Maxim Shemetov / Reuters / Landov

Russians exiled back to the kitchen

The Kremlin is trying to create a paternalistic relationship between the state and its citizens

August 19, 2015 2:00AM ET

On July 28, Russia designated the National Endowment for Democracy, a Washington-based nonprofit, which has supported human rights and civil society groups in the country, as “undesirable” and banned it.

The clampdown is reminiscent of life before the fall of communism. In the Soviet era, the kitchen was considered a safe place to congregate, speak freely and exchange ideas away from prying neighbors and without fear of reprisal. The ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy groups may force Russians back into the kitchen.

Relations between the Russian government and the people are strained amid a growing sense of mistrust. Local nongovernmental organizations are being deemed “foreign agents” and their international sponsors are seen as “undesirable.”

“The activities of the foundation present a threat to the constitutional order, national defense and security,” the Prosecutor General’s office said in the statement announcing NED’s ban. But what exactly are these activities that pose such a grave threat to Russia? 

I am grateful to NED, which over the last decade has supported my work at the Civic Assistance Committee (CAC) and Memorial Human Rights Center. Both centers provide legal and social assistance to refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. NED has also provided partial support to CAC’s Education Project, which aims to prepare migrants for exams in Russian language and history and to improve access to education for the children of migrants. Learning the national language and adapting to a new society poses no threat to Russia. And the Russian courts have affirmed that children of migrants should have unfettered access to education.

On June 15, a District Court in Tver, Russia, ruled in favor of two children who had been excluded from school because they were undocumented, arguing the schools’ mandate is to educate children, not to check their immigration status. On Aug. 10, the Ministry of Education finally concurred that schools must enroll children regardless of their immigration status. (Both suits were brought by CAC on behalf of the plaintiffs.)

At the same time, we are also fighting the government’s proposed eviction of CAC’s center for adaptation and education of refugee children from its premises in Moscow.

NED has sustained our education work for many years. But without funding, we will have to rely on volunteers to continue this work. NED has also provided funding for CAC’s anticorruption project, which produced expert analysis on existing and draft laws’ potential for corruption. Russian enemies would probably want to see corruption spread across the country, but NED has supported efforts to fight it using Russia’s own anti-corruption law. Had the project’s recommendations threatened Russia’s national security interests, CAC would not have received a state-funded presidential grant to pursue the same goals.

Russian authorities believe that if foreign organizations are financing the activities of Russian nonprofits, the financiers control the content and the outcome of the projects.

At the root of the current crackdown is control. Russian authorities wish to create a paternalistic relationship between the government and its citizens. As in the Soviet times, they want to ensure that the people are dependent on those in power. If citizens see the state as feeding them and caring for them, they will come to recognize its ability to give or take away those benefits at will.

He who pays the piper, orders the tune, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other government officials have repeatedly said regarding foreign funding of human rights groups. The recent clamp down on local NGOs and their foreign backers is simply an extension of this logic. In other words, Russian authorities believe that if foreign organizations are financing the activities of Russian nonprofits, the financiers control the content and the outcome of the projects. Perhaps their view of Russian civil society’s autonomy is rooted in the authorities own behavior. Putin’s administration finances organizations that engage in pro-government propaganda, such as Nashi and the anti-Maidan movement.

It is disingenuous and disheartening to suggest that foreign actors would buy off Russian human rights activists for 30 pieces of silver. I come from a family with a long history of serving Russia and its people. My grandfather, Peter Gannushkin, was a famous psychiatrist, who lectured in Europe and could have easily emigrated after the revolution. But he chose to stay and dedicated his life to treating patients and teaching students, irrespective of political positions.

My grandmother’s brother, Evgenii Klumov, was also a doctor and went to treat chronic diseases in Belarus under difficult conditions during World War II. He remained in his post during the German occupation and helped the partisans, risking his life. Toward the wars end, the retreating Germans shot him and his wife after he refused to flee with them. In February 1944, he was posthumously awarded the order “Hero of the Soviet Union,” the highest honor bestowed by the Soviet state. My father built Tupolev airplanes and was awarded a government prize. The rest of my family did not receive such honors, but they too taught, treated, built and defended this country.

This is true for many of my colleagues within the Russian human rights community. Ultimately, the state’s harassment and intimidation will not stop our work. We will have to restructure some aspects of our advocacy, but we will endure. Some Russians may go back to the kitchen and work there. We cannot. Right now 60 migrants and asylum seekers, who need urgent services, are waiting for me in the corridor. And they will not fit in my kitchen. 

Svetlana Gannushkina is a mathematician and human rights activist in Russia. She is chair of the Civic Assistance Committee, director of Memorial's Migration Rights Network and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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