Svetlana Gannushkina: At 81, “I really want to live to see the end of Putin’s regime”
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an escalating crackdown on Russian civil society by the country’s authorities has resulted in a massive exodus of human rights defenders, activists, and other dissident voices. Many are imprisoned in Russia. However, despite the ever-growing risks, 2016 Right Livelihood Laureate Svetlana Gannushkina continues her human rights work inside Russia. Why and how? Right Livelihood talked to her to find out.
“There is no forgiveness for this”
Gannushkina joined our Zoom conversation from her Moscow office. She wore her signature short haircut with rebellious curls. Despite not so stable internet connection, one could distinctly see the spark in her blue eyes.
Behind her is a gallery of personal photos, mostly black-and-white. Those photos signify, in a more figurative sense, the more than 30 years of human rights work that has made her one of the most accomplished leaders of the human rights movement in Russia today.
Gannushkina turned 81 this March without having any larger celebration.
“Celebration will happen when this war is over,” she said.
Last year, she spent her 80th birthday at a police station after being arbitrarily detained for an anti-war protest.
Gannushkina said she knows precisely what celebration of the end to the war means, as she clearly remembers the end of the Second World War.
“I remember Victory Day; I remember what a huge happiness it was,” she said. “But now, we [the citizens of Russia] are on the other side. This is horrific. And when Ukrainians say, ‘We will have two victories and you [Russians] will have none,’ it is true. The authorities are really taking away from us the sacred pages of our history. It is monstrous.”
She let out a deep sigh at this point. Since the start of the invasion, she has spoken openly about her anti-war views and one of the most common questions she is asked is whether the Ukrainians will ever forgive Russians for the atrocities committed by the Russian army.
“When they ask me this, I repeat the answer given by the great Liya Akhedzhakova, [a 84-year-old Russian actress banished from stage for her anti-war views]: ‘I won’t forgive’.”
After a long pause, she added: “And I won’t ask for forgiveness, because there is no forgiveness for this. It is a difficult question of who should pay [for those atrocities] and how, but we are all responsible.”
Despite not celebrating her birthday, Gannushkina still had a specific wish to make on this occasion.
“I am 81 years old, and I really want to live to see the end of Putin’s regime,” the activist said. “His paranoid idea of rebuilding the Soviet Union is leading humanity to too dire a consequence.”
This could have been a very heavy conversation were it not for Gannushkina’s indispensable sense of humor.
“It seems to me that there are no people around Putin who report the truth to him,” she said. “I think the reports to Putin look something like this: ‘We bring you information, Vladimir Vladimirovich.’ ‘What kind of information?’ ‘As you ordered.’”
After a good laugh, she remarked that it’s important to note though that she doesn’t mean that Putin is innocent and those are people who surround him who bear the responsibility.
“I am not going to leave. I realise I’m needed here.”
Protecting human rights in Russia in the current context seems to be an impossible mission. But not for Gannushkina.
She received the Right Livelihood Award in 2016 for her courage and successful advocacy in the Russian courts and the European Court of Human Rights preventing the forced repatriation of migrants from Russia to Central Asian countries. However, since last year, Russia is no longer part of the European Convention on Human Rights. This closed the door for Russians to bring cases before the European Court of Human Rights.
Even though – or maybe because – she is one of the most respected human rights defenders in her country, the Russian Ministry of Justice included her on the lists of “foreign agents” at the end of 2022. This happened after both organisations where she has been active – Memorial, where she was a board member, and Civic Assistance Committee, which she founded – had been branded as “foreign agents.” Memorial was even liquidated by the authorities.
Despite all the pressure, Gannushkina and her team, which consists of both Russians and Ukrainians, continue to work, trying to re-adapt to the current context. A big part of her work now focuses on humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian citizens who have ended up on the territory of Russia since the start of the invasion. In the absence of a reliable evacuation corridor to Ukrainian-held territories, going to Russia was often the only option for many people in cities like Mariupol. Ukraine has described such refugees as having been “forcibly deported.”
Gannushkina’s Civic Assistance Committee launched a crowdfunding campaign and collected record amounts of money, which were mostly allocated to provide humanitarian support to Ukrainians.
“One company sent us one and a half tons of products [for Ukrainians] and asked us not to reveal their identity,” she said. “When I asked the owner why, he told me: ‘I don’t want to get reproached for sending shipments not to the army but to a charity recognised as a foreign agent’.”
Gannushkina said that her organisation is now the only one in Russia with open doors for everyone. People can come from 10 am to 5 pm to seek humanitarian or legal assistance.
“You can’t get everyone in anyway. There are so many people, they queue up early in the morning.”
Gannushkina noted that she and her team were also, in fact, at the forefront of LGBT+ rights issues in Russia, because other human rights organisations working on this topic have been shut down.
“For example, we were recently approached by a man who has been accused of gay propaganda,” she said. “The propaganda is that this is who he is.”
Gannushkina works as tirelessly as ever before, but this comes at a price. Last year her organisation was fined for her social media statements that “discredit[ed] the Russian army.” Amidst ever growing personal risks, Gannushkina doesn’t plan to leave Russia.
“I have been asked many times why I don’t leave,” she said. “But I have never put this question to myself. I am in no way condemning those who left. Many others should have absolutely done so. I think my age and gender are, in part, a protection. Who needs an old woman in the prison? She’ll die of a heart attack and then there’ll be a lot of talk.”
She then added firmly, “I am not going to leave. I realise I’m needed here.”