By Clare Angeroth Franks, REEI alumna
This blog post is the second in a two-part series on this event. Part 2: A New Framework for Human Rights
On Friday, February 5, 2021 four experts on human rights in Russia gathered to discuss the state of human rights in Russia today as part of the Russian Studies Workshop’s Critical Conversations in Russian Studies series. A recording of the event is also available. Panelists included Dmitry Dubrovsky, Associate Professor in the School of Politics and Governance at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow; Dmitry Makarov, Co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group; and Tatyana Margolin, Regional Director for Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations. The conversation was moderated by Associate Professor of International Studies at Indiana University Emma Gilligan.
The state of human rights in Russia is not hopeless, argued panelists of the February 5, 2021 conversation “The State of Human Rights in Russia Today,” which is part of the Russian Studies Workshop’s Critical Conversations in Russian Studies series. The colonial, top-down approach to regulating and evaluating the state of human rights in Russia and abroad has to be reevaluated. In order to create a just and democratic society, we must all take part in a new approach to human rights activism.
Among other topics, panelists discussed how they imagine this new approach would look, how those in North America can influence the state of human rights in Russia, and whether the idea of developing human rights abroad perpetuates colonialism.
All three panelists agreed that the exchange of ideas can foster solidarity and sustainable growth of civil society and human rights organizations in Russia. These conversations can occur at any level, including between students at institutions in the US and Russia. Indiana University’s College Office of International Affairs’s Conversations on Contemporary Issues initiative to facilitate dialogues between students at IU and the Higher School of Economics in Saint Petersburg is an example of strengthening links between the two countries through dialogue. As Dmitry Makarov noted, these dialogues can occur between teachers of history, professional groups, and other organizations. Conversations between such groups can decolonize human rights rhetoric and bring it directly to the people.
When direct dialogue is impossible, the next best option is reading Russian journalism, plugging into Russian social media, and consuming Russian news at the local level. Tatyana Margolin named several Russian media outlets she’s found to be particularly effective in giving voice to those outside of traditional power structures (see links below). Directly elevating the voices of activists can create solidarity across borders. It also allows for those outside of Russia to have more clear and direct access to grassroots organizations. When people actively seek out and listen to civil society groups, they can better support and successfully empower those groups.
It’s important to note that human rights organizations in the United States can benefit from genuine dialogues with foreign organizations, too. An open and equal exchange of ideas allows organizations in the United States to learn from organizations experiencing similar situations elsewhere. Panelists Tatyana Margolin and Dmitry Makarov noted examples of effective adaptation of actions and frameworks in the US, Russian, and Belarusian contexts. The Russian Bolotnaya protests of the early 2010s took cues from the US Occupy Wallstreet movement. The recent Belarusian protests have taken notes from previous Russian protests. The American Civil Liberties Union has worked with sister organizations around the world, including Russian partners, to develop fundraising strategies and activism campaigns. “There is a ton that people on the ground here [in the US] can learn from the resilience and creativity of Russian civil society,” stated Tatyana Margolin.
All three panelists ended the discussion with encouraging words. Small cooperation is still cooperation, replied Dmitry Makarov to a question from the audience. Do not let the fear of the foreign agent law discourage you from connecting with and supporting human rights and civil society groups in Russia. Dmitry Dubrovsky added that students of Russian can volunteer to translate Russian news stories from the local level in order to build solidarity. While it might seem that US and Russian societies are different, the two have much more in common. Cooperation and dialogue can allow the two to better promote human rights all can enjoy.
For further reading on this topic, please see these news sources mentioned by Tatyana Margolin: