27 November 2020
an interview with Lev Ponoarev from SIA-PRESS
In Russia in the 2010s, in response to the strengthening of state repression, human rights organisations got a kind of “second wind”. This edition of SIA-PRESS talks with Lev Ponomarev, one of the leading figures of this movement, and the chair of the national NGO For Human Rights (the official structure of this was group closed down as a “foreign agent”, so that now it exists without legal form). [Lev Ponomarev is a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group – MHG note].
We talked about his transition from theoretical physics to the sphere of human rights, the similarity of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (banned in Russia) to Navalny and Russian totalitarianism-light.
Tell us how you, a theoretical physicist who graduated from one of the most prestigious universities in the USSR, became a human rights activist?
The fact is that I was an anti-communist from tenth grade; it was a deliberate choice. And I was very interested in civic activism, but I understood that if you aim to move in that direction, you need to fit into the existing power structure, go via the Komsomol and party membership. And since I was romantically inclined, I was simultaneously fascinated by science – the physics of elementary particles, the journal Technology of Youth and so on. So I decided to study science and quit civic activism. I entered the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, graduated, began to study the theoretical physics of elementary particles, and when I was around 40 I became a doctor of science – everything I’d dreamed of.
And Perestroika had just begun. I realised that my time was coming, and I began to think – what could I do at that moment when the country was opening up and it was really possible to change something? And I decided to start restoring the memory of the millions who died during the repressions, to help people reflect on the fact that our country was engaged in terror against its citizens. That’s how I became one of the founders of Memorial. By the way, it was the first civil societ organisation created in Soviet times – it was a tricky job to officially register it, and we succeeded. Then I was a close friend of Andrei Sakharov, participated in the elections to the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, and participated in the writing of the Constitution. In general, I helped our country turn away from its totalitarian past.
Much has changed since then. When you found yourself in a police van or a pre-trial detention centre in the 2000s …
I was jailed for administrative offences about five times, in a temporary holding facility but not a pre-trial detention centre.
Yes. So, when you were in there, didn’t you think, “Lord, why have I ended up here? I could have been a scientist, a physicist, I wouldn’t have had any troubles.”
No. This is my calling. This way I feel that I am not living in vain, this is the driving force in my life. And it seems to me that every person should feel a driving force in their life. In general, it was harder when I was beaten by strong guys [Lev Ponomarev was assaulted outside his house in March 2009 – author’s note], but, thank God, my internal organs were not damaged, and everything worked out.
Is the administrative pressure imposed on Memorial, and on your movement For Human Rights, which was eventually dissolved by the court – also a driving force?
It’s a challenge. I believe that Russia deserves a better future. And that the Russian [russkii] people – I am not a nationalist, but I will use that term here – deserve a better future and a better place in the world. So that people won’t say that Russia is again opposing the European nations, the United States, and the democratic countries.
Many people criticise human rights defenders for receiving money from various foreign foundations.
Yes. I am currently receiving grants from the UN Committee Against Torture. Let me point out that Russia has not in fact quit the United Nations. And that the UN was established with the active participation of the USSR, of which Russia is the legal successor. Therefore, I do not think that receiving grants from the UN Committee Against Torture should be something reprehensible. But this was the precise reason why For Human Rights was classified as a foreign agent and illegally dissolved.
I may be speaking for the first time with a real, not a mythical recipient of foreign grants. Tell us more about this. Are there any special conditions?
None. I don’t know: maybe you are my opponent, but I hope that what I say will be broadcast word for word, just as I said it. If so, then it’s not important to me whom I give an interview to. I should say that, in the 1990s, human rights organisations happily received grants from international foundations, including the Soros Foundation, of which everyone today is scared…
That’s interesting. Many people think that these grants directly state that “it is essential to criticise the country and the authorities.”
Let me explain how grants are written. They are written by human rights organisations. For example, we draft an application saying that we will investigate torture carried out by law enforcement bodies in Russia in institutions run by the Federal Penitentiary Service. We state that, in order to carry out this work, we shall need a project coordinator who should receive a salary, and lawyers and attorneys who will travel to the penal colonies and take part in the research. We draw up a budget. And a year later, we report on our work, attaching all the documents – recording how many lawyers took part, how many trips they made, what expenses were incurred.
For about eight years, in fact, For Human Rights received presidential grants for precisely such purposes. And I have to say I am grateful – the controller of the presidential grants did not pressure us to falsify our reports or anything like that. And over that time we received grants in parallel from both Russia and the UN, submitting carbon-copy applications to both, and we performed all our responsibilities and received positive assessments.
There is an opinion that human rights defenders indiscriminately help all people who are under government pressure, regardless of whether or not these people or organizations are being rightfully persecuted. One example is the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Many people seriously think they are a dangerous sect. Defending them could be difficult. When you defended them in the case of the Surgut Witnesses, did you have doubts?
You know, your assertion that people consider the sect dangerous demands proof. I think you’re a bit biased…
No, I’m repeating what I’ve heard from people personally.
You’re a journalist, and it would be a good idea for you to justify your words. That’s my first point. Secondly, we know that there are Jehovah’s Witnesses in democratic countries and they are not persecuted anywhere. Their community is fairly large in Russia – 200,000 people. They contacted us, and we traced the process of their disbanding. We believe that it took place illegally and that the circumstances were artificially created – sort of like what happened with For Human Rights.
The point is, Jehovah’s Witnesses hold communal prayer sessions. But they reject churches, so they gather and pray in the home. At one point, the Supreme Court decided to disband the Jehovah’s Witnesses and, as a result, all their local structures. But the houses of worship belong to them. When they gathered and prayed together after the decision to disband them had been made, the FSB was tasked with proving that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were preserving their organization. This is what the security officials tried to prove in Surgut.
Then one morning, as expected, police officers (or the National Guard) in heavy-duty uniforms knocked on the doors of dozens of apartments in the city, got everyone on down the floor, and detained about 20 people. Then they were beaten. They were given electric shocks and forced to confess that they had kept the organization alive.
It was then that we first had to grapple with such a brazen incident of torturing absolutely peaceful people. By the way, Jehovah’s Witnesses have a rule against handling weapons, so they serve in unarmed positions in the Russian army.
Anyway, the torture has been proven to have occurred. Some of the people who were released were examined at the STELS Forensic Research Institute in Chelyabinsk. The burns on their skin were examined and it was confirmed that they were caused by electric current. The Investigative Committee in Yugra faced a difficult task – not admitting to torture when it had been proven to have occurred. I think they eventually said that Jehovah’s Witnesses electrocuted themselves. It ended up like it did with Navalny.
And you’re saying these people are violent. How can you prove that?
I’m not saying they’re dangerous. I’m saying the organisation has a certain trend from the 90s and 2000s when people in Surgut would tell each other stories like “someone’s joined a cult, eventually sold their flat and given everything to the group.”
That requires a criminal investigation. And when I introduced a representative of this organisation to Tatyana Moskalkova [federal human rights ombudsman], he told her that yes, there were incidents of such things happening, but the first people to raise the question of expelling such bad apples from the Jehovah’s Witnesses would be the members of the organisation themselves.
Are you only working on investigating torture at the moment?
No, we work across the full spectrum of justice. For example, we get all different people come to us in Moscow if, for example, their property has been seized illegally and the state is involved in the case. We get involved in the trial, look for lawyers, raise money for lawyers. By the way, it would be great if you indicated that those who want to help us with this can go to the website For Human Rights and sign up to donate.
I wanted to ask your opinion on the “new wave” of human rights activists of the likes of OVD-Info which have emerged following the events on Bolotnaya Square and just live off donations.
We work with them. My lawyers defend detainees whose cases are led by OVD-Info, and so on.
Is it fair to say that the Russian human rights movement has had a big boost in the 2010s?
This work is essential in the conditions the country is currently in. We have a lot of unjust accusations and the courts are biased, especially in political trials.
But would you say, in your opinion, that the situation is improving in the areas where rights activists are actively working?
Sometimes we’re able to help people, especially when it comes to bringing their cases to the European Court of Human Rights. And the ECtHR is generally on the side of people, forcing Russia to pay fines for unlawful convictions, although usually only after five or six years.
So in general, there’s no need to be scared, but in what situation should someone turn to you?
Again, I don’t know who I’m talking to. Maybe you are my opponent. But I must say that after 2000, Russia has embarked on the path of an authoritarian and somewhat totalitarian state. I believe that it is humiliating for our country to repeat this path, even if it is totalitarian-light. This must be resisted and confronted, and that’s what we are doing.