“I remember the Soviet era, but this now is more dangerous”

  • An interview with a long-time Russian human rights activist · She tells of the fear that led to her request not to be named

VilaWeb
Drawing by Tere Guix
Josep Casulleras Nualart
17.03.2022 - 09:29
Actualització: 13.06.2022 - 10:14

“It’s a morally difficult conversation,” she tells me from the other end of a Telegram chat. She is a Russian activist with a long track record and a strong commitment to defending human rights in her country. She is sixty-seven years old and has never been as scared as she is now. That’s why she asks us to conceal her name, not to disclose from which Russian city she is speaking to us, not to reveal too many details of her identity. But she wants to explain herself, to help break the information blockade between Russia and us, and to make us understand that this war is also against them, against the Russians who want to live in a free country that respects human rights. She says this with the firmness of so many years of standing on her integrity to denounce the abuses of the Putin regime, but with a voice that is always on the verge of breaking up, as if despair were dragging her towards a resignation that she does not want.

—Are you afraid?
– Of course I’m afraid. Our country has been through very serious situations, as in the days of Stalin. We know what it means to be where we are now.

—Are there moments in the past that remind you of the present?
– I remember the Soviet era, yes, but what’s happening now is more dangerous and uglier.

—In what way?
-In every way. It’s true that we were afraid during the Soviet era, and the USSR also attacked Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Afghanistan… I remember all that very well, especially in the case of Afghanistan. And during the sixties it was more dangerous to talk openly, or to joke about certain things. But over time, the regime weakened. For me, the best times were the 1990s, but they didn’t last long, because then came the first war in Chechnya, then the second, and horrible local conflicts in the North Caucasus that not everyone knows about … But in spite of everything, we felt that we were now a part of the European system, because we had joined the Council of Europe, we could appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, we had the opportunity to travel and we had the opportunity not to feel ashamed of the government of our country.

—And now you do feel ashamed.
-Yes. Now I do. It’s a shame I feel for my parents, for the people who, like them, fought in World War II. It may sound cynical to say so, but I’m glad my dad isn’t alive to see this. It is a sentiment shared by many people who oppose the war. And I’m ashamed that we’re attacking a country with which Russian citizens have so many ties. Almost everyone in Russia, in the European part of Russia, has relatives or acquaintances in Ukraine. I was born there. And I have friends who are being bombed right now.

—Were you able to talk to them?
-Yes, they’re childhood friends. There’s one that I’m constantly in touch with, every morning and every night. Our parents were also friends. We’ve known each other for sixty years. Many Ukrainians are asking us to take to the streets in Russia to protest. But they don’t quite understand our situation, either. I went out to protest once and realized that my health does not allow it. The repressive machine is enormous and they beat up everyone. Everyone. And they can hurt you, they can put out your eyes, they can split your head open. If they hit me like they do, they could kill me. And that day I went out I had to run so they wouldn’t arrest me.

—Who is going out to protest?
-A lot of young people. They are the majority. And they do it even though the detention centers are full.

—What happened the day you went out to protest?
-We went out in a place where we could hardly move. It was a narrow spot. And the protesters were very peaceful. We did nothing. We stood there, still, silent, without banners. Because if someone carries a banner with the word “peace”, they are arrested immediately. And you can be locked up in jail for five, ten, fifteen, or thirty days. If you shout out a slogan, the same thing happens. They’ve made some legal changes, so if they think you’re going against the military, they can sentence you to fifteen years in prison.

—And yet the protests continue.
-Yes. There were a lot of young people on Sunday and they were able to get way from the police. But when they got to a square, they were cornered and beaten and many of them were arrested. In two weeks, about 17,000 people have been arrested in Russia. People are organized in networks, very coordinated, and there is an organization that keeps the count of detainees.

—Are the protests that are taking place now bigger than on previous occasions, such as in the case of Chechnya?
-Yes. But the Chechen wars were long. At the beginning of the first war in Chechnya, there was a very large demonstration, but then, little by little, people got used to it, even though it hurts to say so. We can see now, in the midst of this totalitarian regime, people coming out in every city every Sunday to demonstrate. And they are young people. I think this is because in recent years, the more or less liberal years, a generation has grown up that does not accept violence or war. Now, there is a lot of retaliation. And I no longer have the health or steady nerves to watch TV. I can’t stand it, physically. I do stay informed. The newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that students who had taken part in anti-war demonstrations would be expelled from St. Petersburg State University. That’s where we are now, with more than one hundred and fifty journalists who have had to leave the country in two weeks.

–It sounds like a dictatorship.
-Yes, it is a dictatorship. That’s exactly right.

–How do the Russians in general view the war?
—There is no widespread opposition. It’s hard to tell if it’s black or white, because when someone is scared, they don’t always tell the truth. But there are a lot of people who support the war. Especially because of the propaganda. They watch TV from morning to night. For example, I have a friend from whom I’ve distanced myself because it is impossible for me to tell her anything. Because if they don’t want to understand, they won’t understand. I sent her a link to an American TV channel yesterday… I told her many times not to watch TV. “Turn it off, turn it off.” I prefer to stay away from her. Otherwise, just talk about everyday things only.

—And that’s a friend.
-It’s just that now I hardly have any friends here. My friends live abroad. One left in the 1990’s and now lives in Germany. She’s like a sister to me.

—Can Russian citizens get information by alternative means other than the official ones, if they want to?
-As long as the internet exists, they will be able to. But we’re not at all sure whether or not one day they will cut us off from the internet.

—And is that starting to happen?
-It looks that way. They’ve already announced that they’ll shut down Instagram. Now we’re all on Telegram, and there are journalists in Moscow who spread the news… Now, moreover, they consider Meta to be an extremist media channel, and it seems that there will even be some legal action against them.

—What impact does this war have on your daily life?
—There are people who are struggling to access their savings. And we have the experience of the Soviet years, of the last years, when people went shopping and suddenly there was no cereal. Well, there is a shortage of cereal, of toilet paper, everything… People buy a lot, they stock up just in case. But there is a problem, which is what worries me most: that of medicine. People buy a lot of medicines, and they run out. And here there is an increasing shortage of the products needed to make them. It’s just that we don’t produce anything: just oil, gas, and weapons. And we have to import the rest. We have to import a lot. Drugs are becoming unavailable, so is pet food…

—You sound desperate.
-I’d like to say a few things that are important to me. The horror that Ukrainians are going through is something that I can’t even conceive. And the same thing is true for many people who oppose the war. It’s hard to accept that this is happening. Analysts, historians, political scientists, will analyze why we have reached this point, this aggression, this war. During the first and second wars in Chechnya, there were complaints from various international organizations, and we were always told that it was an internal affair of Russia. And I think that is one of the causes of this war in Ukraine. Because human rights violations cannot be the internal affairs of a country. And it is important to understand that this war is not only against the Ukrainians, but also against us Russians. It is also a war of Putin against us. Why can’t we have our opinions and defend them? Why can’t we protest the war? Why? For many years, the European Union watched as human rights were violated in Russia, and Putin was forgiven. And little by little we edged closer to where we are now. Our freedoms have been gradually eroded over many years. Our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents fought against fascism, and they did it together with the Ukrainians. And look where we are now.

—And now the official argument to justify the invasion is the fight against Nazis in Ukraine.
-Yes, they say we’re saving the people, we’re helping them get rid of the Nazis. But the people here don’t know that the Ukrainian president is Jewish! And so is the governor of Kharkiv …

—Are there a lot of young people fighting in the war who didn’t know they were going to?
-Yes. But this also happened during the Chechen wars. They were told they were going on a military exercise.

—Have their mothers, their families, gone out to protest?
-No, they’re not. They’re not protesting.

—Is there the ability to generate a strong protest movement in Russia?
-Not at the moment. Because there is no leader. The leader [Alexei Navalny] is in prison. Russia is an unpredictable country, it’s true, but I don’t have much hope, really, because there is a lot of fear. Russia is a very large empire, with very different regions, and it cannot be said that there is a substantial anti-militarist movement. There is a movement, yes, but it is still weak. We are like in a novel by Orwell, in which war is peace and peace is war. I don’t know who can stop Putin. I don’t think sanctions can stop him. And do you know who will suffer the most? We will. Not him —us. They will live well enough. They will not die because there is no food or medicine. And Putin is the kind of person who becomes more aggressive when cornered.

—Would you like to leave Russia?
-It’s not that I want to leave, but I would be forced to do so because of the situation. I have always wanted to live in my country, but in a free country that respects human rights. Yes, I’d like to go; yes, I’ve thought about it, but now I don’t see how I could do it. It’s not that easy now.

—Would you like to say anything else?
-Yes, I would like to remind you that there are also human rights violations in Russia against human rights activists and supporters. This is also happening. And that, too, must be conveyed to President Putin in the negotiations. Because this is closely linked to the war. The anti-war movement in this country should be supported from the outside. They do not support us from the outside. They are calling all of us aggressors. We’re a minority, true, but we’re here.

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