Simon, thank you very much for having agreed to this interview for the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. “Rights in Russia” is an organisation based in the United Kingdom. Why exactly this name and why is it important for you to work on Russia?
The organisation was set up in 2010, and actually the date we chose for the creation of the organisation was the 19 January, which was one year after the murder of Stanislav Markelov, who was a human rights lawyer, and Anastasia Baburova, a journalist working for “Novaya Gazeta”. I think those awful murders really brought home to us the difficult situation in Russia in terms of human rights. My colleagues and I felt that we needed to do something. We were fully appreciative of the work that organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch do publicising human rights violations all over the world. But we were also aware that there are a lot of publications, speeches, articles and comments by Russia’s human rights defenders in Russian, and we felt very much that it would be really great if more of these things – publications, statements and so on – could actually be available in English for an international audience. That was our motivation, to bring these points of view of Russia’s human rights defenders directly to a wider public.
When talking about the murder of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova, one can remember other cases of murders of human rights defenders or journalists like Natalia Estemirova or Anna Politkovskaya. Do you think that your work will be able to contribute to uncovering of the circumstances of their deaths? What would you like to see as a result of your work?
We are fully aware of the fact that we are a small organisation with modest goals, we also understand that what happens in Russia depends on Russians. It does not depend on me, as a person from the United Kingdom, or my colleagues. What we want to achieve is that people who live outside Russia know more about what is happening in Russia. We think that it is very important that civil society in the UK, in Europe, in the world knows about what is happening in Russia. I think one of the biggest problems nowadays facing countries in general, and in particular Russia, is that civil society tends to be isolated from other civil societies. So we want very much to enable dialogue not between governments only, but between civil societies. And that is the purpose of our small contribution if you like. We want people in civil society in Europe to know more about what is happening in Russia.
I would like to ask you about your personal connection to Russia. I know that you used to lived there. Why is Russia important personally to you?
That is a long story. For some reason, when I was a teenager, I used to read. Maybe, nowadays teenagers do not read quite as much, they spend more time on their phones, I am not sure. But I used to read novels, and for some reason, Russian novels seemed to strike a special chord with me. And I have been fascinated by Russia since the day when I first began reading those great 19th century novels. And I think that wanting to to be able to read them in the original was the starting point. I was also studying history and politics, and Russian history and politics was something I felt naturally attracted to, something necessary for me as an individual. At a certain point of my life, I was a high school teacher in the UK. I decided to do go back to studying, to do a PhDm, and I got a nine-month grant from the British Council to study in Russia. That was in 1991, and as I remember, I was at my family’s home , and my mother came in to the living room and said: ‘Simon, it is off, you can’t go to Russia! The British Council will have to cancel your trip because of the coup.’ In fact, it turned out to be slightly pessimistic, and although the British Council did initially cancel the scholarship, a few weeks later it was back on track. So I went to Russia in September 1991, supposedly for nine months. It was a fascinating time to be in Russia, and I also met my future wife Katia. Basically, I think it was twelve years altogether I lived in Russia. The latter part of the time, I worked at the EU Delegation. I had a job there as Team Leader for the EU’s human rights grant-making programme. In that capacity I got to know many Russian human rights activists. It was a great privilege to me and an enormously educative experience . After my work at the European Commission ended, I was employed by a foundation based in the United States doing very similar work. So for many years I had the honour of working with Russia’s human rights community.
Now you are also a member of the Steering Committee of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, and your organisation, “Rights in Russia”, is a member of the Forum. Why is this network important for you?
It is very much related to the mission of the organisation. As I mentioned before, our purpose is to provide information to civil society, to encourage dialogue between civil societies in Russia and in the EU. The EU-Russia Civil Society Forum basically has a very similar mission. Although the mission of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum is somewhat broader. Its purpose is to bring together NGOs of a wider spectrum, not only human rights groups, but from a broad range of civil society organisations from the Russian Federation and the European Union. And I think that is an absolutely fantastic endeavour, which is incredibly timely, too. As we talk, the Soviet phrase “Druzhba narodov” comes to mind, “friendship of people” in the true sense of the word.
Another question is about relations between the EU and Russia. You mentioned the challenges in the human rights field, but what are the challenges and opportunities apart from that, in your opinion?
I think, on the one hand, as my colleagues and I work with civil society organisations, in particular human rights groups, I would say to some extent we distance ourselves from states. We are not, so to speak, parties in some dialogue between states. We see our role as very much rooted in civil society organisations. We are committed to the interests of the civil society organisations. We take the view, as democrats usually do, that civil society should be able to criticise its own government. We also believe that certain kinds of supra-national regional human rights institutions are very important. For example, the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights, the EU, the United Nations. These are bodies that are able to oversee, if you like, to review the activities of states. And I think that this connection between civil society on the one hand and these regional supranational organisations on the other is something that is very important for the future of our countries.
What would you like to wish to the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum’s member organisations?
As we all know, it is an incredibly difficult time for civil society organisations in many countries, not merely in the Russian Federation. We see there is this kind of populism, nationalism, which is infecting many Western countries. The main thing that I would like to wish members of the Forum is to have self-confidence and belief in themselves, in their organizations, and in their mission. And in the moral basis of their activities. And that their commitment to these values is such an important thing. And members of the Forum hold firm to that.
The interview was recorded by the Secretariat of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum on 9 October 2017 in Berlin, Germany.