Features | Society | Central Asia

Russian Revolutionary

Harriet Riley reports from St Petersburg on the link between badly dubbed Western movies and an award-winning human rights activist

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.

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.

Pustyntsev, 74, was born into the austerity of World War II. Russian civilians are, in many ways, the unsung heroes of this formative conflict. Their ability to survive the brutal winter sieges of Leningrad and Moscow by resorting first to shoe leather and then to cannibalism saw them outlast the invading force. Maybe it’s because he had nothing to eat as a child that Pustyntsev is so short, or maybe it’s because of the wounds he has suffered later in life. He hobbles and slouches like a stroke victim, though this posture is the result of broken bones, not blood clots.

In 1956, he was a student of English philology at Leningrad University when Soviet tanks crushed an uprising in Hungary. Pustyntsev and a small group of friends issued leaflets in support of the Hungarian freedom fighters and protested for the immediate withdrawal of troops from the occupied nations of Eastern Europe. In a matter of months, the KGB arrested Pustyntsev and his friends. He spent the next five years – half of his 20s – in jails and concentration camps.
The secret police have continued to dog him, but recognition has also followed his efforts. In 1993, Pustyntsev was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Republic of Hungary, the highest honour a foreign national can receive. It was conferred by the Hungarian President himself ‘as a token of the nation’s deepest gratitude’ for Pustyntsev’s efforts on their behalf.


Fifteen years later, and I am in Russia to observe the election that delivers Dmitry Medvedev to the presidency. Upon arriving, Anna gives me a crash course in bribery. I assure her I’m not going to do anything illegal. ‘Oh, it’s not for if you’ve actually done something,’ she laughs. ‘It’s just that if a couple of cops approach you and say you owe them a fine – because you’re wearing a green T-shirt on a Monday or something like that – they just want a bribe. The going rate is about 300 rubles [about US$10]. Pay it and they won’t arrest you. But don’t ever pay more than 500. That would be a rip-off.’ She laughs again. ‘Some of these young guys, they just don’t understand that there are rules.’

From top to bottom, it’s the unwritten laws that run Russia. Before nation states, customary codes of conduct such as hospitality and vendetta rituals performed the stabilising function subsequently assigned to national political and judicial systems. When a modern state fails, or when a group exists outside of its laws, similar codes re-emerge. The 2007 film Eastern Promises featured the Russian Mafia’s tattoo system. This kind of group identification — a tool for enforcing hierarchies — does not exist where individuals have personal rights and can call on higher authorities to defend them. Cities like St Petersburg are tattooed with indicators of their poverty and lawlessness. Abandoned factories are heaped with rubble and twisted steel, while smokestacks stand against a permanently grey sky – except in the evenings when a slick of haze scatters yet another iridescent sunset. Within minutes of arriving, your phlegm has turned black. Packs of wolf-like strays roam the streets. There are hundreds of them, not just one or two, and right away you know that a state without time for animals is having trouble with its people.

In 2007, Putin was named Time‘s Person of the Year. He had presided over remarkable growth in the Russian economy, but this supposed affluence came at a cost. It required stability of an extreme kind. Citizens lost certain rights – to mobility, to legal representation – ‘for their own good’. Pustyntsev wonders whether new products on supermarket shelves can really compensate for losing your freedom of speech.

The government makes it difficult to get in and out of the country, so few Russians have travelled to the rest of Europe. The vast majority have a remarkable, even endearing naivety about the wider world. At a club around the corner from CW headquarters, a huge burly bouncer chuckles delightedly on checking my ID and demands to hear everything about Australia: ‘What time of year does it snow in the desert? What is it like to fight with kangaroos?’

Later I see the same man casually break the nose of a drunken patron. The bartender tells me the bouncer served in Chechnya, and that his brother was killed in prison. ‘They seem so tough,’ says Anna grimly. ‘But it’s only because they have no idea things can be any better.’ No wonder education is central to CW’s strategy.

So it is that a combination of poverty and misinformation helps the government rule. Only two forces exist contrary to this arrangement: one is the criminal underground, which while working closely with the government also maintains a thriving private enterprise importing foreign goods. The other is big business, also known as the criminal overground, which works with foreign firms to do the same. Movies are a good example of how imports make a difference, for while the Kremlin tells it one way, Hollywood tells it another. Whether Pustyntsev acknowledges it or not, the cultural imperialism implicit in the movies that he translates is all part of a steady tide, undermining the government’s monopoly on truth. When I ask him about Russia’s future, Pustyntsev says, ‘Look at the Old Testament. We are like the Israelites. The end of communism was our release from slavery, but it will be another 40 years until we reach the Promised Land.’

Citizens’ Watch translates literature, lobbies the government and works with the media, while holding seminars and workshops for professionals. It also provides legal aid for those who can’t afford it, or those whom the government has deemed unworthy of it. CW recently defended a mother and son who where beaten in their apartment by the police. The outcome of the trial was a major victory: one of the five officers involved received a six-month sentence. Such achievements, however small, are an acknowledgment of wrongdoing by a supposedly infallible government, and help to set a precedent for future cases.

Since 1996, Pustyntsev has led the defence of Alexander Nikitin, former naval officer and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Nikitin was tried for treason after reporting on the hazards posed by Russia’s Northern Fleet to Norwegian NGO, the Bellona Foundation. The fleet had a poorly maintained nuclear arsenal, risking severe ecological damage in the entire North Sea region. Nikitin’s trial was typical; serially delayed over the course of four years, most of which he spent in prison. Eventually, thanks to Pustyntsev, Nikitin was acquitted. He now heads the Bellona Foundation’s St Petersburg branch.

Internationally publicised cases like this have won CW respect – and, crucially, funding, which must come exclusively from foreign donors. Early last year, the CW team set out to create permanent legal aid centres around Moscow and St Petersburg. The World Bank helped finance this move, but its notorious bureaucracy meant that after a year, no cash had materialised. CW has always found it easier to bypass global institutions and approach donor governments directly. (This should come as no surprise given that the IMF and World Bank were responsible for the disastrous Structural Adjustment Programs that crippled Russia in the 1990s.) The Danish consulate responded generously to a petition from CW, and in March this year, Pustyntsev opened the doors to their first legal aid hub.

But CW is a natural target for government suspicion. In August 2007, it underwent ‘checking’ by the Federal Registration Service (FRS), an agency created the previous year to head a clampdown on NGOs. The FRS could bring no charges against Citizens’ Watch, but things got complicated when they demanded access to all of CW’s outgoing correspondence for the last three years.

‘They were exceeding their powers. I refused to comply and asked for the demand in written form,’ explains Pustyntsev. ‘Next day they delivered it with a threat at the end of the letter: Refusing to give us access to the documents in question will be considered as obstructing the checking procedure.‘ Pustyntsev knew that the FRS could initiate sanctions against an NGO accused of obstructing the checking process, such as freezing its bank accounts.

The team decided they had better comply, but simultaneously lodged a complaint with the FRS’s governing authorities. Their computers were seized and for nine long months the case was passed from one court to another. Finally, CW appealed to the City Court, which in October 2008 ruled in their favour. It was a victory all round, as the ruling created a precedent that other NGOs have used to combat the FRS.

Ironically, while one branch of the government was investigating Citizens’ Watch, another was asking for its help. CW runs a program for youth offenders at prisons around St Petersburg. When the Juvenile Section of the City Court and the Criminal Executive Inspections Department heard about it, they asked CW to train their staff. Pustyntsev called in Andrew Bernhardt and Keith Davies, experts from the University of Hertfordshire, UK, who wrote a training manual for the project, and led seminars for guards, judges and lawyers.

‘Because we’re trustworthy, it’s easier for civil servants to work with us than the government,’ says Pustyntsev. ‘Slowly, we’re proving that transparency and equity are simply more efficient than intimidation.’

All this annoys the Kremlin, which continues to harass CW’s staff. Most of Pustyntsev’s team have family members who endured punishment under the old gulag system, and many have been imprisoned or abused themselves. Resilience, or perhaps complete indifference to suffering, seems to be the core of the Russian character. Generations of servitude have taught them to take pride in pain. Some commentators blame this stoic fatalism for the average Russian’s inability to question the government, as if Russia is like a girl who dates abusive leaders because her father was a violent drunk. In the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1905, Tsar Nicholas II, known to his loving subjects as ‘Little Father’, turned his personal troops on a group of peaceful demonstrators carrying his portrait.

‘Russians just want a leader to defer to, the way they do to God,’ says Anna, a historian from Copenhagen who has spent most of her life in St Petersburg. ‘Whether it’s Stalin or Putin, he’s just stepping into a role. However much they resent it, they’ll accept whatever punishment he doles out.’ She is exasperated by this habitual forbearance. Inveterate socialists, Scandinavians are devoted to equality because it gives them a sense of community. Russians have a little more trouble with the idea of an informal, egalitarian relationship. Serfdom was not abandoned here until 1861, after centuries of hierarchy and feudal role-play. Perhaps this is why communism promised paradise to Russia, but, by the same token, was too alien to take root.

The Soviet bureaucracy was famous for catch-22’s, and many still linger. A person’s legal existence, for example, is predicated on their possession of an identity card. The card must display a residential address owned by its holder. However, it is illegal to purchase a property without displaying an identity card. This registration system used to work back when the government supplied everyone with an apartment. But that hasn’t happened since 1990. Consequently, there is a thriving black market for illegal rentals, and thousands at the age of 40 are still registered as living with their parents, whether they do or not. A person without an ID cannot receive healthcare, marry or do anything else requiring basic legal status. If they disappear, nobody knows, which can be rather convenient for some agencies, if devastating for families.

These are the ‘technical homeless’, and Citizens’ Watch has worked hard with other NGOs to give them a voice. Unlike most tight spots in Russia, this is one of the few that a bribe cannot get you out of. A wealthy factory manager, for example, had been forced to buy his house illegally. It didn’t matter until, following a grave diagnosis from his doctor, hospitals refused to admit him without an ID.

It is even worse for the poor, not least the literally homeless street-dwellers of Moscow and St Petersburg. They stand out in the homogenous Slavic capitals, because so many are Asiatic. They come from Greater Russia, a vast and austere wilderness stretching from the Urals to Kamchatca. Many belonged to nomadic tribes well into the 20th century, until they were forcibly settled by Stalin to work the great mines. Those mines, from Yakutsk to Ukraine, are now in the hands of billionaires, and little of the profits ever find their way into locals’ pockets.

Stories of the Wild East sometimes filter through to big cities. When the minerals run out in a hapless Siberian town, the government cuts its power supply and leaves the inhabitants to freeze. Poverty-stricken Easterners arrive in their thousands looking for work in White Russia. By travelling outside the region shown on their ID cards, however, they have become criminals. Instead of arresting them, the authorities find it easier to leave them to the mercy of the street.

This is one the more obvious manifestations of Russia’s entrenched racism. Initially, it had been one of CW’s key aims to combat the rise in fascist groups during perestroika. Now it looks at racial inequity more generally, and recently developed a set of teaching materials for schools. As we review its contents, Pustyntsev warns me not to drink the ice cubes in my drink, ‘unless you want to spend the next three days with diarrhoea. Tap water is okay for showers, but not for drinking.’ When basic infrastructure is so fraught with problems, a functional legal system might seem like a fantasy. Yet with projects confronting racism, Citizens’ Watch continues to aim high. Pustyntsev explains: ‘we need to go beyond the laws and address whatever part of our culture informs them.’

The movie I’m watching closes, complete with tacked on credits for the voice actors. Everyone seems to have enjoyed the ending, especially the fact that the bad guys went to jail and the wrongly accused were free. Pustyntsev and his team hope their push for a transparent judicial system, trustworthy police and freedom of speech — the basic prerequisites for a safe society — will bring a similarly happy ending for Russia.