17 February 2021
by Vera Vasilyeva, independent journalist, host of Freedom and Memorial, winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group award
In the week past, I particularly felt the breath of hatred breath down my neck. Sometimes cold, sometimes hot. Hatred has overrun our country. There was a wave of hatred in 2014, after Crimea and Russia were united. I believe this wave is a product of the propaganda seen on state-owned TV, but Coronavirus has also played a role. But what is glaringly obvious, is that this hatred has grown stronger and stronger since the end of January and start of February, when the protests kicked-off after Navalny’s arrest.
More often than not, the hatred comes from both sides. First, from the leaders driving the repressive machinery of the state, and then from the people who have protested all over the country against the way, in a system built over two decades, the state treats its citizens. To put it lightly, it becomes challenging to even really ponder how we can establish dialogue and empathise with one another, when you are being beaten around the head with a baton. Contrary to propaganda on the TV, the protests were peaceful. This is very important. Only a very small number of protesters became violent towards the police and National Guard. It seems to me that even during the totalitarian Soviet period, there was much less aggression, hatred, less emotion. And it’s already clear that you can’t solve the many problems there are today with batons and tasers. You can probably put everyone who dares to protest behind bars and force the rest to be silent and to be afraid. But the underlying mutual hatred will continue to grow and is bound to burst to the surface at some point.
After the protests, we saw an example of the opposite civic solidrity. Citizens came together to help those who had been jailed for administrative offences in the Sakharovo temporary detention centre in New Moscow. They did this to improve even to a small extent the inhumane conditions the prisoners were suffering under. But I believe it’s important to remember, that before the protestors against the authorities were held held in the Sakharovo Centre, for years in the same horrid conditions foreign citizens awaiting deportation had been held. Very few people every talked or heard about this. This speaks also to a lack of unity. Of course it’s much easier to empathise with opponents of the authorities who share your views (or, let’s say, with sick children, as one of my friends on Facebook pointed out to me). Its harder to do the same for someone who is a foreigner and little understood migrant. However, we need to understand that this is also the path to social fragmentation and not to consolidation, and it makes the opposition only more vulnerable to repression.
Therefore it seems to me that the heart of the ideas for defending human rights, which Andrei Sakharov spoke of and tried to put into practice in Russia, could serve today as a moral benchmark. It is necessary for society to unite based on common humanistic ideas. We acutely lack people, like Sakharov, with “human rights” souls. We lack those who could stand up to defend anyone who is unjustly persecuted, to defend all political prisoners (the list of which is threateningly growing from year to year). It is not important for what specific opinion these people are being persecuted, but it is important that they are being persecuted for nonviolently fighting for their convictions. We need again to appeal to the values of human rights that have been, to a great degree in Russia, discredited by the efforts of odious propaganda and that have been, in the entire world, shaken because of the pandemic. They could serve as an example for today’s politicians (most importantly for those in the opposition), when not only injustice occurring in your country is perceived as absolutely unacceptable, but a constructive alternative is proposed.
It is very important to remember, and constantly remind people, that everyone has an equal right to express their personal opinions, no matter what they are. Everyone has equal rights. It is important to regularly speak out about all political prisoners — irrespective of whether a person fought against the authoritarian regime and corruption, like Navalny, or whether, until theiry arrest, they led a normal private life. One should forget about no one, neither the opposition leader who in view of the entire world has been put behind bars, nor the former Yukos employee Aleksei Pichugin, who has been sitting in prison for almost 18 years. One should not, in the midst of the arbitrary rule that has seized Russia, leave people who need it without support, including those who aren’t “yours.” Even if I do not share the political or other views of one or another prisoner (for example, Navalny), that absolutely does not mean that what has happened, is happening, and will happen to him does not concern me. No, that is my affair also. As long as we perceive such things as somehow not relevant to us (as do, unfortunately, the majority of people), nothing around us will change. Human life, human worth, rights and freedoms will remain nothing.
The methods we use to achieve our goals – no matter how wonderful they may be – are more important than the goals themselves. Therefore, don’t let hate triumph, lest we ruin ourselves.