Podcast: Then & Now #12 – Teresa Cherfas in conversation with Natalya Zvyagina

4 December 2023

by Teresa Cherfas

Welcome to the twelfth edition of our Russian-language podcast Then & Now with me, Teresa Cherfas. 

My guest today is Natalya Zyagina, head of the Moscow branch of Amnesty International, which was shut down by the Russian authorities in 2022. Natalya Zvyagina has a long record as a Russian human rights activist. She is originally from the city of Voronezh, where she worked for many years in the Interregional Human Rights Group. Natalya has also worked at the Institute for Law and Public Policy, a non-profit organization based in Moscow, and at the Russian branch of Transparency International.

This recording was made on 30 November 2023.

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My questions include:

  • First of all, please tell us about your work in Voronezh. What prompted you to become involved in human rights work?
  • In 2018, you took up the post of head of Amnesty International’s Moscow office. What were your expectations at that time? What was Amnesty’s role in Russia at that time? How did the Russian human rights community feel about the organisation?
  • Looking back, how do you assess the change in the status of Aleksei Navalny, whose recognition as a prisoner of conscience was removed for a while, although now he is again recognised as such? And how important is Amnesty’s classification of people as “prisoners of conscience” for the Russian public and human rights community in general?
  • In March 2022, the Russian media regulator blocked access to Amnesty International’s Russian-language website. What impact did this decision have on your work?
  • In April of the same year the Russian authorities removed Amnesty’s registration as a representative office in Moscow. In addition to Amnesty’s office, the Russian Ministry of Justice closed the offices of 15 representative offices of foreign NGOs and foundations, including Human Rights Watch, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, the Friedrich Ebert Foundtion, and other organizations. The Justice Ministry said at the time that this was done “in connection with  violations of Russian law.” What was all this really about?
  • At the time, Agnès Callamard, secretary-general of Amnesty International, said that Amnesty would continue its work to document and expose human rights abuses in Russia despite the closure of its Moscow office. How easy was it for Amnesty to continue its work without a Moscow office? What has been your personal situation and that of other staff members since then?
  • Where were you when Russia invaded Ukraine? Did the invasion of Ukraine come as a shock to you?
  • Are the current extreme measures against human rights in Russia a result of the war? Or have the policies of Putin’s regime been moving in this direction anyway?
  • Since then, a new conflict has erupted in the Middle East. Has this had any impact on your work at Amnesty?
  • What is your assessment of recent events in Dagestan in connection with the war in the Middle East?
  • Many human rights defenders have left Russia. What is life like for those who have remained in the country? Can they do any meaningful work at all?
  • Recently, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs drafted a bill that would require foreigners visiting Russia to declare their “loyalty” to the Russian authorities. What is the significance of this?
  • How do you see the future of human rights work in Russia?

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