Elena Grishina (civil society), 2008

Interview with Elena Grishina
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
Interpreter — Ignat Kalinin

MS: Julia, his mother, tells me that you have an office that, I don’t want to say manages, but is in touch with many, many civil society groups.

EG: <speaks> [in Russian]

IK: They don’t coordinate but they just gather information from different civil organizations.

MS: But as part of the Moscow-Helsinki Group, which means that the intent, to me, I suppose that the intention in being in touch with all these groups is to foster support for democratic processes through civil society organizations. Is that true?

IK: Come again?

MS: Because she’s connected with the Helsinki Group, it’s not just…

IK: To gather information.

MS: It’s about democracy.

EG: <speaks>

IK: She says that her organization, the one [Shelly?] works in, it was actually born from press centre of Moscow-Helsinki Group; it was their press centre. And they’re actually working in the media space so they’re somewhere in between human rights activists and journalists. So something in between of those two.

MS: Well then, of course, I will want to know what goes on in these civil society organizations that you’re in touch with. What’s the range of types of groups that you’re in touch with?

EG: <speaks>

IK: So the thing is, first of all, you have to divide organization in two types, ones that are human rights organizations that are devoted to only to one particular aspect of human rights. For example, Soldier’s Mothers, they are only for soldier abuse in the army. The other is Independent Psychiatry Expertise where they give independent…, well they do what they sound like. And the other is, I think, Ponamarov’s organization. They do a lot of things in a lot of spheres so that is the difference. And why her organization, which is called the Centre of Independent Information, they created actually, one of the main things they are doing is that they gather information of human rights organizations. Some of them even don’t refer to themselves as human rights organizations but actually do this work.

MS: Okay. Now the other day we spoke at the… We had a conversation with a man who was working to organize the associations of people who own apartments in buildings so that they would manage their own buildings and press for their own interests and so on. And part of the reasoning was that any kind of civil society organization, even if it’s a stamp club or a chess club or a small group playing chamber music, will be useful as a mediating body between government and atomized individuals. Is that part of the thinking in your organization? Are you thinking in terms of creating almost any kind of civil society organization that will help spread democracy?

EG: <speaks>

IK: So the first part of what she’s saying that now there are some organizations appearing around the country that are not devoted to civil rights but actually she calls them self- organized organizations. For example, the people who invested in building of multi-apartment houses at some stage and then they were… Well there was a fraud; they were deprived of their flats they invested in. For example, the developer, he begins building a house and he sells a lot of apartments but not enough but more than those that are in the houses. So some people come, they have the flat, and some they don’t. So those who suffered from this, they begin to create their own organization. The other is, for example, the one that we were into with those people in the apartment, multi-story houses, Gamenyok, that guy who was speaking [about?].

EG: The third one is the car owners’ organization. She says yes, it’s very big and very interesting and they will have on twenty-fourth…, on Sunday at the Bolovna Square, they will have a manifestation there, a demonstration against…, as well as fifty cities around Russia, they will have this thing. They will be against high gasoline prices, manifesting against this but they are mostly, these organizations are mostly driven into life by their leader.

MS: By their what?

IK: Leader


EG: <speaks>

IK: She speaks about Lisakov who is the leader of that car owners’ organization, very large, and she said that professional human rights activists are very…, they’re doing a large job, very big part of the job. Because first person he came to, that Lisakov, that car owners’ association, was Ludmilla Alexeeva of Moscow-Helsinki Europe. And so Elena now is in the business of having more promotion for his movement but as she says, he actually doesn’t need any promotion because he’s got a lot of references to him if you enter his name in a search engine in internet. So if you want to, she can organize a meeting with him, if you want to.

MS: Thanks. Now a part of my concern is I think I’m interested in spreading democracy around the world so the increase in civil society organizations is a main factor that I see as helpful in bringing democracy. It empowers citizens to actually have some voice in speaking to government and so on. But I hear that in Russia, there are efforts on the part of regime to discourage independent civil society organizations by doing things like taxing them and making them register and fill out lots of bureaucratic forms that are difficult to record, and that there also has been a tendency for the government to create alternative NGOs, that is GONGOs, the government-organized NGOs. Tell me about that because I want to know whether that is something you see as a problem. Actually, I’ve mentioned several problems but are these problems that you experience in your own work?

IK: And the question was?

MS: Are these problems for you with the groups that you work with? Are these perceived as serious obstacles or are these not really anything to worry about?

EG: <speaks>

MS: Wow, that’s a lot. [laugh]

IK: It’s not that a lot actually.

So the thing is that… First of all, she spoke about GONGOs. She said that the main GONGO is the civil chamber I told you about which is actually very big structure that was fathered by a president’s decree and so on and so on. But especially in the regions, organizations that work with civil rights and so on and so on, they have their name and people know about them. They actually work, they actually do this and they won’t be changed by those substitute things. For example, her organization, they send information; they gather information then they send it to selected journalists. For example, once her assistant sent some information about scientology group to my mother. My mother called her and said, ‘well are you nuts? I don’t want to hear anything about scientology. Please give me the real stuff’. So even if she will be wrong about something, people around the country, they understand what actually is true and what is not true. So they try to make monitoring of activity of civil chamber after it was created. They were two cases allowed; they had it in the [TV?] and so and so on. First one about [Yuzhnoye Butov?], which is actually a district of Moscow but it’s very far away, and they started to building there multi-story buildings on a place where villages were, actually. So they wanted to demolish village and take people out of there. And people there didn’t want it. They wanted keep living in their villages. So Elena was actually fighting against Luzhkov in some way. They were fighting Luzhkov because it was he who was doing the whole construction business. And the second…

EG: <speaks>

IK: And the other story is about ______________, you probably heard that one, who got his legs cut off after the…

EG: <speaks>

IK: Mutilation, yes, after mutilation, after abuse in the army. Well I’ll tell you about it later but it actually was even before the civil chamber was assembled but they tried to work on this and they had some resonance in press but that was all. Nothing at all.

EG: <speaks>

IK: So they don’t try to help particular persons at all. They just propose some [acts?] to Duma.

MS: You mean the civil chamber only proposes? So they don’t do much?

IK: No, at all. Not at all. So people don’t believe in them. And ___________, it’s a bit worse because it’s hard to work in this condition. Because in Russia, almost each and every business and commercial organization will hide away somehow, somewhere because it’s the only way to exist, you know, and they are supposed to be very clean. Has Carnegie people told you about it? Yes, she says as well. They are always under control so their budget is supposed to be very transparent and very clean and they can’t change even ten rubles there; it is impossible. Actually now, the body that was supposed to check all those, called Federal Revisional Committee, it is now dissolved and probably Minister of Jurisdiction, of Justice, will be doing this. But that body that was before, they were checking them like three times a year, the whole budget and so on and it was very hard to ______.

MS: Well do you see that it’s going to be better now? Are we talking about an improvement in the current state of affairs or do you think it’s getting worse? I’m not sure what you mean by the changes.

EG: <speaks>

IK: She says you can never say because if the functions that you are supposed to do are not changed, it doesn’t matter who will be doing this.

EG: <speaks>

IK: So the thing was that, except for giving documents and their reports to taxation ministry, they were supposed to give those documents into that body that was dissolved. But now probably it will be the same because it will be Ministry of Justice where they were supposed to send all those report so it probably won’t change a lot.

MS: So it’s a big handicap.

IK: Handicap

MS: Handicap – a big obstacle.

IK: Yeah, it is.

MS: It’s a big problem. Tell me about your notion about accepting money from foreign donors for civil society organizations. When do you think that should be considered legitimate and under what circumstances would you say that that’s not proper?

EG: <speaks>

IK: Same people as…

EG: <speaks>

IK: That was before when only Europe was in this business and they don’t support now. Now only Endowment for Democracy, MacArthur and Soros.

MS: Europe is not supporting anything?

IK: Yeah

MS: Why?

EG: <speaks>

IK: She says that she doesn’t know English very well. European committee, they have all documents in English and they have such a difficult application form for grants that she, not knowing English, she can’t fulfill. That’s the problem with her.

EG: <speaks>

IK: What she said about where money comes from, she says I don’t care. We need independent source, that’s the deal.

MS: Independent meaning what?

IK: Any independent

MS: Independent of government or what?

EG: <speaks>

IK: She says it’s okay if it’s even government that finances us, that supports us. The thing is that they don’t ask anything from us if they do. They don’t ask us do the things they want us to. She said that before probably Khodorkovsky was giving money to all that kind of organizations. Now it’s only Americans.

MS: And when Khodorkovsky was doing so, was he trying to interfere with your plans and tell you what to do?

EG: <speaks>

IK: She never received anything from Khodorkovsky. She applied for it but then the organization fell so she doesn’t know about herself exactly; she never received any money from him. But what she says, none of the foreign based donors ever told her what projects she’s supposed to be doing. Everything she was doing is coming from her own head. Always.

MS: OK, but my understanding is that the Russian government has made regulations or a law saying you’re not allowed to accept foreign funds. Is that the case?

EG: <speaks>

IK: No, it’s not true.

MS: Okay

EG: <speaks>

IK: For God’s sakes, it’s not true.

EG: <speaks>

IK: Else wise, we wouldn’t talk.

MS: Do you have the feeling that public opinion would say that you should not accept foreign money, that people here, say in the restaurant, if we asked them whether it would be okay for Russian civil society organizations to accept money from NED or Soros or MacArthur, that they would say that’s not proper?

EG: <speaks>

IK: She says she doesn’t have that kind of notion, but what she knows from social polls, that very little percent of people actually do have beliefs in those organizations that they can do something.

MS: Most people do not trust… Which organizations? Are you saying that most people don’t believe in civil society organizations and that they can do anything? Or that most people don’t believe that NED, Soros, and McArthur can do anything for them?

IK: No, no, the civil society organization, not about any organization.

MS: So most people don’t believe that these organizations have any value or can accomplish anything.? Okay.

But they’re growing, aren’t they? They’re increasing in number.

EG: <speaks>

IK: She says when she started working with this in 1996, for their first conference, there were five hundred participants, five hundred organizations [taking part?] And not she says in ___________ is one thousand and five hundred and probably there is more.

EG: <speaks>

IK: She says that official information that there are about like thirty to forty thousand of that kind of organizations all around…

EG: <speaks>

IK: Three hundred thousand

MS: That’s the estimate of how many there are?

IK: Yeah, but she says I don’t believe in them. I don’t believe those exist or something. I believe only those which I can call and speak with.

MS: Okay. What about the business of registration? You know, I don’t think it’s true in North America that every organization has to be registered. I wouldn’t even think of registering if I formed a club or something; I wouldn’t know where to go to register. The only thing that I know of that amounts to registering an organization is if I want to get tax status, you know a statement that my organization is a charitable organization and shouldn’t be taxed, something like that. But I’m always running up against references here to NGOs being registered and I’m not even sure I understand what that is or whether you have to do it or what it amounts to? Can you explain what it is to be registered?

EG: <speaks>

IK: So the problem is, in Russia, the country is very bureaucratized. If you want to register your organization, you have to go through like ten or twenty different organizations. In each of one of those, you have to stand in long line, waking up like 6 o’clock in the morning and going there and taking the line and staying there for all of your time and then signing something and so on and so on. To get a passport in Russia, you probably will have to this thing as well but there are three organizations you have to stand in line for. It’s just about how it’s done. There are small businesses that feed on this. Those people, they have some understanding of how the machine works so you can come there, you can pay them money, and they will make everything for you instead of you. They will stand overnights… Well they won’t actually stand there. They just will go directly to the person, bypassing the line and so on and so on. But it cost money. That’s another way how to do it. But it’s either money or your time and yourself actually there. The reason why you want to register is that in order to have a bank account, that’s all.

MS: Oh, I see. But you don’t have to register. What happens if… I mean, if you don’t want to have a bank account, then you don’t need to register right? You don’t need to register if you don’t want a bank account?

EG: Yes

MS: Oh, okay. Cause I don’t think we register in Canada. I don’t know what that would amount to. So in the last two years, the number of NGOs that you’re connected with has doubled approximately – tripled. How do you feel about the value of what they’re doing? Are you personally convinced that this is going to help build democracy in Russia?

EG: <speaks>

IK: She says when I started to work in this organization, _________ all things, I thought that we’re already living in a democracy. Well, now, she says, I think that we will begin building our democracy when soviet of Europe will [disclude] us.

MS: Say that again

IK: Disclude

MS: When who will…?

IK: European Council. European Council will exclude us of their members because we don’t match different…

EG: <speaks>

IK: …doesn’t match the categories of the European Council.

MS: So if European Council would say Russia is not a democratic state, get out, that would be a good thing?

EG: Yeah


IK: She would be ashamed if something like this would happen, probably.

MS: But I thought you were saying that you wouldn’t be a democratic country until European Council excludes you because you’re not democratic? And then they would start shaking up?

EG: <speaks>

IK: It was kind of a joke, which is not far away from truth.

EG: <speaks>

IK: It was like she was speaking of illusion, of [amorous?] illusion.

MS: Okay. So that kind of pressure would be helpful for people arguing that changes are still needed in Russia. It would be good to have pressure from outside.

EG: <speaks>

IK: Yes

MS: Okay

EG: <speaks>

IK: She says if Bush would actually put pressure on Putin, all his terms, probably there will be not that much of changes.

MS: There would not be?

IK: Yeah. She thinks that Bush would have had to put pressure on Putin a lot more.

EG: <speaks>

IK: You don’t think that way?

MS: Well, I have been saying that as someone… I have dual citizenship. I am both Canadian and American and I’m ashamed of the United States because of Bush. Who isn’t? It is the case of the pot calling the kettle black. Do you have that expression?

IK: What again?

MS: We have the…

IK: I probably have, just repeat it

MS: The pot calling the kettle black.

IK: No

MS: All right. Who is Bush to say you are not democratic when Bush steals an election?

EG: <speaks>

IK: Can I ask you a question?

MS: Certainly

EG: <speaks>

IK: What do you think about the Western influence in our country? Cause she thinks that yes, if western countries would put better pressure on our country, that it will help changing something. What do you think? If it is possible looking from there, from where you live?

MS: I have to agree, I have to say, but the United States is so bad lately. The United States has been much more destructive in the world the last twenty years than Russia and so I’m ashamed. As an American, I’m ashamed of the United States. But I think it’s a very good thing that I’m ashamed and that many other Americans are ashamed because I think we will change it now. And then maybe it would be useful to say something strong to Putin or Medvedev about being more democratic; now it would only seem hypocrisy, I think.

EG: <speaks>

IK: She says that when she was an editor of democratic movement of…

EG: <speaks>

IK: Democratic Russia newspaper – there was a movement and it had its own newspaper. So when she was head of it, the editor, she found, by some accident, she found bill of rights, the ___________ amendments in Russia and she put it into the next issue. And a lot of people from all over Russia were writing her letters saying thank you very much, now we know what it says; now we know what are our rights and so on and so on.

EG: <speaks>

IK: In the same time, in 1968, our country signed the International Human Rights Declaration, actually, which says pretty much the same.

MS: Perfect, yes. And I think that, of course, that Helsinki Accords made a huge difference, didn’t it? I think it was very important in Russia.

EG: <speaks>

IK: She says that the whole Helsinki Accord was taking place, she was young girl at that time. And then accidentally she got into dissident movement and most of her _________ friends were jailed and she was keeping working in this whole thing. And she said that she actually her own political position only in 1996 when she became the editor of that Democratic Russia newspaper. And before that, everything political was channelled to her through her friends. So she wasn’t aware of that time when the Helsinki Accord took place.

MS: So you were acting in the Helsinki movement, Helsinki Watch and so on, for many years?

EG: <speaks>

IK: She says that…

EG: <speaks>

IK: She says that she’s been an observer. She’s been reading the chronicle of ________…, well that first __________ bulletin that was spread around the country. And it’s forty years now since the first issue so that’s what she mostly _______.

MS: I see

EG: <speaks>

MS: What about contacts between… I started coming to Russia twenty-five years ago and meeting with dissidents and meeting with political figures in the government, I was brought as a peace activist to talk. But not only did I meet with officials, but I would go and meet with dissidents too.

EG: <speaks>

IK: She asks who precisely?

MS: You mean which dissidents?

EG: <speaks>

MS: The Moscow group to establish trust between USA and USSR

EG: <speaks>

MS: And I actually was deported from Russia for my contacts with them.

IK: It’s not Russia, USSR.


EG: <speaks>

MS: And so I could not come back for five or six years. And then there were big changes and I got acquainted with Ignat’s parents. But I felt that there was a lot of value in the contacts that took place between westerners and people here.

And it was not exactly reciprocal because I found that the officials in the government were very interested and receptive to the opinions of peace researchers, which I represented, and that, of course, was not at all true of the dissidents here; they were far from respected or listen to. But it plays an interesting role being able to stick to both outsiders and insiders and I think there were times when this turned to be helpful.

But when I came back after five or six years, Yeltsin was in power and the people around him were not interested in peace research. And so the contacts became much more rare.

And I also belong to Pugwash and the Pugwash movement is not as strong as it was. Their meetings are not as influential as before.

EG: <speaks>

IK: Why is this Pugwash movement not as strong as it was that time?

MS: It began as a very elite movement. It was created when, I think, forty-five scientists were invited together, very top-level scientists. Now the people who attend are not top-level; it’s more ordinary people. And the movements, they don’t have much influence anymore on government policy. Last summer, we had a meeting in Nova Scotia for people who are experts on nuclear weapons and I think only one Russian was present. In the past, there would have been a number of Russians who would have been, maybe, ____________ or, you know, very high-level scientists and that’s not true as much anymore. Sergei Kapitsa, for example, would come. I don’t think he attends as much anymore and so on. So I think that the East-West conversations that could be influential now are not happening as much as used to be the case.

IK: But why did it become this strong? Because…

MS: Good question

IK: That’s what she asked.

MS: Why, well…

IK: OK, I’ll just translate.

EG: <speaks>

IK: She says most of our brightest scientists are west now. They live in California mostly.

MS: Yeah. Last night I had dinner with Dmitry Furman and he mentioned that now it’s easy for people to go abroad. It used to be a big privilege that top scientists could go to Pugwash meetings. Now anybody can go wherever they want whenever they want so it’s not a privilege. So that’s why they don’t participate as much.

EG: <speaks>

IK: Whom else are you interested in? What movements?

MS: Well, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, for example.

IK: No, no, she asks about those who she’s been networking with. Whom do you want to meet of those? Whose telephone numbers would you want?

MS: Well I don’t know. You’re the most important person because I got…

EG: Thank you very much

MS: Very useful to know what you told me.

EG: <speaks>

IK: She says probably she has to run


EG: <speaks>.

IK: She says we can call her anytime we want. We can meet again and have some more information; it’s no problem. But now she says I will pick up my little black book and will give you some numbers.

MS: OK. I think I’d like to speak to somebody in the environmental group that was active in Murmansk regarding the effects of nuclear submarines. You know Alexander Nikitin and the nuclear submarines issue in the Murmansk area, if I could contact someone in that group, it would be good.

Audio file

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The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books