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Quaker Perspective on Russian Authoritarianism

Published: March 26, 2021


Dear Friends: Some of you might be interested in a Quaker perspective on the rise of authoritarianism in Russia today.  The author of this viewpoint is Patricia Stewart, a Philadelphia Quaker, and a board member of Friends House Moscow Support Association. In this viewpoint she talks about the protests over the arrest of Alexei Navalny and the demonstrations in about 170 cities. She also talks some about the work of Friends House Moscow. 

– Bill Bauriedel, Palo Alto Friends Meeting


Message from Patricia Stewart, March 25, 2021

Friends have asked me about the demonstrations in Russia six weeks ago and about the rising levels of authoritarianism in the country. What follows is a kind of personal, and Quakerly, op-ed on what the Navalny trial and its aftermath may mean for peace and civil society in Russia, and, in particular, for the work of Friends House Moscow.

Heaven knows, the bad news is bad enough. The repression of those who gathered on February 2, to protest opposition leader, Alexei Navalny’s sentence, was prompt and brutal. During the night, some of the protesters were transmitting from their cell phones. I was listening and watching on a social media site (one that was started as an anti-militarism page). Moscow’s historic center looked like an armed camp. Riot police cornered protestors in the narrow spaces of the city’s picturesque alley-ways (the elegant art nouveau building of the Moscow Art Theatre is located on one such alley), where they beat some of them to the ground. Protestors, police and journalists were so crowded together that you could hear, from out of the shadows, fragments of conversations, screams, grunts and thuds. It was painful to see and to hear, even from the other side of the globe. There were over a thousand arrests that night. The city ran out of jail space. Most of those arrested served short terms of imprisonment packed into regional detention centers. Their families could not find out where they were through official channels: they ended up standing in lines at different jails with their care packages of food, toothpaste and clean clothing, befriending each other and exchanging tips on social media. These were scenes that palely reflected the hated prison lines of the Stalinist years, the gatherings of terrified but faithful family and friends described in Anna Akhmatova’s poem, “Requiem.”

After Navalny was sentenced, he “disappeared” for more than three weeks. His family and lawyer were unable to obtain information about him. Since, the Kremlin undoubtedly knew exactly where he was at any given moment, this is behavior that verges on the sadistic, its main purpose — to flaunt the power of the system. Navalny is again posting on his Instagram account from a notorious penal colony about 100 miles east of Moscow. His first post showed his signature mixture of lofty idealism and sarcastic humor (Russians say that only President Putin has a rougher tongue than Navalny’s). They also reveal some of the details of his treatment. During the night, he is awakened every hour — to make sure that he hasn’t escaped. Sleep deprivation is a known form of torture. The system is designed to break people. One Russian dissident was released early a few years ago. (His wife is a journalist and she organized an energetic press campaign on his behalf.) He broke. He was very candid about it. Not the beatings, but the threats of more beatings and of more intimate forms of violence were more than he could withstand.

The 2020 changes in Russia’s constitution, changes that allow President Putin to be President-for-Life (until 2036, when he will be 84 years old, a well-ripened old age, even by Soviet Politburo standards) have limited the independence of the courts. This allowed for a last-minute change of the judge in Navalny’s case and virtually guaranteed his conviction. The laws about so-called “foreign agents,” NGOS (non-profits) which sometimes receive money from abroad, have been rewritten in a way that cripples the work of many of them. NGOs, and civil society in general, in Russia, have become very active and popular in the last ten years. Many Russians work as volunteers; many pledge small regular donations to NGOs, particularly to those that work with children. This growth is, in part, because the government is failing to provide necessary services in health, education and social welfare.

For example, in Russia, NGOs provide almost all of the care for persons with HIV/AIDS. (Remember HIV/AIDS?) Rates of infection are still rising in Eastern Europe and Eurasia; Russia now has 70 % of Europe’s cases. Many of the NGOs that have come under legal attack have been women’s organizations. A center for victims of domestic violence has just been fined and evicted from its Moscow premises. A proposed law to criminalize domestic violence has come under attack from the Orthodox Church. One Russian human rights lawyer believes that women’s groups are being targeted in keeping with the Kremlin’s desire to promote Russia as Europe’s last bastion of traditional patriarchal values.

Freedom of expression is under attack. There are sporadic raids on media outlets. (This has been going on for some time, but recently there have been more frequent sporadic raids.) The celebrated director of one of Moscow’s creative and popular municipal theaters was fired last month. Ordinary citizens have been imprisoned for reposting memes that make fun of authority. Two teenage boys in a Siberian city are presently under custody for joking about blowing up police headquarters in the computer game “Minecraft.”

In a country where major news outlets are controlled by the state, social media are a trusted source of information. As in the USA, social media assure people that they are not alone. Furthermore, Russian activists organize on social media. The Russian government has been threatening to create a fire-walled all-Russian internet for years. This may not even be possible from a technological point of view; from an economic point of view, it is not desirable — Russian businesses and governmental agencies need the internet to operate. However, it is possible for the Kremlin to subject international technology companies to court cases and fines. It is possible to interfere with services. Last week Twitter was subjected to a slow-down, on the grounds that it offers content harmful to children. (Pornography is not the issue here; the complaint is that information about demonstrations or rallies is harmful to children.) Twitter is not very popular in Russia, which may be why it was chosen as an example. During the exercise, several government web-sites went down, including the Kremlin’s own. Not a very convincing display of techno-power, but Navalny’s staff warn that Russia’s government aspires to exercise complete control over social media.

The bad news is bad, but the good news is good. It is more complicated than the bad — and hence harder to trust. In January and February, almost a hundred thousand people took part in the demonstrations. They were not political rallies in the legalistic Western sense. In interviews, many of the demonstrators insisted that they were not on the streets primarily to support Navalny, but to support the rule of law in their country. Navalny’s courage spoke to a powerful need for transparency and equity. The demonstrations were unsanctioned. They took place in 170 cities across all of this huge country’s eleven time zones. The demonstrations were almost entirely peaceful — at least on the part of the demonstrators. Peaceful mass demonstrations tend to educate and engage those who take part in them. Of the those who demonstrated, 70% were under the age of thirty-five; 50% of those polled said it was their first time in a demonstration. The good news is in the demographics, those mysterious things called numbers. As one political scientist said, “We know where the future is going.” It may be that Russia is at some sort of a cusp moment, similar to the one the United States experienced during the Trump years. However, in Russia, it will be even more difficult to “election-ize” a wide-spread popular movement than it is for us to implement the calls for justice of the Women’s March and the BLM protests.

Parliamentary elections will be held in September. Before that, there will almost undoubtedly be mass demonstrations, which may again draw a violent police response. Opposition groups are already being repressed. A group of regional political leaders met in a Moscow hotel last week. 200 were arrested before they even took their seats. Police said that they were not following procedures against the spread of the coronavirus. Some of Navalny’s staff are working from outside the country; those in Moscow are working from their apartments, many under house arrest for violating safety protocols against the spread of the coronavirus. There are, by the way, almost no coronavirus restrictions in place, let alone enforced, in Moscow.

Friends House Moscow is not a risk-taking operation. We are humanitarian, not political. We obey the law. We follow regulations scrupulously. Furthermore, we are registered, not as an NGO, but as an OOO — that is — a commercial organization, one which provides translation services. This makes us less interesting. However, in an increasingly authoritarian climate, being legal is not always a viable defense. At one of the Navalny demonstrations, a man was arrested and charged with shouting anti-police slogans. He was a deaf-mute. We are creating a small and discreet legal defense fund. 

Our OOO’s three main clients are NGOs — Quaker organizations in Germany, Great Britain and the United States. The American organization is Friends House Moscow Support Association, a 501c3 charity. The International Board is made up of representatives from those three fund-raising arms, plus others from Meetings and Friends Churches in Belgium, France and Russia.  We, naturally, rely on donations, and many Friends have been very faithful in their support of our work. Right now, we would particularly like to raise the salaries of our two dedicated staff members. However, at this point, our organization also needs enthusiasts as well as donors, people who can become active in spreading the word about Friends House Moscow. We are a small, hands-on board. Knowledge of Russian is helpful, but not a requirement. We hope to attract people who are drawn to learn more about the rich past, the complicated present, and the mysterious future of a country whose experiences of struggling to be free of militarism and failed empire are so intertwined with our own.

Friends who are led to such a service can find out more on our web page www.friendshousemoscow.org. Those with specific questions can contact me at pksinru-AT-gmail-DOT-com.