Leonid Nikitinsky: The Obninsk Samaritan [Novaya gazeta]

18 May 2024

by Leonid Nikitinsky

Human rights defenders often seem like holy fools. But then we need to dig deeper and ask ourselves, what is “normal”? The story of Tatyana Kotlyar.

Source: Novaya gazeta

Meet Tatyana Mikhailovna Kotlyar from Obninsk, a well-known figure among Russian human rights defenders and Kaluga xenophobes alike. Look at this photo taken in court – does she really wear that little smile all the time? It’s not like there’s much to be happy about. The next time, she won’t escape this cage.

This is how the law works here: the more people need their rights defending, the fewer human rights defenders there are. It’s a risky business, and far from profitable.

Fundamentally, though, it doesn’t work. Who would do such pointless work if not for the “perks” from unfriendly countries? That’s the line of reasoning in official circles, and it is a belief perpetuated by the media, which is why most people view human rights defenders as raving inner-city lunatics at best. After all, they don’t take good care of themselves and often look scruffy.

Tatyana Mikhailovna, in contrast, attends court hearings dressed in her best clothes, left over from her old life, as if she is off to the theatre. Yet I noticed she eats cold sausage from the local supermarket. Her eighth-floor apartment is littered with pamphlets, notebooks, and loose sheets of typewritten court decisions – I had to shift the paper wall a bit to set my laptop and cup down on the table. It will probably be her heirs, if she has any, who will dig down to the very bottom of these deposits.

In 1999, her son, Dmitry, was convicted for refusing to serve in the army because he disagreed with the government’s actions in Chechnya. Kotlyar, then a deputy of the city assembly, managed to go through the courts to secure alternative service for hundreds of conscripts. But she was only able to get her son out of the pre-trial detention centre after appealing to the European Court of Human Rights, which back then still had authority in Russia. Then in 2001, there was a fire in their apartment building. While firefighters managed to save the parents, their son choked to death. If he had gone to the penal colony, of course, he would still be alive, but that’s just how it goes…

Her husband is lying down in the next room – he broke his hip two years ago and hasn’t been able to walk ever since. I don’t know what he thinks about it all, but it wouldn’t be right to go and ask him. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, after feeding her husband, Tatyana Mikhailovna leaves for her office, the backroom of a Diksi hardware store that she rents. By noon, when she begins her consultations, a queue of people in need of her help has already formed at the entrance. More often than not, they don’t speak Russian too well.

In 1977, when their family moved from Sverdlovsk to Obninsk, it was still a special city. In 1946, the top secret Laboratory C under the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs was established on the site of a boarding school for children whose parents had died in the Spanish Civil War. Leading scientists worked there, both Soviet and German (the latter having been relocated to the Kaluga region, probably not entirely of their own free will). In 1954, in Obninsk, the world’s first nuclear power plant was put into operation. The conning tower of a nuclear submarine, designed by local scientists, was installed as a monument in the small park on Kurchatova Street, quite close to the house where Kotlyar lives.

But it’s a thing of the past now. Many of the scientists and their children moved away, and what Kotlyar scientifically terms “replacement migration” began in Obninsk. The queue to the backroom in the Diksi store runs diagonally from the train station – that’s actually how it is.

According to the 2020 census, ‘Russians’ make up 71 per cent of the residents of Obninsk, while a further 20 per cent are mysterious ‘others’, and Tajiks and Uzbeks taken together account for around six per cent. However, there is no good reason to trust this census – the number of immigrants from Central Asia is probably higher than that. Some of them only settled here thanks to Kotlyar.

Some nasty things have been written about Tatyana Mikhailovna on Kaluga and Obninsk websites in recent years that formerly would have been unimaginable in that city of science. But Kotlyar, a mathematician and logician by training, solved the problem surrounding the effectiveness of her human rights activities: she simply registers all those in need at the apartment she inherited on her mother’s death, in 2009.

According to the estimates of the investigative authorities,  Kotlyar “registered” 10,500 people at this apartment over the course of 15 years. This is why she is now on trial, for either the sixth or seventh time since 2014. That year saw the enactment of Articles 322(2) and 322(3) of the Russian Criminal Code on the fictitious registration at a false place of residence of a Russian or non-Russian national.


Anatoly Artamonov, who was governor of Kaluga region for 20 years until 2020, developed industry, tried to attract investors, including foreign ones, and was not unsuccessful. The large enterprises that appeared in the region during his tenure (the most famous, the Volkswagen plant, was just one of them) needed labour. Artamonov also had another interest in these developments: the region’s population was stable at just over a million people, and if it fell below this symbolic mark, it would lower the region’s status in the eyes of the federal centre (it takes an hour and forty minutes to get here by train from there).

В 2006 году указом президента в РФ была введена программа по оказанию содействия добровольному переселению соотечественников, проживающих за рубежом. Котляр, до 2005 года бывшая депутатом Законодательного собрания области (в 2006-м список «Яблока» не был зарегистрирован), стала одной из тех, кто убедил Артамонова, что Калужская область должна стать участницей программы — регион вступил в нее одним из первых.

In 2006, a presidential decree introduced a programme to assist the voluntary resettlement of compatriots living abroad. Kotlyar, who until 2005 was a member of the regional Legislative Assembly (in 2006 the Yabloko list was not registered), was one of those who convinced Artamonov that Kaluga region should participate in the programme – the region was one of the first to join it.

Due to the availability of jobs, moderate climate, infrastructure, and proximity to Moscow, many “compatriots” from former Soviet republics flocked to Kaluga region, including Obninsk. The programme promised them simplified path to citizenship, but that was not the case. In order to apply for a Russian passport, they had to obtain residence registration somewhere, and this issue, as well as the housing issue, was not solved at all. The newcomers had to “buy” registration from those who could capitalize on this situation, and most often it was not those who rented out a small space in their home for people to live – such owners were afraid to register newcomers in order to avoid misunderstandings.

Residence registration, called “propiska” in the old-fashioned way, is needed in order to get a job, go to the clinic (go to the hospital), get your child a place in kindergarten or school, get a bank account, and in the end – just to show the police when they demand to see your ‘documents’ to get rid of them. After 2014 (not to mention 2022), there was an influx of refugees from Ukraine, and at the same time there was a constant inflow of the very “replacement migration” in the form of (mostly) non-ethnic Russians from the Central Asian republics – and they have special difficulties both because of their poorer knowledge of the Russian language and because of the general attitude towards them.

After a search of their home back in 1982 in connection with “samizdat” Kotlyar was dismissed from the World Data Centre (All-Russian Research Institute of Meteorology in Obninsk). She then managed to find work as a watchman and a teacher, but with perestroika returned to the scientific institute and became engaged in civic activity there. Several times she won elections to the city’s assembly of deputies and the Kaluga legislative assembly. Among other things, she managed to achieve first in Obninsk and then in the region (a first in the Russian Federation) implementation of the law on benefits to veterans of labour providing for payment for utilities and transport, that had become law in the Russian Federation but had not been funded.

At that time she was almost a hero in Obninsk. But human rights activity has its own logic (in the historical period in question, in a line of development opposite to that of the state). While a person was not intending to exhaust themselves in this field of work and become a ‘holy fool’, somehow it turns out that you get involved, everyone expects things from you, and there is no turning back.

Most often it begins in an innocent manner when a person takes up the struggle for their own rights or the rights of relatives. But that was not the case with Kotlyar. She came to human rights work through a member of the local legislative assembly – somehow a public advice centre was set up and people streamed in.

During their first years in Obninsk, the family also had to “buy” the then still Soviet residence registration in one of the nearby villages, and Kotlyar came to understand very well the problems facing migrants. And her mother’s apartment, inherited in 2009, suggested itself as a practical solution.

The technology is simple. In the back room of the Diksi store, Tatyana talks to the latest person asking for help and finds out what he or she needs, which in most cases is related to the lack of registration. Having written down the details in her notebook, she sets up a meeting for him (or her) near the MFC (Multifunctional Centre for State and Municipal Services), where she goes with their internal passport and her own internal passport (the presence of the person being registered is not necessary at all). In the MFC they wince, but they have known Kotlyar here, of course, for a long time, just as they know that it is impossible to refuse her as the owner of the apartment in the application.

The crowd of people “registered” in her mother’s apartment are all temporarily registered, in most cases the term of registration has long expired, but a person can be registered for the second time. The stories are mostly of the same type, but occasionally there are some unusual cases. One day Joseph and Mary and their children came asking for advice, all dressed like in a historical movie, except that they were not wearing sandals. They were Old Believers whose ancestors left Russia for Brazil back in the XVIII century because of repression, and now their descendants had decided to return to their historical homeland. And here there is not much need for them. In Mother Moscow they were all told to get lost – there were only a few days left before the expiration of their tourist visas. Kotlyar gave them shelter, they bought some tumble-down property, and now, as she hears, they have obtained some land somewhere on the edge of the region and are developing agriculture in the Russian Federation.

Sometimes people turn to Kotlyar on a matter of “business” – if for example they are looking for a debtor who has run away. Sometimes even detectives call on her (the MFC has similar information, but you can find out everything from her in more detail and faster – in the chaos of papers, she somehow remembers where and what she has written down).

Probably, ninety-nine people out of a hundred, whom Kotlyar helped, simply disappear somewhere in the expanses of their new homeland, gravitating towards the capital. But one, it seems, an Uzbek woman, has developed a successful baking business in Obninsk and now feeds Kotlyar with pies, and one former recidivist brings vegetables from the customs office, where he got a job as a loader. There is also a young man named Farrukh, which is Persian for “beautiful” or “happy”. And he really is like that – I spoke to him in court. He graduated in economics from a Moscow university, but decided he was not interested in that and would rather “help people like Tatyana Mikhailovna”. He had to graduate from law school as well.

Is there a criminal element among the “residents of the elastic apartment”? How could there not be, if there are 10,000 of them there. Is Tatyana Mikhailovna guilty of their crimes? No, she puts the responsibility for this on the Russian authorities.

There is a discussion in the human rights community whether it is necessary to help the participants of the Special Military Operation. That is no problem for Kotlyar. When relatives of those killed who have not received the promised compensation come to her back room, she does the round of the courts for them with the same zeal as in other cases.

When I talked to her about human ingratitude, she gave an answer, it seems, that she had thought through long ago: “Why should I expect any gratitude?”


For the full text in Russian, see Novaya gazeta

This extract translated by Lindsay Munford and Simon Cosgrove

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