Friday, December 28, 2018

Despite Setbacks, Russian Civil Society had Its Heroes in 2018, Svetova Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 27 – 2018 is likely to be remembered as a time of intensified Kremlin pressure on Russia’s still-weak civil society and one in which Lyudmila Alekseyeva passed from the scene; but despite those setbacks, it managed to produce some genuine heroes, people who stood up to the powers that be and showed what is possible, Zoya Svetova says. 

            Such people, the Moscow journalist argues, deserve “particular attention” because all too often their displays of courage and heroism are meteor-like, appearing briefly and then disappearing as the Kremlin would like (

            Svetova focuses on four cases, each of which displays something important about the state of civil society in Russia and about the ways in which its members are capable of achieving victories against the seemingly all-powerful state, victories that consist not only in survival but in showing the way forward to others.

            She chooses as her “hero of the year” Alkesey Malobrodsky, the director who was swept up in a case so absurd that even now no one is sure why it happened.  He was under arrest for 11 months and then was released on his own recognizance. But what makes him a hero, Svetova says, is his insistence on the difference between two Russian words.

            His interrogators kept asking him for “correct” answers, and he kept responding that he would give them “truthful” ones. In Putin’s Russia as in Stalin’s, those are not the same thing; and by responding again and again with the truth, Malobrodsky demonstrated that the “correct” answers aren’t “true.”

            Svetova chooses as her human rights activist of the year Oyub Titiyev, head of the Grozny office of Memorial. He has been working in that most difficult of places for 17 years, and if he is convicted of the absurd charge of possessing drugs – something no one can believe not even his judges – Titiyev will continue his work behind bars.

            The Muslim activist is the epitome of a human rights worker, Svetova continues, “modest and effective.” Such people “devote their lives to the service of others and even real danger does not stop them.”  Titiyev has said that “if in the course of 17 years, by my efforts even a single life has been saved, then it has not been in vain.”

            As NGO of the year, the journalist chooses Public Verdict, a group that has worked quietly and tirelessly to expose and end torture in Russia’s penal system.  Its efforts as reported by Novaya gazeta have certainly saved many whose lives might otherwise have been stunted or even destroyed. 

            “The history of ‘Public Verdict,’” Svetova says, “is the  history of the success of a public organization which year after year beats on one point, not seeking publicity and praise for its achievements but winning the trust of people.  Thus, from a small organization, it has been transformed into a powerful structure, capable of resolving systemic tasks.”

                And even the label “’foreign agent’ has not interfered” with its efforts to make things better. 
.           And finally as “the discovery of the year,” Svetova points to Oleg Sentsov whose 145-day hunger strike not on behalf of himself but for the liberation of other Ukrainians held in Russian prisons achieved what seemed impossible, the result of his willingness to “die for the freedom of others.”
            “It is not so important that in this year, his hunger strike did not lead to the freeing of Ukrainian political prisoners,” Svetova says. “What is important is that the entire world found out about he existence of Ukrainian political prisoners doing time in Russia” because of what he did.
            Summing up, the Moscow journalist says that for her, the real trend of 2018 is not the increasing number of arrests but the increasing ways in which “a real artist is capable of creating even when imprisoned.” That was something human rights activists displayed in Soviet times; it is something they are displaying once again.
            It is no small thing.

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