In Russia you can freely express your own opinion (in your own kitchen)
'I’ve got a trained eye… he is not just a photographer'
Paranoia, fear of free speech and the ‘trained eye’ of the authorities are ensuring that public space in Russia is shrinking. This is how public protest works in Russia now.
This week we headed into central Moscow, across from the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour with a kitchen table, a dressing gown and a placard to remind people that pretty soon our kitchens will be the only places where we can talk about politics, religion, human rights and art.
Nearly every protest that’s authorised, no matter how small, is attended by numerous police officers and representatives of the Moscow local authorities. Meanwhile officers in plain clothes film everything, instruct the police and report goings-on to even more officials over the phone.
As we set up, it was a local authority representative who stopped us with her ‘trained eye’ and demanded that our volunteer photographer show his press pass – despite no laws requiring our photographers to be part of the press.
Freedom of expression is being limited step by step, and people aren’t noticing it.
Free speech and debate is at the heart of Russian culture
‘Kitchen talks’ are familiar to most Russians: we love to talk about politics, current affairs, social matters and all sorts of issues, big and small, while drinking and eating at home. But freedom in our kitchens is not enough!
Which is why at Amnesty Russia we decided to take the kitchen talks out into the streets to remind Russians that they should be ablе to speak out in public just as they do at home – freely, without fear of repression.
Taking a ‘kitchen talk’ outside
We wanted to make our little kitchen table look homely, to remind people of their everyday life, and also to create a striking contrast between their homes and our increasingly restrictive public spaces.
So alongside coffee, tea, and pastries is the book The Gulag Archipelago by the dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn, to remind people of Russia’s recent past, when serving years in prison simply for expressing your opinion was commonplace.
‘We forget everything. What we remember is not what actually happened, not history, but merely that hackneyed dotted line they have chosen to drive into our memories by incessant hammering.’
Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn, The Gulag Archipelago
Our placard read ‘In Russia you can freely express your own opinion… only in your own kitchen’.
People’s responses to our al-fresco breakfast varied greatly. Some stopped to photograph us, and some wondered what exactly the action was about and argued that their rights to free speech in Russia are not being violated. Others joined us willingly and sat down for a cup of tea
Freedom of assembly and free speech: rights, not crimes
Our ‘kitchen table’ action took place as we launched our new report A right, not a crime: Violations of the right to freedom of assembly in Russia. Putin’s repressive legislation makes it nearly impossible to organise lawful protests, and imposes heavy penalties on those who violate these regulations.
The law is deliberately vague, which allows authorities to deny permission to hold public actions in central locations, suggesting desolate places instead. Here at Amnesty Russia, for example, we’ve regularly had suggestions to organise our protests in a park which is visited by just 30 people an hour.
Even though ‘single-person pickets’ are legal, increasingly people who protest in this way are being detained. In March, three activists, 50 metres apart (as required by law), protesting deaths in Ukraine, were detained because of the ‘unstable situation in the country’. And of course, if you attempt to hold a single-person picket on any LGBTI issues, you can expect arrest under anti-LGBTI propaganda laws.
Trans-continental kitchen talks
Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, Amnesty activists arranged a similar ‘kitchen table’ protest near one of the city canals in solidarity with Russian civil society.
It’s sad that we can only talk freely across a table outdoors in Russia when our companion is several countries away. But that’s the situation – and it doesn’t look set to change.
Meria Serada is our Campaigner at Amnesty International Russia in Moscow.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.