions in the USA; extra-judicial killings in India and in the United Kingdom, and violations suffered by women. As a matter of course we also translated research materials about the territories of the former USSR.

Our major reports on the death penalty had been available in Russian since the Moscow Book Fair of 1989 and this made the subject good to promote from the start. Before the Russian parliament debated legislation on capital crimes, for instance, it was relatively easy to ensure that its 200 members each received a copy of the book Kogda ubivaet gosudarstvo…(When the State Kills..) For the AI seminar in September 1991 we translated research material on the USA and the USSR, and speeches by abolitionists from India, Mozambique, the USSR and AI. Now the Death Penalty News is also going into Russian and will be distributed to the network of abolitionists which emerged after our seminar.

Over the past 15 months a Russian version of the AI Newsletter has gone to all local members and people enquiring about AI. It and the Action Bulletin have shown the spread of our work and our emphasis on action probably better than any other things we have translated. As AI`s trickle of information has begun to percolate through society, the growth in membership has become steady (reaching 750 by April 1992). Translation of AI materials into non-Russian languages of the former USSR is now being taken over by local AI members. 

A slice of my time in Moscow was regularly spent distributing our materials to people I thought would spread the information further. Some provincial newspapers and newspapers in non-Russian republics were glad to reproduce entire UN texts, or AI articles verbatim. As the fifth anniversary of a massacre of demonstrators in Alma-Ata approached, for instance, the Kazakh newspaper Birlesu reprinted the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials which we had provided them.

Foreign news editors of some central newspapers used AI reports for reference and features. An article based on AI`s China report in Novoye vremya, for instance, provoked a protest from the Chinese foreign ministry in August 1991. Our luck with news releases was much more spasmodic. It seemed the Moscow-based press would pick them up from their own foreign correspondents, or from international news agencies, but not from me. Sometimes their choice of news was quite unpredictable: Izvestiya carried our Mauritania report, for example, on the day that the tanks left Moscow, while our statements on Yugoslavia and the USA vanished into thin air.

“What is AI?” seemed to be an eternally interesting question to local journalists, and the last interview I gave on this theme was to Izvestiya, two days before I left. Interest in AI was kept alive by our 30th anniversary in May and then by International Human Rights Day on 10 December. Over the 15 months I gave similar interviews to around 40 other newspapers during my stay, among them Komsomolskaya pravda (with a circulation of 17 million); a new periodical for medical workers; the journal of the Russian Supreme Court; and a mass circulation youth newspaper. During the year central television also produced three short features on AI, which marked our arrival in Moscow, our 30th anniversary and Human Rights Day.

Although these interviews obviously put across the main parts of our message, I was happier when the media also began to show us actually in action. The fact that AI opposed death sentences for the coup organizers was made stop-press news in the nationwide Komsomolskaya pravda piece. In February 1992 the Asia service of Russian radio also broadcast our concerns on China in the languages of Afghanistan, North Korea, Japan, China and other countries of the region. Towards the end of my stay in Moscow we also received a regular weekly slot on a radio program, in which we were able to speak about problems of our choice. Over those weeks I spoke about releases and detentions in Morocco; disappearances in Peru; administrative detentions and executions in China; prospects for abolishing the death penalty in Africa; deaths in detention in Israel and the Occupied Territories and arrests in Bhutan. I hope this regular injection of human rights information gave listeners a new angle on their usual foreign news.


The difficulty of staying in touch with London and the international movement was one of the reasons that the 1973 Moscow AI group eventually foundered. Without this contact, they said, they were starved of information about their prisoners and could not exchange ideas with the international movement. Although postal censorship in the former USSR is generally less strict now than it was then, the mail is still erratic, scrutinized and sometimes disappears. With its courier link to London, the information office provided an open channel for information going to and from the local members.

In the interviews I gave about AI`s work I always tried to publish the office’s post-box address so that people could write in and ask for more information. I also devized an advertisement, which was easy to mail to far-flung addresses, or to newspapers which were not yet in a position to arrange interviews. Publications as varied as the commercial magazine Stolitsa, the human rights bulletin Express khronika and the independent gay journal Tema printed our advert and it brought enquiries from all parts of the former USSR (for some reason with the exception of Moldova). Each newspaper attracted its own kind of new member to AI. Noticeably most of the people wanting to join were men, and they seemed to fall into two categories: workers in their early 20s and professionals in their late 30s or early 40s.

When the Riga AI group in Latvia felt they needed an “honorary” AI figure to attend the opening of their first public exhibition in August, it was relatively simple for the information officer to go from Moscow. They underestimated their own capabilities in my view, because the three of them attracted around 400 visitors to the exhibition and got peak coverage in the Latvian and Russian TV news without any help from me. The information office was of more practical use during the Peru campaign, when a student AI member in Moscow was suddenly invited to the Peruvian Embassy to discuss our campaign concerns with the First Secretary. I was able to accompany him in place of a section representative and we had a one-hour discussion which conveyed AI`s concerns from a part of the world which is important to Peru.

Undoubtedly one of the best ways of attracting new people is by word of mouth and personal contact. AI members do this all the time, and friends working together are likely to form more stable AI groups than a collection of strangers. The sheer continuity of having an information officer based permanently in Moscow brings dividends that I had not anticipated. Translators, architects and post-office staff, for instance, who habitually crossed my path, sometimes surprised me by later joining AI or offering extra help free. I remember listening, impressed, as our building helper explained the “own country rule” to the electricity man inspecting our premises. It was probably through a personal friendship with the information office that interest in AI developed in Kazakhstan and an initiative group later formed in Alma-Ata. New personal ties will form, whoever is doing the work of the information officer.

The Meeting of Two Cultures

When I first arrived in Moscow a thoroughgoing economic apartheid was in place, which was only breaking down as I was leaving. Local people were forbidden by law to have hard currency and so they were barred from a chain of hard currency hotels and shops where foreigners could buy good quality clothes, spare parts and fresh foods. Given the abysmal dearth of any of these things in local shops, it seemed to me that it would be laughable to arrive and preach “human rights”, whilst wiping away the traces of fresh pineapple and smoked cheese from my mouth. What surprised me was that I met no foreign human rights activists in Moscow who thought the same thing – although plenty of Russians did. By the end of my stay the economic distinctions were breaking down and local people were allowed to own hard currency. My experience of living on roubles, however, taught me a great deal and gave me some sense of how real life differs from the picture which foreign journalists paint.

My 15 months in Moscow also gave me a new look at the “AI culture” we have evolved. The way Soviet life challenged it and knocked off my own edges was one of the most interesting parts of working there, and at times one of the most painful.

In one basic respect we have strong appeal to people in the former USSR: we work on behalf of named individuals and help them in real ways. Until I had spent more than a year trying to get the cooperation of Soviet officials I did not know what contempt and gratuitous bullying the average individual suffers there in the course of her or his everyday dealings. Compound this with the official rhetoric abroad about respect for human rights, and you understand why most international humanitarian initiatives make Soviet people want to be sick.

The scale of civil rights complaints is nearly overwhelming and most of them fall outside AI`s mandate. However, I found it very important to set aside time for hearing and referring these complaints, and to devote myself to that time fully. After 15 months I am increasingly impatient with the view that this is somehow “time wasted” or time taken away from human rights work. It is human rights work. AI`s willingness to do it is also really the only thing that distinguishes us from other people making human rights careers in Moscow, who also hold seminars and take trips abroad. People watched closely how AI dealt with these complaints, and among local human rights activists and prisoners` relatives I felt it established our credibility.

Another of AI`s appeals is our information. Not many of the new radio channels and newspapers can afford to have correspondents abroad and so the sources of foreign news are relatively few. Until quite recently there has been an information blackout about countries like Tibet, Iraq or Cuba and people are interested to find out what they have missed. While refreshingly sharp, the new journalism is also breathtakingly tendentious and people get tired of it. Ai`s style of reporting can be an antidote to this. In many ways I thought our September seminar on the death penalty showed AI at its best. We do have an extraordinary knowledge of the subjects we research; our material is professional and our speakers were quite inspirational. It seemed that people who came were simply very interested to find out for the first time what the rest of the world is thinking, saying and doing about executions.

In other respects I found the AI approach to human rights jibs with the culture in the former USSR. I realized quickly how much we see humanitarian help as a series of systems. Networks of supporters exist ready to take action on a minimum of information, at the summons of a telex, fax, or phone. They do not know each other or the person who sends them the information nor do they really feel they need to.

Systems in Soviet life bring fresh headaches. Paper is hard to find and people do not entrust important things to the postal system, preferring to convey them from hand-to-hand. You can walk long distances to find a photocopying shop and queue for long hours at the local post office to receive or send a fax. Ordinary life is not designed to help groups organize, and traditionally this was quite deliberate, because groups not initiated from the top were seen as subversive. People in the former USSR also instinctively distrust local people they have not met before, and this makes it hard for groups of strangers to function well together. In my own experience, the best new members joined after we had spent hours together discussing God and death – but not AI. This is much more interesting than doing mass mailings, but in some ways it is more difficult, because people are intensely critical of each other’s integrity and they are no easier on you. Slogans and the AI handbook don’t help in situations like that.

The behaviour of some of the local activists I worked with also gave me a fresh look at what a “movement for human rights” means. Basically kindness was the instinct which motivated them to keep helping political prisoners after twenty years. It had also made them define their attitude to the established order in a way that took bravery: their work had cost them a lot suffering. Perhaps these qualities motivate many ordinary AI members and members of AI staff. I think possibly they do, but we should be careful that they still have room to move in the culture we are creating. As the trickle of workaholic foreign human rights activists passed through Moscow, come “to set the movement on its feet”, I increasingly wondered who was helping whom. We may be stronger on rights, but I think local activists keep a surer grasp of what is human.

In other respects I think that AI can blow a refreshing breeze into what in many ways is still a totalitarian culture. So few people there have travelled and so little has been published about other countries, that the ignorance is profound. It also goes hand-in-hand with a kind of “smugness in misfortune”, which makes people think that no one has suffered as much as they have. The notion of “suffering Russia” is a cherished cliché  there; which increasingly irritated me: it seemed to be an excuse for doing nothing about the situation at home and an insult to other people abroad who have suffered exactly as much as they have. Our rule, which forces people to work for prisoners in other countries, may be a good antidote to this attitude.

Although I liked the emphasis on personal contact and the importance which people place on integrity, I found the other side of the coin less agreeable. This is a kind of “human rights snobbery”, which makes human rights work the exclusive province of a small circle who know each other well – most of them from the “intelligentsia”. Conceptually, AI`s idea of human rights work attacks this notion head-on, because we welcome everyone who accepts our rules. As we were making our plans to start an information office and to develop membership in the then USSR, an old-style activist in Moscow warned us that open membership was “doomed to fail”. Events, as it happens, have proved him wrong. I find it gratifying that the best new AI groups in the former USSR consist of people who have mostly been drawn into human rights work for the first time.

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