- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
Given the current state of U.S.-Russia relations, and multiple investigations into President Donald Trump’s team’s ties to Moscow, and the way in which Russia scares are permeating the American public discourse (see the latest Time cover, where the White House morphs into St. Basil’s Cathedral) pity the task facing Russian human rights advocates in the U.S. capitol.
Sergei Davidis of Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights organization manages Memorial’s political prisoner support for the group. He was in Washington to try to draw attention to his cause — and though he acknowledged that renewed interest in his country the very week he happened to be in town was “a coincidence,” it was not an entirely unhappy one.
Davidis thinks that added attention to Russia, and in particular to its subversive tactics overseas, could convince U.S. lawmakers to put more pressure on Moscow for its repressive domestic policies.
Memorial’s political prisoners program has, at present, 116 prisoners on its list; 66 of whom, Davidis says, were persecuted for religious reasons. The laws under which they’re imprisoned are quite new — and quite vague. For example, Article 148 says insulting the religious feelings of believers is punishable with up to one year in prison, or three years if the insult is committed in a place designated for worship.
“Probably, it is not good to insult religious feelings,” Davidis says. But it’s also probably not good to get a three-and-a-half year suspended sentence, as Ruslan Sokolovsky, a 22-year-old blogger did, for playing Pokémon Go in a church.
Davidis, for his part, hopes that Washington can lean more on Moscow when it comes to domestic treatment of critics, journalists, and activists. Russian authorities, he concedes, “will not do everything they’re asked to do. But if they’re not asked for anything, they will do nothing.”
And as Ekaterina Petrikevich, a consultant with Memorial, said that even if international pressure doesn’t make Russia behave better, it can keep it from behaving worse, forcing authorities to release political prisoners, or at least to make sure that their whereabouts are made public and that they are not tortured. She points to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who called for the release of activist Ildar Dadin in January. Dadin, coincidentally or otherwise, was released the next month.
But Trump administration, for its part, has made no public mention of human rights abuses in Russia, and has explicitly divorced its foreign policy approach in general from promoting human rights. And when Congress speaks of Russia these days, it is of whether its officials colluded with the Trump campaign to interfere in the 2016 election, not how to support rights in Russia.
Memorial, however, hopes that the one might lead to the other. “Uncontrolled external policy,” he said, is directly connected to repression. If a country does not have a civil society that can hold its authorities accountable, it can more easily do things like invade other countries and meddle in foreign elections, as Russia has been doing in recent years.
If lawmakers don’t want Russia to keep doing such things, Davidis said, perhaps they can “see a step further” and use their big soapbox to highlight rights abuses in Russia.
For now, Congress is taking baby steps — but it’s a start. On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed a bill to designate the area in front of the Russian Embassy in Washington as “Boris Nemtsov Plaza,” named for the opposition figure shot dead in plain view of the Kremlin in 2015.
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