By Frank Johansson, Director at Amnesty International Finland.
Delivering a petition about freedom of expression to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s office in Moscow was actually quite a prosaic affair.
Eight Amnesty directors walking through the door, past the security-check wearing thick winter coats this is not a quick affair.
Eventually we get to a woman behind a glass reception wall. She takes the letter, looks at it and says: “If you expect a reply, you had better add a Moscow address. We don’t send letters to London”.
We provide her with the local address, thank her. Then we put on all our coats and hats and go out again to meet the media. And that’s it!
Overall you can say that Amnesty’s delegation in Moscow to deliver 336,412 signatures to president Putin last week, got a pretty frosty welcome: both literally and figuratively. The temperature outside stayed below minus 20 degrees Celsius for the whole time and most officials we had requested to meet did not have time for a meeting or just ignored our requests. Holidays, faxes lost and all kinds of explanations were given at the presidential administration, at the justice ministry and at the prosecutor general’s office.
We did meet with officials from the foreign ministry and the human rights council, and even though these meetings were good, they were not the foremost people we needed to influence.
When we were walking back from a picture stunt on a bridge just below the Kremlin our local campaigner was accosted by a plain clothes security guard, who wanted to know what we were doing on the bridge. She replied that we were taking pictures and asked if that is illegal. He threatened to call the police, which she actually encouraged him to do, but then he backed off.
The public stunt, which we wanted to hold just outside the president’s office, was only allowed at a park quite some distance away. In the end it was only police, the international media and our own activists who saw the brilliant performance by ballerina Alexandra Portyannikova. However thanks to the media and our own twitter and facebook accounts the dance of the handcuffed swan in the bitter cold, received huge attention.
If the outside elements and the officials were cold, the reception we got from local activists was the warmest possible. For me the absolute highlight of the trip was the many hours we spent with former Bolotnaya detainees Vladimir Akimenkov and Nikolay Kavkazsky and relatives of those still detained: Ksenia Kosenko, the sister of Mikhail Kosenko and Stella Anton, the mother of Denis Lutskevich.
It is quite clear that the demonstrations on the eve of the second inauguration of President Putin at the Bolotnaya square in Moscow in May 2012 is a watershed of sorts in Russian human rights policy. The peaceful demonstration was brutally crushed and those trying to stop the violence by police are now absurdly charged with inciting a mass riot.
Mikhail Kosenko has already been sentenced to indefinite forcible treatment in a psychiatric hospital. Ksenia told us that, as for now, she is able to get him the medication he needs, paying for them from her own pocket. The last time she met him, the only time he smiled was when he showed her a card of support written in very poor Russian. He was and she was very touched by how some stranger somewhere in the world cares so much that he does his best to write in Russian.
Vladimir told us a similar story. The only messages that came through to him when he was in detention (he was pardoned just before Christmas) were those written in Russian. So, all you activists out there practice your Russian skills. A card in poor Russian is the only thing that puts a smile on the face of an unjustly imprisoned activist.
Denis’ mother Stella told us, with tears in her eyes, how proud she was of her son, who tried to stop the police from attacking others. He in turn was beaten, bruised black and blue, and is now facing a possible long prison sentence. Stella was so glad that we Amnesty directors promised to deliver her message to diplomats of our countries who we were meeting the next day of the importance of following the ongoing court case.
All the activists we met were really afraid of what is going to happen after the Sochi Olympics. They fear an even bigger clamp-down. It also seems symptomatic that all the ongoing court cases will be concluded at the same time as the games are taking place: trying to minimize the attention they will receive both locally and internationally.
In the spirit of the Olympics let me hand out my own medals. They are all gold, and go to the Bolotnaya detainees and their families, such brave people; to our wonderful ballerina, who braved the cold to highlight the freezing atmosphere in which Russian civil society exists, and of course to all you 336,412 people out there, who signed our petition, showing solidarity with our Russian friends.
Hundreds of thousands petition Putin to end of repression in Russia (News Story, 31 January 2014).
Russia: Winter games Olympic torch throws light on human rights violations (News Story, 3 October 2013).
Russia: Human rights activists: Voices from the ground (3 October 2013).