Svetlana Gannushkina is one of the most famous Russian human rights activists. For more than thirty years she has dedicated herself to the defense of refugees and migrants. In 1990, she co-founded the Civic Assistance Committee, a migrant aid organization labeled a “foreign agent” by the Putin regime. She later helped found Memorial’s Human Rights Center.
Interview by Zara Murtazalieva, author of Eight and a Half Years! (Books Editions, 2014).
You have dedicated a significant part of your life to defending the rights of migrants and refugees. How did it all begin?
The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh began in 1988. It caused a lot of commotion in Russia. At that time, it became possible to create and officially register a non-governmental organization. I first joined the section of national and political relations within the Sociological Association, dedicating myself to the fight against anti-Semitism. In the section’s meetings, there was a lot of talk about what was going on in Karabakh and Armenia. But there was no information from Azerbaijan. In January 1989, I went to Baku and conducted several interviews there. And I saw the first refugees. They were simple Armenian peasants who did not understand why they had been expelled from their homes and had no idea what was going on. That decided my fate. In any conflict, I am always on the side of the victims. Soon 40,000 refugees from Baku, victims of the anti-Armenian pogroms, flocked to Moscow. Muscovites tried to help them. For a long time, the state took no steps to provide them with housing. Gorbachev was sure that everything would soon calm down and everyone would go home. It was at this time that I met remarkable people, such as Lidia Grafova [journalist, human rights defender, editor’s note], Viktoria Tchalikova [sociologist and publicist, editor’s note], Vyacheslav Igrunov [dissident, then politician, Editor’s Note].
We decided that if the authorities did not see that this problem would last for decades, we, who felt responsible for the fate of these people and, to put it pathetically, for the world around us in general, should be concerned about it. That is how the Civic Assistance Committee came into being.
Many lives have passed before your eyes over the years. It’s hard not to be affected by the tragedies of others. How do you cope?
Of course, it is impossible not to take the fate of the people who come to us to heart. But it is even worse to remain unaware of what is happening around us and to live without noticing the tragedies that surround us. When the first Chechen war (1994-1996) started, I felt that it was impossible to live with it. Our army was killing our citizens, how could we accept it and go on living? But the refugees appeared and they discovered our Committee. We helped them; they needed us and that gave meaning to our lives. We were not sacrificing ourselves, we were earning our dignity as citizens. I thank fate for allowing me to meet people who feel the same way.
Today it is very difficult for human rights defenders to work in Russia. They are actually pushed out; the regime gets rid of them. Memorial and the Civic Assistance Committee are labeled “foreign agents”. How do your organizations work now?
Yes, I am classified as a “foreign agent” four times: at Memorial’s Human Rights Center, where I run the Migration and Justice Network; at the Sakharov Center, where I am a member of the Human Rights Commission; at Civic Assistance and at Memorial. These four organizations are registered as “foreign agents”. Since the beginning of the year, a kind of phantasmagoria has been taking place in the Duma, which is adopting more and more incongruous laws to restrict our activities. The authorities are destroying civil society. In fact, the modern state cannot exist without civil society. This is an unreasonable and suicidal policy.
It creates problems, of course. So far, our main problem has not been the cessation of all state funding, but the refusal of the authorities to cooperate with us. We can provide humanitarian aid to refugees, but without cooperation with the authorities, we cannot help them obtain legal status.
However, last spring the Ministry of Interior sent its representatives to two of our seminars, which had not happened for four years. Despite our status as a “foreign agent”, we have found a way to communicate: an invitation to our seminars is sent by the Human Rights Commissioner of the Russian Federation, Tatyana Moskalkova, not by us. Some officials are interested in working with us and send migrants to us for legal and social assistance.
How has the situation of migrants and refugees in Russia changed over the last 10-15 years?
Refugees in Russia come from different countries. At first, they were our former Soviet compatriots, then they were Afghans: those who had collaborated with the Soviet authorities and their children. Now there are citizens of Ukraine and Syria, where Russia also played a dark role. There are also many Africans. Hardly any of them have been granted refugee status.
The statistics are monstrous. Only 455 people had refugee status at the beginning of this year. And another 20,000 have temporary asylum - a vague status granted for one year that must be extended each year. Of these, 18,300 are Ukrainian citizens. In 2015, more than 300,000 Ukrainian refugees were granted temporary asylum, but they have since obtained Russian citizenship. It is clear that this is a political rather than a humanitarian solution. All this shows that the institution of asylum does not work here; it is an imitation.
What are the chances of a person getting refugee status in Russia?
As I said, the chances are close to zero. But it must be said that people do not come to us for a better life. They are fleeing from wars, torture, persecutions and executions. Refugees land in Russia because European countries do not accept them. And our consulates grant visas to everyone, sometimes for bribes. Russian MFA officials know full well that Syrian “tourists” will seek asylum! It would be a good thing if there was a coordinated policy and if the Ministry of Interior granted them refugee status. Currently, there are only two Syrians who have been granted this status. This is very cruel to the citizens of a country whose criminal regime Russia is helping to preserve.
You have dedicated your whole life to the defense of human rights and freedoms and have even been nominated for the Nobel Prize. In your opinion, what does our society need most?
Well, being nominated ten times is not the same as being a laureate. I am proud of the Nansen Prize that Memorial received for its work with refugees in 2004.
Our society lacks a sense of responsibility (my favorite concept) for what our authorities do. We are responsible for everything that is done in our name. It is time to stop waiting passively for what the authorities will do. More tolerance for ordinary people and less patience for the authorities. We are citizens, not subjects of Mr. Putin.
What we lack is involvement in what is happening in the world and especially in Russia. That is why the authorities prevent the development of civil society and try to destroy any manifestation of citizenship.
Russia is ranked 159th in terms of political rights and freedoms. Have you ever had the feeling that you are tilting at windmills? You have managed to save someone, while another is sent to prison or forced into exile, etc.
Every human being is equal to the universe. By killing him, you destroy the universe. By saving him, you save the world. So they are not windmills, they are living people. Moreover, the Koran says something very similar. So, a saved person is not a small matter. And it is a great happiness when we succeed.
You were involved in peacemaking during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the late 1980s and in negotiations for the release of Azerbaijani and Armenian prisoners. During the two wars in the Chechen Republic, you helped save thousands of people. You worked as a teacher for more than 30 years and then as an associate professor in the mathematics department. You have children and grandchildren. Where did a small, fragile woman like you get so much strength? How do you manage to do it all?
Fragile? That’s a nice compliment: for my generation, I’m of average height and build. Yes, I taught for exactly 30 years, I loved it, and for 10 years I continued to teach along with my work at Civic Aid and Memorial. As for my family, they help and support me. Unfortunately, I am always short of time!
How do your mornings start? I still remember the day I spent in your office - it was an endless stream of people with different requests. Do you ever wake up in the morning not having to run around rescuing someone, and enjoying your coffee quietly?
Honestly, I am not a morning person and I don’t like coffee. I like to sit at my computer at midnight and work until 5am. In the morning, I get up at the time I have to leave, and if I don’t have to go anywhere, I prefer to sleep until 11.
A large number of people leave Russia every year. Did the idea of leaving the country ever occur to you?
How would you like to see Russia?
As a normal democratic country where people breathe freely, where citizens feel in control and welcome migrants and refugees with kindness. I want the courts to be independent of the executive branch; I want the authorities to enforce the laws and I want the legislators to think before they vote laws they are asked to pass. Then the government will not be afraid of its people and pass wild laws: these laws won’t protect the ruling elite if people revolt. I would not want that to happen. We know that rebellion is always senseless and ruthless. And the responsibility will lie with the authorities, not with mythical external organizers of “color revolutions.” I would like to see the concept of “foreign agent” returned to its original meaning - that of spy — and removed from Russian law. I would like the authorities to apologize to us. We are responsible citizens of our homeland, not agents of anyone else.
You are a living legend. Your name is always the first to be mentioned when people talk about human rights defenders in Russia. Many young people became activists and human rights defenders after meeting you. What keeps you going all these years and keeps you going?
I think you have greatly exaggerated my influence. One could say that about great figures of dissidence, like Sergei Kovalev or Lyudmila Alexeyeva. It is very important for a person to feel indispensable. It is this feeling that sustains me. And our state never forgets to give us a good dose of adrenaline.