EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Political Prisoners of Russia
DATE: 1:00 – 2:00 pm, 15 May 2019
VENUE: Millbank Tower, 21 – 24 Millbank, Westminster, SW1P 4RS United Kingdom
SPEAKER: Elena Sannikova
EVENT CHAIR: James Rogers
James Rogers: Good afternoon, everyone. It’s my great pleasure to introduce to you Elena Sannikova. She has a very interesting history in confronting the Soviet Union. She came to the attention of the KGB, while she was at a university, organizing a bible study group. She was expelled from her course. She joined the action group in defence of the disabled and established a support group for political prisoners. In 1981, the year I was born, the KGB gave her an official warning about an unacceptable activity. She was arrested by the KGB, charged with anti-Soviet agitation propaganda, and then incarcerated in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison. She has endured a strict 12 months’ regime labour camp, and then she was transferred to Siberia’s Tomsk region, and today she lives in Moscow. She serves currently as an expert consultant for the movement for human rights. And she participates in Christian action movement. Her articles are published weekly in Russian newspapers, and she is a regular contributor to the internet websites such as (inaudible) and the daily magazine. And she writes prose in her spare time. So it’s my great pleasure to hand it over to her, and she’s going to discuss today, political prisoners in Russia and particularly the resistance movement in relation to the Russian state. Thank you.
Elena Sannikova (via translator): Good day, I’m happy to see you. I was born in Moscow. It’s my first time in London. I’ve just seen this absolutely superb view out of the window and I’m very impressed and I like London very much. I was arrested in 1984, and I was released from my internal exile at the very end of 1987, just before the new year. When I came back to Moscow, many of my friends had already been released. And people were happy that it was possible at that time to create discussion clubs, to create new media, new journals, magazines. People were absolutely excited about it. And one of the newest things and the most incredible was that people started going abroad, because just simply to visit somebody, and before that of course it was completely impossible because of the Iron Curtain. And people could not believe that these changes are for real and for a long time, because the Soviet Union had been such a mighty powerful totalitarian regime. This is a paraphrase of Pushkin’s lines, which basically mean “Please believe that this era of Glasnost, will pass soon and the KGB will put down all our names,” they will remember them. Pushkin’s poem has completely different sense, of course, it is “Please believe that this wonderful happiness of freedom will come,” but that was the paraphrase at the time. I really could not believe that these change were for real for a long time myself, because the place where I had been in Siberia, you couldn’t have actually feel the changes. You could feel the changes in Moscow, in Leningrad, and St. Petersburg, but not there. And I started publishing a small bulletin, which was called Prisoner’s Page, because I knew that there were still quite a few political prisoners remaining in prisons and in exile. I collected information about political prisoner, about people who were still in prison with political charges. I visited some of the people, for example, in the place where I had been, a place of my exile, a catholic priest, (inaudible- foreign name) was exiled. And even more to the north, from Tomsk. This was the place of exile of Ukrainian Helsinki group member. Another member of Ukrainian Helsinki group (Russian name) was exiled even further to the northern east of the Soviet Union. They were still there when I was released and when Gorbachev was saying that we observing human rights, we don’t have any more political prisoners, I knew that these people were still without freedom. I wrote about it, I published this bulletin. This bulletin got to the Russian service of Radio Free and that was how these facts became known.
But gradually, these people were being released. And stopped receiving information about people being arrested for human rights activities, for journalism. This information actually stopped. By the end of 1992, I stopped publishing these bulletins, because there was a feeling that we do not have any more political prisoners. In January 1992, Yeltsin released the last political prisoners from political camp. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the huge apparatus of the KGB carried on. And unfortunately, this was an illusion that we all had, that there would not be any problems with human rights anymore in the former Soviet Union. In many republics of the former Soviet Union, very harsh totalitarian regimes appeared. Mostly in Central Asia. Some years later, I was horrified to find out that there were many thousands of political prisoners in Uzbekistan, for example. This last issue started with the information about the political repressions in Uzbekistan. It seemed that there was no political repression, but, of course, KGB operators survived. They just changed the name and became the FSB. In October 1993, there was a mini civil war in Moscow, and when the opposition was suppressed, quite a few innocent people died. And once the state allowed itself, behaving so cruelly, there is no surprise that a year later, the problems that arose in Chechnya were solved in the most brutal way possible. I believe that if Yeltsin had managed to solve these problems in a peaceful way, we would not be having today this anti-democratic regime we are having now. In December 1994, Russian troops entered Chechnya, and the people of Chechnya opposed them, and a very bloody war started, and lots of lives were lost. This war was over 2 years later, with a victory of the Chechen people. The Russian rulers could not put up with it. And in autumn 1999, the second Chechen War started even more cruel, more brutal. And this wave of events brought up Vladimir Putin. And naturally when the former KGB colonel became the president of the country, he started carrying out the policy with ways and methods he had always been used to using. Putin’s regime, which is not nearly 20 years old very soon, is the story of a gradual escalation of political repression. Making the laws and political climate within the country harsher and more difficult with every year. The second Chechen war, with its brutality. Obviously the Chechen war was very brutal and it is clearly seen from the fact that on the (inaudible) the journalist who covered in every detail what was going on there, was assassinated in October 2006. Three years later, (Russian name) who was a journalist who covered Chechnya and a human rights activist who lived in Chechnya was murdered too. In 2005, human rights activist from (Russian name) was tried for publishing in his newspaper, the appeal of Aslan Maskhadov, the then president of Chechnya, his appeal to the European Union in 2005. And the hearing about this publication seemed so bizarre in 2005. Today, political cases like this are everyday occurrence. I would say that today, we have in Russia, about a thousand political prisoners, and it is just the cases where we know that the charges have political reasons behind them. There are plenty of people who are in Russian prisons, whose guilt has never been established, and they are innocent, but the way the repressive machine is working today keeps them in custody. There are, of course, not only political prisoners, when I talk about these cases, it’s on top of the thousand, because lots of people are serving their sentences charged with economic crimes. These economic cases are in fact the attempts of the competitors or/and the state to suppress the initiatives of the citizens who they think are too active. The tendency that appeared back in the Soviet years was to charge people, primarily scientists, with spying. This carried on in Yeltsin’s years. You might remember the cases of colleagues, Gregory Paskor, Alexandr Nikitin, the case of the scientist (Russian name). These cases became known under Yeltsin by making a lot of noise about these cases, by making them well-known, it was possible to change the situation of these people and to allow them, to get out, to get released before their sentences expired. The tendency of arresting scientists has become even stronger when Putin came to power. We have quite a few people falsely accused of spying behind bars. Two scientists (Russian names) went on trial in St. Petersburg. They both were sentenced to 12 years in the camp, and one of them has already died in the camp. (inaudible) who is an elderly man, and whose health is not very good, is carrying on with this very long sentence. There is a trial going on now, where Vladimir (inaudible) who is 78, is being tried. He had already stayed for three years in prison under investigation. He hasn’t yet been sentenced. Human rights activists are of course very worried about his health, which is deteriorating and is difficult for him to live under these conditions. And it is absolutely obvious that the man is fully innocent. The tendency to accuse people of spying is dragging on and the system is completely ruthless even to the elderly people like that. Ukrainian called (inaudible) also an elderly man, came to Russia as a guest and he was an amateur photographer, and they found a photo of a forsaken airport that is no longer used and the grass is growing there, but they said “Ah, that’s an evidence of your spying”
After 2014, of course, the Russian prisons filled with Ukrainians. Among them, there are quite a number of people who, after the annexation of Crimea by Russia, refused to accept that they are now Russian citizens, and because they would not accept the annexation. Of course, you know the name of the film director Oleg Sentsov. A year ago, he started a long hunger strike with a demand to release the Ukrainian prisoners. He had quite a long list. He didn’t demand his own release, but he demanded that other Ukrainians would be released, and this man was among those whose release he demanded. Another man from the Sentsov’s list is a Vladimir (inaudible), a simple farmer from Crimea, who put up a Ukrainian flag over his house. He received five years in camp. He is in the depth of the Russian provincial prison now. He is very far in the north beyond the Arctic. Of course, Oleg’s health suffered after four months of hunger strike. He had to stop it, because he realized that nothing was gained by it, and that the state would be very happy if he died. And after his hunger strike movement came about, demanding the exchange of all for all, all of the Ukrainians in the Russian prison to be exchanged for Russians held in Ukrainian prisons. Ukraine is ready to release these Russian prisoners, but not Putin’s regime. The saddest thing of all is that Putin’s regime is completely indifferent to the fates of the Russians who had been sent to fight in Donbass. Another group of those who are persecuted today are civil rights activists, who just picket or protest against what’s going on, or on the other hand, the environmentalists who are trying to defend the countryside, just their piece of land. Basically every day, we receive news about searches, arrests, imprisonment. What we are particularly worried about is the persecution of the believers. Two years ago, the Jehovah’s Witnesses was labelled as an extremist organization. And there were mass arrests and searches of the Jehovah’s Witnesses places. Even a Danish citizen, Dennis Christensen was arrested in Russia. He actually fell in love with Russia. He married a Russian woman. He settled in a small town of (inaudible) in Russia, in the provincial Russia. He did a lot to help people. Just recently, he was sentenced to six years in prison, for his participation in prayer meetings. The worse thing is the persecution of Muslims. The members of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement, that was labelled terrorist organization, it’s even worse than extremist. Of course, everywhere in the world, this movement is allowed. And of course this movement was allowed in Ukraine, while Crimea was a part of Ukraine, lots of Crimean Tatars were members of this movement. Today, under this pretext that Hizb-ut-Tahrir is terrorist, lots of Crimean Tatars, the indigenous population of Crimea were arrested and received very long prison sentences. In Moscow, I recently met a woman whose son was charged with participation in Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement and he was sentenced for 24 years in prison. Since Stalin’s time, we haven’t had times like this. The situation as you see is really difficult. The only good thing is that we can see the appearance of activists who are happy to defend political prisoners, to go out to picket, to write letters to political prisoners, to organize charity concerts and events to raise funds to help their families. Of course with help with this nearly totalitarian regime that we have in Russia now is not forever. We hope for the changes for the better very much.
James Rogers: Thank you very much for the very interesting overview of the situation in Russia. I think we have now around 20 minutes or so that we can receive questions from the audience so if anyone has a question, please raise your hand, and I will be very grateful if you would give us your affiliation if possible as well.
Audience 1: (inaudible) I am from world peace organization. I speak Russian as well and I’ve been to Russia. And I wish your KGB and your government will get moral ethics, because prison has never been a solution. Because you are so lovely nation, (inaudible). But on the other hand, I just came from Basel, where we had an international conference about elimination of atomic bomb and what was came out was that all of the secret service, doesn’t matter which country, they prepare with a (inaudible) The military gives (inaudible), and the industry for arms is rigged. They want to sell arms. (inaudible) Everywhere there is something wrong.
Elena Sannikova: there are always people who are trying to oppose those who are waging wars and appreciate the peace process. That is the only thing we can hope for. (Russian name), a Russian poet said at the very end of 1950s that now an incredible process would start. The Russia that was putting people in Gulag will see people who have come back from gulag. That will be this confrontation, this meeting, this encounter with these two Russias. The split that was in the Soviet Union is still alive in Russia.
Audience 1: Putin should be much more intelligent and understand that it is not a solution for Russia to put people in prison because if (inaudible). So he needs to be nice, he needs to be intelligent, he needs a good advice, because if he is in a cage of emotion, distracted, then he is lost.
Audience 2: My name is John Dobson. I’m a former Moscow diplomat. You mention the suppression of the faith groups. Is this because faith groups are seen as a danger to the state or are faith groups danger to the Russian Orthodox church? Maybe it’s the same thing because many people believe that the Russian Orthodox church is an arm of the state.
Elena Sannikova: This process has started only very recently and we were completely shocked by it, the process of arresting believers of the different faiths. So we can’t really understand ourselves why they chose this path. Persecution of the Muslims is the state initiative. They are arresting the most decent people, good family people, people with lots of children, hardworking, intelligent. It seems that the state doesn’t want the Muslim communities to have these better, decent people to unite around the better parts of the society. This war on terror has been reduced to the fight against people who are completely innocent of terrorism. I don’t know, maybe it is more difficult to catch a real terrorist and they have to report that they had stopped somebody. I’m not excluding the influence of the official Russian orthodox church as far as the Jehovah’s Witnesses are concerned. I’ll be very clear about distinguishing between the official Russian orthodox church, which has nothing to do with the Christianity whatsoever and the genuine believers.
Audience 2: Do you believe that Putin is using the orthodox church as a method of control of the Russian population.
Elena Sannikova: Yes
Audience 2: Thank you
Audience 3: Russia is such an enormous country and you said that when you were in prison, you didn’t know what was going on in the rest of Russia. I’m wondering if there is difference today between the different regions. I know that we know a lot about what’s going on in Chechnya, but I’m wondering whether you see some regions being more repressive than others?
Elena Sannikova: People who are researching what’s going on in the penitentiary system in Russia, they say that there are regions where there are more tortures used. There are camps and prisons where torture is used very widely, but there are regions where things are a little bit better in this respect. The problem in Russia is of course that it would take out Moscow. Life in regions is getting worse, they are getting poorer, there are no Russian village anymore, and there is an unemployment on the rise. People are being brainwashed by the television propaganda, but not everybody. There are many more people who are having this feeling of very deep hopelessness and despair, and they just do not believe that anything can be changed for the better.
Audience 4: (inaudible) I’m asking about Navalny. He spent some time in the jail, too. I understand, because of the economic problems you just referred to, that some of the unions are looking towards more economic questions, which could break up his coalition. Any development where Navalny is now attracting an economic base?
Elena Sannikova: A very wide popularity of Navalny, of course, is explained by the fact that he is exposing corruption. And anybody can understand this, especially the young people can understand what he is talking about. So when Navalny calls people to go out to the streets and protest, lots of people follow his calls. As a result, many young people get imprisoned. So for example, if 10,000 people go out to protest, many people are detained on the day, but then released, but each time about five, six people receive longer sentences. That is why Navalny is not calling people to go out to protest as often as he used to. Alexei Navalny only spent some time in jail, but his brother Oleg Navalny spent four years in prison, and everybody understood that he was held as a hostage. The fact that Navalny is not really exposing Putin himself as a very corrupt person, but mostly people in his circle that shows that of course he has to be cautious as well. When there were mass protests at the end of 2011 to the beginning of 2012, the leaders of the protest basically spontaneously became Navalny, Nemtsov, Kasparov. Garry Kasparov had to leave Russia, and Boris Nemtsov was actually targeting Putin, bravely to the point. We all know that he was assassinated next to the Kremlin. There was obviously assassination to show us (inaudible). So Navalny is the only leader of this mass protest who is alive, who is free, and who is in Russia. I wish him carry on living and being free. Exposing corruption is an important thing.
Audience 4: I wanted to ask you about Council of Europe. We’re in an interesting situation at the moment where Russia might decide to leave Council of Europe and that will be a big loss (inaudible). Would you say that domestically it’s considered important for Russia to remain as a member?
Elena Sannikova: Of course it is very important. The only thing that people who are persecuted in Russia can hope for is the European Court of Human Rights. That is the only fair judgement that people can receive, notwithstanding the fact that it takes ages to get there. Justice can only be found there for the Russian citizens.
Audience 5: I’m not sure whether you’re aware of a case of our activist Anastasia Shevchenko who (inaudible) six year in prison for holding a debate and running a seminar. I wanted to ask you whether you think her case is an example of increased pressure on the civil activists from the Kremlin. And if so why this change may happen?
Elena Sannikova: Of course I know about this case. I took part in the pickets to defend, to support Anastasia. The example of Anastasia is an example of the regime getting more brutal and in Russia, there is an expression of tightening the screws. She is under house arrest. Her child was in the hospital, and they would not allow her to visit the child in the hospital until the very last moment. She lost her daughter as a result of her house arrest. And she had recently a terrible dental pain. They would not allow her to go to the dentist, because she was under a house arrest and her investigator would not let her go. And people are still glad that at least it is a house arrest, not a prison. But this is before the trial and once the sentence is passed, they can sentence her to custodial services. This is really difficult situation in Russia.