Polina Nemirovskaia, a seasoned human rights campaigner in Russia and active player in the political campaigns of Boris Nemtsov before his tragic addition to the list of high-profile political critics of President Vladimir Putin assassinated for their dissent, addresses the 8th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.
On growing up in Russia:
“Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been interested in politics. My family would tell me that it’s not the best thing to be fond of in Russia and if you are an opposition member then you will end up in jail.”
“While all the other kids thought they’d grow up to be astronauts or ballerinas, I was preparing myself for prison.”
On the murder of Boris Nemtsov:
“Boris Nemtsov turned out to be very bright and very alive and what is more important – he was sincere.”
“A year ago, he was murdered. Some said that we woke up in a different country. We didn’t.”
“It wasn’t new, yet it was. Only because it was so open and so brazen.”
On change in Russia:
“Since the Kremlin started targeting not only us – the opposition – but ordinary people, people not involved in politics, more and more of them realize that there must be an alternative. More and more people are not just ready – but desperate – for change. And change is coming soon.”
“They are fighting a losing battle and they know it.”
“It is possible to stand against to the system in Russia, not always, no, but enough to give me, to give all of us, an increasing number of us, opposition Russians, and ordinary Russians, a reason to hope and a reason to keep fighting – fighting for an alternative version of Russia.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m honored to be speaking to you today at this Geneva Summit. My name is Polina Nemirovskaia, I am twenty years old and I am a human rights activist with the Open Russia movement founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been interested in politics. My family would tell me that it’s not the best thing to be fond of in Russia and if you are an opposition member then you will end up in jail. So, while all the other kids thought they’d grow up to be astronauts or ballerinas, I was preparing myself for prison. As you can see standing here, I’m still not there, though many of my friends are not that lucky.
When I was 17, I actually did as my family wanted me to. They wanted me to be a corporate lawyer and earn a lot of money. So I went to law school and then I took an internship at some Gazprom subsidiary company. The office was nice, and the bosses were lovely and I had a driver and a Mercedes-Benz to drive me on business trips. But, two months later I took a train to Yaroslavl to join Boris Nemtsov’s election campaign there. Because I realized that what is going on in my country is not how I wanted to see it and I wanted to make some change.
To be honest, until I met Boris Nemtsov, I never liked him. For me he was just an ordinary guy from the ’90s, and I was tired of seeing faces in politics even before I was born. But that summer changed everything for me.
Boris Nemtsov turned out to be very bright and very alive and what is more important – he was sincere. He wanted the same for the country as I did and he didn’t seem to be making any profit from being an opposition leader. He just did what he thought was right — the same way as I did.
Against all the odds he won that campaign and after that summer I ended up with something more — with hope. It was very important for me to know that there are good and honest people between the leaders of protest in Russia. And even though I still didn’t trust any other politicians, I had one to believe in.
My resumé after that was anything but corporate. I came home to Saint Petersburg while Boris was shuttling between Moscow and Yaroslavl. I’ve joined his party, left his party, travelled a lot, helped my political refugee friends abroad, moved to Moscow, moved back to Petersburg, even worked in a district court for several months — to find out how things are done from the inside. I would see Boris at protests, say hi and make some jokes, then go our separate ways. But I always knew that in case of any trouble, I could call him and he would help.
I can’t do this anymore. A year ago, he was murdered. Some said that we woke up in a different country. We didn’t. The country was the same and everything was the same. It was the same Russia on that Friday as it was on Thursday and Wednesday and the Tuesday before. Even the murder wasn’t new — opposition members have been killed before. It wasn’t new, yet it was. Only because it was so open and so brazen. Kremlin walls and Chechen killers, directly connected to the governor of Chechnya – Ramzan Kadyrov.
Insiders would tell you that Putin himself was shocked after that. He took a pause to think of what he should do next. That would have been the perfect time for the Kremlin to realize what they were doing to our country. That would have been the perfect moment for them to stop. But now, a year later, we can see what decision has been made since then.
It’s not only about Kadyrov — though he seems to be the perfect symbol of our time, with his Instagram where he publishes death threats to members of the opposition and with his henchmen throwing cake in the face of ex-prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov in the centre of Moscow in a restaurant a year after his partner was killed, considering that funny.
No. It’s about what the Kremlin itself does. You see they’ve decided not to hide anymore. Not to hide just how much they hate everything independent —whether it’s political or not. Now the Kremlin even has to fight it’s own people — long distance truckers, borrowers at the mercy of banks and collectors, small businesses and so on. And still they come up with new even more severe laws. Still they still put innocent people in prison. I am thinking of Ildar Dadin, a victim of a new law that prosecutes people for protesting in the streets. Think of it: in Russia if you on to the street, even to picket, not to cause a riot or anything, you are fined by the police. If the police fines you two or more times in a 6 month period— you go to jail. Like Ildar Dadin did. He got three years for solitary pickets. I have received a letter from him recently and he said that he will spend whatever time is necessary in prison in order to stop this law. And now our lawyers at Open Russia are taking his case to Constitutional Court to stop this law while we still have a chance.
And I personally think that we do have a chance. Since the Kremlin started targeting not only us – the opposition – but ordinary people, people not involved in politics, more and more of them realize that there must be an alternative. More and more people are not just ready — but desperate — for change. And change is coming soon.
What I hope for — what Open Russia is doing— is that we will be able to show people how to escape this crisis and how to unite ourselves and our country.
We are working on many fronts now, education, election, media monitoring. And human rights is what I and Maria Barnonova, my colleague here, is what we do. We want people to know that when they are put in prison on trumped up charges they are not alone. We provide financial support for the families of political prisoners. We organize public campaigns in their defence and we provide them lawyers in some cases. Last year, for example, we celebrated with Tangeizer’s case — the opera banned in Novosibirsk for insulting members of the orthodox church. The local government tried to pin charges on the director — but he was acquitted. Then there was the case of Svetlana Davydova — a mother of 7, who was accused of treason for speaking up about Ukraine. She was put to FSB jail but with our lawyers after two weeks she was released and her case was closed.
Then there was my friend, Andrei Pivovarov, who was heading an election campaign in Kostroma, a regional city in Russia. He also was put to prison and he spent three months there before we bailed him out. His case is not closed yet. And this year, one of the people imprisoned for taking part in the Bolotnaya Square protests was released on parole with the help of our lawyers.
These victories is the reason why I am optimistic about the future. Yes of course, the Kremlin will stop at nothing to stop us. But, since they are now fighting everyone, they don’t have so much time to spend on us alone. They are fighting a losing battle and they know it. You see, it is possible to stand against to the system in Russia, not always, no, but enough to give me, to give all of us, an increasing number of us, opposition Russians, and ordinary Russians, a reason to hope and a reason to keep fighting – fighting for an alternative version of Russia. Better for Russians and better for the world.
We see it in our hearts and minds. We hope that you will see it with us.