Aleksandr Podrabinek: ‘Don’t say we were betrayed’

21 April 2024

Aleksandr Podrabinek

Source: Facebook

Facebook is overflowing with comments on Maria Pevchikh’s film and reflections on the 1990s and the role of individual figures within them. Some recall those times with nostalgia, others with indignation and still others with curiosity. Can the failure of democratic reforms be blamed on Yeltsin or should it all be ascribed to Putin? And who, generally speaking, is most to blame of all? 

I myself, representing part of the human rights community, said even at the time that we ourselves were to blame. Human rights defenders, the opposition, unbridled liberals and convinced democrats are most of all to blame for not being able to keep the country from sliding into the abyss. And this is not a retrospective look from a distance, after years have gone by: it was clear what was what even then. Putin had just arrived and drew a line under the ‘90s and almost all the dreamers of democracy and a state based on the rule of law bowed at the waist before him.  

This article of mine was published in Grani in the autumn of 2001. And don’t say that we were betrayed, that we made mistakes, that we hoped but were taken for a ride.

Longing for a Chief

Construction of the power vertical is proceeding, as used to be said in Soviet times, by leaps and bounds.  With simple, soldierly directness, President Putin is building the state administration and the life of society along the lines of a manual of guard duty. Everything must be under control, no independence or inappropriate initiative. Arranging governors, parliament and state officials in a straight line isn’t particularly hard.  The majority of these people are used to carrying out orders and detecting the Chief’s mood. It’s harder with the institutions of civil society. But really, are Bolsheviks frightened by difficulties?

Non-governmental organisations in Russia (NGOs) have to date led if not to say a pathetic existence then, at least, a modest one. With the exception perhaps of several organisations, all the independent builders of civil society in our country are soundly shackled by a lack of funding,  the dislike of the authorities and the indifference of society. Honest idealists dreaming of one day seeing a genuinely free and democratic Russia cannot evolve to the full. Western charity foundations nurturing the embryos of a future civil society are in no state to provide the necessary level of funding. There has been little success in persuading our society and Russian business to support non-governmental organisations. While there is only one way to overcome the authorities’ dislike –  backing their initiatives and not fighting them on the most important issues. 

Tired of the everlasting confrontation and penury, some non-governmental organisations, including human rights organisations, have long since bent their backs before the refulgent authorities, guessing their desires in passing and boldly issuing criticism within the boundaries of the permissible. The Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), which began in its day with blandishments offered to President Yeltsin’s aid, Mr. Krasnov, has advanced successfully along that path and now selflessly cooperates with the Russian Federation Ombudsman for Human Rights, Mr. Mironov, who tirelessly apes the concern of the government and president about human rights in Russia. The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, announcing a campaign of assistance and pardon for deserters, regularly provides the necessary information to the Military Prosecutor’s Office. The government is pleased with such good non-governmental organisations and encourages them little by little: some, like the MHG, for example, with cheap premises for their office in central Moscow; others by other means. 

The government’s hurry to bring civil organisations into the power vertical has paradoxically been galvanized by Boris Berezovsky, the disgraced oligarch and, of late, an implacable opponent of Putin. This year he began distributing money to non-governmental organisations for their routine business, setting up a special foundation to this end and initiating the development of numerous new projects. The government awoke from a brief hibernation, realizing that Berezovsky’s real money and influence were capable of holding civil organisations back from what would seem to be a hopeless drift towards the authorities.  On 12 June, President Putin met a group of public figures whose dream was to join the power vertical. A month later and the creation of an organizing committee was announced, which would  prepare for a Civic Forum designed to unite all non-governmental organisations of Russia that were loyal to the authorities under the auspices of the Presidential Administration. The plan was to hold the forum on 16-17 November.  According to assurances from the organizing committee, around 250 organisations have already signed up. Intensive work is now underway in the corridors to draw the hesitant into the Civic Forum. If the principled stance of organisations such as the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Confederation of Consumer Rights’ Protection Societies, Memorial, Common Action, Movement for Human Rights, Civic Assistance and others is already clear – participation in the forum – the position of others has not been definitively determined. Elena Bonner has come out as dead against (“Very recently we were making fun of Moving Together; now, it seems many are prepared to follow them”).

Meetings and discussions are proceeding very intensely: at Memorial, at the Sakharov Museum, in the Presidential Administration. The conditions are dictated by Vladislav Surkov, first deputy head of the Russian Presidential Administration. On August 20th, he visited Memorial in Moscow, and on September 4th met with activists advocating NGO’s working more closely with the authorities – A. Auzan, A. Babushkin, and S. Zabelin. Also at the meeting were the activists Vyacheslav Igrunov, Gleb Pavlovsky, and Ella Pamfilova who take a similar position. There is no doubt that the touching unity of the party and the people will, in the end, be achieved. The doubters will soon determine their positions. Yuri Samodurov (Sakharov Museum) and Lev Ponamarev (All-Russian Movement for Human Rights) are ready to participate in the Forum if Mr. Putin responds in some way to the decisions adopted by the All-Russian Extraordinary Congress in Defense of Human Rights. Boris Altshuler (Rights of the Child) and Sergei Grigoryants (Glasnost Foundation), seem to be able to take part in the forum, but only, however, if Gleb Pavlovsky is not there. 

Bargaining over the conditions of participation in the forum does not change the essence of what is happening. Bargaining is just petty human rights politicking. One of the NGO representatives in negotiations with the Kremlin, S. Zabelin, articulated this very eloquently: “…They have an INTEREST, and this can mean BARGAINING is possible. That they will try to take advantage of us is as clear as day.” It seems that forum participants-to-be are not at all embarrassed by the fact that they will be deceived and used in a political game. Already, the organizers of the Civic Forum are adopting a declaration of political neutrality (“we urge you not to use participation in the preparation and running of the Forum for political purposes”), and at the same time write in their press-release: “NGOs must become a political factor.” Take that as you will! Essentially this means: civil society organizations should not engage in political activity, and how they become a political factor will be decided for them by politicians.

Supporters in the Civic Forum of the merging of social organizations with state authorities base their position on the necessity for dialogue with the authorities, the creation of a “space for negotiations.” However, nobody explains why it is necessary to create common structures for dialogue. Why can’t a dialogue with the authorities be conducted through the press? Why can’t we try to influence authorities through elections? Why, finally, can’t we make the authorities aware of the views of civil society through street protests – demonstrations, pickets, rallies? Why not have a conversation on an equal footing – instead of completely merging in an ecstasy of unity and cohesion? Is it only because human rights advocates and democrats are not too popular in society and the press? Is what is wanted a quick effect at any cost?

And it’s really quite amusing, how rights advocates who severely condemned those who received grants from Berezovsky, nonetheless, are ready to participate, with peace of mind, in an event organized using the money of the presidential administration. How is this KGB colonel nicer to them than a disgraced oligarch?

Civil society organizations’ current thirst to become integrated with government bodies is reminiscent of the sad experience of the dissident movement that finally died out in the late 1980s. Then many dissidents enthusiastically rushed into the Supreme Soviet and local soviets, completely forgetting about the illegitimacy of the Soviet authorities and their previous opposition to them. The spokesman for this position was academician Sakharov, who was elected to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR from the Academy of Sciences. It was then that the dissidents forfeited the opportunity to create a truly democratic opposition and influence the political life of the country not from within Soviet structures, but talking with the authorities on equal terms, and relying on the support of voters who trusted them. A lost chance is a lost chance. Now civil society organizations, having dreamed of the security of existence under the presidential wing, will forfeit their chance to play a role in the creation of civil society in Russia. Who will believe in their true words and good intentions? Who will believe them, sitting next to the president and feeding from the common state trough?

Грани, 21 September 2001

Translated by Melanie Moore and Alyssa Rider