21 June 2022
Member of the Moscow Helsinki Group Lev Ponomarev discusses the importance of human rights activism in wartime in an interview with Yan Shenkman
We’re constantly being told that Russian troops are in Ukraine defending the interests of Russian citizens. That’s not true. One person who actually has been defending the interests of Russian citizens is Lev Alexandrovich Ponomarev, our most senior human rights activist. He’s been helping people since before the Russian flag was first raised over the Kremlin. The fact that he has been driven out of the country is, of course, a tragedy.
I’ve known Lev Aleksandrovich for a long time, but in the past few months we’ve only spoken twice. The first time, I called him in Tbilisi. He was staying in a shelter provided by the Kovcheg organisation, and someone was jackhammering outside his window. The second time, he called me from Paris. He told me about his new project, ‘Peace, Progress, and Human Rights’, which is based on the principles championed by Andrey Sakharov.
When I asked him how we had managed to find ourselves at war, his answer was concise: resentment and propaganda.
— Lev Aleksandrovich, you’ve been under pressure to leave the country for the past five to seven years. You’ve been banned, imprisoned, and even attacked. And yet, for years, you wouldn’t leave. What was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back?
— Not long before my emergency departure, two police officers came up to me on the metro and said, ‘Lev Alexandrovich? You’re on the federal list of wanted suspects.’ And they showed me a photo of myself on a smartphone. Just in case, I shouted for the whole carriage to hear: ‘Remember, my name is Lev Ponomarev and this is an unlawful detention!’ It might seem ridiculous, but that’s the advice I give to everyone: when you’re being detained, shout out your surname. Nowadays, a lot of police abductions last for a day or two. If people remember your surname, it makes it easier to find you. Anyway, they took me in. The reason sounded like utter nonsense: I hadn’t mentioned that I was a foreign agent on an anti-war petition. I don’t know exactly what it was. But ‘federal list of wanted suspects’ sounds serious.
Later on, a man called Aleksandr called me on Telegram. He introduced himself as an investigator, ostensibly a well-intentioned one. This investigator/well-wisher said that he wanted to help. He informed me that materials had already been gathered on me, and that they planned to arrest me that Thursday. This was on Monday.
— Did he intimidate you?
— Not directly. But of course, it was a form of pressure. He offered to pass me materials from the initial inquiry. We had a confusing conversation: ‘Let’s meet, I’ll pass you a disk.’ He called me once, twice, three times. Later on, he said that I would have to buy the disk. He told me how many gigabytes it was and the price – 5000 rubles. And that’s when it began sounding like a crime story. He started saying that he would tell me the location where he had hidden the disk and then give me the account number I should transfer the money to. It was like a drug stash. So I said, ‘No way, what if I show up and there are drugs there?’ So I suggested, ‘Why are you making this so complicated? Total strangers come into my office off the street to make complaints. Come in, make a complaint, and at the same time pass along the disk.’ That didn’t suit him, and so the conversation ended there.
— Strange story. Kind of illogical.
But the core message was in the phrase ‘I want to warn you that there is a threat of you being arrested.’ I understood that the detainment in the subway was in order to put pressure on me, as was the case for this conversation. They will keep pressuring me. The next time they will come to do a search of my organisation, and it will be ransacked. They are hounding me, not my employees — this is obvious. We conferred and decided that I needed to leave. I left, and the organisation is still working, thank God. Maybe only temporarily, but even temporarily is important.
— What do you think you did that made them so angry with you?
– The ‘Stop the war with Ukraine!’ petition at change.org. It gathered a million signatures in the first days of the war, and now there are even more. But this is a delayed reaction – they have been accumulating ill-will towards me for years. Several major cases of mass violations of rights have been centred around me: the Network case, which we worked on together, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the most awful had to do with Hizb ut-Tahrir, a terrorist organisation according to the Russian Federation. I publicly defended them, and according to the authorities, whoever defends a terrorist organisation is also a terrorist.
In fact, the Hizb ut-Tahrir are peaceful people – they have not committed a single terrorist attack, have not been caught preparing any terrorist attacks, but they are locked up for extremely long terms: 17 years, 24 years!
I went out into the street, gathered people, gathered journalists. I reported complaints about the illegal persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hizba to the very top, to the Human Rights Council – human rights activists asked Putin questions about these cases. And that aggravated them [the authorities] too. All of this accumulated and accumulated. In today’s hostile environment, of course, they should have imprisoned me, but maybe my age stopped them or my status, and they decided to force me out.
— There is a widespread opinion that one should not have anything to do with a criminal state. It needs to be disregarded – at the very least. It’s better to fight. But human rights activities for many years were based on appeals to the State and cooperation with it. How justified is this?
— It can be referred to as cooperation, or pressure. Do you know what would happen if human rights activists did not put pressure on the state?
— The same as now, only it would have happened much earlier. There are a lot of radical demagogues in social networks, sometimes I get mad at them more than at the authorities. They lie on the couch, spit at the ceiling and say: ‘We hate Putin, we’ll be glad when he’s dead!’ If you reason from the position of a man in white robes, looking at the world from a bird’s eye view, then there should be no human rights movement in the country at all. Would that be better for people? No, it would be worse.
It has long been clear that the state is moving towards totalitarianism, but we hindered this movement, slowed it down. After all, Putin tried his hand rather cautiously, he did not turn into a tyrant all at once, but gradually. There was no fascist coup in Russia, there was a slow transformation. It was possible to fight against this, and even now it is still possible.
And you can’t say that we lost all the time. According to [Jehovah’s] witnesses, we exposed the electric shock torture in Surgut, and the torture stopped. There was a ‘tractor march’ case, when I managed to get two organisers exonerated from criminal prosecution. And it was a serious matter – one of them could easily have been sentenced to 10 years under Article 159. There was a case when the police cleared out a whole city, Blagoveshchensk, a small town near Ufa. About 300 young people were detained right on the street, beaten and forced to their knees. We concerned ourselves with this, and in the end, we were able to get the Minister of Internal Affairs of Bashkiria removed. We gave them a hand, and so they continued to clean up these defenceless towns.
— There was a kind of smooth transition in our history, after which the authorities started to equate human rights activities to political activity, to opposition. But these are different things, aren’t they, if my understanding is correct?
— It is absolutely correct. It’s just that at some point the authorities began to violate basic humanitarian principles and that’s a human rights issue.
There’s a lot of talk about state fascism these days but it wasn’t born on TV screens or in ministries. It was born in the torture chambers of the penal colonies.
That was the first step. There were thirty instances of sexual violence during the investigation into the mass disturbances at the Angarsk Penal Colony. Every day in the colony where Ildar Dadin was imprisoned, the inmates were made to stand against a wall, arms and legs spread wide and then they would be hit around the legs to make them spread them even wider – wider and wider until their groin was rupturing and the prisoner fell down. Of course, this is sadism and fascism. If it’s adopted there, then sooner or later it will be adopted in all the rest of the country. We were fighting fascism. This is what we dealt with. I don’t know whether it’s politics or not.
— I think this all became meaningless after 24th February. What defence of human rights can there be if every day hundreds of people are dying, being subjected to torture, losing the roofs over their heads? Fascism has won. How do you defend human rights if your country is conducting a war, that is, violating our main right — the right to life?
— No, the war hasn’t abolished the defence of human rights. Of course, there are fewer opportunities and stiffer restrictions but we’re needed even more now than in peacetime. My colleagues are currently discussing the possibility of cooperating with the Red Cross which has a duty to visit prisoner-of-war camps in Russia. And it’s just as important to reach agreement that the Red Cross will monitor how the Ukrainians are holding Russian prisoners. New work is emerging and it’s for human rights activists too. Gannushkina’s Civic Assistance (on the register of foreign agent NGOs), which has always specialised in helping refugees and migrants, is now literally exhausted. They’re getting 80 people a day. It’s work that needs doing but who’s going to do it? Not the civil servants. They can’t and don’t want to, whereas Gannushkina’s ready for this mission and carrying it out right now. And there’s still all the baggage we’ve been carrying, all the old issues. Yes, political causes are not winning for obvious reasons at the moment although we have to try even so. But there are plenty of civil suits. It’s possible to fight for an improvement in prisoners’ conditions. To fight arbitrary action on the part of civil servants – not always but there are successes even now. Abuses in housing and utilities, yes. I don’t see why thousands of people have to go without help. The war’s no reason for that.
— The last major event in the defence of human rights was leaving the European Convention on Human Rights. What does this mean in practice?
— The situation is very bad, that’s for sure. The European Court was the court of final appeal. Everyone relied on it. People at least received compensation for the state mistreating them. For all these years, human rights activists have been told, “You are traitors to the Motherland because you go to the European Court.” But somehow, the fact was lost from view that we primarily help not political people, not activists, but perfectly ordinary folk who have been unfairly treated. There was a time when they stopped paying supplementary pensions to Chernobyl veterans and they won their case at the European Court. It was a ruling that affected several hundred people. The authorities don’t understand or don’t want to understand that leaving the Convention deals a blow not to the opposition or to foreign institutions but to their own people, the most ordinary folk. Now there are no controls over our so-called system of justice.
— How do you see the likelihood of introducing the death penalty?
— As entirely realistic, especially against the background of war. It sounds strange but it’s only Putin who has held the country back from introducing the death penality for all these years. It’s been very much wanted but not only in Russia. Opinion polls in western countries show that there are plenty of people there who would like to bring back capital punishment. The people get carried away, the people thirst for blood. Banning the death penalty is a humanitarian principle, taken at the top by the governments of Europe. And while it was important for Putin that we were in the Council of Europe and generally met European standards, there was no death penalty in Russia. Now that’s no longer important to him and he couldn’t give a damn about Europe, which means there are no impediments.
— But, sadly, we can’t do anything about it. There’s generally very little we can do here in exile, away from Russia.
— There is something we can still do: we can at least think about the future, prepare for it and bring it into focus. Over a million people have signed my petition against the war. And there are actually far more liberally-minded people with democratic views around – millions of them. Just now, I’m thinking about how to hold on to this great army so that when a political crisis erupts in Russia, and it inevitably will come, we are able to influence it. I mean, we’re going to have some very hardline opponents – much more so than Putin. And they’ll be prepared to use force. I imagine it will be someone like Girkin and his lot. They’re forever criticising Putin for being too soft. And almost by itself, quite naturally, the name Sakharov movement Peace, Progress and Human Rights was born. Those three aspects sum up the people who should win the future battle with radicals and take the country forward.
— So what exactly are these people supposed to do? What’s your programme?
— I’m certainly not going to get them out to protest straight away. My conscience won’t allow it. In any case, I’m here, and they’re there [in Russia]. But you know, a girl recently came to our organisation and said, “My parents have lost their mind! I cannot live in this family – it’s scary listening to them talk about the war. It’s just me against my whole family, me against the whole world!” That’s the starting point of our programme. It’s quite simple really – to ensure that she isn’t alone and that people like her feel supported. We’re building a community and we’d like to unite as many people like that as possible. It’s important that we at least keep hold of them, as they’re our gold reserve. But we’ll still have to go out and protest when it comes to deciding who will take power. The protest will need to be peaceful but large-scale. Otherwise, the people with guns will win.
— There is much talk at the moment about guilt and repentance, and why we didn’t avert disaster in the country. And it feels like isn’t just Putin who is to blame, but Russian society, if only because it allowed him to do this to Russia.
— I wouldn’t pin too much of the blame on society. How can you judge people who are part of a long historical process? They are who they are. In Soviet times, on collective farms, they had their passports taken away, whereas under Putin they have been living better than ever before. Oil prices have skyrocketed, and huge amounts of cash have flowed through the country. A lot of it – half, let’s say, was pocketed, but the other half went to the people. So how are people supposed to react? I mean, life is good! Things are great! And he won their support. I can’t judge people for that. Our only hope is that when it all goes to pot, people come out and protest. For now, life is good, so they don’t protest, but when it gets really bad, they’ll come out onto the streets. That’s the way it is, I think. Now, the pro-war lobby, well, that’s another matter.
There’s something irrational about all this: it’s the celebration of pure evil. However strange it might seem, plenty of people are drawn to it.
Propaganda is absolutely horrendous, and people have very thin skin. If Solovyev can be an utter bastard on the TV screen and spew all this nasty stuff, then why can’t I? Lots of people feel life has been unkind to them and think the country has been robbed (which it has). Now suddenly they’re allowed to say publicly: I’m bad, it’s me against the world, I’m against this life and I’ve had enough of it.
Putin now is the devil incarnate, and the people who are joining him have no humanity in them. The same thing happens whenever a despot comes to power for twenty years, in any country – no matter how democratic. They’re all the same in that way. There’s something evil in each of them, but whereas for some it’s hidden deep down, for others it bubbles up to the surface. Putin’s regime allowed people to become monsters. They always wanted to be, but civilisation didn’t let them. It was the same with the Germans. I never understood how a nation that built democracy and gave the world Goethe and Kant could support Hitler. Now it all makes sense: propaganda consumed humanity, it consumed civilisation. Resentment and propaganda.