Staunton, March 29 – The contemporary human rights movement emerged at a time when its possibilities for action were generally increasing. Now that those possibilities are continuously decreasing, it needs to reinvigorate itself by recalling the efforts of its predecessors, those who fought for the same rights as the Soviet system was institutionalizing itself.
That is the message of Roman Popkov, a former Russian political prisoner who now heads the Nation’s Freedom movement, in an article entitled “Legal Advocates as Predecessors of Rights Defenders” in which he laments that the 50th anniversary of one of those people, Yekaterina Peshkova, passed largely unnoticed last Thursday.
Russian rights activists today, he writes, and for completely justifiable reasons remember the dissidents of the late Soviet period, protest the closure of the Perm-36 GULAG museum, and object to the erection of statues to Stalin. But they don’t remember as they should those who laid the foundations for their activities a century ago.
To make his case, he interviews, Yaroslav Leontyev, a Moscow historian, about Peshkova and her work. Her predecessors, he says, include Fyodor Gaaz and Princess Maria Dondukkova-Korsakova who began the fight for the rights of political prisoners in the middle of the 19th century.
By the early 20th century, mass political parties had formed in Russia, and many of them created their own “Red Crosses” or “Black Crosses” to come to the aid of their own political prisoners. Peshkova was involved in one of these as early as 1910 when she was living in Nizhny Novgorod as the wife of Maksim Gorky.
During World War I, she was a leader of the Help the Victims of War organization and devoted herself to rescuing children from the front. After the Soviet-Polish war in 1920, she was involved in the exchange of prisoners and the search for Poles who had been exiled to Siberia. In Soviet Russia and then the Soviet Union, she helped organize groups to help political prisoners.
In the 1920s, the Soviet authorities openly acknowledged that they had political prisoners and allowed those who wanted to help them access to the prisoners to provide them with legal and other forms of assistance. Because of that focus, Peshkova and others like her did not call themselves “human rights defenders” but rather “legal advocates.”
The Soviet-era Political Red Cross operated quite openly in Moscow between 1917 and 1922 and lasted in some places into the 1930s under the same Pompolit (“Help for Political Prisoners”), an arrangement Peshkova, because of her links to Gorky, was able to negotiate with the secret police.
Peshkova’s granddaughter told him, Leontyev relates, that once Stalin’s secret police chief Yagoda asked Peshkova “when will you finally close up shop?” Peshkova responded, “That will be on the day after you do!” There is a certain “black humor” in this recollection, he says. Her group was closed down just after Yagoda was arrested and shot.
Leontyev suggests that Peshkova’s activities have three important lessons for human rights activity in Putin’s Russia. First, it is absolutely necessary now as then that the political prisoners themselves organize as best they can and with the support of outsiders to defend their rights. Often, they are the only ones in a position to do anything.
Second, human rights groups must define themselves in the first instance as lobbyists for the political prisoners because that will help create a Russian civil society. And third, given the rising number of political prisoners, rights activists now need to be concerned with something Peshkova was: the rehabilitation and reintegration of political prisoners after their release.