Truth Tellers Under Fire: The Anti-War Struggle in Russia with Aleksandra Garmazhapova

Russian anti-war activist and investigative journalist, founder of the Free Buryatia Foundation, Aleksandra Garmazhapova, addresses the 16th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for her remarks.

Full Remarks:

Good afternoon, I am honored to be here today.

My name is Aleksandra Garmazhapova. I am a journalist and civic activist from Russia. I was born in Buryatia, a sparsely populated region of Siberia that borders Mongolia. But I grew up in St. Petersburg, a massive city of 5 million people. I first got involved in politics in high school when I was 16 years old. Now I am 35 years old.

I was motivated by the murder of a 20-year-old antifascist Timur Kacharava in the center of St. Petersburg. Timur & his friends had been volunteering to feed the homeless at “Food Instead of Bombs”. On his way home, Timur was assaulted by a gang of Nazis and killed.

His close friend, Sasha, told me “Timur was killed in the center of the city, full of people. And not a single person interfered. No one cared.” I did care, but I was too young at that time.

At my first rally, me and the kids picketed the FSB in St. Petersburg and chanted slogans criticizing Putin. As children, we fought against Vladimir Putin’s regime, already realizing its danger.

As an investigative journalist, I’d confront this regime head on, writing thousands of articles about it – articles about Putin’s discrimination against ethnic minorities, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s “troll factories,” and the possibility of a free & democratic state.

But today, I’m here to talk about Putin’s assault on Ukraine and thousands of Russian citizens who publicly protested the war who are now imprisoned.

Putin announced that Russia seeks to “denazify” Ukraine. He proclaimed that Russia is the main global enemy of fascism. I took that statement as a personal affront. Because the real antifascism, which cost Timur Kacharava his life, and which brought me into civil activism, has nothing in common with the criminal actions of Vladimir Putin.

After the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, we ethnic Buryats began anti-war activities, inspiring dozens of other ethnicities in Russia to mobilize in anti-war protests. We assert that the war against Ukraine is imperial at its core. And it is the poorest citizens of Russia – including ethnic Buryats obviously, who number less than half a million people – are being sent to die in the name of the empire.

In November 2022, we were perplexed by the words of Pope Francis, who said that the most brutal people in Ukraine were the Buryats. This statement is certainly prejudiced. The Russian army includes different peoples and it is incorrect to speak about the special cruelty of a particular group.

However, the fact that the Russian army is committing a crime by invading the territory of the sovereign state of Ukraine is indisputable.

For my anti-war activities, in November 2023, I was sentenced by a Russian court to 7 years in prison. Fortunately, in absentia.

It is for this reason that I am here and I have the opportunity to tell you about those who are less fortunate – anti-war political prisoners from Russian regions.About those whose names rarely appear in media publications. Those who are left alone with the cannibalistic state machine, as it is slowly devouring them alive, for all of us to watch. I deeply empathize with the pain and suffering of these people. I could have been one of them.

Imagine, one morning, the police break into your house, press your face against the floor and rummage through your personal belongings. They arrest you. The only people in court are your relatives. No one else. Because people are afraid to show support. Because you’re now an enemy of the people. Just like in the Soviet Union. You feel enormous stress. You feel misunderstood. And guilty for leaving your children behind. You don’t know when you’ll see them again. It might be years. But it was your choice to become an activist, and now they are suffering for it. You worry that you’ve abandoned your aging parents, and when you were supposed to take care of them, now they must try take care of you.

For every political prisoner arrested, many, many lives are destroyed.

In Russia, except for Putin, no one is protected, but people in the rural regions are doubly vulnerable – because the major media rarely write about them, and they face terrible pressure from inside their region.
That is why I’ve chosen to focus on these lesser-known political prisoners. They need our attention. They need our support more than anyone.

Altan Ochirov, is a political prisoner from Kalmykia. Kalmykia is located in the south of Russia. He is serving a prison sentence for “fakes” about the Russian army. But you and I understand the truth – the Kremlin will label anything a “fake” if it doesn’t align with their propaganda. He wrote from behind bars that he has wronged his children, ages 6 and 11, leaving them without a father’s care, and that he had wronged his elderly mother, leaving her without a son’s care.

“I’m sorry, but I couldn’t do it any other way,” Altan said.

My friend Dmitry Skurikhin, a 50-year-old entrepreneur from the Leningrad region, painted the facade of his store with anti-war slogans. Dmitry was born, and lived his entire life in a small village of just under five thousand people near St. Petersberg. It’s called Russko-Vysotskoe.
In 2014, I was passing that village, and saw a storefront prominently featuring the words, ‘Peace to Ukraine! Freedom to Russia!’ I was so inspired by the overwhelming courage of the owner of that store.

Turned out, the owner was Dmitry Skurikhin.

After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, Skurikhin wrote appeals to stop the war, asked for forgiveness from Ukrainians and demanded Vladimir Putin’s resignation. On February 24, 2023, the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Dmitry walked out in front of his store and fell to his knees. As he knelt, he held up a sign “Ukraine, forgive us.” He was convicted of discrediting Russia’s army and sent to prison, leaving 5 children behind.

Sergey Mikhailov is a journalist & a colleague of mine from a small Siberian Republic called Atlay. For over two years, Sergey has been held in jail, in pretrial detention, awaiting a sentence on charges about “fakes”. He is being prosecuted because he published information about war crimes committed by Russian forces in the Ukrainian city of Bucha in his regional newspaper Listok.

When the police came to search Sergey’s home, only his young daughter was there. The police demanded that the child opens the door. Later they brought Sergey’s elderly father to coax his granddaughter to open the door.

During his court statement, Mikhailov stressed that any decent human being cannot stay silent. Sadly, very few people attend his court hearings – literally, only a couple of people.

That is why I wanted to talk about this brave man today.

I’ll end with the story of a fellow Russian woman from Buryatia, 62-year-old pensioner Natalya Filonova. She was put in prison for allegedly beating four police officers after an anti-war rally. But in reality, Filonova has consistently opposed Russian aggression in Ukraine – and now, she’s being punished for it.

After the verdict, Filonova quoted the lines of Decembrist Kondratiy Ryleyev: “But where, tell me, when was freedom redeemed? Freedom redeemed without sacrifice?”

Today, I ask you: Please remember these people, who found themselves behind bars only because they held on to their humanity.

I know so many people in Russia – college professors, entrepreneurs, journalists, and many others – who have admitted to me, that for the first time ever they are learning how to write letters to political prisoners – because the prisoners are now people they know personally.

There are thousands of people, who are now behind bars because they refused to accept the war, corruption and lies. They are in prison for rejecting everything that is epitomized by Putin.

Therefore, I say no to Putin!

And freedom for political prisoners!

Thank you.

16th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, May 14, 2024

 

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