Russia: ‘Because I struggle, I am innocent’

Xerta Nadezhda Nizovkina
October 31, 2022

Interview with Buryat human rights activist Nadezhda Nizovkina on Buryatia, human rights, war, rallies, hunger strike, protests, repression

A skinny woman with sunglasses and a yellow blouse is sitting on a sofa with her feet tucked up, deftly sewing a vintage lace cuff. Around her are old clips, buttons, and scraps of fabric. There is a piano in the corner, and an unfinished poem on the desk. There are three locks on the door, and this lover of embroidery tries not to talk on the phone - it is almost certainly bugged. In July 202,2 the police arrested Alexander Glebov, a documentary filmmaker, right after an interview with her. She, too, often finds herself behind bars.

After all, poetess and lawyer Nadezhda Nizovkina is one of the most uncompromising leaders of the Buryat opposition. Even the term "civic activist" seems to her unworthy and marginal. She says proudly: "In terms of my profession I am a human rights activist, in terms of punitive bodies I am an extremist, in terms of classical sociology I am a radical.” She defends in court those whom no one wants to help, conducts live broadcasts from rallies, and then, if not detained, speaks at a poetry recital. Nadezhda dreams of an independent Buryatia, the destruction of the power structures and complete freedom of speech - one where arguments about slander and insults are resolved not in court but in debates on YouTube. But even now, without regard for the consequences, she is behaving as if the desired future has arrived and there is no more censorship.

Nadezhda, why haven't you been imprisoned for a long time now?

I think they are afraid of the outcry because they see dissatisfaction even with administrative arrests. Or they hope I will break down. [After all, it is much better for them] to destroy a person not physically but morally. They know that I have been on a dry hunger strike [without liquids] five times since the beginning of last year alone, that 12 years ago, when my companion Tatsiana Stetsura and I were placed in a detention centre, we refused to confront the jailers. In court, we gave self-incriminating evidence as a matter of principle, stating: "Yes, we are extremists, because the current legislation declares free speech to be extremism. Yes, we do expose the secret services, we do fight against unjust laws, and we don't hide it". And the authorities were frightened because they are used to the fact that a prisoner does not want to be a prisoner, a citizen does not want to be a defendant, an oppositionist seeks security, and depending on what happens he or she will emigrate. We were often offered permission to leave, but we didn't agree.

I am a member of the Democratic Union, which had a clause in its constitution back in the 90s that emigration was forbidden. A member of the Union can emigrate but is automatically excluded from membership. I support this principle: the word of someone who is here weighs more than if he or she  says the same thing from conditional security abroad. It is all the more unacceptable to emigrate now as there is an undeclared war going on and we are even more needed. We need to keep talking.

Many liberals perceive the Dems as political freaks. How do you feel about this? Aren't you afraid that, despite all your sacrifices, you too will be seen as a freak?

I often see this attitude, but at key moments it disappears. When we opposed the demolition of the schools in Petrovsk-Zabaikalsky, ordinary people went on a 24-hour strike near the Town Hall in our support. And on January 23rd, 2021, participants in a nationwide rally for political prisoners gathered on Revolution Square in Ulan-Ude. There were thousands of them, a colossal number for Buryatia. Some of them were seized by the police.

I and the other organizers were standing on the steps of the monument to fighters for communism. I addressed the protesters: "I am informed that the detainees have been taken to the UVD [local Ministry of Internal Affairs HQ] of the Soviet district. Are you going to go home, or are you going to release them? The people decided to go. The policemen ran out of the building. They feared an assault. But the crowd simply demanded to let me, as a lawyer, see the detainees. In the end everyone was released. The police guided me through the basements, the nooks and crannies to make sure there were no detainees left. They threatened in a low voice that they would deal with me. Then the repression began. Students were expelled from universities; I was convicted of organizing a rally. But we won that day.

Nadezhda has been an oppositionist since she was in school. When the principal asked teenagers to write an essay about the terrorist attack at Nord-Ost, she called the terrorists' demands just and wrote that the authorities were to blame for the tragedy. At the age of 24 she was arrested for the first time, for inciting hatred against the power structures in leaflets and newspaper articles. Then there were detention centres, isolation wards and even a mental hospital, where Nizovkina was put for allegedly trying to commit suicide.

Who are your parents?

The most surprising thing is that they are military. I was born in a military town, so I know this system from the inside. Parades, patriotic upbringing. My parents never agreed with me. Now they live on the other side of the country and try not to know anything about me.

How is it that you grew up as a rebel in such an environment?

Because of my proclivity for creativity, the propaganda influenced me in the opposite way. When at school, we, the younger students, were told that Russia has never attacked anyone, that all of its wars defensive, I had a question - why Russia is special, ideal, and the other nations are not like that, infected with the malicious virus of attacking? I began to study and read. I was embarrassed by the fact that we children were involved in parades from an early age. Even back then, children were already dressed in military uniforms, wearing pikotokas [?]. Then I noticed the national intolerance in the garrison, the bad attitude towards Buryats, the ridiculing of their names and surnames. So I gradually became a pacifist - without knowing the word yet. If I had lived in the city, these thoughts would have come later. But in a military town, militarism and chauvinism were intertwined in a completely cartoonish way.

It was your parents, for all their disagreement, who kept your first notebook of poems.

Yes, but only the first. Of the later ones, a lot has been lost. They treated my work well only until the emergence of civic themes. They found it dangerous. A newspaper interviewed me, a twelve-year-old girl, and they thought I was a child prodigy, but soon they got angry.

Nadezhda's first like-minded friend was Tatiana Stetsura, whom she met while studying at the law school. They went to jail together, held hunger strikes together and fought together for the abolition of Article 282 of the Criminal Code (incitement to hatred or enmity). Its partial decriminalisation in 2019 is seen by Nadezhda as their shared victory. In the same year, Tatyana married a client of hers and moved to Kaliningrad. She continues to work as a defender at political trials but does not go out to protest herself.

Most of Nizovkina’s current associates are her own defendants. Court officials often despise them, calling them “rubbish, morons who think they are the opposition”. But Nadezhda has defended everyone – first the supporters of the shaman Gabyshev, even though she is not a shamanist, then the supporters of Navalny, though she considers him a potential dictator, and now the opponents of war and the soldiers who do not want to fight.

You had a kind of performance in court, even a shamanistic ritual.

Judges are used to me by now and are prepared to tolerate a lot. My client, Sardana Yakusheva, actually performed a shamanistic ritual to win the case. She took out her paraphernalia, closed her eyes, softly chanted a prayer, and the court waited for the action to be over. She was eventually fined for her participation in the rally. At the time, there were more frequent wins. Now, as for discrediting the armed forces, there has not been a single acquittal in the entire existence of the article in the republic. Sardana's act was to some extent a reference to the shaman Gabyshev. It can also be perceived as a performance in defence of this oppositionist.

How do the people of the Buryat republic treat Gabyshev and shamanism in general?

Many condemn him and consider him a freak. Others suggest he is not a real shaman but a good political leader. One who has united the opposition in Yakutia and found supporters in Buryatia, and beyond these regions. And the shamanists are sure that if Gabyshev reaches the Kremlin, the president will evaporate from there.

Does it matter at all whether this was a shamanistic rite or a political performance?

I do not see any fundamental difference between religious and secular performance. In 2011 I and other oppositionists handcuffed ourselves to the door of the city hall in Ulan-Ude. On the one hand, we advocated the secular goal of restoring direct elections for mayor. But handcuffing ourselves reminds us of chaining ourselves to a cross. There is always an element of sacrifice in such performances because they almost inevitably entails physical suffering and risk. It is about surrendering yourself to the elements, be it the security services, provocateurs or the crowd. Recall how the performance artist Marina Abramović allowed anything to be done to herself, as if she were part of a set of objects. Someone even pointed a gun at her but did not fire. And whether this is done in the name of religion or, conversely, in the …

Was there any criticism of religious activity in that? It seemed to me that Pussy Riot had a very religious message, a modern sincere prayer.

You say that correctly. Of course, they were not acting from an atheistic position, but a little heretical. This is not desacralization as such, but rather the breaking of the ritual and turning it for a moment into a new ritual. A moment of sacrifice. Jesus used the whip to chase the traders out of the temple. Now everyone understands that he was not fighting against the faith, but against its distortion. Pussy Riot asked the Virgin Mary to perform a miracle. To banish Putin is a miracle. They did not belittle but exalted faith, showing that it can be used to overthrow an earthly ruler. But their words have been misinterpreted to create a criminal case. There are parallels here with the shaman Gabyshev. After all, he did not even want to banish Putin from the Kremlin by force of faith, but the demon from Putin, i.e. to free Putin himself.

It turns out that the main thing in the performance is the sacrifice. It transforms everything into the real, no matter how freakish the person may look.

The performance is analogous to self-immolation, only self-immolation is a performance with an unambiguously lethal outcome. The risk of not aiming at self-destruction is more important. You can say of a suicide that he is weak, he couldn't stand it and killed himself. And if you give yourself over to a hostile force with the intention of surviving, it works harder. So I go on dry hunger strikes, but I don't burn myself in the square.

Is it scary to starve yourself?

It is real torture. Hunger and thirst are forgotten, go away, recede. But when the body gets dehydrated, absolutely everything hurts: sitting, lying down. Soft tissue shrinks. As it must have shriveled up in the case of Hambo Lama Itigelov. After a few days total insomnia begins. Every movement brings near fainting; if you move abruptly you may fall down. The majority considers that the head of the starving person is occupied with tempting pictures: a tasty cutlet. But first and foremost, the pain is excruciating, unbearable and lasts for days and nights.

Once, on the sixth day of the hunger strike, I had to work as a lawyer: the defendant and I were brought to court directly from the TDF [[Territorial Defence Force HQ]. I was aware that I was not thinking straight and was speaking badly, as my voice was failing. But if you focus only on the work of the brain, you can defend well. That trial showed that. The body freezesup and the head works.

Dry hunger strikes are a willingness to go to death. They kill quickly. This raised a wave of indignation every time, often from people who were not our allies, but supported us for our courage. And my enemies tried to break me psychologically. The head of the TDF summoning me to his office with padded sofas, every time he persuaded me to drink tea and biscuits, promising that he would not tell anyone.

Aren't you afraid of causing irreparable damage to your body?

I have diseased blood vessels now. After the last two hunger strikes, I couldn't walk. Last summer my right foot swelled up, and in March of this year, both of them. I could only move around by leaning the wall and then pushing off it. And the worst part is that I haven't had any arrests or hunger strikes in six months, but these symptoms now occur without them. I feel like every glass of tea I drink goes straight down my legs. They swell up. After the hunger strikes, I used to weigh 48 kilos. Now I'm about 50. If I let myself go, it would, excuse the tautology, break my will. That's why I try to be restrained in my everyday life as well.

Why don't you declare a less radical, well, at least not a dry hunger strike?

These are short-term, administrative arrests. Ten days drinking water will impress neither opponents nor supporters. Of course, I won't resort to these measures if I get, say, seven years in prison. I will live. Perhaps I will use them to defend my dignity or stand up for other prisoners. But one thing is certain: I will still, regardless of the punishment or other consequences, refuse to work, I will not oppose the officers of the Federal Penitentiary Service and I will not legitimise the sentence with a single move.

In the centre of Ulan-Ude there are two shops - "Goods for Men" and "Everything for Women". Shop windows suggest that men are primarily interested in loans, watches and mobile phones, while women are interested in icons. Nadezhda tells us that Buryat politics and jurisprudence are very patriarchal.  Female politicians are declared incapable of starting a family, female lawyers are rare. Early in her career, Nizovkina often faced condescending treatment from judges and prosecutors - not "respected defender", but "hey, beautiful", "hey, girl". Now, she says, no one dares to speak that way.

You live alone in a fortress house. Have you ever wanted to start a family?

I rarely think about it. I allow the possibility - with a companion equal to me in lifestyle, in courage, similar in convictions. And if the moment is opportune and doesn't require complete dedication. I don't want my family members to become hostages of the system. If it collapses, I might start a family, as I will have fulfilled my basic purpose and could afford it.

You sew a lot and dress in a variety of ways. An unexpected trait for an ascetic civil rights activist.

The pursuit of beauty is part of a desire to transform the world. I've encountered the word "skirt-enhancement" in some feminists. It made me laugh so much! From their point of view, it's a sign of a stale mind. They are convinced that a woman wants to be beautiful for a man, for sexual objectification. But beauty is much higher than that, you can strive for it not to seduce someone.

All signs of my well-being have to do with manual labour. It would seem that such a contemplative occupation does not go well with revolutionary life, but that’s not so. My house suffers greatly from the fact that I am hardly ever in it. So I use every spare moment to improve my household. I make my own clothes, jewellery, handbags, cushions. I can make a collar out of vintage lace or turn a tracksuit into an evening gown. My friends know about my hobby and bring me curious finds - pieces of fur coats, furs. I have not only paper but also fabric files. If I'm thrown into a disaster zone, as I was after the floods in Krymsk, I'm able to create a business item out of a scrap piece - so that I can be taken seriously as a lawyer in official structures.

What do you do for a living?

I handle political cases of victims of repression and censorship for free. There are more and more of them, and there is almost no time left for commercial clients. I live mainly off donations from viewers of my channel. Propagandists write that this is supposedly not from ordinary citizens, but from the Ukrainian and American secret services. But I have never received foreign money. I just live in a mode of severe austerity. A little from everyone, and enough is enough.

What are your YouTube broadcasts dedicated to?

Since September 21st I have been broadcasting from Ulan-Ude's Teatralnaya Square, where protesters are constantly being detained. I talk about the mobilization and persecution of the anti-war movement. Mobilization in Buryatia is more widespread than in other regions. People, especially in the villages, are taken away at night, are not allowed to appeal against the summons, and are quickly sent to the front. On September 24, 11 people were detained at once in a live broadcast. All held firm, although most had not participated in politics before. Some, along with me, went on a dry hunger strike. In the end, we were all either released without trial, or acquitted.

How do the people of Buryatia feel about the war?

There are almost no apolitical residents of Buryatia, everyone takes sides. Many families are falling apart because of this; children have conflicts with their parents. There's a split in the opposition, too: the Communist Party supports the war. Sergei Kislov, a former oppositionist, constantly threatens me, although he used to be our comrade. Basically, he promises to throw green water on me. There have also been physical attacks in my life, but as a rule they are limited to threats. I hear them so often that I am already used to them.

In the summer half of the community was with us, and now, I think, it's the majority. When a person and his relatives are threatened with being forcibly sent to the front, attitudes towards war change. Previously the letters Z were everywhere, now they are hard to come across. The poster with the letter V  [for victory]on the pedestal of the monument to Lenin in the centre of Ulan-Ude has been burnt, even the war symbols have almost disappeared from buses. They are afraid of the people's anger. 99% of the protesters are women. Buryat men are leaving the republic in droves for Mongolia.

Do you feel guilty about the war?

No. That was when I was a child, when I heard what was happening in Chechnya while I was sitting under a peaceful sky. And now, because I am fighting I am innocent. And I condemn the oppositionists who insist on their guilt. If they have personally done everything in their power, what guilt can there be? Whoever fights is not guilty. Guilt is needed to induce action. Then it has to go away. It is like pain. It reveals illness but is no longer needed to treat it.

Nadezhda dreams that when the struggle is won and the society of the future arrives, she will be able to devote more time to literature. Right now, creativity and jurisprudence are rapidly interchanging: first an urgent appeal distracts her from her poems, and then the dry legal lines bring back the literary metaphors.

On your desk are both legal documents and poetry notebooks. Isn't this an odd juxtaposition?

A human rights activist, who is engaged only in human rights protection, is one-sided and tends to dehumanse the opponent. But a creative approach allows one to see plots and characters, whom one can sympathise with. For me Putin is also a character.

Do you sympathize with him?

Of course, as with any other ruler. In the name of power, he has forsaken his conscience, given up a quiet private life, overcome many things. He is perpetually on edge, fearing for his life, for the stability of his throne. If I were not a writer, I would rejoice at any cancerous cell in Putin's body, any news that he is about to die. But I try not to let it get into my heart, and it's not hard for me, because I look at everything a little abstractly. Even my own fate. Going to jail is an unhappy thing to be avoided. But if you look at yourself from the outside, as a character, it's interesting. When we read an episode like that in a book or watch a movie, we don't close our eyes, do we? And I try to look at the situation the same way, no matter how tragic it is. It's easier to bear repression that way. I am sort of an actor and a spectator at the same time.

I often wonder what is in the mind of a law enforcer or a judge. I try to assess that from an artistic point of view: is he a significant dramatic character or something minor? If he has no conscience, if he's never been reflexive, then you can say he's a trifle in the background. I treat ideological opponents as high villains. You can see that they are not thinking about salaries and epaulets, they are taking the matter seriously as a question of conflict over worldview. Like a great inquisitor, they are convinced that they are reforming society, scorching out something negative with a red-hot iron. It is a literary joy to watch them. They are worth fighting against.

Such people can even understand our rightness and help - at least secretly. There is sabotage of an order in our favour. The investigator who questioned me and Tatsiana Stetsura in 2009 stopped the investigation and issued an order not to initiate criminal proceedings. I saw that here is an honest opponent, right in the process of the conversation his face changes, his features distort, he breaks down, he loses his temper. And at that very moment he begins to sympathise. That investigator then went to great lengths to ensure that the case was not initiated. But he was ousted, a new one was put in, and soon we were on trial. If I had looked at him primitively, as a “rotten cop”, he would have felt this attitude and I would not have been able to pull him onto my side. It's a flat conflict, with no development or catharsis.

I want all human rights defenders and opposition activists to try to take this point of view. This will save them a lot of nerve cells, they will become braver: when you look at yourself and your enemy as characters, you think less about self-preservation. You don't want to save your physical body, you want to make the scene look beautiful. If everyone becomes a poet, there will be many more human rights activists, anti-militarists and just brave people.

I won't hesitate, like Hamlet. My hand will be waving a sword, my body will be in armour, but my soul will be somewhere out of the way. Any court hearing, like any presidential inauguration, is a theatre, in the medieval style. An ordinary man enters, but he is clad in a robe, like in a royal court. We stand in front of him. Understanding this allows you not to break down when you realise that everything here is preordained, there is little chance to change anything. Yes, sometimes in response to violations of judicial ethics we drop our masks - we say exactly what we think, without any euphemisms; I turn the camera on the judge although I am forbidden to film him; we leave the room, confront bailiffs... We have to try and fight, but it is a performance.

Then why try?

I'm always striving to make sure that it's this night that things will turn around. The spectators will run onto the stage, they will start struggling themselves, they will forget that they were sitting in soft chairs. And that actor in the robe will run away, or kneel down and repent.