Yelena Maglevannaya is Fleeing Neo-Soviet Russia
On February 18, 2009, the Russian government initiated a defamation lawsuit against 27-year-old Yelena Maglevannaya, a reporter for the local newspaper Svobodnoye Slovo (“Free Word”) and the human rights website Civitas.ru in the city of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). She also blogs, in Russian, on Live Journal, and she signed a petition against Russian aggression in Georgia that was joined by many prominent human rights leaders across the country.
The Kremlin accused Maglevannaya of publishing false allegations about federal prison authorities in a series of articles in which she reported acts of torture being carried out by the local government against Zubayr Isaevich Zubayraev, then housed in the local jail administered by the Russian government (as are all such institutions since all Russian criminal law is federal). At the same time that the lawsuit was filed, Zubayraev’s family in Chechnya, especially his sister, began receiving death threats and fled the country.
Now, Maglevannaya has been forced to flee Russia and seek political asylum in the West, just as if Russia were the USSR, in order to avoid being jailed for the simple act of telling the truth about the activities of the Kremlin.
Relying on an investigation prompted in large part on Maglevannaya’s reporting, the World Organization Against Torture reported that the 30-year-old Zubayraev had been sentenced in August 2007 to five years for allegedly assaulting a Russian soldier, and subjected to a relentless series of beatings by prison authorities which resulted in his hospitalization. For most of 2007 Zubayraev had been missing, and his family heard nothing about his legal status until his conviction was announced, making him just one of thousands to have had such an experience in Chechnya. Reporters without Borders states: “At that point, he was able to establish contact with his sister and told her he was being mistreated.”
Maglevannaya’s reports then appeared, and instigated national interest. RWP continues: “Human rights activists managed to visit the prison camp where he was being held and photographed his injuries. Two leading human rights activists – Lev Ponomariov of For Human Rights and Svetlana Gannushkina of Civil Solidarity – participated in a February 2009 news conference in Moscow about his case.” Ponomariov was the recent recipient of a brutal beating on the streets of Moscow in retaliation for his human rights work, a beating that U.S. President Barack Obama raised as an issue of concern to Russian ruler Dimitri Medvedev.
But the Volgograd authorities, and their masters in the Kremlin (which now appoints regional governors) saw things quite differently.
On May 12th, a court in Volgograd found in the city’s favor and ordered Maglevannaya to pay roughly $5,000 in damages; in Russia, where the average wage is $3/hour, that works out to nearly a year’s salary, a sum a person earning such wages would not be likely to have saved. A week later journalist Grigori Pasko, interviewed her by telephone and published his account on the blog of Robert Amsterdam, attorney for Mikhail Khodorkovsky. She relates that police showed video of Zubayraev cowering in his cell from his beatings, and claimed it showed him beating himself, and that the judge refused to allow her attorney to call Zubayraev himself as a witness. Her attorney offered photographs and testimony from Zubayraev’s family members confirming that the beatings had occurred, yet the court still ruled against her.
Reporters without Borders condemned the ruling, stating:
The logic of the court’s ruling escape us. The case involves serious allegations about the torture of a detainee, so why punish the journalist rather than get to the bottom of the case by examining all the evidence, starting with the prisoner’s own statements. If the evidence is sufficient, the judicial system should investigate these inhuman practices instead of prosecuting the journalist. This would be a better way of defending the prison service’s reputation than silencing those who expose the mistreatment of detainees.
On May 29th, Maglevannaya applied for political asylum in Finland after attending a conference hosted there the Finnish-Russian Civic Forum, where she spoke about the Zubayraev case. Unable to pay the gigantic fine leveled against her and unwilling to publish a retraction as the court had ordered her to do, she will become subject to arrest and imprisonment. She feels she has no other choice than to follow the road well trodden by the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and many other Russian dissidents driven into exile throughout history.
She told the Moscow Times: “All this is the honest truth. I am not going to publish a denial, which means I can be prosecuted as a criminal. I want to remain safe and continue doing my job.”
Maglevannaya is not the first Russian to seek political asylum abroad on the basis of a claim that Russia has become and oppressive, dangerous neo-Soviet state. The Moscow Times reports:
In April 2008, former Kommersant reporter Yelena Tregubova, who published a tell-all book about her days covering the Kremlin, received political asylum in Britain. In 2007, Alexander Kosvintsev, a journalist who fled Kemerovo over threats from local authorities, received asylum in Ukraine. Also in 2007, Radio Liberty reporter Yury Bagrov and Regnum news agency editor Fatima Tlisova, who both wrote about human rights abuses of Chechens, received political asylum in the United States, Kommersant reported.
The MT quotes Oleg Panvilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, who says that “ more than 15 Russian journalists covering political issues have requested asylum abroad since Vladimir Putin assumed power nine years ago.”
It’s getting harder and harder to distinguish the Russia of Vladimir Putin from the USSR of Leonid Brezhnev. Not only do we see the same political repression, we see the same economic malaise. Vladislav Inozemtsev, the director of the Research Center for Postindustrial Society, sums it up in devastating fashion:
According to the World Bank, every employed Russian contributes only $16,100 to the country’s gross domestic product, compared with $38,100 in South Africa, $48,600 in Greece, $59,400 in France and $74,600 in the United States. But these numbers alone do not reflect the true scope of the problem. Russia’s low productivity is exacerbated by the fact that the country is dominated by natural resource extracting with relatively little industrial development in the real sector. Although the overall productivity in Thailand ($12,500 of GDP for an employed person), Brazil ($16,700) or Malaysia ($22,900) do not differ from Russia’s in a dramatic way, in these countries’ high-tech industrial exports account for 16.2 percent, 22.4 percent and 36.7 percent of all exports, while in Russia they constitute a meager 2 percent. Thus, Russia suffers not only from a low level of productivity but also from a counterproductive economic structure, slow technological progress and outdated labor relations.
With failure this extensive, it’s not hard to understand why the Kremlin would wish to clamp down on journalism. Serious protest activities are sweeping the country, and the Kremlin is right to be worried and seek to choke off the flow of information, just as the USSR always did. It’s not very likely that if Russians really understood the basic facts they’d still have such a lofty opinion of their rulers, and as the country suffers the worst economic downturn of any major nation, facing double-digit unemployment and inflation, one would expect considerable public unrest.
Yet Putin’s Russia, like the USSR, remains much too calm as it waits for national collapse, because the people of Russia have proven themselves to be a nation of cowardly lemmings who don’t deserve a patrotic hero like Maglevanna struggling to save them. We welcome her to the Western fold.