#6 - JRL 2009-162 - JRL Home
Russia Profile
August 31, 2009
The Price of Indifference
Russia’s Young Are Too Focused on Attaining Material Well-Being to Partake in Human Rights Activism
By Frederick Bernas

On a grey, dreary Monday evening in Moscow, pre-autumnal rain dully pattered down as a group of human rights supporters convened to solemnly remember a champion of their cause. Activist and lawyer Natalia Estemirova’s body was found in the Republic of Ingushetia on July 15. This event, held on August 24, marked 40 days since the tragic killing.

The weather matched the mood. A somber line of ashen-faced demonstrators bore placards with slogans like “The Price of Truth ­ Death,” and “Politkovskaya, Markelov, Estemirova ­ Who Next?” while various orators took on a similar, depressing tone. This was, in fact, the second such occasion, a month after the first, when the same people displayed the same messages before cramming into a basement meeting hosted by Memorial, the human rights NGO Estemirova represented in Chechnya.

This stirring tribute left deep impressions. Apart from the steely resilience etched onto the protesters’ faces, perhaps most striking was their age. While immense respect is due to these veteran campaigners, toiling on through thick and thin, there is a latent sense that they are fighting for a lost cause. Amidst all the strong, powerful words, there was a hint of resignation in the atmosphere. After a string of murders, including Politkovskaya and Markelov, the Estemirova case has come as another crushing blow. Memorial has closed its Grozny office, ceasing operations in the troubled Chechen region.

“There is a somnambulistic attitude toward Natalia’s death,” said photojournalist Mari Bastashevski, whose latest project documents a decade of abductions in the North Caucuses. “The human rights community has suffered badly from all these killings ­ it’s not clear whether Memorial’s activities in Chechnya will start again. The working conditions are proving to be impossible.”

Conspicuous absence

There was a tangible lack of people below the age of 40 at both demonstrations, reflecting a crucial trend in the Russian society. Widespread apathy and the lack of will to be aware means that humanitarian organizations are perennially undermanned. Within this already small base of support, numbers of young people are even lower.

Human rights campaigner Alexander Mnatsakanyan believes that historical factors are the root cause. “In Tsarist times, before the revolution, students were active,” he said. “We know they protested against different decisions ­ this was normal student activity, as in France or Germany. Then, in the Soviet times, there were no responsible people. Dissident movements died out, or were reduced to underground discussion clubs which saw a lot of young people punished in the 1970s and 1980s. Our students don’t have the experience or traditions of those in the West.”

Varvara Pakhomenko, 24, works with Demos and the Russian Justice Initiative. An activist since age 18, she stood out in a sea of grey as she spoke about her friend and colleague Estemirova at both protest gatherings. In her view, the purely economic system of priorities amongst educated young people means that defending human rights is an unattractive career path. “Many of my classmates from university now work in government services, business or science. All are clever, talented people, but they don’t come to defend human rights because they need to earn money,” she said.

In fact, this kind of work can even be a stain on one’s resume and create difficulties when trying to enter different fields: “Employees of Memorial couldn’t find any other jobs if they wanted to,” Pakhomenko added. “Human rights are associated with things like democracy and freedom of speech, which in Russia are connected to the release of wild capitalism in the 1990s. That’s why, in response to the question ‘do we need freedom of speech?’ people say ‘no.’ They think it will bring chaos, with violence exposed on TV and journalists writing whatever they want. These are all bad things which remind people of the Boris Yeltsin period and those hard times.”

“The real problem of human rights organizations in Russia is that they are separated from normal people,” she continued. “They deal with issues that are insignificant for the majority of the country ­ most people are thinking about cars and higher food prices.” Mnatsakanyan agreed, adding that for young people, such activity is connected with a wide sense of isolation: “We are a closed expert community, detached from society, connected to the West. This division is an old problem of Russian intellectuals,” he said.

A wake-up call for the young

Pakhomenko believes that any solution to this eternal Russian problem must start at the grassroots. “We need to talk about the values of democracy, telling students about human rights, dignity and equality. I don’t think young people must necessarily head in large crowds to join the human rights movement ­ changing the broader national attitude to activism is more important,” she said.

And for those who do choose to get involved, there is no shortage of opportunities. Along with senior organizations like Memorial, Demos, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, the Youth Human Rights Movement is a project that, according to Pakhomenko, can sometimes work “more efficiently than its older, bigger partners.” “They speak the right language to communicate with young people. It’s a good place to start, as they can always find interesting projects for you to work on,” she said.

The process of raising awareness will not be quick or simple. Even with recent signs of more liberal legislation from President Dmitry Medvedev, the education system ­ still left with many elderly teachers as a remnant of the Soviet era ­ is unlikely to transform overnight. Furthermore, changing a country’s moral compass in this way, opening the people’s eyes to democracy, is not something a small, closed movement can easily achieve. “If you take to the streets of Moscow and talk about the overall concerns of the population, you will quickly realize that most are comfortable in the shell of a certain political pacifism and live in a fog of ignorance, especially regarding the Caucuses situation,” said Basteshevski. “If you go to protest meetings, you expect a fuss to blow up, something to change, but it doesn’t. The ethic and moral values that could allow an uprising to form do not exist.”

Without the fire and enthusiasm of more young activists like Varvara Pakhomenko, Russia is unlikely to ever adopt the values of a Western democracy. “Natalia Estemirova was patient,” Bastashevski noted. “She believed very deeply that the public must be educated about their rights, constitution and social awareness. After 80 years of totalitarian rule, this will clearly be a slow and painful process, but not impossible. It is up to the oppressed ­ not the government, not the already burdened human rights advocates, but the current generation ­ to make this possible in our lifetimes.”

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