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“When people understand that they are responsible, they can make a difference”

Interview with Nadezhda Azhgikhina. This Story belongs to the Moscow Centre.

By Ginevra Avalle

Oxford, 29th September 2018

Nadezhda Azhgikhina is a long-time journalist, author, the Director of PEN Moscow,  member of the Union of Russian Writers, Vice President of European Federation of Journalists. She has coordinated International projects on journalists’ rights and freedom of the media, as well as culture and gender, under the auspices of UNESCO, UN WOMEN,  OSCE, and other institutions. Azhigikina is an author of two scripts for documentaries, two books of prose and 5 books of essays and interviews.   Writes for Russian and International media, including The Nation, New Review and others.

G.A. How did you first hear about PEN International and when did you join? 

N.A.  I think I was a student, it was Soviet time, kingdom of censorship, and PEN  was a dream. Like dream was freedom of expression. In 1975 writer Vladimir Voinovich suggested to establish Russian PEN, it was strongly criticized by authorities and he was pushed to leave Russia, he joined Russian PEN after the perestroika. And he joined PEN Moscow as soon as it was established! So we follow the best tradition. In fact Russian PEN was born just after failure of Berlin Wall, first president was Anatoly Rybakov,  the most prominent writers, who supported democratization, joined it. It was a great honor to become a member.  PEN stood for freedom of expression and combated censorship. I was invited by Svetlana Alexievich to Russian PEN in 2010, she was board member that time. My friend and old colleague Alexander Tkachenko was The Executive Director of the Russian PEN, a dedicated human rights defender. He devoted his life to the protection of the freedom of word and expression in Russia. He literarily saved the life of the Russian journalist Gregory Pasko, who was in military prison for espionage., supported  poet Alina Vitukhnovskaya and released her from detention, saved Turkmen poet Sherali and others.  I and Svetlana Alexievich planned to do some activities, including projects for women writers. We already worked with founder of PEN Women’s Committee funder Meredith Tax, and our dream was to establish strong PEN Russian women writers and journalists group. I was delighted that Ludmila Ulitskaya became a board member and deputy for PEN Moscow. But after the Crimea, the Russian PEN split. Active people inside PEN protested against the restrictions of freedom of expression, the detention of Sentsov, against propaganda and so on, but others supported the governmental policy.  President Andrey Bitov declared that PEN should not focus on journalists, but should be like an elitist club of famous authors. I was not very active at PEN at the time, because I was very busy as the Vice President of the European Federation of Journalists. We struggle for the protection of journalists and development the Russian and Ukrainian dialogue of professional journalist organisations Two Countries, One Profession under OSCE umbrella, it was unique example of real grassroots initiative against war, propaganda and hate speech, example of  people’s diplomacy.

In 2016, there was an election in Russian PEN that broke some of the rules. The people who stood for criticism were not elected; some of us were thrown away. As a result, more than 70 active and critical minded members left the Russian PEN and established informal group online. Practically, it was split between pro-governmental new leadership and critical voices. As a result Russian PEN did not support critical voices any more. 

The same happened to the Russian Union of Journalists, for which I had worked for 15 years as deputy President. We did a lot: we protected many people and criticised legislations that had been accepted without any discussion, we called for law enforcement, we demanded for justice for killed journalists; we fought against censorship. We worked and had projects together with Article 19, the International and European Federations of Journalists, UNESCO, OSCE, CPJ and other organizations. But in the same 2016 new leadership of the union transformed it into totally pro-government organization, what stopped all our all International cooperation and national work for freedom of expression and began to serve power. The most active leaders left.

The new leadership wanted to monopolise the message from the professional community in Russia: saying that violence against journalists is fake news. They want to shut us up; to stop real information about Russia from spreading.  Both new leadership from Russian PEN and Russian Union of Journalists pretended to be the only voices from Russia, like official GONGOs during Soviet time. And independent voices in Russia lost strong support what they had for decades from old, democratic and focused on human rights and freedom of expression PEN and the Union.

That’s why active PEN members and some prominent journalists from former RUJ leadership decided to establish Free Word Association, it was April 1, 2017. We announced  it in the media, and started with public support of journalists from Novaya Gazeta and journalists from the Eco of Moscow who published articles about the violation of LGBT rights in Chechnya. The Muslim leaders officially blamed them, and Chechnya authorities practically supported fanatics. Free Word Association was the most loud voice to call for safety of journalists, mostly female. Since that FWA is well recognized in Russia and abroad  as defender of freedom of expression and free word.

We published several dozens of statements, we participated in a lot of campaigns, we have followed the PEN Charter since the beginning. We don’t want to blame or discuss with Russian PEN. We have our own agenda. We participated in the PEN Campaign for Sentsov. Another campaign was for the historian Yury Dmitriev, who was accused of having pornographic photos in Karelia. They wanted to stop people from following him and digging GULAG history. We also followed the case of Mukhail Afanasiev who they wanted to put in jail for defamation. The deputy chief of the regional police made a fake witness against him. We have been keeping an eye and doing reports, together with Article 19. Galina Arapova, long term deputy president of Article 19, the best media lawyer of Russia, is part of our expert team. We follow the case of librarian Natalia Sharina, accused in spreading extremist literature, she is director of Ukrainian library. And other cases.

We did calls for release for journalists who participated in protests, and those who had been killed. We also did calls for punishment for those who had beaten journalists. But we decided to prepare a report about violence against free word, in the media and on the internet, the arts, literature, theatre, cinema, in publishing activities, in education, in libraries… There were different restrictions: they had created a list of extremist literature, they had age restrictions for books, including Russian classis books by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky… Stupidity of authorities was fantastic.

I am proud of our Free Word association; we have 150 people who are motivated. They are there without getting any profit. They are writers, poets, translators, etc., many of them are young. Some would like to sacrifice for the future. We have a website: those who are interested in human rights can know about us. If you are tough enough; you are much more protected than if you are easily scared. Big protection comes from PEN International; it could give us much more opportunities to protect people. 

During our Russian-Ukrainian dialogue, we talked about some people who spent several months in detention. One of them published a book saying he was released thanks to our work for dialogue: he was an example on how dialogue can help. 

And in 2018 we established PEN Moscow, and registered it. Basis of PEN Moscow was Free Word Association.

G.A. Are you working on other cases?

N.A. We have people who are not known not present in the media . Dmitriev is only known in Russia and the neighbouring countries, but we also have fought for Zhalaudi Geriev who is in prison in Chechnya under fake accusations, as his colleagues  think,  in drugs. Tday authorities often use criminal code against journalists- extremism, bribery,  fighting, drugs…  They do not want to show that the reason for pressure is critical writing and professional journalist activities.

G.A. What are your current activities and what will you do in the near future?

N.A. We are working now, together with PEN ST Petersburg and Free Word Association on a report with leadership of PEN International in which we will follow all our cases. There will also be a statement on violations. We have had poetry readings, gatherings of solidarity, we’ve had general gatherings for writers for human writers like in the Sakharov Centre. We had an event in solidarity of Kirill Serébrennikov who is a theatre director… We also have had demonstrations with pickets: people rallying in the centre of Moscow, in the front of the presidential administration, the Russian parliament…. Some people are more radical and would like to do something illegal, but we do other actions, for example the Combat Impunity Day with presentations of books and films devoted to human rights. We had a presentation by the historian and photographer Yuri Brodsky about his work on concentration camps and how he has been accused of religious offence. The event was very successful, and he brought information on how the Orthodox Church takes part in the repression. Certain religious groups have threatened him.  I hope we could support him and his work.

In Russia, there’s satellite TV that isn’t controlled by the government; they are mostly owned by private companies. The most important one is only online: it gives an independent and critical newsfeed.  All our statements are published in the media. It is important to be proactive if you want to educate people. We are thinking about an award for the best artwork in prose, poetry, translation, essay, and a personal contribution of writers in human rights. We have prizes for journalists, but not for artists. That is why it is important to promote them. We also don’t have a book about killed journalists. A case list is not enough; we should study the cases in deepness.

G.A. What are your background and education? 

N.A. I started being a journalist when I was a teenager. I won some contests and was part of the National Youth Newspaper during the stagnation time in the Soviet Union. I graduated from Moscow State University, Department of Journalism.  I published my first text when I was 16, in a publication that sold 17 million copies. I became very famous girl. I began to work as correspondent of the newspaper after the University. And then I met an investigative journalist, Yuri Shchekochikhin: he was the first person who wrote about organised crime and mafia in Soviet Union. He became famous, it was 1988. After his publication, Gorbachev created a department aimed at combating organised crime. He was elected in Parliament in 1989, together with Andrei Sakharov and Yevgeni Yevtushenko for the city of Voroshilovgrad, in Eastern Ukraine, now war zone. He worked a lot on rehabilitation of GULAG victims and pushed to give back the original name of the city, Lugansk. He was invited to represent the interest of the region because of his writing against the Communist Party of the region. One of his supporters was chief of the local Ukrainian movement for independence, Chernovil. He continued his investigations and was the first to write in the national press about the massacre in Katyn, the shooting of workers in Novocherkassk, the fake accusations of the KGB. He did a lot of criticism of the KGB activities against Konstantin Azadovsky, the founder of the St. Petersburg PEN. 

Yuri Shchekochikhin worked in the Security Committee of Russian Parliament, with the Interpol. He was also working for Novaya Gazeta. He died in the middle of his investigation about corruption in general prosecutor office from a rare disease in 2003. Many people believe he was poisoned but they couldn’t find any evidence of the poisoning. The doctors said he died from Lyell’s Syndrome, a very rare thing. 

We managed to  re-publish his books, the best articles, dramas and a collection of testimonies of KGB reporters, written in 1999,  the “Slaves of KGB: The Religion of betrayal”. It looks like it was written today. And helps to understand our today situation.

Since my youth I was involved with the activities of April writer’s group and other organizations focused on freedom or expression.  I was probably a student when I first heard about PEN. We wanted to know about everything that was forbidden, and at that time literature was censored. I got PhD in Russian literature from MSU, our best professors used to be human right defenders. I joined Ogonyok magazine, the flagman of perestroika, in literature department, we publish Voinovich, Brodsky, all dissident authors as well as texts from KGB archives, it was fantastic time for a young journalist. I also was involved in gender issues.  After Ogonyok I had been working for the National Independent Newspaper and I was the director of the first gender section in Russia. We have been working with women politicians, with feminists, with women journalists… I was invited to a congress and became a member of the International Federation of Journalists. We still have a women’s club, building bridges across the borders. I still write. I teach in the Journalism Department; I have some Russian-European projects on safety and cooperation; I am Vice-President of the European Federation of Journalists; I write for Russian publications and for The Nation, an American weekly journal. 

G.A. Do you see a positive future for Russia? 

N.A. Yes, I was lucky to live during such a big transformation of the country. I participated in our resistance. I remember the desire for freedom. Somehow, people became lazy, only interested in money… I think that the lack of freedom of expression is our fault in many ways. Not Putin’s. People allow him. 

When people understand that they are responsible, they can make a difference. I believe that the new generation I teach is full of fantastic people and I see how they are all different than my generation. They do not understand what it means to live with fear. 

We are a new PEN Centre, but we would like to participate in the PEN Centenary Archive Collection project.

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Disponible únicamente en inglés.