Ella Pamfilova is one of Russia’s most distinguished liberal figures. She is the head of two NGOs — Civil Society For Russia’s Children and Civic Dignity. She is a former Duma deputy and a former social affairs minister. In 2000, she became the first woman to run for the office of president of Russia.
In 2002, then-President Vladimir Putin named her to head the Presidential Commission on Human Rights, which was later transformed into the Presidential Council on Human Rights. In July 2010, she resigned from that post after coming under strong pressure from the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth group. Since then, she has generally shunned the limelight.
RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Maria Morozova caught up with in Moscow and asked her about her tenure on the human rights council and her views on the political environment in Russia now.
RFE/RL: What were your thoughts when in 2002, being a critic of the authorities, you agreed to head the Presidential Council on Human Rights, which under you later grew into the Council on Cooperation With Institutions of Civil Society and Human Rights?
Ella Pamfilova: In 1999, when Vladimir Putin was confirmed as prime minister, I was one of the few Duma deputies who spoke against him and voted no. This annoyed a lot of liberals who back then were already working hard to elevate him to the presidency.
But in 2001, I and a group of rights activists and regional nongovernmental organizations — with the clear support of the presidential administration — organized the first Civic Forum with the participation of Putin. This provoked a certain enthusiasm. It seemed to us that it might be possible to pull the country out of chaos. And I believed that finally a dialogue between the state and civic organizations was being established.
So when I was asked to head the semi-dormant Presidential Council on Human Rights, I already understood exactly what I wanted. As a politician, I believed that in order to turn the heavy Russian political machine in the direction of democracy, it was very important to create a permanent, functioning forum in which the liberal, rights-oriented minority — de facto in opposition to the government — had the opportunity to bring directly to the authorities their views, arguments, information, and proposals.
At that time, I had complete freedom of action, so I invited into the council independent experts and human rights advocates who were not afraid to harshly criticize the government and defend their positions. To a considerable extent, I considered myself an intermediary between rights activists and the Kremlin.
RFE/RL: And you really believed that an organization created by the government could be independent of the government?
Pamfilova: At the beginning, it was. No one told us what to do, what issues to discuss with the president, or in what forum. Without exception, we all worked on this consultative body as volunteers, so the Kremlin could not use administrative controls.
RFE/RL: And did those whom you invited into the council also believe that the government wouldn’t interfere and in the possibility of civilized dialogue?
Pamfilova: In Russia, to a large extent, such things depend on the individual. Everyone who joined the council at my invitation believed in me personally, not in the Kremlin. And I tried not to let my colleagues down.
At that time, no one in the administration told me who to invite, how to organize the work, or what issues to put on the agenda. Much later, [television journalist] Svetlana Sorokina said at one session: “This is probably the only place in the country where we are a majority.” She had in mind representatives of the liberal intelligentsia.
Pamfilova meets with President Dmitry Medvedev in Gorki in February 2009. “I thought it was beneath my dignity to complain to the president,” Pamfilova says.
RFE/RL: When did you begin to sense that the situation was changing?
Pamfilova: It happened gradually. The first warning was the arrest of [former oligarch Mikhail] Khodorkovsky in 2003. We all protested — both as a group and individually. But it had no effect. Then there was the terrorist attack [on a school] in Beslan, after which the authorities began tightening the screws. Then came the draconian amendments to the law on nongovernmental organizations. Again, we did everything we possibly could. But we lost.
RFE/RL: And that’s when you understood that dialogue was impossible?
Pamfilova: Formally, there was a dialogue. They listened to us. They accepted documents from us, and gave responses. But I increasingly had the impression that I was shoveling sand. As if I was using tremendous effort to shovel sand and in a moment it reappears. The shame was that all our efforts were aimed in one direction, while the political vector was unswervingly moving in another.
RFE/RL: Why didn’t you quit the council as soon as you felt you wouldn’t be able to change the system?
Pamfilova: I tried to leave twice. In 2007 it became clear to me that our main goal was not to allow the perversion of the electoral process in the country. So we gathered a public oversight pool to monitor the elections. I wrote a very harsh — practically shrill — analytical report to Putin about United Russia and the results of recent election campaigns.
After that, they practically cut off all my oxygen. Personally, this was a very difficult period for me and I paid a heavy price. And the longer it went on, the more I paid. The law on elections was thoroughly subverted. Public monitoring of the electoral process was turned into a fiction. In early 2008, I went to Putin with my resignation. But he asked me to stay until the election of a new president and then make a decision.
After the election, [President Dmitry] Medvedev didn’t have time for the council for a long time and it was left in suspended animation. I again went — this time to the new president — with my resignation. But Medvedev suddenly demonstrated an enormous interest in the future activity of the council. Again there appeared a real hope — Medvedev immediately accepted our suggestions for changing the law on NGOs.
RFE/RL: And how do you interpret the later sharp change in the authorities’ attitude toward you?
Pamfilova: It would be more accurate to say that my relations with the authorities changed. I began to feel daily growing pressure from the direction of [deputy presidential administration head] Vladislav Surkov. He had taken everything under his control — except the council. And he couldn’t reconcile with this.
Earlier, no one from the presidential administration ever told me how to do my work. But now — under the supposedly more liberal Medvedev — a completely unacceptable situation developed in which most of my efforts were directed toward overcoming endless obstacles, backroom intrigues, and resistance from Surkov and his people.
The apotheosis came with our clash over [the pro-Kremlin youth group] Nashi, which launched an information war against me and later surrounded me with an information blockade and, finally, a total blockade.
Pamfilova with then Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in July 2006. “I increasingly had the impression that I was shoveling sand,” she says.
RFE/RL: And President Medvedev — who promised you all possible support — didn’t come to your aid?
Pamfilova: I thought it was beneath my dignity to complain to the president. I always preferred to deal with such problems myself. And I would have coped in this case too. But at some point the struggle just seemed senseless. Surkov — his ideology, his scorched-earth political methods — didn’t exist in a vacuum. They were demanded by the system. That is why I think it is disingenuous of many political analysts to try to split the ruling elite into two components — “liberal” and “authoritarian.”
RFE/RL: Did you have the feeling that they were using you as a liberal fig leaf?
Pamfilova: We never pretended to be working. We were really digging. I met with Medvedev regularly. I personally handed over all the most burning matters to him. And it turned out that I would present them and he would agree, give an order, sign an instruction, and then everything would again disappear in the sand. Nothing happened.
The paradox is that after Medvedev became president, he accepted more of our proposals than ever before but reactions to them on the part of government agencies and concrete results were fewer than ever. The last straw came during the preparation for the president’s meeting with human rights activists from the North Caucasus. It took a miracle for me to arrange that. There was a frank, important conversation and the next round of presidential orders. And then nothing. That is when I began to fear that everything had been turned into a smokescreen.
RFE/RL: What do you think of the work of your council now, under the new leadership?
Pamfilova: It isn’t “my council.” Formally, the current council has more authority and a more varied array of resources, great public relations. I didn’t have any of this.
RFE/RL: Is this because the new head, Mikhail Fedotov, has an official title as presidential adviser?
Pamfilova: In my view, having a chairman who is a bureaucrat undermines the whole sense of the existence of the council as we created it — as a confrontational, practically oppositionist, public structure expressing the opinions of a minority.
Now the council is controlled by the presidential administration, more specifically by its domestic policy department. Having the status of presidential advisory precludes the possibility of expressing alternative opinions. There is such a thing as the discipline of government works, bureaucratic ethics. The council was built into the system, just like all similar organizations. Everything — including well-known analyses of the most high-profile cases — must now be agreed [with the administration]. We never did that. Our original documents were placed directly on the president’s desk.
RFE/RL: What was it that made you not only quit the council but also to leave politics entirely?
Pamfilova: It was the recognition that the system had once and for all turned into a rock-solid insult to all of us. It isn’t possible to dress up this insult in gold braid in the form of civic initiatives. If you ask me why I decided to quit politics, I respond with a question: Is it possible to quit something that doesn’t exist?
This country no longer has politics or politicians or normal political parties or real elections. All political competition has been reduced to a competition for television-news stories about the tandem. Obviously, any political ceiling can only be broken with extraordinary efforts.
But how do you break through a ceiling that has become a stone bunker in which you only have the right to a “political” or “public” life if you have the permission of the Kremlin and are prepared to serve the system? The system drives anyone with a sense of inner freedom or human dignity right out of the country, even if they formally remain Russian citizens.
RFE/RL: Do you think representatives of the liberal intelligentsia should participate in the work of organizations like the presidential council?
Pamfilova: That is a personal choice for everyone. I am not judging anyone. Moreover I know that a lot of people are genuinely trying — through these organizations — to help people. They believe in the possibility of change. Everyone has the right to such hope, just as they have the right to illusions or delusions. The main thing is not to lie, either to yourself or to others.
I think that the intelligentsia can only cooperate with the authorities when the result of that cooperation is that the political system — even if just gradually — moves in the direction of the principles espoused by that intelligentsia. It is another matter altogether when the liberal or any other sort of intelligentsia cynically serves the authorities and makes money off that.
Such actions prompt even more public contempt not only for the authorities, but for all liberals, whom people tend to view as thieves and betrayers of the national interest. In this contempt and disillusionment the stew of chauvinism simmers, which can foster odious leaders, adventurists, totalitarian xenophobes, or any such thing. And what will we do then — go on our knees to the present authorities because we have no other way out?
RFE/RL: Maybe that’s the plan? To destroy faith in intellectuals by their own hands so that the country no longer had a liberal minority?
Pamfilova: I agree completely with [political scientist] Lilya Shevtsova that our intelligentsias — including the liberal intelligentsia — have an honorable way out of the situation. They must try to become a moral compass for the people, to honestly establish an agenda that is understood and supported by the people. Then they won’t need to perish under the authorities. The authorities themselves will have to contend with the people. But maybe that is already utopian thinking.
translation by Robert Coalson