Russia ProfileRussia’s Young Are Too Focused on Attaining Material Well-Being to Partake in Human Rights Activism

On a grey, dreary Monday evening in Moscow, pre-autumnal rain dully patters down as a group of human rights supporters convene 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, on August 24, marked 40 days since the tragic killing.

The weather matches the mood. A sombre line of ashen-faced demonstrators bear placards with slogans such as “The Price of Truth – Death” and “Politkovskaya, Markelov, Estemirova – Who Next?” while various orators strike 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 protesters’ faces, perhaps most striking was their age – for several reasons. While immense respect is due to these veteran campaigners, toiling on through thick and thin, perhaps there was a latent sense they are fighting for a lost cause. Amidst all the strong, powerful words, was there a hint of resignation in the atmosphere? After a string of murders including the aforementioned Anna Politkovskaya and Stanislav 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 towards Natalia’s death,” says photojournalist Mari Bastashevski, whose latest project documents a decade of abductions in the North Caucasus. “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 situation in Russian society. Widespread apathy and lack of the will to be aware means humanitarian organisations are perennially undermanned. Within this already small base of support, numbers of young people are even lower.

Human rights campaigner Alexander Mnatsakanyan believes historical factors are the root cause. “In Tsarist times, before the revolution, students were active,” he explains. “We know they protested against different decisions – this was normal student activity, as in France or Germany. Then, in 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 ’80s. Our students don’t have the experience or traditions of those in the West.”

Varvara PakhomenkoVarvara 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 friend and colleague Estemirova at both protest gatherings. In her view, a purely economic system of priorities amongst educated young people means 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 human rights because they need to earn money.” In fact, this kind of work can even represent a blot on one’s CV and bring problems trying to enter different fields – “Employees of Memorial couldn’t find any other jobs if they wanted to,” she states glumly.

Where does this negative connotation come from? “Human rights is associated with things like democracy and freedom of speech, which in Russia are connected to the release of wild capitalism in the 1990s,” Pakhomenko elaborates. “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 Yeltsin period and those hard times.”

“The real problem of human rights organisations in Russia is that they are separated from normal people,” she continues. “They deal with issues that are insignificant for the majority of the country – most people are thinking about cars and higher food prices.” Alexander Mnatsakanyan agrees, adding that the dilemma with young people links to a wider 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.”

What is to be done?

Any solution to this eternal Russian question must start at the grass roots, believes Pakhomenko. “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.”

And for those who do choose to get involved, there is no shortage of opportunities. As well as senior organisations like Memorial, Demos, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, the Youth Human Rights Movement is a project which can sometimes work “more efficiently than its older, bigger partners,” according to Pakhomenko. “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.”

This 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 realise most are comfortable in the shell of a certain political pacifism and live in a fog of ignorance, especially regarding the Caucasus situation,” says journalist Bastashevski. “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, will Russia ever adopt the values of Western democracy? How many more journalists, lawyers and campaigners will be killed before normal people sit up and take notice? “Natalia Estemirova was patient,” recalls Bastashevski. “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 it’s nothing if 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.”

Published @ Russia Profile (edited version), 31/8/09 – click here for original.