Moscow Helsinki Group at 40 – Human Rights Activism Under Brezhnev and Under Putin

May 12, 2016
Alexander Podrabinek, head of the Working Commission on Psychiatric Abuse of the Moscow Helsinki Group, as he was arrested by plainclothes KGB agents in 1978.

Ten New Studies on Russian Realities Not to Be Missed

Staunton, VA – May 12, 2016 –  Last month, at the 14th annual conference of Moscow Higher School of Economics, more than 900 scholarly papers were presented on various aspects of social, economic and political life. Journalist Boris Grozovsky selected and summarized 24 of them; below are ten of the most important for those seeking to understand new Russian realities.

Grozovsky presented his list in two articles on the web site of the Higher School of Economics (see here and here). In each case, he provides a hypertext link to the full papers and a more detailed summary of them than the key conclusions presented here.
1. For Most Russians, Elections are a Cargo Cult. Russians view elections as a requirement or a carnival but rarely as the occasion to make choices between candidates or policies, according to Mikhail Chernysh of the Moscow Institute of Sociology. And officials are interested in maintaining these attitudes as long as possible.
2. Low Incomes, Absence of Savings Preclude Long-Term Planning and Social Solidarity. Lev Gudkov of the Levada Center says that more than 60 percent of Russians live in villages or small towns, “a milieu which forms a zone of chronic social depression, stagnation, and social anomie.” Seventy percent “don’t have any savings, and three quarters of them live from paycheck to paycheck.” They don’t even have sufficient means to move where they might get better jobs.
3. Russian National Identity Less Egoistic than Most. When people are encouraged to feel pride in their country, they may either display egoistic or altruistic attitudes, Magarita Fabrikant and Vladimir Magun of the Higher School of Economics argue that Russians who are proud of their country are less egoistic and more willing to sacrifice themselves than are residents of other countries.
4. Market Reforms of 1990s Pushed Russians into Survivalist Mode. Elena Gabert and Leonid Polishchuk of the Higher School of Economics and Denis Stukal of NYU say that Russia’s market reforms have had “a very long cultural echo,” making most survivalists, reducing trust in almost all public institutions, and making people more tolerant of “opportunistic behavior” such as corruption and tax avoidance.
5. Children of First Post-1991 Russian Capitalists Plan to Retire Early. The first generation of post-Soviet Russian capitalists is now in its late 50s. Its children, who stand to inherit their wealth, plan to work less and retire earlier, possibly as early as age 45, according to Elena Rozhdestvenskaya of the Higher School of Economics.
6. Official Management of Elections Began in Regions and Moved to Moscow. Rostislav Turovsky of the Higher School of Economics says that managed democracy and the use of administrative tools began in the regions in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin and then migrated to the center rather than as many think the other way around.
7.  Media-Promoted ‘Rally Round the Flag’ Campaign Keeps Putin’s Ratings High. In response to Russia’s foreign policy isolation and economic difficulties, Anastasiya Kazun of the Higher School of Economics says that the Russian media have promoted the idea that Rtussians must “rally round the flag” and that this has kept Vladimir Putin’s ratings high.
8.  Experts Say Moscow Likely to Choose Least Desirable Policies to Cope with Crisis. Natalya Akindinova, Yaroslav Kuzminov and Yevgeny Yasin of the Higher School of Economics say that a survey they have conducted among the Russian expert community found general agreement that “the less desirable for Russia of any scenario of economic policy in the near term, the higher the probability that it will be adopted.”
9.  Corruption in Russia’s Regions Greatest Just Before and Just After Gubernatorial Elections. Oleg Sidorkin of Prague’s Charles University, and Dmitry Vorobyev of the Urals Federation University say that “the level of corruption in the regions is highest at the start and at the end of the terms of governors,” as officials try to take advantage of office either to boost their wealth or test the loyalty of their subordinates.
10.  Russia’s NGOs Caught in ‘Hybrid Authoritarianism.’ Elena Bogdanova of the University of Eastern Finland and Eleonore Bindman of London’s Queen Mary University say that NGOs in Russia are caught between two competing Russian government policies. On the one hand, the authorities welcome the social services provided by some; but on the other, they persecute those supported from abroad who work in the areas of human rights, environment and civic education.
Media Coverage of Governors More about Their Management of the Media than about Anything Else, New Study Says
Staunton, VA, May 12, 2016 — Those who follow the media in Russia’s regions know that some governors are routinely attacked by media in their federal subjects while others are never criticized, and they often conclude that this is an important indicator of how well the governors are doing in running their regions, territories, or republics.

In fact, however, according to a new study by Aleksey Kudrin’s Civic Initiative Committee, the level of criticism of governors in regional media rather reflects the ability of some governors to control the media and ensure that no bad news will be reported as compared to others who do not have such success in keeping Moscow in the dark about what is happening.
In Vedomosti this week, Elena Mukhametshina reports on the results of the committee’s study. It found that the governors of 15 federal subjects were never criticized in the media, including Sakhalin, Kaluga and Chelyabinsk.
Twenty-eight others, including the leaders of Moscow, Moscow Region, Tatarstan and Tyumen, were criticized only rarely, while in 27, including Chechnya, Pskov and Kirov Regions, they were criticized relatively infrequently, and in 23, including Dagestan, Pena, St. Petersburg, and Leningrad Region, they were criticized at a moderate level.
Only seven regional leaders, those in charge of Karelia, Novosibirsk, and Buryatia were criticized regularly.
The study found that “major [state] expenditures on regional media do not guarantee an absence of criticism but that where such spending was above average, the level of criticism as a rule was close to zero,” suggesting a connection. And it found that governors in places rated poorly by pro-Kremlin experts or experiencing a lot of protest activity had more criticism too.
Those are general patterns, political analyst Konstantin Kalachev says, but each region has its own specific history of relations between the media and the authorities. In some places, there are inter-elite conflicts and these are reflected in media outlets. In others, the media feels it isn’t getting enough support and uses criticism as a means of extracting more.
The analyst continues by observing that “the federal center wants there not to be any bad news from the regions, something intelligent governors understand and organize work with the media in order to achieve” using a range of carrots and sticks to try to keep the media from criticizing them personally even if the outlets are critical of others.
Those governors who have a lot of resources because their federal subjects are wealthier are better able to do so, Kalachev suggests; and all this means that one must be very cautious in equating the level of criticism of governors with the actual quality of their work or the situation in their domains.
‘If Zhirinovsky Didn’t Exist, He’d Have to Have Been Created’
Staunton, VA, May 12, 2016 – People have made fun of Vladimir Zhirinovsky for so long that they have failed to see both his personal strengths and the way in which he opened the way for Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian system, contributions that film maker Nikita Mikhalkov suggests mean that “if Zhirinovsky didn’t exist, he would have had to be created.”

In a critical appreciation of the flamboyant and outrageous leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), commentator Mikhail Globachev not only cites Mikhalkov’s observation on Zhirinovsky on the occasion of his 70th birthday and argues that it is absolutely true.
For most of his career, most Russians and others considered the LDPR leader to be “a clown whose only interest was to win popularity in a cheap way by insulting the more respectable public,” thus failing to see what he was actually doing by adopting that strategy and by willing to appear the fool.
One of the earliest to recognize what Zhirinovsky is about was historian Aleksandr Yanov who argued that the LDPR leader was consistently focused on his natural base, the ethnic Russian lower classes who felt abused and excluded by elites, and was not afraid to say and do things that others weren’t, precisely because he recognized that base wanted just what he offered.
Zhirinovsky, Globachev continues, is “the only one of the current generation of Russian politicians who acts not in a blind fashion. He precisely knows what his mass political base consists of and consciously builds his strategy by taking that into account.” And his strategy is not driven by any dogma but by what he thinks that population wants to hear.
Of course, the Rufabula commentator says, it is “no secret” and hasn’t been for a long time that Zhirinovsky and his LDPR are “creatures of the Lubyanka.”  [Russian intelligence]. But while most people recognize this, they don’t reflect on what his role has been not only in the 1990s but also in helping to open the way for Putinism, “non-communist authoritarianism in post-modern dress.”
That Yanov understands all this, Globachev says, is indicated by the fact that the historian suggests there are only two ways for what he calls “Russian nationalists” to seize power from above and both of those “’revolutions from above’” have been promoted by the kind of things Zhirinovsky has said and done.
And thus it is perfectly logical, the Rufabula commentator says, that Putin should decorate the LDPR leader on his 70th birthday and that a statue should be erected to him in Moscow even while he is still very much alive.
Moscow Helsinki Group at 40 – Human Rights Activism under Brezhnev and Under Putin
Staunton, VA, May 12, 2016 – This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights group that arose as a result of the Helsinki Accords, an East-West agreement that both Soviet and Russian leaders see as having only geopolitical consequences but that in fact helped to focus the world’s attention on Moscow’s repressions then and now.

As Radio Liberty’s Elena Plyakovskaya points out, many Soviet dissidents did not understand the possibilities that the Helsinki Accords opened for them and their country. Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the president of the organization since 1996, was one of them.
As she tells Plyakovskaya, initially, she was disappointed by the Helsinki Accord’s approach to human rights which enumerated specific ones but was far less comprehensive than the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the physicist Yury Orlov recognized that Helsinki was enforceable in ways the Declaration was not.
He recognized, Alekseyeva says, that because Helsinki was “an agreement among states,” it set a standard against which all could be judged and thus held accountable at least in the increasingly powerful court of public opinion. That was the genesis of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and it has certainly achieved far more in that regard than many thought possible then.
As Alekseyeva notes, “the establishment of the Moscow Helsinki Group did not stop the repressive machine. Arrests of its members began almost immediately and some were forced to emigrate,” including Alekseyeva herself. Only two or three of the original members remained at large in the Soviet Union.
But with the coming of Gorbachev’s times, the group was able to resume its work under the presidency of Larisa Bogoraz. And it was assisted in its work by corresponding organizations in Lithuania, Georgia and elsewhere in the USSR, working closely with the broader democratic movement and contributing to the dismantling of the Soviet system.
On this “round” anniversary, not surprisingly, many are comparing what conditions were like for human rights activists under the aging but still repressive Leonid Brezhnev and the increasingly impressive Vladimir Putin. No one denies that as of now, the situation in Russia is better overall; but the comparisons with 40 years ago are far from all in favor of today.
Interviewed by Rosbalt, Valery Borshchev, a long-serving members of the Moscow Helsinki Group, seeks to provide a balance sheet, noting that the group has achieved a great deal but that relations between human rights activists and the broader democratic fraternity have deteriorated.
When the Moscow Helsinki Group was established, he says, there was solidarity between human rights activists and those in the democratic movement. Facing the threat of arrests and repression, members of each helped each other out even if they disagreed on this or that situation or action.
But now that level of cooperation has broken down, in large part because many of the aims of the groups have been achieved but also because to “slander the opposition is good tone” in much of Russian society. And that in turn has led to the kind of criticism and divisions between and among the groups that the authorities have promoted and exploited.
It has also had a consequence that Borshchev himself is too polite to mention: many Russians who are committed to democratic values no longer see the defense of human rights in general as being at the center of their concerns. And as a result, the Putin regime has had much less difficulty hijacking some of their goals under its rubric of “managed democracy.”