Twenty-five years ago, on Dec. 26, 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved. A repressive system that had once seemed invincible crumbled out of existence.
I started working on human rights in Russia during that hopeful time, and I saw the desire for change that had been stirring for years start to bear fruit. As an activist working to reform prisons, which were at the time some of the bleakest in the world, I saw the optimism around me as conditions improved and jury trials were introduced, seeming to spell the end for political control of the judiciary system.
Looking back, that window of hope in the early 1990s seems very small.
Today, Russia has again become a symbol of repression at home, and aggression and cynicism abroad, most recently through its support of Syria’s relentless assault on civilians in Aleppo.
Watching the bloodshed in Syria, and the intensifying crackdown on rights and freedoms inside Russia, one is left wondering how the era of hope in the early 1990s, when young Russians like me adamantly believed we would live in a different country and a different world, went so badly wrong.
Political, economic and social change was painful. Russians felt they were losing access to social benefits that they have always taken for granted: free health care, education, housing and guaranteed employment. The freedoms they had gained — association, movement, assembly, press and many others — could not entirely make up for this loss of stability
Russians also had a keen sense of lost national pride, having gone from being a superpower to an isolated nation in economic crisis. In the early 2000s, Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric of restoring security and bringing the country back to greatness quickly won hearts and minds of the majority of Russians disillusioned by a decade of a struggling democracy that many viewed as contrary to Russian values.
For me, the first signs of Russia’s new direction — and the new place it was going to assume in the international arena — were obvious during the second war in Chechnya, which started in 1999. The brutality of Russia’s military operations in the breakaway republic was accompanied by the first attempts to silence independent media, primarily newspapers and TV channels that presented an objective coverage of the war. NGOs, especially ones documenting the abuses in Chechnya and providing relief to civilians, were also targeted.
What was striking was the utter unwillingness of Russia’s international counterparts to recognize that the country has changed its course. Instead, they used every justification to avoid political confrontation or voicing even mild criticism publicly. I heard it over and over again during advocacy trips to Geneva, Brussels and Washington.
It was not until Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008, during which it occupied a significant part of the country’s territory, that the international community woke up. The 2014 occupation of Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine led to international condemnation and sanctions, but by that time impunity for Russia had become entrenched.
There was almost no independent media left in the country and the intensity of state propaganda rivaled even the Soviet days. In recent years, leading international NGOs and foundations have been kicked out of the country. Russian NGOs have been labeled “foreign agents” and forced to close. Activists who dared to protest have ended up behind bars.
At times, it is easy to lose heart. Many of the hopes of the ’90s have gone unfulfilled.
But I always remember that I did see a seemingly indestructible system collapse before my eyes, and it changed Russian society forever. No matter how depressing or sinister the developments in Russia, or around the world, I know that change is possible, and that no system is too powerful to be challenged.
The years immediately following the breakup of the USSR taught me that difficult times bring to light the courage and resilience of individuals and communities who make this change happen.
I see it back home in Russia today, where despite the growing repression and daily threats, human-rights activists, lawyers and journalists continue their fight. Their stories are truly inspiring.
Despite having had their staff attacked, prosecuted and even murdered — despite being branded a “foreign agent,” slapped with hefty fines and subjected to an intense smear campaign by the Kremlin-sponsored media — the human-rights center Memorial, one of the oldest Russian NGOs, continues its daily struggle to protect the victims of abuse. The authorities have not managed to silence the fearless journalists of Novaya Gazeta, one of the few remaining independent media outlets. Five of the paper’s staff members have been killed, and others receive regular death threats and get physically attacked — and yet they continue to expose corruption, lawlessness and egregious abuses by police and security officials, and cover some of the most sensitive issues, such as Russia’s counterterrorism operations at home and the war in Syria.
I see the same courage and commitment in every place my work takes me. Under the bombs, behind bars, in hiding and in exile, incredible women and men refuse to give up. As I document, expose and support their struggle, I carry with me the memory of a short-lived, and yet in many ways irreversible, Russian spring.