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“Without the arrests there wouldn’t have been any more protests” – Grigory Okhotin on the wave of civil society activism in Russia

Capitalism CC by nc 2.0 Adbusters Culturejammers HQGrigori Ochotin; Photo: (c) Nuria Fatykhova

Hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated in Russia since December 2011. Many voluntary projects to monitor the state and the police have emerged on the internet. Goethe.de spoke to Grigory Okhotin, one of the founders of OVDinfo.org, about the reasons for the revival of Russian civil society life.

Mr Okhotin, you began monitoring the arrests on the streets of Moscow in December 2011. What were your motivations at that time?

Many people were arrested at the demonstration against election fraud that took place on 5th December 2011 in Moscow, and some of them were my friends. I started to write about it on Facebook and people reading my posts added information about other arrests. My friends and I tried to find out which police stations people had been taken to. We worked our way from one OVD (Organ Vnutrennikh Del – Department of Internal Affairs) to the next and recorded how many people we had found and who they were on my Facebook page. The arrests continued the next day, and suddenly strangers were contacting me on my mobile, saying: “I’ve been arrested, my name is so-and-so.” This is the spontaneous way that the project came about.

Foto: (c) Nuria Fatykhova

Observer's outcry

But why did the previous elections not lead to demonstrations? And how did the online and offline situations interrelate with each other?

Without Facebook, Twitter and Livejournal it would have been virtually impossible to mobilise people to take part in the demonstrations. The social networks played a big role, but not the fundamental role. It was the social environment that our project had created. The difference between the 2011 elections and the previous ones preceding them was the presence of observers. There were very few, but they recorded and reported the violations. The demonstration on 5th December 2011 was the outcry from these observers. Back then, nobody could have imagined it would all get so big. People wanted to vote and to prevent their vote from being stolen from them. I am certain that the protests would have ended that same day if there had not been mass arrests. At the demonstration the observers saw that not only were people's votes being stolen from them, they were also being beaten brutally and locked up. I took an interest in the arrests because they affected me much more than the election rigging.

Foto: (c) Nuria Fatykhova

Is there a difference between campaigns in the physical world and those in cyberspace?

There is no difference. Online copies offline. But the internet makes it possible to widen the influence of your own social circle. It is the auditorium that makes an internet project. A social network without users means nothing.

If only everyone else was like me ...

At the following demonstrations, very diverse social groups were represented. What linked these groups together?

Studies by the Levada Center and the NII Mitingov project show that it was the observers who demonstrated first in Russia, then their families, and only then was there this broad social mix, when the neighbours – and their neighbours in turn – joined in. It is always claimed that people in Russia are passive, and the Russians themselves often look on their fellow citizens with contempt. But when people went onto the streets, they met others with whom they could identify. It's from this encounter that civil society activism in Russia has grown, not only in the form of demonstrations, many voluntary projects have also emerged. For example RosUznik.org, a project that provides legal support with the help of donations to people who have been arrested during public political actions.

Foto: (c) Nuria Fatykhova

And what divided these people again?

You can see on Facebook how people click “Like” or “Share” in an attempt to help their own friends or fellow political campaigners if they are arrested. However, if a stranger is in dire straits, there is silence. The fact that people draw rigid line between “My people” and “Strangers”, tend to be suspicious and ignore the universal validity of human rights was particularly apparent at the start of these new civil activities.

The active ones remain

How has protesting changed, what did it become?

Our monitoring has shown that the protest movement has spread out. From December 2011 to the end of December 2012 there were more than 200 protest campaigns in Moscow alone. People on the street infected each other with their energy, which led to the creation of independent initiative groups. These groups broached new topics, they met regularly, and it was not until later that the agenda for large-scale demonstrations was created as a result. So the streets spawned this phenomenon themselves. This bottom-up movement is something quite new, something that had not happened before in Russian history.

Foto: (c) Nuria Fatykhova

What is happening at the moment with these initiatives?

NGOs were searched recently, the number of political prisoners in Russia has risen. All this repression does not bode well. The push there was in December is over as well. But the people thrown up by this surge like a seashell onto a high shore won't disappear again. These active ones are strong enough to stay put and ride out the political depression that has descended on us in recent years – and it is through these people that Russian civil society will be revitalised.

Grigory Okhotin, 30, is a freelance journalist and civil rights activist. In this capacity he initiated the OVDinfo.org monitoring project, which observes and records the arrests of political activists by the Russian police in Moscow and other Russian cities, as well as publishing commentaries by human rights activists. A photo chronicle about the protests and arrests is aimed at helping the families and legal representatives of individuals who have been arrested. There are 15 volunteers supporting the project. OVDinfo.org considers itself a platform, a mouthpiece for all those who have been unlawfully arrested, with the goal of making the Russian police and the Russian justice system transparent. Last but not least, it hopes to raise awareness about human rights.

Nuria Fatykhova
conducted the interview. She is a freelance journalist and programme coordinator at the Heinrich-Böll Foundation in Moscow.

Translation: Jo Beckett

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
April 2013

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