22 December 2022
Interview with Sergei Lukashevsky, acting director of the Sakharov Centre, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group by Masha Maiers
The Moscow Helsinki Group’s activities have been banned for formal reasons. Sergei Lukashevsky, director of the Sakharov Centre and member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, spoke with Masha Maiers on the Stratera Show for Radio Berlin about what is happening with human rights organizations in Russia.
Masha Maiers. Let’s start with the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG). The Moscow Helsinki Group is the oldest human rights organization. For the most part, its face over the many years up until her death was Liudmila Alekseeva. And as far as I remember, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin always kissed her hand for the camera. At the same time, this week an announcement has come about the MHG’s liquidation. What is actually going on with the group directly?
Sergei Lukashevsky. The news came, it came by mail, plus it is reflected on the Justice Ministry’s website, that the Justice Ministry’s Moscow division has filed an action to shut down the Moscow Helsinki Group. Before this, there was an unplanned inspection at the prosecutor’s demand, and they found a certain number of violations that in my view and the view of my colleagues in the group were fairly trivial: a few missing records they should have had just on the organization’s activities, plus holding actions outside the city of Moscow. But the Moscow Helsinki Group was registered as a regional organization. This is in regard to the fact the the director, the group’s general director, the organization’s director, went out into the region to observe at a trial, for example. That is, here we have work being done outside the city. So on the basis of these violations. They are considered “irreversible and persistent.”
Masha Maiers. That is, the director can’t not go to a trial he observed in the past, and these mistakes can’t be corrected.
Sergei Lukashevsky. Yes, excuse me, no work can be done whatsoever. At one time, Liudmila Mikhailovna Alekseev took many trips all over the country to a great number of regions. The Moscow Helsinki Group had a huge network of partners in more than 70 regions. There were organizations with which the MHG worked. And all this time, the Justice Ministry made no complaints.
In principle, the normal situation is that the Justice Ministry as an oversight organization follows activities and points out mistakes. If the mistakes are corrected, then all questions should be lifted. But we realize this is the Justice Ministry’s typical practice. The typical practice for applying Russia’s contemporary legislation. When the Sakharov Centre was added to the register of foreign agents, the situation was also sad, naturally, but in a certain sense even ridiculous. In August 2014, the Justice Ministry carried out a planned inspection and said, You have no violations of any kind. In December, they came with an unplanned inspection and said, No, you’re engaged in political activity, you’re receiving foreign financing, and you haven’t added yourself to the register. Therefore, here’s your fine.
“How is that?” we said. “You yourselves inspected us five months ago. We have no violations, we have to be holier than the Pope.” But this is basically the law in Russia, which is no longer law.
Masha Maiers. Well, let’s try to sort out what’s happening with the MHG and the Sakharov Centre. When did the complaints against them begin? How quickly did the Russian government stop liking the MHG? That is, did all this happen in 2022, or did it begin earlier?
Sergei Lukashevsky. These are exclusively things that happened in 2022. Before that, there were no official complaints whatsoever against the Moscow Helsinki Group. The Moscow Helsinki Group wasn’t on the register of foreign agents and didn’t take foreign financing. This all has happened especially since the days when Liudmila Mikhailovna was alive, since, basically, the MHG at the time, in her lifetime, was probably the sole major organization that had any contact or dialog with the Russian regime, which was essential when it was necessary to save someone or ease someone’s fate.
Masha Maiers: Can you tell us, remind us a little about the MHG’s history? Basically, how did it begin? How is it ending in your eyes? At least in its current form, though. We can’t rule out that there will be reincarnations not only for Ekho Moskvy, not only for Dozhd television, and not only for the Russian media, but also for Russian human rights organizations. Basically, what were the organization’s activities directly about over the course of these years and especially in recent years?
Sergei Lukashevsky. Certainly I believe this reincarnation will happen because this is not the first in the MHG’s history. The public group for facilitating the implementation of the Helsinki Accords was created in 1976. Over the next few years, the Soviet regime sent three-fourths of the MHG’s members to prison. Some, like Liudmila Mikhailovna, were forced to emigrate. Later, in 1982, three years after the war in Afghanistan began, the Moscow Helsinki Group was forced to stop its activities, and there were no activities until 1989, when a group of human rights activists revived the organization’s work.
Over its entire recent history, the MHG engaged to some degree in human rights education, but probably its main activity was monitoring the human rights situation. At one time this was a large-scale activity, with 70 partners in Russia’s regions and annual reports on human rights. Moreover, up until very recently, the annual reports for Russia as a whole were published. But previously the reports from regional organizations were published as well. Each region had its own report. This constituted a tremendous body of information about human rights violations.
I myself worked with the MHG from 1999 to 2004. In fact, I worked on those reports. And up until the last moment, this was the Moscow Helsinki Group’s main work. This was the first part, which was always overseen by the team, while Liudmila Mikhailovna dealt with specific cases primarily. And that was the second part of the Moscow Helsinki Group’s work. Basically, assistance, juridical and legal support, and public support on individual specific cases.
This work has been continuing even now, even after the war began, all these 10 months. It must simply be kept in mind that right now the human rights organizations still functioning in Russia may be less visible than they were before. There is much less public activity. Simply because in order to continue really helping people given current conditions, it’s better not to carry out this activity publicly.
If previously the public aspect truly was one of the instruments of pressure on the regime, perhaps not to get an acquittal when a case was knowingly falsified or wholly unfounded but at least to improve that person’s position, now, as I see from here, from Berlin, activity along various lines is being conducted mostly not publicly. Of course, when it’s a matter of cases like Ilya Yashin’s, or similar cases, everything there remains as before. But there is a large segment of activity not being conducted publicly. Maybe the regime has seen this segment of activity, maybe it hasn’t. This action against the MHG may simply be the regime’s effort to finally free itself of any kind of oversight inside Russia.
Masha Maiers. Well, let’s sort this out. Can we say that all MHG activity is about politics? Or is that wrong? Or even extremely wrong because, generally speaking, political history is one thing and civil society history is another?
Sergei Lukashevsky. This is the eternal debate. There’s an approach which says that political activity is the struggle for power, it is the institution of parties, participation in elections, and things like that.
Masha Maiers. That’s Yashin.
Sergei Lukashevsky. Yes. And it is civic activity. But inasmuch as civic activity involves human rights activists coming out with certain proposals and demands for the state, in principle, the state, at least, the Russian regime, also considers all this activity political. And within the context of protests and opposition over the law on foreign agents, there has been no success in achieving any changes whatsoever here. And from the standpoint of the regime, political activity can be anything at all. Again, excuse me, I’ll go back to the example of the Sakharov Centre. Our political activity consisted in the fact that we held public discussions.
Yes, we discussed political topics, but this was simply a public discussion. If any public discussion of a topic is connected with politics, where is the dividing line, what kind of topic is not political? And there is the situation of people is psychoneurological residential facilities. When human rights activists demanded that the regime allow observers in, is this a political topic or not?
Masha Maiers. The MHG truly was revived during the perestroika years under Gorbachev. After all, human rights activists have always hampered the authorities. Isn’t that true? At the same time, you also hampered Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin and hampered the early Putin. And now you’ve started hampering him so badly that the organization has had to be eliminated altogether. Is this all connected ultimately with the war, as the prime mover, or are there deeper tendencies, what do you think?
Sergei Lukashevsky. This is connected with the same deep tendencies as is the war itself. I am absolutely convinced that whatever global constructs Putin has set out in his articles, no matter what Medvedev has written on his Telegram, foreign policy is a continuation of domestic policy. And this, unfortunately, is the evolution of the Russian political regime, which in the first years of Putin’s administration could still be called a kind of competitive autocracy. Right now we are teetering on the brink of a transition to neototalitarianism
We don’t have to go straight to recalling Stalin and Stalin’s Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. This is a somewhat different totalitarianism. Nonetheless, it is a much harsher regime which needs foreign expansion to legitimize itself. And we are seeing that. On the other hand, this regime is no longer prepared to tolerate independent domestic voices, hence the purge of the media. Furthermore, inasmuch as human rights activists’ work is the way it is… it’s not right here and now, like the media: something happens and the media broadcasts it. To a great degree, human rights activists work on the long term. But it’s still the same story. Today in Russia there is no room for alternative voices of any kind, moreover not only in politics, not only in the sphere of human rights, but also in the sphere of culture. At the same time, yes, we truly are observing not some kind of one-time “slaughter” but an extended, gradual process that, it seems, is going to be played out to the end, unfortunately.
Translated by Marian Schwartz