Sergei Krivenko: “A dramatic change occurred at the turn of 2012 and 2013. The authorities launched an undeclared war against civil society and human rights organizations” [from an interview to mark the 44th anniversary of the Moscow Helsinki Group]

14 May 2020

Sergei Krivenko, coordinator of the human rights group Citizen and the Army, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group and of the board of the International Memorial Society.

Interviewed by Vladimir Lionter to mark the 44th anniversary of the founding of the Moscow Helsinki Group

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Daily Moscow]

On 12 May, the oldest human rights organisation in Russia celebrated its 44th anniversary. Created in the era when dissidents were persecuted, when only one opinion – the opinion of the ruling elite – was considered correct, the Moscow Helsinki Group continues to stand up for citizens’ rights today when they are violated by the state. 

The organization was founded by eleven human rights activists under the leadership of Soviet physicist Y. F. Orlov to promote observance by the USSR of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, which  was signed by 35 countries in Helsinki in 1975.  

From the day of its inception, the members of the International Helsinki Group were constantly persecuted by Soviet law enforcement and security agencies. Most of the human rights defenders were either sentenced to varying prison terms or sent into exile. Six were expelled from the USSR, having been stripped of their citizenship. Because of the impossibility of meeting its obligations, the three remaining members of the Moscow Helsinki Group, under government pressure, decided to cease operations in 1982.

Photo: Tatiana Yankelevich.   Sergei Kovalev, Elena Bonner, Larissa Bogoraz and Andrei Sakharov working on a list of political prisoners 1988

It was only possible to resume this work seven years later in 1989, after which L. I. Bogoraz, a linguist and journalist, became the chair. In 1996, the baton of leadership of Moscow Helsinki Group was taken up by one of the organization’s founders, prominent human rights activist Liudmila Alekseeva. After her death there was an organisational restructuring.  Three co-chairs have been introduced. Currently they are Valery Borshchev, Vyacheslav Bakhmin and Dmitry Makarov.

A conversation with Moscow Helsinki Group member Sergei Krivenko about the organization’s current activities and respect for human rights in modern Russia

‘Since the late 1980s, I have been a member of Memorial, where I have been occupied with historical events and worked in the archives. I am one of the authors of the Gulag handbook (including details of more than 500 camps), which was published in the late 1990s.

‘And, as a human rights defender, I commenced work in the early 2000s to protect the rights of military conscripts and of those performing civilian alternatives to military service and then to protect the rights of military personnel themselves.

‘The Moscow Helsinki Group supports other  human rights organizations and became a sponsor of  the Memorial Human Rights Centre, which appeared a little later than the International Memorial Society. In 2011, Liudmila Mikhailovna suggested that I become a member of Moscow Helsinki Group, as they had no programme at that time on the rights of military service personnel.

The development of democracy in Russia

‘Anything is possible in Russia. The problem is with the organisation of government. Even President Putin at the very beginning of his career in the 2000s demonstrated an unusually positive dynamic. In those days he followed a course of interaction with civil society. Public opinion was taken into account. The heyday came under President Medvedev when the work of the Human Rights Council under the President of the Russian Federation improved. Although everything was slow, the negative Soviet legacy on human rights violations was gradually being overcome. With regard to the military, for example, contract service was introduced, something they have tried to introduce since 2004. A dramatic change occurred at the turn of 2012 and 2013. During Putin’s new presidential term the authorities launched an undeclared war on civil society and human rights organizations. It remains quite possible to change all this for the better. First of all, the authorities must end the war on society and begin to fulfill their international obligations to respect human rights, which has yet to happen. However, it is now clear that no positive changes in this direction can be expected in the near future.

‘Politically motivated’ prosecutions

‘Last summer, as I see it, we were starting to think some changes were taking place: “They released Golunov and there was a thaw, then they beat up people in the streets, and it was back to repression.” In fact, the authorities have not changed very much. Because there is no single policy line and the President, as I understand it, is not particularly interested in internal affairs, there are many authors of domestic policy, not only the presidential administration but also other forces. It’s for this reason that we see such a mixed bag and the appearance of various elements, both positive and negative. The authorities do not feel confident: they are afraid of protests, they are afraid of large numbers of people taking to the streets. On the one hand, the authorities carry out targeted repressive measures, and on the other, they very closely monitor what is going on, and sometimes step back. But in no case would I call this state of affairs a thaw, or a change of policy.

Russia vs the Soviet Union

‘There is a very great difference between them. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state with a single set of policies implemented from one centre through party, law enforcement and security structures. We don’t have anything like that now. Sometimes a go-ahead from the presidential administration about the need for something in a region of Russia isn’t enough. Local forces don’t just look to Moscow, they also take into account the realities of their region. 

‘If we look at examples from the work of Memorial, then we can’t not mention Perm 36, a museum dedicated to the last camp for political prisoners to exist in the USSR. Initially, the museum was taken over, and then seized, by the governor of the Perm region. Now they are rethinking the work of the museum and the displays are being changed: not only in terms of commemorating the victims of repression, but also the history of the punitive system. When this all started in 2010–11, through influential and well-known people it was possible to convey to the President the need to preserve the museum in its original form. The President agreed and gave the go-ahead, saying that there was no need to make fundamental changes, things could stay as they were. But his instructions had no effect: the regional forces that seized the museum did not obey.

‘Politics is now being shaped by many different individuals in an inter-clan struggle. We now have an authoritarian regime, but one that has lost control over the country. This impacts on the prosecution of citizens, which is now based not on ideological, but on personal motives. Our colleague, the historian Yury Dmitriev, who is currently being prosecuted in Karelia, has been victimized by an influential individual from the security forces who now occupies a position not too far from Putin. Because of this, nothing can be done: this official blocks everything, despite the fact that prominent people have intervened on the historian’s behalf.

The human rights movement today

‘Nowadays, the human rights movement has to work in very different ways. Since the law on “foreign agents” was adopted, it’s very difficult to be a non-profit organisation – if you’re labelled as a “foreign agent”, fines start to be imposed, there are never- ending inspections, and state institutions stop having anything to do with you. That’s why many people are going over to for-profit organisations. 

‘A human rights organisation opens a business entity and either operates within it or operates independently outside it. There are independent trade unions of teachers and doctors, and they can continue their activities, although they are harassed. People have a great capacity for resisting repression, the authorities have a great capacity for stupidity, and the public have a great demand for justice. Of course, the authorities are unlikely to permit the creation of a strong, official trade union for the police, but some kind of network may emerge. 

‘Trade unions are banned in the army too, and that’s another big problem. All the veterans’ organisations have been crushed and stifled, and don’t do anything much for human rights.

‘In the USSR, the labour code was quite strong, and the rights of ordinary workers were protected quite well – not through the courts, but through party organisations. If the bosses where you were working got at you, justice could be achieved, as long as you weren’t involved in politics and weren’t against the authorities. The labour code works today too, but since most people benefit from ‘grey’ [semi-legal] earnings, it plays by its own rules. Pro-governmental trade unions are invisible and keep quiet. However, there are independent trade unions which are fairly influential. A couple of years ago, the Labour Confederation of Russia, headed by Boris Kravchenko, defended the rights of pilots very effectively.  

Human rights work and politics

‘A human rights activist can stay out of politics because human rights activists work in other ways. They don’t fight against the state in order to seize power, but need the state in order to restore human rights. Any government, even a democratic government, will violate rights. In order to prevent such violations, human rights monitoring of citizens’ rights in various fields is essential. Some human rights activists take part in elections and become deputies. The Yabloko party has a human rights centre, for example, and they help to protect human rights. But the main human rights organisations exist outside politics. You have to separate human rights activities and political activities.’

The Moscow Helsinki Group is continuing its work, even though it has no funding. If our work is important to you, please sign up to make a monthly donation of whichever amount suits you:

Translated by Graham Jones, Alice Lee and Suzanne Eade-Roberts

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