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.’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.