On guilt, responsibility and defending human rights

It is rather obvious who is to blame: the Russian government is to blame for the war, disaster, devastation, thousands of dead and millions who have lost their homes. But what’s worse and feels bitter is that the Russian society, those who did not want peace or those who wanted it, who still want to stop the violence but cannot do so, are also to blame. Are we indeed to blame for the fact that we are not so numerous, that those few who are opposed to the government’s actions are more often silent than protesting in the streets, that so many tolerate for many years that which one cannot tolerate without becoming an accomplice of the scoundrels, and by this I mean not only what’s happening in relation to Ukraine, but also what had happened before regarding Chechnya, Georgia and Moldova?..
One cannot avoid recognizing the obvious, one should call a spade a spade. Russian aggression led to war with Ukraine, Russian armaments bring death and destruction to Donetsk and Lugansk regions, people are persecuted and tortured in the occupied Crimea, innocent people are unjustly judged by courts simply because they want to be Ukrainians or Crimean Tatars. Rallies against this war, which were held in Russia (that’s back when they were still held), gathered not so many people and that was painful and embarrassing to see. What was also particularly shameful, that people were sometimes happy: “Look, there are so many of us here!” A rally of 50 thousand people in Moscow, which is inhabited by millions of people (and in fact people from other regions also came to Moscow to take part in the manifestation) – is that really a lot?! In fact, that’s not a lot at all. In St. Petersburg there were just a few hundred participants in a similar event. But we have a lot more people, who were personally touched by this problem, those who have relatives in Ukraine or others, who recently arrived themselves from Ukraine to live in Russia, some who came a long time ago, but remained Ukrainians in their hearts. Unfortunately, even the majority of these people didn’t take part in anti-war rallies. I was once approached by a woman, who aggressively told me that she was from Donetsk and that she was extremely dissatisfied with my poster saying “This war is our fault, lay down the arms”. “Why does it say that it is your fault, when it is our fault [the fault of those in Ukraine]”, she shouted angrily. I agreed with this refugee from Donetsk that it was probably also their fault, too (she also told me by then that her son was fighting there for the separatist militia). But next my confused and enraged vis-a-vis started shouting “But no, it’s your fault”. I did not argue against this, because to begin with I argued that it was our fault. It looked a little funny, but the woman never actually managed to make up her mind on what was “our” for her (apparently, she still thought of herself as Ukrainian, although she obviously thought that it was Ukraine to blame for all the troubles that happened in Donetsk region and she tried clumsily to express this at the beginning of our conversation), but it was also obvious that she was awfully sad and disgusted about what happened there and felt sorry for everyone.
But even if we are clear on whose fault it is, a more important question still is “What is to be done?” I see only one way out – to tell the truth and to protect the victims of this horrible, disastrous war. In Ukraine volunteers, human rights activists, church communities do a lot, but they are obviously overwhelmed by the scale of the problems. State measures to support the victims of the war are not enough. There is an obvious lack of even basic information – how many people need help, where they stay, how they are living, what their needs are, etc. Some Russian human rights activists and journalists, too, are helping to gather information, trying to understand what needs to be done to improve the situation of the people in the war-torn region.
Over the past year and a half Sergey Mikheyev, an expert from the Anti-discrimination center “Memorial”, has visited various cities and towns on the front-line in eastern Ukraine and gathered information about the situation of the Roma population in the region. In fact, there were anti-Roma pogroms in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, but no one before him came to talk to the victims of these attacks. In order to protect the Roma population from acts of racism and discrimination we have to understand how Roma people suffered in the conflict zone as the situation there unfolded, who the attackers were, what measures have been taken (or not taken) there. Unfortunately, the Roma residents of Lugansk and Donetsk regions do not write reports or articles about themselves, so someone else has to do it on their behalf. In 2015 ADC “Memorial” released its report “Roma and the War”, which was the first detailed account of the problems of Roma people affected by war in the Donbass region. The report criticised all the authorities, both Russian ones (as the perpetrators of war, but also due to the shameful attitude towards refugees who arrived in Russia from the Ukraine, which included constant discriminatory treatment of Roma families), the authorities of the breakaway republics (with documented cases of racially motivated violence, robberies, kidnappings of Roma people), and the Ukrainian government (the report noted that the assistance to Roma people, who went from the conflict zone to the Ukraine was almost exclusively provided by volunteers and the state support for them was much smaller).
The report also criticized international organizations for the lack of attention to the problem of vulnerable minorities in eastern Ukraine, as the human rights activists called on the UN and the OSCE to pay more attention to this. This criticism, by the way, was to some extent taken into account, and ADC “Memorial” was repeatedly asked to continue monitoring violations of the rights of the Roma people there, to provide information about the measures needed to improve the lives of Roma in the areas affected by the war in 2014, where people have lived for more than a year now in conditions of relative peace and more and more people are returning home.
It is important not only to gather information and analyze it, but also to attract as much attention as possible to the existing problems, isn’t it? It was for this reason that Sergey Mikheyev expressed his impressions from his trip to Ukrainian Donbass region in a small article on his blog on the website of “Radio Liberty”. Unfortunately, this publication came out just when other bloggers started a campaign of criticism, stating complete unacceptability of discussing Ukrainian problems by any people from the Russian Federation. Sergey Loyko wrote: “Of course, human rights must be defended everywhere and always. And anyone (well, almost anyone) today has the moral right to chastise Ukraine for the neglect of human rights, if there are such cases, be it Chinese or Eskimo, but not Russian. Not after what happened over the last year in relations between our countries”. No wonder that the publication on the disastrous situation of the Roma people in Donbass region led to immediate comments expressing dissatisfaction with criticism from Russian human rights activists. Some people, who probably not only did nothing to help the victims of the war, ethnic minorities, but were probably completely disinterested in the problems of the poor Roma, suddenly realized that they have a “moral right” to bully those who struggled to defend the rights of Roma people, who went to them in difficult times and who continue to think of ways to help them.
Sergey Loyko probably had something else in mind and didn’t mean to provide indulgence to all those who want to smack Russian human rights activists, who help the victims of war also because they are completely aware of their own responsibility for everything that happens. But any kind of ethnic discrimination is also unacceptable in this matter – there are people in Russia who could not care less, and there are no reasons to forbid them from expressing their concerns.
However, I think that his reference to unacceptability of criticism of Stalin’s policy by German anti-fascists (that supposedly once their country attacked the USSR, they could no longer condemn the repression of entire ethnic groups in the USSR) to be erroneous. I’m always shocked by ostentatious militarism in the words of Russian writers Ilya Ehrenburg (in his famous “Kill the German”) or similar disgusting poems by Konstantin Simonov (“So kill at least one of them”) – both writers were not engaged in actual fighting on the frontline and the real Soviet war veterans despised their pathos both during the war and later (as I was told by a man who fought against the Germans, but who until the end of his life suffered when thinking about the hundreds of German soldiers actually killed by him and his fellow soldiers).
We all have the right to humanity and solidarity, the right to reject aggression, militarism, chauvinism and racism, and this right is ours regardless of our nationality, place of birth or the type of last name that we have. German anti-fascists had the right to condemn the Communist dictatorship (see Remarque’s “Spark of life”), but that does not diminish their anti-fascism, quite the contrary. Russian human rights activists can and should work to overcome the dramatic violation of the rights of victims of war, to protect those who need protection and to tell the truth without trying to please someone. It is both our right and our duty.

Stefania Kulayeva

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