Solidarity and collaboration: An interview with Anna Dobrovolskaya

Since 2007, Anna Dobrovolskaya has been working with creating awareness about human rights in Russia. She has been working with human rights schools educating young and old about their rights and creating a place where they can feel safe to speak freely. She has been training people to go to court, to observe the police working, to help with research. So that they will be prepared to act in a situation when their or others’ rights are violated. The YHRM focuses on offering solidarity, collaboration and the understanding of our common challenges. Saturday October 29, she visited Globaliseringskonferansen in Oslo, to talk about human rights in Russia. 

Can you tell us more about your work on creating awareness about human rights in Russia?

The work of Youth Human Rights Movement (YHRM) in Russia is mainly targeted to raise awareness about human rights amongst young people. We do this via human rights schools, mainly in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and a few other large cities,which are open for everyone who wants to learn more. Basically we create a special space where people can become human rights activists, where they can learn more about the work and projects of different human rights NGOs, as well as joining organizations in the future.

Every 6 months, we educate several hundreds persons aged 18-35, and about 3 out of 10 of them remain activists in different NGOs, or create their own initiatives regarding human rights.

In addition to the seminars, we also run several awareness-raising projects where we use different «modern» instruments to talk about human rights, such as comic-books or cartoons and exhibitions.

We get a lot of interest from young people, but of course, our efforts are not enough to involve really huge amounts of people in this field. The most important aim of this work for us is to spread human rights values and provide possibilities for the newcomers to the human rights movement to meet peers and get first-hand knowledge from experts.

How has the “Foreign agent law” from 2012 affected the work of YHRM and your work on creating a place where people can speak freely?

There is no single NGO in Russia which would not suffer from the new laws. Our NGO was not included to the foreign agents list, but what’s worst about this law is that the words «foreign agents» has become associated with human rights defenders. Ordinary people do not get into all the legal details, so for them, all human rights defenders are foreign agents, and then we have to explain why we are not.

If we were included in the list, it would have become more complicated to maintain partner relations with state bodies, schools, universities, and for some our colleagues, also with courts, prison authorities and state lawyers etc.

For those NGOs who has been included in the list, it has also meant hundreds of hour spent in courtrooms, huge fines and lots of lost newcomers.

At the same time I think the laws in themselves did not have such a huge influence on freedom of expression, but that the law-enforcement practice had. Since the conflict in Ukraine and Maidan in 2013. the country more and more soaks itself in atmosphere of hatred and fear. Based on different research we now see the lowest level of mutual trust between people, and also a growing trend of trying to find an enemy who can be blamed for all the bad events.

The YHRM focuses on offering solidarity and collaboration. How do you collaborate with others?

We always tried to think outside of national borders, and we monitor the human rights situation not only in Russia. YHRM was created as an international community, and we try to stay as much connected with our colleagues from other countries as possible.

We had been actively involved in the solidarity with Belarus human rights defenders after the events of 2010, which has been a very good example of international solidarity actions, when people from different countries were doing really joint actions, shared plans and developed joint advocacy strategies.

As a network, we always provide solidarity actions support to all our members, in case of risk or any other kind of emergency.

Unfortunately the last years have been very hard for all of us, so most of the time, everyone is busy with their own survival rather than with real help and solidarity with others.

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