February 17, 2017

Let’s talk about Russia, baby


The Library of Ukrainian Literature, Moscow.

Back in Novemeber, we reported on Russia’s imprisonment and prosecution of Natalia Sharina, the fifty-nine-year-old director of Moscow’s Library of Ukrainian Literature, on charges of embezzlement and distributing literature with “extremist content.” Sharina, who remains under a house arrest that has been repeatedly extended, vigorously and unequivocally denies the accusations, and many—including Amnesty International—have echoed her claims that she is a prisoner of conscience, caught up in the ongoing mass curdle that is Russo-Ukrainian relations.

Now, Halya Coynash reports for the Kyiv Post, Sharina has challenged her detention in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), in Strasbourg, France. Russia is a member of the Council of Europe, the organization that maintains the ECHR, but its relationship with the court has been rocky.

In 2010, for instance, the ECHR was considering a set of reforms that required unanimous approval. Russia was the last holdout—at a time when it was named as a defendant in about a third of the cases awaiting trial there—and assented only after it had procured a guarantee that Russian judges would be included in the review of claims against it. Thomas Hammarberg, then the Council’s human rights commissioner, described the deliberations as “more of a political process than a juridical process.” (Sound familiar?)

Speaking to Interfax about this current case, Sharina’s lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, said:

“The authorities have not provided us a persuasive justification for a single one of the extensions to Sharina’s house arrest. The need to deprive her of liberty has been explained in terms of the risk that she will evade justice; this is preposterous, to the say least, considering that her passport has been secured within her case file and she cannot leave Russia. My client’s inability to go for walks is having deleterious effects on her health. Even on New Year’s Eve, [the most important holiday on the Russian calendar,] authorities would not allow her to go outside. Even [the Russian prison system] allows arrestees to take walks and engage in correspondence.”

Another member of Sharina’s legal team, Aleksandr Peredruk, told Interfax, “We’re asking the ECHR to find several violations by authorities of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, specifically that the successive extensions of Sharina’s house arrest have been unnecessary, have excessively prolonged her pretrial detention, and resulted from improper motivations.”

The story could be ended here, but this is happening at an unusual moment in US-Russian relations, and I’d like to say something more. Right now, the word “Russia” is being breathlessly repeated across the news (and othermedia, and not in a good way. At recent protests, signs written in Google-translated Cyrillic nonsense have been a common sight, and we have begun growing accustomed to a commentariat that spews sub-cognitive anti-Russian bile on the regular.

And to be sure, the Russian government does terrible stuff. Still, fuck all of that.

Listen, Vladimir Vladimirovich is not a cool guy. He kills journalists, soft-pedals domestic violence, has let his country lead the world in oppressing gay folks, and does unabashedly creepy things with fish in public. And his relationship with the current US administration certainly seems worthy of continued investigation.

But Putin is not Russia — not even if he says he is. Especially not because he says he is. A case like Sharina’s should help us see that the people of the United States and the people of Russia have a lot in common right now. Many Russians have resisted as their freedoms have been stripped away, their institutions cowed, their leaders killed, their neighbors invaded. While the US is not to blame for this, we have assuredly left fingerprints on many a Kremlin vodka glass. But had the people of Moscow gathered in their streets with signs that said, “Americas make drone we are want only love,” or “Country bad no plop me Big Mac,” many stateside observers would, rightly, have found this both bellicose and nutty.

More importantly, my fellow Americans, Russia did not give us President Trump, and neither did Putin. They did not saddle us with an antiquated and inane electoral system, designed to perpetuate slavery, in which a candidate can win despite receiving millions fewer votes. They did not give us a for-profit media establishment run by depraved cowards. They did not make our politicians stupid, cravenly cede control of our country to bankers, or teach us to hate. The forces that have put Trump in the White House were in motion—and were decisive elements of our society—long before this guy. And if we should have learned one thing from the present crisis, it’s that we’ll never have the country we want until we deal with that fact.

In Moscow today, Natalia Sharina—librarian, prisoner of conscience, and courageous resister—is enduring house arrest and prosecution rather than play ball with a vile government. She, too, is Russia. Jerks in suits make trouble all over the world. You can stand with Russia and against Putin, with America and against Trump, with courageous librarians everywhere and against the fools who build cages to hold them.



Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.