Anastasia Shevchenko, the first dissident convicted under Russia’s “undesirable organizations” law, profiled in Oscar-shortlisted film “Anastasia,” addresses the 15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for her remarks.
I am a politician by accident. But I was always meant to be a mom.
When I was 21 years old, I gave birth to my beautiful, healthy baby girl, Alina. But when I went to take her home, the doctor told me, “Leave her here, she’s going to be disabled.” I was really shocked, “What do you mean?” He said that she had contracted encephalitis and her brain would never function properly. “Please submit a written statement refusing to be her parents,” he said, “and we will hand her over to the state.”
We spent the next 3 years in and out of the hospital with her. The doctors said she’d probably never walk, talk, go to the bathroom, feed herself, and unfortunately, they were right. We struggled to get her medication, even though it was guaranteed by the state. So, I started writing letters to our local government, demanding better care for my disabled child. I became a journalist, an activist. I have two more children, a daughter Vlada and a son Misha. I started working on elections, advocating for freedom, democracy, and human rights. As a member of Open Russia movement, I organized protests, debates, seminars, fighting for freedom, for democracy against Putin’s regime.
For my activism, I was fined and detained multiple times. In January 2019, I was arrested. I remember my children watching in horror as they searched my apartment, taking everything out of my wardrobe and throwing it onto the floor. What I didn’t know then is that they had installed a hidden camera into the air conditioning unit 6 months prior. I was so disgusted – what kind of people would watch a woman in her bedroom? This is what Russian police do.
They detained me for two days and then sentenced me to two years and one month of house arrest. I waited for my trial. I’d be the first person tried under a new law against “undesirable” organizations.
The same week, my daughter Alina got bronchitis and they took her to the hospital all alone. Believe me, I literally begged the judge to let me go and see my daughter and take care of her; I was showing him that her body was small and weak and that she needed my assistance, that even a trivial illness could be her last. The judge smirked and said ‘No.’
After they interrogated me, my lawyer told me that Alina’s heart had stopped twice and that she’d been transferred to the ICU. Finally they approved my request to visit the hospital. I walked into Alina’s room to find her pale blue. I reached out for her hand… When you hold your child’s hand, something magical usually happens; they instantly feel better… But nothing happened… She was cold. And in a couple of hours, my daughter died…
My first month on house arrest, I barely got out of my bed mourning my daughter. On her funeral, I was forced to stand there alone, monitored remotely by guards, and forbidden from talking to anyone. I thought about a conversation I’d had with an American journalist. He adopted his son in St. Petersburg and they also told him he was going to be disabled, but the photo he showed me was of a healthy, young man. Alina might have had a chance if she lived in another country. But because we lived in Russia, my daughter had to suffer every single day of her life.
And now, all our children suffer. When I was on house arrest with all possible restrictions, I couldn’t go out, use the internet, work, send messages, communicate with anyone… My 14 years old daughter and my 7 years old son became adults overnight. They were doing everything for me outside: They went to school alone, they were running errands to the grocery store, to the bank… In 2021, I was convicted to three years of suspended sentence.
I escaped Russia last summer with my daughter, my son, and my dog. Now we live in Vilnius. And it’s my daughter’s birthday today, she’s 19, and I am here on a stage so maybe I am not the best mom. She’s studying politics in University, she understands me well, how important it is to be here… A few months ago, her classmate from Ukraine hugged me and said, “I want to go home. I want to go back to Ukraine.” She was looking at me with tears as if she was saying, “Please, do something!” And I promise, I will do everything I can. I know Russia’s actions can’t be undone, but to the people of Ukraine, I ask for forgiveness. Even if forgiveness is impossible, I’m still ready to bend my knees in every city, in every village, destroyed or attacked by Russian troops.
Putin is a criminal. He is a terrorist. He kills Ukrainians. He arrested Mikhail Khodorkovskiy, he killed Boris Nemtsov, he enjailed Navalny, and my friends and colleagues Vladimir Kara-Murza and Artem Kamardin among many, many others. If I returned to Russia, I would be also immediately arrested. I’m on the wanted list because as they say, and this is ridiculous, I’m a threat to Russia’s defense forces.
So let me also address those who remain in Russia today. I’m sure Russian police will watch it.
I’d like to express solidarity with the tens of millions of Russians who refuse to participate in Russia’s regime and the war in Ukraine, and especially with those who have the courage to speak out against it. There are many Russians like me who will continue to organize political rallies, fight propaganda, and advocate for human rights.
I told you, I’m a politician by accident so as the Russian democratic forces, we are committed to these fundamental positions:
- The war against Ukraine is criminal. Russian troops must be withdrawn from all occupied territories. We must restore internationally recognized borders of Russia; bring war criminals to trail, compensate victims.
- Putin’s regime is criminal and must be liquidated.
- Russia’s imperial policies that discriminate against ethnic minorities and any other minorities at home and abroad are unacceptable.
- Political prisoners in Russia and prisoners of war must be released, forcibly displaced Ukrainian adults and children must be allowed to return home.
I am a mom and one day I dream of coming back to Russia and making my country a better place where children are loved, where politicians take care of citizens, where everyone has equal rights. That may sound utopian, I know. But I will never stop fighting for the people of Ukraine, for the people of Russia, for our children. Putin’s reign must come to an end so, together, we can all be free.
No dictatorship, no war.