“They haven’t broken us yet”

♦  Valentina Cherevatenko, 2016 Anna Politkovskaya Award winner  ♦

<< No 11 (244), 20 March 2017 >>

On 11 March 2017 Valentina CHEREVATENKO received the Anna Politkovskaya award in London for her work supporting victims of armed conflicts. RAW in WAR (“Reach All Women in War”) was recognising the efforts of the Women of the Don, the Russian NGO founded by Cherevatenko in 1993, to support the civilian population suffering from armed conflicts in the North Caucasus, in Armenia and Georgia and, most recently, in Ukraine.

In Russia, meanwhile, Valentina CHEREVATENKO is facing charges for malicious non-compliance with the 2012 Foreign Agent law. In an interview with Olga Ivshina, BBC Russian Service correspondent, Valentina talks about the problems she faces, and about her plans and hopes for the future.

BBC: Valentina, how do you feel about the award?

valentina-cherevatenkoValentina Cherevatenko: I must say I don’t have a sense of joy. Instead, my inner feeling is more one of tension and a certain sadness. It was announced that I would receive the award back in October. On Saturday it will be the official ceremony. It is one more reason for me to think about what it is that I am doing. About the place that this work has in one’s life, the life of one’s family, the community, the country. There are a great many problems…

BBC: In your letter to Anna POLITKOVSKAYA you wrote that this prize is “support on the road along which we still have a very long way to travel. And we must not weaken, or rest, because again they will shoot, kill, destroy and torture people.”

Valentina Cherevatenko: Yes, this is part of the award-giving procedure. The organizers ask the winners to write a letter to Anna. I knew Politkovskaya personally and address Anna as she was when I knew her.

BBC: Was it hard to write?

Valentina Cherevatenko: Yes, very hard. I even asked my colleague, a journalist, to help me. I said in the letter everything I hadn’t managed to say to Anna while she was alive. We met many times in many different places. But we were always in a rush. We always told each other that we really must meet up in a quiet moment and discuss the issues that concerned us both. Recently, in one of my old diaries, I found Anna Politkovskaya’s address and phone number written in her own hand… But while she was alive we never managed to sit down together and have a good long talk.

“Walking with cats’ paws along a razor’s edge”

BBC: Do you often remember Politkovskaya?

Valentina Cherevatenko: I can’t say that I think about her every day. But from time to time on Facebook her photograph appears. Her face is beautiful with very sad eyes. Then, of course, you begin to remember and think about how unjust everything that happened, and happens, in life is. And you are filled with admiration for Anna because she did not lose faith in the hope that everything can be changed.

BBC: Аnd do you believe that everything can be changed?

Valentina Cherevatenko: If I didn’t believe that, then I couldn’t carry on this work. Today the situation is extraordinarily complicated and difficult. The work of conflict resolution is very difficult. One of my colleagues called our work “walking with cats’ paws along a razor’s edge.” In other words we must act with great gentleness and be squeaky clean, while the wounds are still dripping blood.

Our work on the conflict in eastern Ukraine, for example, is very, very difficult. You are always in a situation of being “a friend among strangers, a stranger among friends.” But we continue to work. We have managed to create a dialogue between activists from Ukraine and from Russia, and from the territories that are not under Kiev’s control. These people have things in common, but there are also differences.

The main thing is that we are looking for ways to resolve the problems that face us in a peaceful way.

“Reading the case materials, I was horrified”

BBC: Would you like to tell us more about the projects that Women of the Don is working on at the moment?

Valentina Cherevatenko: Our work has become far more difficult because of the ‘foreign agent’ law. The community of strong and active organizations, the institutions of civil society with which we would like to compare ourselves, organizations which it is always an honour to work with – all these people have now been added to the list of ‘foreign agents.’

This label makes our life much harder. But we continue our work. People continue to come to us, asking for help. Our public advice centre has been working now for 23 years, and continues to function. I cannot praise highly enough those lawyers who continue to work with us without asking for any money. This is very hard work.

Doing this work has had negative consequences for many of these lawyers. As for other projects, we continue to develop a Ukraine-Russia dialogue. We have a host of ideas, a great deal of knowledge and many possibilities. But some of these ideas we simply pass on to colleagues from other NGOs so that they can do the work. We don’t have enough money for many projects. Although we try to raise funds from our supporters.

BBC: What is the current situation concerning the criminal case against you?

[On 27 June 2016 Cherevatenko received a copy of the official decision to instigate a criminal investigation against her in connection with alleged ‘malicious non-compliance with the obligations of NGOs that carry out the functions of a foreign agent.’ This was the first instance of the prosecution of a human rights defender for alleged violation of the law on foreign agents, adopted in Russia in 2012 – BBC.]

Valentina Cherevatenko: It is taking its course…

The time given for the investigation has been extended until 22 March. The case has been in the works for 10 months already now. It’s exhausting, of course.

BBC: Are you often called in for questioning?

Valentina Cherevatenko: You know, it’s not because of this that it’s difficult. I can’t say that I’ve been called in for questioning many times. I can’t say that anyone has been rude to me. But what worries me is that a huge number of people with whom I am connected are being called in for questioning. The investigator ordered that experts make assessments of our documents – from technical, financial and political points of view.

The investigator is trying to establish whether we were engaged in political activities. All of our documents and equipment were seized. The documents were returned to us literally last week. But they still haven’t returned our equipment.

It’s important to understand that we work with ordinary people. And these people, from the best of intentions, wanting to help and to protect me in some way, sometimes say things that are quite horrifying. For example, people say things about some conferences at which they had not been present, they invent things…I can’t even imagine what I’ll see in the final materials of the case.

Not long ago I was shown the results of the financial evaluation of our accounts, and I was horrified. There were hysterics, tears, pain and resentment. At this, my husband said to me: “So you see, they have already destroyed you.” I pulled myself together. This is a criminal case. It is something that can really destroy us. But they haven’t broken us yet.

“I don’t believe this is a thaw”

BBC: Recently opposition activist Ildar DADIN was released. [Political prisoners] Yevgenia CHUDNOVETS was set free and Oksana SEVASTIDI was pardoned. What do you make of this series of releases?

Valentina Cherevatenko: I most likely treat this as an illusion. They are putting on the appearance of a thaw, but it is not the thaw itself.

BBC: What do your family and friends make of your work?

Valentina Cherevatenko: They have different points of view. I can’t really say that they completely support everything I do, but we discuss all the questions that arise.

BBC: They don’t say that it’s time to give all this up?

Valentina Cherevatenko: Some do. Of course, they do. But we are all adults, and I have the right to my convictions, my point of view. And the members of my family have that right too, I try not to force my views on them. So far we manage to accept our differences and get along.

“My mother was always an inspiration to me”

BBC: And are there human rights defenders whose example inspires you in your work?

Valentina Cherevatenko: Anna Politkovskaya, of course, is an obvious example. Natasha Estemirova. I remember them. And now prizes are being named after them. When people start talking about this, I always feel uncomfortable…

I must say my mother is a great inspiration to me. For a long time I knew very little about her, like many of us. But gradually some information came to light. For example, I found out quite by accident that in 1962 she saved the life of a person – a police officer – during the shooting of the workers’ demonstration in Novocherkassk, where we were then living. She was only 23 years old at the time. She had a very hard life. She grew up in a children’s home, even though her father was still alive. My mother is someone who helped me to become a strong person.

BBC: What would be your advice to those activists and human rights defenders who are just beginning their careers?

Valentina Cherevatenko: Begin!

Valentina CHEREVATAENKO is the head of the NGO ‘Women of the Don.’ The organization carries out projects related to conflict resolution in the North Caucasus and Ukraine; it also organizes public advice centres where members of the public can receive advice on social and legal questions. Women of the Don work to protect women’s rights in the region, giving special attention to the problems of violence against women and gender-based discrimination. In 2011 Valentina Cherevatenko was awarded the human rights prize of the Moscow Helsinki Group.

Moscow Helsinki Group from BBC Russian Service
10 March 2017

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