In St Petersburg you learn how the Cold War was won. Next to a McDonald’s there is a movie theatre, and my translator Anna is taking me out to a Hollywood blockbuster. I don’t quite understand why; Russia is famous for its avant-garde directors and has a proud cinematic tradition. It’s not until we’re sitting in the overheated dark, with the smell of cigarettes and diesel drifting in from the street, that I realise this is a lesson. For a few moments the soundtrack swells, a hush falls, then with a whir and a click the dialogue vanishes beneath a jumpy tape-recording.
Unlike most other countries in Europe, English is not a stalwart of the primary school curriculum. Russia dubs its imports, but the budget for doing so isn’t exactly vast. Pitt and Clooney whisper beneath the rapid-fire bouts of disinterested Slavic drawl, but it’s impossible to catch what they’re saying. No matter how many characters a film may have, only two Russian voice actors play them all – one for the men and one for the women. And it seems to be the same two every time.
St Petersburg in midwinter — the ice is a foot deep and black on the banks of the Neva. Boris Pustyntsev turns the key in the door to his apartment and moments later is lying face down on the concrete. ‘The saddest thing about it,’ recalls the grey-haired lawyer with a subtle smile, ‘is not that it damaged my eyesight, but that I lost my job in the movie business.’ He removes his glasses and rubs his heavy brow, revealing the purple scars that, to a Westerner, irresistibly betoken the stoic, sardonic character of Gorbachev’s generation.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Pustyntsev is the president of Russia’s foremost human rights NGO, Citizens’ Watch. He’s also Brad Pitt, George Clooney and every other English-speaking male who has ever appeared on a Russian movie screen. Before helping to found CW, Pustyntsev worked in film studios around the USSR, dubbing and subtitling foreign films, until 1992 when a KGB attack forced him to retire. Initiated that same year by a team of activists, lawyers and journalists, Citizens’ Watch strives to bring Russia’s domestic legislation into line with international standards, such as set by the UN and EU.
That might sound like a purely academic concern, but not in a country where the law still depends on who you know. Whereas Westerners are privileged with a certain degree of consistency – and therefore safety – when it comes to legal processes, in Russia, business, mafia and the military all colour the terrain. By demanding accountability in all of legislative and judicial processes, Citizens’ Watch has set out to reform the entire machinery of state.
‘If the people enforcing the law don’t obey the law, we must set an example ourselves,’ Pustyntsev explains. ‘In Russia, there are some dangerous groups — fascists and anarchists — claiming to want justice for all. It’s not surprising; if you confront people with violence, they respond with it. At CW we try to break that cycle. We obey the laws ourselves, regardless of the government failing to respect them.’
The breadth of CW’s activities represents the diversity of challenges facing contemporary Russia. The board relies on interns and professionals volunteering their time to work alongside the handful of paid staff. While they can’t employ the hundreds of administrators enjoyed by Western NGOs (primarily for the sake of keeping a low profile) they make up for it with highly trained, well-connected teams, each working on a separate project.