By Catherine Owen
The last twelve months have been cataclysmic in Russia. In the lead up to December 2011’s parliamentary elections, it became clear that current prime minister and former president Vladimir Putin and current President Dmitry Medvedev ‘had agreed a long time ago’ that Putin would return to office at the end of his successor’s term. After the parliamentary elections, widely perceived as riddled with fraud, the country experienced the largest protest movement since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rallies were held in over 80 cities, with those in Moscow attracting over 100,000 people. Thoroughly anti-Putin in their orientation, the protesters demanded the resignation of the President and new elections. In retaliation to this unanticipated surge of civic activism, a series of repressive measures were pushed through parliament during the summer by the new government, massively increasing fines for organising and attending unauthorised demonstrations, requiring foreign-funded NGOs and media outlets to label themselves as ‘foreign agents’ on all their online and print literature, and hiking the penalties for libel and slander. Meanwhile, three members of the all-women punk band Pussy Riot were detained for five months without trial for performing an anti-Putin song in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour opposite the Kremlin in Moscow. In such a climate, it would be now easy to assume that this new-found activism has been thoroughly dampened, if not totally extinguished.
This assumption, however, is wrong. Last weekend, in the unlikely setting of the provincial city of Perm near the Ural mountains at the very edge of European Russia, more than three thousand activists, artists and lawyers gathered at the Perm-36 Museum to attend Pilorama, a liberal-oriented human rights festival featuring political debate with leading rights experts, art exhibitions, theatre, films, live rock and folk music, and poetry readings. Here, nestled deep in miles of unbroken forest, participants openly discussed the most pressing social and political issues facing Russia today: sitting around campfires or dancing under the stars, activists forged new friendships, nurtured old ones and hatched collaborative projects.
Pilorama is held on the site of one of the Soviet Union’s most notorious forced labour camps. Built in 1946 under Joseph Stalin, Perm-36 camp continued to hold ideological opponents to the communist government until its closure in December 1987. The inmates, mostly well-known political dissidents, were forced to log forests for the reconstruction of Soviet cities damaged during the War – pilorama is Russian for sawmill, the instrument used by the prisoners to produce timber. It is the only forced labour camp preserved in post-Soviet Russia: unlike the myriad other camps, which were quickly dismantled as the Soviet Union collapsed, the huts, cells, watch-towers and fences of Perm-36 have all been carefully restored to provide a lasting, living reminder of the camp system.
Since 2005, Perm-36 museum has hosted the three day ‘citizens’ forum’. Organisers of the festival, part of the nationwide Memorial network, believe that it is important to acknowledge the horrors of the past in any attempt to move towards a better future. The theme of this year’s festival was ‘Living Together’ – which, judging by the content of the discussions as well as the artwork, seemed to refer to the possibilities for civil society in an increasingly repressive state. Jointly funded by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung and Perm city administration, invited participants were put up in hotels in the nearby village of
Chusovoi, while independent visitors camped opposite the festival site. The festival was stewarded by several dozen mostly young volunteers from Perm and neighbouring villages. The local Memorial foundation organised a two week long educational programme for the youngsters.
Among this year’s celebrity attendees were several former dissidents: Sergei Kovalev, imprisoned in the Perm camps during the Soviet regime, and Gleb Pavlovsky, sent into internal exile during 1980. Other noteworthy participants were Mikhail Fedotov, presidential advisor on civil society and human rights, Valentin Gefter, director of Russia’s Institute of Human Rights and son of the famous dissident historian Mikhail Gefter; Vladimir Lukin, human rights ombudsman and one of the founders of Russia’s liberal party Yabloko; Lilia Shibanova, executive director of Russia’s independent electoral monitoring organisation, Golos; Nikolay Petrov of the Carnegie Centre Moscow; and prominent political scientist and commentator, Dmitry Oreshkin. Independent visitors ranged from members of Memorial from across European Russia, to local families curious about the event, from young people who had been radicalised during the preceding winter, to others who had just come along for a free party. Question and answer sessions with the panels of experts were organised according to various themes including the surge in citizen election observers during the March presidential elections, the role of civil society in an increasingly authoritarian state, the influence of religion on women’s role in public life, and art as a form of protest.
Aside from the discussions was a varied programme of film, theatre and music, however, the present author was glued to the political debates in the discussion tents, and was thus able only to catch one theatrical work-in-progress, authored by human rights activist Alexander Cherkasov, which detailed the tense moments leading up to the stormingof the Ostankino television centre in 1993. The site was decorated with numerous photographic and artistic exhibitions. Along the
walls of the camp, Amnesty International exhibited a series of posters relating to their previous campaigns. Nearby, Moscow activist artists Victoria Lomasko and Aleksei Iorsh exhibited a series of cartoons detailing street politics in the capital since protests began in December. Evening entertainment was provided by veteran Leningrad rockers Neformal’nyi Obedineniye Molodyozhi and Televizor.
Inevitably, the commitment to creating a space in which political diversity is possible comes with its own set of challenges. The discussions were often hindered by a large and very vocal group of self-proclaimed ‘Anti-Pilorama’ activists, who blamed human rights advocates for the collapse of the Soviet Union. They set up a huge tent encampment
opposite the main stage, adorned with red flags and a giant CCCP 2.0 banner, and handed out glossy leaflets decrying the democratic ‘white ribbon’ movement as American-funded propaganda. They repeatedly sought to sabotage the debates: interrupting presentations, heckling speakers and asking unnecessarily pedantic questions. The lack of a strong chair often meant that they succeeded in stalling discussions on irrelevant or tangential issues. However, most participants saw this as a perhaps unfortunate but necessary consequence of ensuring freedom of expression for everyone. As Maria Cheremnykh, one of the local organisers mentioned to me afterwards, democracy is about maintaining a space in which diversity of opinion is possible.
The reason that the Stalinist interventions did not manage to bring the festival to a standstill is that the most important political exchanges at Pilorama do not occur during the moderated debates. Indeed, arguably the most productive discussions occur during the evening after a concert or around a camp fire, over a bowl of pasta or a vodka toast. Activists in different cities who have not seen each other in the past year can catch up while browsing an exhibition; colleagues from St. Petersburg and Samara or Moscow and Yekaterinburg can exchange stories of the successes and failures of social projects in their respective towns; new and experienced activists can learn from the varying perspectives of one another. Most of the invited experts made an effort to mingle with the independent visitors, addressing questions, confronting criticisms and thereby challenging perceived hierarchies between experts and ordinary people.
How important is Pilorama? How relevant is it to mainstream politics in Russia? Perhaps the majority of the Russian population might say that it is nothing more than a marginal group of people discussing a marginal political ideology, neither of which have noticeable influence on everyday life. But as the demands of Russia’s growing middle class become increasingly hard to ignore, a forum is necessary for these people to come together, especially when the regular public sphere is unable to accommodate critique of the status quo. In this sense, Pilorama is an important space of free discussion in an environment ever threatened by censorship and control. This year, Pilorama seemed empower participants to take stock of the unanticipated events of the last year and to pose the question of how civil society should respond. Perhaps the legacy of this festival will become clearer as organised resistance to the Putin regime grows.
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